Victory in Eschatological Conflict

Updated: Mar 22

The Bible's prophetic narrative correctly foretold the sweep of post-biblical history. And while eschatology provides encouragement, it also calls us to prepare for conflict.


King Louis IX commissioned the Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most awe-inspiring structures of the High Middle Ages.

Editor’s note: This column is part 5 in a series, but can also be read by itself. Also check out part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.


Over the course of this series, I’ve criticized several contemporary views on eschatology. Along the way, I’ve explained some of my own conclusions about the Bible’s prophetic narrative. The main themes of those conclusions have been, roughly, as follows:


  • God’s eschatological story is understandable and public rather than confusing or esoteric.

  • The story occurs on the geopolitical and historical stage, not in an abstract spiritual realm.

  • God’s covenantal people are active participants in the story, not passive observers.

  • Eschatological conflict is large-scale, not localized in the Levant.


I will now attempt to sketch out, in a general way, my own overall interpretation of the Bible’s prophetic narrative. The view I’ve arrived at is not one I would have chosen if God had asked me to invent the prophetic narrative myself. In one sense, this makes me more inclined to think that I have understood the story correctly.


At the same time, it would be entirely false to say that studying eschatology has left me feeling disappointed. Contemplating eschatology instills in me a deep sense of reverence towards God’s providence over the cosmos and its history. The Bible’s accurate predictions of already-past global events, some of which we’ve already discussed—I will introduce others here—deepen my intellectual confidence in the truth of the Gospel. The study of eschatology also stirs in me a desire for the church to reclaim its historic and God-ordained role. Ultimately, it heightens my anticipation for the victory and the unveiling that is to come.


Prophecies of messianic global monotheism


Perhaps the most foundational eschatological prophecy is the messianic expectation of global monotheism. Although it is not traditionally seen as eschatological, this prophecy—or group of prophecies—underlies and drives the Bible’s whole narrative arc. It also satisfies all of the criteria we’ve been discussing, foretelling the unfolding human story in ways that are verifiable, public, active, and global.


Rose window, Basilica of Saint-Denis, France, depicting Jesus' genealogy.

When the Psalmist and Isaiah were writing, no one on Earth practiced strict monotheism except conservative Jews and—depending on when we date these texts—perhaps the Samaritans. Despite this fact, the biblical authors repeatedly and boldly foretold that the Jews were a "nation of priests" who would call the nations of the world to worship the one true God. This expectation is often stirringly intertwined with the coming of a singular messianic figure.


To highlight some examples, in Psalm 22—which is alluded to several times in New Testament accounts of the crucifixion [1]—we are told that “the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” [2] Isaiah also contains several prophecies of global monotheism, including Isaiah 11, which tells of a messiah who shall arise from the root of Jesse, David’s father. [3] This chapter prophesies that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” and that “the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”


This mention of a "resting place" could be read in a variety of ways. We might say that it has multiple simultaneous dimensions, all of which have been fulfilled in Christ. Even the Holy Land in general is renowned as holy primarily because Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected there. [4] The global-monotheism prophecies also leave little doubt that the God to be worshipped by the gentile nations would be the God of the Jews. Isaiah 61 says of Judah: “Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.”


Today, more than four billion people—over half of the world’s population of under 8 billion—profess a belief in the God of Jacob and thereby acknowledge the Jews, who live “in the midst” of them, as recipients of God’s first national covenant. Importantly, Jesus heightened this prophecy when he quoted from it in Luke 4, directly identifying himself as the source of the prophecy’s fulfillment. In light of these predictions, do the facts of history attest to the Bible’s prophetic accuracy?


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

It might be tempting to dismiss these prophecies as self-fulfilling. We might think that, because the Jews have always aspired to universal messianism, then—even without divine intervention—it is plausible that this aspiration would be fulfilled. But, importantly, it is not enough to ask whether Jews were likely to continue aspiring to messianism after the prophets wrote. The real question is the probability that those aspirations would actually succeed—and succeed on a scale as spectacular as the victory we now see around us.


It is not intrinsically probable that a majority of the world’s population would unite behind any one God at all, let alone that they would do so before the advent of modern globalization. To become the preeminent deity in the world, the God of Jacob needed to overcome and destroy an array of entrenched religious systems which did not go gently into that good night. Each of these systems and conflicts boosts the intrinsic improbability of the messianic prophecies being fulfilled.


For anyone other than God, getting Judah and its religion from captivity to global preeminence would have posed tremendous logistical problems. This is highlighted by the fact that, in order to lay the groundwork for global monotheism, God raised up three of the greatest world leaders in all of human history: Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, and Caesar Augustus. These statesmen share three key commonalities. Each appears directly in the Bible, each displayed a respect for Judaism, and each played a critical role in paving the way for the coming of the church.


