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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.

Photo Credit: Stephen Dann



The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism
Catherine Wessinger, ed.
Oxford University Press, 2011

Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience*
Richard Landes
Oxford University Press, 2011

Suppose Europe’s debt crisis leads to a fracturing of the eurozone and the ripple effect leads to a global depression worse than the one we’re slowly climbing out of. And suppose as a result of the economic chaos, there are riots in Europe and the U.S., with right-wing militias in a near civil war with failing governments, mass disruptions in the food supply, perhaps even global economic collapse and a breakdown of the social order.

Somewhere in that chain of events, most readers stopped supposing. But many others, if the statistics are right, are still with me, and might go further still, envisioning a massive breakdown and/or revolution in the world order, in very short time.

The latter view is a secular form of millennialism, the scholarly term for the belief that a wholesale transformation of the world, for better or for worse, is imminent. And as two massive new tomes, Richard Landes’ Heaven on Earthand the The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism edited by Catherine Wessinger, very helpfully demonstrate, our own beliefs and fears about politics, economics, and the environmental crisis, are not so distant from ancient apocalyptic prophecies about the end of the world, the Second Coming, or the rapture. Sure, our anxieties may be grounded in ‘facts,’ but the ancients thought theirs were too. What’s more important is the pattern of millennial thinking, which has always been with us and, unless the world is about to end, likely always will be.  

In Search of Collective Salvation

One detail needs to be cleaned up first. The term “millennialism”  does not refer to the year 2000, or the turning of the millennium. Rather, it takes its misleading name from the Christian belief that Christ will return to Earth and rule for one thousand years. The apocalypse, rapture, Second Coming—these are specific events in specific forms of millennial ideology. Millennialism itself is, in Wessinger’s definition, “the audacious hope that in the imminent future there will be a transition—either catastrophic or progressive—to a ‘collective salvation’ which will be accomplished by a divine or superhuman agent and/or by humans working in accordance with a divine or superhuman plan.” Following the pioneering scholar of millennialism Norman Cohn, Wessinger states that the millennialist salvation is collective, earthly (i.e., it will happen in this world), imminent, transformative, and supernaturalist in nature.

The twenty cultural studies in the Oxford volume and the dozen in Landes’ book make this point clear: millennialism is a pattern of human thinking that is universal, and depends little on whether the “superhuman plan” is polytheistic, monotheistic, or atheistic in nature. Our fears about Y2K (remember that?) and New Age predictions about December 21 of this year are not different in kind from Harold Camping’s ridiculous (and widely ridiculed) “ calculation” that the apocalypse would take place on May 21 (and then October 21) of last year. 

Nor, claims Landes, are utopian claims of a transformed economic or political order, such as Shimon Peres’ now nostalgic vision of a “new Middle East” or a jihadist’s vision of a purifiedumma. Even clocking in at 500 pages, Landes’ book is only half a volume, for it consciously does not deal with the best-known forms of millennialism: Christian and Jewish ones. This is like writing about soft drinks without mentioning Coca Cola. Yet the dozen cases Landes studies in depth, ranging from the 1856 Xhosa Cattle-Slaying to Marxism and Global Jihad, offer a series of mirrors through which to see more familiar religious and secular movements alike. It’s easy to say that millennialism is for the weird and wacky; it’s quite another to recognize millennial thinking in our own minds.

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