Millennial Mischief 817 DAYS AND COUNTING

October 05, 1997|By Joseph Gallagher

If you believe the doomsayers, the industrialized world will go kaput in just 817 days.

Jan. 1, 2,000, will not only usher in the third millennium, but it's supposed to mark the end of the industrialized world as we know it. Governments and businesses will be paralyzed, computerized lighting systems will flicker out, trains and planes will sit idle, financial accounts will be wiped out and television screens will go blank.

The problem is a glitch that threatens to foul up virtually every computer in the world. Computer systems' use of two digits to indicate the year, such as "97" for for 1997. Unless the computers are reprogrammed or replaced, the year 2000 -- or 00 -- will be treated as 1900.

My instincts tell me that the threat is exaggerated. It could cost an estimated $3.8 billion to fix it. But that's a small price to pay to preserve civilization, after all, we'd spend that much for two B-2 bombers or an aircraft carrier -- and few people grumble about that.

As the new millennium approaches, there's bound to be more predictions of gloom and doom from many people, including religious zealots and run-of-the-mill pessimists.

Pundits will surely tell us the same kind of craziness occurred a thousand years ago, when the Western world was getting ready for the millennium and the sure end of the world.

You'd certainly get that impression if you read the first few pages of "Century's End," by Hillel Schwartz, which says panic was rampant as the end of the first millennium approached: Those who could, headed off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; those who couldn't, set out for the nearest shrine; teachers saw no point in teaching classes; merchants closed their shops; farmers abandoned their fields and their beasts; buildings fell into ruin; everyone sought a priest to confess; there were public flagellations and suicides in private.

After setting this stage, Schwartz gives the facts: "None of this was true."

Scores of modern historians, he continues, have demolished the evidence for a widespread "panic terror" at the approach of the year A.D. 1000.

Says one: "It is doubtless untrue that men expected the end of the world in the year 1000." (Henri Pirenne).

Says another, "One would be wrong to believe in the terrors of the Year One Thousand." (George Duby).

Many early Christians felt spiritually unprepared for the Second Coming of Christ, and feared it. Believing that the Roman emperor was restraining the mysterious "man of sin" (whose coming St. Paul viewed as necessary before the end), some Christians prayed for the good health of the pagan emperor.

But other Christians have always looked forward to the millennium with hope rather than fear. Historian Bernard McGinn, who has made a life study of the doomsday mind, insists: "In comparison with the following centuries, the 11th century (the 1000s) should not be singled out as an era of especially fervent hopes of the end of the world."

First of all, the millennium spoken of by the New Testament Book of Revelation referred to a thousand-year period after the return of Jesus. He wasn't coming in a millennium but for a millennium.

It's true that some theoreticians did think of history as happening in thousand-year epochs; of these, some thought of A.D. 1000 as ending the next-to-last epoch. But this was not a Bible teaching and the precise dating of any epoch varied considerably.

Even if you believed the end was coming after 1,000 years, the question was: 1,000 years after what? (The same goes for a 2,000-year expectation, now current.) If you mean 1,000 years after the birth of Christ, a better knowledge of history indicates that according to more precise calculations, Jesus was more likely to have been born in what is now 4 B.C. So, 1,000 years from his birth would have been around A.D. 996. And wouldn't it have been better theology to start counting from his death, which would have favored the year 1029?

It isn't clear anyway how many Europeans of that time thought in terms of A.D. (anno Domini/Year of the Lord). That way of reckoning the date didn't get proposed until about A.D. 525, and didn't take general hold until much later. The Roman monk Dionysius Ehiguus ("Denny the Tiny"), who formulated the idea, didn't even date his own letters in A.D.

In the meantime, some folks reckoned dates from the founding of Rome (753 B.C.); or of the Olympic Games (776 B.C.), or from how long their ruler had been ruling. Today they might have said the date was the fifth year of Clinton.

As for the non-Christian world in A.D. 1000, Jews had their own calendar (based on the date of creation as 3761 B.C.) and so did the Muslims (starting with Mohammed's flight from Mecca in A.D. 622) and the Chinese (now in lunar year 3695). So A.D. 1000 would have meant nothing special to them.

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