Millennial Studies

Richard Landes is assistant professor of History at Boston University and the executive director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. The center is keeping track of and analyzing apocalyptic and messianic movements related to the coming millennium. Landes will talk with Terry Gross about the upcoming millennium as well as past millenniums.


Fresh Air Radio Show

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're just about two years and two weeks from the end of the millennium. That number 2000 is pretty potent. Some people are braced for doomsday, while others await the coming of the Messiah or the dawning of a new age. Cult groups, new age visions, and conspiracy theories are all flourishing.

My guest is monitoring all the action. Richard Landes is the director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. Landes is also a scholar of the millennial fever that surrounded the year 1000 and its predictions of plagues, famines, and apocalypse. The Center for Millennial Studies was formed two years ago with the mission of archiving all the manifestations of contemporary millennial fever.

RICHARD LANDES, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR MILLENNIAL STUDIES, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: My work indicates that one of the problems with identifying just what goes on at millennium moments is that they're so short-lived.

And so what you end up with is, you know, a millennial prophecy -- an apocalyptic prophecy -- is something like a ticket to the Super Bowl. You know, before the game's played, it's worth a tremendous amount -- it has a lot of power.

But once the prophecy fails, the only way it's gonna survive is by getting cleaned up -- you've got to get rid of the embarrassing stuff, maybe salvage some of the more interesting other stuff. But the actual, what I call the "booster rocket" of apocalyptic expectation has to be sort of bleached out of the text in order for it to survive.

So what -- one -- the purpose of the center is to, as much as possible, get this harvest of apocalyptic materials that is cropping up in so many places now, and archive it before it either fades or gets transformed by the passage of time.

These are -- you know, millennialism is an episodic phenomenon. It's not a - - it's long-term in the sense that it's constantly re-emerging, but when it emerges in public, it's for very brief and intense periods of time. So we want to -- we want to archive that.

GROSS: What do you think is the appeal in end of the world thinking? -- and a lot of millennialists subscribe to that end of the world thinking.

LANDES: Yeah, well, I think psychologically speaking, there's something -- there's a tremendous appeal to what you might call "megalomania." If you believe that you were chosen to live at the end of time -- that you are of the generation that is going to witness and maybe even participate in the final resolution of the cosmic battle between good and evil, you know, that's a pretty high place to be.

And if you're really drawn into this, you know, the very way you brush your teeth in the morning has meaning. So psychologically, I think there is that dimension. And of course, you get not only megalomania, but paranoia, and it's a great way to project all of your sort of fantasies and so on.

The second sense is a kind of sociological sense, and is related. And for this, I use the work of James Scott -- a book called "Dominance and the Arts of Resistance" where he talks about public and private transcripts -- or public and hidden transcripts. Public transcript is, you know, how you behave in public under normal circumstances. Hidden transcript is all the resentments that you have about having to smile when your boss makes a stupid joke and you really would like to tell him off, but you don't dare.

Well, one of the ways that we inhibit ourselves publicly is we think about what the consequences of our behavior would be in the future -- how the boss would retaliate if we were to say to his face "I just think that's tasteless and I think you're stupid."

So when you enter apocalyptic time, all this future consequential concerns drop away and you become uninhibited. And so, millennium moments are moments where you get a sort of bottom-up expression of the kinds of things that normally people don't dare say.

GROSS: Let's look at some of the current religious millennial views -- apocalyptic views. Let's start with Christianity. What --what is the "rapture"?

LANDES: OK, the rapture is this notion that there is going to be a seven- year period of terrible tribulation before the millennial kingdom. And therefore, God will choose those he wishes to spare this terrible thing because they are just people. He will literally, bodily take them up into heaven, and that will be the sign.

I mean, when people start disappearing, and the rapture people have, you know, very elaborate, almost tactile, imaginary scenarios of how, you know, you're gonna answer the door and there's nobody going to be there, or you're in a traffic jam and all of a sudden, you know, a third of the cars are empty.

And in fact, we have a sticker we picked up -- somebody produced a bumper sticker that says "when the rapture comes, may I have your car?"


