Constantine’s Edict of Milan, issued in 313AD, constituted the formal beginning of a major social paradigm shift that signaled the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval period. That edict legitimized Christianity and impressed upon it the Roman Empire’s stamp of approval.
While the edict was unbiased in terms of tolerance to all forms of religion, its greatest significance and historical impact is the fact that Constantine was the first Roman emperor openly sympathetic to Christianity. From a theological perspective (specifically eschatology) it started a major paradigm shift from the rather vague eschatological view of the ancient church fathers to the eschatological views that dominate doctrines from the 4th century on. Those views have essentially become divided into four major ‘schools of eschatology’ (Doctrines of End-Times).
They are as follows, with no distinction as to order of appearance: premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism, preterism.
- Premillennialists hold that Christ will come before a 7-year period of intense tribulation to take His church (living and dead) into heaven. After this period of fulfillment of divine wrath, He shall then return to rule from a holy city (the New Jerusalem) over the earthly nations for 1000-years. After those 1000-years, satan, who was bound up during Christ’s earthly reign, will be loosed to deceive the nations, gather an army of the deceived, and take up to battle against the Lord. This battle (Armageddon) will end in both the judgment of the wicked and satan and the entrance into the eternal state of glory by the righteous. This view is called premillenialism because it places the return of Christ before the millennium.
- Postmillennialism believes that the millennium is an era (not a literal 1000-years) during which Christ will reign over the earth, not from an literal and earthly throne, but through the gradual increase of the Gospel and its power to change lives. After this gradual Christianization of the world, Christ will return and immediately usher the church into their eternal state after judging the wicked. This is called postmillennialism because, by its view, Christ will return after the millennium.
- Amillennialism believes that the Kingdom of God was inaugurated at Christ’s resurrection at which point He gained victory over both satan and the Curse. Christ is even now reigning at the right hand of the Father over His church. After this present age has ended, Christ will return and immediately usher the church into their eternal state after judging the wicked.
- Preterism (partial or full preterism) interprets some or all prophecies of the Bible as events which have already happened. This school of eschatology interprets Daniel’s prophesies as referring to events that happened in the 2nd century BC, while seeing the prophecies in Revelation as events that happened in the 1st century AD. Partial preterism holds that ancient Israel finds its continuation or fulfillment in the Christian church at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Full preterism contends that the ‘END’ that Christ prophesied refers to the end of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. They rejected their Messiah and did not uphold their part of the Mosaic Covenant God established with them, so they were rejected by God who established a New Covenant with the Gentiles (all humanity NOT of Hebrew blood) through Christ. Thus the END o their ‘world’ came when Christ rose victorious over death, followed by the predicted destruction of their religious center (the Temple) and their national identity, the result of the Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews by the Roman army beyond Israel to the uttermost parts of the globe.
The final acceptance or rejection of any of the main views described above must be one of personal revelation. Each ‘school’ has some good points and a substantial following. But before ‘dropping anchor’ on any particular view or perhaps a ‘blend’ of the best of all the views, prayerfully consider this… the best way in which to properly interpret the Word of God is to see what it has to say about itself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Then if, in the final analysis, you are still undecided, remember that salvation is not built or broken on eschatology, but on the person of Jesus Christ.
Eschatology can never be (in this present realm) an EXACT and absolute universal eternal truth to man living in this present physical realm. Certainly there is an exact universal truth that God has planned, but since it intrinsically deals with events of a future nature, no man can know for sure what the future holds. But we can know for sure WHO holds the future! Even those who hold fast to the blessed hope of eternal security in Christ, do not know the exact nature or full details of an eternity with God. But as it is written:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” – 1Cor. 2:9
There are many lessons to be learned from the mistakes committed by those who lived in the past. So a prayerful examination of history should help to sort out some of the issues debated by these various eschatological views.
During the centuries that immediately preceded the Edict of Milan, two crucial interpretive errors became prevalent. The 2nd century church fathers failed to preserve the clear biblical distinction between the nation of Israel and the fledgling mostly Gentile church. The 3rd century fathers abandoned a more literal method of interpreting the Bible in favor of an allegorical-spiritualized hermeneutic. With those foundations removed, the societal changes influenced by the edict caused 4th century fathers to reject sound eschatology in favor of millennialism.
Whether a proper understanding of the actual recorded events of history are that important to one’s personal theology, each person must ultimately decide. Are the gospel records consistent with corresponding events of that time as reported by secular historians credible evidence to support their claims to accuracy? What if Jesus Christ is never mentioned by other than biblical accounts? The evidence is over-whelming that the biblical record is true, So isn’t it just as necessary to building a firm foundation of personal faith that any doctrines supposedly founded upon the reliable reports be likewise scrutinized by the same historical accuracy?
Since everything we need for an adequate understanding of doctrine is available through research of history and comparable study of the Bible, are the doctrinal positions of our predecessors irrelevant to our understanding of theology? Studying historical theology makes a believer more self-conscious, self-critical, and more aware of one’s own presuppositions. It assists one in learning theology by revealing how others before them have determined proper interpretations. It shows how a particular doctrine began, evolved and, sometimes deviated from biblical truth. Historical theology attempts to understand the formation of doctrines, their development and changes.
