Apocalyse Doomsayers Change their Story

Washington Post, Jan 1, 2000
By Hanna Rosin

A year ago, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, who have sold more than 10 million copies of their "Left Behind" thrillers about the Apocalypse, prophesied global upheaval on Jan. 1, 2000.

The Y2K bug could trigger "financial meltdown," they warned readers on their Web site, "making it possible for the Antichrist or his emissaries . . . to dominate the world commercially until it is destroyed."

But now that the hour is upon us, the prophets of doom are retreating.

"We don't think it relates to Y2K at all," Jenkins said. "And we're bemused by people who do."

Reminded of the Web site prediction, he said, "We regret having talked about it." Over the last year, Jenkins said, he has been reassuring nervous fans they have nothing to fear.

Even those who fully embraced the date as late as last month are now backing down. Some prophets are hedging their bets, reminding everyone they only said "maybe," or they never specified the Western world, or Jan. 1 exactly. Others such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell say they have read the Y2K compliance reports and found them soothing. All are expecting a humdrum New Year's Eve.

Grant R. Jeffrey, author of titles such as "The Millennium Meltdown" and "Armageddon: Earth's Last Days," is also blase. Earlier this year, the Toronto-based minister wrote that the Y2K bug "may set the stage for the creation of the coming world government that was prophesied to arise in the last days."

Now he's downsizing his expectations. "It will be frustrating, like computer errors, delays in waiting for planes, that kind of thing," he said.

Jeffrey does not disavow his disaster predictions, but expects them to unfold only distantly, "in the Third World" and not quite so suddenly.

"It's not a January problem," Jeffrey added. "It will manifest itself gradually throughout the year, like maybe in March or April or May, or even later."

It seems that the Apocalypse has been postponed. Now that the date is tangible, signs of the second coming of Christ are becoming hazy. The millions of fundamentalist Christians who seized on the Y2K bug as proof that a techno-idolatrous world was doomed now see it as more of a nuisance.

"The end times people are backing down," said Damian Thompson, author of "The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium," a study of modern doomsday cults. "People who last year became excited about the millennium bug are suddenly saying, 'I never said that. It was him, not me.' They're extremely nervous of having December 31st, 1999, pinned on them forever."

Earlier this year, Falwell distributed a packet on "The Y2K Time Bomb," including a video, "A Christian's Guide to the Millennium Bug," and a Family Readiness Checklist, telling people to stock up on such items as gardening utensils, Q-tips and peanut butter and jelly.

"Y2K is God's instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation," Falwell said in a television broadcast last year. "He may be preparing to confound our language, to jam our communications, scatter our efforts, and judge us for our sin and rebellion for going against his lordship."

But Falwell says he has read the government and banking reports and he is no longer a "fatalist"; in fact, he's "encouraged." A few weeks ago, Falwell withdrew the video and has been toning down the visions. "I don't anticipate any major problems," he said last week. "I would fly in an airplane that day."

When it was first revealed, the Y2K bug suited the apocalyptic temperament. Its timing even validated fundamentalist numerology. In 1654, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh dated creation to 4004 B.C., and counting forward using numerical clues, predicted Christ's reign on Earth would begin about 6,000 years later, during what became known in evangelical circles as the Great Week.

From the mainstream to the fringes, evangelical Christians adopted the Y2K bug as their own. For the last two years, they have held conferences teaching the flock how to filter water, bag sand, and dry peas. Popular Christian magazines have advertised gold bullion and Rapture insurance policies (in case you were snatched up to Heaven but your loved ones were left behind).

But as the day approaches, even some of the fringe groups are mellowing.

"I'm aware of hardly anyone who's still saying 1-1-2000 is the big day," said Ted Daniel, who runs the Millennial Center in Pennsylvania and keeps a close eye on doomsday cults. "It's the usual pattern: If you're a millenarian prophet, you have to keep people excited. But once the date gets closer, you back off."

The Rev. Ralph Moats, for example, relocated some of his California followers to Montana in 1992 to prepare for doomsday. He picked a rural road 50 miles from the nearest bank and a prophetic name, "End Times Harvest Church."

Yet Moats sounds remarkably calm these days.

"God has his own schedule," he said from his Montana home. "But I think it will be just another New Year's Eve. I'll probably be in bed by 10 o'clock."

Moats, like many evangelicals, has not fundamentally changed his temperament. The Apocalypse is still coming--just not necessarily right now.

The willingness to set a date and stick with it has defined the line between fringe and mainstream views of the Apocalypse ever since the Great Disappointment of 1844, said Stephen O'Leary, a fellow at the Center for Millennial Studies in Boston. On the evening of Oct. 22, farmer-prophet William Miller gathered thousands of followers on an upstate New York hilltop to await transport to Heaven. By dawn they were the townsfolk's favorite punch line.

Modern-day Millerites are rare: Edgar Whisenant, a former NASA engineer, predicted the end would come in 1988; Elizabeth Clare Prophet, in 1990; and fashion designer Paco Rabanne, on Aug. 11, 1999.

In the last two months, the doomsday prophets have rejiggered the numbers, dating the end to later next year, or 2007, the end of the tribulation period, or 2033, counting from Christ's death instead of his birth.

A year ago, self-described seer R. J. Smith led her 20 acolytes from Tucson into the Arizona dessert. She was driven by a prophetic dream, which she translated into a diagram shaped like a bug. The dream showed a tectonic Earth split, with Jesus standing astride it, she recalls.

But last month, she had a different dream, the number 30 floating in her head. She interpreted this as a sign that the Apocalypse won't take place until 2030. This New Year's Eve, she says, she'll barbecue and then sleep peacefully.

M. J. Agee is one of the evangelical world's last undaunted date-setters, despite past disappointment. In the early '90s, Agee's inscrutable numerology took her to 1998, which she later revised to 1999. This December she published a 20-page apologia: "Why I thought the Rapture might be Pentecost 1999."

Her new date is this coming Spring. "I am not saying end-time events have to happen when I think they will," she said humbly. "I am not a prophet. This is just the way it looks to me."

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