So there's this -- there's this idea that, you know, these people -- these chosen people will be raptured by God into heaven, out of the physical universe, and then it's going to be seven years of absolute horror, and in the middle of that period, the antichrist will come and literally anybody who's left is going to be damned, not so much because God has abandoned them, but because the temptation of evil in this period will be so great -- it will be so hard to resist evil that everybody who is still around is going to get sucked in by the antichrist and condemned because of that.

GROSS: Are there particular Christian groups that believe in the rapture?

LANDES: Oh, yeah, there are a wide range of groups that believe in the rapture. And you know, all you have to do is go to what I call the "Bible belt" in your cable television stations. There are a series of stations.

You listen for more than 20 minutes and you'll get -- generally, you'll get both rapture and apocalyptic material coming up. My favorite is Jack Van Impe, who is one of the few to specifically select 1999/2000 as the moment when all this happens. Others are slightly less explicit in their attachment to the date 2000, but I think that, you know, the pattern is one where 2000 is clearly a day of great importance.

GROSS: Actually, I was just reading his homepage which is linked -- I got at it through your homepage...

LANDES: Right.

GROSS: ... you have a great millennial homepage...


... with all kinds of links. And on Jack Van Impe's homepage, he has like a message to people, and his personal message includes this, that current international events reflect exactly the conditions and happenings predicted throughout the Bible for the last stage of this age. Millions need to be alerted to the fact that Jesus is coming, perhaps today.


GROSS: So, it's imminent.

LANDES: Oh absolutely. And in fact, there are -- are tour groups who suggest that if you go to Jerusalem now, you could be there when Jesus returns. And I think that, you know, one of the things that I'm willing to predict, as a historian -- and this is based on my historical work -- is that there are going to be a lot of people going to Jerusalem in the year 2000. And the Israelis right now --remember, the Israeli government is by and large profoundly secular --think of these people as tourists.

And the evidence suggests that a lot of them will not be tourists, but what I call "millennial pilgrims." And that means that in some cases, they're going to go with one-way tickets. And not one-way tickets 'cause they're trying to save money, but one-way tickets because buying a one-way ticket is an act of faith; it's a way of showing your faith.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Landes, and he is the director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

Let's look at some Jewish millennial thinking. What are the groups within Judaism that subscribe to that? Are there any?

LANDES: Ah, well, there are plenty. You mean contemporarily, or back then?

GROSS: Well, contemporarily first.

LANDES: Well, contemporarily, the two major groups that are millennial in Judaism right now are the Lubavitcher Rebbe's followers.

GROSS: This is a Hasidic group and ultra-orthodox group.

LANDES: This is a Hasidic group, right, and in fact, their apocalyptic term, if you will, dates back at least to the rebbe before the one who just died, and is related to the Holocaust. And I think that there was a lot of apocalyptic thinking going on in the Holocaust that has been lost to us because, again, it's one of these things that fades.

And I think that probably far more Jews believed that they were living at the end of time during the Holocaust than, in a sense, the literature would suggest. That's just a hunch. I haven't looked into it, but I have spoken with people who confirm that.

But -- so the current Lubavitcher movement is -- it's interesting because it's interwoven with the last secular millennial wave in the West, which was the '60s. And Lubavitch -- the modern Lubavitch messianic movement dates from the late '60s and early '70s. And they -- a number of them really believed that the rebbe would be the messiah and would reveal himself as the messiah, and were terribly disappointed when he died.

The second group that's very strongly apocalyptic right now are the -- is the religious settlement movement on the West Bank. This is a movement -- there's a very good book by Abe Ravitzky about this. This is a movement that dates back to the origins of Zionism, which was secular but which had one religious spokesman, a rabbi named Ralph Cook (ph), and his followers have moved more and more in the direction of millennialism, or of apocalyptic messianism. And that dates back in particular to 1967 and the reunification of Jerusalem and the taking of the West Bank, and the cities -- holy cities like Hebron and so on.

So that's a second one, and they have started to get violent, and we see that first with Baruch Goldstein's attack on the Muslims at the mosque in -- at the tomb of Abraham in Hebron, and also in the assassination of Rabin.

And this is characteristic of one aspect that I think we need to pay a lot of attention to in millennialism, and that is when people are disappointed -- when their scenario that they're so serenely

confident in is dis-confirmed by events, one of the things that they tend to do is get violent.

