How many times was I reminded through sermons and Sunday school lessons of the everlasting torment that awaited the billions of rudderless souls left behind after the rapture of the Christian faithful?
I’ve spent a good part of my adult life trying to account for how moderately well-educated people could swallow accounts that were simply cobbled together from a variety of disparate scriptural passages. But when has religious belief ever been a matter of concrete fact?
John Nelson Darby
Based on years of reading, I know now that these frightening jeremiads are of relatively recent vintage – an outgrowth of the perfervid writings of John Nelson Darby, a 19th century Anglo-Irish Anglican priest, who, while possessing ample classical training, completed little, if any theological instruction.
As it turns out, religious apocalypticism is not only a longstanding American tradition but also one largely conceived and propagated by rhetorically gifted laypeople rather than trained specialists.
Most American religious doomsayers have possessed comparatively little theological training – certainly nothing on the order of, say, Raymond Brown, who was steeped in ancient languages and trained in biblical/critical methods.
Many of these apocalyptic prophets are essentially laypersons. Harold Camping, while an ordained minister, was formally trained as a civil engineer. Hal Lindsey, author of “The Late Great planet Earth,” which simultaneously fascinated and horrified me growing up and formed the basis for many of the apocalyptic prognostications within the last few decades, held only a theological certificate from the Dallas Theological Seminary, not a degree.
Tim LaHaye, author of the “Left Behind” series and a preeminent thinker within the U.S. premillennialist movement, holds a doctorate in ministry, not theology, from Western, a nondemoninational evangelical seminary.
Even so, it’s wrong to discount these people as buffoons – hucksters maybe, but not buffoons.
While many of them possess comparatively mediocre educational credentials, they’ve proven to be unusually adept at developing unusually dense, highly riveting narratives from scripture and sundry other sources.
More than one Branch Davidian survivor credited David Koresh with this unique gift. The same improvisational genius has been ascribed to Latter-Day Saint founder Joseph Smith and People’s Temple found Jim Jones, both of whom made ample use of apocalyptic imagery.
Doomsayers as Viral Engineers
To put it another way, while they have generally lacked substantive theological training, many of these modern-day doomsters have managed to become remarkably adept viral engineers – in other words, people who possess an uncanny knack for connecting their messages to mental Velcro. Likewise, they have been highly successful in enlisting other influential people, often wealthy people, in the propagation of their messages. (Recall that one of Koresh’s followers who perished in the fiery aftermath of the Branch Davidian siege was a Harvard alumnus.)
Their messages often prove as durable as they are viral. We forget that in one notable respect, the failed Millerite movement was no failure at all. It formed the basis of one of the most influential religious movements in U.S. history: Seventh-Day Adventism, which, incidentally, provided the basis for Koresh’s apocalyptic Branch Davidian.
Charisma Plays a Part Too
No doubt, personal charisma plays a part too – little wonder why Burt Lancaster was cast to play Elmer Gantry.
From my own Southern Baptist upbringing, I vividly recall a retired minister who built a highly successful career speaking in churches throughout north Alabama, usually during the evening worship services, explaining how current news events, particularly in the Middle East, portended the end of days.
A tall, reedy fellow who, spoke in vaguely sibilant tone, he looked and spoke as if he had come right out of Central Casting. Looking back, I’m struck by his strong physical resemblance to the late actor David Carradine, who made a career depicting charismatic clergymen and apocalyptic doomsayers.
More than one Branch Davidian survivor has recalled the immense personal, if not animal, magnetism of the late David Koresh. (Granted, he must have possessed some considerable rhetorical or physical gift to have entered into conjugal relationships with virtually every married woman in his compound, even managing to secure the consent, however implicit or grudging, of their spouses.)
The Roots of Apocalyptism
Religious scholar Karen Armstrong has speculated a time or two that schadenfreude accounts for much of the appeal of apocalypticism, at least, within the evangelical Christian expression of it. And why wouldn’t it? The righteous, long derided as gullible bumpkins by secular elites, are swept into heaven, while their detractors are left below to fend for themselves on an ultimately doomed planet – and the righteous presumably are entitled to watch the entire spectacle unfold from their sanctuary in the sky. (If that doesn’t qualify as a compelling narrative, I don’t know what does.)
Of course, apocalyptism springs from a myriad of causes. This country’s unique frontier religious history accounts for much of it. Still, I suspect that some of it stems from a vague fear among many people, perhaps among the more thoughtful doomsters, that civilization, having become too complex and interrelated, is primed for failure.
I’ve even wondered a time or two if there is some sort of human death wish bound up in all this – not just in religious apocalyptism but in secular doom-saying as well.
Rooted in a Death Wish?
I even suspect that some of us, whether consciously or not, derive a measure of comfort in contemplating our species’ demise – an impulse explored in 2007 movie “The Invasion,” an updating of the 1956 and 1978 versions of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Toward the end of the film, after the alien invaders are thwarted, a broadcast commentator seems to evince regret that humanity has been granted a reprieve from extinction.
One of the film characters, Yorish, fatalistically observes, “All I’m saying is that civilization crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this is not so, when every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence – well, this is a world where human beings cease to be human.”
If human suffering is inextricably bound with human nature, as many believe, perhaps there is some yearning deep within the human heart – at least, some hearts – for an end to all this interminable loathing, violence and suffering.
Perhaps this yearning accounts – in some measure, at least – for the enduring appeal of apocalyptic narratives.
Note: This essay is based on a series of hastily written notes prepared for a lesson on the roots of American apocalypstism that I presented for my United Methodist Sunday School class last year.