Cover Story

Backward, Christian soldiers?

Armed with millennial expectations, some Christians view the Y2K bug in ways totally different from the secular experts. Should a computer glitch be seen as God's judgment on America? And if so, should believers try to "flee the wrath to come"?

Issue: "Y2K: Binary blowout?," Aug. 22, 1998

in San Diego, Calif. - Optimists are calling it a bug. Pessimists are calling it a bomb. Some evangelicals are calling the Year 2000 computer date problem the spark that may ignite the End of the Age. In a tiny New Mexico town, a small band of Christians gathers in the home of a part-time missionary to absorb a presentation on "Y2K," the clipped, technospeak handle for the coming new millennium and its attendant computer glitch. The seminar ends with recommendations to stockpile food and, "as the Lord leads," to flee urban centers in the face of near-certain technological doom. In San Diego, three Baptist families meet at a Mormon cannery. In a single afternoon, they hermetically seal nearly 1,000 pounds of beans, rice, and oats into No. 10 storage cans. It is just one of many such visits they'll make in preparation for the year 2000. In a southwestern state, building contractor Ron Meadows closes a deal on 23 acres in Mexico. A devout Nazarene and student of biblical prophecy, Mr. Meadows has also been laying up food stores and converting cash into gold and silver. He will abandon his half-million-dollar stateside home, he says, as soon as the straw-bale-and-stucco dwelling he's erecting on the Mexican property is complete. Two other families will join his exodus. Mark Andrews, a San Diego-based physician and founder of Prep 2000, a grass-roots Y2K awareness coalition, summarizes the perceived nexus between the seemingly straightforward computer problem and Bible prophecy this way: "I can look at the computer problem as pure science. I can also obey Christ's command to read the signs of the times. The Bible paints clearly for us a picture of what the world will look like in the last days. The scenario that's unfolding as we approach the new millennium matches perfectly with Scripture's prophecy of global economic collapse and a one-world government." Splicing current events into Revelation prophecy is nothing new. The Napoleonic Wars, the rise of the British Empire, Hitler and his Third Reich, the Persian Gulf War-each had apocalypse-watchers shouting that the end was near. In each of those instances and many more, tomorrow was another day. Now comes yet another horseman of the apocalypse: On January 1, 2000, when digital dates around the planet roll ahead by one, the world's computers will think they've regressed 100 years into the past. Pundits predict the result will be a rainbow of anomalies in the global technological infrastructure, varying (depending on the source) from botched bank accounts to the accidental launch of nuclear missiles. That there will be consequences to the Y2K date dilemma is not in question. Computer experts universally agree that critical services like telecommunications, utilities, transportation, and banking will be affected to some extent. The question is, does the Y2K computer kink signal the dawn of the biblical apocalypse? Charles Cameron, an associate at Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies (CMS), says no. Mr. Cameron contends that people who already lean toward end-times scenarios will view Y2K as "further proof of whatever millennial expectations and anxieties they may harbor." In an article published on the CMS Web site, he noted that "People who are inclined to think in 'apocalyptic' terms will read (news) coverage of the computer 2000 problem as another 'sign of the times.'" Walter Lindsay, a Silicon Valley software engineer and assistant editor of The Chalcedon Report, a Christian reconstructionist journal, agrees: "I don't see a link between [the Y2K problem] and biblical prophecy." According to Lindsay, the Year 2000 computer bug is a strictly technical issue that's going to aggravate other perceptions related to the millennial date change. Other experts argue that programming fix-it firms and survivalist companies have overhyped the Y2K problem. They say that the problem is well understood by leading corporate information officers who have the tools and plans in place to fix it within their organizations. But Gordon McDonald of Koinonia House, an Idaho-based group, argues that the signs of the times include a striking number of converging trends, "any one of which could change the world forever." He points to the rise of the European superstate; the proliferation of biological weapons; the spread of Islam; the emergence of Asia as a world financial power; a U.S. presidential election; increasing disdain for fundamental Christianity; and the possession of nuclear weapons by at least 17 mutually hostile nations. "Suddenly we have Y2K, an issue that could cause literal worldwide economic collapse," Mr. McDonald says: "There is no known technology that will fix it. And if inner cities are hard-hit, if there are no more entitlement programs, if there is global chaos and an absence of law and order, the stage could be set ... for the man the Bible says will deceive many with signs and wonders, to rise up and present a one-world solution." George Marsden, a professor of church history at Notre Dame University, is skeptical: "As a historian, I've seen endless numbers of catastrophes and impending catastrophes that have been misinterpreted as the beginning of the end. While the Bible says we'll be able to see the day approaching, it's difficult to interpret precise signs. Through the ages many people have been sure the end was near, but they've always turned out to be wrong." Prep 2000 founder Mark Andrews is broadcasting his Y2K preparedness message via radio talk shows, video distribution, and a national speaking schedule. His family and four others are readying a small, self-sufficient mountain farm in the southwestern United States. "When people hear that you're leaving the city and setting up a self- sustaining home site in a rural area, they automatically think of wild-eyed lunatics building army encampments," Mr. Andrews said. "What we're talking about is a couple of modest, three-bedroom manufactured homes in the country, and enough food stores to last a couple of years. We just realize that the world's computers may soon think it's the year 1900. We want to be prepared to live like it is." But Walter Lindsay admonishes Christians against assuming that Year 2000 computer problems require extreme measures like "a defensive move to the country. Relocating has serious downsides," he says. "Families must disrupt established relationships. They must incur considerable expense. Christian groups who flee might find themselves the targets of persecution. And in all cases, relocating removes Christian witness. A move like that requires a high burden of proof." Mr. Andrews says it's a move many are making. He says numerous Christians have told him that they've "sensed God preparing them for end times and leading them to be a source of help and refuge for people God brings their way" as millennial events unfold. Many of these Christians are retreating to rural areas out of what they believe to be obedience, Mr. Andrews says. Rep. Horn (R-Calif.) calls such activity "overplaying it a little." "Will planes fall out of the sky on January 1, 2000? Probably not," says Mr. Horn, whose house subcommittee has held hearings on the Y2K issue since the spring of 1996. "With people working on this, we can solve most of the problem. The psychological scare is just something that will have to be dealt with."

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