Longing for the Apocalypse
Yesterday I wrote about the apparent glee with which ancient astronaut theorist, sexual fetishist, and murder victim Erik Poltorak seemed to long for the coming Day of Judgment when the aliens would punish humanity for its sins. This of course is not unique to Poltorak and has been a part and parcel of Western civilization since the apocalyptic cults of Judaism started prophesying the End Times. Nevertheless, we seem to be in another period of apocalyptic fantasizing, and once again this fills the hearts of believers with glee. Here is U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann telling an evangelical minister recently how she longs for the cleansing fires to burn across the earth:
I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the end times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. […] Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice, Maranatha Come Lord Jesus, His day is at hand.
Bachmann is referring to Mark 13, in which Jesus describes the coming of the End Times, when God will cause suffering unknown in human history, but which the “elect” will escape. In Mark 13:28-29 Jesus says that when the leaf is on the fig, you know summer is coming, thus when you see the signs of sin and suffering, so too is Jesus about to return to cleanse the earth with fire. Caring soul that she is, she rejoices at the “days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.”
Let’s pause here to note that the belief that we are currently living in the End of Days is not a mainstream Christian belief. Most Protestant denominations and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches do not support the idea that the world is currently ending.
I can’t fathom how anyone can lust for the violent end of everyone but themselves, but it has a long Christian tradition. It is a longstanding article of faith that the saints in heaven will rejoice in watching the suffering and torments of those in hell, which serves as their entertainment. Tertullian tells us as much in De Spectaculis (30), where he hopes that the sight “rouses me to exultation,” and Augustine affirms the same in his City of God (20.22), where the saints “witness the torments of the wicked” through inspired dreams. Thomas Aquinas, in fact, called it the summation of the saints’ perfect happiness in Summa Theologica (supplement to Part 3, 94.1): “Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.” It was like the Coliseum, only so much better because God, rather than Caesar, was in charge of the show.
Bachmann joins a long line of such Rapture-ready believers, from Joachim of Fiore to William Miller, from Jim Jones to David Koresh. What all have in common, of course, is that their predictions of the imminent end of the world all failed, including Jesus’ own prophecy that the End Times would occur in his disciples’ own lifetime (Mark 13:30). Yet today, thanks to both media coverage and the election of a large contingent of apocalyptic believers to high office, these kinds of extreme beliefs have rarely had a larger platform. Today one in four Americans seriously entertains the notion that Barack Obama is the Antichrist, according to a USA Today poll conducted last spring.
It’s funny, I suppose, that you don’t hear much about apocalyptic Zeus-ism. Few among the ancients begged their fellows to repent before Serapis or Nodens ended all life, or filled themselves with glee at the thought. The Norse perhaps came closest with Ragnarok, though it’s not clear that the Norse end times existed prior to contact with Christian apocalyptic beliefs. Other cultures had a concept of cyclical time, but usually this was so fantastically far into the future as to be of no practical day-to-day utility. It is Near Eastern monotheism that made the apocalypse a daily worry in the West.
But it isn’t limited to Christian believers: Witness the rise of the doomsday preppers, survivalists preparing for all manner of calamities, mostly tied to their belief in a pending global economic catastrophe. Further out on the extreme are those who gleefully ponder the so-called “zombie apocalypse,” when, as in the Christian and Islamic tradition, the dead reanimate, but this time as objects of horror rather than perfected beings. These people obsessively plan their strategies for survival and seem genuinely desirous of the complete collapse of civilization.
On the other extreme, ancient alien and UFO believers long for the alien apocalypse, when, as in the Christian tradition, the savior will ride in on a cloud (being a UFO, of course) and shoot dead all the sinners with divine laser beams. Then the aliens will rapture away the true believers through a wormhole to the Orion nebula, or whatever dimension Ancient Aliens is blathering on about that week. Giorgio Tsoukalos never seems more animated than when he tells viewers how the ancient gods plan to return. Many New Agers were certain, until the deadline passed, that the Age of Aquarius would dawn on December 21, 2012, and “energy” would transform the world. Scott Wolter wrote in Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers that he thinks the new age really did begin that day.
But why now? Why is it that today apocalyptic ideology rings through the halls of Congress while twenty years ago it was a fringe belief that got one labeled a charlatan or a kook? We are not obviously in an apocalypse. Aside from the self-generated constitutional crises in Washington and the continued serious but not worst-ever economic downturn, by objective measures the world is safer than in decades past and life for the average non-elite individual is less harsh than it has ever been in most places. By most measures the crisis period between 1914 and 1945 was the closest humanity has come to a Biblical-style apocalypse, with its devastating wars, civilizational collapse, and plagues of locusts. The entire ruling elite of the pre-WWI world was swept from power, and with it the foundational political and social orders that had governed civilization in the West since the Middle Ages. We are still living in the aftermath, as the remains of the European imperial polities continue to break down into ever-smaller units, much as the Roman Empire broke into two halves and then innumerable petty fiefdoms.
