Apocalypticism and Millennialism

When speaking eschatologically (speaking about the "last things", the apocalypse, the end of the world), authors and readers alike often find much confusion in descriptive terms. In the article “The Secret”, author Richard K. Emmerson points out the lack of an “accepted terminology applied to the study of millenarianism.” One notices this lack when surveying the vast amount of material which categorizes ideologies and groups as millennial or millenarian (these two terms are exact synomyms, in addition to the term "chiliastic", when describing movements, and refer specifically to the earthly period at the end of time - the "thousand years" and are used with relative equal regularity). In Emmerson’s words, “…a lack of clarity in the use of such terms as ‘millenarianism’ and ‘apocalypticism’ complicates the task of comparing millenarian beliefs and ventures spanning geography and chronology, making it difficult to determine if historians are examining similar phenomena or conflating or even confusing related phenomena that for analytical purposes would be better kept distinct.” It is this vagueness in the academic rubric of eschatology that has allowed political movements of all kinds, secular and religious alike, to be termed millennial, and to stretch a word to its limit in such a fashion is to risk rendering it meaningless.

The overuse of these terms, and especially millennial language, has become especially ripe as western calendars reflected the approach and passing of the year 2000. As the academic switchboard lit up with new research about millennial groups of the past, all manner of revolutionary or even reform movements were lumped into the same category, those groups with solely political aims often termed “secular millenialists.” However, many authors have recently argued that removing the religious element of millennialism is going too far. “In my view,” writes Richard Emmerson, “to use the term ‘millennium’ to identify the goals of a predominantly secular social or political movement is to define the concept so broadly that it risks losing cogency.”

Fortunately, many authors have attempted to bring more clarity to their use of these terms. As some authors have suggested, it is useful to think of terms “eschatology,” “apocalypse”, and “millennium” as related terms of increasing specificity. Eschatology refers to theological speculation about the last things. Apocalypticism, it follows, is simply one way of thinking eschatologically, so that all apocalyptic thinking is eschatological, but not all eschatology is apocalyptic. Specifically, apocalypticism is a way of thinking which sees, through the interpretation of signs or texts, the end of the world approaching. This imminent event, the apocalypse, is usually expected to be catastrophic and, within the Christian tradition, is most often informed by interpretation of the book of Revelation.

Finally, millennialism is one way of thinking about the end of the world, the apocalypse. In a strict sense, the millennium has referred to the thousand years on earth which variously pre- or antedates the apocalypse, during which time the saved will enjoy a life of peace and justice, and occasionally, wealth and plenty, while the evil forces of the world will be permanently or temporarily defeated and imprisoned. In general usage, however, millennialism is the anticipation of a time of the cleansing of evil and reward of the faithful in the future.

Norman Cohn’s study of medieval millennialism led him to identify five aspects of millennial goals. Millennial movements attempt to impose a worldly salvation on society. They expect a radical reorganization of society that must be collective, involving society as a whole; imminent, the changes must be soon and sudden; terrestrial, the goals are aimed at life on earth; total, movements generally aim at perfection, not just improvement; and brought on by supernatural inspiration or agency. Similarly, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences defines millennial movements as those that “expect imminent, total, ultimate, this-worldly, collective salvation.” Millennial rhetoric is often characterized as well by an intense optimism of the future, an aspect that Robert Lerner captures somewhat better when he defines millennialism as “any hope for impending, supernaturally inspired, marvelous betterment on earth before the End.”

Works Cited

Norman Cohn. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Richard K. Emmerson. “The Secret.” The American Historical Review. December 1999, Volume 104, No. 5, pp. 1603-1615.

International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan/Free Press, Volume 10, 1968.


Richard K. Emmerson and Bernard McGinn, editors. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. New York: Ithaca, 1992.

Bernard McGinn, editor. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, Volume 2. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Stephen O’Leary. Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Sylvia L. Thrupp, editor. Millennial Dreams in Action. The Hague: Mouton, 1962.

Werner Verbeke, Daniel Verhelst, and Andries Welkenhuysen, editors. The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1988.