Millennium, period of 1,000 years. The word millennium is derived from the Latin words mille, which means “thousand,” and annus, “years.”
In various Christian doctrines, millennium refers to a 1,000-year period foretold in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, involving the apocalypse (the end of the world) and the reign of Jesus Christ on earth. The concept of the millennium is not only associated with Christian thought, however. Many cultures of the world have similar beliefs about the imminent transformation or end of the world and the creation of an age in which human suffering and violence will be eliminated. Thus, Western scholars commonly use the term millennium to refer generally to any new age of holiness, harmony, and earthly perfection. Similarly, the word millennialism is used to describe beliefs about an imminent apocalypse, the salvation of the world, or the creation of an earthly paradise. Such beliefs have existed throughout history and are still held by millions of people today.
Recently, the year 2000 sparked widespread feelings that something monumental would occur with the flip of the calendar page. Although the year 2000 was a subjective marking of the passage of time, in popular culture it gained enormous symbolic and conceptual power. For many people, it represented a pivotal moment in history, a time to reflect on the past thousand years or imagine a thousand years to come.
For the past several hundred years, people in Western cultures have marked time in terms of 10-year periods (decades) and 100-year periods (centuries). Westerners tend to associate eras with decades and centuries. For example, many Americans think of the 1920s as the Roaring Twenties, and they frequently associate the 1960s with protests and social activism. Many people attach special significance to years that end in a zero, because these years seem to signal a transition from one era to another. A year that ends in triple zeros, then, suggests an even greater change. Thus, the arrival of the year 2000 evoked hope for transformation and the birth of a new age, as well as fears about potential global catastrophes.
II DATING THE MILLENNIUM
Although January 1, 2000, was popularly celebrated as the beginning of the 3rd millennium, there are differing beliefs about when the new millennium actually began. The Western dating of the millennium is based on the Gregorian calendar, which is the most globally recognized system for marking the passage of years.
According to the Gregorian calendar, the new millennium did not begin until January 1, 2001. The Gregorian calendar follows the ad (Latin anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”) system introduced by Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century ad. The ad system counts time from the year Jesus Christ was born. Dionysius dated Jesus’ birth in the year ad 1 rather than in ad 0, because Roman numerals, which were still in use, had no symbol for zero. In this dating system, each century begins with a year ending in 01 and ends with a year ending in 00. For example, the 19th century began in 1801 and ended in 1900. Therefore, December 31, 2000, ended the old millennium, and January 1, 2001, marked the start of the next millennium in this dating system. See Calendar: Gregorian Calendar.
Some people believe the new millennium, as marked by the birth of Jesus, began several years earlier than 2001. According to many scholars, Dionysius made various errors in calculating Jesus’ birth date. Historical evidence indicates that Jesus was actually born in 4 bc or earlier. As a result, the 2,000-year anniversary of the birth of Jesus may have occurred sometime in the 1990s.
Other people believe that the change to the new millennium lasts a period of 33 years, corresponding to the life span of Jesus. According to some historians, the year 1033—regarded by many people as the 1,000-year anniversary of Jesus’ death—resulted in widespread millennial fervor in which people made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and anticipated the destruction or renewal of the world. Some people have predicted that the year 2033 will have millennial significance as well and will be viewed as the date that marks the beginning of the new millennium.
About two-thirds of the people in the world use religious or ceremonial calendars in addition to the Gregorian calendar. For example, January 1, 2000, on the Gregorian calendar was the year 1420 on the Islamic calendar, 5760 on the Jewish calendar, and 4697 on the Chinese calendar. However, even people who used these other calendars were aware of the global significance of the Gregorian calendar years 2000 and 2001.
III RELIGIOUS AND MYSTICAL BELIEFS
Millennialist beliefs are not only related to the turn of the millennium. Since the beginning of human history, people in nearly every society have told sacred stories about worldly destruction, the regeneration of the earth, and the creation of a terrestrial paradise. Scholars have documented these types of stories from Zoroastrian, Babylonian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Greek, Roman, Norse, African, Maya, and Native American cultures.
Millennialist ideas are concerned with the destiny and destruction of the world, the end of time, the end of evil and suffering, and the creation of a perfect age. Millennialist belief systems have an enduring appeal because they assert that there is an underlying plan for history, that human existence is meaningful, and that a new world of peace and justice will be created.
A Book of Revelation
In the Christian Bible, the concept of the millennium is introduced toward the end of the Book of Revelation (sometimes called the Apocalypse). According to Revelation 19:11-21, 20:1-10, and other passages, Jesus Christ will return to earth and defeat Satan at the battle of Armageddon (see Second Coming). Christ will then throw Satan into a bottomless pit for 1,000 years and will reign during this millennium of peace on earth. However, at the end of those 1,000 years, Satan and the forces of evil will rise up to do battle with Christ once again. In this final battle, Christ will defeat Satan forever and throw Satan into a lake of fire to suffer eternal torment. God will then resurrect all human beings and judge them according to their beliefs and actions. This event is often referred to as the Last Judgment. According to Revelation, God will give the righteous people eternal life in paradise and will send the evil ones to hell.
