I've been making my way through Jaroslav Pelikan's book The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition. The early church apparently used much eschatological language in their liturgies and worship. The saints in the early church were so convinced that Christ was going to return imminently that it was a process for them to come to terms with the possibility that the parousia may actually not happen in their lifetime. Still, eschatological things were on their minds.
Indeed, the evidence even suggests that the apolcalyptic vision was not eclipsed as quickly or as completely in the church of the second and third centuries as the statements of a few theologians would indicate. One indication of the vision's survival is the tenacity of the millenarian hope, based upon Revelation 20:1-10. Probably the first indication that the prophecy in this chapter was being interpreted to mean an earthly reign of a thousand years following the return of Christ is that associated with the name of Papias.
Iraeneus picked up on the writings of Papias, who claimed to have arrived at this through "unwritten tradition:"
Iraeneus, with his reverence for "apostolic tradition," described in glowing terms the transformation of the cosmos and the animals during the millennium; as his authority he cited Papias.
Similar to us today, it seems as if this view was seen as one among a variety of scenarios:
It would seem that very early in the post-apostolic era millenarianism was regarded as as mark of neither orthodoxy nor of heresy, but as one permissible opinions among others within the range of permissible opinions.
It was also not just 21st century Christians who have an overdone fascination with identifying who the Anti-christ might be.
The continuing precoccupation with the figure of Antichrist also indicates the persistence of certain apocalyptic themes. Not only did the figure appear frequently in Tertullian, as might perhaps be expected, but patristic literature dealt with Antichrist enough to warrant the supposition that piety and preaching continued to make much of this apocalyptic sign. Nor was the Antichrist simply a religious way of expressing the polticial conflict with Rome. It would be this, as when Commandianus prophesied that Nero would rise from hell and proclaim, "I am Christ, to whom you always pray." But Iraeneus saw in Antichrist the recapitulation of every error and idolatry since the deluge.
I remember hearing somewhere that premillenialism was a recent contribution to the various views on eschatological matters. In light of that claim, I found this section interesting.
The early saints, just as we ought to, lived in light of Jesus' return. They, like us, knew not when that might be, but still lived with an expectant, confident hope. Church history is a continual reminder to me that people really don't change much over time. We do have a common bond with these people who live so long ago, and that bond begins with Christ.