Why are Christians so obsessed with the end times?
This essay was previously published on AlterNet.
In the summer of 2010, I saw him several times a week: a portly, dark-skinned gentleman, leaning against a pillar in Penn Station and holding out two fistfuls of pamphlets to the disinterested commuters. He wore glasses and earbuds connected to an MP3 player in his coat pocket, and always had a serene, almost bored expression that was in sharp contrast to the urgency of his message.
He was, of course, one of the devotees of Harold Camping, a formerly obscure Christian preacher who started making headlines in 2009, when he announced his discovery of a numerological code hidden in the Bible that foretold the exact date of the end of the world. As the appointed date grew nearer, Camping's devotees became increasingly zealous in their race to get the message out. In addition to their leafletting volunteers, I saw billboards and subway ads. Their website had a form you could fill out to request free literature, bumper stickers, and desk calendars for 2011 that ended at the third week of May.
The mindset of people who believe this sort of thing genuinely intrigues me, so one day, I stopped for a brief chat with the fellow.
"May 2011," I observed. "That's soon."
"Uh-huh," he said noncommittally, clearly uncertain whether I was making fun of him.
"What happens on that day?" I asked.
"The universe will cease to exist," he explained, as calm as if he were delivering a weather forecast. (I have to admit, I was hoping for something more dramatic: boiling oceans, rains of fire, rivers turned to blood, that sort of thing.)
"What happens if that date comes and you're still here?" I persisted.
"I'll be in big trouble," he said calmly.
I wanted to correspond with him, but when I asked him for his e-mail address, he refused. "This is just the way I live now," he said. I don't know if that meant he had divested himself of worldly possessions like computers to prepare for the Rapture, or if his literature-distributing schedule was so hectic it left no time for e-mail.
Obviously, May 21, 2011 came and went without incident. Camping was at first unfazed, announcing that it was a "spiritual" judgment day, and that the real, visible apocalypse would actually happen on October 21. But when that date too passed with nothing out of the ordinary transpiring, a "flabbergasted" Camping was finally forced to confess that he had blundered. Soon afterward he retired from ministry, though he never offered to reimburse the volunteers who wasted their time and money spreading his phony predictions.
So ends the tale of Harold Camping. But he wasn't just a lone kook crying in the wilderness. On the contrary, he was just one of the latest in a long line of Christian preachers who've made a profitable career out of erroneously predicting the end of the world. Some, like Camping, made one of the few fatal errors in religion: they tied their faith to a definitive test by predicting an exact date. Others, more cynical, are content to constantly hint that Armageddon is right around the corner, but without ever committing to a date.
As an example of the latter, the evangelical megachurch pastor David Jeremiah, in his book What In the World Is Going On?, speaks of the imminent Armageddon as "a belief I have taught consistently for more than thirty years," and doesn't seem to find anything incongruous about this. The Christian author John Walvoord wrote apocalypse books throughout the 20th century, periodically reissuing them with updates as needed to accommodate current world events. Then there's Hal Lindsay, who in the 1970s made a sensation with books like The Late Great Planet Earth and The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon ("The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it," he announces.)
Moving further back in time, another Christian sect that's made a habit of erroneously predicting the end of the world is the Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1920, J.F. Rutherford, the Watchtower Society's second president and one of its founding members, published a book titled Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which forecast the arrival of God's kingdom within a few years. In it, Rutherford prognosticated as follows:
... since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favor, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death, being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth.
Ironically, the Jehovah's Witnesses have their origins in yet another American sect that became famous for a failed apocalypse prediction: the Millerites, named after their founder William Miller. Miller was born in 1782, served as an army captain in the War of 1812, and like Harold Camping two hundred years later, came to believe that the chronology of the end of the world could be pieced together by decoding hidden messages in verses scattered throughout the Bible. At its height, the Millerite cult had thousands of members nationwide. Miller and his followers triumphantly forecast October 22, 1844 as the date of the Second Coming, and when that date passed without incident, it became known as the "Great Disappointment." Several disillusioned former Millerites went on to found splinter groups that still exist today, including the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists.
And just to show that apocalyptic expectation isn't a modern phenomenon, here's one more quote. This one is from the witch-hunting colonial preacher Cotton Mather, who wrote in 1692 to confidently predict the imminence of the "Millennium", the thousand-year era in which Jesus would physically reign over the Earth after triumphing in the Battle of Armageddon:
"If the Devil's Time were above a thousand years ago, pronounced short, what may we suppose it now in our Time? Surely we are not a thousand years distant from those happy thousand years of rest and peace and (which is better) Holiness reserved for the People of God in the latter days; and if we are not a thousand years yet short of that Golden Age, there is cause to think, that we are not an hundred."
