The end of the world: between religious hopes and secular fears

Jean-François Mayer

The end of the world: between religious hopes and secular fears

Preface to the book " If the world does not end " of Mario Di Fiorino

While we tend to ascribe fascination for apocalyptic events and endtimes to fringe, millenarian groups, its recurrent nature throughout history indicates that it is probably connected with a deeply rooted awareness in the human mind. We all know that our terrestrial life is limited, that civilizations can perish, that everything earthly is transient. As Georg Schmid has remarked, the success of movies built around a disaster story shows that they relate to dimensions of an inner reality which is as old as the first visions of inferno and do not only emerge in times of acute crisis.

Apocalyptic fears surrounding the entry into the third millenium are by no means necessarily religious. True, there are groups expecting Armageddon, the great rapture or other events of a cosmic significance for the near future. But maybe more widespread are speculations about the Y2K computer bug, and we have lived for more than half a century with the frightening possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, a meaningless end with little hope of a redemption (except in those scenarios where a few survivors would manage to survive in an hostile, devastated, post-nuclear world). Those secular apocalyptic anxieties may in turn stimulate endtime religious beliefs, since these are always influenced by their contemporary environment, in which they are looking for evidences of the fulfillment of prophecies. The threat posed by nuclear weapons gave an impulse to the development of the ideology of UFO cults. Environmental concerns were deeply felt by the leaders of the Order of the Solar Temple.

Expectations of an imminent apocalypse are usually associated not only with fringe religious groups, but also with deprived classes, with people who – having nothing to lose in the present world anyway – put their hopes into a better, future world, equated with an escape from history and its tribulations. There is definitely no lack of millenarian groups fitting this profile. But this does not mean that wealthy people are immune to apocalyptic speculations. For instance, the Catholic Apostolic Church (born in Britain in the 1830s and sometimes erroneously called "Irvingian") gathered "members of the landed ruling class who saw themselves threatened and were therefore seeking reassurance": they "saw reforming movements […] as the evidence of the activity of the powers of evil, and their biblical studies led them to the conclusion that these, together with the French revolution in particular, were the signs of the near fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy". Bankers and businessmen can also become eager apocalyptic believers: human beings are not only motivated by material concerns and the millenium represents more than the expected hope of improvements in one's circumstances.

This helps us to understand how millenial scenarios come to enjoy today a wide audience among American Evangelicals, for instance: Italian scholar Massimo Introvigne has recently examined the phenomenal success of the Evangelical series of best sellers Left Behind; six volumes of that millenial saga have already been published. Sometimes, millenialism leaves the fringe and goes mainstream. Believers in premillenarian theology remain rather marginal and in relatively small numbers in Europe, but their theories are more or less accepted by a significant number of Americans. This does not mean that all those people live in an atmosphere of feverish apocalyptic expectations. Many of them tend probably to be rather conservative and settled. Millenarian interpretations are not always associated with revolutionary feelings, and one can well adjust to current life on this Earth while waiting for the fulfillment of the prophecies. There are domesticated versions of millenarianism.

Not all prophets or students of sacred texts are satisfied with the knowledge that the apocalyptic events (Christian or otherwise) will come "soon". Could a careful reading of prophecies or a special knowledge revealed from above allow mankind to know not only what, but also when? Of course, the business of date-setting usually proves to be a more risky one. It is possible to find on the Internet a "Doomsday List", divided into four columns: date of the predicted event(s), author, short description of the event and status. The fourth column invariably and expectedly lists "failed", or sometimes "postponed", for dates until today; it remains empty for dates of the future, but the sheer abundance of those leads one to assume that many "failed" or "postponed" will still be added… They will be too early… or might ironically come too late, in case something finally happens!

The Bible wisely warns: "of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels" (Matthew 24:36). It is true, however, that the faithful are encouraged to be aware of the signs of times. Hence it is not surprising that believers feel legitimized in their interest for what should remain inscrutable. There will continue to be expectations – of Christ, of the end of the world, of the New Age, of extraterrestrial saviours… – and disappointments following failed prophecies. But we know that, "when prophecy fails", followers sometimes persevere and are not discouraged to try again.

Scholars with backgrounds in various disciplines have undertaken to explore the fascinating world of apocalypticism in its various forms. But there is still a lot to do in order to understand better the dynamics of apocalyptic movements. This why Professor Di Fiorino's examination of some cases in the Roman Catholic and Italian context is welcome. If the names of David Lazzaretti and the Giurisdavidica Church are not unknown to the small circles of millenial experts, few scholars outside Italy have ever heard about the Rosary Prayer Group, on which Professor Di Fiorino provides a detailed information. Such fresh insights can contribute to our knowledge of phenomena which, under various guises, can be expected to increase in the near future – and, while innocuous for the wider society in most cases, may also sometimes present challenges to law enforcement agents and puzzling questions to mental health professionals, as some spectacular and widely publicized cases have shown in recent years.

Jean-François Mayer

University of Fribourg, Switzerland

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