Just days after the tsunami had killed so many in Asia, America's chief lobbyist for the apocalypse explained how it all fit neatly into God's plan.
'For the past five decades, every decade has increased the number of earthquakes, killer earthquakes we're talking about,' said Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind novel series, speaking in January on MSNBC, as reported on the network's Web site. 'And the good thing about all of this is, it points out that man really has to get right before God, because the time is short.'
A celebrity member of the Christian right, LaHaye is one of many Americans who believe that the biblical battle of Armageddon is near. They're waiting for the so-called Rapture, the moment when the chosen few will be lifted from the troubled planet into heaven. Critics call it a dangerous idea that allows people to ignore and even cheer problems like environmental ruin and war. There's no reason to improve things if you buy LaHaye's case that 'Bible prophecy is history written in advance.'
A recent Gallup Poll suggests that a third of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true, but how that translates into behavior is anyone's guess. Other polls show 'strong backing' for environmental protection across the religious spectrum. The generous public response to the disaster in Asia further clouds the picture. Seeing others suffer can still shock most people out of the end time back into reality.
The odd thing is, the prophecies that drive LaHaye's popular fictions are themselves not literal readings of the Bible. They're 19th-century inventions, a cut-and-paste job from the books of Daniel and Revelation, notes Barbara R. Rossing, an ordained Lutheran minister and author of The Rapture Exposed (Westview, 2004). 'The Bible does not provide a predictive screenplay for worldwide violence,' she writes. Instead, Revelation is God's reminder 'to challenge oppression and to look for signs of hope, even when evil seems overpowering.'
But what happens when the bleaker reading finds a friend in the White House? That's what worries liberal journalist Bill Moyers. 'One of the biggest challenges in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal,' he says. 'It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress.'
Doomsday thinking is not limited to conservative Christians. A Tibetan Buddhist classic called the Kalachakra, or 'cycles of time,' foresees a global conflict against barbarian hordes in the year 2424 that leads to a new golden age. Scholars trace most Eastern and Western apocalyptic stories back to Zoroaster, the ancient Iranian whose 3,000-year countdown to world ruin began with his birth around 628 B.C.E. Meanwhile, the Mayans figured an era lasting 5,125 years would expire on the winter solstice in 2012. Like others, they shrewdly made their predictions our problem, not theirs.
The Mayan experience -- they're history -- explains the recent interest in the science of social decay. Since Joseph Tainter wrote The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, 1988), thinkers like Jared Diamond and Jane Jacobs have begun to study the patterns by which cultures rise and fall. Some have issued our society its two-minute warning, though most secular predictions give us a chance to beat the odds if we put our heads to it.
If doomsday thinking seems more prevalent now, it could partly be a conceit created by the search engine. Every dark thought ever uttered is there to ogle in the cybernetic tabernacle of Google. We are unique in being the first era with the pyrotechnics to really bring the lurid scripts alive. We're also the first to gain the upper hand in our holy war against the rest of nature. With 27,000 species said to be disappearing yearly, one apocalypse already rages beneath our feet. Mixed in the fear of doom that haunts so many today is the nagging thought that maybe we deserve it.