And so that's something that we see now, with -- since Oslo. Oslo was, in a sense, you know, the thing that reversed what should have been the juggernaut of redemption for these messianic Jews.

GROSS: Now, what about the world of Islam? Is there a lot of Muslim faith in the apocalypse at the millennium?

LANDES: Islam has a tradition that every 100 years can be --there are various ways of phrasing this -- either it's a moment of renewal, a moment of profound renewal, or, and I think that this is probably more likely a way to understand it, before the 100-year marker comes, as opposed to after, it's a moment when the hidden body or the equivalent, if you will, of the second coming of Jesus -- it will happen.

And so if you go through Muslim history, you can literally pinpoint every hundred year marker as a period where some fairly remarkable things happen. I mean, this is what I call the "geography of sacred time," which people in the State Department would do well to pay attention to. The last century marker for Islam was 1979, which was the year that Khomeini took over in Iran.

And I think that -- that, you know, if you look at what happened in Teheran in that year, with these millions of people gathering in the square protesting the government, and then the government would shoot them down and then there'd be 40 days of mourning. And then, there'd be another million people out in the square protesting the government. You have a good sense of the kind of collective power that a millennial belief can bring.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies.

What are some of the new age signs that the millennium will bring apocalypse?

LANDES: Well, again, let's -- I mean -- let me change -- that the millennium will bring some kind of major transformation. "Apocalypse" is probably too...

GROSS: Right. That's just one scenario.

LANDES: ... intense and too religious a word.

GROSS: Right.

LANDES: Yeah, that's one scenario.


LANDES: I think new age is definitely millennial. I think that, you know, when it kicked off -- at least the current version of new age kicked off in the '60s, the Age of Aquarius was unquestionably in my mind millennial rhetoric; that you had a wave of people who let's say climaxed either at Woodstock or possibly the Chicago riots in 1968 or whatever. Sixty-eight was sort of the big millennial year back then.

You had people who believed that the world was on the edge of a radical transformation, and that the future would be unrecognizable or the past would be -- would vanish and there would be a really different way in which people dealt with each other, treated each other, and so on.

So that's all millennial thinking, and I think new age has never really given it up. It sort of went underground or went -- went out of the public eye during the big chill. But I think there's plenty of evidence that it's coming back. I know there are lots of groups of -- it's unfair to call them "'60s retreads," but you know, lots of groups of people who are planning all sorts of big peace movements for the year 2000.

And then again, new age has picked 2012 as their big -- 'cause there's a Mayan calendar that gives us information up to 2012, and then after 2012 it stops, and there are new age thinkers who are taking that as a sign that this was a prediction from the Mayan who where a -- a native religion -- that this will be the end point.

So you get that -- you know, you had the harmonic conversion several years ago and stuff -- that's built-in to the new age belief. And so you've got that, and then that hooks up with things like ecological concerns. There's a lot of apocalyptic rhetoric at Kyoto. Greenpeace uses apocalyptic rhetoric. Apocalyptic rhetoric is really valuable because it gets people motivated.

If I tell you to go recycle your stuff and, you know, save your garbage or whatever or make all these sacrifices for the sake of the Earth, you know, if I say, well, 'cause otherwise in 100 years the Earth could be in trouble, that's not really going to motivate you. But if I say, you know, we don't do something in the next five years, the Earth could choke on its fumes, then I might get your attention.

GROSS: And do you find militia groups are using millennial thinking to support the bearing of arms?

LANDES: Right. Oh, yeah, unquestionably. I mean, you know obviously something like Waco was, you know, you can't ask for a better combination of weapons and apocalyptic interpretations in the Bible and so on.

The militia groups, in fact -- the Center for Millennial Studies has attracted a number of people who come from studying right-wing militia groups who are not trained in apocalyptic scholarship at all, but who find more and more just how much of this kind of material is, in fact, apocalyptic and are quite struck by it. And the work of

Michael Barkin (ph) and of Paul Boyer and of Chip Berlay (ph) are all works that indicate just how powerfully apocalyptic the militia groups are.

GROSS: Now, you are a Medieval scholar, and one of the things you've studied intensively is the first millennium...


GROSS: ... and what the movements were around that millennium and what happened afterwards when the apocalypse didn't happen; when no great change happened. What were some of the predictions right before the year 1000? What were people expecting?