Caesar Augstus

Cyrus the Great cannily defeated Babylonian oppression and released the Jews from captivity, ushering in the Second Temple period which gave Jesus his underlying theological context. Alexander the Great universalized the Greek language and Greek philosophy, launching the Hellenistic Age and laying down the words and concepts in which the church would one day communicate its ideas. And Caesar Augustus united the Mediterranean under a single, rationally-planned infrastructure, enabling the earliest Christians to spread their message throughout the world.


Appropriately, Cyrus is described in Isaiah 45:1 as the Lord’s “anointed”—a messiah. Alexander’s conquests, as we’ve already seen, are prophesied in Daniel 8, where they are shown to set the stage for the Maccabean Revolt. And Caesar Augustus appropriately appears in the first verse of Luke 2. The classical historian Rufus Fears translated “Augustus,” the cognomen conferred on the first emperor by the Senate, as an analogue of the Hebrew word “messiah.”


The self-giving ethic of eschatological conflict


Daniel is itself a global messianic text. In Daniel 2, God’s kingdom is depicted as a stone that “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” And while God’s kingdom is otherworldly, it is not insulated from worldly affairs. On the contrary, the stone is seen actively breaking apart a statue representing a chronological series of world empires. Daniel then tells us that God’s kingdom itself “shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.” In contrast to the quietism of NT Wright, which I criticized in a previous column, the messianism of Daniel is specifically geopolitical and active.


Understanding eschatology therefore requires some discussion of biblical ethics in general. This discussion of ethics might strike modern readers as a tangent—but that is only because we are begging the question in favor of Wright. The Bible itself sees eschatology and ethics as intertwined.


El Santiago Grande, Salvador Dali

In Psalm 2, the Lord tells his Anointed to trample upon the “rulers of the earth”: “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel,” the Psalmist relays. Jesus quotes this Psalm in Revelation 2. In Jesus’ articulation of the Psalm, however, it is not the Anointed alone who overcomes rulers, but the Christian listener. “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations,” Jesus says, “and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.”


This rhetoric of eschatological combat is consistent with the overarching prophetic ethic. Systems of oppression are to be broken apart not merely because they are idols, but because of the suffering they inflict upon those they oppress. “Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute?” the Psalmist asks elsewhere. God’s people, adds Isaiah 58, are to “break every yoke.” Isaiah’s injunction, especially through the verb “break,” conveys the same basic biblical motif as Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 2.


Quietists might counter that these verses should be interpreted in light of the Gospels, and that the Gospels teach that—when we see injustice being done to others—we must look on meekly and pray. The problem with this argument is that no part of the Gospels actually teaches any such thing. The teaching is a convenient modern product of the quietists’ own imagination.


The Gospels do emphatically teach an ethic of self-giving, which might be epitomized in Matthew 23:11: “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” The quietist identifies with these verses because he thinks they teach the virtue of inaction. But you cannot really give of yourself by siting very still and attaining a state of non-being. That would certainly be self-annihilating, but it would mean the absence of any self-giving. Giving of oneself requires positive action on another’s behalf, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25: “What you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”


The Entry of Joan of Arc into Orleans, Henry Scheffer

Consider that, when Jesus stopped his Father’s house from being desecrated, he was laying down his own safety for his Father’s honor. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that the Pharisees immediately sought to arrest Jesus, stopping only because they feared Jesus’ large number of supporters. Some readers imagine that there is a tension between the clearing of the Temple and the crucifixion, but these people are not thinking in the same categories as the Bible’s authors. Jesus went to his death to give of himself for humanity, and he cleared the Temple to give of himself for his Father.


This dynamic explains all the choices and statements of Jesus that quietists admire, such as the Sermon on the Mount. But it equally explains all the choices and statements of Jesus that quietists loathe and work to retranslate, abstractify, and explain away, such as Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 2. The Bible thinks and speaks of the contrast between self-giving and self-exaltation: modernity and some Eastern philosophies think and speak of a contrast between violence and nonviolence. These categories are alien to the Bible. They have been jammed into it rather than read out of it.


To allow harm to come to another is, after all, not self-giving: it means giving of someone else. For Jesus, to leave the Temple in a state of defilement would have been to give of someone else: his Father. Moses would have been giving of someone else had he not defended the Hebrew slave, as Acts 7 implicitly recognizes he was right to do.


