Skip to comments.The End of the World: Why do end-of-time beliefs endure?
Posted on 12/21/2004 2:48:52 PM PST by MississippiMasterpiece
A VERICHIP is a tiny, implantable microchip with a unique identification number that connects a patient to his medical records. When America's Food and Drug Administration recently approved it for medical use in humans, the news provoked familiar worries in the press about privacy-threatening technologies. But on the notice boards of raptureready.com, the talk was about a drawback that the FDA and the media seemed to have overlooked. Was the VeriChip the mark of the beast?
Raptureready.com runs an online service for the millions of born-again Christians in America who believe that an event called the Rapture is coming soon. During the Rapture, Christ will return and whisk believers away to join the righteous dead in heaven. From there, they will have the best seats in the house as the unsaved perish in a series of spectacular fires, wars, plagues and earthquakes. (Raptureready.com advises the soon-to-depart to stick a note on the fridge to brief those left behindhusbands, wives and in-lawsabout the horrors in store for them.)
Furnished with apocalyptic tracts from the Bible, believers scour news dispatches for clues that the Rapture is approaching. Some think implantable chips are a sign. The Book of Revelation features a mark that the Antichrist makes everybody wear in their right hand, or in their foreheads. Rapturists have more than a hobbyist's idle interest in identifying this mark. Anyone who accepts it spends eternity roasting in the sulphurs of hell. (And, incidentally, the European Union may be the matrix out of which the Antichrist's kingdom could grow.)
Christians have kept faith with the idea that the world is just about to end since the beginnings of their religion. Jesus Himself hinted more than once that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of His followers. In its original form, the Lord's Prayer, taught by Jesus to his disciples, may have implored God to keep us from the ordeal.
Men have been making the same appeal ever since. In 156AD, a fellow called Montanus, pronouncing himself to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, declared that the New Jerusalem was about to come crashing down from the heavens and land in Phrygiawhich, conveniently, was where he lived. Before long, Asia Minor, Rome, Africa and Gaul were jammed with wandering ecstatics, bitterly repenting their sins and fasting and whipping themselves in hungry anticipation of the world's end. A bit more than a thousand years later, the authorities in Germany were stamping out an outbreak of apocalyptic mayhem among a self-abusing sect called the secret flagellants of Thuringia. The disciples of William Miller, a 19th-century evangelical American, clung ecstatically to the same belief as the Montanists and the Thuringians. A thick strand of Christian history connects them all, and countless other movements.
Don't get left behind Apocalyptic belief renews itself in ingenious ways. Belief in the Rapture, which enlivens the familiar end-of-time narrative with a compellingly dramatic twist, appears to be a modern phenomenon: John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century British evangelical preacher, was perhaps the first to popularise the idea. (Darby's inspiration was a passage in St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, which talks about the Christian dead and true believers being caught up together in the clouds.) It is not easy to say how many Americans believe in Darby's concept of Rapture. But a dozen novels that dramatise the event and its gripping aftermaththe Left Behind serieshave sold more than 40m copies.
New apocalyptic creeds have even sprung from those sticky moments when the world has failed to end on schedule. (Social scientists call this disconfirmation.) When the resurrected Christ failed to show up for Miller's disciples on the night of October 22nd 1844, press scribblers mocked the Great Disappointment mercilessly. But even as they jeered, a farmer called Hiram Edson snuck away from the vigil to pray in a barn, where he duly received word of what had happened. There had been a great event after allbut in heaven, not on Earth. This happening was that Jesus had begun an investigative judgment of the dead in preparation for his return. Thus was born the Church of Seventh-day Adventists. They were not the only ones to rise above apparent setbacks to the prophesies by which they set such store: the Jehovah's Witnesses of the persistently apocalyptic Watchtower sect survived no fewer than nine disconfirmations every few years between 1874 and 1975.
