Apocalypse Now and Then: Our Global Death Wish

The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism
Catherine Wessinger, ed.
Oxford University Press, 2011

Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience*
Richard Landes
Oxford University Press, 2011

Suppose Europe’s debt crisis leads to a fracturing of the eurozone and the ripple effect leads to a global depression worse than the one we’re slowly climbing out of. And suppose as a result of the economic chaos, there are riots in Europe and the U.S., with right-wing militias in a near civil war with failing governments, mass disruptions in the food supply, perhaps even global economic collapse and a breakdown of the social order.

Somewhere in that chain of events, most readers stopped supposing. But many others, if the statistics are right, are still with me, and might go further still, envisioning a massive breakdown and/or revolution in the world order, in very short time.

The latter view is a secular form of millennialism, the scholarly term for the belief that a wholesale transformation of the world, for better or for worse, is imminent. And as two massive new tomes, Richard Landes’ Heaven on Earth and the The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism edited by Catherine Wessinger, very helpfully demonstrate, our own beliefs and fears about politics, economics, and the environmental crisis, are not so distant from ancient apocalyptic prophecies about the end of the world, the Second Coming, or the rapture. Sure, our anxieties may be grounded in ‘facts,’ but the ancients thought theirs were too. What’s more important is the pattern of millennial thinking, which has always been with us and, unless the world is about to end, likely always will be.  

In Search of Collective Salvation

One detail needs to be cleaned up first. The term “millennialism”  does not refer to the year 2000, or the turning of the millennium. Rather, it takes its misleading name from the Christian belief that Christ will return to Earth and rule for one thousand years. The apocalypse, rapture, Second Coming—these are specific events in specific forms of millennial ideology. Millennialism itself is, in Wessinger’s definition, “the audacious hope that in the imminent future there will be a transition—either catastrophic or progressive—to a ‘collective salvation’ which will be accomplished by a divine or superhuman agent and/or by humans working in accordance with a divine or superhuman plan.” Following the pioneering scholar of millennialism Norman Cohn, Wessinger states that the millennialist salvation is collective, earthly (i.e., it will happen in this world), imminent, transformative, and supernaturalist in nature.

The twenty cultural studies in the Oxford volume and the dozen in Landes’ book make this point clear: millennialism is a pattern of human thinking that is universal, and depends little on whether the “superhuman plan” is polytheistic, monotheistic, or atheistic in nature. Our fears about Y2K (remember that?) and New Age predictions about December 21 of this year are not different in kind from Harold Camping’s ridiculous (and widely ridiculed) “calculation” that the apocalypse would take place on May 21 (and then October 21) of last year. 

Nor, claims Landes, are utopian claims of a transformed economic or political order, such as Shimon Peres’ now nostalgic vision of a “new Middle East” or a jihadist’s vision of a purified umma. Even clocking in at 500 pages, Landes’ book is only half a volume, for it consciously does not deal with the best-known forms of millennialism: Christian and Jewish ones. This is like writing about soft drinks without mentioning Coca Cola. Yet the dozen cases Landes studies in depth, ranging from the 1856 Xhosa Cattle-Slaying to Marxism and Global Jihad, offer a series of mirrors through which to see more familiar religious and secular movements alike. It’s easy to say that millennialism is for the weird and wacky; it’s quite another to recognize millennial thinking in our own minds.

Of course, concurrent with the view that the world is soon to be greatly transformed is the notion that we ought to do something about it. Some of these actions are harmless, or may have positive side effects; growing one’s own food, for example, out of fear of global economic collapse. And what Wessinger calls “progressive millennialism” may be nothing more than the belief that humanity is (or should) be evolving toward a more just and peaceful future. But others are downright sinister: 9/11, UFO cults preparing to be taken away, the Jehovah’s Witnesses selling their property prior to the 1974 rapture, the Millerites (the parent sect of today’s Seventh Day Adventists) going up on a hill to await the second coming on October 22, 1844, up to one-third of European Jews preparing to move to the Land of Israel with the messiah Sabbetai Zevi in 1666, the Xhosa slaughtering their animals and committing a kind of national suicide, the Nazis exterminating the Jews, the Aum Shinrikyo sect gassing people in the Tokyo subway—once millennial beliefs take hold, they inspire the strongest of human actions, often at terrible cost.   

Waiting For War

Today is no different. For example, within the evangelical world—which, let’s remember, includes between 30% and 40% of all Americans—there is a split between postmillennialists, who believe that Christ’s peaceful reign on Earth will follow a gradual improvement in human life, and the more familiar premillennialists, who believe that Christ will suddenly come back, destroy the current order, and replace it with a new one. 

From a progressive perspective, both of these views can be problematic. Many postmillennialists insist that we must transform America into a theocracy before Christ can come again, and are devoting considerable resources to doing so (which, of course, means oppressing women and sexual minorities). Many premillenialists, on the other hand, are so pessimistic that they are pursuing what some of us might consider a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Many Christian Zionists, for example, believe that a massive war in the Middle East is unavoidable, imminent, and part of the divine plan for humanity—and are supporting policies that raise the probability of just such a war.

What ought we do about millennial thinking in our day? If the combined 1300 pages of these two books have taught me anything, it’s that we can’t make it just go away. There is something fascinating, and perverse, in the human psyche that seems to yearn for this world to be other than how it is, even if that means destroying it. 

Some of the scholars in the Oxford handbook offer important insights into the roots of the phenomenon (including charismatic leadership, outsider status, etc.). Personally, though, and based on several years of studying a Jewish-Christian millennial movement in my graduate work—and observing its parallels today in the messianic Chabad sect—my sense is that it is as much a part of human nature as the religious urge itself. At the same time, its power to negate meaning in this world, justify all kinds of behavior, and lead to acts of violence and upheaval means that we have a responsibility to observe it, as we do other forms of irrational human cognition. When Michele Bachmann says that “we are in the last days,” all of us should worry. 

As I wrote about a few months ago in these pages, there are many shades of gray between wacky UFO conspiracy theories and the garden-variety anxieties that most of us harbor about the future. In between, haunted by the fear of death and the terror that this world really is all that there is, we project myths of religion, apocalypse, and global transformation. I would suggest that even when these myths are hopeful, they are still reconciliations with thanatos, the death wish. It’s almost like we’d rather the world be destroyed, than for it to be as impersonal, as relentless, as it appears.


*For more on Landes’ Heaven on Earth see Gordon Haber’s “Secular End Times & Apocalyptic ‘Roosters’