In honor of the coming (or not-coming) Rapture event… may I reprint an article of mine from the last century? It seems even more relevant today. Alas.
A few extreme voices are announcing the impending end of the world. Proclamations of doom are perennial flowers which have sprouted in the garden of human imagination since earliest times. Oracles appeared whenever turmoil caused nations and peoples to feel uncertain about the future. From ancient Sumer, to India, to Iceland, astrological portents used to set off recurring waves of public hysteria.
Ambiguity is the prophet’s major stock in trade. King Croesus bribed the Delphic Oracle for good news, so the priests told him what he wanted to hear. If he marched on Persia he would destroy a great empire. He marched, and the empire he destroyed was his own.
Some doom-prophecies proved devastatingly self-fulfilling. When Cortez marched on Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs were paralyzed by similarities between his arrival and the prophesied return of their god, Quetzalcoatl. That paralysis led to the Aztecs’ fall. At Troy, Cassandra and Lacöon warned unavailingly against accepting gift horses, showing that all Jeremiads aren’t heeded.
We remember each of these foretellings because they came true. Those that fail are seldom noted — much to the relief of today’s tabloid prophets.
Something in human nature seems fascinated by the end of all things. Is it simply an extension of the smaller death each of us faces? Or perhaps a streak of egotism is involved, for out of countless human generations, it would surely mark ours as unique to be the last. Folk myths about humanity’s swan song range from the Vikings’ awful Ragnarok to universal bliss, and all shades between. Often these myths foresee dividing humankind into an elect, who will experience rapture, and those doomed to eternal punishment for misdeeds in this world.
“Messianism” focuses on an awaited deliverer, who will right wrongs, settle scores, and change the known cosmos more to the liking of those doing the waiting. For example, the Zoroastrians of Persia prophesied a “third savior,” who would purify the land and resurrect the dead. North American plains Indians, inspired by “ghost shirt” magic, believed certain signs augured invincibility to their forlorn cause of driving Europeans from the continent. During the mid nineteenth century, half of China was consumed by the Tai’Ping rebellion, whose charismatic leader claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus.
Larger, more conservative religions also carry notions of divine, overpowering intervention. Buddhism awaits the bodhisattva, Maitreya, to create paradise on Earth. In orthodox Islam a prophesied Mahdi is destined to usher a new age. The celebratory frenzy which accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran may have been amplified by occurring almost exactly 14 centuries after the birth of the Prophet.
Christian millennialists drew inspiration from many sources, such as the promise in the gospels that Jesus would return “…before this generation shall have passed away…” to complete his messianic task. By far the most influential text is the Book of Revelation, which tells in florid, metaphorical detail about the rise and fall of characters such as the “Beast,” and the “Whore of Babylon.” In every generation, tracts have been published which analyzed that mysterious tome, line by line, showing how each obscure phrase and parable connected to events taking place in the author’s own region and time. For example, during the approach to year 1800, a zealous flood of printed interpretations correlated the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to verses of prophecy, proving to the writers’ satisfaction that Armageddon was nigh.
Alas for those eagerly expecting Judgment Day, the rumblings heard in the sky were only cannon.
In the run-up to year 1000 of the common era, thousands throughout Europe divested their farms, property, the clothes on their backs, expecting an imminent end. Other episodes occurred at uneven intervals, such as in year 1260, but one could always count on a special surge at each turn of the hundreds column. Popes even proclaimed Roman jubilees, to attract predictable waves of concerned pilgrims whenever round numbers rolled along.
Our own era has seen tabloid oracles, TV evangelists and millennialist politicians, all weighing in to satisfy a seemingly inexhaustible human need for mystic hope mixed liberally with terror. And, in fairness, religion has not been the sole font of apocalyptic scenarios. New-Age spiritualists have joined in, touting everything from Aquarianism and astrology to a fleet of UFOs, due to land just outside San Diego, California. Meanwhile, the past decade saw survivalists stocking private fortresses in eager dread of a coming end to civilization, which, they were certain, would cull the virtuously prepared from the culpably week.
