The Last Judgement. The Louvre.

At first sight, there might seem to be nothing to say. ‘You know neither the day nor the hour’, as the Lord says, and again, ‘it is not for you to know the time or moments’. On the other hand, He does foretell the signs of His return, and tells us to judge that He is ‘near’ when certain things take place.

There is an impressive amount of patristic testimony assigning a period of between 6,000 and 7,000 years to the history of mankind. The Scriptural basis for this is the combination of Genesis 1 (7 days, of which only six are said to be completed) and 2 Peter 3:8 (that a day is as a thousand years). Here are some examples:-

Epistle of Barnabas: ‘ And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it. Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, He finished in six days. This implies that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifies, saying, Behold, today will be as a thousand years (chapter 15).

St Irenaeus: ‘The six hundred years of Noah, in whose time the deluge occurred because of the apostasy, and the number of the cubits of the image for which these just men {Ananias, Azarias and Misael, in Dan. 3} were sent into the fiery furnace, do indicate the number of the name of that man in whom is concentrated the whole apostasy of six thousand years” (Adversus Haereses V, 29).

St Hippolytus: ‘we are obliged to discuss the matter of the times, of which a man should not speak hastily… 6,000 years must needs be accomplished, in order that the Sabbath may come, the rest, the holy day on which God rested from all His works. …”A day with the Lord is as a thousand years“. Since, then, in six days God made all things, it follows that 6,000 years must be fulfilled’ (Second fragment on Daniel).

St Cyprian: ‘What, indeed, do we find in the Maccabees of seven brethren, equals alike in their lot of birth and virtues, filling up the number seven in the sacrament of a perfected completion? Seven brethren were thus associating in martyrdom, as the first seven days in the divine arrangement containing seven thousand of years, as the seven spirits and seven angels which stand and go in and out before the face of God, and the seven-branched lamp in the tabernacle of witness, and the seven golden candlesticks in the Apocalypse, and the seven columns in Solomon upon which Wisdom built her house’ (Treatise XI, Exhortation to Martyrdom, 11).

St Victorinus: ‘To those seven days the Lord attributed to each a thousand years; for thus went the warning: In Your eyes, O Lord, a thousand years are as one day. Therefore in the eyes of the Lord each thousand of years is ordained, for I find that the Lord’s eyes are seven {Zech 4:10). Wherefore, as I have narrated, that true Sabbath will be in the seventh millenary of years, when Christ with His elect shall reign’ (On the Creation of the World).

St Hilary: ‘After six days, the aspect of the Lord’s glory is shown: that is, six times of a thousand years having gone by, the honour of the heavenly kingdom is prefigured’ (Commentary on Matt.17,1).

St Jerome: ‘ “A thousand years in thy sight as yesterday“.  From this passage, and from the epistle which is attributed to the apostle Peter, I conclude that the custom comes of taking a thousand years for one day; with the result, that is, that just as the universe was fashioned in six days, so one believes [credatur] that it will last only six thousand years, and that afterwards will come the sevenfold and the eightfold number, when the true sabbath will be kept, and the purity of the circumcision [i.e. baptismal innocence] will be restored’ (epistle 140.8).

St Gaudentius: ‘We wait for that truly holy day of the seven thousandth year which will follow those six days, that is the six thousand years’ (Treatise 10).

St Augustine: ‘Now the thousand years {of Apoc. 20}, as it seems to me, can be interpreted in two ways. It may indicate that this event happens in the last thousand years, that is, in the sixth millennium….Alternatively, he may have intended the thousand years to stand for the whole period of this world’s history’ (City of God, XX, 7). {However, in his commentary on Ps. 89, St Augustine finds fault with those who combine the verse ‘thousand years are as one day’ and the week of creation to conclude that the world will last six thousand years, referring to our Lord’s words about it not being for us to know the times and the seasons.}

Cornelius a Lapide, in his commentary on the Apocalypse, also cites St Cyril, St Isidore and St Germanus of Constantinope for the same opinion, but without adequate references. On the other hand, he cites St Ambrose as opposing it, on the grounds that more than 6,000 years had already passed from the creation. Lapide notes that Ambrose was not following the Hebrew chronology: according to Lapide’s own calculations, the world was created 3950 BC.

Among later authors, Bellarmine says ‘there has always been the famous belief of those who hold that the world will last 6,000 years, since God created the world in six days, and one day in his sight is as a thousand years.’ He remarks that it is has not yet been possible to refute this opinion by experience. He praises Augustine’s moderation, whom he understands to consider this opinion ‘probable’.

Lapide likewise considers the opinion to be sufficiently common as to count as ‘a probable conjecture’. But given our Lord’s words, ‘of that day and hour no one knows’, he adds that we should understand the number 6,000 to mean that the world will not last more complete millennia than six; but whether it will fall short of the seventh millennium by years, decades or even centuries, he says, we cannot tell.