The Apocalyptic Metaphor - Part 4
Millennial Expectation and the Year 2000
View the Y2K Millennial Pinball
Chart View the Y2K Millennial
Since the millennium comes at the end of the Tribulations, its approach
is constantly expected, and not necessarily tied to any specific date.
Nonetheless, with the approach of the year 2000, the sightings of millennialist
signs began a dramatic growth curve.
The apocalyptic starting gun for the race to the year 2000 was fired
in 1970 by Hal Lindsey whose book The Late Great Planet Earth has sold
over 19 million copies. Lindsey argued that the end times had arrived
and that Christians should watch for the signs of the times. While
not all fundamentalists agreed with his specific analysis of Biblical
prophecy, a significant number agree that the end times have either
begun or are imminent.
The mainstreaming of millennialism received a major boost when, in
1983, Ronald Reagan cited scriptural authority to demonize the Soviet
Union as an evil empire. Sara Diamond wrote of the influence of apocalyptic
thinking on the new Christian Right in her prescient 1989 book, Spiritual
Warfare. In her study The Religious Right and Israel: The Politics
of Armageddon, Ruth W. Mouly showed how certain sectors of the Christian
right mobilized tremendous support for the State of Israel during the
Reagan Administration, in part because they believed Jews had to return
to Israel before the prophecies of Revelation could be fulfilled.
Lamy argues that millennialism has many sources, but generally can
be tied to societal conflict and resistance to change. On the other
hand, Fuller argues that apocalyptic fervor is complex, and part of
a "literary and theological tradition," that is "transmitted
through a variety of cultural institutions that are relatively immune" to
certain "social or economic forces."
Fuller ties the millennialist viewpoint to the larger issues of demonization
and scapegoating when he argues that:
==="Many efforts to name the Antichrist appear to be rooted
in the psychological need to project one's "unacceptable" tendencies
onto a demonic enemy. It is the Antichrist, not oneself, who must be
held responsible for wayward desires. And with so many aspects of modern
American life potentially luring individuals into nonbiblical thoughts
or desire, it is no wonder that many people believe that the Antichrist
has camouflaged himself to better work his conspiracies against the faithful."
As Pagels dryly observes, "Satan has, after all, made a kind of
profession out of being the 'other'."
Landes argues that the rise of what he terms "apocalyptic scapegoating" in
the current period of millennialist expectation needs to be taken seriously,
especially the resurgence of antisemitism. Given the centuries old
Christian charge of evil linked to magical or devious Jews, at least
some form of demonic antisemitism is intrinsic to most conspiracist
thinking in Western cultures, even when it is unconscious. Modern theocratic
movements of Christian nationalism are implicitly antisemitic, and
much of the worldview of the patriot and armed militia movements draws
from historic antisemitic conspiracist theories. In the case of some
current neonazi movements such as Christian Identity, antisemitism
is both overt and pivotal to the worldview. Christian Identity is discussed
as a movement later in this book, but here we note its roots in Millennialist
British Israelism, which employed antisemitism typical of many Christians
during the Victorian period. Identity, as it emerged later in the US,
adopted the myth that Jews were the literal spawn of Satan and cast
Jews in the role of agents of the Antichrist.
Visions of the Antichrist are common not only in the far Christian
right, but in relatively mainstreamed sectors of the new Christian
right. As Fuller observes:
==="Today, fundamentalist Christian writers see the Antichrist
in such enemies as the Muslim world, feminism, rock music, and secular
humanism. The threat of the Antichrist's imminent takeover of the world's
economy has been traced to the formation of the European Economic Community,
the Susan B. Anthony dollar...and the introduction of universal product
While antisemitism is center stage in some Christian millennialist
scenarios, the potential for misogynist interpretations should not
be overlooked. In describing the symbolism in Revelation, one recent
Catholic commentary cautions against negative stereotyping of women.
This is a needed caution, because anti-feminist, misogynist and homophobic
interpretations of Revelation are widespread. A brochure with an
apocalyptic subtext from Texas Eagle Forum was titled: Christian
Be Watchful: Hidden Dangers in the New Coalition of Feminism, Humanism,
Socialism, Lesbianism. As Lee Quinby has noted, while it is difficult
to predict the outcomes of millennial moments, the current manifestation
is unlikely to be good for women. Homophobic themes are also flourishing
among contemporary apocalyptic movements.
The rotund numerological significance of the year 2000 has spawned
millennialist expectations outside Christianity, with predictions of
apocalypse appearing in 1997 from within "Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist
and Muslim sects." Pagels points out that the apocalyptic paradigm
has influence far outside the fundamentalist Christian community:
==="Many religious people who no longer believe in Satan,
along with countless others who do not identify with any religious tradition,
nevertheless are influenced by this cultural legacy whenever they perceive
social and political conflict in terms of the forces of good contending
against the forces of evil in the world."
