04/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

ReThink Review: Waiting for Armageddon -- the End of the World As They Want It

As a person who is not religious, it seems to me that the major difference between a cult and a religion is popularity. And as the documentary Waiting for Armageddon points out, Christian evangelicism is very popular, with over 50 million evangelicals in the US alone. But other than membership, is evangelicism (especially dispensationalist evangelicism) much different from a cult?

Waiting for Armageddon takes you inside America's evangelical movement, remaining neutral as evangelicals explain their beliefs, their hopes that the end of the world will occur in their lifetime, and what they are doing to ensure that this apocalyptic prophecy is (self-)fulfilled . Watch my ReThink Review below.

In 1997, the world was shocked by the mass suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in a San Diego house. In a farewell video recorded just before their deaths, Heaven's Gate members expressed their willingness and, yes, happiness about the drastic step they were about to take. "We couldn't be happier about what we're going to do," one woman said. "We are all happy to be doing what we are doing," said another. One man claimed that his impending death would be ''just the happiest day of my life," and added, "I've been looking forward [to] this for so long."

Why did they do it? The religion of Heaven's Gate -- a mix of Christianity, new age philosophy and UFO mythology -- preached that the human body was merely a temporary vehicle for the soul (which was extra-terrestrial in nature). Civilization on earth was irrevocably corrupt, evil, doomed and hurtling towards a horrific end. To be "saved" from this apocalypse and graduate to "the Next Level" of consciousness, devout followers were required to shed their earthly vessels by committing suicide while the Hale-Bopp comet was passing the earth. Upon death, the souls of the Heaven's Gate followers would be transported to an alien spaceship hiding in the comet's tail, which would then transport them to the Next Level.

Sound crazy? Clearly. But is it radically different from the beliefs of dispensationalist evangelicals, who believe they will be teleported into the heavens as the battle of Armageddon is unleashed on an increasingly sinful world? Hardly. Except for the fact that there are over 15 million dispensationalists in the US alone. And unlike the Heaven's Gate followers, dispensationalists believe their salvation won't come through suicide, but through the suffering and death of every non-evangelical person on the planet. And to make that happen, they are willing to start a very real World War III.

See my discussion with Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks about Waiting for Armageddon below.

As I read more about the search for the Red Heifer, efforts to create the vestments and artifacts required for rituals to be performed in the rebuilt temple (after the Dome of the Rock is destroyed), and even plans to raise a group of young Jewish priests who would live their whole lives without being allowed to make contact with the ground, it made me think of the movie Ghostbusters. That was also a story about how certain structures must exist, rituals performed, and "signs" witnessed before Gozer the Gozerian could return and bring the Destructor, who took the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. But in Ghostbusters, there weren't tens of millions of people praying that would happen.

It also made me think of the nature of the relationship between humans and their gods. Primitive humans faced enormous uncertainty in their lives caused by forces they couldn't understand, like weather, animals and death. So they anthropomorphized these forces into gods who could be talked to, reasoned with and manipulated with gifts, rituals and sacrifices. It allowed humans to feel a sense of control over forces they had no control over, and that made them feel better.

It seems that dispensationalists are doing the same thing. In their case, the sinfulness of humanity and increasing suffering caused by war, disease and natural disasters are the forces they can't comprehend or control. But through their selective interpretation of the bible, they are able to feel like these things are actually positive and make perverse sense as part of a larger plan whose schedule they can control through their actions. By doing things like producing a perfectly red heifer, returning Jews to Israel and starting World War III, dispensationalists can control God's actions.

But isn't this the ultimate blasphemy? Why does God need to follow any schedule, especially one He supposedly made himself? Why should He wait until certain arbitrary conditions are met to do anything? He's God, after all.

It comes down to believers attempting to control forces that scare them through a religion that tells them they have the power to eradicate the evil in the world -- that they can create heaven on earth. But to do that, they first have to make it Hell.

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