The Greek word apokalypsis translates as “revelation, the unveiling of what was hidden or secret.” The Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, is a book of apocalyptic prophecies, describing the Second Coming of Christ, also predicted in Matthew 25, Luke 21, and John 16, who will establish a one-thousand year kingdom on earth (Apoc. 20: 1-6), until the Last Judgment.
The author of Revelation, which was most likely written in the first century A.D., identifies himself as John, a Christian exile on the Greek island of Patmos. The book was not readily accepted in the scriptural canons. Like other similarly popular prophetic writings in the genre of Jewish and Christian revelatory literature – viz. the nearly coeval Jewish “Book of Enoch” and “Apocalypse of Ezra”, or the apocryphal “Apocalypse of Paul” and “Apocalypse of Peter” – the Book of Revelation tends to be symbolically and semantically florid, and therefore susceptible to multiple, controversial interpretations. This is the reason why several early Christian theologians and prominent Eastern Roman bishops like St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom expressed opposition to or reserved judgment on its inclusion in the New Testament.
Eventually, while other apocalyptic texts were discarded as heretical, the Book of Revelation gradually gained wider acceptance in the West, but not in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Martin Luther, an ambitious reformer as well as a skilled theologian, was by no means confident that the doctrinal content of the book was compatible with the orthodoxy of the Christian message: “I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it”, he declared in the preface to various editions of the New Testament, from 1522 to 1527, adding that his spirit “could not accommodate itself to this book”, one where “Christ is neither taught nor known.” The vengeful Jesus of Revelation, lashing out against the hedonism and debauchery of a decadent world - which was possibly part of a rhetorical strategy in John’s fierce indictment of the Roman Empire and was certainly meant to infuse an eschatological hope in thousands of discouraged Christian believers persecuted by the Roman authorities - seems indeed to have little relation to the peaceful and compassionate Jesus of the Gospels.
Apocalypticism and the War in the Middle East
A literal interpretation of Revelation is today exceedingly popular among millions of American fundamentalists, who believe that they have access to an infallible source of truth. Many of them hold that the signs of the imminent Apocalypse can no longer be ignored and that they can foresee the time of its occurrence through a meticulous reading of Revelation. According to a 2002 Time-CNN poll, only one third of the U.S. population denied the reliability of the Book of Revelation. The “Left Behind” series of novels about the Tribulation before the Second Coming of Jesus has sold 60-odd million copies since the mid-1990s (Gates, 2006). Other polls show that Apocalypse-inspired Christian Zionism influences the worldview of several million Americans and that as many as 25 million Americans hold that the establishment of the State of Israel has been a God-sanctioned act, resting on the authority of biblical prophecies.
Millions of fundamentalist Christians are strong supporter of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and many even look forward to an escalation that would involve Israel and Iran. This is because 9/11 has invigorated the hopes of endtimers that the clash between “Judeo-Christian” and Muslim “civilizations” will lead up to the Rapture – when the faithful will be swept into heaven, a belief that stems from a rather arbitrary, fundamentalist interpretation of the Scriptures – and, subsequently, to the catastrophic clash of the armies of good and evil on the plains of Armageddon, an unidentified location in the Middle East (Wojcik, 1996).
Apocalypticism and Reformation
The rather baffling pervasiveness and persistence of the apocalyptic imagery in American culture attests to the foresight of those founders of the Christian Church who feared that the incendiary tones and content of John’s prophecy could be misinterpreted or misused. This trend contrasts rather markedly with the scarcity of apocalyptic motifs in contemporary European culture, where they have been on a downward slide since as early as the Renaissance, with the partial exception of a vibrant, albeit fleeting revival with National Socialism. Now they are only embraced by a disaffected minority. Italian historian Augusto Placanica once remarked that, in Europe, the apocalyptic paradigm only survives in the inmost recesses of the human mind, “in our whispers, in what we say with the most embarrassed discretion: what we dare think, but dare not say” (Placanica, 1990, p. 317).
