Millennium Madnessby Dr. Joseph Chuman -- Leader of the Bergen Ethical Society.
Millions of Christian fundamentalists eagerly await their rapture to heaven. Catholics report increased sightings of the Virgin Mary. In Japan, members of the Aum Shinrikyo sect release deadly nerve gas into the Tokyo subway. Eighty members of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas are killed in a stand-off with federal officials, and 39 devotees of the Heaven's Gate cult in California decorously commit suicide as they plan to enter the next Level Above Human. These faithful, however different in their religious practices, share a common belief: the year 2000 -- the new millennium -- will mark the beginning of the end of the world.
Millennialism, from the Latin word mille, or thousand, is a religious term signifying the conviction that God expresses his will every 1,000 years by the destruction of one era and the emergence of another, usually brought on by a cataclysmic event. For many believers these eras, or dispensations, are fulfillments of biblical prophecy and coincide with years ending in three zeroes on the secular calendar. Hence millennialists await 2000 with great expectation and anxiety. For Christian fundamentalists, the Book of Daniel, the writings of Paul, and most of all, the Book of Revelation, if correctly interpreted, augurs the year 2000 as the beginning of End-time. The righteous will then battle the forces of Satan, Satan will be cast down for a period of a thousand years, after which Jesus returns to usher in the Devil's final defeat. Though there are many variations to these scenarios, all envision apocalyptic warfare as separating the eternally saved from the damned.
To skeptics and humanists, such beliefs defy common sense and dramatically fail the test of evidence. History, Western and Eastern, has been rife with end-of-the-world predictions. Yet the world persists as witness to the falsity of all such gloomy and often vengeful prophecies. Experts in the development of the calendar also inform us of two highly relevant points. First, while the measuring of months and years are correlated to celestial events, counting by tens, hundreds and thousands, that is, our decimal system, has no relation to anything in nature other than the number of fingers on both hands. It is an utterly human and arbitrary creation, although a marvelously useful one. Other cultures have adopted mathematical systems based on numbers other than ten. Had we appropriated these, the year 2000, with its three zeroes charmingly aligned in a row, would be insignificant. Second, our secular concern with time and dating is relatively new. People of long ago had little knowledge of what year they were living in. Different societies had different calendars, and sometimes even conflicting ones. The ancients usually dated time from some founding event in the history on their own people, so that separate communities lived with a different sense of where they were in time. Greek and Roman historians struggled hard to determine when an event occurred, usually referring its distance from some other event, but not to a common fixed date in the past. Hence our calendars and our methods of dating are modern creations; our meticulous reckoning of time unknown to the people of the biblical and ancient world. Even the date of Christ's birth from which the year 2000 is measured is uncertain. One sixth century monk, Dennis the Short, inaugurated what was to become the first universal calendar by setting the date for Christ's birth on December 25th, 754 years from the legendary founding of the city of Rome. Yet, it's clear that Herod was still alive when Christ was born, making the date of his birth as occurring sometime in 4 BC or earlier. In other words, biblical scholarship leads us to the conclusion that the new millennium had already begun in 1996 or before! Dennis was also responsible for an even more vexing problem which plagues us as the fateful year approaches. Without access to our Arabic system, he lacked the number zero, and so denoted the birth of Christ in the year one. Therefore, by the system he established, the next millennium will not begin until January 1st 2001 -- an inelegant date indeed! -- setting in motion ponderous debates as to when to hold the mother of all New Year's Eve parties.
Despite the arbitrariness and absurdity of it all, we can ask why in our secular, scientific age millennial expectations grip the imagination of so many people, leading some to commit suicide, others to kill, and many more to anxiously await their eternal destiny. For an explanation we need to step momentarily outside our ordinary sense of time. According to the late historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, religious consciousness involves escape from secular or mundane time to the realm of sacred time. Such sacred time is characterized by a conception of repeated cycles of death and return. Though modern thinking has greatly eroded perceptions of sacred time, this mode of appreciating the cosmos and the place of humankind within it, reasserts itself throughout history and accounts for the fascination with millennialism. Millennialism has almost always been tagged to apocalyptic warfare between good and evil, heightening tensions, quickening the pace of prophecy and intensifying the fervor of the faithful.
Apocalypticism and millennialism appear in the mythologies of almost all ancient people. Their origins can be traced to Zoroastrianism, for which cosmic strife between good and evil is central. From there it entered Jewish thought and then permeated Christianity through the ages. We find it developing independently in Hinduism, Buddhism and countless aboriginal religions.
Today, it as an aspect of New Age thinking, as manifest in the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, Harmonic Convergences and in tragically destructive cults such as the Order of the Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate. As suggested, millennialism has inspired even non-Christian sects such as the Aum Shinrikyo group which shocked Japan and the world by releasing deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway in an effort to foment End-time chaos. And there can be no doubt that David Koresh and his Branch Davidians, an obscure sect with 19th century origins, met fiery destruction inspired by fantasies of millennial conflict.
The 19th century was a period rich in End-time movements which reformulated and institutionalized ancient strands of Christian teaching. It is these movements which have given such powerful impetus to today's fundamentalism. Though late 20th century fundamentalism presents itself as the contemporary expression of an unbroken tradition reaching back to time immemorial, its origins and specific doctrines are barely a century old. It developed in response to the modernist or liberal wing of Protestantism and in reaction to threats that conservatives felt Darwinism posed to religion. Such figures as John Darby and Cyrus Scofield combined biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism with the view that Scripture, in coded language, prophesied the Last Judgment and apocalyptic destruction. Early in this century, the Stewart brothers, two wealthy laymen, underwrote a series of pamphlets under the title of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These essays posited End-time doctrines as fundamental to Christian belief, and gave the name to the contemporary movement. They also set in motion the most strident rift we confront in American religion today.
The greatest division in contemporary religion is not between members of different denominations, but between fundamentalists and those who interpret religion as a matter of the heart. The former take refuge in absolutes, in the Bible as the literal word of God, and in a harsh millennial vision preoccupied with the salvation of the righteous and the destruction of their enemies. The latter are committed to a flexible reading of scripture, to a faith based on love, inclusion and social progress. No one can predict which will prevail in the decades ahead, though the consequences will be momentous for American society.
But humanist that I am, I will, nevertheless, venture one prophecy: We will all awake on the morning of January 1st, 2000 (or 200l, for those more pedantically inclined) and nothing will have changed. All things will be as they have been.
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