I began my career as a monthly religion columnist for the Telegram 14 years ago with a column asking, “Is the end near?” At that time, October 1998, a psychic had predicted an earthquake and tidal wave that would submerge most of the Avalon in an ominous apocalypse.
Although there was a run on life-jackets, Newfoundlanders survived the threat generally with good humour and even partied on Signal Hill on the predicted doomsday. The day came and went and became one more unfulfilled prophecy.
Yet apocalypticism, the belief system that predicts a cataclysmic end, is unendingly resilient.
Although predictions for the end of the world so far have an impressive 100 per cent failure rate, speculations about the end-time persist and find ever new expressions and opportunities for survival.
Once again we face (and in all likelihood will survive) yet another such forecast, this time based not on predictions by a psychic or an errant Bible student, but on an ancient Mesoamerican calendar steeped in esoteric lore and mystery.
Despite denials by many serious scholars of Mayan culture and astronomy that the end of the 13th baktun in the Mayan calendar means that the world will end, a veritable industry has emerged to promote Dec. 21 as the new doomsday.
Some varieties of New Age religion have jumped on the bandwagon of these end-time predictors, hitching a ride not into the apocalypse, but into an optimistic new era of spiritual transformation.
Date-setting for the world’s end is nothing new in the Western world. Although the church father Augustine did his best to identify the expected Kingdom of God with the Catholic Church and the apocalyptic cataclysm as an internal struggle for Christian morals, protest groups through the ages kept alive the end of the world as an ever-present reality.
With the Reformation, thinking about the end-time found especially fertile ground among Protestants. In the 19th century, a portentous day of reckoning loomed and then passed in 1843/44, but the Millerites — so-called after their Bible interpreter William Miller — after some further revision, experienced instead the “Great Disappointment.”
Yet even this movement did not die; a remnant reinvented itself and developed into a sizable Protestant body in the Seventh Day Adventists. Although the Millerites had already employed modern means of mass communication, such as colourful posters, journals and books, the doomsday industry came truly into its own from the 1970s on, when some evangelicals launched a flood of publications and films. Led by Hal Lindsey’s bestselling non-fiction book “The Late Great Planet Earth,” as well as novels and films of the “Left Behind” variety, the end time has continued to excite many North Americans with apocalyptic scenarios of impending doom.
“Dispensationalism,” a progressive division of history based on human failure and divine forbearance, became the commanding prophetic end-time scheme. It abandons date-setting, but retains the urgency of an impending rapture and Great Tribulation, followed by a thousand-year reign of Christ with his saints. Moral decadence, political upheaval, military conquests and ecological disorder signal that the end is near, along with the creation of the state of Israel and the violent potential for armageddon through a nuclear holocaust.
Evil, time, authority
The most recent apocalypse that we will likely survive next week is based not on Christian authorities but on an alleged time plan suggested by a Mayan artifact. In using such an ancient written authority as predictor of the end, the current scheme involves what the perceptive scholar of apocalyptic thinking, Stephen D. O’Leary, sees as characteristic for nearly all of apocalypticism: the commanding issues of evil, time and authority.
A comprehensible time frame enables believers in the imminent arrival of the end time to better understand and endure present-day calamities. The new excitement is by no means irrational. Like other apocalyptic schemes, it seeks to provide rational answers and a logic that is based on cosmic authorities in answering some of our most troubling questions, including the one when this quite imperfect world will end.
There is thus, after all, order in our troubled world in that the countdown follows a superhuman plan. The key to the present and future is here not revealed by the Judeo-Christian God in the Bible, but through a Mesoamerican ancient calendar, which some who consult it view as having been endowed with prescient qualities.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University of
Newfoundland and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.