If you're getting the impression that Christians are more apt than members of other religions to see Armageddon just around the corner, you're right. The perpetual apocalyptic expectation of Christianity has its roots in the New Testament, whose authors, like every subsequent generation of Christians, expected the end of the world to come within their own lifetimes.
For example, here's St. Paul saying that his contemporaries who were married should abstain from sex from then on, so that they could be as pure as possible and ready to meet Jesus when he returned:
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (NIV)
And in the epistle to St. Peter:
But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. 1 Peter 4:7 (KJV)
And from one attributed to the apostle John:
Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. 1 John 2:18 (KJV)
Even Jesus gets in on the act, telling his contemporaries that he'll return before they all die:
And he said unto them, verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power. Mark 9:1 (KJV)
In another verse, he seems to set the deadline even sooner by telling his disciples that he'll return before they can even evangelize all the cities of Israel:
When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. Matthew 10:23 (NIV)
These prophecies all failed, of course. Two thousand years later, life continues as it always has, and the authors of these fearful predictions have long since turned to dust. What's remarkable is that, as each generation of Christians passes away, the apocalyptic torch is eagerly picked up by the next generation, which echoes their predecessors' warnings without a trace of awareness that they're recycling claims that have failed many times already.
Given their unbroken track record of failure, it's easy to make fun of apocalypse believers, to mock them for being so gullible and foolish. But these ideas have very real human costs. Millennial fever often flourishes during times of great social upheaval and uncertainty, among people whose lives are so impoverished that they want to escape this world and live in a better one. And it inevitably happens that some of those people squander what little they do have in chasing this mirage.
After his deadline came and went, I never again saw the fellow I chatted with in Penn Station. But the rapture ads I saw on the NYC subway, I later learned, were funded by an elderly Camping follower who emptied his retirement savings to pay for them. There were other stories about working people and parents who quit their jobs in the middle of an economic downturn to spend all their time spreading Camping's message, families that were splintered by arguments over who was or wasn't going to get into heaven when the trumpet blows. Other rapture-manias throughout history have drawn similar devotion, and when those prophecies inevitably fail, it's the humiliated faithful who are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Beyond this harm, apocalypse belief instills in its devotees a constant state of subdued terror, encouraging them to fear that the world may end at any moment and that they won't be numbered among the worthy when it does. Many accounts of believers and ex-believers testify to this nagging fear, describing how they repented and answered altar calls dozens of times, each time fearing that they may have had some secret sin which caused the last repentance not to take, and it's best to do it again just in case. Others speak of how their religious belief made their lives empty and joyless, how they were so consumed with anticipation of God's perfect kingdom arriving that reality seemed dull and lifeless by comparison.
But the worst consequence of apocalypse belief isn't the waste, nor is it the fear. It's the insidious attitude that since God is coming soon to destroy the world entirely, it doesn't matter what we do to it in the meantime. It's this belief that has so often made fundamentalists an obstacle to averting disastrous climate change, to preserving vanishing wilderness, or to making human civilization more sustainable. Not only do they not participate in these efforts, they actively oppose them, asserting that any political platform which starts from the premise that the Earth will be around for millions of years is a Satanic lie meant to keep us from heeding the warnings about God's imminent destruction of the world.
For example, here's Christian pastor John MacArthur:
"The environmental movement is consumed with trying to preserve the planet forever. But we know that isn't in God's plan. The earth we inhabit is not a permanent planet. It is, frankly, a disposable planet – it is going to have a very short life. It's been around six thousand years or so — that's all — and it may last a few thousand more. And then the Lord is going to destroy it.
I've told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it. ... This earth was never ever intended to be a permanent planet — it is not eternal. We do not have to worry about it being around tens of thousands, or millions, of years from now because God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth."
It would be comforting to think that beliefs like this are only held by an insignificant minority of kooks, but that isn't the case. As recently as 2007, a poll found that 25 percent of Americans subscribe to end-times beliefs: that's one in four people who, presumably, make major life decisions and cast their votes on the basis of a faith that the world will end in the very near future.
There's no easy solution to this problem. The apocalypse-sooners are motivated by a fervent faith which, by definition, is immune to contrary evidence. Their beliefs effectively pen them on both sides, seducing them with the promise of unimaginable reward if they stay faithful, herding them with the promise of unimaginable suffering if they fall into doubt. But whether we can convince them or not, we can demonstrate that their beliefs are incredibly dangerous and destructive - to human lives, to well-being, and to the world itself. Too many people are passive in the face of fundamentalism because they labor under the misconception that religious beliefs are benign at best, neutral at worst. A more engaged progressive opposition would go a long way toward limiting the influence of the righteous warriors who just can't wait to see the planet destroyed.
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