I’ll get around to hyperlinking this up ASAP- if you read it before I’ve inserted all kinds of abstract meanings and correlations to it, make sure you check back!
Big ups to Infinafta/Popovich for bringing this to my attention!
The day of judgmentEnd-time thinking – the belief in a world purified by catastrophe – could once be dismissed as a harmless remnant of a more superstitious age. But with the rise of religious fundamentalism, prophets of apocalypse have become a new and very real danger, argues Ian McEwan
Since 1839, the world inventory of photographs has been accumulating at an accelerating pace, multiplying into a near infinitude of images, into a resemblance of a Borgesian library. This haunting technology has been with us long enough now that we are able to look at a crowd scene, a busy street, say, in the late 19th century and know for certain that every single figure is dead. Not only the young couple pausing by a park railing, but the child with a hoop and stick, the starchy nurse, the solemn baby upright in its carriage – their lives have run their course, and they are all gone. And yet, frozen in sepia, they appear curiously, busily, oblivious of the fact that they must die – as Susan Sontag put it, “photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction …”
“Photography,” she said, “is the inventory of mortality. A touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony. Photographs show people being so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives; [they] group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies.”
We are well used to reflections on individual mortality – it is the shaping force in the narrative of our existence. It emerges in childhood as a baffling fact, re-emerges possibly in adolescence as a tragic reality which all around us appear to be denying, then perhaps fades in busy middle life, to return, say, in a sudden premonitory bout of insomnia. One of the supreme secular meditations on death is Larkin’s “Aubade“:
… The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
We confront our mortality in private conversations, in the familiar consolations of religion – “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade,” thought Larkin, “Created to pretend we never die.” And we experience it as a creative tension, an enabling paradox in our literature and art: what is depicted, loved, or celebrated cannot last, and the work must try to outlive its creator. Larkin, after all, is now dead. Unless we are a determined, well-organised suicide, we cannot know the date of our demise, but we know the date must fall within a certain window of biological possibility which, as we age, must progressively narrow to its closing point.
Estimating the nature and timing of our collective demise, the end of civilisation, of the entire human project, is even less certain – it might happen in the next hundred years, or not happen in two thousand, or happen with imperceptible slowness, a whimper, not a bang. But in the face of that unknowability, there has often flourished powerful certainty about the approaching end. Throughout recorded history people have mesmerised themselves with stories which predict the date and manner of our wholescale destruction, often rendered meaningful by ideas of divine punishment and ultimate redemption; the end of life on earth, the end or last days, end time, the apocalypse.
Many of these stories are highly specific accounts of the future and are devoutly believed. Contemporary apocalyptic movements, Christian or Islamic, some violent, some not, all appear to share fantasies of a violent end, and they affect our politics profoundly. The apocalyptic mind can be demonising – that is to say, there are other groups, other faiths, that it despises for worshipping false gods, and these believers of course will not be saved from the fires of hell. And the apocalyptic mind tends to be totalitarian – which is to say that these are intact, all-encompassing ideas founded in longing and supernatural belief, immune to evidence or its lack, and well-protected against the implications of fresh data. Consequently, moments of unintentional pathos, even comedy, arise – and perhaps something in our nature is revealed – as the future is constantly having to be rewritten, new anti-Christs, new Beasts, new Babylons, new Whores located, and the old appointments with doom and redemption quickly replaced by the next.
Not even a superficial student of the Christian apocalypse could afford to ignore the work of Norman Cohn. His magisterial The Pursuit of the Millennium was published 50 years ago and has been in print ever since. This is a study of a variety of end-time movements that swept through northern Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries. These sects, generally inspired by the symbolism in the Book of Revelation, typically led by a charismatic prophet who emerged from among the artisan class or from the dispossessed, were seized by the notion of an impending end, to be followed by the establishing of the Kingdom of God on earth. In preparation for this, it was believed necessary to slaughter Jews, priests and property owners. Fanatical rabbles, tens of thousands strong, oppressed and often starving and homeless, roamed from town to town, full of wild hope and murderous intent. The authorities, church and lay, would put down these bands with overwhelming violence. A few years or a generation later, with a new leader, and a faintly different emphasis, a new group would rise up. It is worth remembering that the impoverished mob that trailed behind the knights of the first crusades started their journey by killing Jews in the thousands in the Upper Rhine area. These days, when Muslims of radical tendency pronounce their formulaic imprecations against “Jews and Crusaders”, they would do well to remember that both Jewry and Islam were victims of the crusades.
