Why We Love the Apocalypse

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It's hard to avoid sniggering at the folks who woke up on Sunday morning to find that they had not been Raptured, and history put on a rapid trajectory to its violent cosmological denouement. Rather, they found this poor old world grinding just as slowly as ever, and themselves, gullible grist, no doubt cracked and broken by unrealized dreams of utopia. Most people -- Christians and unbelievers alike -- knew these people were fools before Harold Camping's May 21 deadline arrived, and now they know it themselves.

I am uncharacteristically disinclined to gloat, because I know what it's like to give oneself over to apocalyptic fervor. Though the Camping followers were particularly absurd to pin their hopes and fears to a specific event (the Rapture, a doctrine that no Christian had ever heard of until modern times), and to a specific date (ignoring Jesus Christ's warning that "no man knows the day or hour" of His return), the yearning for utopia, even one achieved through catastrophe, is profoundly human. It's unsettling to contemplate that Camping's followers are not so different from the rest of us.

And they aren't very different at all from the kid I was in 1979, when, at age 12, I saw a movie trailer for "The Late, Great Planet Earth," a documentary version of Hal Lindsey's mega-selling book interpreting current events as a Biblically-predicted plan immediately preceding the end of the world. Until that moment, I had never heard of Bible prophecy, the Rapture, the Antichrist, or any of it. In our small-town Methodist church, we didn't talk about that stuff.

Later that day, I coaxed my mother into taking me to a five-and-dime store to buy the Lindsey book. I read it straight through that night, prayed the sinner's prayer sometime before sunrise, and prepared myself for the imminent apocalypse.

I lived for the next two years at a fever pitch. Fellow Christians who showed skepticism, or even simply a lack of interest, in the Rapture and the Antichrist? Lukewarm sellouts, I thought. I badgered my little sister about Armageddon until she finally prayed the sinner's prayer, probably to shut me up.

I burned out on all that in due course, and felt like such a nitwit that it was years before I could take religious faith seriously again. The Christianity I accepted as an adult certainly has an eschatological component, which is intrinsic to all orthodox forms of the Christian faith. But I'd learned how dangerous it is to build one's spirituality on apocalyptic speculation.

Nevertheless, many people do, and it's not hard to understand why. Hal Lindsey wrote Late, Great in 1970, at the end of a decade of epochal social upheaval. It grew in popularity throughout the Seventies, a time of economic and political turmoil, wars and rumors of wars -- chiefly with the Soviet Union, a conflict that stood to exterminate humanity in a nuclear Armageddon. As alarmist as Lindsey's book was -- it did, after all, argue that things were going to get a lot worse, and soon -- it provided immense comfort to its readers, because it imposed a kind of order on the chaotic times.

Late, Great promised that there was ultimate meaning in the seemingly random scary events of the era. It provided not only the key to understanding these events as part of God's plan, but also, in the doctrine of the Rapture, an escape hatch for true believers. As a newspaper-reading adolescent freaked out about nuclear war and the emotional and biological disaster that is puberty, I was an easy mark.

It's like that with us all, isn't it? The same people who laugh at the credulousness of Rapture-ready Christians are often ready to believe their own secular soothsayers -- economists, scientists, and others -- who plausibly preach a kind of order beneath the apparent randomness of unsettling events, and who offer knowledge that purports to grant control over future events to those who believe them. My point is not that prophets, religious or secular, ought to be disbelieved -- sometimes they are right -- but only that it's normal to be frightened and confused by uncontrollable events, and to seek explanation and deliverance from their effects.

It's also the case that there is something profoundly satisfying in embracing apocalyptic scenarios. As a born-again teenager, I would wake up every morning as a bit player in the last act of a cosmic drama that only a few of us believers were aware of. The cool kids might think of me as a zitfaced social outcast today, but just you wait!

Juvenile? Sure. But the longing for a state of existence in which justice prevails, suffering ceases, and all that is wrong is made right, is deeply, ineradicably human. It is the hope of heaven, and the source of the craving for utopia, i.e., heaven on earth. In his 2007 book Black Mass, the skeptical English philosopher John Gray writes that all modern political movements -- notably, the French Revolution, Marxism, Nazism, and even theories of liberal progress -- are all "chapters in the history of religion" because they "answer the human need for meaning."

Along those lines, the novelist Walker Percy has observed that we claim to want peace and security, but perversely desire apocalypse, because it relieves us of boredom and alienation. Living in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11 was, I confess, one of the happiest times in my life. It was also the most sorrowful and anxious, and I would not relive it again for anything. But the truth is that that localized apocalypse gave me a newfound sense of purpose and meaning. After that, I knew who I was, what was happening in the world, and what I was to do.

As it turned out, I was mostly wrong, but you could no more have convinced me of that then than you could have broken through to Camping's ardent backers on Rapture Eve.

To be drunk on Apocalypse is a fearful thing. There is no problem that the Apocalypse -- religious or secular -- cannot solve. I roll my eyes at the crude Armageddonists, whose number I left behind as a teenager, but the radical prospect of rebirth through total catastrophe still tempts me in less culturally embarrassing ways. I read secular prophets with more mainstream credibility -- peak-oil catastrophists, economic Cassandras, and global-warming gloomers -- and that familiar decadent feeling returns: the perverse pleasure in the prospect of catastrophe, because, to paraphrase the poet C.V. Cavafy, the End is a kind of solution.

The world didn't end last weekend, but for the Camping faithful, a world ended. But not for long. The human need for utopia and its shadow side, apocalypse, will not be suppressed. That's one prophecy that's not going to fail because, as John Gray puts it, both are "myths, which answer the human need for meaning."

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