For my eschatology class, I’m currently reading Charles E. Hill’s Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). This book is a revision of Hill’s doctoral dissertation, which he completed under Rowan Williams at Cambridge University. Apart from the fact that it is supremely cool to have the future Archbishop of Canterbury as your doctoral supervisor, I am enjoying this book because it is an excellent example of what I hope my dissertation will be: an original contribution to the field that states and defends a bold hypothesis.
In this book, Hill investigates the eschatology of second and third century Christians. As generally understood, this period was dominated by chiliasm (that is, the belief in a temporary, earthly, messianic kingdom, roughly corresponding to premillennialism as we know it). Evidence for early chiliasm is clearly found in Papias and Irenaeus, among others. On the other hand, amillennialism is generally regarded as having been a later development in church history, ultimately coming to dominate Christian eschatology until the resurgence of premillennialism in some circles in recent centuries. Still, Irenaeus (A.H. 5.31-32) and Eusebius (H.E. 3.20.4) both make mention of early, orthodox amillennialists. Who were they? How widespread was their thought?
Given the presence of early amillennial belief, Hill’s book seeks to analyze the distribution and influence of “orthodox non-chiliasm.” At first this seems to be a bit of a hopeless task: the vast majority of early Christian writings don’t comment on the nature of the millennium at all. And here is where Hill makes his move:
“If we could somehow gain access to their [the early Christian writers who appear to be silent on the topic of the millennium] thought relative to chiliasm and non-chiliasm our view of the branches of Christian eschatology might be brought much more sharply into focus, and the origins and influence of both eschatologies as well as the causes of chiliasm’s eventual decline might be made more intelligible. Without any new “key” to their minds, however, we have been forced to live with our limitations.
In the present work, however, we are testing such a key, one taken from the hand of ‘le théologien du chiliasme,’ Irenaeus of Lyons. That key is the doctrine of the intermediate state, that is, the state or condition of the person or, more usually, the disembodied soul in the interim between death and the eschaton” (6).
In other words, even though most early Christian writers don’t talk about chiliasm directly, we can indirectly access their beliefs through what they write concerning what happens to a believer when he or she dies (a much more common topic in early Christian literature). Hill sees the beliefs linked in the following ways:
(1) Chiliasm: death → soul descends into Hades → resurrection of the just to reign in the millennium → general resurrection for judgment after the earthly millennium
(2) Non-Chiliasm: death → soul ushered into God’s presence in heaven → general resurrection for judgment (no earthly millennium)
The logic behind this move is simple yet controversial: “If souls are ushered into heaven, into the very presence of God and Christ, immediately after death and not detained in refreshing subearthly vaults, a future, earthly kingdom would seem at best an anticlimactic appendage to salvation history, at worst a serious and unconscionable retrogression. The millennium is then entirely redundant […] As introducing the redeemed into direct fellowship with their Savior and their God this heavenly postmortem existence takes the place of the millennium” (20).
So, there you have it: while each of us may find Hill’s overall argument and presentation of the evidence more or less persuasive, I’m very impressed by the clarity of his thesis, which is both original and helpful for showing how patristic evidence can illuminate the study of the NT. In short, it’s the kind of dissertation I want to write!