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Secular Versions of the Coming Apocalypse

I have been describing my ideas about the book I’m proposing to write, tentatively called Expecting the Apocalypse.  In the past couple of posts I’ve talked about the heightened expectation that the world would be ending soon with the return of Jesus, an originally fundamentalist Christian view that started off in the 19th century and that has moved into much broader circles in American culture.   Part of my book will be looking not only at this religious view, but also at how it has, in our lifetimes, moved into a variety of secular discourses, and is, in fact, in its secular guise, all around us, affecting seriously what is happening in both society and politics, and therefore of real importance for our daily lives.

If I write this book, it will be the first time I’ve ventured outside of biblical and early Christian scholarship involving “religion” into areas of cultural importance to most people living in the modern world – which is another way of saying that this kind of material is not something that I have to *show* is interesting (as in almost all my other books) but something that people are already, inherently, deeply interested in, absorbed by, and invested in.  Now *that* should be not only a change and a challenge for me, but also incredibly absorbing and intriguing (for me)

Here is the first of two posts of how I explain it to myself.


Secular Discourses of the Coming Apocalypse

One of the striking phenomena within broader American culture is that these expectations are no longer restricted to Christian fundamentalist circles.  As many cultural historians have observed, the notion of an imminent apocalyptic end of humanity has seeped into numerous secular discourses.

The turning point, as one might have imagined, was 1945 and the advent of the nuclear age. For the first time it became abundantly and terrifyingly clear that world-wide destruction was not simply a divine prerogative but a very real human possibility.  It could happen if the wrong fingers pressed just a few buttons.  Given the cultural and (ultimately) religious heritage of the makers of modern culture, this possibility came to be expressed, naturally, in Christian apocalyptic terms, even as the content was purely secular.

In some ways this secularization was anticipated by earlier anti-modernist fears in the wake of scientific and technological developments, as seen, for example, in the literary world in the first half of the nineteenth century with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and at the end of the century, far more auspiciously, in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.  Well’s novel was arguably the first secular “apocalypse,” modeled on the book of Revelation itself, where the “supernatural” beings of superior intelligence and power who invade the planet in the form of barely humanoid beasts, threatening worldwide destruction and the end of humanity, were not divine angels and demonic forces (as in Revelation), but Martians.   And the deus ex machina that ultimately averted the ultimate destruction of the planet was not a deus at all, but a natural process of life on earth (bacterial infection).

The secular apocalypse developed some over the decades to follow, but it was with the nuclear age that fears of an imminent end of all things in a final battle of Armageddon took shape.  It would be impossible to treat all the cultural manifestations in a single book, but they most clearly involve literary fiction (in such disparate guises as  Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, or even King’s The Stand) to film, from nuclear disaster movies (e.g., On the Beach; Dr. Strangelove), to nuclear fall-out monster movies (Godzilla and Them!), to science-fiction invasion movies (The Day the Earth Stood Still; The Day the World Ended), to post-apocalyptic movies (Mad Max; Twelve Monkeys).  And this is not to mention television (from The Day After to, say, Battlestar Galactica).

These apocalypse artefacts are a relatively recent phenomenon, driven, of course, by very modern concerns.  But they are expressed, in many ways, through very ancient modalities, known for the bulk of American history almost exclusively through Christian apocalyptic thought, especially as embodied in the New Testament book of Revelation, the most influential piece of literature to explain and narrate what will happen in “the end,” which is “coming soon.”  In part, my book will explain the not-always-obvious connections between such literature and film and the biblical Apocalypse, especially based on the widespread assumptions about it that have been disseminated into our culture through fundamentalist readings of it.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, apocalyptic discourse, both religious and secular, has moved into other directions, also “supported” by an understanding of what will produce the coming Armageddon.  Nuclear weapons are still an ongoing nightmare, of course; but coming now to the apocalyptic forefront are other cultural and political phenomena:  we will wipe ourselves out not with bombs but by climate change; or it will not be a Soviet invasion that destroys the West, but Islamic terrorists.   The processes, mechanisms, and culprits change, but the end result remains very much the same: the end is coming soon.

For the past four decades, in particular, the Christian expectation of Armageddon has moved beyond now-familiar cultural artefacts into the realm of social movements and American political discourse and policy.   In terms of social movements, it is impossible to understand the Branch Davidians and the disaster in Waco apart from David Koresh’s own rather bizarre interpretations of the book of Revelation, as he saw its “predictions” coming true in his own time, community, and personal ministry.  The FBI failed (or rather, refused) to recognize the hermeneutical root of Koresh’s thought, misgauged his motivations, and acted accordingly, with spectacularly bad results.

On the other hand, a “secular” version of apocalyptic thought lay behind Heaven’s Gate:  it would be UFO’s, not God, who intervened on this planet.  This view was explicitly based more on Star Trek than the Bible, but it was an interpretation of Star Trek inspired by an American tradition of reading Revelation.  A very different secular social manifestation of the coming apocalypse is shared widely within the Militia Movement in its response to the threatening “New World Order,” as understood by Christian apocalyptic preachers (e.g., Pat Robertson).

To see if the End *really* near, you need to keep reading these posts, and that will require you to start at the Beginning, by joining the blog.  Doing so gives you access both to all the archives — 5-6 posts a week for the past seven years! — and to those yet to come, assuming there is still a planet left for us to blog on….

Armageddon and American Politics
Fundamentalist Visions of the End of the World



  1. Lev
    Lev  March 22, 2019

    “Nuclear weapons are still an ongoing nightmare, of course; but coming now to the apocalyptic forefront are other cultural and political phenomena: we will wipe ourselves out not with bombs but by climate change; or it will not be a Soviet invasion that destroys the West, but Islamic terrorists.”

    I resonate with this. I remember very clearly being taught about the threat of thermonuclear war at a young age. I think I was 12 (in 1989) when my dad explained to my brother and I that if the button was pushed and our TV switched to “We interrupt this broadcast….” then we should hope/pray that we would be near enough to one of the blasts that we would be killed in the initial bombardment. He explained that being killed in an instant would be far more humane than slowly dying from horrific burns and radiation poisoning in the nuclear fallout. It was a lot to take in at that age, but it made a lot of sense and I resolved to move closer, rather than further away, to a likely target should the warning come.

    In the decade or so between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the Twin Towers going down in 2001, I honestly felt so much more alive and hopeful! For the first time in my life, I wasn’t expecting everything to end at any moment. The background threat of the world suddenly ending just wasn’t there anymore, and I felt reasonably confident that I would live a normal lifespan. It really did change my world view and expectations over life.

    Since 2001, whilst the chances of being caught up in a terrorist attack is still very slim, I have witnessed disturbing trends that have made me feel less secure. Seeing what happened to Iraq and Syria when ISIS established their Caliphate so rapidly established a new threat in my mind. It reminded me of how fragile our peace is, and how quickly things can turn very ugly indeed.

    This danger, along with the increasingly violent weather systems brought about by rapid climate change, has given me a sense that we humans seem to be naturally biased towards destroying ourselves. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s deeply depressing, but I try to remain hopeful that we can overcome.

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    godspell  March 22, 2019

    It’s interesting to me that some apocalyptic stories are not about the end of humankind, but more of a sorting–as if the writer has divined the correct reading of Jesus’ message about the end–that it’s really a beginning. The sheep and the goats will be divided, the best and the worst arrayed against each other, with some overseeing force making sure that the former are triumphant.

    Stephen King is a confirmed bible reader, and The Stand is his version of how The Kingdom comes into being, with all the good people going to Boulder (upon this rock….) and the bad seeds heading for Vegas (because duh). Some could go either way, and must choose.

    Octavia Butler’s Lilith Trilogy is about an earth devastated by nuclear war, on the verge of death–and an alien species that wanders the stars looking for new genes to harvest, comes upon it, and saves a portion of humanity, and partly regenerates the earth–but only for a time. Their goal is to save what merits saving in their view, and the rest…? Well, read it sometime. She’s a truly amazing writer. Who also clearly knew her bible backwards and forwards.

    It’s most unlikely that everything dies all at once. There would be a time after The End, when what was left of humanity would have to make some important choices, and then you would be able to know the sheep from the goats far more easily.

    Jesus understood us very well. We fully reveal ourselves in crisis only.

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    dennislk1  March 22, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I am beginning to think one of the reasons you chose this topic is to justify to your wife why you are watching so many movies instead of doing the yard work. (:

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2019

      Yeah, it may be a lot of movies ahead, and part of the problem is that some of the genres I simply don’t like (godzillas; zombies…)

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        Pattycake1974  March 26, 2019

        Game of Thrones is in its last season this year and one of the most popular shows going right now. The whole storyline has been geared toward the coming Apocalypse. The famous phrase announced in the the first episode, “winter is coming” is a warning for the death and destruction that will take place once it arrives. Of course there’s (white walker) zombies because why wouldn’t there be? It begins airing next month, and I can’t wait because it’s been two long years since the last season.

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    chesterd  March 22, 2019

    I think this is a very worthy book topic. The decisions made by some who have certain beliefs about an end time have an impact on others who do not believe the same. It isn’t just the Christian religion either but other faiths. I think this book could explain the impact of a certain Christian view to others who have never considered its impact.

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    fishician  March 22, 2019

    The ironic thing is that so many people act like we are heading toward an apocalypse, whether religious or secular, yet there is much data that the world is actually getting better, not worse! Granted, there are serious issues like climate change and significant tensions in the world, but these are solvable though difficult problems, and having a fatalistic attitude does not help (like, why bother with climate change if Jesus is coming soon?).

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    RonaldTaska  March 22, 2019

    Since the plague (spread by rats) has almost wiped us out twice and the flu almost did it toward the end of World War I, I place my bet on an infection.

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    doug  March 22, 2019

    It’s interesting how real world dangers have dovetailed, somewhat, with religious beliefs of the coming end of this world. One big difference is that any sane person hopes we won’t destroy our world, while some religious people look forward to the end.

  8. John4
    John4  March 23, 2019

    An entertaining bridge, Bart, from the fundamentalist to the secular apocalypse:


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    bknight  March 23, 2019

    The Washington Post ran an article on March 22, 2019 about your alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, entitled, “Princeton seminary students are asking for reparations for school’s role in slavery”. Do you have any thoughts about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2019

      Interesting. I would say the case *against* reparations would be much stronger if the *effects* of slavery were not so palpably and horribly with us, unbelievably, still today. But, well, I try not to get political on the blog!

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    Iskander Robertson  March 23, 2019

    Hello Bart,

    in the gospel of john, it is said that “the word became flesh”
    what is your understanding of “became” ?
    christian apologists believe in an unchanging all powerful God, so they will argue that god “added on ” ANOTHER nature to himself .
    my question is, did the author of john believe that his god literally /physically changed into something else?
    did the invisible become flesh ?
    did john believe that his god was a spirit but this spirit had physical material in it so it was easy for him to become flesh coz he was already material ?

    “added on” seems to imply addition . like, i added icing to the cake, but then how is an addition an incarnation or a becoming ?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2019

      Yes, I think it means he became something other than he was before.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  March 24, 2019

        If you have not already done so, I think it would be interesting to learn your thoughts about the many levels of meaning that the author of John gives to the epithet “The Word”. I’m thinking it is much more philosophical/theological than “Son of Man”.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 25, 2019

          Yes, it surely is. Entire books have been written on it! Is it a Stoic idea? Platonic/ Is the formulation Gnostic? Is it anti-Gnostic? And on and on. My view: it may be informed by Hellenistic philosophical thought (probably is), but the primary referent is Genesis 1.

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    AstaKask  March 23, 2019

    Do you know enough to say to what extent e.g., the Old Germanic ending of the world (Ragnarök) was influenced by the Christian stories? Do you plan to write anything about that in the book?

    I think Bertrand Russell made a Christian-Marxist dictionary where he ‘translated’ the Revolution as the End of Days, Socialism as the Millennium and Communism as the New Paradise. There’s something in that view.

