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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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Moving further back in time, another Christian sect that's made a habit of erroneously predicting the end of the world is the Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1920, J.F. Rutherford, the Watchtower Society's second president and one of its founding members, published a book titled Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which forecast the arrival of God's kingdom within a few years. In it, Rutherford prognosticated:

...since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favor, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death, being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth.

Ironically, the Jehovah's Witnesses have their origins in yet another American sect that became famous for a failed apocalypse prediction: the Millerites, named after their founder William Miller.

Miller was born in 1782, served as an army captain in the War of 1812, and like Harold Camping 200 years later, came to believe the chronology of the end of the world could be pieced together by decoding hidden messages in verses scattered throughout the Bible. At its height, the Millerite cult had thousands of members nationwide. Miller and his followers triumphantly forecast October 22, 1844 as the date of the Second Coming, and when that date passed without incident, it became known as the " Great Disappointment." Several disillusioned former Millerites went on to found splinter groups that still exist today, including the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists.

Just to show that apocalyptic expectation isn't a modern phenomenon, here's one more quote. This one is from the witch-hunting colonial preacher Cotton Mather, who wrote in 1692 to confidently predict the imminence of the "Millennium," the 1,000-year era in which Jesus would physically reign over the Earth after triumphing in the Battle of Armageddon:

"If the Devil's Time were above a thousand years ago, pronounced short, what may we suppose it now in our Time? Surely we are not a thousand years distant from those happy thousand years of rest and peace and (which is better) Holiness reserved for the People of God in the latter days; and if we are not a thousand years yet short of that Golden Age, there is cause to think, that we are not an hundred."

If you're getting the impression that Christians are more apt than members of other religions to see Armageddon just around the corner, you're right. The perpetual apocalyptic expectation of Christianity has its roots in the New Testament, whose authors, like every subsequent generation of Christians, expected the end of the world to come within their own lifetimes.

For example, here's St. Paul saying that his contemporaries who were married should abstain from sex from then on, so that they could be as pure as possible and ready to meet Jesus when he returned: 

"What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away." --1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (NIV)

 And in the epistle attributed to St. Peter: 

 
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