Now, the slaughter has abated, but what strikes the reader of Cohn’s book are the common threads that run between medieval and contemporary apocalyptic thought. First, and in general, the resilience of the end-time forecasts – time and again, for 500 years, the date is proclaimed, nothing happens, and no one feels discouraged from setting another date. Second, the Book of Revelation spawned a literary tradition that kept alive in medieval Europe the fantasy, derived from the Judaic tradition, of divine election. Christians, too, could now be the Chosen People, the saved or the Elect, and no amount of official repression could smother the appeal of this notion to the unprivileged as well as the unbalanced. Third, there looms the figure of a mere man, apparently virtuous, risen to eminence, but in reality seductive and Satanic – he is the anti-Christ, and in the five centuries that Cohn surveys, the role is fulfilled by the Pope, just as it frequently is now.
Finally, there is the boundless adaptability, the undying appeal and fascination of the Book of Revelation itself, the central text of apocalyptic belief. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, making landfall in the Bahaman islands, he believed he had found, and was fated to find, the Terrestrial Paradise promised in the Book of Revelation. He believed himself to be implicated in God’s planning for the millennial kingdom on earth. The scholar Daniel Wojcik (in his brilliant account of apocalyptic thought in America, “The end of the world as we know it”) quotes from Columbus’s record of his first journey: “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St John … and he showed me the spot where to find it.”
Five centuries later, the United States, responsible for more than four-fifths of the world’s scientific research and still a land of plenty, can show the world an abundance of opinion polls concerning its religious convictions. The litany will be familiar. Ninety per cent of Americans say they have never doubted the existence of God and are certain they will be called to answer for their sins. Fifty-three per cent are creationists who believe that the cosmos is 6,000 years old, 44 per cent are sure that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead within the next 50 years. Only 12 per cent believe that life on earth has evolved through natural selection without the intervention of supernatural agency.
In general, belief in end-time biblical prophecy, in a world purified by catastrophe and then redeemed and made entirely Christian and free of conflict by the return of Jesus in our lifetime, is stronger in the United States than anywhere on the planet and extends from marginal, ill-educated, economically deprived groups, to college-educated people in the millions, through to governing elites, to the very summits of power. The social scientist JW Nelson notes that apocalyptic ideas “are as American as the hot dog”. Wojcik reminds us of the ripple of anxiety that ran round the world in April 1984 when President Reagan expressed that he was greatly interested in the biblical prophecy of imminent Armageddon.
To the secular mind, the polling figures have a pleasantly shocking, titillating quality – one might think of them as a form of atheist’s pornography. But perhaps we should enter a caveat before proceeding. It might be worth retaining a degree of scepticism about these polling figures. For a start, they vary enormously – one poll’s 90 per cent is another’s 53 per cent. From the respondent’s point of view, what is to be gained by categorically denying the existence of God to a complete stranger with a clipboard? And those who tell pollsters they believe that the Bible is the literal word of God from which derive all proper moral precepts, are more likely to be thinking in general terms of love, compassion and forgiveness rather than of the slave-owning, ethnic cleansing, infanticide, and genocide urged at various times by the jealous God of the Old Testament.
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. Or he might even vote Democrat, as do many Hispanic biblical literalists. In Pennsylvania, Kansas and Ohio, the courts have issued ringing rejections of Intelligent Design, and voters have ejected creationists from school boards. In the Dover case in 2005, Judge John Jones III, a Bush appointee, handed down a judgment that was not only a scathing dismissal of the prospect of supernatural ideas imported into science classes, but was an elegant, stirring summary of the project of science in general, and of natural selection in particular, and a sturdy endorsement of the rationalist, Enlightenment values that underlie the Constitution.
