The End of the World is Here Again (The Spectator)

Last weekend Roland Emmerich’s wrathful CGI God was at it again,
killing billions in the name of the Holy Box Office in the film 2012. Having
already caused carnage with aliens, an ice age and Godzilla, this time
Emmerich took his cue from the Ancient Mayans, whose ‘long calendar’
purportedly stops in 2012. But not only is the End nigh, it’s hugely
profitable- 2012 raked in $225 million globally in three days. With
numbers like that it’s no surprise that a multitude of apocalypses are in
the pipeline: whether humorous (Woody Harrelson battles the undead in
Zombieland) or depressing (father and son trek across a post-
apocalyptic wasteland in The Road) it’s boom time for doom time.

It is surely no coincidence that imaginary catastrophes are flooding our
cinema screens at a time when the news itself seems exceptionally
apocalyptic. Secular prophets armed with statistics and graphs warn us
daily of a new Deluge, coming as punishment for our crimes against the
planet. The President of Iran leaves a chair vacant at cabinet meetings
for the Hidden Imam, chases the bomb and threatens to wipe nuclear-
armed Israel off the map. And speaking of nukes, only a few months ago
Taliban forces advanced very close to Pakistan’s own atomic arsenal.
Then there’s the plague: H1N1 is spreading across the globe, making a
lot of people a bit ill, and leaving a very small minority dead. But if H1N1
doesn’t get us, perhaps economic meltdown or- better yet-
overpopulation will, as a scramble for resources sets off apocalyptic
wars. And while governments seek solutions, some declare that our
situation is hopeless. Interviewed in the Spectator this February, James
Lovelock, doyen of the Green movement said: ‘If there were 100 million
of us on the earth, we could do almost anything we liked without harm. At
seven billion I doubt if anything is possible or will significantly reduce
fossil fuel consumption; by significantly I mean enough to halt global

So: are we doomed? And if so- why are so many people so excited about

It’s almost been forgotten, but ten years ago the world teetered on the
brink of a different apocalypse. The so-called Millennium Bug, a glitch in
our computer systems, was going to plunge us back into the Dark Ages
at the start of the year 2000. Instead, nothing happened. The curious
thing was that Russia and Italy, which had taken no preventative
measures against this catastrophe, were as unaffected as the USA and
the UK, where government had spent billions averting doomsday. Oops.

The current H1N1 hysteria recalls the budding Black Deaths of BSE,
SARS and Avian Flu, none of which killed people in the quantities
promised by experts and the media. Global Warming was preceded by
Global Cooling, but it was difficult for the slow doom of climate change to
compete with the much more imminent apocalypse of Mutually Assured
Destruction. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union began to unravel and fears of
nuclear war receded that the threat of the rising tides really took hold.

In the 1960s the Cuban Missile Crisis sparked fears of a nuclear
Armageddon that did not come. Step back to late 19th century France
and we find Honore de Balzac declaring: ‘I expect a catastrophe… I really
believe in the end of everything’. In 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm entered
Jerusalem on a white horse, dressed in white and wearing a gold crown,
thus identifying himself with the first of the four horseman of the
Apocalypse: ‘And I beheld, and lo a white horse; and he that sat on him
had a bow: and there was given unto him a crown, and he departed as
conqueror and to conquest." (Revelation 6:2). Cue World War I, and
millions of deaths.

The apocalypse was also present in the middle of the 19th century.
Between 1850 and1864 China was ravaged by the Taiping Rebellion, in
which a self-proclaimed messiah fought a war to establish heaven on
earth, leaving 20 million dead in his wake. Twice in 1844, a Baptist
preacher named William Miller led thousands to await the Second
Coming on hilltops across America. Christ did not return. And we can go
much further back, to 7th century Arabia where Mohammed announced
that the Last Judgment was just around the corner, or 1st century
Jerusalem where the followers of Christ also lived in eager expectation of
this event, or Central Asia circa 1300BC where we find Zoroaster
declaring that the End is Nigh. One thing unites all these prophets of
imminent apocalypse: not one of them has been proven correct thus far.
But that has had little effect on expectations.

