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The Evangelical Hysteria Surrounding Y2K

y2k

Remember Y2K?

Wikipedia has this to say about Y2K:

The year 2000 problem, also known as the Y2K problem, Y2K scare, millennium bug, Y2K bug, Y2K glitch, Y2K error, or simply Y2K refers to potential computer errors related to the formatting and storage of calendar data for dates in and after the year 2000. Many programs represented four-digit years with only the final two digits, making the year 2000 indistinguishable from 1900. Computer systems’ inability to distinguish dates correctly had the potential to bring down worldwide infrastructures for industries ranging from banking to air travel.

In the years leading up to the turn of the century, the public gradually became aware of the “Y2K scare,” and individual companies predicted the global damage caused by the bug would require anything between $400 million and $600 billion to rectify. A lack of clarity regarding the potential dangers of the bug led some to stock up on food, water, and arms, purchase backup generators, and withdraw large sums of money in anticipation of a computer-induced apocalypse.

Contrary to public expectations, few major errors actually occurred in 2000. Supporters of the Y2K remediation effort argued that this was primarily due to the pre-emptive action of many computer programmers and information technology experts. Companies and organizations in some countries, but not all, had checked, fixed, and upgraded their computer systems to address the problem. Then-U.S. president Bill Clinton, who organized efforts to minimize the damage in the United States, labeled Y2K as “the first challenge of the 21st century successfully met,” and retrospectives on the event typically commend the programmers who worked to avert the anticipated disaster.

Critics pointed out that even in countries where very little had been done to fix software, problems were minimal. The same was true in sectors such as schools and small businesses where compliance with Y2K policies was patchy at best.

I pastored Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan for twenty-five years. During this time, there were two predicted events that fueled widespread worry and panic among the people I pastored.

The first event was Edgar Whisenant’s prediction that the rapture — a moment when Jesus returns in the clouds and carries away every Christian from the earth — would take place between September 11-13, 1988. Whisenant wrote a small book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Almost five million copies of the book were given away free and sold at Christian bookstores.

The hysteria got so bad in the church I was pastoring that I had to preach a sermon denouncing the book. I was a Calvinist, so I believed nothing happened apart from God’s divine plan. My eschatological beliefs were different from many of the people I pastored. I was amillennial and posttribulational. I believed the church would go through the seven-year tribulation — a time of judgment and purification — before Jesus returned to earth. I rejected IFB eschatology, including the false notion that the rapture of the church was imminent.

On Sunday, September 11, Somerset Baptist Church had its largest attendance of the year. There was a buzz in the air, as people gathered together in anticipation of the rapture. I explained during my sermon the Biblical reasons why the rapture wasn’t nigh. I repudiated Whisenant’s claims. While some church members felt relief after hearing my sermon, others asked me, “preacher, what if you are wrong?” September 11-13 came and went. Jesus was nowhere to be found. Thirty-four years later, Evangelicals are still saying, albeit with much less gusto, that Jesus could return at any moment. Sure, and the 2022 Cincinnati Reds are going to make the playoffs and win the World Series.

The second event was Y2K. By this time, I was pastoring Our Father’s House, a nondenominational church in West Unity, Ohio. Our Father’s House was a close-knit congregation of 40-50 people. It was, by far, the best church I ever pastored. Outside of losing three crotchety older couples over our use of praise and worship music, Our Father’s House was the most peaceable church I ever had the privilege to lead.

As hysterical stories about Y2K began to circulate among church members, some people became worried and fearful. This led some families to start acting like survivalists. One family was so afraid of what might happen that they bought cases and cases of canned goods from nearby Campbell’s, made sure they could heat and light their home with kerosene, and bought numerous other items that would help them ride out the coming apocalypse.

Evangelical pastors in Williams County started a Y2K group. The goal was to help our churches survive what could happen on January 1, 2000. I attended all of one meeting. The group was dominated by pretribulational rapturists who saw Y2K as a sure sign of the imminent return of Jesus to earth to rapture away Evangelicals. I was still amillennial and posttribulational, and much as I did in 1988, I took to the pulpit to denounce the notion that the rapture was going to take place on January 1. Unfortunately, many congregants held Left Behind eschatological beliefs. What amused me was the fact that people were hoarding food, fuel, and other goods. Why? If the rapture was nigh, why leave huge caches of food to be used by the heathens left behind?

