The End of the World As We Know It

The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America

Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 281
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    The End of the World As We Know It
    Book Description:

    From religious tomes to current folk prophesies, recorded history reveals a plethora of narratives predicting or showcasing the end of the world. The incident at Waco, the subway bombing by the Japanese cult Aum Supreme Truth, and the tragedy at Jonestown are just a few examples of such apocalyptic scenarios. And these are not isolated incidents; millions of Americans today believe the end of the world is inevitable, either by a divinely ordained plan, nuclear catastrophe, extraterrestrial invasion, or gradual environmental decay, Examining the doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic predictions of visionaries, televangelists, survivalists, and various other endtimes enthusiasts, as well as popular culture, film, music, fashion, and humor, Daniel Wojcik sheds new light on America's fascination with worldly destruction and transformation. He explores the origins of contemporary apocalyptic beliefs and compares religious and secular apocalyptic speculation, showing us the routes our belief systems have traveled over the centuries to arrive at the dawn of a new millennium. Included in his sweeping examination are premillennial prophecy traditions, prophecies associated with visions of the Virgin Mary, secular ideas about nuclear apocalypse, the transformation of apocalyptic prophecy in the post-Cold War era, and emerging apocalyptic ideas associated with UFOs and extraterrestrials. Timely, yet of lasting importance, The End of the World as We Know It is a comprehensive cultural and historical portrait of an age-old phenomenon and a fascinating guide to contemporary apocalyptic fever.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9500-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Approaching Doomsday: The Contours of American Apocalyptic Belief
    (pp. 1-20)

    Beliefs and narratives about the end of the world have fascinated people throughout human history. In nearly every society, sacred narratives are told about worldly cataclysm, the regeneration of the earth, and the creation of a terrestrial paradise (Talmon 1968:349–351; Thrupp 1970:11–15). Until recently, the end of the world has been interpreted as a meaningful, transformative, and supernatural event, involving the annihilation and renewal of the earth by deities or divine forces. During the last half of the twentieth century, however, widespread beliefs about a meaningless apocalypse have emerged and now compete with traditional religious apocalyptic worldviews. The...

  5. 2 The American Apocalyptic Legacy
    (pp. 21-36)

    Historically, the United States has been conceptualized by numerous scholars (and characterized in popular sources) as the new Eden, a terrestrial paradise of political, economic, and religious freedom unfettered by the burdens of history. The notion that the “new lands” represented a millennial paradise was expressed by the earliest European explorers, including Columbus, who apparently believed that he was fated to fulfill various prophecies prior to the appearance of the Antichrist and imminent apocalypse (Watts 1985:74). Upon landing, Columbus supposedly quoted scripture from the Book of Revelation about discovering the Terrestrial Paradise—the “new heaven and new earth” cited in...

  6. 3 Signs of the Endtimes: Hal Lindsey and Dispensationalist Prophecy Beliefs
    (pp. 37-59)

    Premillennial dispensationalism, with its emphasis on interpreting current events as the prophetic fulfillment of a precise endtimes scenario, is the predominant form of popular apocalypticism in the United States today. From the early 1970s through the 1990s, the individual most responsible for promoting dispensationalist beliefs about the imminence and inevitability of the end of the world has been Hal Lindsey. Lindsey’s role as the primary popularizer of contemporary prophecy belief is indisputable, and the apocalyptic scenario that he presents in his writings is familiar to most premillennialists today. As noted, his bookThe Late Great Planet Earth(1973 [1970]) was...

  7. 4 Apocalyptic Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in New York City
    (pp. 60-96)

    Contemporary belief in apocalyptic prophecy is usually associated with Protestant premillennialism, but speculation about the end of the world pervades popular Roman Catholic thought as well. Beliefs about apocalyptic apparitions and prophecies associated with visions of the Virgin Mary are familiar to Catholics worldwide. Hundreds of apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported since the beginning of the nuclear age, many of which have warned that nuclear apocalypse is imminent. Apocalyptic messages have been delivered at numerous Marian apparition sites that continue to attract pilgrims, such as Fatima, Portugal; Garabandal, Spain; San Damiano, Italy; Akita, Japan; Medjugorje, Bosnia; and...