But conditions after the attacks of September 11, 2001 seem to have unleashed new apocalyptic fervor (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson famously blamed minority groups and abortionists for calling down God’s wrath), but that was too long ago to be the whole answer. By then, we had already blown through four alleged apocalypses in just two years—the Nostradamus “king of terror” prediction for July 1999, the predicted Second Coming of Jesus in 2000, the Y2K computer apocalypse, and the Great Pole Shift of May 5, 2000—all of which failed as prophecy despite various levels of professed belief from the general public.
I think a partial answer lies in a new NBC/Esquire survey released yesterday. This survey looked at the 51% of American who form the political center between the left and the right. (By definition, there is always a center between extremes, though the definition of extreme drifts across time.) It is something less than representative and also seems to systematically exclude the most economically disadvantaged, who tend to have more polarized politics. In the poll, almost two-thirds of those in the center (65%) said that the growing diversity of the American population “inspires in them no sense of hope in the future.” The same number also believe that the rights of America’s white majority are also being suppressed by laws protecting minorities. Additionally, 40% believe that racial tensions will lead to race-based violence. This so-called political center is 78% white, meaning that nearly everyone who holds the abovementioned views is also white. Economically, they also share the view that life is getting worse (84%), and things won’t get better (62%).
Therefore, at a minimum, we can cut the numbers in half as a minimum percentage of the overall population. That is still an exceedingly large number.
When traditional power structures are threatened, those losing power retreat into cultural revitalization movements, typically focused on repairing perceived supernatural connections to the divine, often by focusing on repentance and sin. The apocalyptic imagery currently on display seems to be part of the broader crisis of identity faced by some white Americans at the loss of traditional positions of privilege in the face of diversity.
I think this also goes a long way toward explaining the resurgent popularity of creationism, ancient astronauts, and pre-Columbian European colonization of America in the last decade or so, particularly among white Americans, who make up the vast majority of the audience for alternative history claims. Creationism and ancient aliens are two sides of the same coin, the desire to revitalize traditional religion and thus the social hierarchy supported by certain forms of religion as both natural and mandated by God or the gods. These ideas both gained significant traction in the socially turbulent 1960s but have only grown in popularity since 2001.
Diffusionism, too, supports traditional hierarchies by reinforcing white Americans’ primacy in the social order through appeal to the idea that white people have always been here—long before those interloping minorities. In this case, imaginary Templar, Welsh, Irish, or other colonies serve both as prior claim to America as a homeland and also as a fictive origin point for American civilization free from the taint of original sin—slavery. These pure white colonies did not have racial minorities and therefore wipe clean the slate by positing an alternative America based on perceived core American values: freedom, individualism, religious belief, and independence.
The audience for the History channel and H2 almost exactly overlaps the NBC/Esquire poll’s “new center” in demography (though skewing a bit older and more male); therefore, it is reasonable to assume that America Unearthed and Ancient Aliens viewers also share many of the same anxieties and fears about the racial diversity of America and take comfort in narratives that reinforce the idea that white Americans (perceived, I am sure, simply as “people like me” rather than in racial terms) did great things, had always ruled over this land, and always will.
At least until Jesus comes back to kill everyone who isn’t just like them.
10/16/2013 08:29:12 am
10/16/2013 09:35:25 am
"End-time-ism" isn't unique to Evangelical Christians. "Twelver" Shites are an apocolyptic sect in Islam and they pray for the return of the Madhi which will signal the "end-times".
10/16/2013 09:36:45 am
Forgive the grammatical errors. I didn't proof-read before submitting...
10/16/2013 10:04:50 am
Lots of groups have apocalyptic ideas. Marxism, in its way, was apocalyptic, too, in its idea that after the conflagration of the Revolution of the Proletariat history would come to an end. But as you note, today only one type of apocalyptic ranting regularly gets TV time.
10/16/2013 10:22:52 am
Ah yes, the destruction of the bourgeoisie partly through self-immolation and in conflict with the proletariat.
10/18/2013 02:04:22 am
I think you're being a bit literal with those descriptions - the apocalypse described by Marxism (as rarely as the word was ever used) is getting rid of the power structures that have kept people poor and a tiny minority incredibly wealthy. It's worth repeating, but more people died during the filming of "October" than died during the actual October revolution.
10/16/2013 10:08:53 am
One other thing I wanted to mention is that the US is predominately White or White-identified.
10/16/2013 02:41:07 pm
"Perceptions about growing diversity not inspiring hope can be a result of perceived cultural upheaval when the diversity that is covered in the media seems to emphasis people who wish to keep their own languages and cultures and not assimilate into the predominate culture."
10/16/2013 11:45:02 pm
Sorry, Shane, the quote about inspiring hope was from another report about the survey that was broadcast on TV. It was also on the front page of NBCNews.com for a bit, but I can't find the article again to link to it. You are right, though, that the presentation of that response was not clear enough to understand exactly what was meant by the answer. Regardless, though, the answer suggests a lack of enthusiasm.
10/16/2013 09:55:12 am
A clay tablet dated at 2800BC was found that has the inscription "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."~Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts
10/16/2013 10:01:17 am
Degeneration was certainly the governing ideology for most of antiquity--witness Hesiod's Ages of Man. But the polytheists were usually less enthusiastic about predicting the imminent end of all flesh, at least in their own lifetimes. I hate to say it, though, but several versions of the "tablet" you quoted are in existence, and standard sources say they are spurious and originated sometime around 1917.
