Why the Apocalypse Scare?
“FOR decades, Christian fundamentalists have been prophesying that [some] sort of society-wide breakdown lies just around the corner,” notes Damian Thompson, a religion writer, in Time magazine. “Now, to their astonishment, not only are these scenarios being taken seriously, but they are being circulated by the very people who used to ridicule them: computer programmers, business leaders and politicians.” He asserts that fear of a worldwide computer failure in the year 2000 “has turned thoroughly secular individuals into unlikely millenarians” who fear the advent of disasters like “mass panic, government paralysis, food riots, planes crashing into skyscrapers.”
Adding to the general anxiety are the disquieting activities of various small religious groups, often termed “apocalyptic.” In January 1999, in an article titled “Jerusalem and the Sirens of the Apocalypse,” the French daily Le Figaro said: “The [Israeli] security services estimate at over a hundred the number of ‘millenarians’ on or near the Mount of Olives awaiting the parousia or the apocalypse.”
The 1998 Britannica Book of the Year contains a special report on “Doomsday Cults.” It mentions, among others, suicide cults, such as Heaven’s Gate, the People’s Temple, and the Order of the Solar Temple, and Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), which organized the deadly poison-gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands. Summing up this report, Martin E. Marty, professor of religion at the University of Chicago, wrote: “The turning of the calendar page to 2000 is inspiring—and will almost certainly inspire all kinds of prophecies and movements. Some may become dangerous. It will be a time that should not be faced complacently.”
History of the Apocalypse Scare
Apocalypse, or Revelation, is the name of the last book in the Bible, written toward the end of the first century C.E. In view of the prophetic nature and highly symbolic language of this book, the adjective “apocalyptic” came to be applied to a form of literature that began long before the Bible book of Revelation was written. The mythological symbolism of this literature goes back to ancient Persia and even beyond. Hence, The Jewish Encyclopedia speaks of “the distinctly Babylonian character of most of the mythological elements incorporated in this [Jewish apocalyptic] literature.”
Jewish apocalyptic literature flourished from the start of the second century B.C.E. to the end of the second century C.E. Explaining the reason for these writings, one Bible scholar wrote: “The Jews divided all time into two ages. There was this present age, which is wholly bad . . . The Jews, therefore, waited for the end of things as they are. There was the age which is to come which was to be wholly good, the golden age of God in which would be peace, prosperity and righteousness . . . How was this present age to become the age which is to come? The Jews believed that the change could never be brought about by human agency and, therefore, looked for the direct intervention of God. . . . The day of the coming of God was called The Day of the Lord and was to be a terrible time of terror and destruction and judgment which would be the birthpangs of the new age. All apocalyptic literature deals with these events.”
Is the Apocalypse Scare Justified?
The Bible book of Revelation speaks of “the war of the great day of God the Almighty,” or Armageddon, wherein the wicked will be destroyed, followed by a thousand-year period (sometimes called the Millennium) during which Satan will be abyssed and Christ will judge humankind. (Revelation 16:14, 16; 20:1-4) In the Middle Ages, these prophecies were misunderstood by some because Catholic “Saint” Augustine (354-430 C.E.) had stated that the Millennium began at the birth of Christ and would be followed by the Last Judgment. Augustine apparently gave little thought to the time frame, but as the year 1000 approached, apprehension grew. Historians disagree on the extent of this medieval apocalypse scare. However widespread it was, it certainly turned out to be unjustified.
Similarly today, there are religious and secular fears that the year 2000 or 2001 will bring with it a terrifying apocalypse. But are these fears justified? And is the message contained in the Bible book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, something to be feared or, on the contrary, is it something we should hope for? Please read on.
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Medieval fears of the Apocalypse proved to be unjustified
© Cliché Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
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