LANDES: Well, first of all, as we mentioned at the beginning of this interview, a lot of the documentation is lost. I mean, we just don't know what people were saying because there was no printing press. We have a much better idea what was going on in Protestant apocalypticism because of the printing press.

But by and large, there's nobody there who's really recording. For instance, we hear from Abel of Flouris (ph) that the end of the world -- that there was a preacher preaching the end of the world somewhere in his youth, let's say about 970, and he said that in the year 1000, the antichrist would be unleashed and shortly thereafter would be the last judgment.

OK, so that's one scenario. It's what you might call the -- the post- millennial scenario, which is the millennium has already been in progress; the reason that the world isn't perfect already is because it's an invisible millennium -- that's Augustine's argument. And now we're coming to the end of the millennium predicted in Revelation; we're coming up to the release of antichrist and he will be defeated in the battle of Armageddon, and then God will judge the quick and the dead, and the good will go to heaven and the bad will go to hell. And it will be the end of the physical universe. OK?

The other version, which I think is the more radical and more, shall we say, consequential version, is a belief that we are on the verge of the transformation of this world. That is, that the people who dominate this world now -- the people who are unjust, the people who are corrupted by power, and who oppress the people who are powerless -- are about to be punished by divine forces and a new age is about to dawn on the Earth.

And that, I think, is a more consequential belief. And I personally -- and again, I don't have a whole lot of evidence for this, although I think I have considerable evidence, if it's read correctly -- I think that that was the widespread belief amongst the commoners, as opposed to the elites.

Again, we only have what the elites thought. We -- there was no commoner -- nothing is written in the vernacular around this period. The only period who are leaving records are the clerics who are writing in Latin and so on.

GROSS: You're very interested in what happens to the people who are disappointed that the millennium did not bring cataclysmic change.

LANDES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So what happens when we crossed that threshold of the first millennium and cataclysmic change has not happened? Do you know anything about what happened to the millennialists?

LANDES: Yeah, I think that there are a couple of things that are quite clear. First of all, and we know this from modern movements, nobody gave up. You know, people didn't say: "oh, well, I guess we got it wrong. Let's quit. " For one thing, I think probably the next millennial date was three and a half years later, and people interpreted 1000 as the unleashing of the forces of antichrist, and then three and a half years later the good guys would take over. So you got to delay it three and a half years.

And I think that's where you get the seven years of the tribulation, which is three and a half years before the millennium, plus three and a half years after the millennium. You have your seven years of tribulation.

But the next big apocalyptic date that everybody settles on is the millennium of the passion, 1033. And I'm willing to predict right now that Christians will redate after 2000 to 2033, and that we can expect another wave of Christian apocalyptic expectation and messianic hopes and so on around 2033.

GROSS: Which is the anniversary...

LANDES: And certainly...

GROSS: ... of Christ -- of Jesus' crucifixion.

LANDES: ... yeah -- it's the bi-millennium of the Passion, right.

GROSS: I'll bet you're glad that you're alive to witness this period leading up to the millennium.

LANDES: Well, you know, there's an old Chinese curse that says "you should live in interesting times." And I think we definitely live in interesting times and I think that there are very serious problems that could arise from disappointed millennialism, and I think that, you know, just to give one example, Christians tend to be philo-Semitic in pre-millennial moments, and they tend to get anti-Semitic in post-millennial moments.

So I think that, you know, there are all sorts of things to worry about. There's a tremendous challenge right now to civil society that some of the more radical and more paranoid and more violent forms of millennial thinking can bring about.

But I also think it's a moment of tremendous opportunity, and I certainly don't plan to stick my head in the sand and say, ah, it's just a construct of the human imagination and of not great significance, and I'll just, you know, sort of -- I'll sleep through the millennium and wake up and everything will be the same.

GROSS: Richard Landes, is it premature to wish you a happy new year?


LANDES: No, I think that's -- I think we should all be wishing ourselves a happy millennium.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LANDES: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Richard Landes directs the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.


The views and opinions stated within this web page are those of the author or authors which wrote them and may not reflect the views and opinions of the ISP or account user which hosts the web page.

Return to The Skeptic Tank's main Index page.

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank