Postcards from the Apocalypse
Welcome to the End of the World! Er, well, um… maybe not quite yet.
For 2000 years Christians have been expecting the end of history. If you’re reading this and you haven’t been whisked away (and you have had no strange new microchips implanted), then odds are it hasn’t happened yet. In Robert Price’s new book, The Paperback Apocalypse, he gives us a look inside the sausage factory of that belief system – its origins, its theology and, even more, the implied psychology. What we see is as fascinating as it is appalling.
Price is something of a folk hero to former Christians. His Beyond Born Again has been a springboard for many who are struggling to extricate themselves form the Christian faith – serving, as it does, to encapsulate and put to words many of their thoughts, and point them toward a brighter, better way. He manages to avoid the shrillness of many currently popular writers that are also critical of religion, because he understands, I think, what fundamentalist beliefs mean to and do for people. And he graciously made the whole book available for free online.
Christian apocalypticism has become immensely important to modern evangelical Protestants, and in particular came to widespread prominence with Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth which was the number one “nonfiction” bestseller for the 1970’s (and the fact that it predicted the End in 1988, and yet still sells, is emblematic of the whole phenomenon). In its highly popular modern incarnation, the Left Behind series of books novelize the unfolding of this myth.
Apocalypticism, briefly, is the belief in the eschaton – in the direct intervention of God into history to usher in a utopian age. Typically the fundamentalist Protestant version involves the “rapture” (the whisking away of “born again” Christians from the Earth), the ascension of Satan to earthly power, the Tribulation (plagues sent by God), Satan’s eventual defeat at Armageddon, the second coming of Christ (the Parousia), and inauguration of a new millennium. And make no mistake: this will not be for sissies. It will be a gruesome and horrible spectacle, with the great mass of humanity enduring torment under the Antichrist, torment under God (punishing us for following the Antichrist) and then most of us will wake up in Hell. It’s easy to get lost in the phantasmagoric imagery of it all, as well as the comedy of grown adults actually taking this seriously. But at heart it’s a really, really angry, bloodthirsty mythology. It needs to be explained, and Price is an able guide.
Had I more space, I would love to review in more detail Price’s entire history of apocalypticism and the genesis of its main elements, for he is lucid and informative. He traces its emergence as a literary genre’ to 2nd century BCE Judaism, where apocalyptic literature typically involved a series of visions (allegedly) given to a prophet depicting fantastical beasts and often violent imagery. It served as a kind of coded passion play, referring to then-unfolding events, for those Jews suffering under the reign of the Greek tyrant, Antiochus IV. Its malleable symbols were then taken up by later Christians, after Jesus’ death, and combined with their own emerging theology to form the nucleus of a specifically Christian apocalypticism. The rest is a two-millennium-long story of failed prediction.
Price develops these ideas, and traces many of the images and concepts in Christian apocalypticism back to their sources. Price is an effective counter-apologist, applying historical-critical insights to the development of the Bible with keenness and skill. But Price seems to feel, and I entirely agree, that what is really important about the apocalyptic phenomenon within Christianity is its persistence and its psychological appeal. It is bloody, it is not really all that logical, and it is thinly supported by Scripture. So why, then, do people believe this? Why has it become so popular? And why do they cling to it so tenaciously? Price has some answers to these questions.
To that end, after Price surveys the origins of apocalypticism, he moves on to the really good stuff – an extensive literary review of 20th century Christian novels about the Apocalypse. Price is at his best when analyzing the psychology of literature and those to whom it appeals – as any good literary critic must be. And had I to find one quote to summarize Price’s overall view here – and oh my, how I wish I had thought of this phrase first – it would be this:
“….the point [of apocalyptic literature] is to evoke the wished-for apocalypse and to provide the vicarious thrill of living through it….It’s a kind of theological pornography: vicarious make-believe designed to take the edge off otherwise desperate frustration.”
Price then goes on to point up some of the more dangerous, pathological psychodynamics involved in modern apocalypticism: not only a fantasied wish-fulfillment, alluded to in the quote above, but also the deeply angry narcissism implied by teachings about the “Tribulation.” There is a horrendous suffering that fundamentalists believe will be justly endured by those living after the Rapture – after they, themselves, the “true” Christians, have been taken away before it all starts. Price argues, very correctly I think, that this just screams out for explanation – why do they teach this? The answer: it serves a defensive psychological function. This is scary and fascinating. Price writes:
“The Left Behind books reek of the ressentiment, the cowardly revenge fantasy, of the anti-intellectual who would love nothing more than to see the tables turned: to have the intellectuals who look down on him for his simple beliefs proved wrong.” (p. 288)
“Oh, how the narrators relish the shock and confusion they describe stamped on the faces of glib unbelievers, too sophisticated to give a thought to the End Time preaching of the ‘fanatics’ and ‘Holy Rollers’ who, having now been raptured, are proven to have been right all along!” (p.205)
[Evangelicals read these books because] it’s chop-licking entertainment to see all those sinners get what’s coming to them.” (p. 205)
In laying bare the toxic psychology involved here, Price powerfully drives home a point most fundamentalists miss – miss, because their conscience has been hijacked by a virulently narcissistic belief system that teaches all the world deserves to burn, just for disagreeing with fundamentalists, and now they eagerly look forward to that act of cosmic justice. He notes, in a review of the movie The Rapture:
“…even if true on its own terms, the apocalyptic wordlview of fundamentalism makes the universe into a madhouse of torture and masochism, where the secret to salvation is to love the deity precisely for tormenting you.” (p. 258, emphasis original)
Finally, Price also has a few fascinating and insightful philosophical asides that provided, for me at least, a perspective on end-times teaching that I, for one, had never noticed. For example, he notes that in the dualism implicit in Christian teaching – i.e., the universe is a battleground between good and evil – it becomes difficult to articulate exactly why, in any larger or more grounded sense, we would choose one side over the other. What makes good, Good? As he says, “The assigning of value labels ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are arbitrary if all you really have in the last analysis are A and not-A.” (p. 263)
If you doubt this, consider the following narrative description of the apocalypse as believed by evangelicals:
In the final days, he came into the world and began to rule. He said he was owed absolute allegiance and obedience. He claimed to be divine. Those who refused to worship him were tormented.
Now here’s the question: who is the “he” in this description? The Antichrist? Or Jesus?
Can’t tell? That’s Price’s point. Jesus, in the End, is as bad or worse a despot as the Antichrist. I can think of no more damning point to make about Christian apocalypticism.
p.s. On the back of my edition of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, it says this of the author (quote from Anthony Burgess):
“Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.”
This would perfectly apply to Robert Price. But with the opposite, and much healthier, result. Your intellect — and your conscience — ought to be getting in the way. I highly recommend this book.
Source: The Paperback Apocalypse, Robert Price, Prometheus Books, 2007