Still the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, and perhaps its most bizarre, certainly one of its most lurid, remains important in the United States, just as it once was in medieval Europe. The book is also known as the Apocalypse – and we should be clear about the meaning of this word, which is derived from the Greek word for revelation. Apocalypse, which has become synonymous with “catastrophe”, actually refers to the literary form in which an individual describes what has been revealed to him by a supernatural being. There was a long Jewish tradition of prophecy, and there were hundreds, if not thousands of seers like John of Patmos between the second century BC and the first century AD. Many other Christian apocalypses were deprived of canonical authority in the second century AD. Revelation most likely survived because its author was confused with John, the Beloved Disciple. It is interesting to speculate how different medieval European history, and indeed the history of religion in Europe and the United States, would have been if the Book of Revelation had also failed, as it nearly did, to be retained in the Bible we now know.
The scholarly consensus dates Revelation to AD95 or 96. Little is known of its author beyond the fact that he is certainly not the apostle John. The occasion of writing appears to be the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Domitian. Only a generation before, the Romans had sacked the Second Temple in Jerusalem and are, therefore, identified with the Babylonians who had destroyed the First Temple centuries earlier. The general purpose quite likely was to give hope and consolation to the faithful in the certainty that their tribulations would end, that the Kingdom of God would prevail. Ever since the influential 12th-century historian Joachim of Fiore, Revelation has been seen, within various traditions of gathering complexity and divergence, as an overview of human history whose last stage we are now in; alternatively, and this is especially relevant to the postwar United States, as an account purely of those last days. For centuries, within the Protestant tradition, the anti-Christ was identified with the Pope, or with the Catholic Church in general. In recent decades, the honour has been bestowed on the Soviet Union, the European Union, or secularism and atheists. For many millennial dispensationalists, international peacemakers, who risk delaying the final struggle by sowing concord among nations – the United Nations, along with the World Council of Churches – have been seen as Satanic forces.
The cast or contents of Revelation in its contemporary representations has all the colourful gaudiness of a children’s computer fantasy game – earthquakes and fires, thundering horses and their riders, angels blasting away on trumpets, magic vials, Jezebel, a red dragon and other mythical beasts, and a scarlet woman. Another familiar aspect is the potency of numbers – seven each of seals, heads of beasts, candlesticks, stars, lamps, trumpets, angels and vials; then four riders, four beasts with seven heads, ten horns, ten crowns, four and twenty elders, twelve tribes with twelve thousand members … and finally, most resonantly, spawning 19 centuries of dark tomfoolery, “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred, three score and six.” To many minds, 666 bristles with significance. The internet is stuffed with tremulous speculation about supermarket barcodes, implanted chips, numerical codes for the names of world leaders. However, the oldest known record of this famous verse, from the Oxyrhynchus site, gives the number as 616, as does the Zurich Bible. I have the impression that any number would do. One senses in the arithmetic of prophecy the yearnings of a systematising mind, bereft of the experimental scientific underpinnings that were to give such human tendencies their rich expression many centuries later. Astrology gives a similar impression of numerical obsession operating within a senseless void.
But Revelation has endured in an age of technology and scepticism. Not many works of literature, not even the Odyssey of Homer, can boast such wide appeal over such an expanse of time. One celebrated case of this rugged durability is that of William Miller, the 19th-century farmer who became a prophet and made a set of intricate calculations, based on a line in verse 14 of the Book of Daniel: “unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Counting for various reasons this utterance to date from 457BC, and understanding one prophetic day to be the equivalent of a year, Miller came to the conclusion that the last of days would occur in 1843. Some of Miller’s followers refined the calculations further to October 22. After nothing happened on that day, the year was quickly revised to 1844, to take into account the year zero. The faithful Millerites gathered in their thousands to wait. One may not share the beliefs, but it is quite possible to understand the mortifying disenchantment. One eyewitness wrote:
[We] confidently expected to see Jesus Christ and all the holy angels with him … and that our trials and sufferings with our earthly pilgrimage would close and we should be caught up to meet our coming Lord … and thus we looked for our coming Lord until the bell tolled twelve at midnight. The day had then passed and our disappointment became a certainty. Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all our earthly friends could have been no comparison. We wept, and wept, till the day dawned.
