The Spiritual Side of Millennial Fears
Alan D. Strange
The countdown has begun. Apocalyptic predictions abound. Pundits and prophets warn that at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, computers (and computer chips embedded in all sorts of equipment) all over the world will malfunction, since they have not been programmed to recognize the year 2000 (the socalled Y2K problem). Since there are not enough experts to fix all the computer programs before 2000 arrives, doomsayers prognosticate dire consequences: air trafficcontrol systems will fail, national defense systems will crash, the IRS will be unable to collect taxes, vital utilities will fail, assembly lines will grind to a halt, etc., leading to widespread hardship, massive layoffs, and civil unrest. Such an apocalyptic scenario finds a ready audience both in the broader culture and among Christians.
During the past century, many evangelicals have embraced dispensationalism, with all of its pessimistic endtimes expectations. Predictions of gloom and doom fit right in with the dispensational worldview. But a number of Christians in the Reformed tradition have also sounded the alarm, claiming that the Y2K problem poses a serious threat to our modern civilization, and may even bring about its collapse. So as we approach the new year, Christians from various traditions, as well as many nonChristians, warn of impending disaster.
The Year 1000
This is not the first time that the end of a millennium has elicited widespread fear and concern. One thousand years ago, in fact, as the year 1000 approached, fear that the world was about to end gripped many in Christendom. Some folk thought that the thousand years of Revelation 20:3 were about to expire. The return of Christ and the end of the world were not good news to men and women who were fearful of divine judgment and were unsure of their salvation. Many felt that if the end of all things was at hand, they were sure to go to perdition.
Their fear is understandable, given the religious mentality of the medieval world. There was good reason to be concerned for the salvation of souls in the year 1000. Since a large portion of the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages, the prospect of standing before God's throne of judgment was terrifying. The church had abandoned Augustine's (not to mention the Bible's) view of salvation by grace alone. Rome taught that salvation was based not only on God's grace, but also on the merit of one's own faith and good works, and so one could never be sure of salvation. This produced in countless churchgoers a kind of theological angst as the end of the first millennium approached. The end of the world is bad news to those who are unsure of their eternal destiny.
Technological Fear Today
Medieval theological angst may seem quite remote from our technological angst at the end of the second millennium. But is it really? Every man, in his heart of hearts, knows God (Rom. 1). He either glorifies God or suppresses the truth of God in unrighteousness. This means that everyone, in a grave crisis, knows that he needs saving and is fearful of perishing. People today are no more sure of their eternal destiny than they were a millennium ago. Postmodern man, confronting a potential technological apocalypse, knows that he deserves to perish, regardless of the layers of selfdeception that he has accumulated in his pursuit of selfesteem. We are not worthy, and deep down we all know it. So our fear of technological doom is essentially the same as the fear of theological doom one thousand years ago. Even the hearts of Gentiles accuse them of lawbreaking (Rom. 2). All the talk of selfesteem is just our way of whistling in the dark, of seeking to avoid what we know to be the ugly truth about ourselves.
Only a few years ago, we were fearfully expecting technological destruction of a different sort. We lived in fear of "the bomb"atomic and nuclear destruction. That fear has lessened in recent years, with the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. Yet it has not altogether disappeared. Perhaps these nuclear weapons will fall into terrorists' hands, we fear, or at least the technology may be gained by thirdworld dictators and their henchmen. And this is to say nothing of the development of chemical and biological agents of mass destruction. So are the Y2K fears really all that new? We've always feared that something would wipe us all out. As Hollywood reminds us, if computer failure does not do us in, perhaps a great meteor will strike the earth or a virus will ravage mankind.
Ministering to Fear
All this fear stems from our being created in the image of God and living in God's world. We all know that God is holy, that we are not, and thus that we are liable to divine judgment. Christians throughout history have been confronted with societal fear of the end of the world. Augustine addressed such fears at the time of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in his masterwork The City of God (410). Christians at the time of the Black Death in 1348 had to bring a witness to a terrified Europe.
