The belief in a coming end of the world as we know it may seem understandable to people living in the first decade of the twenty-first century, but a look at history shows that it has been part of Western psychology from the beginning.
The central figure of Western religion, Jesus Christ, told his followers that the end was nigh, and most people who accepted Jesus believed that the cosmic last call would come in their lifetime. Yet Jesus worked within an age-old Jewish tradition that looked to the coming of the Messiah, a religious and political leader who would set the world to rights and, incidentally, free the Chosen People from whomever it was who had conquered them at the time. As Jesus didn’t free the Jews from the Romans—nor seemed able to free himself from them either—the Jews who denied him seem justified in their disbelief. To them, and to the Romans, the Christians who preached a coming Day of Judgment were rather like the urban oracles who inhabit most major cities today, ranting on street corners and pestering passersby to repent.
Post-Jesus, the Jews didn’t give up their anticipation of a Messiah. They merely pushed back the date of his arrival, a tactic the Christians soon adopted as well when it became clear that Jesus’ Second Coming—after his crucifixion and resurrection—was delayed. The last major claimant to Messiahdom was the Turkish Jew Sabbatai Zevi, who, after gathering a huge following, ignominiously abandoned his call in 1666 when threatened with impalement by Sultan Mehmet IV. As did later students of eschatology (the study of the end times), the early Christian theorists were adept in cooking the books and explaining why their own final curtain hadn’t yet fallen. Nevertheless, against all the evidence, the belief in some once-and-for-all denouement remained strong. In 156 AD, for example, a Phrygian named Montanus declared that he was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit and that, in accordance with the Fourth Gospel, he would reveal “things to come,” such as the imminent arrival of Christ’s kingdom, which would physically descend from the heavens and transform Phrygia into a land of saints. Understandably, thousands of Christians flocked to Phrygia to await the Second Coming. Yet again, the expected kingdom’s failure to arrive did little to dampen the belief that it would eventually show up. After Montanus, there were several other false alarms, all of which ended in the same way.
Ironically, the Church itself soon became a strong inhibitor of apocalyptic thought. By the time it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, the idea of a coming apocalypse was more of a threat than a promise. The Church was the second most powerful organization in the empire, and that it would lose this status because of the end of the world wasn’t appealing. Drawing on the work of the third-century theologian Origen, it shifted the emphasis from a historical apocalypse to a spiritual one and developed an eschatology of the individual soul. This idea caught on with the more educated and socially well-situated Christians, but the more spectacular theme of a “real-life” apocalypse remained part of the common people’s worldview and has been so ever since, as anyone aware of the enormous popularity of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, based on a selective reading of the Book of Revelations, knows. Titles like The Rapture, Tribulation Force, and The Mark don’t show up on the New York Times bestseller list, but millions of readers with a taste for Christian fundamentalism buy and read these books—well—religiously, as page-turning guides to the coming end times. The overarching theme of Left Behind is the fate of those who are not right with the Lord and who face a gory retribution come the last days. A gateway to paradise for the faithful few, for the disbelieving many, the millennium is their worst nightmare.
As the historian Norman Cohn argues in The Pursuit of the Millennium, millenarian scenarios share some basic ideas. Salvation is collective, involving everyone, although not everyone will be saved; it is to be experienced here on Earth, not in some afterlife; it is on its way and will arrive suddenly; it will be total, effecting a complete transformation of life as we know it; and it is to be achieved through supernatural forces. As Cohn argues, by the Middle Ages, grassroots expectation of the millennium was rampant. With a corrupt Church, the common folk sought salvation through a cleansing apocalypse. This led to some remarkable developments, like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, a loose community of radical Christians circa 1200 who, because of the coming end times, believed they had become free of sin and acted accordingly. Wandering from village to village, they rejected private property—which meant they took whatever they wanted—and devoted themselves to hedonistic pleasures, including “free love” and drunkenness, rather like medieval hippies. Less driven by theology, this and other millenarian sects sought to escape the deprivations of their lives by envisioning a coming cosmic reversal that would set the righteous lowly at the head of the table, with the worldly powerful at best receiving scraps.
The motivation for many of these sects isn’t difficult to grasp. Socially and economically disenfranchised, they resented the generally fine living many monks and priests enjoyed, and understandably wanted some for themselves. If it took an apocalypse to bring this about, so be it. This aspect of millenarianism informed the secular varieties familiar to the modern period, and while the French and Russian revolutions lacked the supernatural forces common to most millenarian movements, they both shared the other criteria admirably. The storming of the Bastille inaugurated the Age of Reason, and the Bolshevik murder of the Romanovs announced the dictatorship of the proletariat. Hitler’s National Socialism was perhaps the most millenarian modern movement of them all, celebrating a Third Reich that would, it claimed, last a thousand years. (Thankfully, all it managed was twelve.) Yet just as the Church did, the leaders of these secular apocalypses soon clamped down on any who felt these events weren’t quite apocalyptic enough; and in all three cases, for many the end times only brought new oppression. Another example of secular millenarian belief was the hoopla in Europe that accompanied the outbreak of the First World War. Many believed that by the end of the nineteenth century Western civilization had become rotten, and they looked to war as a way of clearing away the old world in preparation for the new. It was not until the reality of trench warfare took hold that those expectations dimmed and the war was seen as yet another example of the very thing it was supposed to eliminate.
While I’ve been lucky enough to have missed anything like the French or Russian revolution and the First World War, my own lifetime has been peppered with quite a few millennial expectations. Growing up in the 1960s, through the media I was aware of the modern Brethren of the Free Spirit in places like Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury. I was also aware that something called the Age of Aquarius either was on its way or had already arrived (the jury is still out on this). Linked to this was the idea that the fabled lost continent of Atlantis-—which I read about in comic books and fantasy paperbacks—was due to surface sometime in 1969. Both were heralds of a coming golden age, when “peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.” By the early seventies such anticipations had fizzled, but in 1974 they were briefly revived when comet Kohoutek sparked new interest in apocalyptic beliefs. A Christian group called the Children of God—who, incidentally, advocated “revolutionary lovemaking” (read: promiscuity)—distributed leaflets announcing doomsday for January of that year, which my friends and I read with interest. Predictably, Kohoutek fizzled as well. That same year, the science writers John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann published The Jupiter Effect, a bestseller predicting the devastating results (earthquakes, tidal waves, etc.) of a curious alignment of the planets on one side of the sun. When the alignment took place and nothing happened, they wrote a second book, The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered, explaining what went wrong. Not surprisingly, this sequel didn’t sell as well.
There were other millennial dates too. Remember the solar eclipse of 1999 and Y2K, the millennium bug? But the most significant millennial date so far in my lifetime surely was 1987, the year of the Harmonic Convergence—another planetary alignment—which was seen as the kickoff for the most anticipated apocalyptic event in recent years, the year 2012. For those unaware, proponents of 2012 argue that an ancient Mayan calendar—combined with permutations of the I Ching—predicts that tremendous changes will take place in that year and that, as one advocate expresses it, a “singularity,” an event of unprecedented ontological character, will take place and, as the saying goes, transform life as we know it. Recalling Norman Cohn’s criteria for millenarian belief, from everything I’ve heard about 2012, it fits the bill nicely.