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Apocalypse Soon: Why Are Christians So Obsessed With the End Times?

How can Americans make major life decisions on the basis of faith that the world will end in the very near future?

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"But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer." --1 Peter 4:7 (KJV)

 And from one attributed to the apostle John: 

"Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time." --1 John 2:18 (KJV)

 Even Jesus gets in on the act, telling his contemporaries that he'll return before they all die: 

"And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." --Mark 9:1 (KJV)

In another verse, he seems to set the deadline even sooner by telling his disciples that he'll return before they can even evangelize all the cities of Israel:

"When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." --Matthew 10:23 (NIV)

These prophecies all failed, of course. Two thousand years later, life continues as it always has, and the authors of these fearful predictions have long since turned to dust. What's remarkable is that, as each generation of Christians passes away, the apocalyptic torch is eagerly picked up by the next generation, which echoes their predecessors' warnings without a trace of awareness that they're recycling claims that have failed many times already.

Given their unbroken track record of failure, it's easy to make fun of apocalypse believers, to mock them for being so gullible and foolish. But these ideas have very real human costs. Millennial fever often flourishes during times of great social upheaval and uncertainty, among people whose lives are so impoverished that they want to escape this world and live in a better one. And it inevitably happens that some of those people squander what little they do have in chasing this mirage.

After his deadline came and went, I never again saw the fellow I chatted with in Penn Station. But the rapture ads I saw on the NYC subway, I later learned, were funded by an elderly Camping follower who emptied his retirement savings to pay for them. There were other stories about working people and parents who quit their jobs in the middle of an economic downturn to spend all their time spreading Camping's message, families that were splintered by arguments over who was or wasn't going to get into heaven when the trumpet blows. Other rapture-manias throughout history have drawn similar devotion, and when those prophecies inevitably fail, it's the humiliated faithful who are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Beyond this harm, apocalypse belief instills in its devotees a constant state of subdued terror, encouraging them to fear that the world may end at any moment and that they won't be numbered among the worthy when it does. Many accounts of believers and ex-believers testify to this nagging fear, describing how they repented and answered altar calls dozens of times, each time fearing that they may have had some secret sin that caused the last repentance not to take, and it's best to do it again just in case. Others speak of how their religious belief made their lives empty and joyless, how they were so consumed with anticipation of God's perfect kingdom arriving that reality seemed dull and lifeless by comparison.

But the worst consequence of apocalypse belief isn't the waste, nor is it the fear. It's the insidious attitude that since God is coming soon to destroy the world entirely, it doesn't matter what we do to it in the meantime. It's this belief that has so often made fundamentalists an obstacle to averting disastrous climate change, to preserving vanishing wilderness, or to making human civilization more sustainable. Not only do they not participate in these efforts, they actively oppose them, asserting that any political platform which starts from the premise that the Earth will be around for millions of years is a Satanic lie meant to keep us from heeding the warnings about God's imminent destruction of the world.

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