The End of Days
Christianity has always been oriented toward the apocalyptic. Everything is suffused with a longing for the otherworldly, the end of days, the second coming of Christ, with its attending triumph for the chosen ones and torment for unbelievers. Growing up in a very fundamentalist church (which I often refer to as a sort of cult), I was pretty afraid of the last book of the Bible, Revelation, with its fantastic and dark imagery of torment for those who weren’t a part of God’s elect. I suspected I very well might have been with that lot or had the potential to be. I was a sinful and pessimistic child.
Our cult didn’t really have particular views on eschatology; we only thought about it in vague, broad strokes. And even if we ever did have concrete views, they would shift with the whims of our in-house prophet and de facto leader, Bonnie. According to her, the last days sure as hell weren’t going to look the way it they were depicted in the “Left Behind” series of films, which dramatized the end times in Hollywood blockbuster style. To this day, I don’t know exactly why Bonnie forbade us to watch those films, but few things were ever clear in the cult.
I do know that we believed in the rapture: the idea that God’s elect would one day and unexpectedly be spirited into the sky to meet Jesus upon his second coming. (But don’t call it a comeback—Christ’s been here for years, within our hearts. #Blessed.) Bonnie was fond of saying goodbye to fellow believers by exclaiming, “See you soon, or in the air!” That scared me. I wanted to live my life, to have a family, a career, to partake in the temporal pleasures afforded on this earth. Heaven didn’t seem too exciting anyway, not to a kid.
Our bent toward the apocalyptic and otherworldly manifested in real and material ways. As with many cults in the 1990s, ours became obsessed with the new millennium. Something about the shifting from one epoch to another really excites the religious mind. Also, this idea of a millennium (spoiler alert) is kind of important in the book of Revelation. Millennialism is the name we use for a belief, derived from a passage in Revelation, that Christ and those who were martyred during the last days will rule the world for 1,000 years while Satan is locked up in a special prison—a bottomless pit. I think he gets out at some point before he’s defeated for good, but that’s for another day. The leaders of our cult were often very much convinced that Christ would return very soon and cautioned us to “stay right” with the Lord lest he arrive when we weren’t holy enough or something and we be left behind. While it’s mum on the exact day of Christ’s return (not even Jesus is privy to the info; only his father knows), the Bible lists a few signs, which I remember as being kind of vague (e.g. “wars and rumors of wars,” famines, earthquakes, basically stuff that happens all the time, and then shit will get a lot worse from there. [Upon further research, I’m vastly oversimplifying this and there is much on the internet if you’re interested. Some see specific events, like formation of the European Union and the State of Israel, as signs predicted in the Bible.]). Enter the Y2K bug scare, something that had all of the elements needed to inspire those obsessed with the end of days: a failure of man-made technology, an association with entering a new epoch, an event that had the potential to trigger wars, famines, etc.
In the late ‘90s, there was real concern among the authorities and news media about the so-called Y2K bug, which, in broad strokes, was a worry that computer systems would not be able to handle the changeover from 1999 to 2000. This was supposed by some to lead to massive failures of these computer systems, which would trigger a series of unfortunate events, cascading further and further into world chaos: the loss of social order, food and fuel shortages, citizens running riot; you know, the kind of ideas that appeal to those who believe the end is nigh / those who listen to conservative talk radio. Evangelical leaders, like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, warned Christendom that bad stuff might go down, so be ready. They really played up these fears. If if this wasn’t the Second Coming, it would be something like it, a black swan event, and the world wouldn’t necessarily be ready. In their minds, ancient apocalyptic predictions and anxieties were now bleeding into mainstream news stories about failing technology.
In maybe 1998 or 1999, our church held an emergency night meeting to discuss what we could do about Y2K. From the pulpit our pastor asked whether anyone had any ideas. I was too shy to pipe up during the meeting, but afterward I told my parents and then the pastor that I had an idea to build a hydroelectric generator on the river in our town. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think the river freezes in winter, so we could use it year round,” I told Pastor Chet. I was proud of this idea. Chet said he liked it, too, but wasn’t sure how feasible it would be. We left it open-ended.
For the next year or two, dread and worry about Y2K loomed like something out of a DeLillo novel. And in the waning months of 1999, we began preparations. My parents purchased cans and cans and boxes and boxes of food. We bought sterno stoves for cooking. Gallons and gallons of water sat in our pantry. Some were purchased and others were gleaned from the tap and sanitized with a dollop of bleach. We talked about chaos in the streets. I worried that others would want our stores of food and water. We weren’t even sure anything would happen, but we weren’t about to be caught unprepared.
I noticed though that the rest of the world didn’t seem to be as worried about Y2K as we were. Surely we knew something they didn’t. Surely we were wiser.It was like story of Joseph in Genesis, the first book of the Bible and a narrative about the beginning of days, who had the foresight to store Egyptian grain surplus during seven abundant years in preparation for seven years of famine. He arrived at this information after interpreting the pharaoh’s dreams, and Egypt was the only nation in the region that was prepared for the lean years.
New Year’s Eve
We filled with water our tubs at home the night of December 31st and watched the countdown in Times Square on TV. I was a little anxious, but I was more excited. At 12, I could have used a little excitement in my life. I mean, we’re talking about the same kid who would later save reams and reams of newspapers from the disputed presidential election of 2000 for posterity’s sake, and thought that was awesome. This had to be good.
At midnight, nothing happened. No power outages. No looting. Nothing. Water still came out of our faucets; our neighbors were still abiding by the law. I was a little disappointed, maybe even a little chagrined. It was an anticlimax.
Now we had an almost unlimited supply of tasty dry foods, like sugary cereals, but we also had a lot of canned beans and canned veggies, which we ate for months afterward. I felt a little silly. Christians were supposed to be privy to God’s wisdom, a higher wisdom than “worldly” wisdom. We looked foolish, and I think it stung every time I looked at our overstocked pantry or ate canned beans for the umpteenth time.