One is tempted to suggest that contemporary millenarian extremism among Christian fundamentalists in the United States falls along a historical continuum from the first messianic movements of medieval Europe, in the eleventh and twelfth century, through the early sixteenth-century Anabaptist revolt in the Westphalian city of Münster, and to the seventeenth-century apocalyptic narratives of Reformation Puritans in New England (Placanica, 1990). The Puritans were set on building the “City upon the Hill,” namely a model community on the cusp between the Old and the New Age, founded on a covenant with God and on the conviction that the whole of history had been leading up to it. This left an indelible mark on American identity and worldview.
But how do we account for the strikingly divergent historical paths followed by Europe and the United States with respect to this phenomenon? Where did this differentiation originate from? What are the specific functions and influences of millennialism in America? Why does apocalypticism show no sign of retreating from American culture?
The different evolution of religious thought and practice in Europe and in the United States may provide a partial answer. Early Calvinists and Puritans maintained that the original sin was transmitted by propagation rather than by imitation: the “iniquity of the fathers” would be visited “upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9). The Calvinist interpretation of the doctrine of the original sin – the transmissibility of Adam’s sin to his descendants – was rigid and inescapable.
In the American colonies, this sometimes translated into determinism and fatalism: since it was widely believed that God would separate the elect from the damned, regardless of individual merits in this life, then certain criminals were regarded as born with a constitutional predisposition to break the law and certain races, such as Native Americans of African slaves, as naturally inferior. Puritan ministers also argued that there would be a limited number of elect, called “visible saints,” which contrasted with the depravity of humankind at large. In sum, while Catholics could redeem themselves through good works, contrition, confession, and penance, which would secure forgiveness, absolution and, ultimately, salvation, Protestants depended on faith alone, and could not easily relieve feelings of guilt. They did not believe in the existence of the Purgatory, where sinners and miscreants were given a further opportunity to purify their souls. Sins were not simply mistakes that could be corrected, but outward manifestations of evil.
Alone before an all-sufficient God, and without celestial intermediaries like angels and saints, the sense of guilt of early Protestants could not be easily expiated. This left them entirely dependent on God and his Law, with the onus of salvation squarely on their shoulders. The direct relationship with the Creator led many to agonize over the hypocrisy of a course of action merely designed to achieve personal salvation. In the words of Luther, “even if it were possible, I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive toward salvation” (Bayer, 1998). Furthermore, the considerable influence of the cosmic misanthropy of Luther and Calvin who were similarly forthright in their portrayal of the mundane human experience as irreversibly wicked and corrupt, meant that Aristotle’s and Erasmus’s equation of rationality and justice was meaningless, if not itself evil. Calvin went so far as to announce that human nature was “not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle” (Bock, 1994). Not hope for a reward, but compliance with divine law would secure salvation. Finally, from a strictly Lutheran standpoint, if the world was spiritually rotten and ruled by the devil, then the most effective way to deal with sin could only be repression: Armageddon would be, as it were, a means to carry out repression on the largest possible scale.
Apocalypticism and American Puritanism
This different theological stance arguably affected the American outlook on social reformism, divine intervention in human affairs, and the larger concerns of social justice (Morone, 2003). Because they espoused the doctrine of divine election, many Puritan settlers lived in a permanent spiritual crisis, their behavior occasionally verging on the hysterical (Erikson, 1966). They confronted the overwhelming fear of being among the ones who had not been chosen by God at the beginning of Creation – the so-called “covenant of grace” – and were not destined to heaven but to damnation, no matter how hard they tried to avoid that by leading an upright life. With this sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, believers were compelled to scrutinize the outcome of their initiatives, so as to detect signs pointing to their election. The urge to assuage the anxiety about their status convinced many that the clearest indication that they were not doomed to punishment would be the morality and success of the entire community. The belief in collective salvation generated the electrifying feeling that the descendants of the first pilgrims had been chosen “en masse” to fulfill God’s purposes and to inaugurate the Kingdom of Christ on earth – “And a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth” (Jeremiah, 23:5).