B Types of Christian Millennialism
The concept of the millennium and the apocalypse referred to in Revelation has been an important part of certain Christian sects, but it has held less significance for most Roman Catholic and Protestant groups. Believers in Christian millennialism differ about when Christ will return to earth, how the millennium will start, and the nature of the millennium. The three major types of Christian millennialism are premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism.
Premillennialism stresses a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. In the premillennial view, worldwide destruction and the return of Jesus Christ are required to save humanity and bring about a new era of peace on earth. This belief system—also referred to as catastrophic millennialism—generally expresses a pessimistic view of modern society and sees the world as fatally flawed.
Postmillennialism, also referred to as progressive millennialism, interprets the Bible less literally than premillennialism does. Postmillennialists regard the millennium as a 1,000-year reign of Christian ideals that will end with the return of Christ. In this view, the millennium will not start suddenly through an apocalypse, but gradually through the efforts of human beings. Postmillennialists believe that through social reform and by upholding Christian ideals, the kingdom of God will be built on earth and Christ will return. Christ will then defeat Satan in a final battle, as referred to in the Book of Revelation. Some postmillennialists believe the millennium has already started.
Amillennialism, the predominant view for much of Christian history, is the belief that biblical references to the millennium are strictly figurative and that there will be no earthly millennium. Some amillennialists believe that the millennial rule of Christ occurs in the hearts of believers. Others believe that the description of the millennium in Revelation refers to Christ’s reign in the kingdom of Heaven.
C The Year 1000
In studying the various forms of millennialism, historians have debated whether people recognized the turn of the millennium around the year 1000. Some scholars believe that an apocalyptic fever had gripped Europe by the year 999. According to these scholars, many people converted to Christianity, stopped planting their crops, confessed their sins, and forgave each other their debts. Others abandoned their families to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in hope of witnessing the Second Coming of Christ, or they knelt in church in terror as they anticipated an apocalypse.
However, most historians argue that the accounts of millennial hysteria are the romantic concoctions of overly imaginative writers. These historians note that the doctrines of the Catholic Church at the end of the 1st millennium were opposed to any teachings about imminent apocalypse. Furthermore, most people living in the years 999 and 1000 were not even aware that it was the end of the 1st millennium. However, there is considerable historical evidence that after the year 1000, millennialism became more widespread. It gained followers during the Crusades (wars between Western European Christians and Muslims that began in 1096) and throughout the latter part of the Middle Ages.
D Contemporary Religious and Mystical Beliefs
Today many mainline religious organizations reject the concept of an apocalypse or a Christian millennium. However, millennialist beliefs are still integral to the worldviews of some denominations of Protestantism. For example, a number of Evangelical denominations hold premillennialist beliefs, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, and the Church of the Nazarene (see Evangelicalism). Many members of these and other Evangelical denominations claim that recent wars, plagues, famines, and earthquakes are signs that an apocalypse is imminent and that Christ will return. According to these groups, the world will experience a seven-year period of misery and massive destruction, but Christians will be removed from the Earth unharmed.
Adventism is another Protestant branch that holds millennialist views (see Adventists). Adventist groups grew out of the religious Millerite movement, led by American Baptist preacher William Miller, who predicted that the world would end by 1843 or 1844. After his predictions proved false, some disenchanted Millerites formed into various Adventist groups, such as the Seventh-day Adventists. Adventists maintain that various apocalyptic predictions have been fulfilled and that Christ will return in the near future. The Seventh-day Adventists assert that an invisible, spiritual apocalypse occurred in 1844 with the “cleansing of heaven,” and they believe that it will eventually be followed by world destruction in which only the faithful will be saved.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, another group formed from the Millerite movement, claim the spiritual, invisible Second Coming of Christ occurred in 1874 and that Christ’s invisible reign started in 1914. The group believes an apocalypse will come in the near future. The religious group’s founder, Charles Taze Russell, declared that the fulfillment of Christ’s millennial kingdom would be completed only after the foreordained destruction of nations, governments, churches, and world leaders, all of which Russell considered representations of Satan’s rule. The Jehovah’s Witnesses rejected formal religious and governmental organizations, and they developed the practice of door-to-door evangelism in an attempt to convert nonbelievers.
Millennial beliefs are also an important part of the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormonism. The religion was organized by Joseph Smith in 1830. Smith claimed an angel told him that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent, and Smith believed he had been chosen to prepare humanity for the millennium. According to Smith’s visions, the millennial kingdom will be established in the United States. Today, the church does not stress millennialism as much as it did in the past. However, many Mormons interpret some world events as the fulfillment of prophecies that foretell an apocalyptic period.
Many other contemporary religious groups have millennialist views. These include the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, Baha’i, Rastafarianism, and other religious movements. Millennialist prophecy, once central to the early Jewish faith, continues today among members of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, an Orthodox Hasidic sect of Judaism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s many followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Brooklyn, New York, believed that he was the Messiah who would bring about the redemption of the world. Schneerson never claimed to be the Messiah, but he interpreted current events as apocalyptic signs that foretold the Messiah’s appearance in the near future.
