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2012 Apocalypse, the Rapture and Other Millennial Delusions

I once had a noted New Age peace activist tell me that, because all spiritual practice has ripple effects outward, “my cat is a contemplative contributor to the universe.”

Photo Credit: © Subbotina Anna/


The following is reprinted with permission from   Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter  here.

The far left and the far
right agree on many things: mainstream politics doesn’t matter, hidden forces control our destiny, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, the world is about to end.

For the spiritual left, of course, the due date is December 21, at which time various Mayan calendars may or may not have predicted a global transformation of epic proportions. (Mayan elders have recently pointed out that it’s transformation, not destruction, that’s in store.) From what I can tell, with one foot in the New Age world, 2012 chatter seems to have died down somewhat. But there are still plenty of true believers.

On the religious right, the world basically ended already, on November 6, with the reelection of a Kenyan Muslim Socialist to the presidency of the United States. The degree of the tragedy depends on the degree of the extremist describing it. For Republicans, it was a rude awakening—though judging from the ways the GOP has blamed the defeat on Hurricane Sandy, Chris Christie, improper voter turnout in black neighborhoods, or anything other than the reality that most Americans preferred Obama’s ideas to Romney’s, many have chosen to remain asleep. For those of a more conservative bent, it was inexplicable: doesn’t America watch  The O’Reilly Factor? How could we all be so confused?

But for the hardcore, this defeat was much more than that. The “march to Socialism,” which has been plodding along, on and off, since the 1930s, is now a phalanx. But more than that: given the right’s rhetoric about the Obama administration’s “war on religion,” his reelection looks like nothing less than the anointing of the Antichrist. If I seem to exaggerate, consider the literally apocalyptic rhetoric coming out of the Rutherford Institute (one of the leaders of the right’s new movement to protect ‘religious liberty’), the National Organization for Marriage, Alan Sears, Donald Wildmon, Glenn Beck, or many of the pundits on Fox News.

Millennialism, as I’ve written about previously at Religion Dispatches, is the general term for the belief—religious or secular, but usually religious—that a massive global transformation is imminent, from Christ’s Second Coming (the “millennium” refers not to the turn of 1999–2000 but to the thousand years during which Christ will reign on Earth) to the messianism of a Sabbetai Sevi or David Koresh to, well, 2012. 

We err if we suppose that all millennialists march around with banners proclaiming that the end of the world is nigh. As scholars have rightly point out, millennialist thinking is found in Islamism, Marxism, and many other political theories which inspire real action in the real world. Not all millennialists are quietists; on the contrary, like the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, which unleased Sarin gas in the Tokyo subways, many take matters into their own hands, often with tragic results.

One of the most important, if subtle, transformations in American public life, for example, was the shift in evangelical thinking from post-millennialism to pre-millennialism, which took place gradually from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th. Post-millennialists believe that there’s not much we can do to affect when Christ returns; the world will just keep getting worse and worse, and eventually He’ll come and rescue us. The millennium comes after he does. Pre-millennialists, on the other hand, believe that we have to prepare the way. We must reform our society as the kingdom of God on Earth, and only then can Christ return. In this view, the millennium comes first.

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