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    Stephen  March 23, 2019

    I recently completed Ben Zeller’s excellent 2014 monograph on the HEAVEN’S GATE cult and while it’s true there was a veneer of New Age spirituality attached to the movement it did have a genuinely Christian apocalyptic foundation. Marshall Applewhite’s father was a Presbyterian minister and he was a student of millennialist Bible prophecy. Early on Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles identified themselves to their followers as the “Two Witnesses” of Revelation 11. They fully expected to be martyred and resurrected and were genuinely disappointed after the incident at Waco that it wasn’t them!

    Looking forward to the books!

  13. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 23, 2019

    I had the opportunity of visiting the Branch Davidians’ compound a few years ago. The outline of the burned out main building was still visible. Even eerier were the 88 victims’ graves across the dirt road and the testimony of survivors that David Koresh will soon rise from one of these graves along with the other saints. This, we were told, would be the First Resurrection, to be followed soon by the Tribulation. Faith, I concluded, is an awesome thing.

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    Adam0685  March 23, 2019

    Apocalyptic interest is very popular these days. Just look at all the apocalyptic themed movie blockbusters and bestselling books (Left Behind, etc.). Many will be interested in this book. Title will be key for catching people’s interest. I hope you’re able to move forward with it!

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    gwayersdds  March 23, 2019

    Question. Do the other major world religions, esp Judaism and Islam have apocalyptic/end of the world concepts?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2019

      Yes, apocalyptic thought entered Christianity from Judaism; other non-monotheistic variations can be found in ancient Zoroastrianism, etc.

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    ggiombetti  March 24, 2019

    Science fiction – whether in book,film or television format – generally remains a hopeful genre – there is a future.

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      godspell  March 24, 2019

      There’s a very strong dystopian streak in the genre, and has been for a long time now. Honestly, theistic mythology is much more optimistic, since the assumption is always that there will be something after The End. Science can assume no such thing in a hostile universe governed by evolution and entropy.

      Science Fiction that says “Wow, the future will be fantastic!” is usually pretty bad, in my experience. The best stories may hold out some hope that we can learn, and overcome the challenges of the future, but overall–pretty dark.

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    pstrst@pacbell.net  March 24, 2019

    Well, if you’re going to bring up BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, I hope you’re going to include in your discussion the feared AI apocalypse…cylons and all that!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2019

      Yeah, teh problem is that unlike history, the options are endless! Not sure yet how to deal with that….

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    Kirktrumb59  March 25, 2019

    Excellent post. Thanks for mentioning “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” one of my favs (the original Michael Rennie/Robert Wise version, not the idiotic remake). A cold war movie if ever there was one (although based on a pre-WWII sci-fi story), features the deus of deus ex machinas partially controlled by a “fail safe” code (Klaatu barada nikto).
    While the Jesus allusions are undeniable (Klaatu, from up there, becomes John CARPENTER [JC, get it?]; universalist; apocalyptic; misunderstood, betrayed; then killed by the corrupt bent-on-its-own destruction government; ultimately recognized only by a few chosen; resurrected; blah blah), for me this ultimately was a message straight from Thomas Hobbes (died age 91 in 1679). Hobbes was not a fan of humankind and believed that an irrevocable albeit masses-derived (as in, male citizens) sovereign power (see: Plato), including an omnipotent police force (an army of Gorts) from whom no appeal is possible, was necessary for control of the jerks (everybody else) who otherwise would destroy themselves. Hmmm. Well, like the biblical Jesus after all.

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    HawksJ  March 25, 2019

    I believe you were off to college by then, but what do you remember – if anything – of the filming of “The Day After” in your home town?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2019

      I was well out of college. But I definitely watched it with interest — ending in Allen Fieldhouse where I used to watch the Jayhawks!

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    vienna1791  March 26, 2019

    Could it be that the secular expectation of the “end of the world” and the Christian fundamentalist view of the “end of the world” have a relationship of correlation and not causality? The correlation could be the human propensity to imagine extreme dreadful situations as likely (which could be an evolutionary by product) and in some cases the attempt to cope with their possibility or inevitability. Many cultures throughout time have had “end of the world” myths. Global catastrophes have occurred many times over throughout our planets history. It’s likely that humans have always imagined the end of their “world” as a likely event.

    As far as entertainment goes, capitalizing on peoples fears is a sure way to sell tickets or books.

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