BOSTON — It was a routine interfaith gathering, a time for religious leaders to discuss community problems like crime and teen pregnancy. Amid the holiday chat, a minister of a large evangelical church casually remarked that 2000 might mark a "second coming."
Suddenly, conversation stopped. Priests, pastors, and rabbis shifted uncomfortably as the minister, undaunted, went on about "big changes" a new millennium brings to Christianity.
Many Christians and Jews find it easy to dismiss extravagant claims about the millennium. Most Americans reject Hollywood images of divine intervention or of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse riding toward Times Square as the clock strikes 2000 (or 2001).
Yet as the big date nears, popular interest in millennial themes and apocalyptic "signs" is far outstripping the response to it from mainstream clergy. A constant buzz about dramatic changes ahead permeates much of society - from underground magazines on the Virgin Mary, to New Age Web sites about Diana's purported role as a spiritual guide, to fundamentalist Christian radio stations that feature talk of "end times." Indeed, 35 percent of Americans believe it's possible that a battle of Armageddon is coming.
Many religious leaders, however, feel ill-equipped to address millennial themes.
"Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and other clergy still feel a little uneasy speaking to millennial questions that lie outside their ordinary training," says Michael Barkun, the author of nine books on millennialism. "But this stuff is so permeating popular culture and new religious movements, they will have to. Their congregations are demanding it."
In fact, a quiet minority of religious scholars are pointing out that millennial themes fall well within America's religious traditions.
"For the Christian, the times are always in God's hands. That means a specific year like 2000 is a nonevent," says religious historian Martin Marty. "[But] if you simply refute or make fun of ... millenniarian thinking, you lose some of the urgency of this basic Christian idea that history has a meaning, a story."
Expectation of a coming kingdom of God, or hope of a "new heaven and new earth," has roots throughout history, particularly in America. It also has profound meaning for many contemporary Christians who interpret it not as a one-time event on Earth but as a spiritual destiny to be increasingly realized. For them, the idea of the millennium needs to be rescued from extremists and science-fiction writers.
"A utopian hope has been central to the American experience from the beginning," says historian Paul Boyer, author of a book on prophesy and American culture. Such hopes "have had enormous impact on society and the way we've developed."
A millennial, or utopian, vision of a more holy society infused early American society. Puritan writings about the new world depict scenes from Isaiah, in which the lion and lamb lay down together. Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" describes the apocalyptic "fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword" - to free Southern slaves. Christian progressives at the turn of the century borrowed millennial ideas from the Bible to devise social policies like child-labor laws. More recently, Martin Luther King called for "justice running down like water," one of many millennial images he used to further his dream for equality for African-Americans.
This rich religious imagination has been ignored in recent decades, scholars say, because of its links to now-discredited policies. Millennial ideas fed visions of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century, for instance, which was invoked to excuse the conquering of peoples and the exploitation of resources in the US.
Today, Promise Keepers rallies in stadiums around America contain strong millennial overtones, says Richard Landes of the Center for Millennial Studies in Boston. "It's like a 'millennial warming,' " he says. "These men want a new paradigm in the relationship between men and women in the family, which they feel will bring larger social changes."
In Christian circles, the countdown to 2000 is stirring debate. Christians can fundamentally agree that human life, once it has been experienced in the light of Christ Jesus' work, is not the same as it was, says Dr. Marty. It becomes increasingly different from the ordinary "worldly" sense of life, he says.
The debate comes between "pre-millennialism" and "post-millennialism," which embrace different views of God's overall design or plan in human history.
Post-millennialists view the important battles of the end times as having already occurred - mainly in the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther challenged the Pope, which allowed lay people more access to the light of Scriptures. To the post-millennialist, most of whom today are on the liberal mainline side of Protestantism, the task is to better the world in preparation for Christ's reappearance.
Pre-millennialists, on the other hand, believe the final earthly and heavenly battles have not yet been fought. For them, history is leading to a dark catastrophe that will inaugurate the second coming of Jesus.
Since the mid-20th century, the conservatives have dominated the discussion of millennialism in the US, partly because liberals did not want to be associated with doomsday rhetoric of the religious right.
"For the last 40 years or so, a lot of respectable divinity schools have shied away from talking about 'last things,' " says Rodney Peterson, author of "Preaching in the Last Days" and director of the Boston Theological Institute. "The millennium was discussed in psychological terms rather than as a great historical question for the churches."
Some of the most extreme behavior emerges from pre-millennialism: the Branch Davidian standoff, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Heaven's Gate cult suicides. All had elements of a coming apocalypse.
Still, the 20th century, with its Holocaust and nuclear-weapons capability, gives plenty of ammunition to pre-millennialists, say some religious scholars. "World War I and World War II had a shattering impact on the optimistic liberal position," says Dr. Boyer. "It's been a bloody century, and you can see why some Christians are pessimistic."
For many Christians who share neither view, the millennium is a promise fulfilled by daily spiritual progress and tough-minded hope.