The Millennium: 
A New Spiritual Era?

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 21, 1999

Readings

Psalm 90:1-4, 12 A thousand years are like a day gone by

O Lord, you have been our dwelling place
In all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
From everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
Saying, "Turn back, you mortals."
For a thousand years in your sight
Are like yesterday when it is past,
Or like a watch in the night. . . .

So teach us to number our days
That we may apply our hearts to wisdom.


Revelation 20:1-6 The thousand years

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss, and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him for a thousand years.


Arcana Coelestia #2575.4 The meaning of a thousand

Since one thousand is a definite number in math, it seems as if it simply means "one thousand" in the prophecies--especially when they are given in the form of historical descriptions. However, in prophecy "a thousand" simply means "many" or "countless," and not any particular number. Historical descriptions tend to limit our thinking to the most obvious and strict meanings of the words and names in them. But in the Bible, numbers, like names, mean real things.... Some people think that the thousand years referred to in Revelation 20:1-7 mean a thousand years or periods of time, since the prophecies in the book of Revelation are given in the form of historical descriptions. But in fact, in that book "a thousand years" simply means a very large amount of time--and in some places an infinite amount of time, or eternity.

Sermon

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)

It is nice to be back in Bridgewater after Patty and I spent a week at EdFest in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Thank you once again for your help in sending us there! It was a much needed break for both of us. We had a wonderful time visiting with other ministers and spouses, hiking among the cactus, and hearing various points of view on the new millennium and new possibilities for the Swedenborgian Church in it. Since you helped to pay our way there, it is only fair that I should bring you back some thoughts and ideas from the workshop. I must admit, though, that I was firmly in relaxation mode all week, and took very few notes. So today's sermon is less of a summary of what was presented at EdFest than a survey of some of my own thoughts on the millennium, inspired by EdFest.

The passage from Revelation that Tammie read this morning is the main source of the Christian idea of the millennium as a time of epochal, perhaps world-ending change brought about by the power of Christ. If she had continued reading the rest of Revelation chapter 20, we would have heard about Satan being released from his prison after the thousand year reign of Christ. Satan then goes out to deceive the nations, and to gather his forces for battle against God and the holy city Jerusalem. But in a bit of an anti-climax, before the battle is even engaged, fire comes down from heaven and devours them, and the devil and his cohorts are thrown into a lake of burning sulfur, where they will remain in torment forever. After this comes the famed and feared Last Judgment, when the dead are judged according to what they have done, and either rise to heaven (though that is not spelled out in this particular prophecy) or are cast into the lake of fire along with Satan.

Of course, there are millions of people today, mostly in the Fundamentalist and Evangelical wings of Christianity, who take these prophecies literally. We have all heard about Christian sects whose leaders predicted a specific date for the end of the world, and then had to do some fancy spin control after that date came and went much like any other day. As a result of these embarrassing debacles, I have detected a distinct muteness among Fundamentalists of late when it comes to specific predictions that the year 2000 means curtains for this world of sin and darkness, and the coming of the golden reign of Christ.

Even without going into the spiritual meaning, we could realize that the thousand years of our reading is not meant to be taken literally. As the Rev. Frank Rose points out in his booklet Relax, It's Not the End of the World, a thousand was simply the largest number that the people in Biblical times had a name for. It is usually not meant to be taken literally any more than when we say, "I wouldn't do that in a million years!" or "I've told you a million times not to exaggerate!" When we say things like that, we don't mean literally one million. We mean lots and lots--or perhaps, as Swedenborg says in our reading from Arcana Coelestia, we mean forever, to eternity.

This hints at the real meaning of the thousand years. When we read of the thousand year reign of Christ, the words are not meant to convey a literal thousand years. As our Psalm points out, one year, a thousand years, or even a trillion years have no meaning for God, "for a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night" (Psalm 90:4). We are not dealing with matters of time here. We are dealing with matters of eternity. Matters of the soul. Matters of our souls. The coming and going of great kingdoms and epochs here on earth looks grave and important to our worldly eyes. But compared to the events of eternity, they are insignificant--like yesterday when it has passed. Of course, we are concerned with what happens to us here on earth. But it is infinitely more important what happens to our souls--what course we set for ourselves forevermore. The temporary events of this world are simply a matrix from which we are born into eternal life--or, if we refuse to accept eternal life, into the eternal death of materialism and self-centeredness.

With these thoughts in mind, let's take a look at the millennium from a Swedenborgian historical perspective, with some thoughts along the way about how it relates to our own spiritual development, and what it might mean for our church.

Though Swedenborg rejected the millenarian idea of a literal coming of Christ to rule an earthly kingdom, he did present a clear picture of five great spiritual ages of humankind marking the epochs of history. As with nearly everything in Swedenborg, his view of human spiritual ages is closely linked with the Biblical story.

Human spiritual history began, Swedenborg says, with an age that he called the "Most Ancient Church," or in modern language, the very earliest spiritual era. This age corresponds to the Garden of Eden in the Bible, and has come down to us in mythology as the Golden Age. In our individual development, it corresponds to the time of earliest infancy. For humankind, as for babies, it was a time when there was no division in our minds. Everything flowed directly from what we wanted and loved into action, with no intervening rational thought as to whether we should or should not do such a thing. From the outside, it would have looked like these early humans were acting from mere instinct. But according to Swedenborg, that is simply an appearance. In reality, they were acting from love and wisdom that flowed into them directly from God and heaven.