As with Edgar Whisenant’s failed rapture prediction, Y2K proved to be much ado about nothing (though it can be argued that coders likely fixed many of the date issues that could have caused serious problems). The family that hoarded all the food later donated it to our church’s food pantry. It took us two years to get rid of cases of canned food.

Do you have a Y2K story to tell? Please share it in the comment section.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    I remember the Y2K hysteria well. I didn’t think the apocalypse was imminent but, I admit, I hoped that maybe, just maybe, the glitches would wipe out my credit card balance. My then-partner, on the other hand, insisted on stocking up on canned foods. The first weekend after the apocalypse didn’t happen, we had a dinner party with some friends. The canned ham wasn’t bad. The canned vegetables (except for corn),, not so much.

  2. Avatar
    Harasong

    I was 10 during Y2K. We had a family New Year’s party at my aunt and uncle’s house. I remember just as we were counting down to the ball drop in NYC the lights in the house went off. Everyone was like, “Really?” Until we noticed all the neighbors lights still on. My uncle snuck down to the basement and turned off the breakers as a joke!

  3. Avatar
    Neil Rickert

    I was working in computer science at that time (I’m now retired). I can assure you that computer scientists were discussing the problem and preparing for it 20 years before the event. So yes, most of the software issues had been solved well ahead of the deadline.

    I was somewhat amused by the evangelical panic.

  4. Avatar
    Elaine

    My niece gave birth in late December of 1999. She was relieved at not going past midnight into 2000 because a co-worker told her that if she was still pregnant, Jesus would “absorb the baby right back into her body” or some such wacky woo.

  5. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Ah yes, Y2K. I was out of evangelicalism then. I was 29 days from my due date with my 1st child. We were spending the holidays at my mother-in-law’s house in CT, and my SIL and BIL and their 2 small kids were there too. We were watching the New Year’s Eve show and not hearing of anything happening around the world as the year 2000 rolled in….much ado about nothing. We didn’t do any prepping or anything…..

    I remember about the speculation that the “rapture” would happen in 1988 because it would be 4p years after the state of Israel was formed. Personally, I didn’t want it to happen then because it was the year I was to graduate from the fundamentalist Christian school and enter college, and I wanted to be able to celebrate my freedom…..

  6. Avatar
    Burr Deming

    Interesting.
    I’ll link to your wonderful (as usual) piece this weekend.

    One of several replays of the rapture occurred a few years ago.
    I was a member of our praise band.

    At rehearsal that night, the pastor reminded us of the latest Rapture prediction that had just come and gone.
    All the good people were to be transported, leaving only the spiritually deficient behind.

    “Another prediction proven false,” he said.

    There was a split second silence when I made the obvious reply:
    “How do you know?”

  7. Avatar
    clubschadenfreude

    I think I’ve shared this before, but my brother’s mother in law is a evangelical preacher, aka cult leader in western PA. she got her congregation to buy a farm because she was sure that “those people” from the cities would invade and the tribulation happening. So she filled the swimming pool with fish, got guns, etc. all nicely showing she didn’t trust her god at all.

    my husband, who resembles classic Jesus and/or motorcycle gang member, wanted to show up on her doorstep at midnight Jan 1, 2000 to watch how the “good christian” reacted.

  8. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    The 2-digit date problem truly was being dealt with far in advance of the changeover of the date. But any organization that offered devices or services where date handling might be issue (at least in the US) got flooded in early 1999 with letters from the lawyers of corporate users, saying (in proper legalese) “If what you’ve sold (or are selling) us has a Y2K problem on 1/1/2000, we will sue your ass off.” That tended to light a fire on companies who weren’t already checking the most remote corners of their operations for compliance. Probably funded a lot of lawyers’ kids attending private universities, too.

    I was working for a computer graphics chip company writing development software in Silicon Valley, and my tech-heavy social circle didn’t worry about the issue at all. But our extended families, wow! Many of us did a lot of handholding in 1999. Especially with the Christians, who didn’t tend to be immanent rapture believers, but whose church communities were abuzz with how civilization was gonna fail. Start of the Tribulation, human-generated evil, or simply that people weren’t meant to use evil things like computers (declared by the oldest folks)?

