This rather gloomy post title is inspired by an article by Ian McEwan in the Guardian on ideas of the end time, which is by no means as bad as one might expect from a non-historian and atheist. McEwan has a feel for the potency of apocalyptic writing and thought and hes also alert enough to point out that the nearest weve come to the end is probably under John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is hardly an example of religiosity gone wrong. (Though its a shame that when he mentions the Iranian President Ahmadinejads end-time beliefs, he doesnt mention the fact that he isnt in charge of Irans nuclear policy).
But I think hes still too ready to stress the historical continuity of apocalyptic thought (partly inspired by reading Norman Cohns The Pursuit of the Millennium), and not the very different social contexts in which it appears. As a result he doesnt follow up on one of his key insights:
Furthermore, the mind is capable of artful compartmentalisations; in one moment, a man might confidently believe in predictions of Armageddon in his lifetime, and in the next, he might pick up the phone to inquire about a savings fund for his grandchildren’s college education or approve of long-term measures to slow global warming.
What McEwan misses is how historically specific such concern for the long-term is; today we in the West have far greater stakes and prospects in the future than we have ever had. The pension is largely a twentieth century development, as is the widespread use of the mortgage. To plan even for your childrens future, let alone your grandchildrens, has until recently been an option only for the upper classes. Its against this very different socio-economic background that we have to ask the key question: what is apocalyptic thought for nowadays?
As McEwan points out, Christian apocalyptic thought is most prevalent in the USA. This seems, on the face of it, surprising. Why not in the region where secularism has advanced furthest (Europe?) Why not in the countries where Christians are most likely to be persecuted (Middle East, China)? Why not in the countries where the poorest and most desperate Christians live (Africa)? Why should the end time so enthrall a country where Christians are relatively prosperous, respected and numerous? And why have the ideas proved so popular even during periods of relative international stability? (The first of the best selling Left behind end-time novels was published in 1995).
Fred Clarke in the midst of his painstaking dissection of the Left Behind novels, comes up with the concept of ‘martyr envy’ as one of the main reasons of the appeal of the books to American evangelicals. The prospect of the End Times provides a way of imaging the Christian life as an exciting adventure, the vicarious thrill of feeling that you too could be a hero if the chance arose. Such martyr envy isnt new: as Robert Markus shows in The End of Ancient Christianity, there was a similar situation in the western Roman Empire in the late fourth century. The empire had been permanently Christianised, with no danger of persecution recurring, and with Christianity now becoming mainstream among all classes. The problem then became, how could Real True Christians distinguish themselves?
The solution in the 380s AD was monasticism and other forms of extreme asceticism; the fact that the solution today is often buying a DVD tells you just how seriously people really believe in the End Times. Serious apocalyptic believers, from the first disciples and the Montanists via Peter the Hermits followers down to the Jonestown mass suicides, have abandoned families and homes, rejected marriage and sex as an irrelevant distraction, sold what they have and given it to the poor. Those who remain in the settled life of the community almost always, deep-down, do not actually believe that the End Times are quite yet.
But there seems to me another reason why apocalyptic thought remains important in modern Christianity and that brings me onto death. One of the problems of those trying either to convert people to Christianity or to inspire the converted to a more committed life is how to overcome the tendency to procrastinate. Why should people commit and change now, when they could do so at a later date and still gain all the benefits of the next world?
The traditional answer to this for centuries is that people should remember the nearness of death. They may not have time for later repentance: this very night their soul may be required of them. Memento mori was a potent phrase for centuries, and it was potent because death could come so quickly and at such an early age.
One of the most striking articles Ive read this year is Robin Flemings Bones for Historians: Putting the Body back in Biography, in Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow, ed. David Bates (Woodbridge, 2006), 29-48. This provides a synthesis in graphic detail of just how awful early medieval life could be, based on osteoarchaeology from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. At times the grim details become overwhelming, but one passage still stands out:
Sick children and dead babies…were part of everyones life. A statistic from Raunds, a community of some forty souls, gives some idea…Between the ages of four or five and thirty-five, a villager would have probably witnessed the deaths of well over thirty children.
Even though life expectancy had increased greatly by the nineteenth century, the possibility of such sudden calamities was still there. A book Im reading on the Industrial Revolution includes an account by a doctor in Manchester in 1832: he saw a family of five all die within a day of cholera. Into the twentieth century, sudden and premature death was no novelty. In Virginia Woolfs To the Lighthouse, for example, she shows three members of a family of ten dying within ten years (one in childbirth, one in the First World War, one from unnamed causes). My paternal grandfather was an orphan at sixteen; when I was thirty and both my parents died, I was an anomaly among my friends.
The last fifty years have brought us in the West the hitherto unimaginable prospect of death no longer being routine. Even when fatal illness strikes, the demise is often extended, giving time for conversion, should that be desired. The urgency that the preacher and missionary has often demanded, the need for a decision made now, can no longer be justified by a claim of a lack of time for the individual. Perhaps the supposed imminence of the end for humanity is also acting as a partial substitute. At a conference I once went to on medieval apocalypse, someone commented: there is no end to end times. But the modern apocalypse, despite its formal resemblance to the medieval one, is like many religious traditions, really almost entirely different from its roots.