  8. 5 Secular Apocalyptic Themes in the Nuclear Era
    (pp. 97-132)

    Apocalyptic ideas traditionally have been associated with religious eschatologies, but American secular culture also has contributed to widespread beliefs, images, and expectations about the end of the world. The concept of a meaningless apocalypse brought about by human or natural causes is a relatively recent phenomenon, differing dramatically from religious apocalyptic cosmologies. Instead of faith in a redemptive new realm to be established after the present world is annihilated, secular doomsday visions are usually characterized by a sense of pessimism, absurdity, and nihilism.

    Secular apocalyptic ideas have become increasingly pervasive in contemporary American society; these notions, however, are not unique...

  9. All illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. 6 Fatalism and Apocalyptic Beliefs
    (pp. 133-147)

    As noted in chapter i, relatively few comparative studies of contemporary American apocalyptic beliefs and behavior have been undertaken. However, numerous studies exist that analyze and compare such beliefs historically and in other cultures, with many of the best-known and most influential theoretical works focusing on non-Western societies. These studies offer assorted typologies and interpretations of millenarian movements, identified variously as “nativistic” (Linton 1943), “revitalistic” (Wallace 1956), “messianic” (Lanternari 1963), “crisis cults” (LaBarre 1971), and “cargo cults” (Cochrane 1979; Jarvie 1977; Worsley 1957). In general, millenarian movements have been interpreted as responses to societal crises, the disintegration of previous ways...

  11. 7 The Transformation of Apocalyptic Traditions in the Post–Cold War Era
    (pp. 148-174)

    The changes and current emphases within prophecy belief systems in the post–Cold War era illustrate the adaptability and dynamic nature of apocalyptic traditions. Interpreters of apocalyptic prophecy are masterfulbricoleurs, skillfully recasting elements and themes within the constraints of their respective traditions and reconfiguring them to formulate new, meaningful endtimes scenarios. Traditions are not unchanging “products” passed from one generation to the next but continuities in human thought and behavior over time, configurations of ideas, and ways of thinking and doing things that symbolically connect the present with the past.¹

    Although the basic themes and formal elements of Christian...

  12. 8 Emergent Apocalyptic Beliefs about UFOs and Extraterrestrial Beings
    (pp. 175-208)

    Of the various eschatological ideas that have arisen in the nuclear age, those concerning the role of UFOs and extraterrestrial beings in the endtimes offer particular insights into the emergence and transformation of apocalyptic traditions. As the third millennium approaches, a fascination with UFOs and aliens has arisen, and beliefs about sightings and encounters with extraterrestrials (ETs) have increased in frequency. Such beliefs often reflect apocalyptic anxieties and millennial yearnings, asserting that extraterrestrial entities will play a role in the destruction, transformation, salvation, or destiny of the world.

    Despite overt differences, Christian apocalyptic traditions and the UFO phenomenon have concerns...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 209-216)

    With the approach of the year 2000, and in the aftermath of the events associated with the Branch Davidian, Solar Temple, Aum Shinri Kyo, and Heaven’s Gate groups, understanding the varieties of apocalyptic belief has become increasingly important. Although various optimistic and noncataclysmic visions of humanity’s inevitable progress to a golden age have emerged in recent years, they are in the minority, overshadowed and outnumbered by apocalyptic worldviews that predict imminent worldly destruction. As the twentieth century comes to an end, apocalyptic visions flourish, reflecting perceptions of overwhelming societal crisis and a pessimistic outlook for a world so corrupt that...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 217-232)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-256)
  16. Index
    (pp. 257-281)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 282-283)