LCN Article
The "7,000 Years" Doctrine

September / October 2012

Dexter B. Wakefield

“Do not forget!” God inspired the Apostle Peter to use these words to tell us to be sure to remember a certain thing: “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Why is this so important that, of all Peter could have emphasized, he said we are not to forget “this one thing”?

We understand that God’s perception of time is different from ours, that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Many people understand this in only that general way. But looking at the context of the scripture provides important additional information.

The context is millennial. Prior to Peter’s statement in verse 8, verse 3 refers to “the last days.” Those are the days just before Christ returns to establish His Kingdom. Verse 7 refers to “the day of judgment.” Then, in verse 10, Peter mentions “the day of the Lord.” In verse 12, he writes of “looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” Clearly, Peter is writing in a millennial context. So, what is he writing about here—and why is it so important?

Many critics are fond of saying that we should not take the Bible too literally. Sometimes, however, when people have trouble understanding the Bible, it is because they do not take it literally enough. Peter was not writing figuratively or metaphorically. Rather, he meant precisely what he wrote.

Biblically, what day is like a thousand years? The Sabbath day is like a thousand years—it pictures the millennial rule of Christ, which is His millennial rest. And which thousand years is like a particular day? The seventh millennium, during which Christ will rule over the Kingdom of God on the earth, is like the seventh day. Christ is Lord of the seventh millennium—His millennial Sabbath—and He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5). This information is apparently very important for God’s people, because Peter urged that we “do not forget this one thing.” And, indeed, this information survived for centuries after the time of the apostles. Yet, as with so much of what Christ and the apostles taught, this doctrine was later changed and then entirely rejected.

A Brief History of the “7,000 Years” Doctrine

The “7,000 years” teaching has an ancient history that is well known to scholars. The respected historian Edward Gibbon wrote a famous passage regarding the first-century Church: “The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ. As the works of the creation had been finished in six days, their duration in their present state, according to a tradition which was attributed to the prophet Elijah, was fixed to six thousand years. By the same analogy it was inferred that this long period of labor and contention, which was now almost elapsed, would be succeeded by a joyful Sabbath of a thousand years; and that Christ, with the triumphant band of the saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth till the time appointed for the last and general resurrection” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, p. 403).

Gibbon understood these points from secular history, not from a reading of Scripture. The “7,000 years” doctrine was often mentioned by early writers both in and out of the Church. For instance, writing shortly after 100ad, the author of the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas makes a detailed reference to it, commenting on the belief of the first-century Church: “‘God made in 6 days the works of His hands, and made an end on the 7th day, and rested on it, and sanctified it’ (Gen. 2:2). Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, ‘He finished in 6 days.’ This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in 6,000 years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth saying, ‘Behold, today will be as a thousand years.’ Therefore, my children, in 6 days, that is, in 6,000 years, all things will be finished. ‘And He rested on the 7th day.’ This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the 7th day” (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 15).

Late in the second century ad, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, France, wrote: “For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded… This is an account [Gen. 2:1–2] of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years, and in 6 days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the 6th thousand year… These are to take place in the times of the kingdom, that is, upon the 7th day, which has been sanctified, in which God rested from all the works which He created, which is the true Sabbath of the righteous…” (Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapters 28, 33).

The millennial doctrine in various forms had many other supporters in the first and second centuries, and there remain records of active debate on the subject. Some other ancient historians who mentioned the doctrine include Ketina, Lactantius, Victorinus, Hippotylus, Justin Martyr and Methodius. History shows that the first-century Church believed as the Apostle Peter taught.

Later, however, other influential theologians such as Origen (ca. 185–254ad) scorned the millennial beliefs of the early Church, which he saw as interpreting prophecy “in a Jewish sense” and “refusing the labour of thinking, and adopting a superficial view of the letter of the law.” In his Amillennialism (“no millennium”), Origen rejected a literal approach to understanding prophecy and supported the idea that Christ’s millennial rule was merely an allegory. Origen opposed the view known as “Premillennialism”—that Christ would return at the beginning of a thousand-year millennium. Premillennialism, however, was the belief of the first-century Church, and is the teaching of God’s Church today.

Perhaps the greatest opponent of the doctrine of a 7,000–year week of millennial days was Augustine of Hippo (354–430ad), known to Roman Catholics as “Saint Augustine.” As has been noted by Richard Landes, Associate Professor of History and director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, Augustine was “the most powerful anti-apocalyptic, anti-millennial thinker in the Latin Church… His insistence that millennialism never had any part of true Christianity and that responsible leaders (clergy) should never espouse apocalyptic beliefs, should never ‘read’ contemporary events by the light of the book of Revelation, dominated ecclesiastical circles. He and the centuries of theologians, copyists, and archivists who followed in his lead worked diligently to muffle the voice of the [premillennialists] in their texts for the sake of the Church, the social order, and the salvation of their souls” (Heaven on Earth, p. 85).