One means of dealing with the disillusionment was to give it a title – the Great Disappointment – duly capitalised. More importantly, according to Kenneth Newport’s impressive account of the Waco siege, the very next day after the Disappointment, one Millerite leader in Port Gibson, New York, by the name of Hiram Edson had a vision as he walked along, a sudden revelation that “the cleansing of the sanctuary” referred to events not on earth, but in heaven. Jesus had taken his place in the heavenly holy of holies. The date had been right all along, it was simply the place they had got wrong. This “masterstroke”, as Newport calls it, this “theological lifeline” removed the whole affair into a realm immune to disproof. The Great Disappointment was explained, and many Millerites were drawn, with hope still strong in their hearts, into the beginnings of the Seventh Day Adventist movement – which was to become one of the most successful churches in the United States.
In passing, I note the connections between this church and the medieval sects that Cohn describes – the strong emphasis on the Book of Revelation, the looming proximity of the end, the strict division between the faithful remnant who keep the Sabbath, and those who join the ranks of the “fallen”, of the anti-Christ, identified with the Pope whose title, Vicarius Filii Dei (vicar of the son of God) apparently has a numerical value of 666. I mention Hiram Edson’s morning-after masterstroke to illustrate the adaptability and resilience of end-time thought. For centuries now, it has regarded the end as “soon” – if not next week, then within a year or two. The end has not come, and yet no one is discomfited for long. New prophets, and soon, a new generation, set about the calculations, and always manage to find the end looming within their own lifetime. The million sellers like Hal Lindsey predicted the end of the world all through the seventies, eighties and nineties – and today, business has never been better. There is a hunger for this news, and perhaps we glimpse here something in our nature, something of our deeply held notions of time, and our own insignificance against the intimidating vastness of eternity, or the age of the universe – on the human scale there is little difference. We have need of a plot, a narrative to shore up our irrelevance in the flow of things.
In The Sense of an Ending , Frank Kermode proposes that the enduring quality, the vitality of the Book of Revelation suggests a “consonance with our more naive requirements of fiction”. We are born, as we will die, in the middle of things, in the “middest”. To make sense of our span, we need what he calls “fictive concords with origins and ends. ‘The End’, in the grand sense, as we imagine it, will reflect our irreducibly intermediary expectations.” What could grant us more meaning against the abyss of time than to identify our own personal demise with the purifying annihilation of all that is. Kermode quotes with approval from Wallace Stevens – “the imagination is always at the end of an era”. Even our notions of decadence contain the hopes of renewal; the religious minded, as well as the most secular, looked on the transition to the year 2000 as inescapably significant, even if all the atheists did was to party a little harder. It was inevitably a transition, the passing of an old age into the new – and who is to say now that Osama bin Laden did not disappoint, whether we mourned at the dawn of the new millennium with the bereaved among the ruins of lower Manhattan, or danced for joy, as some did, in the Gaza Strip.
Islamic eschatology from its very beginnings embraced the necessity of violently conquering the world and gathering up souls to the faith before the expected hour of judgment – a notion that has risen and fallen over the centuries, but in past decades has received new impetus from Islamist revivalist movements. It is partly a mirror image of the Protestant Christian tradition (a world made entirely Islamic, with Jesus as Mohammed’s lieutenant), partly a fantasy of the inevitable return of “sacred space”, the Caliphate, that includes most of Spain, parts of France, the entire Middle East, right up to the borders of China. As with the Christian scheme, Islam foretells of the destruction or conversion of the Jews.
Prophecy belief in Judaism, the original source for both the Islamic and Christian eschatologies, is surprisingly weaker – perhaps a certain irony in the relationship between Jews and their god is unfriendly to end-time belief, but it lives on vigorously enough in the Lubavitch movement and various Israeli settler groups, and of course is centrally concerned with divine entitlement to disputed lands.
