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As the calendar moved inexorably toward the year 2000, a new millennium, apocalyptic fever seized millions.
Millennium means a period of one thousand years, but the Millennium signifies the return of Jesus and the end of the world as it presently exists. There seemed a strange kind of foreboding among a sizable portion of the populace that at the end of the current millennium (1000–2000), humankind was going to pay for its sins. The world was coming to an end. Judgment Day was upon the whole of humanity. And whether one feared a wrathful God or a depleted planet didn’t matter. Either way, when the sun arose on January 1, 2000 (if, indeed, it rose at all), it would shine on whatever rubble remained of an old world destroyed or a new world being born. There was hope only for a righteous few who would welcome the Rapture lifting them up to the skies, Jesus returning to conquer evil, or perhaps scientific salvation that would allow some of Homo sapiens to survive.
And finally, there were those who shrugged and said, “What’s the big deal? January 1, 2000, is just another day.”
Frightening rumors kept vast audiences up all night listening to radio talk shows. There was this incredible thing about computers. They weren’t programmed to work beyond December 31, 1999. At the stroke of midnight, lights would go out all over the world; power plants would shut down; electrical appliances—from furnaces to toasters—would be useless. One of the most frightening Y2K (meaning “year 2000”) visions was that passenger and military aircraft all over the world would fall from the sky because their computers would shut down.
Thousands of stalwart individuals, determined that they and their families would survive Y2K, bought wood-burning stoves, kerosene lanterns, generators, and firearms. Millions of homes stocked up on canned goods, bottled water, and batteries.
Tabloid newspapers joined the radio and television talk shows in bombarding an already nervous population with prophecies of the coming apocalypse as elucidated by historians, scientists, theologians, Bible scholars, futurists, aboriginal seers from many cultures, psychic-sensitives from around the world, and UFO contactees channeling advice from outerspace intelligences. A 1997 Associated Press poll revealed that nearly 25 percent of adult Christians believed that Jesus would return on January 1, 2000, or soon thereafter to set in motion the terrible events prophesied in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.
As the year 1999 progressed, Israel deported members of Concerned Christians, a cult that had come to Jerusalem to plan the battle of Armageddon that would launch the Second Coming of Christ. The founder of the group, Monte Kim Miller, believed that he was the final prophet on Earth before Jesus’s return. Miller had been told by God that he would be killed in Jerusalem’s streets in December 1999 but would rise from the dead in three days.
A former kibbutz worker named Jacob Hawkins changed his name to Yisrael and prophesied that the world would end if the laws of Yahweh were not universally followed. Yisrael soon had nearly three thousand followers who believed that he would announce the exact time of Jesus’s return—if Satan didn’t murder him first.
Sergei Torop was dismissed his position as sergeant with a Russian police unit when he began to have religious visions. Torop changed his name to Vissarion, revealed that he was Jesus returned and, with thousands of followers, began building a “City of the Sun” on Siberia’s Mount Sukhaya.
Fifty miles from Little Rock, Arkansas, a former Mennonite minister, Robert Millar, built Elohim City, a paramilitary fortress, in anticipation of the endtimes. Millar believed that a series of cataclysms would strike the United States soon after the year 2000 and cleanse the unworthy and wicked from the Earth.
As millions were stockpiling firewood, bottled water, canned goods, and other necessities to withstand the apocalypse, some worriers posed the question of whether the millennium would actually begin on January 1, 2000—or January 1, 2001.
Stephen Jay Gould, professor of zoology and geology at Harvard and an author of books about science, history, and philosophy, released his Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown in 1997. Gould discusses the human “fascination with numerical regularity” and notes that some philosophers have divided earthly history into a cycle of four based on the Four Empires in the apocalyptic chapters of the book of Daniel; others have advocated a fivefold division based on the five sequential political societies mentioned by Plato. “The millennium has been predicted and expected at almost any time, depending on the system in favor,” Gould writes. “Obviously, with Thomas Muentzer advocating 1525, William Miller 1844, Wovoka 1890, Chilembwe 1915, the year 1000 or 2000, and intervals of 1000 in general, could claim no special preference.”
When January 1, 2000, came without the world ending, and so did January 1, 2001, most of the world breathed a sigh of relief and smugly observed that the eternal clock is still ticking. Others pointed out that in the eternal scheme of things, what’s a five- or six-year delay when you’re dealing with a thousand or more?