Light and darkness — heavenly forces and a corrupted earth — are the twin engines of apocalyptic movements. For Christians awaiting rapture or Shiites counting the days until the Twelfth Imam appears, the trials and injustices of the known world are a prelude for the paradise that we can imagine but can’t yet achieve. Judging by the sheer number of predicted end dates that have come and gone without the trumpets blowing and angels rushing in, we are a people impatient to see our world redeemed through catastrophe — and we are always wrong. Gnostics predicted the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom as early as the first century; Christians in Europe attacked pagan territories in the north to prepare for the end of the world at the first millennium; the Shakers believed the world would end in 1792; there was a “Great Disappointment” among followers of the Baptist preacher William Miller when Jesus did not return to upstate New York on Oct. 22, 1844. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been especially prodigious with prophetic end dates: 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994. Any religious movement with an end-time prophecy is certain to attract followers, no matter how maniacal or fringy (witness the Branch Davidians). For those who want to go online and get the latest tally of bad news, there is a nuclear Doomsday Clock and the Rapture Index. If you remember living through Y2K, that was another millenarian moment — except our computer systems were redeemed by the same code writers who corrupted them in the first place.Who dreams of the apocalypse? Why do they dream of it? Polls indicate that up to 50 percent of Americans believe that the Book of Revelation is a true, prophetic document, meaning they fully expect the predictions of “Rapture,” “Tribulation” and “Armageddon” to be fulfilled. There is a paradox built into end-time theologies in that imminent catastrophe often brings comfort; according to Paul S. Boyer, an authority on prophecy belief in American culture and an emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the apocalypse is an appealing idea because it promises salvation to a select group — all of whom share secret knowledge — and a world redeemed and delivered from evil. “The Utopian dream is a big part of the Western tradition,” Boyer told me, “both the religious and secular forms. But the wicked have to be destroyed and evil has to be overcome for the era of righteousness to dawn.” This is as true in the New Age as much as in any other one. Rumors of global crisis, the distrust of institutional authority, the ready availability of esoteric lore, the existence of individuals drawn to abstruse numerical schemes, the urge to assuage anxieties with dreams of social transformation — wherever these elements exist, apocalyptic thinking is likely to flourish.
My friend Benjamin Anastas, on the Mayan Apocalypse, in last week’s NY Times Magazine