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Reading: Waiting for the End of Time

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Most of us, I suspect, greet news about the precise machinations of the European Community with all the enthusiasm we usually reserve for news about, say, Canada--we know it's a big subject that we should probably pay more attention to, but it's impossible to work up any real interest. Yet there are thousands if not millions of Americans for whom news about the EC has a very special meaning: those who look upon the international conglomeration as a sign of the End Times, an indication that Armageddon is on its way. I kid you not. According to many contemporary Christian fundamentalists, the EC represents quite literally the revival of the Roman Empire, the biblical beast with ten horns.

In the End Times timetable favored by many American fundamentalists, the rise of the EC prepares the way for the Rapture (when all true believers will be whisked from the face of the earth), for the coming of the Antichrist, for the years of tribulation under his rule, and--yes! at last!--for the arrival of Armageddon and the return of the Lord. According to Jack Van Impe, whose half-hour prophecy show can be seen every week here on Channel 38, Bill Clinton is the "End Times president" and we're living "in the closing hours of the final days." (For $19.95 Van Impe will send you a video--A.D. 2000: The End?--with all the relevant details. If the end is really near, this seems quite a bargain indeed.)

For most of us the world of these prophets must seem, at the very least, alien. But in many ways their beliefs are as American as apple pie. Apocalyptic beliefs have deep roots in American culture; back in colonial days, Cotton Mather preached that a "terrible Conflagration" would precede the second coming of the Lord. Mather's view is known as premillennialism, and it's as popular as ever; some recent estimates put the number of American premillennialists at eight million or more. The "hidden world of prophecy belief," as University of Wisconsin historian Paul Boyer calls it, "is not so hidden after all, if one knows where to look." Members of the subculture keep each other up-to-date not only through television but through publications like the End-Times News Digest and Prophecy News.

Despite the pervasiveness of beliefs that by rational standards are more than a little bizarre, there has been surprisingly little serious study of American premillennialism. Boyer is one of the few to attempt to make sense of this "hidden world." His new book, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, is a comprehensive, often fascinating account of what is probably America's most widespread counterculture.

He has stumbled upon some choice material. The end of the world is a subject ripe for humor: Pizza Hut once ran a series of commercials telling customers to "Beware of 666 . . . the Anti-Pizza." Even the believers can't resist a joke: two popular bumper stickers read "Warning: If the Rapture Occurs, This Car Will Be Driverless" and "Beam Me Up, Lord!" You can buy Rapture wristwatches from the Texas-based Bible-Believers Evangelistic Association inscribed with the motto "One hour nearer the Lord's Return." In one recent novel about the final days, a New York Times headline reports the Rapture in the paper's typically sober way: "MILLIONS DISAPPEAR WORLDWIDE; JESUS CHRIST SAID TO BE RESPONSIBLE." (I'd love to see the article accompanying this headline: "The disappearances were the result of an event called 'the Rapture,' a source close to Mr. Christ said yesterday.") Yet it's hard to believe that much of the humor is intended. Prophecy writers are a pretty humorless bunch, always on the lookout for the footprints of Satan. Boyer reports that Van Impe was particularly alarmed that an introductory algebra textbook called 666 Jellybeans had made it into the public schools.

The many reports of the earth's impending demise have been, as they say, greatly exaggerated. Edgar Whisenant's book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 must be picking up dust on the shelves these days, along with Gorbachev! Has the Real Antichrist Come? As Boyer notes, one California preacher named Charles Taylor "predicted the Rapture in 1976, 1980, 1988, 1989, and 1992, based on different calculations involving modern Israel's history. . . . 'This could be THE YEAR!' Taylor exclaimed in 1989, announcing a Rosh Hashanah tour to Israel." Taylor wondered if his group even needed return tickets. When Boyer wrote for information just before the trip, the prophet "replied hastily that he would answer more fully when they met in Heaven." Pat Robertson, who has always taken great pride in his ability to communicate with the Lord, once told his followers "I guarantee you that by the fall of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world." What if they gave a Rapture and nobody came?