Expulsion of the Money-Changers by Jesus, Boulogne

Conversely, Abraham was not giving of himself when he prostituted his own wife to avoid conflict. The Levite of Judges was not giving of himself when he allowed his concubine to be raped and murdered. Passivity is not self-giving gone awry: it is its inverse. It is self-giving turned inside out, so that its innards are exposed to the air.


Passivity when others are being harmed is what comes most naturally and easily to the fallen human heart. For the 38 people who witnessed Kitty Genovese’s murder, passivity required no effort or exertion. Nobody needed to teach them pacifist philosophy in order to get them not to intervene. The overwhelming desire of all sinful human flesh—to shrink from pain—was all that was needed.


What if one of the men who saw the attack on Genovese had rushed forward and confronted her attacker, laying down his own flesh for hers? As anyone who has ever been confronted with real violence knows, this would have demanded a learned, deliberate, and difficult commitment to self-giving. Passivity is a wide and easy gate, and many enter by it. Self-giving is a narrow, dangerous, and terrible gate, and one must always steel himself to enter it.


A self-giver is someone who is prepared to lay down his own life—and not the lives of others—to interpose himself against injustice. In Isaiah’s words, he does not “bow down his head like a reed”: instead, he seeks to break every yoke. So, too, does the stone in Daniel “break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end.”


The role of political alliances in eschatological conflict


As we have repeatedly discussed, Daniel 2 and 7 present a sequence of four empires which succeed one another in turn. As we progress through the Bible and through history, we see that these four empires present four conflicts. This sequence of conflicts pits God’s covenantal kingdom against the then-contemporary secular empire.


Each conflict in the series outdoes the last in its scale and intensity. As the beasts in Daniel 7 increase in their strength and ferocity, the kingdom of God is also increasing in power, as we can see from the growth of the stone in Daniel 2. Accordingly, in each conflict, the role of God’s covenant people is more and more active and therefore less and less palatable to quietists.


The Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Iran

In the first of the four conflicts, God’s kingdom is at the nadir of its earthly strength. Inevitably, the activity that God demands of his people is at a low point. The primary actor here is not really God’s people, but Cyrus, who God anoints to do the heavy lifting in dealing with the Babylonian Empire. Yet, while the conflict with Babylon is the least assertive in the series of four, God’s people are not without any role to play.


The Jews did not merely sit still and wait for Cyrus to come and deliver them. Instead, they intentionally sought a religious alliance with Cyrus by emphasizing his role in Isaiah’s prophecies. Multiple sources, including Ezra, [5] the apocryphal Greek Esdras, [6] and Josephus all show that Cyrus had been familiarized with Isaiah’s prophecies by his Jewish supporters.


Josephus, working from sources probably independently of the canonical Ezra, says specifically that the Jews showed Cyrus the text of Isaiah to recruit him to their cause. Josephus writes: “when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, an earnest desire seized upon him, to fulfill what was so written.” Whenever the biblical authors mention Cyrus, it is clear from the context that the Jews have deliberately and politically aligned themselves with the Persian king.


Out of the four imperial conflicts, this is the only one in which God's people were even remotely quietistic. But, critically, present-day Christian quietists would balk at the thought of allying themselves with a ruler like Cyrus. In today's church, to consciously make an alliance with any non-Christian political leader would be seen by quietists as an inherently political action and therefore in tension with the pietistic non-agency of the church.


In contrast, the more militant Dietrich Bonhoeffer explicitly called upon the church to make Cyrus-like alliances of convenience with certain non-Christian forces. Bonhoeffer uses the label “restrainer” to refer to politically conservative forces which, although non-Christian, are opposed to the totalitarianism of Western secularism. In his book Ethics, Bonhoeffer wrote that “the ‘restrainer,’ the force of order, sees in the Church an ally and… will seek a place at her side.” Although the church must never allow herself to be defined by non-Christian reactionaries, he cautioned, “she does not reject those who come to her and seek to place themselves at her side.”


The role of active defiance in eschatological conflict


By the time of the second conflict, with the ambivalent post-Cyrus Persian Empire, God’s people are in a position to squarely engage in political advocacy and active defiance. This process begins in Nehemiah 4-5, when Nehemiah obtains support for rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls through political advocacy in the Persian court at Susa. Ezra 4-5 then describes how the Jews repeatedly disobeyed Persian imperial authorities through their rebuilding of the Temple.

Mattathias Refuses to Sacrifice to Idols, Henri-Camille Danger. Mattathias killed Seleucid officials at Modein, sparking the revolution that created New Testament Judea.