Which way to Armageddon? Why do end-of-time beliefs endure? Social scientists love to set about this question with earnest study of the people who subscribe to such ideas. As part of his investigation into the apocalyptic genre in modern America, Paul Boyer of the University of Wisconsin asks why so many of his fellow Americans are susceptible to televangelists and other popularisers. From time to time, sophisticated Americans indulge the thrillingly terrifying thought that nutty, apocalyptic, born-again Texans are guiding not just conservative social policies at home, but America's agenda in the Middle East as well, as they round up reluctant compatriots for the last battle at Armageddon. (It's a bit south of the Lake of Galilee in the plain of Jezreel.)
Behind these attitudes sits the assumption that apocalyptic thought belongsor had better belongto the extremities of human experience. On closer inspection, though, that is by no means true.
Properly, the apocalypse is both an end and a new beginning. In Christian tradition, the world is created perfect. There is then a fall, followed by a long, rather enjoyable (for some) period of moral degeneration. This culminates in a decisive final battle between good (the returned Christ) and evil (the Antichrist). Good wins and establishes the New Jerusalem and with it the 1,000-year reign of King Jesus on Earth.
This is the glorious millennium that millenarians await so eagerly. Millenarians tend to place history at a moment just before the decisive final showdown. The apocalyptic mind looks through the surface reality of the world and sees history's epic, true nature: apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning to uncover, or disclose.
Norman Cohn, a British historian, places the origin of apocalyptic thought with Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), a Persian prophet who probably lived between 1500 and 1200BC. The Vedic Indians, ancient Egyptians and some earlier civilisations had seen history as a cycle, which was for ever returning to its beginning. Zoroaster embellished this tepid plot. He added goodies (Ahura Mazda, the maker and guardian of the ordered world), baddies (the spirit of destruction, Angra Mainyu) and a happy ending (a glorious consummation of order over disorder, known as the making wonderful, in which all things would be made perfect, once and for all). In due course Zoroaster's theatrical talents came to Christians via the Jews.
This basic drama shapes all apocalyptic thought, from the tenets of tribal cargo cults to the beliefs of UFO sects. In 1973, Claude Vorilhon, a correspondent for a French racing-car magazine, claimed to have been whisked away in a flying saucer, in which he had spent six days with a green chap who spoke fluent French. The alien told Mr Vorilhon that the Frenchman's real name was Rael, that humans had misread the Bible and that, properly translated, the Hebrew word Elohim (singular: Eloha) did not mean God, as Jews had long supposed, but those who came from the sky.
The alien then revealed that his species had created everything on Earth in a space laboratory, and that the aliens wanted to return to give humans their advanced technology, which would transform the world utterly. First, however, Rael needed financial contributions to build the aliens an embassy in Jerusalem, because otherwise they would not feel welcome (a bit lame, this explanation). Although the Israeli government has not yet given its consent, the Raeliansthose persuaded by Rael's accountcontinue to welcome donations in anticipation of a change of heart.
The Raelians' claim to be atheists who belong to the secular world must come as no surprise to Mr Cohn, who has long detected patterns of religious apocalyptic thought in what is supposedly rational, secular belief. He has traced egalitarian and communistic fantasies to the ancient-world idea of an ideal state of nature, in which all men are genuinely equal and none is persecuted. As Mr Cohn has put it, The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious. For it is the simple truth that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still.
Nicholas Campion, a British historian and astrologer, has expanded on Mr Cohn's ideas. In his book, The Great Year, Mr Campion draws parallels between the scientific historical materialism of Marx and the religious apocalyptic experience. Thus primitive communism is the Garden of Eden, the emergence of private property and the class system is the fall, the final gasps of capitalism are the last days, the proletariat are the chosen people and the socialist revolution is the second coming and the New Jerusalem.
Hegel saw history as an evolution of ideas that would culminate in the ideal liberal-democratic state. Since liberal democracy satisfies the basic need for recognition that animates political struggle, thought Hegel, its advent heralds a sort of end of historyanother suspiciously apocalyptic claim. More recently, Francis Fukuyama has echoed Hegel's theme. Mr Fukuyama began his book, The End of History, with a claim that the world had arrived at the gates of the Promised Land of liberal democracy. Mr Fukuyama's pulpit oratory suited the spirit of the 1990s, with its transformative new economy and free-world triumphs. In the disorientating disconfirmation of September 11th and the coincident stockmarket collapse, however, his religion has lost favour.