Ordinary time evaporated as a result of the emergence of this form of mythic and ritual consciousness built around the belief in an impending turning-point in world history and in the ensuing rebirth of human society. Through the injection of a considerable amount of “magic”, “sublime”, and “epic” into a society awaiting its regeneration, selves were transcended in a community of destiny determined to effect epochal changes in the tide of history. They impatiently awaited the coming of a new era, at once within and outside history, and analyzed social issues not in terms of what men actually are but of what they should be, and would eventually be, if the biblical precepts were duly heeded (Gentile, 2006).
The intransigent moralism of American Puritans, their readiness to use even physical punishment against those who contravened strict and absolute sets of moral rules, the pugnacious legalism and stern inquisitiveness, the self-righteous conviction that they possessed the ultimate truth, the excessive moral perfectionism, generated that constellation of values, habits of thought, norms and ideals that were the ultimate source of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which justified American colonialism (Morone, 2003). If the United States were the culmination of history, the New Israel where Christ would gather all his forces, then the alleged cosmic mission assigned to the American people by God himself would be to spread across the world its institutions and underlying principles. America would be assigned a central role in the struggle between good and evil, which was in turn part of God’s Creation. Like all other utopias, the sacred, providential American Mission was intrinsically anti-democratic and anti-humanistic, for it was founded on an ideal configuration of mankind and on the idea of a cosmic fight against evil that could produce hubris, callousness, and supported the use of violent means. There was no such thing as human history, but only the history of divine Providence. Ironically, this intense sense of responsibility towards the whole universe could be turned against certain categories of people who, because of their rebellion against the Creation, were hardly God’s creature like the others: hence witch hunting, lynching and the extermination of Native Americans (Erikson, 1966).
The expectation for renewal generally coexisted with a substantial support for existing institutions. The covenant with God which had established the New Israel prescribed that new members would become part of a holy community and would need to keep to the terms agreed upon with God himself, for the very survival of the community depended on that. Wealth and social station were not the product of historical and political circumstances: they were a vocation bestowed upon a person by divine calling.
This form of religious organicism meant that attempts to change the status quo were blasphemous and immoral. This is why the amalgam of a radical revolutionary position with traditionalism that is so typical of apocalypticism does not, by itself, cause turmoil. Apocalyptic believers, because of their reliance on a millennial hope that shores up political quiescence (viz. Revelation 13:10), are more inclined to withdraw from a corrupt society and sometimes attempt mass-suicide than to pursue revolutionary action to accelerate the advent of God’s kingdom on earth. This was true for the Jonestown community in north-western Guyana, founded by the Californian sect “Peoples Temple”, under the leadership of Jim Jones; for the Branch Davidians of David Koresh, assaulted and decimated by the FBI in the 1993 siege of their community near Waco, Texas; for the Solar Temple, a secret society based in Switzerland and Quebec; for Heaven’s Gate in the western United States, and for the Taiwanese-American sect Chen Tao. Alternatively, harsher confrontations with mainstream society may generate paranoid feelings, so that opposition is seen as persecutory. Their perpetual antagonism to dominant institutions and lifestyles may then lead them to provoke social conflict in accordance with the nihilistic slogan “the worse, the better.” This was the case of the Taborites who, in fifteenth-century Bohemia, formed an army with the intent of purifying Central Europe, of the Japanese terrorist sect Aum Shinrikyo and of neo-survivalists, white supremacists and adherents of Christian Identity like Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
This millenarian propensity for self-destructive and destructive cruelty is easily explained. The End Times is, by definition, the cathartic event, in that it purifies human society and human souls once and for all. But the original Greek noun kàtharsis means “purge, selection” and the Greek verb kathairèo means “to destroy”, indicating that the line between purification and elimination is very thin. Furthermore, the millenarian mélange of Arcadian and utopian sentiments tends to translate into contempt for the present, the hallmark of those people who feel that they are born too early or too late, and whose emotional attachments and loyalties have been best described by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “higher than love of one’s neighbor is love for the remote and for the future” (Nietzsche, 1995).
