Did humanity greet the first millennium's passing a thousand years ago with dread or with jubilation? With neither, actually. First, most of the world did not share the Christians' calendar. Second, most Christians had no calendars, and little sense of calendric time.
They did, however, know that the world would end soon; that before it ended Satan would be bound for a thousand years; and that while he lay in the bottomless pit, the world, free of sin, would live in prosperity and peace as it had not to date, preparing for perfection. That would be the millennium.
How did they know that it would come soon? Because the Bible detailed preconditions for it: wars, rumors of wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, deceivers, false prophets, iniquity abounding and more of the same. This is what would signal the millennium and the tribulations expected to precede it. Finally would come the new heaven and earth, which were to follow the final apocalyptic clash between good and evil.
Ever since Christ spoke on the Mount of Olives, the West has not lacked premonitory signs. No wonder that the world perpetually hovers on the brink, that endism and millennialism march on through the ages -- for those who believe in God and for those who don't.
Even skeptics used the imagery and terminology inherited from Jewish prophets and their Christian heirs. The political eschatology of Jacobins, socialists, communists and romantic nationalists largely borrowed and translated eschatologies that were first developed in a religious idiom: great suffering in the present justified by felicity in the future, a corrupt "now" abolished and replaced by pristinely perfect "then," the brave new world to come vindicating the horrors of today's tribulation.
The passage of time has brought only superficial changes in such ways of thinking. To many Americans, the day's headlines still certify that the end is near -- if not the end of the world, then the end of a world. Appearance of the zero, unknown in the West 1,000 years ago, made ends of centuries (and of millennia) look more ominous. And the round numbers of this millennium emphasize expectations that the media both feed and feed upon.
Spurred by anxiety or anticipation, thousands draw closer to God or lay in provisions for the tribulation. Some are apprehensive: "Nobody knows what's going to happen." Others are sanguine: "It seems like the dawn of a new era." Some opt for a bit of both: resorts and restaurants offer special celebrations, and champagne stocks run down. Sages such as Billy Graham warn of doomsday.
With systems on fast forward and change cascading on us, discords and discomforts are amplified -- as are anticipations and efforts to precipitate events. In 1969 California, Charles Manson and family committed slaughter to advance end times. In 1995 Japan, Aum Shinrikyo enlisted bioterrorism to accelerate the advent of the millennium. In 1999 Israel, security services are spending millions to monitor Orthodox Jewish extremists and radical fundamentalist Christians determined to speed Armageddon and the Second Coming.
Endism is in because it provides context for a world that seems to founder in iniquity. It is the same ideology of catastrophe and rebirth that has terrorized and comforted generations.
Millennialism is linked to apocalypse, and apocalypse -- which originally meant simply a revelation (about God's plans for mankind and the world) -- now means annihilating devastation. Media, movies and television screens testify to the popularity of the theme: ecodisaster, biodisaster, astrodisaster or mere monsters and space alien invasions inspire epics of global destruction, the end of civilization, extinction of the human species, obliteration of the fragile platform on which we stir.
Some dread the moment, others yearn for it. If annihilation turns out to be our fate, it may console us to reflect that we cower and quake in greater comfort than any other era has enjoyed.
The writer is a professor of modern European history at the University of California, Los Angeles.