Quinby warns that "Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord,
breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic," and that
this process can occur at the individual, community, national, or international
level. "What makes apocalypse so compelling," explains Quinby, "is
its promise of future perfection, eternal happiness, and godlike understanding
of life, but it is that very will to absolute power and knowledge that
produces its compulsions of violence, hatred, and oppression."
There are three related and overlapping tendencies involved. The Christian
fundamentalist view that we are in the apocalyptic millennial end times
prophesied in Revelation; a more generic and often secularized apocalyptic
world view that is reflected in diverse movements ranging from armed
survivalism to disarming New Age devotees; and the reflective expectation,
both religious and secular, generated by the approaching turn of the
Landes believes that millennial moments can have positive outcomes,
and that apocalyptic fervor can also be directed away from scapegoating
and toward constructive and self-reflective renewal projects. As early
as 1996 concerned Christians, Jews, Muslims, and secularists began
meeting under diverse auspices to discuss plans to challenge groups
that are exploiting millennialist fervor to spread the poison of bigotry
and scapegoating. History will measure their success.
The vision of a totalitarian apocalypse based on conspiracist scapegoating
would be a depressing way to end this discussion, so we borrow a theme
from Eli Sagan, who despite his awareness of the link between totalitarianism
and scapegoating, suggests, "There is as much cause for hope as
for despair." Sagan notes that in every society where "paranoid
modes of defense" are acceptable despite transformations toward
more humane democracy, there are still a sizable group of persons "who
have succeeded in their political lives, and in good part in their
personal lives, in truly overcoming the paranoid position. They are
willing to live without the defenses of aggressive warfare, racism
and anti-Semitism, and the extreme competitive atmosphere that pervades
every aspect of our social life."
Scapegoats can be injured or killed by those peopleno matter
what their mental statewho act out their conspiratorial beliefs
in a zealous manner. The failure of political and religious leaders
to take strong public stands against groups and individuals that demagogically
spread scapegoating conspiracist theories encourages this dangerous
dynamic. Yet when President Clinton spoke out against the rhetoric
of demonization following the Oklahoma City bombing, he was criticized
by pundits across the political spectrum.
Many questions need more study. When does demonizing rhetoric by demagogues
motivate action among followers who are not mentally ill? Why and when
do seemingly sane followers of ideological leaders begin to act out
their beliefs through violence? When and how does apocalyptic violence
become a mass movement? How and when can it become state policy ?
Rightwing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society because
they often popularize xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracism.
This can lure mainstream politicians to adopt these themes to attract voters,
legitimize acts of discrimination (or even violence), and open the door for
revolutionary rightwing populist movements, such as fascism, to recruit
from the reformist populist movements.
According to Richard K. Fenn:
==="Fascist tendencies are most likely to flourish wherever
vestiges of a traditional community, bound together by ties of race
and kinship, persist in a society largely dominated by largescale
organizations, by an industrial class system, and by a complex division
of labor. Under these conditions the traditional community itself becomes
threatened; its members all the more readily dread and demonize the
Fenn argues that apocalyptic themes that lead to this tendency can be
found in all three of the political tendencies examined in this study:
the Christian Right, Patriot and armed militia movements, and the fascist
By understanding the apocalyptic and millennialist roots of the conspiracist
narratives peddled by rightwing populist forces, we can better understand
why their claimsthat seem on the surface to be outlandishnonetheless
resonate in certain alienated sectors of our society.
The history of apocalyptic fervor and millennial expectation is written by those
secure in their knowledge that all previous predictions of terminal cataclysm
have turned out to be false. After all, if the end of time ever arrives, it will
leave behind no historians or sociologists, thus making skepticism an appealing
and safe alternative. While believers prepare for the spiritual tsunami that
will wash away both sins and sinners, skeptics make the assumption that it is
just another wave that will eventually collapse, seeping away through the infinite
sands of time. Yet no matter what we believe, we are all destined to experience
the effects of the apocalypse, because it invents itself in the maelstrom of
the human mind, and no logical
arguments can stop the storm.
Mere observation is morally insufficient. We need to do damage control in
anticipation of the apocalypse. The challenge is to respect devout religious
belief while focusing societal energy on a millennial period of introspection
and renewal rather than a period of fear and mistrust. We ignore apocalyptic
fears and millennial expectation at our own peril, and by ignoring the trends,
we put others in peril as well. Given the already evident tendency toward apocalyptic
scapegoating as we approach the year 2000, it is entirely predictable that
more people will be targeted as evil agents of the Satanic Antichrist, traitorous
minions of the globalist new world order, or simply sinners to be disciplined
and kept in line in religious campaigns of coercive purity.
In times such as these, history passes a harsh judgment on silence. Instead
of waiting to see who is next on the list, we must speak out against all forms
of apocalyptic demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism, because they are
toxic to democratic discourse.