The Seduction of Apocalypse

04/07/2006 02:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It seems strange that millions of people today believe in the apocalypse, an idea whose time never comes but is always expected. In 999 A.D., at the turn of the last millennium, there was widespread fear that the world was coming to an end, and you would think such a rationally incredible idea could not survive science, modernism, and the spread of secular education. But apocalypse has many seductive charms.

--If the world is coming to an end tomorrow, we would be the last, privileged generation of people on Earth. We would be participants in an incredible supernatural event. Our importance would be undeniable.

--In the event of apocalypse, fervent believers would be proven right once and for all in their literal reading of the Bible. They would no longer have to endure the scorn of secularists.

--Presumably the end of the world would bring a public appearance by God. This has been long yearned for in all faiths.

--Finally, the end of the world would come as a relief to anyone deeply pessimistic about such "unsolvable" problems as global warming, the AIDS pandemic, over-population, and nuclear proliferation. Better to wipe the slate clean in one quick stroke than watch the human race die by slow suffocation from its own follies.

The problem with apocalyptic thinking is exactly the same as its seduction. Like it or not, we have to live with our mistakes. We have to worship without seeing God face to face. We have to tolerate faiths other than our own. We must learn how to shape a viable future in a sustainable ecology, no matter what. The apocalypse would not be the first example of wholesale wishful thinking, yet at present it is one of the most irresponsible.

One suspects that the right wing is full of apocalyptic excuses for not facing the huge challenges looming in the future. There is a whiff of apocalypse hanging over the Iraq war, whose rationale may have a lot to do with the Book of Revelations, the rise of the Anti-Christ (more than one fundamentalist preacher has nominated Saddam or Arafat for that role), a climactic battle in the Holy Land, and so on. These scenarios are not divinely manifested, though -- we make them happen out of our own will, expectations, and perverse love of crisis.

Naturally, the right wing can't go too public with their apocalyptic thinking. Twenty years ago Reagan's Sec. of the Interior, James Watt, was outspoken in his beliefs. On one occasion, as cited at Wikipedia, he said, "My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns." He was roundly ridiculed, and since then any religious agenda has been publicly denied by rightists. Yet one is sure that in the backrooms of Texas oilmen's clubs, this kind of talk is common. Only time will tell how far the American people will go in tolerating a government run by irrational metaphysics, or at least deeply influenced by them. In real-world terms there is no chance that the apocalypse is near, a fact that we will wake up to once reason returns -- let's hope it's sooner rather than later