The neutralization of self-determination, which is inherent in apocalyptic thought, also excuses violent behaviour. Free will is denied: people are held by rather than hold their beliefs and their self-awareness is “only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life” (Gadamer, 1994). This belief may result in the alienating conviction that humans are helpless spectators of the historical process, whose course cannot be altered by human volition. Active participation in politics to improve things and to transform human consciousness would be pointless, for sinners are locked into their condition and cosmic role, and God controls the unfolding of human history, a cosmic drama consisting in four acts: crisis, divine judgment, the reward of the just and compliant with the eternal life, and the retribution of the wayward, forever consigned to hell.
In the early stages of New England’s Puritan movement, both the original and the restored purity came from elsewhere, not from free and independent human judgment. Free will was sometimes conceived as not in harmony with the construction of a well-ordered society, which should instead be based on the “free” and voluntary submission to the will of God. Thus, apocalyptic thinking was actually detrimental to social reform, because it did not recognize the true value to be gained from personal initiative and from the questionings of received truth. Human plans that were not a response to a divine calling would fall apart, whereas only genuine hope and trust in a divinely predetermined history, together with a great deal of patience, was the key to salvation.
The eschatological character of the apocalyptic spirituality obliged Puritans to grapple with the moral, social and historical implications of the God-given mission. Social integration and confidence were achieved by propagating the conviction that the inhabitants of “New Israel” lived at a time when fundamental changes were looming, and ministers could predict when these would occur. What is more, the chosen ones, through their compliance and purity of motives, believed they could become the agents of the unfolding of God’s plans, and bring forward the Second Coming of the final earthly deliverer, as prophesized by the Book of Revelation.
The political and social order was God-given and could not be called into question, nor could the authority of Puritan ministers be disputed, since they were divinely appointed messengers, and the only recipients of the knowledge of the ultimate Truth. Many among their followers, too afraid of sin and damnation to debate the scope of their religious leaders’ authority, completely surrendered their independent judgment. The only blessed owners of the future, ministers became moral entrepreneurs and moral crusaders, representatives of social groups who could benefit from the creation of deviance and the exclusion of individuals branded as deviants (Erikson, 1966).
Apocalypticism and Christian Fundamentalism
American anthropologist Mary Douglas has convincingly argued that every culture shapes rituals and symbolic boundaries which separate what it deems pure (“normal”) from what is regarded as polluted (“deviant”) (Douglas, 2002). American fundamentalism is a case in point. From the start, it exhibited a number of features that would protect the community from the assault of secularization: a fixation with the idea of original purity, the imposition of rigid and arbitrary symbolical and institutional boundaries, the ritualization of everyday life, the demonization of the internal and external other, the inerrancy of sacred texts, a tendency to bend logic to suit the ostensible divine purposes, oppositional sectarianism, the will to absolute power and charismatic leadership. Hardliners strongly objected to what they believed to be unmistakable indications of moral failure, namely laziness, sloth, waste, poverty, alcoholism, and licentiousness.
Because this apocalyptic logic is characterized by great malleability, doctrinal differences between the North and the South with respect to the understanding and scope of Salvation gradually emerged over time (Goldfield, 2003). Southerners were more likely to believe that human actions were fairly ineffective in terms of personal salvation, compared to God’s will, and privileged divine retribution and social vindication, while Northerners stressed the importance of individual free will for one’s own salvation as well as for the salvation of everyone else. By and large this discrepancy corresponds to the one described by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936) with the distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, which roughly translate as “society” and “community.”
Gesellschaft is the “artificial”, heterogeneous, and competitive social milieu of modern urban society in which ties between individuals are loose and people are held together by personal interest, instrumental rationality, and by the social contract, whereas Gemeinschaft is the “natural”, organic model of society prevailing in rural areas, which are typified by cultural homogeneousness, cohesion, enforced harmony, common objectives, and emotional bonds.
Historically, apocalypticism has served to preserve the attributes of Gemeinschaft/community in modern society. Therefore, it is more likely to affect a comparatively less pluralistic society which values collective good over personal choice, and fatalism over human agency; one that divests the actor of choice in order to restore and consolidate spiritual reassurance and the basis of personal and communal identity: that is, in a “limited-options culture.”