Historian Gibbon wrote: “The assurance of such a millennium was carefully inculcated by a succession of fathers from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who conversed with the immediate disciples of the apostles, down to Lactantius, who was preceptor to the son of Constantine. Though it might not have been universally received, it appears to have been the reigning sentiment of the orthodox believers [those who followed the apostle’s original teaching]… But when the edifice of the church was almost completed, the temporary support was laid aside. The doctrine of Christ’s reign upon the earth was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism” (Gibbon, p. 404).

Note also this from historian Landes: “The first time the ‘grand narrative’ of western history was told (fourth to fifteenth centuries), religious historians chose not to include millennialism in the story. Theological [doubters] like Eusebius (ca. 300), Orosius (416), Gregory of Tours (ca. 570), Isadore (ca. 600), Bede (ca. 700), Otto of Freisling (ca. 1150), and Baronius (ca. 1600), reconstructed a history of the Church, purged as much as possible of both apocalyptic and millennial elements. The second time, in the massive revision of modern historiography from Gibbon to Charles Homer Haskins, secular historians determined to push religion into the background of their story, were hardly interested in highlighting religious phenomena that even ecclesiastical historians considered ridiculous” (op. cit., p. 83).

Thus was the plan of God and the true gospel of the Kingdom of God, as believed by the first-century Church, suppressed—as it continues to be suppressed today. The Apostle Peter’s exhortation, “do not forget this one thing,” was forgotten!

The “7,000 Years” Doctrine Found in Ancient Judaism

Although the doctrine’s origin is the Bible, not Jewish tradition, it can be found expressed in ancient Judaism—one reason (as in the case of Origen) why most of professing “institutional Christianity” later came to reject it. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), for instance, characterizes ideas of a messianic millennial rule on earth as “Jewish opinions” (Article XVII). The Anglican Articles (1553) describe belief in a millennium as “Jewish dotage.”

Nevertheless, the doctrine remained in Jewish writings. It was mentioned prominently in the writings of the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day. Also, the Talmud records the commentaries of various sages and presents the doctrine in various ways. Some examples:

“It has been taught in accordance with R. Kattina: ‘Just as the seventh year is one year of release in seven, so is the world: one thousand years out of seven shall be fallow, as it is written, “And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day,” and it is further said, “A Psalm and song for the Sabbath day,” meaning the day that is altogether Sabbath—and it is also said, “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”’”

“The Tanna debe Eliyyahu teaches: ‘The world is to exist six thousand years. In the first two thousand there was desolation; two thousand years the Torah flourished; and the next two thousand years is the Messianic era’” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 97a).

The “7,000 Years” Doctrine Found in the Bible

God promised that He would “restore all things” (Matthew 17:11) in the time leading up to the return of Christ. One thing He has restored is the doctrine of His 7,000-year plan for humanity.

The millennial day is well established in Scripture. In a prayer of Moses in the Psalms, we read, “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4). Also, we read that the saints will reign with Christ for 1,000 years—a millennial day. “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6).

This principle of the millennial Sabbath indicates a period of six millennial days—a millennial week of mankind’s misrule—that precedes the millennial rest of the rule of Christ. Just as the Eternal finished His creation in six days and rested on the seventh, He is laying the groundwork of His plan in this current age, and the world will then experience rest and restoration in the coming millennial Sabbath. In this current 6,000-year period—a time allotted for mankind to make his many failed experiments at self-rule—a deceived world labors in Satan’s bondage, just as ancient Israel labored in slavery in Egypt, picturing Satan’s rule in this age as “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30). Where Egypt pictured the world’s bondage in this age, Israel’s Promised Land pictured the Kingdom of God and the millennial rest to come.

Throughout Scripture there are a number of significant six-one pairings, and it is interesting how often God repeats this theme. For instance, a Hebrew could be sold into bondage, but only for six years. After that, he went free. “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing” (Exodus 21:2). Satan now has the world laboring in bondage, but during the millennial Sabbath the slave-master himself will be bound for 1,000 years—and the world will have rest and freedom. The world’s slavery—whether physical or spiritual—is not of God, but of Satan. God has merely allowed it in order to present a picture of the spiritual condition of mankind in this age.

In Hebrews 4, the Apostle Paul discusses how the weekly Sabbath pictures the millennial Sabbath as God’s millennial rest. Paul uses the Promised Land of Israel to portray the millennial rest to come. It was because of disobedience and lack of faith in God that Israel had to wander for 40 years in the wilderness. In this age, humanity toils in a world held captive for 6,000 years by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), after which there will be a long-promised millennial Sabbath of rest.

“Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it” (Hebrews 4:1). The Apostle Paul advises us that we must be diligent to make our calling and election sure. But ancient Israel failed to believe and obey God. “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: ‘So I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest,’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world” (vv. 2–3). Of those over age 20, only righteous Joshua and Caleb survived for 40 years in the wilderness (Numbers 14:29), but that did not change God’s plan for humanity. It was ordained from the beginning of creation.

“For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’; and again in this passage, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.’ For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His [God’s] rest has himself also rested from his [human] works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience” (vv. 4–11, NASU).

Still, the world routinely profanes the holy time of the weekly Sabbath, and—in doing so—disobeys God’s commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). And the Sabbath will be kept holy in the Kingdom. “And from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 66:23). God’s holy people keep His Sabbath holy and remember what it promises.

What it Means to Us Today

In an important sense, the Bible is a “7,000-year book.” God has set forth a plan, “from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8; 1 Peter 1:20; Ephesians 1:4; John 17:24), and will complete it in a millennial week of creation, just as He restored the earth in the creation week (Genesis 1, 2; Exodus 20:11). The Bible reveals an overall chronology maintained by writer after writer, century after century. Though it is a book recorded by many authors, they all wrote from one point of view: that of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It begins in Genesis at the beginning of a 7,000 period, and ends in Revelation just after the end of that time.

It is possible to track the chronology from Adam to the construction of the first temple by Solomon (see Tomorrow’s World Bible Study Course, Lesson 2, Part 2). However, because of the vagaries of the ascension years of the kings of Israel, we cannot get a perfectly accurate fix on the exact years of the biblical chronology since the first temple. In other words, God has arranged it so we cannot yet know exactly, to the year, where we are in the context of end-time events—we can only know the general time frame (2 Peter 3:8). Also, in Peter’s phrase, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” the English word “as” is translated from the Greek word, hos (Strong’s 5613)—which elsewhere is translated as “about” (Mark 5:13; 8:9; Acts 13:18, 20). Hos means “as” in the sense of “about,” “even as” or “as it were.” So, we cannot conclude that the length of this age will be exactly 6,000 years, only that it will be about  6,000 years—six millennial days.

Christ told us that only the Father knew the day and hour of His return—not even the angels in heaven: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36). Satan, a fallen angel, can certainly measure 6,000 years to the day, but God has said “about” concerning the millennial count. Even Satan, who certainly reads and quotes scripture (Matthew 4:5–6), can know only “that he has a short time” as the end of his six millennial days approaches. But he can count—and he does know the times—so he unleashes his evil on the world, “having great wrath” (Revelation 12:12).

Countless events of history have passed, recorded or unrecorded. The Bible, however—“the 7,000-year book”—contains the history that we need for understanding God’s plan, and the instruction that shows us how to live His way of life. It also contains the prophecy—history recorded in advance—that we need to know in order to understand God’s plan. For those whose minds God has opened, His word allows them to understand the past, the present and the future in the context of a completed panorama of history. The Church of God has been given eyes and ears to see and hear this marvelous word, and to understand its consistent purpose. What other book has such extraordinary content? Understanding the 7,000–year millennial week gives us the context to understand what Scripture is presenting.

Do Most Today “forget this one thing”?

Not only have the world’s religions forgotten the “7,000 years” doctrine; most have specifically rejected it! But we are told that, as Christians, we can know the times and seasons. “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near—at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place… But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:28–32). “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. But no one knows the day or hour” (Matthew 24:44). If we knew the day and hour, we might become complacent rather than vigilant and spiritually awake. But Christ tells us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (Matthew 25:13).

Because we do not know the exact timing, occasionally, someone will ask, “Well, what if these aren’t the end times and time just goes on and on?” The answer is that if you are in the Church, obeying God’s commandments and keeping the Sabbath just so you can escape the Great Tribulation, or if the only reason you obey God is because you hope to see prophecy fulfilled, then you are in the Church for the wrong reason. What about all our brethren who lived in the last 2,000 years and were faithful to the end? What was their reason? They wanted to have their sins washed away and to live God’s way of life for their whole lives—regardless of where they were in prophecy—because they loved God’s law and way of life as a great blessing. They believed that God would raise them up to immortality in His kingdom in the last day, whether they saw the end-times or not. So, they lived their lives in faith and obedience—and did the Work of their day.

The Bible is, in an important sense, a “7,000–year book.” It tells the end from the beginning. No matter where you live in that 7,000–year period, if you believe God, you too can know the end from the beginning. We are commanded to watch, and as we see the end approaching, we encourage ourselves and pull together in confidence in the Truth and Work of God.