Books such as Hal Lindsey’s runaway best seller, The Late, Great, Planet Earth, revealed to millions the “obvious” identity of the Soviet Union as the Devil’s final fortress, foretold in scripture. Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary, James Watt, declared environmentalism moot for the simple reason that the Earth was scheduled to end soon anyway, so why bother saving trees? In retrospect, these pronouncements may seem quaint, with the USSR fading into archeological dust along with Nineveh and Babylon, but one sees no retractions by Lindsey or others. The armageddon merchants simply re-arrange the details of their prophecies in order to keep up with each geo-political turn.
Will Japan or China replace Russia as the next arch-foe of Heaven’s host? Will we soon hear political candidates, accusing each other of being the Antichrist?
Nearly all millennialists share an interesting premise, that the entire vast universe was fashioned by a creator with a penchant for brief experiments, foregone conclusions, petty vengeance, and mysterious riddles. During most of human history, this might have seemed a reasonable model of the world, since life appeared so capricious, so instantly and inexplicably revocable. To some extent, that age-old sense of helplessness and enigma remains. Only under a conceited gloss of modernity do we dare step forward and (without meaning any deliberate offense) attempt to pose a question or two.
For instance, even granting the aforementioned godly premise, why would a creator of universes base his doomsday timetable on a human dating system? Might He not use ticks of an atomic clock, marking off radium half-lives until — phhht? Or, going by certain biblical passages, should we estimate how many sparrows, or shooting stars, have fallen since the Earth began?
For that matter, why count down in decimal? Why not base six, used by the Babylonian inventors of the calendar? Or binary notation? In the code native to computers, this year, 1994 of the common era, translates as 011111001010. It will be a much rounder 10000000000 on the date 2048 a.d., and a symmetrical, mysterious-looking 11111011111 in 2015. On the other hand, if prime numbers are His thing, then both 1997 and 1999 fit the bill in any notation.
Assuming the Omnipotent simply cannot resist round multiples of ten, and conveniently chose Earth’s orbital period as the unit of measure, what date shall we figure He is counting from? To Hindus, a three billion year cycle of creation and destruction passes through multiple “Yugas,” of which the present is but one of the more threadbare. The Mayans believe in cycles of 256 years, based on motions of moon and planets. The most recent major shift occurred in 1954.
To certain Christian fundamentalists, the answer is plain. Obviously, the countdown began at the pivot point of the common era calendar, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Unfortunately, that postulate presents problems. Regarding the actual date of nativity, biblical scholars disagree over a range of five years or more. Nor is there good evidence that the month and day assigned to Christmas under the Gregorian Calendar have anything to do with the celebrated event. (Eastern Orthodoxy commemorates Christmas weeks later.) Early church leaders may have meant to match the popular solstice festivals of the Mithraic Cult, followed by their patron, Emperor Constantine, thus making conversion of pagans easier.
And yet, every date of prophecied devastation has passed without event. No matter. Doom-seers are well-practiced at the art of recalculation. In the Nineteenth Century, one mid-western preacher managed to hold onto his flock through six successive failures of the skies to open, until at last he was abandoned by all but the most fervent and forgiving.
Here is just one of the excuses we are bound to hear —
“Of course the countdown shouldn’t date from the birth of Jesus. After all, the chief event of his life, the promise of redemption and resurrection, came at the end of his earthly span.”
If so — assuming the clock has been ticking from Calvary to Armageddon — we would seem in for a slight reprieve, and yet another wave of millennial fever set to strike some time in the mid 2030s. Again, the lack of any specific written record in Roman or Judean archives will let enthusiasts proclaim dates spread across five or six years, but at least the season won’t be vague — sometime around Easter, or during the Passover holiday.
We’ve only begun to plumb the options available to millennial prophets. While some sects focus on two thousand Christmases, and others on as many Easters, there will certainly be those who consider such thinking small-scale and altogether too New Testament. After all, why should the Creator terminate His universe on the anniversary of some event which took place midway through its span? Why not start counting from its origin?
Remember Archbishop Ussher of Armagh? He’s the fellow who carefully logged every begat in the Bible, then declared that the creation of the world must have occurred at 9 o’clock in the morning, on October 25 of the year 4004 B.C.
Now, there has been a considerable amount of teasing directed at poor Ussher, since he made this sincere calculation back in 1654. His results don’t jibe too well with the testimony of rocks, fossils, stars, or the scientists who study such things. Still, he has followers even today, folk who believe that all physical evidence for a vastly older Earth (four and a half billion years) was planted to “test our faith.” (One might ask in reply, if the Lord went to so much effort to convince us the world is billions of years old, who are we to doubt it?)
