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Apocalypse When?

Waiting for Judgment Day is a time-honored American tradition

Since 1995, the serialized novels of two evangelical Christian writers, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, depicting the end of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom, have sold more than 65 million copies in the United States. Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about a date found in an obscure Mayan calendar that supposedly foretold the end of the world in 2012. Hollywood, always quick to follow Sam Goldwyn’s admonition to give ’em what they want, released the eponymous blockbuster film just before the holidays last year. The apocalyptic 2012 searched the heavens and found solar flares to be the cause of the world’s destruction.

Why are so many Americans concerned with the end of human time, the coming of a Messiah, or the end of the world? To me and many others of my generation—born in the 1930s or early 1940s—this recent obsession, so much of it rooted in religion, came as a surprise. But that’s only because we hadn’t been paying attention.

Most of my contemporaries grew up with little spirituality. We came of age during World War II, flush with American scientific superiority after dropping two atom bombs on an enemy and with the expectation of enormous material prosperity. It was this world that counted, not the next one. I remember playing hooky from high school to catch a big band matinee at New York City’s Paramount Theatre. There was always a funny guy with a long beard and a brown sack down to his sandals standing in front of the theater with a badly printed sign that read: “Prepare Yourselves! The End of the World Is Near!!” We joked with him, and then went inside to catch the show.

End of the world? Penicillin was saving lives. Salk and Sabin had found the cure for polio. Watson and Crick had discovered the double helix. When Dennis Crick ran into a pub near his lab in Cambridge, England, he told his colleagues, “We’ve found the secret of life!” The secret was in chemistry, physics, and biology. God was not part of the equation. Science was triumphant. Sputnik and the space race only strengthened that point. We were waiting for Godot, not Doomsday.

Yet today, if we were to go back to Times Square, that old man’s grandson might be standing in the same spot with a sign reading: “You should have listened to Grandpa!” How did things come to this pass?

What my generation didn’t realize was that our seemingly secular age was an aberration. We had forgotten that America had always been a nation of deep faith, waiting for the Messiah—and that we would eventually return to our religious roots, especially as we approached the millennium. While my friends and I were listening to Benny Goodman at the Paramount, a young Baptist minister was already packing football stadiums north and south with a powerful evangelical message announcing his Crusade for Christ. His name was Billy Graham.

My generation, many of them, did not know that we were a nation of Great Awakenings, momentous religious revivals. Some historians have identified four such awakenings; others have perceived a continuous and never-ending religious experience ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock—sent by God, they fervently believed, to establish the New Jerusalem. When we became a nation, memories of Europe’s religiously inspired folly, codified in the Bill of Rights, kept Church and State separated in our constitutional minds, but the Founding Fathers never doubted that we were a nation under God. In the nineteenth century, westward expansion was our Manifest Destiny, ordained by a God (most white Americans thought) who gave special privilege to the United States. Amidst the carnage of the Civil War, Julia Ward Howe was sure God’s kingdom was at hand when she wrote, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

My generation saw, but did not understand. We had little idea of the meaning of millennialism, the thousand-year wait for God’s appearance on earth. Certainly we noticed the madmen and fanatics who made headlines on the eve of the new millennium: James Jones, the self-proclaimed messiah with the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, whose nine hundred followers perished in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978; David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, who prophesied that the world would be destroyed by fire, and died along with seventy-five followers as their compound burned in 1993; the California group Heaven’s Gate, whose thirty-nine members committed suicide in 1997 in anticipation of Christ’s return in a spaceship after the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet. We noticed those extremists. But we perhaps failed to appreciate that millennialism is embraced by mainstream evangelicals—more than 100 million Americans. In the years before and after 2000, LaHaye and Jenkins found a voracious market for their Left Behind series and its messianic promise.

Belief in the Millennium is age-old and is common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For anyone looking for signs of an impending Judgment Day, the past century produced more than its share: two world wars, with 70 million dead; the rebirth of the State of Israel; two conflagrations fought on the site of the Garden of Eden; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the rise of Shiism, the most apocalyptic branch of Islam. The signs were everywhere.

Academics of my generation have gone back to school. We now read the Bible and the Koran, whether we believe or not. As we examine the impact of religious faith in our times, we have awakened to the conflict of mortality and immortality. Some, like Francis Collins, the new director of the National Institutes of Health, have embraced God; others, like Tufts’ Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins of Oxford, have described God as an illusion, an aspect of evolutionary biology. Still others are ready to find the secret of the planet’s destruction in cryptic calendars—Mayan, kabbalistic, biblical, or Nostradamus-driven. After 2012, they know it is true, be-cause they saw it in the movies.

SOL GITTLEMAN, formerly Tufts’ provost and chair of the Department of German, Slavic, and Asian Languages, is now the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor.

  © 2010 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155