It's easy to list the absurdities: the odd twistings of history, the inveterate date setting, the wild conspiratorial delusions. But then all religious beliefs look irrational to the outsider (perhaps, some would argue, that's the point). Boyer attempts to go beyond the cursory accounts that treat all outgrowths of fundamentalism as either evil or absurd, examining the worldview of the premillennialists with the same diligence cultural historians usually reserve for secular ideologies and more respectable religious beliefs. Boyer is a dutiful scholar--he traces contemporary prophetic beliefs back to their origins in the first century AD before venturing into contemporary American culture.

But the heart of his book deals with the postwar period. His previous book, By the Bomb's Early Light, dealt with America's response to the coming of the atomic bomb in 1945. In many ways his new book is a logical outgrowth--when he began his research in the late 1980s a dabbler in prophecy had his finger on the Big Button. In 1971 Ronald Reagan had predicted that Armageddon was coming soon: "It can't be long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God's people. That must mean that they'll be destroyed by nuclear weapons." In 1983, at the height of the revived cold war, Reagan told a lobbyist for Israel that he suspected the end was near: "I don't know if you've noted any of those prophecies lately, but believe me they certainly describe the times we're going through."

Boyer describes in detail how neatly the prophecy beliefs fit into the cold-war dualisms of the atomic age. In his 1971 speech Reagan reflected on the seeming connections--often made by prophecy believers--between the Soviet Union and the biblical nation "Gog," the enemy of Israel that is supposed to attack from an unspecified place in the north. The prophecy, Reagan stated, "didn't seem to make sense before the Russian Revolution, when Russia was a Christian country. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description of Gog perfectly."

Believers in Armageddon, like most who hold fervently to a set of fixed beliefs, have shown a remarkable ability to shift the details of their schema to fit the realities of a changing world--every twist of history, every missed appointment with the Lord seems to strengthen their beliefs. Van Impe, for example, still takes great pride in having predicted a "coming war with Russia" 30 years ago; the fact that the war hasn't come and that Russia is no longer an enemy doesn't faze him a bit, because in his heart of hearts he's still sure the war is coming soon. Yet most prophecy believers now worry less about Gog's invasion from the north and more about the Antichrist and the EC.

No matter how bad their track record, the date setters keep setting dates. "Prophecy interpreters," Boyer writes, "like hobbyists assembling a picture puzzle or artisans crafting a mosaic, painstakingly build from hundreds of Bible verses a picture of the final days of human history--a picture strikingly similar to the world of today." It doesn't matter what the historical facts are; in the right hands fact and prediction are malleable enough to accommodate each other.

Boyer has collected a mass of prophecy lore, and no one reading this book can walk away without feeling that the subject is of crucial importance. Secular commentators tend to underestimate the influence of religion, particularly fundamentalist Christianity, in American life. According to some polls, some 60 percent of Americans (including more than 50 percent of college graduates) have no doubt that Jesus will return; 40 percent believe the Bible is the actual word of God. (These statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt; other polls indicate that 60 percent of adults don't know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.) Whatever we make of it, Christian fundamentalism has survived the fall of Jim and Tammy.

But while Boyer is convinced of the importance of his subject, he's less sure what it all means. The tone of his book alternates between bemusement, confusion, and alarm. How, he wonders, can beliefs "seemingly so marginal and fantastic" have such a hold over so many Americans? How can we understand the world of the prophecy believers without reducing their beliefs to a joke? What is it that compels so many Americans, from so many different backgrounds, to adopt such beliefs? Boyer doesn't know.

I'm not sure how anyone could. American premillennialism is fed by contradictory impulses, and its meaning is impossible to pin down. Politically the premillennialists, like most Christian fundamentalists, are usually on the right (to the extent they dabble in the affairs of a world about to self-destruct). But, as Boyer notes, they offer sweeping criticisms of the modern world (and modern capitalism) that in curious ways parallel criticisms offered by the left. Capitalism promotes, in the words of one prophecy believer, a "hedonistic love of pleasure and selfish lust for money, possessions, and power"--when God exacts his judgment the profit system is bound to fall.

