We’ve had an unusual amount of death-related stuff this month, and now we’ll be talking about the end of the world. It’s quite an April we’re having here. Don’t worry, though–this Reading Rarity will be fun. Here’s hoping, anyway…
The end of the world is a touchy subject. It’s also the title of that one R.E.M. song. There are as many opinions about how the end of the world will come about as there are squirrels on university campuses, and a mondo headache is likely in store for those who try to keep up with them. Writer and former editor of Relevant Magazine Jason Boyett cuts through the craziness with his 2005 volume, Pocket Guide To the Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual For the End of the World.
The tone of the book is set before the first page is even read. The back cover proclaims, “THE END IS ALL KINDS OF NIGH. So go ahead and start with the panicky noises.”
Yes, Boyett liberally uses wit and humor to make the contentious scariness that is eschatology palatable, even gripping. This is no small feat, punctuated by there being so much weirdness that it probably didn’t need a whole lot of embellishment. And I’m saying this as a Christian who believes Jesus will return.
Just so we’re all on the same page, the first chapter of the Pocket Guide defines all things eschatological. Some of the terms are really obvious, like “Second Coming,” and others not so much, such as “chiliasm,” which is the belief that when Christ comes back for the thousand-year reign, Christians can start cashing out their eternal blessings.
Pocket Guide devotes two chapters to most of the times throughout history when people have predicted the end of the world. I say, “most” because Harold Camping is strangely absent. Remember him? He was the fellow who sat in an easy chair with his hand on a Bible and talked in monotones like the boring dinosaur guy in Mrs. Doubtfire, only much, much older. He was always on Channel 64 in my neck of the woods before they started running movies.
Anyway, Camping had a thing for doomsday prophecy, his last being the failed prediction that Jesus would come back on May 21, 2011, and then October 21, 2011 because he counted wrong the first time. Convenient, isn’t it? Granted, Camping’s last predictions came six years after the Pocket Guide hit shelves, otherwise he probably would have gotten a slot in the rogue’s gallery.
Believe it or not, though, Camping was one of the tamer soothsayers. The first known prediction of the end of the world was in Persia at around 2000 to 1500 BC, when a guy named Zoroaster, or Zarathustra for all those 2001: A Space Odyssey fans out there, predicted divine intervention by the Mazda(!) god in a final Armageddon-type battle. His current-day followers, known as Zarathustrians, are still waiting.
Other predictions were spurred by the turning of the calendar to a new millennium or a new century. In both 1000 AD and the year 2000, people were predicting catastrophe. There were Christians who were firmly convinced Jesus would come back a thousand years after He was born, and others thought it would be a thousand years from His death and resurrection. Neither, obviously, panned out.
Of course, Y2K was a big deal. I remember that one very plainly. To be fair, it was kind of a loaded prospect because we faced not only a new year, but a Leap Year, a new century, a new decade, and a new millennium, topped off by the possibility that computer systems might stop working. And planes might fall out of the sky. Naturally, there were people who legitimately thought Jesus was coming back in 2000. Most, though, stocked up on Spam and canned food just in case, hoping for the best. When midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, we clutched our bubbly beverages, held our collective breath…and the lights stayed on. There was nothing to do after that but cheer and start thinking of ways to use up all that Spam.
One of the most ludicrous prophets of doom was the Yorkshire Witch, Mary Bateman, who, in 1806, became a sensation when her hen, the Prophetic Chicken of Leeds, laid eggs proclaiming Jesus was coming back very soon. Of course the chicken drew a crowd, but Bateman’s act…ahem…laid an egg. According to the Pocket Guide, “…Someone peeks in before the curtain rises and sees Mary trying to, um, shove an egg up the chicken’s pooper.”
Comets, solar activity, and asteroids are huge with the eschatology crowd. The Pocket Guide lists several seers and cults whose selling point was that some heavenly body or other was a sure sign of the end. Heaven’s Gate is a notorious example, but there was also a major solar eclipse in 968 AD, an Italian monk in 1603 who predicted the earth and the sun would collide, and a Swiss mathematician in 1719 who was certain a comet would take us out. For starters. Whew.
What would a book about the end of the world be without a selection of possible Antichrists, and the Pocket Guide has a whole slew of ’em. Anyone from Julius Caesar to the Pope (any Pope) to Bill Clinton to Bill Gates to Mikhail Gorbachev merit a mention because they remotely fit the criteria, and not all of them are exactly sinister. Prince Charles, for instance, is about as mean as a cocker spaniel, but he’s been pointed at as a plausible Antichrist because he has a lot of power and influence.
The Pocket Guide goes on to describe the different ways that Christians see the end of the world shaping up, and those center around when someone thinks the Rapture will take place. The Rapture is, of course, when Christians who are left alive will be caught up to meet Jesus as He comes back. Revelation also details the period in which this will happen, called the Tribulation. That’s when the real Antichrist will make war on Christians during a time of fighting, pestilence, and at some point a major earthquake. Christians might be pre-Trib, mid-Trib, post-Trib, or a-Trib as far as when the Rapture happens, but either way, they believe both events will occur.
Besides manifesting themselves in fiery sensationalism from the pulpit and on the bookstore shelf, these beliefs often found their way to the big screen as the New Millenium approached. Why not? The end of the world is exciting, things blow up, and there’s enough realism to scare everyone or at least send them to the newsfeeds to see if anything End-Times-y is shaping up.
In that vein, The Pocket Guide gives us the Endie Awards, or its take on the spate of apocalyptic movies that came out around the year 2000. There were so many of these, or at least it felt like it, that it got boring. Cloud Nine Pictures and the Lalonde brothers carry off the lion’s share of the Endies, as does Kirk Cameron, who was a draw in the 2000 letdown, Left Behind.
Blockbusters and big names have their day, too. Armageddon garners a Best Studio Release Endie, while South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut basically ties with the 1997 Al Pacino film, Devil’s Advocate for Best Portrayal of Satan. And surprise, surprise, 1976’s The Omen walks away with the coveted Best Argument Against Baby-Swapping Endie, which will shock no one who’s seen it (or any of the Omen movies).
Seriously, though, the overall messages of the Pocket Guide are that no one really knows when Jesus will come back, and those who try to know either leave a lot of destruction in their wake or wind up with egg on their faces. In other words, we shouldn’t presume to know something that only God the Father knows. Jesus doesn’t even know, and He’s God the Son. That should tell the rest of us something. Keep watch, yes, but more importantly, as the hymn says, “trust and obey.”
There are still Prophets of Doom out there, of course, but personally, I’ve gotten to where I don’t listen to them anymore. However, I’m not above having a laugh or two at their expense, and the Pocket Guide makes it easy.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope you’ll check back here tomorrow for the William Holden Blogathon…