What is the deal with the millennium? I understand that people think years ending in zeros are significant, so it follows that a year ending in three zeros is really significant. But for years I have 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 are envisioning one heckuva New Year’s Eve party or there’s something else going on. What? And what happened the last time the millennium came around? –N.E. Buddy, via the Internet

My feeling is it’s mostly media hype. Although maybe we should be more concerned than we are. There is, after all, the chance of a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, and some think half the world’s computers will shut down due to the “year 2000” bug. But frankly I’m seeing way less millennial anxiety now than 30 years ago, at the height of the cold war. As for commemorating the millennium, as opposed to merely fearing it, what are 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, those were 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 Revelation 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 of passages in the Bible state that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

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

(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 shouldn’t even be having this discussion.

(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, maybe 4,000 or 5,000 years.

(5) The world as we know it obviously didn’t end in AD 1000; that is, the world wasn’t 6,000 years old then.

(6) So it’s bound to happen now.

As I say, it’s not ironclad logic. In his book Questioning the Millennium Stephen Jay Gould says that if we accept the famous calculation by Archbishop James Ussher that the world began on October 23, 4004 BC, then, allowing for the fact that there was no year zero, the everyday world ended October 23, 1997, and we’re in the millennium now. 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. So far this millennium is shaping up to be a bust too. Still, while most of us personally don’t expect the arrival of the millennial angel, one can’t help but think: there are some that do. Will they celebrate with a picnic…or apocalyptic slaughter? Plus there’s the possibility that, due to the aforementioned Y2K problem, the cop cars won’t work. Call me a wuss, but I’m spending my New Year’s Eve at home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.