Millennialist beliefs also exist at a grassroots level as a form of popular or folk belief, apart from the sanction of formal religious institutions. For instance, there is popular interest in the apocalyptic predictions of Nostradamus, a 16th-century French physician and astrologer, and Edgar Cayce, an American who lived in the early 20th century and claimed to have psychic and healing abilities. Some people also believe that alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary warn of imminent worldly destruction.
E Recent Millennialist Movements
Apocalyptic and millennialist movements not affiliated with established religious institutions are often depicted in stereotypical ways as doomsday cults, involving violent activities, mass suicides, and “brainwashed fanatics” with bizarre beliefs. Of the hundreds of contemporary millennialist groups that exist, relatively few movements have been motivated to acts of violence or suicide. But there have been some exceptions in recent years, including apocalyptic groups such as the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.
The Branch Davidian sect, a splinter group founded in 1934 from mainstream Seventh-day Adventists, believed that biblical prophecies about the apocalypse were being fulfilled in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1993 federal agents attempted a raid on the group’s compound in Waco, Texas, in search of illegal weapons. The Davidians interpreted the investigation as a sign of the apocalypse, and a shootout erupted in which four agents and a number of Davidians died. After a 51-day standoff, agents used gas to force occupants out of the compound, and a fire broke out that killed dozens of Davidians.
The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect integrates certain Buddhist, Daoist (Taoist), and Christian doctrines with Tantric (mystic) yoga. The sect believed that an apocalypse would occur in 1999. During the mid-1990s the group had tens of thousands of members in Japan, Russia, Germany, the United States, and several other countries. However, many members left the group in 1995. That year the group’s leaders were charged with killing 12 people after releasing nerve gas in a subway station in Tokyo, Japan, in an apparent attempt to fulfill apocalyptic prophecies.
In 1997, 39 members of the religious group Heaven’s Gate committed suicide near San Diego, California. Followers believed that a gigantic spacecraft trailed the Hale-Bopp comet in March 1997 and offered an opportunity for them to be transported to a higher realm before the Earth would be annihilated.
The largest modern-day tragedy involving a doomsday sect occurred in 2000, when more than 900 members of a millennialist group in southwestern Uganda were killed. Known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTC), the sect centered around the visions of Credonia Mwerinde, who claimed to communicate messages from the Virgin Mary, and Joseph Kibwetere, a former priest who had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Disciples believed that the world was doomed but that God or the Virgin Mary would save them. The leaders of the group saw December 31, 1999, as the day the world would end. Soon after the date passed uneventfully, more than 500 members of the group were burned alive inside their chapel. Police later unearthed hundreds more corpses buried on property belonging to the group’s leaders. Authorities believed the sect’s followers were murdered after they lost faith in the doomsday predictions and demanded back money and property they had donated to the group’s leaders.
Although these groups differ in their doctrines, aspects of their belief systems share certain common ideas. These ideas include a sense of fatalism for a world regarded as completely evil and doomed, and a desire for planetary escape and salvation.
IV SECULAR ATTITUDES
Until recently, most people believed that an apocalypse would involve deities or divine forces. However, during the 20th century, more people developed secular theories about an apocalypse. Some believe the world will end due to nuclear warfare, new technologies, environmental destruction, epidemic diseases, global famine and overpopulation, or an Earth collision with a large asteroid or comet. Secular beliefs about inevitable societal destruction reflect a sense of helplessness, despair, or fatalistic resignation.
The creation of nuclear weapons in particular has fundamentally altered contemporary apocalyptic thought, evoking widespread fatalism about the future of humanity. When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945, the event initiated an era of fear about global destruction. Despite the end of the Cold War, concerns about the possibility of nuclear annihilation persist today, stemming from fear that nuclear weapons will be developed and used by hostile nations or extremist organizations.
Specific secular beliefs about catastrophe were associated with what became known as the year 2000 computer problem, the Y2K problem, or the millennium bug. Some people believed that many computer systems worldwide would crash when the date changed from 1999 to 2000, sparking economic, political, and social catastrophes. However, few computers generated error messages or shut down, and the imagined Y2K problem was relatively uneventful.
V YEAR 2000 CELEBRATIONS
Despite concerns about the Y2K problem and controversy over when the 3rd millennium actually began, the year 2000 inspired the largest celebration in history. Festivities were held all over the world. Some of the biggest events occurred at the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt; at Times Square in New York City; in Sydney, Australia (home of the Olympic Games in 2000); and at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, England. The largest millennial pilgrimage site was Rome, Italy, where the Great Jubilee, or Holy Year, celebrations marked the 3rd millennium of Christianity. Jerusalem and various sites of biblical importance attracted millions of people as well. Events were held at places that some people believe are sacred, such as the ancient monument Stonehenge in England and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Other popular locations included numerous South Pacific islands near the International Date Line that offered the first glimpses of dawn on January 1, 2000.