And, as Nehemiah tells us repeatedly in Nehemiah 4, “each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side when he built.” Nehemiah 4:9 is a particularly apt refutation of pietism: “we prayed to our God and set a guard of protection against [our enemies] day and night.” God, as always, makes his people co-participants in opposing political oppression.


The third conflict introduces, for the first time, a coherent ideological contrast to God’s people. The Hellenistic king Antiochus IV does not merely see Judah as a territory to be ruled. Instead, he sees Judaism, as a worldview, as an intellectual threat. As the author of 1 Maccabees wrote, Antiochus had declared “to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs.” Large numbers of Jews had obliged Antiochus, flocking to adopt secular and Hellenistic cultural mores and beliefs. Yet other Jews stood fast, riveted to their ancient faith.


As this religious remnant remained refractory, Antiochus came to loathe Judaism as a bigoted and backwards religion. To forcibly deracinate religious Jews, Antiochus outlawed circumcision and other Jewish customs, mandating Greek religious practices. He even sacrificed a pig inside the Temple at Jerusalem to trample upon and degrade Jewish religion.


These actions ignited the reactionary Maccabean Revolt, which established independent Hasmonean Judea, restored the sanctity of the Temple, and dramatically turned back the clock on secularizing globalization in the Jewish world. All major Bible commentators agree that the Maccabean Revolt was prophesied specifically in Daniel 8, which says that “the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.” It was this revolt that gave rise to the deeply religious Judean society that we encounter in the New Testament.


At the same time, the Maccabean Revolt prefigured the beginning of Jesus’ own eschatological combat. Both Jesus and Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, were said to burn with zeal—a reference to Psalm 69. And both Jesus and the Maccabees self-givingly cleansed the Temple at Jerusalem from pollution.


Statue of Ambrose of Milan, Copenhagen

The fourth empire is the most powerful and fearsome in the series. As Daniel 7:23 says, “there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth, which shall be different from all the kingdoms, and it shall devour the whole earth, and trample it down, and break it to pieces.” In our last installment, I argued that the ancient Roman Empire is both the fourth empire in Daniel and the Great City of Revelation 17-19. These identifications, although subject to modern dispute, were near-unanimous among ancient commentators.


The fourth conflict matches the grandeur of Rome in both its scale and severity. In the Maccabean Revolt, God’s covenantal people were able to regionally cast off the yoke of a world empire. But after the conversion of Constantine, God’s people were able to act as a world geopolitical and military force in their own right. The stone depicted in Daniel 2 had at last grown into the size of a mountain. This time, the church did not merely cast off the yoke of the pagan establishment. Instead, it dashed the entire system to pieces with a rod of iron.


We have already seen that, as late as 394 AD, Rome’s old pagan elite continued to enjoy real power in the Western Empire, centered in Rome, with Christianity enjoying greater predominance in the Eastern Empire. At the Battle of the Frigidus, however, an explicitly Christian army met the largely pagan Westerners and miraculously defeated them. The church father Ambrose of Milan, mentor to Augustine and a major political player in the Eastern imperial court, had a decidedly un-pietistic interpretation of this battle. He identified the victorious Eastern forces as “God’s holy people.”


Here was a powerful vindication of Daniel’s vision: a great mountain rising above the crumbling debris of a towering idol. In Daniel’s words: “It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold.”


The sack of Rome and the fall of the Great City


In each of the four conflicts described above, conflict with God's people is closely associated with the ultimate fall of the corresponding empire. The fourth conflict is no different. If the mountain’s clash with the idol is epitomized in the Battle of the Frigidus in 394 AD, then this battle was soon followed by the realization of John’s vision: a smoking apocalypse befalling the Eternal City.


Revelation 17-19 leaves little doubt that it is describing not just the breakup of Rome’s imperial power, but the cataclysmic sack of the city itself. John’s vision, therefore, corresponds most directly to the sack of Rome in AD 410. This sack sent an apocalyptic shockwave around the world: as Jerome wrote after the event, “the whole world perished in one city.” Besides its political consequences, the attack also caused an immediate economic reordering of the empire. Additionally, the sack was carried out by Rome’s own vassals, the Goths, as indicated by Revelation 17.


Destruction from Thomas Cole's Course of Empire series

These similarities are not so much evidence for any particular reading of John’s vision as they are spine-chilling evidence that John’s visions were accurate. Even if John was deeply in tune with the cyclical patterns of history, to suppose that Rome would suffer any earth-shattering sack at all would have required a lucky guess. There are numerous ways that John’s prophecy could easily have been falsified as history unfolded.


