Why the Apocalypse is so Compelling

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” –Orson Welles

As we have all heard by now, American preacher Harold Camping predicted that the end would come on May 21. In his version, the end would begin with the Rapture, in which the pious would be physically taken up to Heaven, leaving the rest of us to a fairly grim fate. I don’t need to tell you that things did not transpire as Camping predicted. The rapture didn’t happen — at least, it didn’t happen to anyone I know.

Camping was not the first person to have predicted the end of the world, and he won’t be the last. In fact, the world has been ending almost since the day it began. The apocalypse, it seems, is a pretty consistent theme throughout human history, and makes an appearance in almost every culture.

It is tempting to dismiss Camping’s followers as gullible crackpots — more than a few commentators expressed satisfaction at the disappointment of the faithful as the clock ticked down on an event that never came. But wouldn’t we do better to ask why the apocalypse is so compelling? What is it about the times we live in that would make rational people accept the idea that the end of the world was upon us?

Camping’s predictions have already been discussed to death (the best analysis I have seen is a series of short responses collected by columnist William McKenzie). But since we know that this sort of thing is bound to happen again, here are three points to keep in mind the next time someone tells you the end is nigh:

1. It’s not just Christians:

When we see people like Camping and his followers in the news, it is easy to assume that all this concern with the apocalypse is a Christian phenomenon. But ideas about the end are not uniquely Christian, uniquely American or even uniquely delusional. Every culture since the beginning of civilization has had some idea of how, why and when the world will end. I will likely face some criticism for saying so, but religious and scientific ideas about the end of the world are actually not that different from each other: both are based on some combination of observation, analysis and faith. Yes, faith. If you believe that the end will come when the earth is engulfed by a dying sun, it is because you have faith in the integrity of the scientific community that told you it was so. Don’t forget that Camping himself did not learn the date of the Rapture from visions or angels — he calculated it from evidence he found in the Bible. This was also science — at least science of a sort.

2. It’s not the end of the world:

It really isn’t. The word apocalypse, which comes from the Greek apokolupsis, doesn’t mean “destruction,” but revelation, as in the Book of Revelation. In fact, most religious images of the end of the world share this theme of uncovering some great mystery or secret, shining light upon the world, and ushering in a new age of peace and enlightenment. To understand why people would look forward to the apocalypse, or even try to hasten its arrival with an act of violence (such as when the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult released deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995), we must remember that this event is not the end of the world, it is simply the end of the world as we know it. Once the period of destruction is passed, the deserving few (more on this later) can look forward to a new, perfect age.

3. We won’t know why until its over:

Most images of apocalypse revolve around the idea of justice. With the end of the world comes a great sorting of the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats, or what have you. Again, this is not a uniquely Christian idea. Many religions, especially in their more popular variations, share this theme of a final judgment. And it’s no surprise. The promise of perfect justice — that the faithful will be rewarded, while the sins of the wicked are revealed and punished — is remarkably attractive, especially when such justice is elusive in everyday life. But more than that, the end of the world is like the climax of a movie. In his comments for McKenzie’s blog, Dallas minister Daniel Kanter suggests that our concern with the apocalypse reflects a mass narcissism that runs rampant in American society — we literally can’t imagine how the world could go on without us. Kanter makes a good point, but he overestimates how unique modern Americans are. Other religious ideas about the end do something similar — they write history as a series of portents, prophecies and revelations that all lead up to this very moment. One Chinese belief, prevalent for centuries, is that Confucius, Laozi and the Buddha (this list was later expanded to include Jesus and Mohammed) were all prophets of a secret “true teaching.” Not surprisingly, the revelation of this true teaching marks the culmination of history, and the end of the age. How and when the world ends gives meaning and purpose to why it existed in the first place.

The reasons behind why apocalyptic movements suddenly gain traction tell us a lot about ourselves and our society. We think about the end not merely during times of stress, but during times of uncertainty. That said, we can all look forward to the next round of apocalyptic hysteria in 2012.