When men's hearts are failing them for fear, we have a golden opportunity to be the salt and light that Christ our Lord has called us to be (Matt. 5:13-16). Anything that destroys man's complacency affords Christians an occasion to proclaim that Christ is our only hope in life and death. If we know salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone through faith alone, as taught in the Scriptures alone, all to the glory of God alone, then we can hold fast to the Word of Life in perilous times and hold forth that Word of Life to men who fear destruction. If we fear the Lord, we need fear nothing else, and we need to proclaim this message to others (Ps. 27:1).
All this is not to deny that we should take prudent measures in light of Y2K. I do believe, though, that our problem is not so much technological as it is psychological. As Doug Wilson has written in Credenda/Agenda, "It is becoming increasingly clear that the Y2K problem does represent a significant problem. And it is also clear that huge problems could be created if enough people come to think Y2K is a problem even if it isn't a catastrophic programming problem." For example, if people think that banks will fail in January 2000, there may be a run on them in October 1999, causing a banking crisis. Or if people believe that the stock market will crash in January 2000, they may sell off their portfolios in November 1999, causing a crash.
But nothing that anyone advises about Y2K should be regarded as more than a helpful suggestion. None of us can foretell the future. But the church still has a prophetic witness to society. While we do not know whether the coming of Y2K will mean a little or a lot, we do know several things that ought to be proclaimed from the pulpits of this land with the full authority of the Word of God.
We Christians know that we as a church and as a nation deserve judgment. And judgment begins with the house of the Lord. We decry the failure of our civil justice system, of courts that mollycoddle criminals and do not give proper relief to the oppressed. And yet in how many of our church courts do we practice Godhonoring church discipline? We lament heavy state taxation and accuse the state of taking more than its share. And yet how many of us rob God and his church of the tithe that belongs to him? It is Christianseven in Reformed circleswho disregard God's law, do not observe the Sabbath day, and in general have much unmortified sin in their lives.
Some church officials deal with the ugly truth of disobedient church members by simply writing them off as false Christians. But their task is to call those who name the name of Christ to depart from iniquity. The Lord knoweth them that are his. It is the church's business to call all those who name that name (that is, who make a confession of faith) to depart from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19).
We hear much today about how our nation is ripe for judgment. Indeed, the sins of our nationabortion, homosexuality, official misconductdo cry out for judgment. Yet, as we have argued, the church is also ripe for judgment. We who are called by his name need to humble ourselves, pray, seek his face, and turn from our wicked ways (2 Chron. 7:14). It is we who need reformation. We are not instructed to pray for suffering. We are to pray, in fact, for relief in suffering. So we should pray that God would mercifully spare us in whatever Y2K may bring.
A Broken and Contrite Heart
When we truly pray for reformation and renewal, the prayer is first and foremost a prayer for a broken and contrite heart. God knows what needs to happen for us to have broken hearts. In his perfect plan, that may require a disaster. We do not pray for disaster. But we do pray for his kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. If God is pleased to hear and answer this prayer, he will first break us. How he chooses to do that is his business. We should continue to pray that he would remember mercy in the midst of the outpouring of wrath. And whether the fig tree blossoms or withers, whether we have feast or famine, we should say, "I will rejoice in the Lord" (Hab. 3:2,17-19).
The most important thing that we can do to prepare for Y2K, then, is not to get guns, gold, and generators, but to get a broken and contrite heart. Let us beseech heaven for renewal among the people of God. We have, in the OPC, far too little real brokenness of heart. Some of our churches downplay Calvinism, which, as Spurgeon said, is just a nickname for the gospel. Other churches are staunchly Calvinistic in their confession, but full of members who give little evidence of real communion with God and with each other as members of his body.
We need churches that are full of people who are consumed with the zeal of his house and are full of the fruit of the Spirit. How little we see of this. We see those who are zealous for their own particulars and appear to be strangers to love, joy, and peace. We see advocates of love, joy, and peace who have little zeal for holiness.
In the year 2000, we need men and women who are committed in the whole of their being to bringing the whole counsel of God to bear on every aspect of their lives and the life of the nation. We need the people of God fully engaged in all the means of grace, both publicly and privately, loving God and loving neighbor.
Until we see the church, the bride of our Lord Jesus Christ, renewed in her love and service, we should expect nothing but chastening. My prayer is that, in whatever chastening we receive as a result of Y2K, or whatever else God may bring, we would be renewed in our relationship with God and with each other in the communion of the saints.
Mr. Strange, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1999.