The End of the World is Here Again (The Spectator)

Last weekend Roland Emmerich’s wrathful CGI God was at it again, killing billions in the name of the Holy Box Office in the film 2012. Having already caused carnage with aliens, an ice age and Godzilla, this time Emmerich took his cue from the Ancient Mayans, whose ‘long calendar’ purportedly stops in 2012. But not only is the End nigh, it’s hugely profitable—2012 raked in $225 million globally in three days. With numbers like that it’s no surprise that a multitude of apocalypses are in the pipeline: whether humorous (Woody Harrelson battles the undead in Zombieland) or depressing (father and son trek across a post-apocalyptic wasteland in The Road) it’s boom time for doom time.

It is surely no coincidence that imaginary catastrophes are flooding our cinema screens at a time when the news itself seems exceptionally apocalyptic. Secular prophets armed with statistics and graphs warn us daily of a new Deluge, coming as punishment for our crimes against the planet. The President of Iran leaves a chair vacant at cabinet meetings for the Hidden Imam, chases the bomb and threatens to wipe nuclear-armed Israel off the map. And speaking of nukes, only a few months ago Taliban forces advanced very close to Pakistan’s own atomic arsenal. Then there’s the plague: H1N1 is spreading across the globe, making a lot of people a bit ill, and leaving a very small minority dead. But if H1N1 doesn’t get us, perhaps economic meltdown or—better yet—overpopulation will, as a scramble for resources sets off apocalyptic wars. And while governments seek solutions, some declare that our situation is hopeless. Interviewed in the Spectator this February, James Lovelock, doyen of the Green movement said: ‘If there were 100 million of us on the earth, we could do almost anything we liked without harm. At seven billion I doubt if anything is possible or will significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption; by significantly I mean enough to halt global warming.’

So: are we doomed? And if so—why are so many people so excited about it?

It’s almost been forgotten, but ten years ago the world teetered on the brink of a different apocalypse. The so-called Millennium Bug, a glitch in our computer systems, was going to plunge us back into the Dark Ages at the start of the year 2000. Instead, nothing happened. The curious thing was that Russia and Italy, which had taken no preventative measures against this catastrophe, were as unaffected as the USA and the UK, where government had spent billions averting doomsday. Oops.

The current H1N1 hysteria recalls the budding Black Deaths of BSE, SARS and Avian Flu, none of which killed people in the quantities promised by experts and the media. Global Warming was preceded by Global Cooling, but it was difficult for the slow doom of climate change to compete with the much more imminent apocalypse of Mutually Assured Destruction. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union began to unravel and fears of nuclear war receded that the threat of the rising tides really took hold.

In the 1960s the Cuban Missile Crisis sparked fears of a nuclear Armageddon that did not come. Step back to late 19th century France and we find Honore de Balzac declaring: ‘I expect a catastrophe… I really believe in the end of everything’. In 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm entered Jerusalem on a white horse, dressed in white and wearing a gold crown, thus identifying himself with the first of the four horseman of the Apocalypse: ‘And I beheld, and lo a white horse; and he that sat on him had a bow: and there was given unto him a crown, and he departed as conqueror and to conquest.” (Revelation 6:2). Cue World War I, and millions of deaths.

The apocalypse was also present in the middle of the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1864 China was ravaged by the Taiping Rebellion, in which a self-proclaimed messiah fought a war to establish heaven on earth, leaving 20 million dead in his wake. Twice in 1844, a Baptist preacher named William Miller led thousands to await the Second Coming on hilltops across America. Christ did not return. And we can go much further back, to 7th century Arabia where Mohammed announced that the Last Judgment was just around the corner, or 1st century Jerusalem where the followers of Christ also lived in eager expectation of this event, or Central Asia circa 1300BC where we find Zoroaster declaring that the End is Nigh. One thing unites all these prophets of imminent apocalypse: not one of them has been proven correct thus far. But that has had little effect on expectations.

The attraction of the apocalypse to artists is easy to understand: what could be more dramatic, more grandiose, more inspiring a subject? Thus mediaeval artists adorned cathedrals with powerful images of the Last Judgment, and a thousand years later HG Wells re-imagined Doomsday as an invasion from Mars. JG Ballard, who personally destroyed the world three times in his catastrophe novels of the 1960s, argued that humans take pleasure in the contemplation of violent disaster, which not only liberates us from the tedium of a law-based society, but also inspires the best art, the greatest ideas. But you need more than the thrill of doom creeping up your leg to establish a global religion or two, and to keep people believing when the promised apocalypse fails to arrive.

