Our Mailbag pages this week include a representative sample of the many letters we received in response to our Aug. 22 Y2K special issue. Christians have often been slow in responding to cultural trends, but this is one area in which many have more awareness than most non-Christians.
In God's providence Christians have become, on this question, a firebreak for American society: If we panic others will follow, but if we lead the way in taking reasonable precautions and then sticking to our callings, others may catch on as well. This is vital, because the marriage of ancient millenarianism and modern technological concerns could create a prairie fire throughout the United States.
Prairie fires are often hard to stop. To understand how a high-tech problem could turn into a social upheaval complete with bank runs, supermarket shelves wiped clean, and people giving in to defeatism, we should take a quick tour of 2,000 years of history and psychology.
In God's providence, messianic expectations that included a violent overthrow of the Roman order led some Israelites to hail Jesus as the military destroyer of occupying armies. Jesus funneled hopes of change in a different direction, and those who had ears to listen learned to emphasize the sin within rather than blaming sinners without. Those who maintained faith in armed uprising finally had their hopes dashed by Rome's bloody suppression of Simon bar-Cochba's uprising in 131 A.D.
During the century after Christ's death and resurrection, however, the center of millenarianism was moving from Judaism to Christianity, pushed along by some difficult New Testament passages. All who believed in God's revelation knew that a sudden end was coming, sometime; the question was when. One second-century movement, Montanism, spread throughout the Roman empire its predictions of imminent upheaval.
Such attempts to forecast particular dates soon fell to the fringes. By early in the fifth century, even amid imperial collapse, Augustine was attacking the assumption that the Roman empire's downfall was "the ultimate and extreme of all things," and telling panicky Christians to be quiet "so that we may not be laughed at by those who have read of more and worse things in the history of the world."
That became the main message of the church, but an undercurrent remained, with wannabe prophets arguing that evil rulers and sinful peoples, natural disasters such as famines and terrible storms, or invasions (Huns, Mongols, and others obliged) all signified the beginning of the end.
Historians debate whether panic arose shortly before the year 1000-there aren't many records-but a history written in the 1030s by Burgundian monk Rodulfus Glaber states that millennial expectations were rampant and some of the excited went on rampages: "Almost all the cities of Italy and Gaul were devastated by violent conflagrations, and Rome itself largely razed by fire."
The mayhem of a thousand years ago (and in the centuries thereafter, as end-is-near movements arose again and again) was mostly religion-based. Twentieth-century millenarian mayhem, on the other hand, has largely been non-religious. Recent radicals have twisted and distorted biblical themes and come up with their own millennial appeals: The world is dominated by an evil power, disaster is imminent and totally disruptive, but the oppressed will rise up in triumphant revolt and salvation will be enjoyed in this life by the revolutionary faithful.
Christians should stay clear of man-centered scenarios, and most do. Most of us understand that the world will end in God's good time, and that our task is to stick to our callings. But every international crisis brings books by authors who assert that current events fit perfectly against biblical signs of the times. And the Y2K bug is ideally suited to those who are drawn to apocalyptic visions, but want them to be technologically based.
Don't get me wrong: The Y2K bug is for real, with so much that needs fixing in 15 months. The "just-in-time" inventory control that many businesses have adopted in recent years is vulnerable to sudden shocks. Churches and individuals should prepare themselves for minor and perhaps major disruptions. It's not too early to begin laying in some food supplies.
But let's look in the mirror: If the chips being scrutinized were potato rather than computer, might some Christians who do not follow Jeremiah's advice to "seek the peace and prosperity" of our cities still be predicting imminent collapse? Is the Y2K irony-technology carrying within it the seeds of its own destruction-something we relish, and do we think that God has ordained a collapse at this particular time? Or we are praying that God will be merciful?