For the sake of illustration, let’s consider two. First, instead of suffering any sack of global significance, the Eternal City could have first atrophied into irrelevance. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that any once-great city is likely to be plundered sooner or later. Still: if Rome had decayed into obscurity before that sack occurred, then the world’s merchants could not be said to have loudly lamented its fall.


To give a rough analogy, Rome could have suffered the eventual fate of Constantinople, which saw its empire dwindle and vanish before it was ever sacked. While Constantinople’s fall may have been lamented by merchants, it would clearly be false to say that Constantinople ruled over many nations and languages at the time of its sack, as the Great City did. If a would-be John had prophesied against Constantinople in the fifth century AD, he could easily have missed the mark by a wide margin.


Secondly, Rome might have fallen and then been immediately succeeded by a fifth successive world kingdom, such as a new Gothic or Hunic empire. This would have falsified both Daniel and Revelation, each of which predicted that the fourth empire would be followed by the temporary absence of any such empire from the world stage. Jerome foreknew the finality of Rome’s imperium from reading these prophecies. He wrote: “in the one empire of the Romans, all the kingdoms at once are to be destroyed… and the [succeeding] empire shall not be an earthly empire at all.” [7]

An artist's impression of the Baths of Caracalla, built c. AD 212-216.

Josephus, though probably not a reader of John, knew well enough from Daniel what awaited the Roman Empire. Although he boasts that Daniel’s prophecies are a powerful evidence for God’s providence, Josephus is circumspect about relaying the specifics Daniel’s visions to his Roman audience. “Daniel did also declare the meaning of the stone to the king,” he told his readers, “but I do not think it proper to relate it.”


The characteristics of the Millennium


In Revelation, the collapse of the Great City is followed by the inauguration of the Millennium. References to the Millennium appear in Revelation 20:2-5, Daniel 2:44-45, and Daniel 7:22. In a previous column, I argued that the Millennium is characterized, and publicly recognizable, by the following key elements:


  • It will chronologically follow the defeat or dissolution of the fourth empire, which is the Great City.

  • Satan will be unable to “deceive the nations,” meaning that there will be a long period where the series of world empires will end, and no new world empire will arise.

  • This period will be characterized by the geopolitical dominance of the church.

  • However, the dominion of the church will, in some way, be a negation of the previous series of empires.


Some additional characteristics might also help identify the Millennium. First, at four separate points in Revelation 20:2-5, this era is identified as a “thousand-year” period: hence the name “Millennium.” Secondly, the Millennium is in some way characterized by the reign of martyrs: “those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God.”


Passion Sarcophagus, Fourth Century

As we have already discussed, the historic church—despite emphasizing the physicality of the Last Resurrection—understood this Resurrection of the Martyrs as non-physical. Augustine, for example, said those raised in the Revelation 20:4-5 are “of course, not yet reunited with their bodies,” while at the same time referring to the Last Judgment in Revelation 20:11-15 as “the day of the body’s resurrection.” During the Millennium, then, the role of the martyrs can be characterized as a kind of spiritual preeminence.


The views of medieval Christian thinkers support this interpretation. Consider two key examples: Bede, a major thinker of the Low Middle Ages, and Hildegard, a major thinker in the High Middle Ages.


Both Bede and Hildegard believed firmly in a physical Last Resurrection. Bede said that all bodies, “even those which the deep has swallowed, or the wild beast has devoured, will rise again,” while Hildegard emphasized that the bodies of the dead will rise again in their wholeness and gender. Yet both Bede and Hildegard believed that they themselves were living during the Millennium, and hence that a spiritual Resurrection of the Martyrs had already occurred prior to their own lifetimes.


Bede taught that the Millennium is “congruous with this present time.” Likewise, in one of her prophetic visions, Hildegard envisioned church history as a flat pillar face which reminds me of a surf board: wide in the middle, but narrow at the top and bottom, “like a bow drawn and ready to shoot arrows.” She saw the bottom as representing the church’s beginning and the top as representing its contraction at the “end of the world.” Hildegard did not think she was living towards the beginning of this process: she thought she was living somewhere close to the middle.


For both of these important medieval thinkers, the reign of the martyrs had already come and was therefore of a non-physical kind. In Bede’s words, the church “reigns with Christ in the living and in the dead.”


The identification of the Millennium


This raises the related question of how medieval eschatology should be classified according to the modern categories of “amillenialism,” “premillenialism,” and so on. When a modern Christian reader sees that a medieval thinker believed he lived during the Millennium, our tendency is to classify that thinker as “amillennial”—suggesting that the thinker rejected the Millennium as a definite and sequential period.