We should add to the mix more recent secular apocalyptic beliefs – the certainty that the world is inevitably doomed through nuclear exchange, viral epidemics, meteorites, population growth or environmental degradation. Where these calamities are posed as mere possibilities in an open-ended future that might be headed off by wise human agency, we cannot consider them as apocalyptic. They are minatory, they are calls to action. But when they are presented as unavoidable outcomes driven by ineluctable forces of history or innate human failings, they share much with their religious counterparts – though they lack the demonising, cleansing, redemptive aspects, and are without the kind of supervision of a supernatural entity that might give benign meaning and purpose to a mass extinction. Clearly, fatalism is common to both camps, and both, reasonably enough, are much concerned with a nuclear holocaust, which to the prophetic believers illuminates in retrospect biblical passages that once seemed obscure. Hal Lindsey, preeminent among the popularisers of American apocalyptic thought, writes:
Zechariah 14:12 predicts that “their flesh will be consumed from their bones, their eyes burned out of their sockets, and their tongues consumed out of their mouths while they stand on their feet.” For hundreds of years students of Bible prophecy have wondered what kind of plague could produce such instant ravaging of humans while still on their feet. Until the event of the atomic bomb such a thing was not humanly possible. But now everything Zechariah predicted could come true in a thermonuclear exchange!
Two other movements, now mercifully defeated or collapsed, provide a further connection between religious and secular apocalypse – so concluded Norman Cohn in the closing pages of The Pursuit of the Millennium. The genocidal tendency among the apocalyptic medieval movements faded somewhat after 1500. Vigorous end-time belief continued, of course, in the Puritan and Calvinist movements, the Millerites, as we have seen, and in the American Great Awakening, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Adventist movement. The murderous tradition, however, did not die away completely. It survived the passing of centuries in various sects, various outrages, to emerge in the European 20th century transformed, revitalised, secularised, but still recognisable in what Cohn depicts as the essence of apocalyptic thinking – “the tense expectation of a final, decisive struggle in which a world tyranny will be overthrown by a ‘chosen people’ and through which the world will be renewed and history brought to its consummation”.
The will of god was transformed in the 20th century into the will of history, but the essential demand remained, as it still does today – “to purify the world by destroying the agents of corruption”. The dark reveries of Nazism about the Jews shared much with the murderous antisemitic demonology of medieval times. An important additional element, imported from Russia, was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion , the 1905 Tsarist police forgery, elevated by Hitler and others into a racist ideology. (It’s interesting to note how the Protocols has re-emerged as a central text for Islamists, frequently quoted on websites, and sold in street bookstalls across the Middle East.) The Third Reich and its dream of a thousand-year rule was derived, in a form of secular millennial usurpation, directly from Revelation. Cohn draws our attention to the apocalyptic language of Mein Kampf : “If our people … fall victims to these Jewish tyrants of the nations with their lust for blood and gold, the whole earth will sink down … if Germany frees itself from this embrace, this greatest of dangers for the peoples can be regarded as vanquished for all the earth.”
In Marxism in its Soviet form, Cohn also found a continuation of the old millenarian tradition of prophecy, of the final violent struggle to eliminate the agents of corruption – this time it is the bourgeoisie who will be vanquished by the proletariat in order to enable the withering away of the state and usher in the peaceable kingdom. “The kulak … is prepared to strangle and massacre hundreds of thousands of workers … Ruthless war must be waged on the kulaks! Death to them!” Thus spoke Lenin, and his word, like Hitler’s, became deed.
Thirty years ago, we might have been able to convince ourselves that contemporary religious apocalyptic thought was a harmless remnant of a more credulous, superstitious, pre-scientific age, now safely behind us. But today prophecy belief, particularly within the Christian and Islamic traditions, is a force in our contemporary history, a medieval engine driving our modern moral, geopolitical, and military concerns. The various jealous sky-gods – and they are certainly not one and the same god – who in the past directly addressed Abraham, Paul, or Mohammed, among others, now indirectly address us through the daily television news. These different gods have wound themselves inextricably around our politics and our political differences.
