Is it the end of the world as we know it?

I’m a skeptic on this whole “millennium end-of-the-world” thing. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the new millennium begins on January 1, 2001 — not 2000.

So I took my skepticism with me to a symposium at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Oct. 22 held in conjunction with “American Apocalypse: Images of the End from the Millennium Watch Archive,” an exhibit there of a collection of literature that reflects belief in a global change at the end of the century.

The small room was packed with about 30 seekers of wisdom, and the four wise professors shared their knowledge about millennialist thinking. Millennialists, I learned, believe in a radical transformation of the world as we know it. They also believe in conspiracy theories.

The first speaker — Richard Landes, cofounder of the Center for Millennial Studies in Boston and history professor at Boston University — explained the two schools of millennialist thought. Either the world will be totally annihilated (i.e., only the cockroaches survive) or it will be transformed into “The Peaceable Kingdom” in which fellowship and understanding abound.

Explaining the cockroaches-win view, Michael Barkun, member of the board of directors of the Center for Millennial Studies and political science professor at Syracuse University, emphasized that many millennialists are conspiratorialists. These pessimists believe that tragedies from John F. Kennedy’s assassination onward have been the work of a new world order, which could be composed of “internationalists, the super rich, forces of anti-Christ, alien races and their terrestrial dupes, Jews, Catholics, Masons, Communists or a variety of other sinister forces.”

Conspiratorial thinking was also on the mind of Stephen Marini, religion prof at Wellesley. “What fan of the Phillies, the Red Sox or the Cubs has not experienced eternal hope in the spring and bitter, chastening judgment in the fall?” Marini asked. In light of the “conspiracies” that cause promising teams to fail, year after year, he explained, we as a “too eschatological” America are “hoping for a messiah — or a Greenspan — to lead us to the next millennium.”

Some people in the audience took the theories more to heart than others.

One woman, dismayed by the professors’ failure to expound upon the specifics of the Second Coming, explained that it was going to occur on May 5, 2000, in Philadelphia — and the Messiah would be a woman.

Originally published on November 11, 1999