As the end of the tenth century approached and the year 1000 loomed closer and closer, how did Christians react? Were they convinced that the end was near? Was there fear? Hope? A mixture of both? In the nineteenth century, historians described a scene of great apprehension and expectation as the year 1000 approached, with entire populations terrified of the imminent arrival of judgment day. For most of the twentieth century, the consensus among historians was exactly the opposite. The year 1000, they argued, was a year like any other year, and people at the time were indifferent about the coming new millennium — if they were aware of the date at all.
More recently, a number of historians have reevaluated the evidence and concluded that the earlier historians were closer to the truth. Richard Landes of Boston University, for example, has concluded that “the year 1000 stands out as a year of outstanding eschatological importance to high and low alike.” He cites numerous texts pointing to the significance of the year, including evidence of entire populations engaging in acts of contrition.
In the year 950, Adso, the abbott of the monastery at Montier-en-Der, wrote a treatise on the coming of the Antichrist for Queen Gerberga, sister of Otto the Great. This work became increasingly influential over the coming decades. As the year 1000 approached, some saw current events lining up with what Adso said must happen before Antichrist comes. The appearance in 989 of what would later be known as Haley’s Comet also fueled eschatological expectations. Other disasters, events, and astronomical omens were also considered evidence that the end was near.
The year 1000 was not the first time Christians expectantly awaited the end of the world, and it certainly was not the last. Hippolytus (170-236) believed the end would occur around the year 500. Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160–240) also taught that the end would come in AD 500 but later adjusted the date to AD 800. The rise of Islam in the seventh century fueled numerous end-time speculations. Centuries later, Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1135–1202) calculated the time of the end and concluded that it would come sometime between 1200 and 1260. The Taborites, radical followers of Jan Hus, dated the end to February 1420.
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther expressed his belief that he was living in the last days and expected the end to come in less than a hundred years. Apocalyptic expectations were widespread in England in the 1600s, peaking during the time of the English Civil War. The year 1666 raised particular interest because it combined the numbers 1000 and 666. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed several end-time predictions in France and elsewhere on the Continent. In North America, Cotton Mather (1663–1728) tried his hand at date-setting, predicting that the end would come in 1697. He later changed his predicted date to 1736. He then changed his mind again, proposing 1716 instead. Both Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and his grandson, Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), expected the millennium of Revelation 20 to begin by the year 2000. William Miller (1782– 1849) created an enormous sense of expectation when he predicted that the second coming of Christ would occur sometime between March 1843 and March 1844.
The rise of dispensationalism in the nineteenth century gave new impetus to last-days speculations. Throughout the twentieth century, there was an almost continuous litany of end-times predictions, many of which were made by dispensationalists. Some Christians saw World War I as a sign of the end and then later interpreted World War II as a sign of the end. Since the 1970s, endtimes speculation has been at a fever pitch. Hal Lindsey implied that the rapture would occur by 1988. Edgar Whisenant gave us 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. He also published follow-up volumes predicting the rapture for 1989 and 1993. In 1992, Jack Van Impe predicted that the rapture would occur by 2000. Harold Camping predicted the end would come in 1994. His false prophecy has not slowed him down. He is now proclaiming that the end will occur in May 2011.
Candidates for the Antichrist have been almost as numerous as projected dates for the end of the world. Among those in the twentieth century alone who were singled out as the Antichrist were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Ayatollah Khomeini, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Yassir Arafat.
The books continue to pour off of the presses. In 2000, John Hagee wrote From Daniel to Doomsday: The Countdown Has Begun. After the rapture failed to occur in 1988 (forty years after the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948), many dispensationalists revised their calculations, concluding that the Six Day War in June 1967 was more important. Adding 40 (the supposed time of a “biblical generation”) to 1967, they came up with a date of 2007. Subtracting seven years for the tribulation, they came up with a date of 2000 for the rapture. The year 2000 came and went, but speculation continued. Van Impe published 2001: On the Edge of Eternity. Not to be outdone, Church of God pastor Ronald Weinland published 2008: God’s Final Witness. There are many, many more examples of such titles, but you get the picture.
All of this indicates that, in one sense, the year 1000 was a year like any other year, but not because people were indifferent about eschatology. It was a year like any other year in the sense that Christians were seeing signs in current events and making calculations to determine the time of the end. This phenomenon, which Gary DeMar calls “Last Days Madness,” has been with us since the beginning. Many in the last several decades have said that AIDS is a sign of the impending end of the world. Fourteenth-century Europeans thought the Black Plague was a sign of the end. Many in the last century concluded that World War I or World War II was a sign of the impending day of doom. Christians in previous centuries thought the same about the major wars they witnessed. Every generation has seen its own wars, earthquakes, famines, comets, and more, and concluded that the end had to be near. Our generation has been no different.
Is there any lesson we can draw from the end-times anxiety that occurred toward the end of the tenth century? Is there anything we can learn from the date-setting that began prior to the tenth century and has continued unabated up to our own day?
First, we do need to remember that God will consummate history. There will be an end to history. Jesus will come again. The fact that there have been many incorrect datesetters throughout church history does not mean that there will be no end to history. What it does show is the precariousness of date-setting. Throughout two thousand years of church history, there have been countless Christians who have been absolutely convinced that they had read the signs of the times correctly, and they were wrong.
Second, we need to learn that prying into the secret things of God, things God has chosen not to reveal, is spiritually dangerous. When preachers and authors tell their readers and parishioners that the Bible clearly says that Jesus will return or that the rapture will occur on a certain date and it does not happen, this undermines confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture. If people are assured that the Bible, God’s Word, says that X will happen on a certain date and X does not happen on that date, people readily conclude that the Bible is in error. Those who repeatedly adjust their incorrect predictions inspire no confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture. Instead, they provide ammunition for skeptics and unbelievers.
The next time you walk into a Christian bookstore and see one of these books, or the next time you see an ad in a magazine or on television or the internet for one of these books, take a moment to think about it before you buy it. Rather than spend your money and time reading the latest author who claims to have finally figured out the date of the end, consider using that money and time for something better — to serve others in the name of Christ. Are there shut-in widows in your church? Consider using the $15 to buy one of them a meal, and spend the time you would have spent on the book visiting with her. Does your pastor live on a subsistence income? Consider using the money to assist him and his family. Consider a mission agency, a homeless shelter, or your deacon’s fund, or buy your wife some flowers. Any of these would be a better use of time and money.
The apostles themselves were chastised for gazing into the sky rather than getting to the task at hand (Acts 1:11). We too have plenty to do without wasting precious time speculating about something God has chosen not to reveal. Jesus Christ will come again at the time of the Father’s choosing. Until then, let us be found doing what He commanded us to do that we may not be ashamed at His coming.