Our secular and scientific culture has not replaced or even challenged these mutually incompatible, supernatural thought systems. Scientific method, scepticism, or rationality in general, has yet to find an overarching narrative of sufficient power, simplicity, and wide appeal to compete with the old stories that give meaning to people’s lives. Natural selection is a powerful, elegant, and economic explicator of life on earth in all its diversity, and perhaps it contains the seeds of a rival creation myth that would have the added power of being true – but it awaits its inspired synthesiser, its poet, its Milton. The great American biologist EO Wilson has suggested an ethics divorced from religion, and derived instead from what he calls biophilia, our innate and profound connection to our natural environment – but one man alone cannot make a moral system. Science may speak of probable rising sea levels and global temperatures, with figures that it constantly refines in line with new data, but on the human future it cannot compete with the luridness and, above all, with the meaningfulness of the prophecies in the Book of Daniel or Revelation. Reason and myth remain uneasy bedfellows. Rather than presenting a challenge, science has in obvious ways strengthened apocalyptic thinking. It has provided us with the means to destroy ourselves and our civilisation completely in less than a couple of hours, or to spread a fatal virus around the globe in a couple of days. And our spiralling technologies of destruction and their ever-greater availability have raised the possibility that true believers, with all their unworldly passion, their prayerful longing for the end times to begin, could help nudge the ancient prophecies towards fulfilment. Wojcik quotes a letter by the singer Pat Boone addressed to fellow Christians. All-out nuclear war is what he appears to have had in mind. “My guess is that there isn’t a thoughtful Christian alive who doesn’t believe we are living at the end of history. I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it gets me pretty excited. Just think about actually seeing, as the apostle Paul wrote it, the Lord Himself descending from heaven with a shout! Wow! And the signs that it’s about to happen are everywhere.”
If this possibility of a willed nuclear catastrophe appears too pessimistic or extravagant, or hilarious, consider the case of another individual, remote from Pat Boone – President Ahmadinejad of Iran. His much reported remark about wiping Israel off the face of the earth may have been mere bluster of the kind you could hear any Friday in a thousand mosques around the world. But this posturing, coupled with his nuclear ambitions, becomes more worrying when set in the context of his end-time beliefs. In Jamkaran, a village not far from the holy city of Qum, a small mosque is undergoing a $20m-expansion, driven forward by Ahmadinejad’s office. Within the Shi’ite apocalyptic tradition, the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, who disappeared in the ninth century, is expected to reappear in a well behind the mosque. His re-emergence will signify the beginning of the end days. He will lead the battle against the Dajjal, the Islamic version of the anti-Christ, and with Jesus as his follower, will establish the global Dar el Salaam, the dominion of peace, under Islam. Ahmadinejad is extending the mosque to receive the Mahdi, and already pilgrims by the thousands are visiting the shrine, for the president has reportedly told his cabinet that he expects the visitation within two years.
Or again, consider the celebrated case of the red heifer, or calf. On the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the end-time stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam converge in both interlocking and mutually exclusive ways that are potentially explosive – they form incidentally the material for the American novelist Bob Stone’s fine novel, Damascus Gate . What is bitterly contested is not only the past and present, it is the future. It is hardly possible to do justice in summary to the complex eschatologies that jostle on this 35-acre patch of land. The stories themselves are familiar. For the Jews, the Mount – the biblical Mount Moriah – is the site of the First Temple, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC, and of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in AD70. According to tradition, and of particular interest to various controversial groups, including the Temple Institute, the Messiah, when he comes at last, will occupy the Third Temple. But that cannot be built, and therefore the Messiah will not come, without the sacrifice of a perfectly unblemished red calf.
For Muslims of course, the Mount is the site of the Dome of the Rock, built over the location of the two temples and enclosing the very spot from which Mohammed departed on his Night Journey to heaven – leaving as his horse stepped upwards a revered hoofprint in the rock. In the prophetic tradition, the Dajjal will be a Jew who leads a devastating war against Islam. Any attempt to bless a foundation stone of a new temple is seen as highly provocative for it implies the destruction of the mosque. The symbolism surrounding Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Mount in September 2000 remains a matter of profoundly different interpretation by Muslims and Jews. And if lives were not at stake, the Christian fundamentalist contribution to this volatile mix would seem amusingly cynical. These prophetic believers are certain that Jesus will return at the height of the battle of Armageddon, but his thousand-year reign, which will ensure the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity, or their extinction, cannot begin until the Third Temple is built.