"Radicals seeking evidence of grassroots disaffection with the structure of modern society," Boyer writes, "have ignored a rich potential source--the torrent of skeptical commentary by premillennialists, whose array of prophetic 'signs' included social, economic, and technological processes so broad as to be almost coterminous with modernity itself. Collectively these authors offered a strikingly comprehensive critique of mass society as dehumanizing and dangerously centralized." Of course, there's a big difference between dissatisfaction and radicalism. The premillennialists tend to take out their frustrations on a few familiar scapegoats: communists (real and imagined), atheists, feminists, homosexuals. Prophecy writer Tim LaHaye blamed American hedonism on the "scoffers . . . on the faculty of tax-supported colleges," on confused hippies, feminists, and Freudians. He hoped God himself would help round up the usual suspects: "the F.B.I. may someday get help from an unexpected source--Almighty God."

What's most striking about those awaiting Armageddon is the equanimity with which they view the end of the world; many, if not most, are downright cheerful about it. (It's the end of the world as we know it, and they feel fine.) It makes a certain amount of sense, especially if you're convinced you're going to be whisked away before the fire and brimstone starts raining down. Like radicals who look upon each new capitalist catastrophe as a potential herald of the coming revolution, the premillennialists are convinced the worst is best after all.

On their television show Jack Van Impe and his wife Rexella present the final days with all the perkiness of John Tesh and Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight. Jack is enthusiastic, buoyant, bursting with information, proudly footnoting each assertion with passages from Revelations and the Book of Daniel. "I gotta tell you," he announces, stumbling over his words in his rush to get them out, "the Lord's coming is near!" With her permed blond hair and Home Shopping Network fashion sense Rexella looks, well, like a Rexella: if she weren't predicting the apocalypse she'd probably be reading tarot cards at ten dollars a pop. She's prim, matter-of-fact, but surprisingly cheerful. All her remarks seem offhand; she speaks of the end of the world as calmly as if she were announcing a potluck. "You say the Antichrist is going to try to destroy Christianity," she casually remarks to her husband. "That's interesting, Jack."

Not everyone's this cheerful. In "The Last Generation," a recent cartoon tract by the indefatigable Jack T. Chick that presents his dystopian vision of a world in the midst of the Tribulation, Supreme Justice Mahoney of the World Court in Rome declares that all who believe that "Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to the Father in Heaven shall be committed to a mental camp for treatment . . . or be executed!" Little Bobby, a junior storm trooper of the new age, berates his parents for their Christian views. (Holding up pictures of impossibly cute dogs and cats, Bobby announces gleefully, "My teacher said these are great for a Halloween sacrifice.") For true believers, the last days are the best and worst of times: "Persecution, new killer diseases, earthquakes and wars everywhere, all prove that this is the LAST GENERATION. That's why I'm so excited. . . . The darker things get in the world, Charles . . . the brighter our hope becomes." Despite the tract's horror-movie imagery, the story has a happy ending: just as the new-age storm troopers are about to bust down the door of the mountain cabin where Bobby's parents are hiding, the Rapture hits and all believers are saved.

In their own way the Van Impes are as chilling as Jack Chick: they're willing to look upon the destruction of the earth and its inhabitants as not only inevitable but good. Why should fire and brimstone worry those who aren't going to see them? Why should true believers worry about what will happen to their cars when the driver is whisked away in the Rapture? Particularly chilling are the premillennialist accounts of "the final chastisement of the Chosen," the particularly harsh punishment they expect God to mete out to Jews. In his 1970s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth Hal Lindsey predicted, in a chapter called "God's Woodshed," that God's "disciplinary action" against the Jews would be horrible indeed, an "unparalleled catastrophe" in which "a numberless multitude" would die. This new holocaust, Lindsey argued, would so dwarf the original that Hitler and his supporters would "look like Girl Scouts weaving a daisy chain." It's vile stuff. The Zionists who have opportunistically banked on fundamentalist support for Israel might want to read the fine print a little more carefully.

If the social and political implications of prophecy belief are hard to pin down, the psychology of premillennialism is easy enough to understand. Though some in power have held premillennial beliefs, it's an outsider philosophy through and through. In a world that often seems to be spinning out of control, a world in which most people are powerless in the hands of the experts, the politicians, the financiers, and the industrialists, prophecy offers the security of a simple answer, a vision of a future in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first. One comes away from Boyer's book convinced that there's tremendous political potential--for good or evil, for progress or reaction--in the world of prophecy belief: the dissatisfactions are as real as the ideology is fantastic.

When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture by Paul Boyer, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, $29.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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