The apocalyptic narrative may have helped to start the motor of capitalism. A drama in which the end returns interminably to the beginning leaves little room for the sense of progress which, according to the 19th-century social theories of Max Weber, provides the religious licence for material self-improvement. Without the last days, in other words, the world might never have had 65-inch flat-screen televisions. For that matter, the whole American project has more than a touch of the apocalypse about it. The Pilgrim Fathers thought they had reached the New Israel. The manifest destiny of America to spread its providential liberty and self-government throughout the North American continent (not to mention the Middle East) smacks of the millennium and the New Jerusalem.
Science treasures its own apocalypses. The modern environmental movement appears to have borrowed only half of the apocalyptic narrative. There is a Garden of Eden (unspoilt nature), a fall (economic development), the usual moral degeneracy (it's all man's fault) and the pressing sense that the world is enjoying its final days (time is running out: please donate now!). So far, however, the green lobby does not appear to have realised it is missing the standard happy ending. Perhaps, until it does, environmentalism is destined to remain in the political margins. Everyone needs redemption.
Watch this spacesuit Noting an exponential acceleration in the pace of technological change, futurologists like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil think the world inhabits the knee of the curvea sort of last-days set of circumstances in which, in the near future, the pace of technological change runs quickly away towards an infinite singularity as intelligent machines learn to build themselves. From this point, thinks Mr Moravec, transformative mind fire will spread in a flash across the cosmos. Britain's astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, relegates Mr Kurzweil and those like him to the visionary fringe. But Mr Rees's own darkly apocalyptic book, Our Final Hour, outdoes the most colourful of America's televangelists in earthquakes, plagues and other sorts of fire and brimstone.
So there you have it. The apocalypse is the locomotive of capitalism, the inspiration for revolutionary socialism, the bedrock of America's manifest destiny and the undeclared religion of all those pseudo-rationalists who, like The Economist, champion the progress of liberal democracy. Perhaps, deep down, there is something inside everyone which yearns for the New Jerusalem, a place where, as a beautiful bit of Revelation puts it:
God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.
Yes, perhaps. But, to be sure, not everyone agrees that salvation, when it comes, will appear clothed in a shiny silver spacesuit.
Because the end hasn't come yet?
Because we have read the ending of "the Book" and know what to expect?
And because there is hard evidence under the seas and in the mountains that the end-of-time, at least as how the contemporary folks knew it, has come before. And it has come much more quickly than most are willing to accept.
|Iglesias and Kournikova are not married!
December 21, 2004, 11:55:02 Enrique Iglesias and Anna Kournikova have not married, sources have claimed.
According to America's People magazine, the smitten pair did not tie the knot in a romantic Mexican beach ceremony - despite Anna's recent comments that they had married.
A source said: "They definitely did not get married. They're very happy together, but marriage is not something that they're planning in their lives right now." ...
Now I think we still have a hundred years or two --- but those Left Behind books sure were fun!
From what I've read, every existing generation believes THEY are in end times.
I first thought you were referring to Global Warming>
"Yes, perhaps. But, to be sure, not everyone agrees that salvation, when it comes, will appear clothed in a shiny silver spacesuit."
How about a baby in a manger? Works for me.
I think that deserves a halleluiah. There's still time for me.
That is most optimistic of you.
Everyone is going to die. The end-of-the-worlders just wish that everyone would die when they do. They can't stand the thought that life goes on.
I should have read some more before posting (#16). Needless to say you have the right answer.
Cause there hasn't been a good scary King book in years.
I believe all mankind is fighting the great battle of Good vs. Evil, I don't believe in the "rapture", I wasn't "born again", I did it right the first time.
What an interesting article.
The answer is clear; For everyone alive at this time, on this earth the END TIMES will occur between this moment and 100 years from this moment.
No-one living at this moment will be here in one hundred years.
I will take donations or bets of $100
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