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date: 30 May 2020

Summary and Keywords

As the expectation of imminent, total, collective salvation from a world in dire need of repair, millennialism has long inspired individuals and groups to take dramatic actions in anticipation of the establishment of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). The term “millennialism” is derived from the prospect of a thousand-year reign of Christ (mille = one thousand in Latin) expressed in Revelation 20. As that suggests, the origins of millennialism go back to the ancient Mediterranean world in the period roughly between Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) and Constantine (272–337 ce) when Alexander’s world kingdom and its successors deprived local populations of political, and often religious, autonomy. One response to that situation, which appears in Jewish, Christian, and other Greco-Roman sources, was the claim that humanity had reached a crisis point and that divine intervention would soon accomplish renovation of the world in which those suffering unjustly under foreign domination would be saved.

Although millennialist movements have been fairly common in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and various indigenous traditions have produced their own millennialist movements. In addition, many millennialist movements have drawn on eclectic ideological sources. Some political movements, such as Marxism, German National Socialism, and Maoism have had pronounced millennialist emphases, sometimes with the admixture of religious or occult elements. In the 21st century, millennialism in many different forms can be found throughout the world.

Many millennialist movements are founded by individuals claiming charismatic authority. They can claim the ability to see the signs of impending transformation and will frequently strive to interpret cultural wisdom traditions as shedding light on their current predicaments. But such leaders, and their followers, inevitably have to come to grips with the disappointing reality that their fondest hopes have not come true. Responses to the disconfirmation of millennialist prophecies, however, run the gamut from abandonment to reaffirmation. Millennialist hopes persist because viewing the imperfections and evils of the world as in dire need of dramatic rectification, generally with the aid of divine or superhuman figures, continues to exert an attraction to those who are deeply disappointed with the status quo.

Keywords: apocalyptic, catastrophic millennialism, charismatic authority, book of Daniel, end of the world, progressive millennialism, book of Revelation

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