Death Wish: Why Are We So In Love With Apocalypse?
It’s impossible to avoid the apocalypse these days. Whether we encounter the End in the form of news reports on Global Warming, or fears of Iran getting bomb, or plague panics such as H1N1, we seem to be living in a high point of apocalyptic anxiety, with horrible Doomsdays lurking round every corner.
And yet, the End has never been so much fun. Roland Emmerich released his latest apocalyptic blockbuster 2012 in November, and since then we have enjoyed Zombieland, The Road, The Book of Eli, Legion and even Al Gore’s dreadful poem read aloud on morning TV in the presence of a fawning sycophant. Much more is to come, and this is to say nothing of video games, books, comics, or half the output of the History Channel.
What lies behind this fascination with the End? Dr. Richard Landes, professor of mediaeval history at Boston University, is a renowned scholar of apocalyptic movements who has been thinking about Doomsday for forty years. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and author of the upcoming Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience. Landes is an exceptionally interesting thinker who applies his knowledge of past apocalypses to our present fears, an analysis which frequently informs the articles he publishes at his website The Augean Stables.
Recently I phoned him from my base in Texas, to chat about mankind’s enduring love affair with the apocalypse. I caught him in Tel Aviv airport at 2 am, and it was then, against a backdrop of deepest night, that we spent two hours discussing the end of the world:
With all these apocalyptic films coming out, and fears of Global Warming, plague and nuclear proliferation running rampant, do you think that we are living through an era of heightened apocalyptic anxiety?
You know, that’s almost a precise paraphrase of what journalists were asking me in the 90s, while looking ahead to the year 2000. That was when we had all those movies about planet-destroying comets, and fears of the Y2K bug… There’s always an apocalyptic undercurrent in our culture, but sometimes it comes to the fore.
Why is the pull of apocalyptic belief so strong?
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—by which I mean humanity’s—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.
But where does it come from?
The West is fundamentally an apocalyptic culture. It came with the first missionaries when they went north to convert the tribes in Europe. The old chronicles speak of ‘glad tidings’, which had to be news of Christ’s impending return. Do you know the French cartoon strip, Asterix and Obelix? Asterix had to drink the magic potion to become strong. Obelix fell into the cauldron when he was a baby, so he didn’t need to drink it. That’s the relationship between Western culture and apocalypse.
If apocalyptic fervor seems more intense now it’s because ever since the Industrial Revolution Western society has been built on the idea of constant change, and so we need to constantly be thinking about the future. Scenarios like the Millennium Bug or Global Warming thus have special appeal to secular minds because as they are situations we created ourselves, we think we can solve them.
So we keep looking to the future, but as Western culture has always located an apocalypse in the future, this ‘looking forward’ inevitably stirs up ancient archetypes and fears regarding the End Times?
It’s like an acid flashback.
Which goes some way to explaining why the anticipation of doomsday constantly recurs- even though every prophet has been wrong…
Well, we historians prefer to say that the prophets have been wrong so far. But the key point to make, and I stress– is that apocalyptic belief is never without consequences, even if it’s wrong. For example, an idea often associated with apocalypse is that of the millennium- a period prior to the end during which men and women shall live in heaven on earth. That can be pretty harmless in itself, but when people decide to pursue that goal, and make it happen instead of waiting on God, the results can be disastrous.
Thanks to sects such as Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, Koresh’s Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo in Japan End Times belief is often associated in the popular imagination with murder and mass suicide. Is it always dangerous?
No rhetoric is more powerful than apocalyptic rhetoric, no greater motivation exists in the human repertoire than the belief that one’s every action is crucial to the final destiny of the human race.
Millennialism brings out the most noble and most base of human behaviour, from the genocidal rage of Crusaders and Nazis, to the extravagant love of a Francis or a Gandhi. If we don’t understand millennialism, we don’t understand a critical element of one of our culture’s greatest passions. It is powerful and seductive; and yes, it can be incredibly subversive, incredibly dangerous. In 19th- century China a village schoolteacher named Hong Xiuquan fused Christian tracts with native millennial traditions and formed the Taiping Heavenly Army. Up to 35 million died as Hong fought to establish paradise on earth. And this was in an age before modern weaponry!
I would argue that the Nazis and the Bolsheviks should also be understood as secular apocalyptic movements, further underscoring the potentially traumatic consequences of millennial belief.