This age did not last, though. Just as babies grow into toddlers with a will of their own, early humans soon wanted to think for themselves. They metaphorically "ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil," and began filtering their feelings through their thinking, rational minds. And like children who often do not want to listen to their parents, they made choices that brought about conflict and pain--or in a word, evil. This was the Silver Age of mythology, when the mind rather than the heart ruled human conduct. In Biblical chronology, this period stretches from the flood of Noah to the call of Abram in Genesis 12, when something like literal history first begins in the Bible story.

Momentum was building in a downward spiritual trend. Soon, through following our own ideas instead of God's, we lost contact with spiritual reality and began living largely from material needs, urges, and ideas. This was the Iron Age, when human kingdoms rose and fell, and material might held more sway over human lives than spiritual power. In the Bible, it is represented by the rest of the Old Testament, covering the Israelitish and Jewish periods. In our own lives, this perhaps corresponds to the later teenage and early adult years, when we are making our way into the world, and must focus on material concerns of supporting ourselves and our family, and of establishing ourselves in the world.

If this were the end of history, it would be a depressing picture from a spiritual point of view. But it is not the end. When humanity reached its lowest, most materialistic ebb, it was precisely the point at which the greatest event in history took place: God came into our world as Jesus Christ to turn the tide of history. This initiated a long climb back upward toward spirit- and God-centered life. In our individual lives, this may come at a time of mid-life crisis, when we have a chance to re-evaluate our lives from a spiritual perspective.

The First Coming of the Lord began a new Silver Age for humankind. The light of the world had arrived in person. Now, those who had eyes to see could learn the great spiritual principles that form the foundation and framework for any truly spiritual way of life. The two Great Commandments. The Golden Rule. The Blessings. "Love your enemies." These and so many other teachings of Jesus gave the new light humanity needed to begin rebuilding the spiritual life that we had lost through our own stubbornness and bad choices.

But it wasn't quite enough. Or rather, we weren't quite ready for what the Lord wanted to give us. As Jesus said to his closest followers, "I have much more to say to you--more than you can bear. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:12, 13). History tells the sad story of how, over time, the glorious new light of Christianity was converted into human institutions and empires grasping for wealth and power instead of bringing spiritual light and life to the people. Over the centuries, Christianity became utterly corrupt. A new Christian era was needed.

From our perspective as Swedenborgians, this new Christian era did not have its beginning in a literal millennium such as 1000 or 2000 AD. In fact, we believe that it started nearly 250 years ago--and like the first coming of the Lord, most people did not even notice. As far as I know, we are unique among Christians in believing that the promised Second Coming of the Lord has already happened, and is happening all around us even as we speak.

Secular history does acknowledge that something major happened a few centuries ago. There was a huge explosion of scientific knowledge, technological progress, and human social evolution that was all part of a "new age" of human progress.

Emanuel Swedenborg was brash enough to give a specific date for the Last Judgment, which is linked to the Second Coming of the Lord. In his booklet The Last Judgment and Babylon Destroyed (#46) he writes, "This Last Judgment started at the beginning of the year 1757, and was fully accomplished by the end of that year." How's that for a prediction of the end of the world? "Sorry, folks! You missed it! It already happened in 1757."

But Swedenborg's date for the "end of the world" is different from fundamentalist predictions. He said that this Last Judgment and Second Coming of Christ are not worldly events, but spiritual ones. This is the crucial point on which we Swedenborgians differ from Christian Fundamentalists--and where we could show the way for mainline Christians, who are mostly dubious and confused about the prophecies in the Book of Revelation.

For us, the year 2000 by itself has little meaning or importance. It is an accident of our particular calendar that we are approaching a millennium. In fact, scholars tell us that we got it a bit off: Jesus was probably born between 6 and 4 BC, which would mean that the "real" millennium has already happened. From our perspective, even the "correct" date would miss the real real "millennium" by nearly a quarter of a millennium.

But let's look deeper. People are excited and a bit worried about this new millennium. There is the Y2K computer problem, which has technological types working overtime to avoid collapse in our information and communications infrastructure. There are various Christian Fundamentalist predictions that get many people exercised. And there are those who figure that basically, it's a good excuse for a really big party!

From a Swedenborgian perspective, the millennium is an opportunity to bring to a wider audience the message of a new spiritual era. Perhaps that new era began in the mid-1700s, but I believe that many of its deeper effects are only now starting to be felt. We have had our technological revolution. I believe we are now standing at the threshold of a new spiritual revolution. It is a revolution that you and I can have a part in, if we are willing to look forward to the future with faith and hope, rather than back to the past with longing.

We can take our cue for this new Christian era from the great epochs of spiritual history that Swedenborg maps out. This new Christian era is meant to be a new Golden Age. Gold is the metal of love. Yes, we have wonderfully illuminating teachings in our church. But I do not believe that we are truly a part of this new Christian era until we are acting, not from the silver of intellectual understanding, but from the pure gold of love. The Lord's Second Coming happens within us and among us when our lives and our church become an expression of the warm pulse of divine love that is the center and soul of the universe. Amen.


Music: Dimensions
1999 Bruce DeBoer 


Robert Meyers