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Apocalyptic Millennialism

Apocalyptic Groups and Millennialism in Popular Culture Circa the Year 2000

--Chip Berlet, 3/31/97. Prepared for the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University

What do the Heaven's Gate suicides, the Weaver family shootout, the Branch Davidian conflagration, the Montana Freeman standoff, terrorism against reproductive health clinics, armed militias, theocratic sectors of the Christian Right, and attacks on gay rights have in common?

The apocalyptic worldview in the US is greatly influenced by religious and secular interpretations of the prophecies in the Biblical book of Revelation about the coming of a new millennium. Fundamentalist Christians expect that the end of time is preceded by a cataclysmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. When evil is vanquished, true believers enter a Millennium of peace and harmony under God's rule. This period marks the return of Christ.
The prophecies in Revelation have been adapted by many other spiritual and secular philosophers and movements. Popular culture, including films such as Rambo, Mad Max, the Terminator series, and Red Dawn, reinterpret the vision while obscuring its origins. The film Apocalypse Now and the TV series Millennium name the myth while secularizing and mainstreaming it as a paradigm. Law enforcement abuse of power against the Branch Davidian's in Waco, Texas and other dissidents creates cascading echoes of apocalypse throughout the society.

The Heaven's Gate group merged prophetic themes with the dynamic of manipulative demagoguery in the setting of a totalitarian group with a charismatic leader.

Three roots of key prophetic visions in the Heaven's Gate group came from:

  • The Christian Bible, especially the book of Revelation.
  • The prophecies of Nostradamus.
  • Science fiction.
  • The Christian Bible & the Book of Revelation

    The roots of a remarkable number of myths, metaphors, images, symbols, phrases, and icons used by many mass movements are contained in the few pages of prophecy in Revelation. The themes in Revelation influence diverse current right wing movements such as the new Christian electoral right, Protestant and Catholic theocratic groups, survivalism, the patriot and armed militia movement, Christian patriot constitutionalists, and the Christian Identity religion. While not all practitioners of Christian Identity embrace racism and naked antisemitism, many believe there are two races on the planet, with White Christians having a more advanced status eligible for the rapture. This is the view of Aryan Nations, for instance. An offshoot of Christian Identity is Dualism, preached by the late Aryan Nations supporter, Bob Miles, who believed that White Christians were seeded by an advanced alien race from outer space. The vast majority of practicing Christians reject these interpretations, and the First Amendment guarantees the right of fundamentalists Christians, and all spiritual and ethical movements, to hold their beliefs without interference. How to defend the right to hold beliefs while protecting society from actions that are harmful will be a challenge as we approach the new millennium.

    The Prophecies of Nostradamus

    Nostradamus was a sixteenth century prophet who utilized astrological charts and visions to write a pre-history of the world making predictions about world events centuries in advance. The language is obscure and ambiguous, with many published commentaries claiming to unravel their meaning. One major prediction was the arrival of a great comet. Examples of commentaries currently available include Henry C. Roberts (updated by Robert Lawrence), The Complete Prophesies of Nostradamus, 1994 (1947); Stefan Paulus, Nostradamus 1999: Who Will Survive [A Comet is Hurtling Toward Earth...], 1997; and Jean-Charles de Fontbrune, Nostradamus: Countdown to Apocalypse, 1985 (1983). A contemporary version of the comet prophecy is Tom Kay, When the Comet Runs: Prophecies for the New Millennium, published in February 1997.

    Science Fiction

    A common science fiction theme is the idea that more advanced life forms and beings with higher consciousness arriving from outer space will visit Earth and select humans for travel or transformation. Some of the ideas propounded by the Heaven's Gate group seem borrowed from this genre. A typical example would be the book Childhood's End by respected science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Many people in the UFO movement embrace these fictional ideas as fact.

    There are six key ways the predictions of Revelation influence popular culture:

    Omens and Signs of the Times

    Revelation predicts the beginning of the end times will start a series of signs warning that judgment is at hand. Believers watch for the signs of the times and seek significance and meaning in natural events such as comets, meteorite showers, alignment of stars and planets, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, crop failures, etc. The Branch Davidians believed the end times were approaching and were studying the meaning of the seven wax seals on a scroll mentioned in Revelation.

    Apocalyptic Doomsday Cataclysm

    Revelation predicts the end times will include great apocalyptic tribulations and the wrath of God, causing much destruction including famine, natural disasters, and plague. Believers prepare for the chaos of these times in different ways. Some expect all is pre-ordained and they can do nothing but live out their fate, others prepare for the hard times ahead, collecting food and water, fortifying their homes, buying guns, and even moving into communities of other believers for mutual protection. This is the basis for the survivalist movement, and what motivated the Weaver family and the Montana Freemen to withdraw to isolated locations.

    Subversion and Countersubversion

    Revelation predicts the betrayal of humankind by a world leader who unites all nations in the end times before being exposed as Satan's agent. There will also be a false prophet who spreads a global religion that supports the world leader. In response, believers look for treason and subversion, paying special attention to those who call for world cooperation and international intervention by groups such as the United Nations. The idea of a global communist menace was frequently seen as proof that the Antichrist was based in the Soviet Union...the evil empire. This is the basis for the Star Wars trilogy. It is also partly the basis for the Montana Freeman rejecting government authority, and is influential in many, though not all, armed militia groups.

    Armageddon and Holy War

    Revelation predicts a great final battle between good and evil with troops clashing on the plains of Armageddon in the Middle East. Some believers are preparing for this battle. Some have already fired the first shots.

    Reign and Rule

    Revelation predicts the faithful will experience a millennium of living in God's kingdom, the new Jerusalem. Some say Christ will return at the beginning to reign and rule, but others argue that the godly must reign and rule for one thousand years before Christ returns. Believers argue it is their duty to attack the forces of evil and clean up secular society to prepare for the return of the Lord. Much of the violence against reproductive rights clinics and attacks on gay rights is based on this interpretation. These ideas are called dominion theology, with its most theocratic and authoritarian version called Christian Reconstructionism.

    Transcendent Ascension and Rapture

    Revelation predicts that some of the faithful will be "raptured" by God in a transformational ascension into the heavens where they will miss some or all of the tribulations on earth. Some millennialist movements in the past have set the date for the rapture, and some have even sold their possessions and waited on mountaintops for the rapture to free them from their earthy bodies.

    The Choice is Ours

    The millennium provides an opportunity for society to engage in a process of renewal and reconciliation, as well as an opportunity for demagogues, bigots, paranoids, and charlatans to spread messages of division and destruction. If a totalitarian group turns outward its members can engage in scapegoating with the most extreme outcome being homicide. If a totalitarian group turns inward its members can engage in scapegoating with the most extreme outcome being suicide. In a society where inequality and injustice is creating deep divisions and tensions, we need constructive ways to channel anger and alienation toward demands for social change rather than apocalyptic withdrawal or aggression. In societies suffering from economic and social stress, backlash movements take several form: racial or ethnic nationalism; religious fundamentalism or spiritual alternative; and right-wing populism and conspiracist scapegoating. These forms can blend and interact.

    The more we all discuss the issues of millennial expectation, apocalyptic thinking, and scapegoating, the more likely the outcome will be positive rather than negative.


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    by Jane Lampman, staff writer of  The Christian Science Monitor



    Tim LaHaye's earlier "non-fiction" books:

    Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Mind, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1980). Dedicated to Francis Schaeffer.

    Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Public Schools: Humanism’s Threat to our Children, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1983).

    Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Family, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1982).

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