Yet this is simply begging the question. If the Millennium really is a definite and sequential period, and these thinkers simply lived during that period, their testimony that they lived during the Millennium would obviously not count in favor of an “amillennial” view.


Once we have cleared away the distortions that we have already criticized in this series, the identity of the Millennium seems palpable. Modern people already divide history into three broad epochs: antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modernity. We typically mark the beginning of modernity around the time of the Renaissance. What singular event most often characterizes the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages? The cataclysmic fall and dissolution of the fourth empire: the Great City.


Bourges Cathedral, France

The conclusion compels itself so inescapably that it seems shocking it is not already widely known. The Middle Ages were characterized by the absence of an imperial successor to Rome. Instead, what had once been a single, vast state became a patchwork of competing nations. To a post-Enlightenment observer, this decentralization of power looks like a regression into primitivism. But Augustine had mourned political centralization: “Ask, then, whether it is quite fitting for good men to rejoice in extended empire,” he suggested. If human affairs were happier, he wrote, “there would have been very many kingdoms of nations in the world, as there are very many houses of citizens in a city.”


At the same time, the Middle Ages were also characterized by the geopolitical dominance of the church. The church not only existed as a sovereign power in its own right—with its own territory, military orders, hospitals, and so forth—but was also able to act as a negating restraint on the power of the secular state. The Road to Canossa incident stands as the ultimate and archetypal illustration of this restraining power. In 1076, Gregory VII excommunicated the emperor Henry IV for attempting to control internal church appointments. Suddenly unable to run his empire, Henry was forced to travel to Italy to beg Gregory’s forgiveness, where he waited in sackcloth outside a fortress at Canossa for three days. In this way, the dominion of the church was something more than a fifth empire: it was an affirmative negation of the series of empires that had ended with Rome.


The Middle Ages are also understood as being approximately one thousand years. I do not mean to suggest that the Millennium was a perfect sequence of ten centuries running from 410 to 1410: “one thousand” is an archetypal number. But, setting eschatology entirely to the side, imagine that we decided to ask people on the street: “How long were the Middle Ages?”. Once we found someone who had any passing familiarity with history, he would answer “one thousand years.” In other words, the Middle Ages were a chronological millennium in just the way that John seems to have used that concept. [8]


I find it astonishing that, as we turn to look back at the grand sweep of history, we see that the fall of Rome which John prophesied ignited a recognizable “thousand-year” age. My amazement is sharpened and deepened when I consider that these thousand years were marked both by the absence of a stable successor empire and by the geopolitical dominion of the church.


The thought that the prophecies of both the Great City and the Millennium have been fulfilled seems to me almost too awe-inspiring to be comforting. I am propelled straight past the intellectual confidence often sought in apologetics and into an awe that approaches fear.


Misunderstanding the Millennium


But it can’t really be that simple, can it? Some part of me suspects that the very obviousness of this interpretation is proof that it must be wrong. If this were really God’s providential design, I think to myself, then it would be too inscrutable and mysterious for me to discern.


Interior of the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

But, when I interrogate these doubts, I realize they are nothing more than a tangle of post-Enlightenment assumptions that I have absorbed from living in the secular West. All Bible commentators, after all, agree that some prophecies have been fulfilled. The Maccabean Revolt is uniformly understood to be the fulfillment of Daniel 8. If I had been a Jew living in 164 BC, when the Temple was rededicated at the first Hanukkah, would I have been too epistemically humble to accept that I was witnessing the real fulfillment of a prophecy? Or would I have allowed myself to recognize this public fulfillment of God’s promises?


Of course, there are many reasons that a modern reader might be repelled by the idea that the Middle Ages were the Millennium. Some of these reasons, such as restorationism, are beyond the scope of this essay. But it’s necessary to address one such reason: the fact that the Middle Ages were in no sense a perfect age.


That there was sin, suffering, and death in the Middle Ages is obviously true. The problem with this objection is that the Millennium itself is not a perfected era. If contemporary Christians assume otherwise, this is likely because our eschatological terms—“premillennial,” “postmillennial,” “amillennial” and so on—misleadingly give the impression that the Millennium is somehow the end-goal of humanity’s story.


In fact, the Millennium is more like the middle of the story. It is followed by a distinct series of chronological events including the Little Season in Revelation 20:7-8, the Camp of the Saints and the Last Battle in 20:9-10, the Last Resurrection and the Last Judgment in 20:11-15, and the New Heaven and the New Earth in 21-22.


