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Apocalypse Now: Do We Have A Global Death Wish?

It's the end of the world as we know it. And some of us are really looking forward to it.

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Of course, concurrent with the view that the world is soon to be greatly transformed is the notion that we ought to do something about it. Some of these actions are harmless, or may have positive side effects; growing one’s own food, for example, out of fear of global economic collapse. And what Wessinger calls “progressive millennialism” may be nothing more than the belief that humanity is (or should) be evolving toward a more just and peaceful future. But others are downright sinister: 9/11, UFO cults preparing to be taken away, the Jehovah’s Witnesses selling their property prior to the 1974 rapture, the Millerites (the parent sect of today’s Seventh Day Adventists) going up on a hill to await the second coming on October 22, 1844, up to one-third of European Jews preparing to move to the Land of Israel with the messiah Sabbetai Zevi in 1666, the Xhosa slaughtering their animals and committing a kind of national suicide, the Nazis exterminating the Jews, the Aum Shinrikyo sect gassing people in the Tokyo subway—once millennial beliefs take hold, they inspire the strongest of human actions, often at terrible cost.   

Waiting For War

Today is no different. For example, within the evangelical world—which, let’s remember, includes between 30% and 40% of all Americans—there is a split between postmillennialists, who believe that Christ’s peaceful reign on Earth will follow a gradual improvement in human life, and the more familiar premillennialists, who believe that Christ will suddenly come back, destroy the current order, and replace it with a new one. 

From a progressive perspective, both of these views can be problematic. Many postmillennialists insist that we must transform America into a theocracy before Christ can come again, and are devoting considerable resources to doing so (which, of course, means oppressing women and sexual minorities). Many premillenialists, on the other hand, are so pessimistic that they are pursuing what some of us might consider a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Many Christian Zionists, for example, believe that a massive war in the Middle East is unavoidable, imminent, and part of the divine plan for humanity—and are supporting policies that raise the probability of just such a war.

What ought we do about millennial thinking in our day? If the combined 1300 pages of these two books have taught me anything, it’s that we can’t make it just go away. There is something fascinating, and perverse, in the human psyche that seems to yearn for this world to be other than how it is, even if that means destroying it. 

Some of the scholars in the Oxford handbook offer important insights into the roots of the phenomenon (including charismatic leadership, outsider status, etc.). Personally, though, and based on several years of studying a Jewish-Christian millennial movement in my graduate work—and observing its parallels today in the messianic Chabad sect—my sense is that it is as much a part of human nature as the religious urge itself. At the same time, its power to negate meaning in this world, justify all kinds of behavior, and lead to acts of violence and upheaval means that we have a responsibility to observe it, as we do other forms of irrational human cognition. When Michele Bachmann  says that “we are in the last days,” all of us should worry. 

As I  wrote about a few months ago in these pages, there are many shades of gray between wacky UFO conspiracy theories and the garden-variety anxieties that most of us harbor about the future. In between, haunted by the fear of death and the terror that this world really is all that there is, we project myths of religion, apocalypse, and global transformation. I would suggest that even when these myths are hopeful, they are still reconciliations with thanatos, the death wish. It’s almost like we’d rather the world be destroyed, than for it to be as impersonal, as relentless, as it appears.

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