If Ussher fixated on time’s origin, the famed founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, had something to say about its end. Luther took into account that “…a day is as a thousand years to the Lord…” (Psalms 90:4), and that genesis itself took six days. He then concluded that the Earth’s duration would thus be 6,000 years from first light to the trump of doom. Further, this span would be symmetrically divided into three 2,000 year stretches, from Origin to the time of Abraham, from Abraham to Jesus, and a final two millennia rounding things off at Judgment Day. While this speculation drew little attention back in Luther’s day, it is sure to appeal to modern millennialists, hoping for the good luck of witnessing the end in their own time. Unfortunately, combining Luther’s logic with Ussher’s date (4004 b.c.) shows that the end should have arrived in 1996!
Perhaps we won a little breather on a technicality. Since there was no Year Zero in the common era calendar (One b.c. was followed immediately by One a.d.), the Ussher-Luther deadline shifts to autumn, 1997! Yet that date passed as well.
Fortunately, old Bishop Ussher wasn’t the only one counting off from Adam and Eve. The Jews have been at it much longer, and by the Hebrew Calender it is only year number 5753, which seems special to no one but mathematicians.
What of Jewish millennialists, then? Back in the 1640s, followers of Sabbatai Zevi believed passionately that the end had come, but neither that “false messiah,” nor Jacob Frank in the 1720s, brought any New Kingdom, only disappointment. Since then, most Jewish scholars have put less faith in vague riddles of a single manifestation than in a growing maturity of human culture, or a “messianic age”… an attitude which baffles some Christian evangelists no end.
As with UFO cults, there is no such thing as “disproof” to those who can always find convenient explanations for each failed prophecy. It is useless citing scientific data to refute the supernatural. There are methods for dealing with doomsday cant however. One is to turn things around, and confront millennialists on their own turf. In the end, the entire question revolves around symbols.
In Judeo-Christian mythology, two chief metaphors are used to describe the relationship between the creator and humankind. The first of these depicts a “shepherd-and-his-flock.” The second describes a “father-and-his-children.” These parables are used interchangeably, but they aren’t equivalent. Rather, to modern eyes they are polar opposites, as irreconcilable as the tiny, closed cosmos of Ussher and the vast universe of Galileo.
A shepherd protects his flocks, guiding them to green pastures, as the psalms so poignantly portray. All the shepherd expects in return is unquestioning obedience… and everything else the sheep possess. Lucky ones are merely shorn, but that reprieve is brief. None escapes its ultimate fate. None has any right to complain.
Everybody also knows about fathers. Young sons and daughters are expected to obey, when discipline is tight for their own good. Nevertheless, with time, offspring learn to think for themselves. Even in patriarchal societies, a good father takes pride in the accomplishments of his children, even — especially — when they exceed his own. If there is a fore-ordained plan, it is for those children to become good mothers and fathers, in turn.
To the perennial, millennial oracles, with their message of looming destruction, here is a head-on response. Ask them this. “Are we children of a Father, or a Shepherd’s sheep? You can’t have it both ways.
“You preach a tale of violent harvest,” the challenge continues. “Of judgment without debate or appeal, fatal and permanent. A shepherd might so dispose of lambs, but what sane father does thus to his offspring? Would you stand by, if a neighbor down the street commenced such a program on his flesh and blood?
“Anyway, you choose an odd time to proclaim the adventure over, just when we’ve begun picking up creation’s tools, learning, as apprentices do, the methods of a great Designer. Those techniques now lay before us, almost as if someone placed blueprints to the universe to be pored over by eager minds. By those perhaps ready soon to leave childhood and begin adult work.”
The latest crop of millennial prophets might be asked, what do sheep owe the shepherd of a cramped pasture, a cheap, expendable world just 6,000 years old, limited to one ball of dirt, one sentient race?
Time will tell. We, humanity, may yet thrive or fry by dint of our own wisdom or folly. The macrocosm may be, as secularists say, indifferent to our fate.
Or, perhaps some great mind out there does see, does care. If so, that spirit may be more patient than doomsayers credit, with a design far subtler, yet more honest. A truly creative Creator would surely be disappointed in an experiment which ended so trivially, or soon.
(Published in my short story collection Otherness.