'Millennium Bug' A Matter of Faith
By Caryle Murphy
Christian broadcast minister Jerry Falwell, who believes the end is near, sees more than a technological glitch in the year 2000 computer problem. According to his latest videotape, Y2K could well be a sign from God.
"Y2K may be God's instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation," the Lynchburg, Va.-based preacher proclaims. Predicting "a possibility of catastrophe," he suggests that Y2K could "start a revival that spreads [over] the face of the Earth before the Rapture of the Church."
The Rapture, some evangelical Christians believe, is when a returned Christ will carry the saved up to heaven, leaving the unredeemed to the wiles of the Antichrist. Falwell stops short of saying outright that the Lord will come in 2000. But, he tells his audience, "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if He did."
In the pre-Rapture meantime, Falwell's $28 videotape, advertised on the Internet as "A Christian's Guide to the Millennium Bug," is selling briskly: more than 1,900 copies since August, according to a spokeswoman.
Falwell is among a group of conservative Christian figures, including Ron Graff, Gary North and Jack Van Impe, who are using the Internet, videos and books to assign apocalyptic visions to Y2K.
Also known as the "millennium bug," Y2K refers to the possibility that many computer software programs and embedded microchips that use two digits for the year will not recognize "00" as the year 2000, reading it instead as 1900.
If that happens, Falwell and some other Christian conservatives suggest, Divine Rapture may be accompanied by Civil Rupture, with dysfunctional computers causing empty grocery shelves, failed banks, closed airports, missing Social Security checks and dead 911 lines.
While counseling against panic, Falwell says he intends to stock up on food, sugar, gasoline -- and ammunition. "Because if I'm blessed with a little food and my family is inside the house with me," the evangelist explains in the video, "I've got to be sure that I can persuade others not to mess with us." Falwell adds, however, that he "wouldn't want to hurt anybody."
Such ominous forecasts, critics complain, are giving a more fearful edge to expectations by some that the millennium could herald Christ's second coming and other spiritual occurrences. Such doomsayers, the critics add, are creating undue apprehension and unlikely-to-be-fulfilled religious hopes.
"You have a lot of individuals connecting a technology-based problem with a theology," said Lawrence F. Roberge, professor of environmental science at Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. "This is serious because it can make it much more difficult for the government to maintain civil order" if Y2K disruptions occur. "I think there's an irresponsibility about this, a cavalierness."
Governments and computer programmers around the world are rushing to correct the Y2K problem, and U.S. officials have said they are cautiously optimistic that disruptions will not be major or long-lasting.
Y2K's global reach makes it a more appealing sign of Christ's anticipated return than the natural disasters like earthquakes and floods usually cited by modern-day prophets, said Hillel Schwartz, a cultural historian and senior fellow at the Millennium Institute in Arlington: If Y2K is believed to be "the worldwide cataclysm . . . then it surely must be a sign of the second coming."
"You have these little Elmer Gantrys out there who want to make a name for themselves," said Vinson Synan, dean of the divinity school at Regent University, the Virginia Beach-based college founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
Christians who spurn alarmist rhetoric about Y2K are beginning to organize across the country -- with a different message. Any disruptions, they say, can be opportunities to bond communities.
"We've taken the approach that as Christians we simply want to be good stewards, prudent, wise, and prepare for any eventuality as best we can," said the Rev. Duke Bendix, associate pastor of Herndon's nondenominational Grace Covenant Church, one of several area congregations studying the possible impacts of Y2K.
In a series of meetings, including one to which the community was invited, Bendix said Grace Covenant members were advised to collect paper copies of medical records and bill payments, stock extra water and food, and get a wood or kerosene heater.
"The other thing we talked about is how to provide support to the broader community if, for example, electricity is shut down for a few days," he said. His church expects to equip itself as an emergency shelter, "like how they use schools in a hurricane."
Bendix rejects alarmist views or theological meanings in the Y2K glitch. Instead, he said, it is "a statement about man being very fallible and not as wise as he sometimes thinks."
Some churches are taking a look at the Y2K issue after prompting by members who work in the computer field.
"I listen to Christian radio stations, and some of the stuff there is just inaccurate [and] fear-mongering," said Todd Miles, of Centreville, a Y2K assessment consultant for the U.S. Navy and a deacon at Annandale's Parkwood Baptist Church. He persuaded his pastor to organize a series of seminars for members next year "to try and dispel some of the myths and anxieties."
In Warrenton, the Rev. Decker Tapscott has suggested that members of his Faith Christian Church contact banks and telephone companies to ask what they are doing to prepare for Y2K. But for now, his church is not planning to expand the food bank it maintains for the needy because "it would create a measure of hysteria."
Members of Wheaton's St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church have discussed Y2K and are "just assuming that some things are not going to work" after Jan. 1, 2000, said the Rev. Guy Fouts, its rector. He has looked into getting a county permit to reopen an old well on church property if water shortages seem likely.
Other evangelical organizations are attacking the computer defect with prayer. "We believe that if we make a prayer investment into the key areas that research shows will be affected by the Y2K problem, the fallout will be modified and the suffering will be less," said Gary Bergel, president of the Leesburg-based Intercessors for America, a 25-year-old Christian network that encourages prayer and fasting.
Religious broadcaster Robertson has given Y2K considerable air time on his Christian Broadcasting Network. A CBN spokeswoman said that more than 120,000 viewers have requested free information on Y2K offered by the station.
Robertson, who allows Y2K pessimists and optimists equal time, said, "There's no question there's going to be serious disruptions." Unlike Falwell, however, he has not attached apocalyptic meaning to Y2K, but simply reminds viewers that a "time of crisis is oftentimes the great moment of revival."
Last month, both the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Assemblies of God, one of the country's largest Pentecostal churches, weighed in with pastoral letters counseling against expecting either significant religious events or catastrophe when the millennium arrives.
"We encourage our people to not engage in activities such as hoarding food, withdrawing money from banks, believing doomsday scenarios, or expecting the economic, political, and social collapse of western civilization when the clock strikes Jan. 1, 2000," Assemblies of God advised its 2.4 million members.
Shaunti Feldhahn, a former risk analyst for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York who grew up in Falls Church, has formed Joseph Project 2000, based in Woodstock, Ga. The author of "Y2K the Millennium Bug -- A Balanced Christian Response," Feldhahn said her network encourages churches to work with local governments to prepare for any disruptions.
"We say stop worrying about whether this is the second coming and the end of time and let's put our heads down and think about ways the church can be prepared to minister," she said. "It's the antithesis of some of what we are seeing now, which is grab a dog and shotgun and head for the hills."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company