And so it came about that a cattle-breeding operation emerges in Israel with the help of Texan Christian fundamentalist ranchers to promote the birth of the perfect, unspotted red calf, and thereby, we have to assume, bring the end days a little closer. In 1997 there was great excitement, as well as press mockery, when one promising candidate appeared. Months later, this cherished young cow nicked its rump on a barbed wire fence, causing white hairs to grow at the site of the wound and earning instant disqualification. Another red calf appeared in 2002 to general acclaim, and then again, later disappointment. In the tight squeeze of history, religion, and politics that converge on the Temple Mount, the calf is a minor item indeed. But the search for it, and the hope and longing that surround it, illustrates the dangerous tendency among prophetic believers to bring on the cataclysm that they think will lead to a form of paradise on earth. The reluctance of the current US administration to pursue in these past six years a vigorous policy towards a peace settlement in the Israel-Palestine dispute may owe less to the pressures of Jewish groups than to the eschatology of the Christian Right.
Periods of uncertainty in human history, of rapid, bewildering change, and of social unrest appear to give these old stories greater weight. It does not need a novelist to tell you that where a narrative has a beginning, it needs an end. Where there is a creation myth, there must be a final chapter. Where a god makes the world, it remains in his power to unmake it. When human weakness or wickedness is apparent, there will be guilty fantasies of supernatural retribution. When people are profoundly frustrated, either materially or spiritually, there will be dreams of the perfect society where all conflicts are resolved, and all needs are met.
That much we can understand or politely pretend to understand. But the problem of fatalism remains. In a nuclear age, and in an age of serious environmental degradation, apocalyptic belief creates a serious second order danger. The precarious logic of self-interest that saw us through the cold war would collapse if the leaders of one nuclear state came to welcome, or ceased to fear, mass death. The words of Ayatollah Khomeini are quoted approvingly in an Iranian 11th grade textbook: “Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.”
And if we let global temperatures continue to rise because we give room to the faction that believes it is God’s will, then we are truly – and literally – sunk.
If I were a believer, I think I would prefer to be in Jesus’s camp – he is reported by Matthew to have said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
But even a sceptic can find in the historical accumulation of religious expression joy, fear, love, and above all, seriousness. I return to Philip Larkin – an atheist who also knew the moment and the nature of transcendence. He once wrote a famous description of a church:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious …
And how could one be more serious than the writer of this prayer for the interment of the dead, from the Book of Common Prayer, an incantation of bleak, existential beauty, even more so in its beautiful setting by Henry Purcell: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.”
Ultimately, apocalyptic belief is a function of faith – that luminous inner conviction that needs no recourse to evidence. It is customary to pose against immovable faith the engines of reason, but in this instance I would prefer that delightful human impulse – curiosity, the hallmark of mental freedom. Organised religion has always had – and I put this mildly – a troubled relationship with curiosity. Islam’s distrust, at least in the past 200 years, is best expressed by its attitude to those whose faith falls away, to apostates who are drawn to other religions or to none at all. In recent times, in 1975, the mufti of Saudi Arabia, Bin Baz, in a fatwa, quoted by Shmuel Bar, ruled as follows: “Those who claim that the earth is round and moving around the sun are apostates and their blood can be shed and their property can be taken in the name of god.” Bin Baz rescinded this judgment 10 years later. Mainstream Islam routinely prescribes punishment for apostates that ranges from ostracism to beatings to death. To enter one of the many websites where Muslim apostates anonymously exchange views is to encounter a world of brave and terrified men and women who have succumbed to their disaffection and intellectual curiosity. And Christians should not feel smug. The first commandment – on pain of death if we were to take the matter literally – is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. In the fourth century, St Augustine put the matter well for Christianity, and his view prevailed for a long time: “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try to discover the secrets of nature which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing, and which man should not wish to learn.”