This is what occurred during the first two Great Awakenings, in the 1740s and in the 1820-40s. This is also the reason why literal apocalypticism, or pre-millennialism – espoused by those who believe that the Second Coming will inaugurate the millennium –, which is predicated on the monopoly of truth, irrational fear, inordinate self-righteousness and, in general, a narrow and anxious attitude to life, is poised to dismiss democracy and the rule of law as harmful. The focus is on the period of tribulation preceding the advent of Jesus, on the Rapture of the saints (1 Thess. 4, 17), and on the threat posed by the Antichrist. In the south-eastern states, the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, that is, from a traditional agrarian society to an industrialized society, and from an imminent eschatology to a deferred eschatology, was delayed by about a century. There, the ritualistic, symbolic and spiritual “collective effervescence” of premillennialism persists to this day, as opposed to the more socially progressive post-millennialism advocated by those who believe that an enlightened humankind will inaugurate the millennium and that the Second Coming will occur at the end of this inspired age.
This account for the fact that the United States is, together with Iran, the only country on the planet with a mass-apocalyptic movement. Most significantly, the rise of the two movements historically coincided, as both the Iranian revolution and the founding of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority – a conservative Christian organization with strong apocalyptic overtones – took place in 1979, less than a couple of years before the election of Ronald Reagan, a self-declared believer in Armageddon.
From the perspective of Christian fundamentalists, there is a clear consistency of purpose in their urgent calling for social changes that cannot be procrastinated, their apocalyptic expectations, and the conservative and restorative nature of their movement. Indeed, they all concur to create an all-encompassing vision of life, marking the moral boundaries of the community and reinforcing its collective identity and cohesion. When pursued to its extremes, this logic generates a cultic milieu where everything must be experienced in an all-or-nothing basis and which is highly likely to veer towards dystopian developments (Althouse, 2005).
The threat and the promise of the Apocalypse may be of considerable value for those who are incapable or unwilling to adjust to the changed circumstances of a post-rural and post-industrial society, which is more open, fragmented, heterogeneous, and confusing.
The Apocalypse is therefore a specific social representation that is believed because it is shared, and it is shared because far too many people experience a chronic feeling of discontent, resentment, spiritual hunger, and impending doom. It is one of the possible scenarios of an alternative modernity antagonistic to the diverse, precarious, and unpredictable life which is typical of liberal-democratic societies, one that, all too often, seems outside of one’s control and is apt to provoke cognitive anxiety.
Apocalypticists may feel at ease in presuming that increasing levels of personal freedom, the waning influence of the church, and different styles of parental control can be offset by the suppression of temporality: the approaching end of the world completely neutralizes the relevance of human agency and turns back the clock of history to a time prior to the breach of order, to an age of primordial harmony and reassuring moral discipline where each one would find the right place in the order of things. In all likelihood, they feel much more comfortable in knowing that their sense of defeat and the mystifying categorical mixture that the globalizing process has brought in its train are only contingent. This shared imaginative (and sedative) vision provides ontological security and soothe their anxieties. This probably also explains why apocalyptic movements, like all social purity movements, generally resurface during times of perceived national crisis.
Apocalypticism as a predictive mechanism need not be accurate: predictions are instrumental to the achievement of social cohesion and spiritual fulfillment in troubled times. Many realize that they are better off knowing that the end is near, while clinging to the belief in an ultimate divine justice and interpreting every catastrophe as a welcome sign of the imminent return of Christ. More importantly, given the temporal proximity of the dramatic resolution of the clash between good and evil, believers find particularly rewarding their role as protagonists of a cosmic drama in which their actions would not be wasted but would instead serve a greater purpose. Millennial expectations truly possess them (Northcott, 2004).
Rather paradoxically, given its goal, the belief in the Armageddon thus represents a quest for emotional and psychological satisfaction and for a safe niche, a refuge from the ostensibly greater danger of the moral drift and social degeneration that characterizes secularized modernity. It is a vehicle of world-rejecting purification which enables some people to feel that they are more effectively in control of their own destinies.
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