Perhaps it’s the very word that makes the allure of the End so tricky to grasp. In our irreligious age ‘apocalypse’ conjures up images of global catastrophe and mega-death. But that is the human apocalypse, made by man and inflicted on man. Prior to our seizing the power of global destruction from the hands of God in 1945, the scenario was very different. ‘Apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek apokaluptein which simply means to uncover, and originally referred to a set of books whose Jewish authors claimed to be revealing hitherto concealed revelations from God. Daniel and Revelation are the most famous and the most influential examples of this prophetic genre. Both contain terrifying visions of satanic worldly powers destroyed by a wrathful Deity—hence the association between catastrophe and ‘apocalypse’. But Daniel also speaks of the coming Kingdom of God which shall endure for all eternity. Revelation concludes with a vision of the Heavenly City, in which the righteous shall live forever in the presence of God. Revelation also offers the faithful the hope of the Millennium, an interim period before the absolute end, when there shall be heaven on earth.

The religious apocalypse then is profoundly optimistic: the faithful are promised that justice will be done, that suffering shall end, and that eternal felicity shall be theirs. God is in control, and He shall reward them at the End of Time. Thus in his famous study The Pursuit of the Millennium Norman Cohn stressed the attraction of the apocalypse to the oppressed and downtrodden, who stand little chance of seeing an end to their pain in this world. For them, the End is beautiful, a thing to be desired.

Modern apocalyptic scenarios such as Climate Change or overpopulation are very different. They are based not on sacred texts, but rather empirical evidence. They also lack a redemptive framework and are thus profoundly pessimistic: without God to guarantee rebirth, we are faced with a terrible future. A nuclear war will destroy us all, leaving cockroaches to inherit the earth. Climate Change will cause war, famine, disaster, death. But if the modern apocalypse is so bleak, then why is it still so seductive? Is it simply a result of the power of scientific discourse in our age?  But if so, then why do doomsday scenarios appear to be multiplying so rapidly? Dr. Richard Landes of Boston University is an expert on apocalyptic movements who has spent forty years thinking about the End:

“Our love for the apocalypse is connected with our sense of our own importance. To live in apocalyptic expectation means that you are the chosen generation, that in your time the puzzle of existence will be solved. It appeals to our megalomania: we all want to believe we’re special, that God has given us a front row seat for the most important events in history. The West meanwhile is fundamentally an apocalyptic culture. We received it from the missionaries who went north to convert the European tribes. There’s always an undercurrent, which comes to the surface periodically. If it seems more intense now it’s because modern society is built on the idea of constant change, and so we need to constantly think about the future. But as we are an apocalyptic culture, this stirs up thoughts of apocalypse—we keep coming back to it, like an acid flashback. Scenarios like the Millennium Bug or Global Warming have special secular appeal because they are situations we created ourselves, and so we think we can solve them.”

However the End is not unique to Western culture; Islam also has powerful apocalyptic traditions. For Muslims centuries and not millennia are the significant markers of time, and thus it was no coincidence that when the 14th Islamic century began in 1979, there was a series of apocalyptic events. The messianic Shiite revolution in Iran is the obvious example, but 1979/1400 also saw a violent revolt in Mecca led by a self-proclaimed messiah, and uprisings in Nigeria which left 10,000 dead. And while a group like al Qaeda may not seek to bring about the literal End of Days, they are nevertheless a thoroughly apocalyptic millenarian movement, which seeks to establish paradise on earth, by first destroying the old, corrupt world. And while such dreams are fantastical, if even a tiny group got its hands on a nuclear device the results for the rest of us would be apocalyptic in a very real sense.

And so here we are, caught between different Ends, with a horde of alternative apocalypses waiting in the wings. You know, maybe Roland Emmerich has the right idea. After all, when doomsday actually does arrive, we certainly won’t be able to do anything about it—so why not have a bit of fun with the apocalypse, why not profit from the End? Since Al Gore assumed the mantle of prophet his net worth has increased at least 50 times over. He’s certainly having a nice doomsday.

But Gore’s success also underscores a final, crucial point. Regardless of the scientific debate, Climate Change is already an undeniable reality in as much as it has a huge effect on government policies that affect us all directly. And nobody would argue that Christianity and Islam were without an impact, even if believers are still waiting for the foretold End. Thus, whether or not the prophets are correct, apocalyptic belief is never without consequences. One way or another, we are always living in the shadow of the End Times.

From The Spectator December 2009

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