It should be quite obvious why the earliest period of the church is considered the most important in historical theology. The early church fathers were closer to the events of the life of Christ and the original apostolic era. These 1st century apologists began the continual task of defending true Christianity against its first barrage of intellectual criticism, heresies, and false teachers.
Therefore, it is essential to properly understand the eschatological views of the earliest church. It is quite arrogant to ignore the works of holy men who labored in both the Word and sound doctrine, so church history must be given proper appreciation when hoping to rightly interpret scripture.
Although it is rather difficult to establish the exact eschatological beliefs of many church fathers because some changed their view over time, while others were always inconsistent, true millennialism was RARE in the early church. It did exist, but those who did hold this view had other eschatological beliefs that are inconsistent with the currently prevailing modern Dispensational premillennial view.
Among the Apostolic Fathers BARNABAS (the same as is mentioned in Acts 14) is the first and only one who expressly professed a premillennial reign of Christ on earth. He considered the Mosaic history of Creation as a type of 6 ages of labor for the world, each lasting 1000 years, and then a millennium of rest, because with God “one day is as 1000-years”. He supposed that the millennial Sabbath on earth will be followed by an 8th and eternal day in a new world. Mathematically, this would place current believers in the early 7th millennium (1000 year period of rest) with the 8th DAY to begin in the year 2100. His view was NOT widely accepted, but is included here because it was the ONLY idea expressed about a literal reign of Christ among ALL 1st century commentators.
A prayerful consideration of the book of Hebrews in comparison to Barnabas’s 8th Day proposal invokes a possible interpretation of the SABBATH and REST of which ALL truly born again believers currently experience. Of course, this would also include EVERY true believer since Christ poured out His Spirit over 2000 years ago!
There is ample evidence that at least some early Christians understood Jesus’s predictions contained within the Olivet discourse (Mt. 24, Mk. 13, and Lk. 21) as having been fulfilled in the 70 AD fall of Jerusalem. Eusebius (a 4th century theologian) discusses this in detail, professing that the tribulation, death, and famine described by Jesus had already happened. The secular historian Josephus also shows plainly the fulfillment of these predictions of Christ according to his record, how the women roasted their children by the fire and ate them, on account of the pressure of the famine which prevailed in the city.
However, it is essential to maintain a sincere objectivity when reviewing these reports and avoid any temptation to read-into our convenient pet dogmas more than is clearly factual regarding the views of the earliest church fathers . They did not approach eschatology with the same systematic research that many do today. Furthermore, many of the earliest writings have been lost, making a thorough analysis of the topic even more challenging.
These facts are indisputable. The ENTIRE current teaching regarding end-times (Eschatology) based upon Dispensational theology is merely about 200 years old, while the majority of biblical scholars, theologians, interpretations, etc. prior to then NEVER considered scripture to reveal ANY so-called prophetic time-table of events as were introduced by Dispensationalists in the early 19th century.
Until the 1960’s, it was confined to Western civilization, with zero international acceptance. But the more it was repeated, the more ‘itching ears’ wanted to hear, until it became a quite popular dogma. But proper interpretation of scripture is NEVER a matter of democratic (majority rules) process. True doctrine belongs to the rules of Theocracy, NOT popular opinion or approval. When a deeper unabridged research is properly conducted (Holy Spirit led) on the topic, too much historical evidence exists to show that many prophesies included in Dispensational Eschatology have already been fulfilled. Regarding the ‘abomination of desolation’ – Jesus warned about it in conjunction with the destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70AD).
The ‘abomination of desolation’ is believed by many prior to Dispensationalism, to have occurred when the Roman armies made Jerusalem desolate, and for their wickedness in persecuting and crucifying Jesus Christ and utter destruction of Judaism and their Temple. Both the physical place of God (the Temple) and the literal presence of God (the Messiah) were ‘cut-off’ (the predicted abomination of desolation). Most scholars understood this until just the last few generations dominated by Dispensational rhetoric. There is much more historical specific evidence available in support of this that is not included in this article. Perhaps further personal research is in order.
Concerning the ‘Great Tribulation’, predicted by Dispensationalists to last 7-years, one needs to prayerfully study the period of civil war within the Roman Empire specifically related to Christ’s prophesies about the last 3.5-years (67-70AD). The idea of a still yet to come period that fits the same time-table has been preached only in the last 200 years, and those teachers have been continually readjusting their prophesied dates, perceived identities of anti-Christ, world tribulation, etc.
One must decide whether to believe scripture and related factual history or the mere doctrines of man. Scripture warns about prophets whose prophesies do not come to pass as they said.
“How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken? When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” – Dut. 18:21,22.
Since their predictions have been constantly rewritten to conform to reality, it appears that their original convictions DID NOT come from God, but some other spirit. If one of these teachers ever actually repented & admitted their error, forgiveness would be in order. Instead, they always make excuses, while they try to sell their amended versions of eschatology. Meanwhile, the TRUTH remains eternal and there is more than enough historical evidence to prove it.