Book Review - Christian Millenarianism

Cultic Studies Review, 2,(2), 2003

Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco

Stephen Hunt, ed. (2001) Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 258 pp.

Reviewed by: Rev. Dean Borgman

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Some unbelievers think that the fear of death and the end of the world is the origin of all religion. Most believers, on the other hand, are convinced about life after death and some divine conclusion to history. Not all, but some of the faithful, and not only Christians, anticipate a final chapter of history, a thousand year period in which justice and peace will prevail. They are the millennialists or chiliasts (from “a thousand”). Jews, Christians and Muslims have such apocalyptic beliefs. In times of crisis and despair apocalyptic hopes may rise to the surface.

Many Jews, Christians, and Muslims take the notion of the millenium, not literally, but as symbolic of ultimate justice and peace. Theologians call their study of end times, eschatology (from the Greek, eschaton, last).

In contrast to some ancient thought that saw history moving in endless cycles, the Judeo-Christian view of history is linear, moving to some kind of denouement or conclusion. Christian Millenarianism offers an introduction and seventeen erudite essays on millenarianism divided into four sections:

Possible scenarios for the end of the world provide opportunities for the exploitation of fears, utopian ideals, and radical ideology under cultic leadership. That is what makes this book important to those concerned with destructive cultism—even though it isn’t this work’s focus.

The aim of this book is not to discuss the idea of millenarianism in purely theological or sociological terms. It is rather to examine a variety of specific movements, the “most vigorous expressions (of millenarianism) within the Christian faith over the last two hundred years” (7). "what is self-evidently one of the perennial and most dynamic of visions” (p. 11). To accomplish such an endeavor, the editor has called upon experts able to speak from the disciplines of “sociology, anthropology, biblical studies, church and cultural history, and theology.” (p. 7)

The volume deals with millenarianism as it is found within the mainstream of Christian tradition, in the tendency toward Christian extremism and sects, and finally as it influences larger society. Malcolm B. Hamilton’s first chapter helps define and distinguish the subject from a sociological perspective:

Lately millenarian sects have attracted much attention as a consequence of groups such as the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, the Solar Temple, Aum Shinrikyô, and Heaven’s Gate.

The tragic loss of life resulting from the confrontation of apocalyptic groups such as these with the wider society has puzzled and perturbed contemporary society.

The millennial idea, however, is not only manifested in clearly definable movements or relatively discrete and organized sectarian bodies, but runs as a current through society, greatly varying in intensity over time, attracting varying numbers… and with varying degrees of influence in their lives and society in general. (pp. 34, 35)

The next essay by Martyn Percy provides information that helps explain the “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye (though these popular novels/films are not mentioned here). The chapter is subtitled, “Evangelicals, The Millenium and Millenarianism.” “Evangelicals” are conservative Christians who take the Bible literally, or at least authoritatively. They are similarly divided as to whether they believe the “thousand year period” of Revelation 20: 2b, 4b to be a literal thousand year period or a symbolic ideal of history’s consummation in justice and peace. In describing Evangelicals' three biblical interpretation of the millenium as post-millennial (Christ coming to earth after the millennium), amillennial (the millennium seen as symbolic), and dispensational (the “Left Behind” scenario), Percy unfortunately misses historic premillennialism of which dispensationalism is only a rather modern variant. Insightful history and details regarding the origins of dispensationalism are provided by a later essay, Mark Patterson and Andrew Walker’s “Irving, Albury, and the Origins of the Pre-tribulation Rapture” (p. 98).

In this volume we find historic backgrounds from ancient, medieval, and early modern history. We learn of global movements such as the T’Aiping Rebellion in China, “Catholic Apocalypticism and the Army of Mary” in Europe, and “A Peruvian Messiah and the Retreat from Apocalypse.”

With scholarly balance, this book makes clear that not even “extreme” millennial movements are necessarily dangerous. In “The Heavenly Millenium of Seventh-Day Adventism,” Kenneth Newport declares: “Seventh-day Adventism is without doubt one of the more successful, even if less-known, pre-millennial movements in the world today” (p. 131). Susan J. Palmer gives us a careful assessment of the Messianic Communities’ Twelve Tribes (an outgrowth of the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 70s) as a New Religious Movement (NRM).

Their doctrines are radical—that is, both extreme and original—and yet… based on the Bible…. Given this extraordinary level of external pressure (police raids), one might ask, why have they not reacted in a violent fashion? (p. 211)

In view of the widespread concern regarding the violence factor in apocalyptic movements… it is important to remember all those nonviolent groups that have prepared for the end of the world throughout the history of heresy. If we are attempting to construct models of “dangerous” prophetic groups, it is useful to study the characteristics of groups that fan their fiery visions of End Time to facilitate internal religious experience, while somehow managing to “keep cool” when dealing with the world. (p. 223)

Then there is the millenarianism of the largest Christian revival in recent times, the Pentecostal Movement. Margaret Poloma begins her analysis of this prophetic movement quoting D.J. Wilson, “For most Christians the present determines the future; they believe they will reap what they sow. But for most Pentecostals the future determines the present, their view of eschatology governs their view of current events.” Of course this contrast is not quite true. For Jügen Moltmann (himself a millennialist) and many other mainstream theologians, contemporary complexities can only be understood in terms of eschatology. Poloma’s essay describes the unique place of prophecies, revival, and end-times beliefs among this dynamic stream of Christianity.

David Gallagher’s “David Koresh’s Christian Millenarianism” is really this volume’s only study of what many would consider a contemporary millennial cult that was dangerous and self-destructive. However, this writer warns us:

… the group had been in the area for some sixty years…. The general lack of knowledge about the group was quickly supplanted by a facile characterization of it as a “cult.” … The ease with which that stereotype was embraced by the media and accepted by the general public again demonstrated the shallow but pervasive influence of the anti-cult movement. (p. 196)

This essay describes David Koresh as one who abandoned his former life for the community at Mount Carmel, for a life of religion. Daily hours of Bible study drove home the message of impending divine doom based on an interpretation of the seven seals in the book of Revelation (chapters 4-5). Koresh was not only a prophet of the seven seals; he was the Lamb from heaven to unloose the (meaning of) the seals. Those of us interested in the psychology and sociology of destructive sects and cults will probably be disappointed—with this volume and this chapter in particular. Gallagher’s essay is an insightful interpretation of Davidian teaching and the mission of David Koresh. It assumes the need for religious tolerance, even of extremes. But it does little to enlighten the reader as to the authoritarianism and probable abuses present in this cult—a term that many scholars these days reject as pejorative.

My last remark needs brief comment. Contemporary study of religions and smaller movements is taking a very relativistic stance. Many scholars are loath to describe in negative terms any religious movement, no matter how small, how recent, how radical or how dangerous. They are scratching terms like sect and cult from their working vocabularies. All religions began as cults or sects, they would say, and have grown into gradual acceptance. Those of us afraid of cultic authoritarianism, brainwashing, undermining of family ties, and breaking of individual critical thinking will continue to find vocabulary that assists in distinctions that can lead to release and freedom.

Positive reviews see this book as a multifaceted and multidisciplinary inspection of millenarian ideas from a comparative and historical perspective. It is that indeed, and we can be glad for this important starting point in understanding the importance of ideas about history’s culmination. This will enable our further consideration as to how “end-time thinking” can move in helpful or destructive directions.