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No. 1505:

Today, the Millenium. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

All this millennium foofaraw has sent me back to my old 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. It has a long article under the word millennium. In Christian eschatology the word has been used to designate some vague time in the future when, and I quote, "all human flaws will have vanished, and perfect goodness and happiness prevail." It's the time of readiness for the Second Coming.

Christian theologians used the word Chiliasm for this kind of thinking. That comes from the Greek word chilias, which means any group of one thousand items -- years in this case. The idea of a future time when we've been perfected isn't unique to Christianity. Other religions also look for that future.

One thousand was chosen, not so much on a Scriptural basis, as a way to suggest a large number. Our familiar algorithms of arithmetic were unknown when the idea arose. We didn't have means for expressing a thousand in terms of the tens and hundreds that make it up. When the Romans used the symbol M for a thousand, they revealed none of the number's structure.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Chiliasm is that it doesn't refer to the date when the Messiah is to come but, rather, to the duration of His reign on Earth. And the idea that the Messiah will come and reign for a thousand years isn't a Christian notion at all. It comes from late Hebrew scriptures, many of which don't even appear in the Old Testament of the Christian Church.

Early Christians expected this thousand-year era to arrive soon, but the millenium became a theological football in fourth-century Church politics. Finally the Church half-heartedly embraced an idea that St. Augustine had advanced when he was young. He'd argued that we were already living in the millenium. We had been since Christ's resurrection.

But that was a side road. The established Church soon laid it aside, and the year 1000 came and went without great significance. Chiliasm gained energy during the Reformation, however. For sixteenth-century Protestants, the Catholic Church was the Antichrist, and the millenium was just around the corner. Then, as Protestants gained a firm footing, they too quit talking about milleniums.

Milleniumism (or Chiliasm) resurfaced whenever society was torn by unrest. It turned up again during the Industrial Revolution. And we see a lot of it on this last day of 1999. That's not because of the round number 2000, for the millenium can supposedly start any time. Rather, it's because we live in times of immense social unrest. Wars, genocide, religious contention, and technological change have all reached a fever pitch.

The sad fact is, the year 2000 won't sort out our troubles for us. We'll still have to do the sorting. When we wake up Saturday morning, hard work and intelligent problem-solving will still be our lot. So I wish us all a Happy New Year as we settle in to deal with a world that will still be in ferment -- tomorrow morning.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

See the articles in both the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica and the current one. (The former article is far more comprehensive than the latter.)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Dürer
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Dürer