And yet it is curiosity, scientific curiosity, that has delivered us genuine, testable knowledge of the world and contributed to our understanding of our place within it and of our nature and condition. This knowledge has a beauty of its own, and it can be terrifying. We are barely beginning to grasp the implications of what we have relatively recently learned. And what exactly have we learned? I draw here from a Steven Pinker essay on his ideal of a university: among other things we have learned that our planet is a minute speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified; that we cannot create energy or use it without loss.
As things stand, after more than a century of research in a number of fields, we have no evidence at all that the future can be predicted. Better to look directly to the past, to its junkyard of unrealised futures, for it is curiosity about history that should give end-time believers reasonable pause when they reflect that they stand on a continuum, a long and unvarying thousand-year tradition that has fantasised imminent salvation for themselves and perdition for the rest. On one of the countless end-time/rapture sites that litter the web, there is a section devoted to Frequently Asked Questions. One is: when the Lord comes, what will happen to the children of other faiths? The answer is staunch: “Ungodly parents only bring judgment to their children.” In the light of this, one might conclude that end-time faith is probably as immune to the lessons of history as it is to fundamental human decency.
If we do destroy ourselves, we can assume that the general reaction will be terror, and grief at the pointlessness of it all, rather than rapture. Within living memory we have come very close to extinguishing our civilisation when, in October 1962, Soviet ships carrying nuclear warheads to installations in Cuba confronted a blockade by the US Navy, and the world waited to discover whether Nikita Khrushchev would order his convoy home. It is remarkable how little of that terrifying event survives in public memory, in modern folklore. In the vast literature the Cuban missile crisis has spawned – military, political, diplomatic – there is very little on its effect at the time on ordinary lives, in homes, school, and the workplace, on the fear and widespread numb incomprehension in the population at large. That fear has not passed into the national narrative, here, or anywhere else as vividly as you might expect. As Spencer Weart put it: “When the crisis ended, most people turned their attention away as swiftly as a child who lifts up a rock, sees something slimy underneath, and drops the rock back.” Perhaps the assassination of President Kennedy the following year helped obscure the folk memory of the missile crisis. His murder in Dallas became a marker in the history of instantaneous globalised news transmission – a huge proportion of the world’s population seemed to be able to recall where they were when they heard the news. Conflating these two events, Christopher Hitchens opened an essay on the Cuban missile crisis with the words – “Like everyone else of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was standing and what I was doing on the day that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly killed me.” Heaven did not beckon during those tense hours of the crisis. Instead, as Hitchens observes, “It brought the world to the best view it has had yet of the gates of hell.”
I began with the idea of photography as the inventory of mortality, and I will end with a photograph of a group death. It shows fierce flames and smoke rising from a building in Waco, Texas, at the end of a 51-day siege in 1993. The group inside was the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. Its leader, David Koresh, was a man steeped in biblical, end-time theology, convinced that America was Babylon, the agent of Satan, come in the form of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI to destroy the Sabbath-keeping remnant, who would emerge from the cleansing, suicidal fire to witness the dawn of a new Kingdom. Here is Susan Sontag’s “posthumous irony” indeed, as medieval Europe recreated itself in the form of a charismatic man, a messiah, a messenger of God, the bearer of the perfect truth, who exercised sexual power over his female followers and persuaded them to bear his children in order to begin a “Davidian” line. In that grim inferno, children, their mothers, and other followers died. Even more died two years later when Timothy McVeigh, exacting revenge against the government for its attack on Waco, committed his slaughter in Oklahoma City. It is not for nothing that one of the symptoms in a developing psychosis, noted and described by psychiatrists, is “religiosity”.
Have we really reached a stage in public affairs when it really is no longer too obvious to say that all the evidence of the past and all the promptings of our precious rationality suggest that our future is not fixed? We have no reason to believe that there are dates inscribed in heaven or hell. We may yet destroy ourselves; we might scrape through. Confronting that uncertainty is the obligation of our maturity and our only spur to wise action. The believers should know in their hearts by now that, even if they are right and there actually is a benign and watchful personal God, he is, as all the daily tragedies, all the dead children attest, a reluctant intervener. The rest of us, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, know that it is highly improbable that there is anyone up there at all. Either way, in this case it hardly matters who is wrong – there will be no one to save us but ourselves.