  9. Avatar
    gigglingtomyself

    I’d first heard about Y2K in late 1998 and followed the story. With all the advance warning, I think that coders saved the day. All the same, I stocked up a bit and decided to spend the New Year’s holiday at my parents’ house. Nothing much happened, but it was good practice in light of subsequent events.

  10. Avatar
    Troy

    I noticed a couple of issues. At the time I would frequent the “Where is Cassini Now?” page which showed the current progress through the solar system of the probe launched in October 1997. I remember that was messed up. Also the order of files in a machine I used at work was messed up. So there were some minor glitches.
    Just as an aside, the company “Initech” in the 1999 movie “Office Space” was fixing Y2K problems in software.

  11. Avatar
    amimental

    My homeschooling friends were pretty much okay with the whole Y2K thing, but we were all secular, so the god thing wasn’t an issue. Funny, though. My son’s girlfriend at the time had a dad who worked for Intel. He repeatedly told everyone things would be fine, that the world was not gonna end and there would be minimal computer issues, if any at all. But his wife went absolutely ape shit. She packed ‘bug out’ bags for each family member. She had 5 gallon buckets of flour and sugar and rice and beans and other dry goods. She hoarded a bunch of liquor and chocolate. Made 100 lbs (not a typo… it took her awhile) of beef jerky.

    The date came and went. She was very quiet about all of it.

    Still really glad Matt didn’t end up marrying that girl.Her mom wasn’t the only nut in the family.

  12. Avatar
    Kel

    I remember the “millenium bug” scare in my country. A popular children magazine I used to subscribe to even ran a drawing competition on the topic.

    However, due to language barrier, and the fact that I was quite young at the time, I couldn’t grasp what the problem was. Does “bug” mean “insect”? Or is it supposed to be a computer virus?
    Strangely, I couldn’t remember any particular church-related hysteria connected to Y2K. Eventhough the “Satanic Panic” was a constant background noise in my circle then.

    In hindsight, I am glad to have survived my childhood with relatively minimal psychological scars with all those fear-mongering and stories about Satan and hell all around.
    I should add, though, that the pastors we followed were mostly amillenialists and hence they tended to view end-times obsessions in a negative light.

    • Avatar
      brucedesertrat

      The use of the word ‘bug’ for an error in a computer program has a long and varied history…’bug’ as an engineering term of art has been around for a long time (‘working the bugs out’) and it was cemented into the lexicon by Grace Hopper (Admiral Grace Hopper, inventor of COBOL and pioneering computer scientist) when she documented an actual insect https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/worlds-first-computer-bug

      Now all the legends say this is the ‘first computer bug’ but careful reading says ‘first actual case of bug being found’ which implies they knew the bugs were a problem…their computer was built of glowing warm vaccum tubes after all, and they had repeatedly found dead moths inside the system, but never right where the error occured.

      My Y2K story is relatively tame. It involed spending lots of time installing lots of updates, and checking databases…and ducking out near midnight to log in and check that everything kept running. And a pmgoing lifetime habit of always, ALWAYS specifying years as full four digits.

      Yes there were many, many sites that did not fix all the Y2K issues, but the important systems were fixed, by the hard work of thousands and thousands of programmers and analysts for years beforehand.

  13. Avatar
    The Fish Whisperer

    Hey you need to write an update (of sorts) to this. After we survived Y2K, there was the Mayan calendar world ending scare and being Native I tried to explain to friends that at the end of the Mayan cycle it just starts over again in a new cyclical cycle. We currently have preppers at it again. I know people actively storing food, water and ammunition because many Christians are insisting Revelations is currently unfolding, and my New Age friends believe we are ascending onto New Earth. The Qanon and 1776’ers have their own version of the end times, so they have been laying in supplies for past several years. To be fair, there are also Climate Changers insisting the end is near because of harsh weather this year while never mind scientists had discovered decades ago that El Nino years will always have extreme weather events. The current year being an El Nino one. Astronomers also have said that the moon is currently ‘wobbling’ on it’s axis which will cause more magnetic pull on the Earth until the year 2030 when it settles down which will cause strong storms with particularly high amount of flooding situations. I’m afraid the next several months people will be going in hogwild panic and may even cause uprisings as so many people have been scared silly.

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Bruce Gerencser