In The Apocalyptic Year 1000 which you edited, you argue that although the popular idea that there was mass panic in Europe on the eve of the first millennium is a myth, there was nevertheless a sustained apocalyptic period in the decades before and after the year 1000, evidenced by mass movements, signs and wonders in the sky, an increase in references to the Antichrist in texts etc. The year 2000 was likewise a dud—but do you think we could be experiencing a similar ‘long apocalyptic moment’ today? And if so when did it start? Was it in the 70s with Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, or Hal Lindsey’s bestselling books of popular prophecy?
That’s an interesting way to look at it. I’d take it all the way back to 1968, when many people in the West believed the world was going to change, that bomber jet planes were going to transformed into butterflies, and John Lennon was lying around in bed with Yoko Ono in the name of world peace. That was a classical millennial theme—admittedly in an unbelievably shallow form- that if you changed your life, you could change the world.
What are the dominant apocalyptic scenarios today?
The two most compelling contemporary secular apocalyptic prophecies of our time are Climate Change and Global Jihad. By secular I mean based on empirical evidence rather than heavenly visions and ancient texts. But still they follow the apocalyptic thread of destruction and rebirth and are ripe for transformation into millennial movements.
Global Jihad involves actors inspired by sacred texts, but the danger of what they can do is very real. It is unfolding in real time, thus we can see it, and make observations. And so I describe it as a secular apocalypse.
Are there major differences between secular and religious apocalypses, other than the empirical/visionary divide?
Yes, they are much more pessimistic. Global Warming promises destruction without a redemptive framework- except in certain New Age interpretations which add the promise that after the catastrophe, a more harmonious society will emerge, which will transition to ‘a new consciousness’.
I’m more focused on Global Jihad. Climate Change could take decades to take effect. In Global Jihad the timetable of danger is greater. If one of these groups gets hand on a nuke, then it could affect us in the here and now with disastrous consequences.
It’s interesting that those who favor one apocalyptic scenario tend to deny or downplay the other. The ‘left’ usually believes fervently in Global Warming while attempting to dismiss Islamist terrorism, while the ‘right’ tends to argue in the opposite direction.
Yes, and yet the two complement each other. In fact they go hand in hand. It’s our consumption of fossil fuels that feeds money to global jihad.
If I can stay on Global Warming for a minute—it’s a common belief that apocalyptic ideas appeal mainly to the weak, the marginalized, and the oppressed. But Global Warming seems to appeal mainly to the elite—while the so-called ‘masses’ are frequently hostile or indifferent towards it. Is this unusual?
That’s true, but in the past many leaders of apocalyptic sects were members of the elite, especially intellectuals who felt that they hadn’t found their place in society. For example Thomas Müntzer, who was a theologian and leader in the Peasant’s War in Germany in the 1520s, was a well educated man. Hong Xiuqan in China was also incredibly intelligent, a child prodigy, but he failed the civil service exams, which had something like a 98% failure rate, and after this rejection he embraced apocalyptic belief.
The leaders of Global Jihad are also well educated men from wealthy families. And make no mistake: Global Jihad is an absolutely apocalyptic movement- it was launched in 1979, the year 1400 in the Muslim world. There was revolution in Iran, and an uprising in Mecca led by a man who declared himself the Mahdi, the Islamic savior. And in Nigeria there was an uprising that killed 10000 people.
But while the Iranian regime is explicitly inspired by a messianic Shiite ideology, Sunni terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda make no mention of the End or the Mahdi…
They’re not apocalyptic in the sense that they talk about the end of time. But they are unquestionably millennial. In the 1990s Al Qaeda decided that it was possible to take over world, like a mirror of western globalisation. They dream of establishing Sharia everywhere, and are actively apocalyptic in how they go about it- they want to establish paradise on earth by first destroying the old world. This is a pre- modern movement with access to hyper modern technology. As I said, even if a tiny group gets its hands on nukes that could cause a catastrophe.
Islamic apocalyptic millennialism is what I call ‘active cataclysmic’- i.e. we are God’s tool/weapon for bringing about the devastation necessary for the millennial kingdom to be realized on earth. This is by far the most dangerous belief in the history of mankind. People need to understand the degree to which our unwillingness to talk about it actually encourages it.
How long do you think the jihad movement will last? Other millennial-apocalyptic groups such as the Nazis had a relatively short lifespan. The Bolsheviks in the USSR were only truly bloodthirsty and millennial for about 30 years. Right now the regime in Iran appears to be in serious trouble. Won’t it also die out?
Well perhaps, but there’s a big difference between our world today and the situation in the past. Thanks to the Internet the jihadis can draw upon a much bigger pool of potential recruits. There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. Thus Global Jihad has the potential to be infinitely self-regenerating.
Dr. Landes, thank you.
From When Falls the Coliseum January 26th 2010