The dreaded millennium bug, the so-called Y2K problem that could cause the world's computers to go haywire, might cause widespread inconvenience, but it's not like it's the end of the world.
Well, maybe it is.
A vocal minority of evangelical Christians believe that Jan. 1, 2000, will unleash an unprecedented crisis that will result in God's judgment on a sinful world. Some of the most extreme believe it could usher in the Apocalypse, the biblical prophecy of the end of time and the second coming of Christ.
These prophets of doom go beyond the run-of-the-mill millenarian survivalists in that they believe the key is not stockpiling guns, food and water, but repentance. They are spreading their message in books, in sermons and on the Internet. Their predictions of doom are sparking a backlash from other evangelicals.
Many Baltimore-area pastors are telling their congregations that while Y2K might cause serious problems, it has nothing to do with the Apocalypse, and those who preach that it does are causing unnecessary alarm.
"We had an element in our church that went way too far and we had to part company with them," said the Rev. John A. Dekker, pastor of Cub Hill Bible Presbyterian Church. "There are some people who are so worked up and they think it's the end of the world.
"I don't think it has prophetic significance," Dekker said. "I think it is a computer problem. If any country can fix it, it is the United States. So we ought to pray that we will use the abilities we have and that they at least will be able to solve this problem, or at least get us into a position to deal with it when it comes."
But some believe that if the Y2K bug does not signal the beginning of the end, it could have profound religious significance.
"I think that possibly God may give us a wake-up call," said the Rev. Randolph Garley, pastor of The Tabernacle, a nondenominational church in Laurel. "He may just shut it down and say, 'Your redemption is drawing nigh; you need to look up.' It might be to get our attention, you know, to say, 'I am still God and all the wisdom of man is foolishness to me.' "
Evangelist Jerry Falwell has compared the Y2K computer crisis to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, when God, alarmed that humans were building a tower into heaven, scattered them over the face of the Earth and caused them to speak in different languages.
"In fulfillment of Bible prophecy, the world today is beginning to speak the same language," Falwell said in a sermon last year at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. "We are satellite- and Internet-connected. We are fast moving toward a cashless economy, a one-world government, a one-world court and a one-world church. We are building a universal city with a one-world church whose tower reaches into heaven.
"But the Trinity has come down and looked us over," he said. "And it seems that God doesn't like what he sees. He may be preparing to confound our language, to jam our communications, scatter our efforts and judge us for our sin and rebellion against his lordship. We are hearing from many sources that January 1, 2000, will be a fateful day in the history of the world."
Apocalyptic theology is nothing new to the American religious scene. "In this century, fundamentalists and Pentecostals have found apocalyptic thinking very attractive," said Nathan O. Hatch, a University of Notre Dame history professor specializing in evangelical Christianity.
Hatch does not see a great deal of apocalyptic fervor as we head into the new millennium. But things were wild when the 18th century rolled into the 19th century.
"Particularly in times of social and political insecurity, apocalyptic thinking tends to expand," Hatch said. "In the 1790s going into 1800, in the wake of the American and French revolutions, the underpinning of society did seem to be shaken. Particularly in the Northeast, there was a huge outpouring of millenarian and apocalyptic work."
The Y2K issue has sparked a publishing flurry, with books coming out every week with titles such as "The Millennium Bug, How to Survive the Coming Crisis," "The Millennium Meltdown" and "Y2K=666?"
At the Baptist Book Store in Overlea, which has a prominent Y2K display at the end of an aisle, manager Johnny Smith said the merchandise has been moving well. The people buying them don't appear to be religious fanatics.
"It's housewives, it's businessmen, it's pastors," he said. "People who just have heard about it and want to read about it."
In "Judgment Day 2000," Richard D. Wiles, a founder of the Christian Businessman's Association, says that the Y2K crisis will be God's punishment for his rebellious children.
"People who dismiss the significance of the Year 2000 computer crisis are deceiving themselves," Wiles writes. "It is about more than computers. Y2K is the global event God will use to bring divine chastisement on all the nations. The Y2K collapse will also permit the restructuring of the world's economic and political systems, making way for those who propose a one-world governmental system.
"These things are necessary for the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy."
For many evangelicals, talk like this is just too much.
"I think it is a little sensationalistic. It worries me that it's going to create some panic," said the Rev. W. Terry Bailey, pastor of Kingsway Christian Center in Fullerton. "I think it's going to create some problems, but I don't think it'll be as bad in America as other places. There's too much money at stake for them not to be ready."
"Basically we're just telling people to be wise," said the Rev. John Odean, senior pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Central Maryland in Millersville. "I used to live in California, and we're advising people to prepare for it like you would for an earthquake: a little extra food, a little extra water, but to not go crazy.
"If anything does happen," he said, "our responsibility is to take care of those around us."
Several evangelical groups have emerged to provide a more measured response to the potential problems of Y2K. One of them, Mission America, is a coalition of 67 denominations, including the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God and the National Baptists, representing more than 180,000 churches in the country. They have embarked on Celebrate Jesus 2000, which "has the goal of praying for and sharing the gospel with every person -- man, woman, boy and girl -- by the end of 2000," said the Rev. Cornell Haan, a Mission America official from Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I think that it's an opportunity for churches to react differently from the rest of world in that there's no reason to be unprepared or to hoard food, but to be prepared and help people and give it away," Haan said. "The Y2K focus should not be on identifying how big the problem is or how little. But to say to churches, please be prepared, not to hoard and get guns and protect whatever you have, but be prepared to storehouse and give it away."
Shaunti Christine Feldhahn, a former financial analyst for the Federal Reserve Bank and author of "Y2K: The Millennium Bug, A Balanced Christian Response," founded the Joseph Project 2000 to help churches prepare for whatever may come.
Pub Date: 2/17/99