Whether the new millennium will usher in the beginning or the end is the subject of heated debate. Many people can't even agree on when the millennium begins.

While most will celebrate the turn of the century Jan. 1, 2000, the century will not actually end until Dec. 31 of that year. Which means the new millennium starts Jan. 1, 2001.Either way, it's a dynamic time for people of faith. Pope John Paul II has called on Catholics to come up with their own ways to celebrate the occasion. Mainstream Christians promise they will use the turning of the calendar as a time to celebrate 2000 years since Jesus Christ's birth, death and Resurrection. Evangelical groups are intensifying their proselyting efforts.

Companies and governments are scrambling to solve the "Y2K" (Year 2000) computer problem. The more pessimistic among them predict that planes will crash and monetary systems will fail if computers are unable to distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900.

And doomsayers predict the end of the millennium likely marks the end of the world as we know it.

So great is the paranoia that Robert M. Blitzer, section chief for the domestic terrorist unit of the FBI, recently told the Los Angeles Times that the agency early next year will launch a nationwide assessment to determine what to expect around the turn of the century from militant doomsday groups.

"I worry every day that something could happen somewhere," Blit-zer was quoted as saying.

The doomsday view is called apocalypticism, from a Greek word that means to unveil, disclose or reveal, according to Stephen Stein, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University. He spoke last weekend to members of the Religion Newswriters Association, holding its annual meeting in Atlanta.

"It means something hidden or disclosed, and apocalypticism embraces diverse expectations concerning the impending end" of the world, he said.

History, both religious and cultural, is rich with images and symbols of the apocalypse: The Antichrist. The Beast. The Battle of Armageddon. They are "signs of the times." And while some believe it will usher in a time of peace and prosperity on Earth, others believe it portends plagues, famines and even a time when the American government will turn on its people.

"Apocalypticism appeals to the human desire to know the future," he said. To that end, everything from the Book of Revelation to Nostradamus' predictions have been interpreted and reinterpreted.

Survivalists have even coined a name for themselves: TEOTWAWKI. The End of the World As We Know It. They're moving to rural areas and storing arms and food supplies for the coming battle. An Idaho businessman who specializes in food storage reports that a man flew in recently and plunked down $50,000 for supplies. Food storage businesses have never had it so good. A "preparedness expo" drew thousands from around the country.

None of it surprises Stein or his fellow panelist, Michelle Bramblett of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"Our apocalyptic hopes are often intertwined with judgments about modern times," said Stein. As for the symbols, they are subject to different interpretations. Some believe in divine intervention in the shaping of a new world. Others believe mankind can only count on itself to provide a shape. And "apocalypticism is not an exclusively religious topic. Rhetoric, symbols and imagery all figure in secular discourse," Stein said. "Secular apocalypticism clearly feeds off religious apocalypticism."

He cites the suicide of Heaven's Gate cult members as a clear example of groups that believe times will change with the turning of the millennial calendar. "The tragic episode is not so puzzling" when considered in terms of apocalyptic religious and secular beliefs," he said.

Apocalyptic language also permeates our culture, according to Stein. Environmentalists, politicians, fundamentalists, evangelists, conservatives and liberals have all appropriated it to make their points and to justify their actions.

The approaching millennium has also given birth - or at least added urgency - to the Christian Identity Movement and the actions of bigots and hate groups, according to Bramblett. Some claim that people of color are descended from Eve and the serpent. Others espouse the idea that Jews are part of a satanic plot to unite everyone under one world government so the devil can come back and take over, she said.

"There are many extremists who believe God is on their side and they have divine permission to hate and kill."

She points to a group that was arrested plotting to poison water supplies. And a bank robber and bomber in Spokane who warned, after his arrest, that "Babylon is about to fall. Repent."

In July, a publication called Jubilee warned that the year 2000 will usher in "The" race war.

Still, others are awaiting a millennium full of friendship and promise. During the recent Southern Baptist Convention, plans were unveiled for a huge, multi-city New Year's Eve party for teenagers.

During a recent annual meeting of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, plans were made for unprecedented proselyting and a celebration of Jesus' 2000th anniversary.

Most people are just hoping their computers will survive the Y2K problem.