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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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