The End Is Nigh
Apocalypse Explained
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 11/5/13

Time, some philosophers say, is finite. But—if you are reading this—the world has not yet ended, despite many claims that it would. The certainty that apocalypse is just around the corner springs eternal, perhaps because doomsday promises to be so entertaining, should one survive it or at least witness some of the fireworks. This map looks at a few failed predictions and explains why the idea of an end-time nevertheless remains perennially popular.

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to  Götterdämmerung  (Richard Wagner | opera | 1876)

Christianity isn’t the only religion to foresee the world ending with a bang. The belief of some Christians that Armageddon—a great battle between the Messiah and the Antichrist—will usher in the last days finds a rough parallel in Norse (i.e., Viking) mythology. According to the Eddas, or Norse sagas, composed starting in the ninth century and written down in the 13th, a cataclysmic battle will bring an end to time; in that apocalyptic battle, called Ragnarök (“destiny [or doom] of the gods”), many deities will be killed. A few will survive, however, as Earth rises again.

German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) borrowed from the Eddas and other medieval Germanic pagan sources in writing his opera tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Wagner titled the final opera in the cycle Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The name evokes Ragnarök, but Wagner’s vision of the end is more pessimistic, or at least more definite, than that of his Norse forebears. The opera concludes with Odin’s castle, Valhalla (a.k.a. the hall of slain warriors), in flames and the gods and heroes immolated. The destruction is entire, the curtain falls, and no cosmic renewal is forecast.

Götterdämmerung  (Richard Wagner | opera | 1876)
to  2012

The year 2012 was a leap year, a presidential election year and, according to some, the year the world would end. Doomsday was scheduled for December 21.

Those who contended that annihilation was happening on the 2012 winter solstice anchored their belief in an ancient Mayan timekeeping system called the Long Count calendar. In 1966 Mayanist scholar Michael Coe advanced the theory that 12/21/12, coinciding with the end of that calendar’s Great Cycle, was the day the Maya believed the universe would self-destruct. Other Mayanists rejected Coe’s reading, arguing that the idea of apocalypse was utterly alien to ancient Mayan thought.

Such academic disputes don’t concern Hollywood. In 2009 Columbia Pictures cashed in on apocalypse anxiety by releasing director Roland Emmerich’s 2012. Critically panned box-office gold, the film barely mentions the Mayan calendar while serving up an eye-popping array of computer-generated catastrophes. The movie’s ending is as implausibly sugarcoated as any other disaster flick’s: Six billion people perish, but the hero (played by John Cusack) and his adorable family make it through just fine. Trust us, 2012 is no Götterdämmerung.

to  Heaven’s Gate  (American doomsday cult | early 1970s–1997)

Doomsday cultists may be nuts, but they don’t usually resort to violence to push their eschatological agendas. A famous few, however, have proved fatal. In 1969 members of the Manson Family, on instruction from their schizo guru, Charles Manson, committed the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles; their aim was to set off an apocalyptic U.S. race war. In 1995 adherents of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo cult, likewise aiming to hasten an apocalypse, released poisonous sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring hundreds; police later discovered that the group, led by self-proclaimed messiah Shoko Asahara, had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons capable of killing tens of thousands.

Cult mass suicide is the gruesome flip side of cult mass murder. On March 26, 1997, police found the corpses of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate group—including that of its leader, Marshall Applewhite—neatly laid out in a house near San Diego. By killing themselves, Heaven’s Gate cultists believed they would achieve the “Next Level” and avoid the imminent “recycling” (i.e., destruction) of Earth by being transported to an alien spaceship hidden within the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, then a brilliant presence in the nighttime sky.

to  The Left Behind Series  (Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins | novels | 1995–2007)

Armageddon is no fun if everybody gets snuffed out, so apocalyptic theologies rely on the notion of “chosenness” for their psychological appeal. The world will end, and many will die, but a certain select group—the believers, natch—will escape the cataclysm or somehow survive it.

Chosenness is central to a Christian eschatological (end-time) doctrine based on dispensations, periods when divine revelation predominates in human affairs. Dispensationalists aren’t unified in their interpretation of every point of scripture, but many believe the Bible (in Revelation and other scattered passages) lays out an end-time scenario that starts with the rapture, in which the saved fly away heavenward. The next stage is the tribulation, during which the Antichrist rules the earth and those left behind suffer abysmally. The tribulation closes with the Second Coming of Christ, the defeat of the Antichrist and a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth.

That is basically the cosmic framework for the 16 novels in the super-best-selling Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, as well as the movies based on them. They focus on a chosen corps of born-again Christians who remain on earth after the rapture in order to battle the Antichrist and his satanic minions.

The Left Behind Series  (Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins | novels | 1995–2007)
to  The Rapture  (Michael Tolkin (dir.) | film | 1991)

Dispensationalist theology hasn’t inspired much in the way of respectable art. Despite their best-seller status, the Left Behind novels are considered clunkers by most critics, and the motion pictures based on them—Left Behind (2001), Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002) and Left Behind: World at War (2005)—are worse, hobbled by cheesy special effects, stilted dialogue and wooden performances (former teen TV star Kirk Cameron, of Growing Pains fame, plays the lead role of journalist Buck Williams). So bad are these movies that Left Behind coauthor Tim LaHaye, outraged by their poor quality, sued the production company, Cloud Ten, to regain the rights. The dispute was settled, and Cloud Ten intends to remake the first picture.

In sharp contrast to such dreck stands director Michael Tolkin’s fascinating 1991 picture The Rapture, starring Mimi Rogers as Sharon, a telephone operator whose going-nowhere-fast life changes—for the better and then for much worse—when she joins a sect awaiting the end of days. Far from condescending, Tolkin treats his characters, especially Sharon, with sympathy and compassion. And the movie concludes with a surprise twist guaranteed to shock, and perhaps infuriate, believing and nonbelieving viewers alike.

The Rapture  (Michael Tolkin (dir.) | film | 1991)
to  2012

Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. Camping based his prediction on a numerological analysis of the Bible, but you’d think that before making that widely ridiculed prophecy, he’d have done a bit of historical homework. If he had, he might have been humbled to discover that end-time prophets have a lousy track record. John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2), believing the end of the world was imminent. (It wasn’t.) Medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore pegged the apocalypse for the year 1260, when a new age of universal love would begin. (Didn’t happen.) American preacher William Miller contended the Second Coming of Christ would occur on March 21, 1843, and then, when Christ stood him up, postponed the date to October 22, 1844. (Another no-show.) The list of failed prophets goes on—including all those who thought “Y2K” (January 1, 2000) spelled doomsday.

Of course, just because nobody has gotten it right so far doesn’t mean no one ever will. You just never know.