Countdown

updated 06/09/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, Iceland plans to light bonfires, Britain to have church bells pealing from one end of the country to the other and New York City to stage the most memorable Times Square blowout ever, with an anticipated crowd of 1 million. But even as revelers ring in the next 1,000 years, some millenarians, anticipating the apocalypse, will be breathless with apprehension and hope—wondering if the world will end in fire or ice, with a bang or a whimper—as the fatal hour is struck.

At least, such is the belief of Dr. Richard Landes, 47, a professor of medieval history at Boston University and one of the founders of the Center for Millennial Studies, a group of some two dozen academics from around the nation who document millennium-related activity. Some historians believe millennial influence is overrated. But Landes, noting, for example, the increasing violence of militia groups and the Heaven's Gate suicides, disagrees. He spoke recently with correspondent Tom Duffy.

Why do some people seem excited, and others unnerved, by the approach of the millennium?

There's something exhilarating about believing that you live at the turning point in human and cosmic history—that God has somehow chosen you to be a key player in the ultimate resolution of good and evil as promised in the Bible. There's also all the resentment people who don't have power feel toward those who do. So there is a certain thrill at thinking that all these bastards are now going to get it in the neck. On top of that, people who believe the end is at hand lose the inhibitions we normally impose on ourselves because of fear of future consequences.

Did the first millennium—the year 1000—exercise the same hold on the popular imagination?

I think so. Most Christians had been encouraged to see the millennium as the apocalyptic moment. That could mean either it was the time of Armageddon, when the Antichrist was to be unleashed to dominate the world, or that it was the beginning of the millennial kingdom of peace and plenty. The bad guys would get thrown into the lake and the good guys would rule on earth for the next 1,000 years. I think this time around religion will play a less prominent role. On the other hand, with pollution and nuclear weapons, there is scientific reason to be apocalyptic.

What specifically happened around the year 1000?

First, there were the pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They may have started as a trickle, but by the millennium of the Passion—the anniversary of Christ's death, in 1033—there were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Christians going to Jerusalem, where many expected the return of Christ. Then there was the Peace of God movement, particularly in many areas of France, in which thousands of peasants and elites gathered together in open fields for three or four days at a time to worship God in an atmospher? of religious revival. There were numerous "miraculous" healings, most of which we would characterize as psychosomatic—in which the mute, for example, were suddenly able to talk.

Do historians notice similar behavior at the end of centuries?

All the way back to the second century you have Christians who don't plant their crops at the end of the century and who go out collectively in the desert to meet Christ. You get all sorts of groups that announce the end of the world and whose membership shoots up in the period before the end is supposed to happen. You get cults, you get bizarre behavior.

We seem to be getting that now. How will people respond to the coming millennium?

We will see more militia groups coming out of the closet. And, unfortunately, the violence is likely to get worse after the millennium among groups that expect God to intervene on their side. When He fails to appear, they tend to look for scapegoats.

The Pope is calling for a Jubilee, a yearlong celebration of the birth of Christ. And in the year 2000, and again in 2033, 1 think we'll see once again a wave of pilgrims to Jerusalem. The Israelis are expecting millions of tourists.

I also think we are going to see groups resurface that first took shape in the '60s and early '70s—like the Heaven's Gate cult. But I'm not Jeane Dixon. I'm more like a weatherman saying, "This is hurricane season. Expect a lot of them."

Most people think of themselves as rational and beyond the influence of millennial forces.

A lot of rational people are not nearly as rational as they think. Over the last thousand years we have slowly replaced God with human endeavor as the agent that will bring about the destruction or the redemption of humankind. I think you can be perfectly secular and still be receptive to apocalyptic rhetoric. You don't need to believe in God to think the world can be destroyed.

Is that what will make this millennium different from the last?

Yes. In the year 1000 most people thought the world was coming to an end but that God would do it and that the faithful would be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven. Today, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves in a way we never did before. If we put an end to the world, there will be no redemption.

Are there any potentially positive developments that could come from the turn of the millennium?

On a basic level optimistic people are saying, "Here's a chance to think big. We can look back over the last millennium and think about the next and try to get people motivated and enthusiastic."

Are you such an optimist?

I'm not expecting the apocalypse, either good or bad. But there will be major changes and it could go either way. In the midst of danger lies opportunity.

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