The attraction of the apocalypse to artists is easy to understand: what
could be more dramatic, more grandiose, more inspiring a subject? Thus
mediaeval artists adorned cathedrals with powerful images of the Last
Judgment, and a thousand years later HG Wells re-imagined Doomsday
as an invasion from Mars. JG Ballard, who personally destroyed the
world three times in his catastrophe novels of the 1960s, argued that
humans take pleasure in the contemplation of violent disaster, which not
only liberates us from the tedium of a law-based society, but also
inspires the best art, the greatest ideas. But you need more than the
thrill of doom creeping up your leg to establish a global religion or two,
and to keep people believing when the promised apocalypse fails to

Perhaps it’s the very word that makes the allure of the End so tricky to
grasp. In our irreligious age ‘apocalypse’ conjures up images of global
catastrophe and mega-death. But that is the human apocalypse, made
by man and inflicted on man. Prior to our seizing the power of global
destruction from the hands of God in 1945, the scenario was very
different. ‘Apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek apokaluptein which
simply means to uncover, and originally referred to a set of books whose
Jewish authors claimed to be revealing hitherto concealed revelations
from God. Daniel and Revelation are the most famous and the most
influential examples of this prophetic genre. Both contain terrifying
visions of satanic worldly powers destroyed by a wrathful Deity - hence
the association between catastrophe and ‘apocalypse’. But Daniel also
speaks of the coming Kingdom of God which shall endure for all eternity.
Revelation concludes with a vision of the Heavenly City, in which the
righteous shall live forever in the presence of God. Revelation also
offers the faithful the hope of the Millennium, an interim period before the
absolute end, when there shall be heaven on earth.

The religious apocalypse then is profoundly optimistic: the faithful are
promised that justice will be done, that suffering shall end, and that
eternal felicity shall be theirs. God is in control, and He shall reward them
at the End of Time. Thus in his famous study The Pursuit of the
Millennium Norman Cohn stressed the attraction of the apocalypse to the
oppressed and downtrodden, who stand little chance of seeing an end to
their pain in this world. For them, the End is beautiful, a thing to be

Modern apocalyptic scenarios such as Climate Change or
overpopulation are very different. They are based not on sacred texts,
but rather empirical evidence. They also lack a redemptive framework
and are thus profoundly pessimistic: without God to guarantee rebirth,
we are faced with a terrible future. A nuclear war will destroy us all,
leaving cockroaches to inherit the earth. Climate Change will cause war,
famine, disaster, death. But if the modern apocalypse is so bleak, then
why is it still so seductive? Is it simply a result of the power of scientific
discourse in our age?  But if so, then why do doomsday scenarios
appear to be multiplying so rapidly? Dr. Richard Landes of Boston
University is an expert on apocalyptic movements who has spent forty
years thinking about the End:

‘Our love for the apocalypse is connected with our sense of our own
importance. To live in apocalyptic expectation means that you are the
chosen generation, that in your time the puzzle of existence will be
solved. It appeals to our megalomania: we all want to believe we’re
special, that God has given us a front row seat for the most important
events in history. The West meanwhile is fundamentally an apocalyptic
culture. We received it from the missionaries who went north to convert
the European tribes. There’s always an undercurrent, which comes to
the surface periodically. If it seems more intense now it’s because
modern society is built on the idea of constant change, and so we need
to constantly think about the future. But as we are an apocalyptic culture,
this stirs up thoughts of apocalypse- we keep coming back to it, like an
acid flashback. Scenarios like the Millennium Bug or Global Warming
have special secular appeal because they are situations we created
ourselves, and so we think we can solve them.’

However the End is not unique to Western culture; Islam also has
powerful apocalyptic traditions. For Muslims centuries and not millennia
are the significant markers of time, and thus it was no coincidence that
when the 14th Islamic century began in 1979, there was a series of
apocalyptic events. The messianic Shiite revolution in Iran is the obvious
example, but 1979/1400 also saw a violent revolt in Mecca led by a self-
proclaimed messiah, and uprisings in Nigeria which left 10,000 dead.
And while a group like al Qaeda may not seek to bring about the literal
End of Days, they are nevertheless a thoroughly apocalyptic millenarian
movement, which seeks to establish paradise on earth, by first
destroying the old, corrupt world. And while such dreams are fantastical,
if even a tiny group got its hands on a nuclear device the results for the
rest of us would be apocalyptic in a very real sense.

And so here we are, caught between different Ends, with a horde of
alternative apocalypses waiting in the wings. You know, maybe Roland
Emmerich has the right idea. After all, when doomsday actually does
arrive, we certainly won’t be able to do anything about it- so why not
have a bit of fun with the apocalypse, why not profit from the End? Since
Al Gore assumed the mantle of prophet his net worth has increased at
least 50 times over. He’s certainly having a nice doomsday.

But Gore’s success also underscores a final, crucial point. Regardless of
the scientific debate, Climate Change is already an undeniable reality in
as much as it has a huge effect on government policies that affect us all
directly. And nobody would argue that Christianity and Islam were without
an impact, even if believers are still waiting for the foretold End. Thus,
whether or not the prophets are correct, apocalyptic belief is never
without consequences. One way or another, we are always living in the
shadow of the End Times.
From The Spectator December 2009