What could Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) have to do with a study of millennialism? When we think of the great explorer, we remember him for anything but eschatology. His Spanish royal sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella, were indeed stirred by the prospect of wealth beyond their dreams. So was Columbus. But all three had something else on their minds.

Ferdinand and Isabella combined political ambition with spiritual desire, nurturing the hope of a final crusade to liberate Jerusalem. Deterred by a lack of funds, they were attracted by Columbus's proposal that finding a shorter route to the fabled wealth of the East would give them up front financing against the infidel—and prepare for Christ's coming at Jerusalem.

Columbus had another reason to undertake this journey. He held a millennialist faith derived from an assiduous study of Scripture and a familiarity with the eschatology of Joachim of Fiore. If there were a shortcut to the East by sea, missionaries could be sent there faster. Thus Christians could meet the provision for world evangelization before the Lord could return. Like John the Baptist at the first coming, he had helped prepare the way for the second.

"God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth," he wrote.

The conviction grew with the years, especially after his famous voyage. Columbus devoted himself to gathering what he called the Book of Prophecies. More than a collection of biblical and classical predictions of the end and the return of Christ, this volume showed how Columbus believed his explorations had served a divine plan. He quoted ancient writers like Augustine and Stoic philosopher Seneca to show how the discovery of the Western islands had been the foretold prelude to God's final victory. He drew on Old Testament references to islands as support for his conviction that his voyages had been part of God's strategy.

Like others, Columbus believed the world would come to its terminus 7,000 years after the creation. The world was thought to be 5,343 years, 318 days old when Jesus was born. Since then, another 1501 years had gone by, leaving only 155. By that reckoning, the end would be the year 1656. Clearly there was no time for the believers to waste. Jesus had promised that all prophecies would be fulfilled before the end, and his followers should dedicate themselves to accomplishing their part in that fulfillment.

One requirement of the Lord's return was preaching the gospel "in all the world." Such a task was now possible because Columbus had shown Christians how they could finally reach the entire globe. Another was recovering the Holy Land for Christ, so that all the world's peoples could be gathered at Zion to witness the Lord's return.

Reginald Stackhouse is principal emeritus and research professor at University of Toronto's Wycliffe College. This article is adapted from his book The End of the World? (Paulist Press, 1997). Used by permission.