At no point is the reader of Daniel or Revelation promised that the Millennium will be a perfected state. On the contrary, the Millennium is followed by the Little Season, in which Satan gathers an army whose number “is like the sand of the sea.” Satan’s final defeat occurs when Satan’s armies attempt to besiege “the camp of the saints” in Revelation 20:9-10: an event sometimes called the Last Battle. It is only then—some time after the Millennium—that God decisively immolates Satan and his forces. If the Millennium were a quasi-heavenly state, none of this subsequent narrative would make any sense.


Cathedral of Saint Eulalia, Barcelona

In describing the Millennium, Daniel 7:22 simply says that, after the destruction of the fourth empire, “the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.” In the context of the rest of Daniel 7, this means simply that God’s people will negate the series of Eurasian empires and possess geopolitical dominion themselves. This does not imply that the saints will do so without sin.


Is there an escape hatch that allows us to get out of this interpretation and put the Millennium back in the future? In my own ambivalence about this interpretation, I have certainly looked for one. One possibility is to say that the battle in Revelation 19, which appears to be a representation of the Son of Man’s defeat of the series of empires, is actually an additional chronological event. Perhaps this battle is a protracted temporal conflict that connects the destruction of the Great City with the beginning of a future Millennium. Yet this would still require that the prophecy of a Millennium have a kind of double fulfillment. There is no escaping the fact that a recognizably millennial period, with no successor empire, immediately followed the destruction of the Great City and the fourth empire.


The problem with linear postmillennialism


Today, most educated and thoughtful believers that I talk to about eschatology have adopted a view that could be called “linear postmillennialism.” This view can be summarized in the statement that “everything will get better and better from here on out.”


While adherents of this view often simply call themselves “postmillennialists,” this term is misleading. Linear postmillennialism actually does not offer any very specific interpretation of the Millennium or any other eschatological event. Instead, it is more of a generic commitment to the notion that all things will progressively improve.

Nature Morte Vivante, Salvador Dali

The view sketched out here is technically a form of “postmillennialism” in that Christ’s Second Coming is obviously posterior to the Millennium. More importantly, though, I also share some emphases with linear postmillennialists. Like them, I want Christians to actively promote and participate in fields like medical innovation and space exploration. This is not merely an incidental agreement. As any reader who has read this whole series will know, I have promoted an eschatology that encourages active engagement with the world.


My problem with linear postmillennialism is not its can-do optimism, which I embrace, but with the assumption that history is anything like a straight line. At no point in the Bible’s prophetic narrative is this true. On the contrary, the prophetic narrative is cyclical. And one of its cycles concern the rise and fall of world empires: a cycle that is foreordained to reoccur again. In Revelation 20:8-9, we are warned that Satan will gather his armies from the four corners of the earth. This is not a problem that can be avoided if the Millennium is in the future. If the Millennium is in front of us rather than behind us, this only means that Revelation 20:8-9 is pushed further away. When Isaiah prophesied to Hezekiah that disaster would befall his kingdom in the distant future, Hezekiah gloated: “‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, 'There will be peace and security in my days.‘” It is difficult for distant problems to disturb us because distant things naturally seem unreal. But the future will be as real as the present when it arrives.


The future and the victory of the parembolen ton hagion


As I arrived at the conclusions I’ve set out in this essay, I fought against them. For obvious reasons, I found the idea that we now live in the Little Season mentioned in Revelation 20:3 to be morbidly pessimistic. But there are two reasons that I no longer think the view is as ominous as I initially thought.


First, there are likely to be significant victories for the church even before we reach the Last Battle. The prophetic narrative is always both cyclical and expansive, with many highs and lows. It is neither linear progress nor merely a long defeat.


New Jerusalem Coming Down, Marlan Yoder

The very existence of “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” in Revelation 20:9 is a powerful reminder of this fact. In keeping with the preceding columns in this series, I am inclined to interpret parembolen ton hagion [“camp of the saints”] in at least a partially geographical or spatial sense. But however the phrase should be understood, it certainly does not suggest that Christians will be a squalid people subsisting on the brink of death. Instead, it suggests a church which, though perhaps an underdog, nonetheless enjoys autonomy, camaraderie, and strength.


In fact, “camp of the saints” is a less-than-precise translation. The English word “camp” encompasses many meanings: it can suggest a military camp, a camp site, or a homeless camp. In contrast, John’s word “παρεμβολὴν” [“parembolen”] is pointedly militaristic. It seems to be used exclusively to refer to military camps or installations in the writings of Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Luke, Josephus, and Plutarch. For example, Luke uses “parembolen” in Acts 21, where it is translated as “barracks” or even “castle.” A more precise way to understand the parembolen ton hagion in Revelation 20:9 might be “the base of the saints.”