10/16/2013 10:08:24 am
As a Christian, I find anyone awaiting the end times with gleeful fervor, or the suffering of untold numbers of their fellow man to be music to the ears of the saints, quite frankly, fucking disgusting. Those stances fly in the face of the core tenets of Christianity: forgiveness, hope, salvation and mercy.
10/17/2013 04:41:24 am
Agreed. Such thoughts have no place in Christianity. Broken down to it's essence Jesus taught the "golden rule". So, finding joy in the eternal suffering of others is the exact OPPOSITE of what Jesus wanted from us.
10/17/2013 05:03:13 am
Islam has its apocalyptic sects, but Islamic extremism ("jihad") is tied to setting up an Islamic world government, not at bringing about the Judgment Day and the coming of the Mahdi. America does not really have an Islamic apocalyptic movement anywhere near commensurate with the Christian End Times media blitz. Therefore, it wasn't really relevant to this post.
10/18/2013 05:40:07 am
I don't know, Jason. While taking joy in the eternal suffering of sinners at some point in the future is no doubt appalling, it doesn't hold a candle to the joy taken by Muslim extremists worldwide who when infidels are wiped from the Earth in the name of Allah. I think the argument could be made that all of extreme Islam is an apocalyptic death cult.
10/16/2013 02:26:55 pm
10/16/2013 11:41:48 pm
Evangelical end times claims discuss the rapture, the tribulation, and the reign of the Antichrist. One may have in one's mind the eventual reign of Christ and/or the New Jerusalem, but that means looking forward to the time when 75%+ of humanity will die painful, horrible deaths to get there.
The Other J.
10/16/2013 03:20:35 pm
Part of this seems to stem from the misconception that rights are a zero-sum game. Of course they're not, but someone had to convince a segment of the population that that's the case, and that can probably be traced back to the Civil Rights movement and the Southern Strategy. (And that has 19th century historical precedents with business owners spreading ethnic propaganda among black and European immigrant populations, in attempts to keep them from forming unions or any kind of unified labor force.)
10/16/2013 03:26:17 pm
...personally, I think that BOREDOM is part of the equation. Being safe means that your life tends to be very routine--whatever that routine is. I'm not sure people so much revel in the idea of worldwide death as the idea of being the star of their own action movie. They'll have this awesome time being the Greatest Of The Greatest, and impressing Jesus with how awesomely pious and Crusader Against Sin they are (or whatever), and when that's done, they'll have all the wealth/women/fame/whatever they think Heaven is made of that they can stand.
10/17/2013 03:42:09 am
Apocalyptic fantasies or apocalyptic realities?
10/17/2013 03:57:34 am
So, let me get this straight: Even though I say that most Protestants and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches don't subscribe to this view, and even though Jesus himself tells his followers that no one will know the day or the hour, I am somehow anti-Christian for pointing out that there is no evidence we are currently in the Apocalypse? You're welcome to go prepare yourself for Armageddon, but Jesus told you that you can't know when it will happen, and he warned you that false prophets would tell you that it's coming.
10/17/2013 01:55:35 pm
I guess we misunderstood one another, as we are in agreement that there is no evidence we are currently in the Apocalypse. I was speaking about future events, not current events. Prophesy is different. Prophesy is unfolding and current, but not the Apocalypse. The two are separate issues, except that the Apocalypse is prophesied to occur.
10/17/2013 06:45:02 am
I see you're still trying to speak for all Christians.
10/17/2013 01:58:09 pm
Bill, I see you're still trying to make me speak for all Christians. Forget about it, dude. Check yourself. Get down and give me about forty.
10/17/2013 11:48:51 pm
Since you're the one that keeps using phrases like "Christians believe" in the absolute with no qualifiers, it seems safe to assume you feel we all share your worldview.
10/18/2013 04:14:15 am
I have no illusions about other people sharing my world view. I have never tried to be a Pied Piper, and most everything is still a mystery to me. We both know that everyone will eventually speak only for themselves. I will show what little light I have, on a hill. The light doesn't reach into the darkest corners of this blog. I have no illusions, except for my few imaginary friends. Bill, won't you be my neighbor?
I note God is referred to as 'He', as Christian religious doctrine is the centre of this discussion, one assumes this 'god' is extracted from the Christian bible, with Jesus being his only son?
10/22/2013 07:42:39 am
First, you explain in what way we might have been created in the image of God. Speak in spiritual and/or emotional terms, please, avoiding--for the time being--any sexual parts.
10/17/2013 11:02:47 pm
I can't help but wonder if a rise in apocalyptic thinking, both secular and religious, is partly the result of modern media. As you point out, for a lot of people the modern world is a lot more peaceful and safer than it used to be; but modern communications and a 24-hour news cycle mean that a lot of the suffering and danger than happens is much more accessible to people than it once was.
10/18/2013 04:27:27 am
In the UK, there are enough cameras to record every angle of being victimized. But what good are pictures in stopping the immediate violence at hand?
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