Some believers waiting for apocalypse -- but not on New Year's, experts say

CNN News, December 25, 1999

BOSTON (AP) -- As frenzied revelers flock to Pacific islands or Times Square on New Year's Eve, certain religious believers will be contemplating the end of the world. But experts on millenarian religion say they know of no sects that expect the apocalypse to actually occur in coming days. Faiths that formerly talked that way are hedging. For example, the dwindling Chen-Tao, or "True Way," sect of Lockport, New York, forecast nuclear catastrophe and rescue by heavenly spaceships at the end of 1999. Now, spokesman Richard Liu says the 30 members believe the end will come "in the next year. We have no specific date."

Israel expelled several end-times groups this year, and police are on the alert. But in any nation, it's impossible to predict events within small apocalyptic sects. What outsider could have anticipated the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate or Branch Davidian tragedies of the 1990s? Some authorities had speculated that the close of the millennium might produce end-times eruptions. However, during panels on millennialism at a recent convention of the American Academy of Religion, an association for scholars in various religious fields, they shared no such expectations. "In the mid-'90s we were looking for a big wave, and it just seems to have fizzled," says Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

If New Year's is no big deal for religious millennialists, there are good reasons. January 1 is not a religious date for anyone, and 2000 has no significance outside Christianity. Christian chronologists say Jesus was born before 1 A.D. (the calendar is off due to ancient errors), and so the third millennium is already under way.

Literal-minded Christians draw many ideas from the biblical Book of Revelation, where chapter 20 depicts Jesus' Second Coming and 1,000-year reign. But, as Robert Royalty of Indiana's Wabash College notes, Revelation "says nothing about years ending in a thousand."

"Dates are set right and left, but 2000 is more of a secular apocalypse. It's not the date a prophet might choose," says Royalty, whose office is festooned with failed prophecies of the end from the tabloid Weekly World News, the latest doomsday having passed last month.

Of course, Royalty adds, if Y2K computer problems cause chaos early in the new year, as hard-right Christians like economics guru Gary North have taught the past two years, this "could fit into an apocalyptic scheme, just like a war or an earthquake."

Rather like believers who keep postponing dates for the end, specialists anticipate an upsurge in apocalyptic activity during the years ahead, perhaps among Jews and Christians, and more likely among the sort of New Age believers who follow the sensationalist tabloids, books, talk radio and Web sites.

Boston University's Landes and Richard Abanes, author of "End-Time Visions," note upcoming dates that could have more apocalyptic potential than January 1:

  • May 2000: The late Edgar Cayce, a prominent New Age psychic, forecast that earth's axis would shift in 2000 or 2001, causing massive destruction. Some expect this on May 5 (5-5-2000) or May 17, when the moon, sun, and five planets will be in close alignment for the first time since 1962.

  • 2007: Some Bible prophecy buffs consider this year a candidate because it concludes the generation (40 years) after Jews reunified Jerusalem.

  • 2012: Other New Agers think the earth will be destroyed just before Christmas because the ancient Mayan calendar will run out of dates. (Historians say it won't.)

  • 2033: This is a big one for some Christians: the estimated 2000th anniversary of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.

  • Beyond that lie 2076, which is 1500 in the Muslim calendar and could energize Sufi mystics and New Agers, and 2240, the start of humanity's seventh millennium by traditional Jewish reckoning. Christianity teaches that Jesus will literally come again to reign. But most churches have followed theologians like St. Augustine, spurning literal interpretations of Revelation and discouraging apocalyptic speculations. Nonetheless, end-times thinking has continually captured the popular imagination.

    In America, the biggest upsurge was led by self-taught preacher William Miller. The last of his several dates for the end became the "Great Disappointment" of October 22, 1844. A remnant persisted, though without date-setting, and became the Seventh-day Adventists. Miller's Bible interpretation influenced many subsequent end-timers. As their name indicates, the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) also started with a strong millennial bent, and founder Joseph Smith expected the end around 1890. Since then, the faith has played down predictions. The most ardent apocalyptic group, Jehovah's Witnesses, fixed in turn upon 1881, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, the 1940s and 1975. The denomination also taught for eight decades that people living in 1914 would survive to see the end. But four years ago its Watchtower newspaper dropped that doctrine. Among Catholics, popular millennialism is bound up with European apparitions of the Virgin Mary that began in 1830 and currently finds expression in Bud Macfarlane Jr.'s novels. Depictions of the last days inspire even faster sales for the "Left Behind" novels by Protestants Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

    Jenkins and LaHaye, like many Gospel broadcasters and Bible colleges, adhere to the Evangelical Protestant variant known as Dispensationalism. Since the early 19th century, Dispensationalists had said Bible prophecies meant the Jews would return to re-establish Israel, so their millennial clock began ticking when that happened in 1948. The Temple must be rebuilt before the Second Coming, they said, and that became a possibility when Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967.

    Jesus said, "This generation will not pass away till all these things take place" (Matthew 24:34). Author Hal Lindsey, whose 1970 book "The Late Great Planet Earth" sold 15 million copies, calculated that meant 40 years after 1967 at the latest. Evangelical engineer Edgar Whisenant sold millions of books fixing on 1988.

    Then came Harold Camping, proprietor of an Evangelical radio network based in Oakland, Calif., who dated the creation of the world at 11,013 B.C. and promoted Yom Kippur of 1994 as the beginning of the end. J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, believes these and many other examples discredit the conservative Christian cause. "Publishers should stop wasting trees on this stuff. And consumers should demand a refund," he writes.

    As the Rev. Billy Graham notes, "Jesus warned us not to speculate about dates" (for instance, in Matthew 24:36,42,44 and Acts 1:7.). Personally, Graham thinks the signs of the end that Jesus gave in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 -- false messiahs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution of believers, sacrilege -- "indicate we are moving toward some sort of climax."

    He has no idea how soon.

    Untold millions of Evangelicals are looking for the end, and fairly soon

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