A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why was the millennium considered such a big deal?

July 3, 1998

Dear Cecil:

What was the deal with the millennium? I understand that people think years ending in zeroes are significant, so it follows that a year ending in three zeroes is really significant. But for years I heard people talking about the "arrival of the millennium," meaning either that we're going to have heaven on earth or that civilization will collapse. Either people were envisioning the muthah New Year's Eve party of all time or there was something else going on. What? And what happened when the millennium came around a thousand years ago?

Cecil replies:

My feeling at the time, which was borne out by events, was that it was mostly media hype. Apart from fretting about millennium-related computer problems, few of which came to pass, what were we supposed to do? Celebrate a thousand years of progress? "Yeah, the electric light, that was a heck of an invention. And that Ottoman Empire — boy, weren't those the days?"

Although many now assume "the millennium" is the calendrical period beginning on January 1, 2001 (or, in the unenlightened view, January 1, 2000), that's not the traditional interpretation. In Christianity, the millennium is the thousand-year period referred to in Revelations 20 in the Bible: "And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven. … He seized … Satan, and bound him for a thousand years [during which time those found to be righteous will reign with Christ]. When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth — Gog and Magog — to gather them for battle." Satan's eventual defeat will be followed by the end of the world and the last judgment.

Since the early days of Christianity, "millenarians" have argued that the angel was going to come down out of heaven sooner rather than later. But when? Countless dates have been proposed, but one school of thought reasons as follows:

(1) A couple passages in the Bible, notably 2 Peter 3:8, state that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."

(2) God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh day.

(3) Therefore, the ordinary world will last 6,000 years, and the Christian millennium will occupy the subsequent (and last) thousand years. I realize there's a logical leap here, but if we're going to insist on strict rationality, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all.

(4) A momentous event such as the birth of Christ would surely have occurred an exact number of millennia following the creation of the world, e.g., at the four or five thousand year mark, and likewise an exact number of millennia before the end of the world.

(5) The world as we know it obviously didn't end in AD 1000 (or 1001).

(6) So it's bound to happen now.

As I say, it's not ironclad logic. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Questioning the Millennium, says if we accept the famous calculation by Archbishop James Ussher that the world began on October 23, 4004 B.C., then, allowing for the fact that there was no year zero, the everyday world ended October 23, 1997 and we've been in the millennium ever since. I can accept the idea that you and I made it through. But Dennis Rodman?

What happened on the last calendrical millennium? For centuries it was assumed that there was worldwide (well, Christendom-wide) panic, but many historians now believe this was grossly exaggerated by subsequent chroniclers. Many people feel this millennium was a bust too, but we're not necessarily out of the woods yet. Not to harp on this, but the real millennium, with goodness knows what apocalyptic consequences, is still ten months away.

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