When the Last Battle does arrive, it will be a glorious victory. Note that, in the series of four conflicts we have discussed, the scale and degree of the conflict increases with each iteration. In each reoccurrence of the cycle, the activity and the triumph of God’s people over secular empire is accentuated. This dynamic seems to be brought to ultimate fruition at the parembolen, whenever and wherever it may be.


The New Heaven and the New Earth


Secondly, I do not think that what we have been calling the Last Battle is the last adventure. In John's vision, the battle is followed by the unveiling of an entirely new reality in Revelation 21-22. And John’s magnificent description of the New Heaven and the New Earth has never struck me as a Platonic cloudscape where the saints will indolently strum on harps. It sounds more like the setting of a vast epic.


In two of C.S. Lewis’ visions of the next world—in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle—what we call “heaven” is portrayed as the beginning of a new adventure. Likewise, in Revelation 21:24-27, the New Jerusalem is treated as a conquering, celestial Rome: “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day.” This imagery rings of vigorous activity rather than stasis.


Still from A New Jerusalem, an immersive virtual reality installation by artist Michael Takeo Magruder based on the dimensions given in Revelation. I saw the installation on exhibit in 2018.

I am particularly struck by the fact that that the New Jerusalem is, literally, a radiant cubical structure the size of a small planet. John sees the city coming out of “ouranou”—which means heaven, the air, or the sky. Yet, although many readers have assumed that it comes to rest on the earth, we are never told that it does so.


Of course, a modern reader is likely to insist that all of the characteristics of the New Jerusalem must be understood in a purely figurative and spiritual sense. But this reflects the very bias that we have been deconstructing over the course of this series. The New Jerusalem seems, on the contrary, to reflect a glimpse of the saints’ future cosmic conquest of a universe ready to be illuminated with the glory of God. The dynamic description of the New Heaven and the New Earth points to a new revelation, a new story, and a new adventure on a far greater scale than we can now imagine.


Earlier, I reflected on my own built-in hesitation to understand prophecy in concrete terms. When I consider that hesitation, I’m reminded of Jesus’ interaction with Martha in John 11. As Jesus arrived in Bethany to raise Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead, Martha confronted him.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

When Jesus says “Your brother will rise again,” Christians know that Jesus is speaking in the plainest possible sense: he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead. But Martha is afraid to accept this. Wounded by the grief of her brother’s death, Martha preferred to take hold of an abstract hope rather than a concrete one.


I empathize with Martha. Especially in the wake of grief, the abstract can seem safer than the specific. We are wary of bearing betrayed, and we know that religious people have often been stung by the betrayal of falsified prophecy. In response, we shrink from the idea that religion can make falsifiable claims, seeking comfort in a faith that is too vague to fail us. But Jesus is not vague. His promises are startlingly straightforward and scandalously specific, as he made clear to Martha: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”


Notes:

[1] As when Revelation specifies that Rome is the Fourth Empire of Daniel, the New Testament accounts of the crucifixion prophetically affirm and refract the messianism of Psalm 22, revealing Jesus as the messiah who will fulfill the prophecy of global monotheism. Jesus did in fact fulfill these prophecies after these New Testament texts were written, allowing a cascade of prophecies to vindicate God through verifiable claims.

[2] See also Psalm 98:3: “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”

[3] Isaiah 11 helps to illuminate Paul’s repeated insistence on Jesus’ Davidic descent alongside his focus on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, such as Paul’s statement to Timothy that Paul suffered for “Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.” Both Jesus’ public resurrection and his then-future fulfillment of the Davidic messianic prophecies are public evidences of the truth of the Gospel. Jesus also concludes Revelation 22 by identifying himself as "the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

[4] See also Isaiah 42 (“The coastlands wait for his law… I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon”); Isaiah 49 (“I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”); Isaiah 52 (“The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”); Isaiah 55 (“Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you”: possibly indicating the conversion of the Roman Empire); Isaiah 60:2 (“the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising”: possibly reaffirmed and heightened as also being a future prophecy by Revelation 21:24-26). [5] Ezra 1:2 (“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.”).

[6] 3 Esdras 2:3-4 (“Thus says Cyrus king of the Persians: The Lord of Israel, the Lord Most High, has made me king of the world, and he has commanded me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judea.”).

[7] Jerome’s Commentary on Daniel.

[8] I do not need to mention the fact that medieval Christendom was always garlanded with the saint-cults of intercessory martyrs. I will limit myself to laying out the general outline of my view and leave the finer details for another time. #Revelation #OldTestament #Jesus #Postmill #Bible #Eschatology

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