Waiting on the Apocalypse

Are there any other ex-fundamentalists out there? Say amen!

In 1972 I was a miserable teenager spending hours every week slouched down on the hard wooden pews of Apponaug Pentecostal Church. Self-absorbed as I was, the news was only background static, but I still remember this. The congregation’s response to the terrorist murder of eleven Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics was — “Praise the Lord.â€?

The rest of America might have been mourning the deaths of innocent men, and the violation of the tenuous peace they were supporting. People who followed events in the Middle East might have been afraid. People who hoped that Israelis and Palestinians would someday find a way to live together might despair at this vicious act, knowing that many others would die as a consequence. But in the world of the saved, this was a sign from God. The End Times were upon us.

That worldview regards nuclear war as God’s plan for humanity. The last book of the Bible, the psychedelic Book of Revelations, predicts a fiery end before the Final Judgement. The popularity of the ‘Left Behind’ series of books, films and video games is testimony to the appeal of this belief. The books regularly make the New York Times best-seller list.

It’s a paradox of human nature that the kindly church lady, who does nothing but good to those close to her, can enjoy fantasies of mass destruction and the annihilation of the wicked. Not her nephew, of course, who still might be saved; but the faceless abstract millions who must perish as part of God’s plan.

And knowing that you, unlike the foolish, worldly ones prospering around you, can see the future clearly gives some balance to life. Knowing we are in the End Times gives these days an awful grandeur. You won’t have to work at that donut place until you drop dead behind the counter. You are going to be Raptured. They’ll be sorry.

In 1972 we were still entangled in the Vietnam War, still facing the Soviet Union with a strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), suffering an economic recession, beginning to see signs of environmental damage. I was moving away from fundamentalist Christianity, but the sense of living in the End Times, conflated with real world events, stayed with me for a long time. It was not until I was well into my thirties that I was willing to plan for the future, commit to education. I had unknowingly absorbed a sense of temporariness, “this old world can never hold me, for very long, I’ll be gone� went the hymn.

Today, as a Pagan, as a Unitarian, I am committed to a reality-based worldview. I am committed to a code of ethics that says every human being has innate worth and dignity. I am committed to leaving something better for future generations. But my time in a Pentecostal church was a valuable education in the power of the irrational. Much more important than the flashy manifestations, like speaking in tongues and falling down on the floor is the belief system. And that belief system permeates our society, especially politics more and more as the Christian right continues to gain power. Just as the smell of incense can instantly bring me back to my early childhood in the Catholic Church, I can smell the whiff of apocalyptic faith. And I recognize the code words. They are to be found in political speeches as well as sermons in church.

The people who praised the Lord on hearing of the Munich Massacre were not any different from you and I. They just put their hope in another place. And if millions have to die in a final war it is only God’s will. You have the choice to submit; you can yet be saved.

5 thoughts on “Waiting on the Apocalypse

  1. The Book of Revelations is some strong stuff-my son,who never attends any church,altough he is nominally Protestant finds that particular book of the Bible compelling for some reason.The imagery is certainly vivid and filled with symbols open to various interpretations.
    If you are a Pagan,that could cover a lot of ground.I have read a lot about early Pagan beliefs,especially the Eddic and Finno-Ugric ancient religions.
    Some of the Pagan imagery,particularly,the Eddic has scenes evry bit as spellbinding as the Book of Revelations,although naturally quite different.
    Can you be a Pagan and Unitarian simultanoeusly?I guess so,or you wouldn’t be.
    Interesting post in any event.

  2. thanks. the Unitarian church does not have a creed, but a set of principles. Many different people find a home there as long as they agree to the principles. among them– respect for the worth and dignity of every person, a free and responsible search for meaning, respect for the earth. pagans can fit in very well.

  3. A few things. I’ve been reading a lot about 19th century America over the past few years. The reason for the interest? Because people like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and numerous other Republicans believe this was a Golden (not “gilded”) Age, and they want to return America to that pristine era, before Teddy R and those damn socialists ruined everything by insisting that we actually try to fulfill the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

    One thing: it is part of the DNA of the American national (un)consciousness that America is the New Jerusalem of Revelation. America is part of God’s plan, and its founding is the intro of the End Times.

    But–one thing to remember about the End Times is that only a “remnant” will be saved. Everyone else is simply damned, but that’s OK because it’s God’s will.

    Tied up in this is Calvinism. The fundamental tenet of Calvinism is the concept of “double predestination.” That is, the ultimate fate of each and every one of us has been predetermined by God from before the creation of the world. If we’re saved, we’re saved, and nothing can change that. If you were created to be damned, well, too bad.

    Calvin made appropriate noises that we mere humans cannot know our fate, but of course, those who were saved could tell because God would bestow outward signs of his favor: they would be blessed with material prosperity. The poor, the sick, the afflicted, well, they were damned so why bother?

    This is important because the Puritans were Calvinists. And since New England was the intellectual center of America at least until the last half of the 19th century, this Calvinist attitude came to permeate the thinking of the American elite. Yes, the elite. Hence, it was our Manifest Destiny to claim the entire continent, practicing what we would now call genocide and ethnic cleansing on the Native Americans who were here first.

    I bring this up because these two strands of Christian thinking are still very much with us. Since America is the New Jerusalem, anything this country does is necessarily holy, and a fulfillment of God’s will. When the Communists or Saddam tortured people, or engaged in genocide or ethnic cleansing, it was a sign of their wickedness. When Americans do any of these things, it’s God’s Will.

    Since it’s God’s Will, ANY criticism of America isn’t just wrong. It’s heresy and a sin.

    GWB is saved (ask him: he’ll tell you). Disagree with him about Eye-Rack, and you’ve shown yourself to be one of the Damned. Question him about torture? Same thing. Believe in same sex marriage? You’re damned.

    Moreover, since the poor are obviously Damned, no need to help them. They deserve their fate. (Even though it was God’s choice to create these folks only to be damned, they still deserve it. Yes, it’s an inconsistency, but why bother with logic when you have the Divine Word?) And since the rich have the outward signs of God’s favor, being wealthy is also a sign of MORAL worthy.

    So keep some of this in mind when you hear Repubicans talking about how the rich aren’t rich enough. Or when they talk about cutting social programs. How, you ask, can people be so callous to the suffering of others? It’s easy: it’s all God’s will. They’re on the inside, we’re on the outside, so we deserve the hellfire that is our obvious fate.

  4. Klaus, there’s a lot to what you say, and Calvinism is a thread of Pentecostalism. Paradoxically, there is a thread of total acceptance, forgiveness of sin, and welcoming the prodigal. That is why they recruit people with severe problems such as addiction or mental illness-God can save anyone.
    However, the Calvinist side kicks in when they regard those who refuse to be ‘saved’. Anyone who rejects Christ’s sacrifice on the cross deserves to burn in hell forever. And their Old Testament reading validates the idea that God condemns nations, groups and categories of people to eternal torment. It comes down to a clear case of the saved are forgiven, all others are bad by definition and can never be good enough to wash off the stain of sin.
    It fits in neatly with racial or national prejudice.

  5. Actually the Calvinists in what is now the Netherlands were more tolerant of Jews than other Christian sects of the time(i.e. the Catholic church)-they never tried to expel the jews,the attitude being that by proximity the Jews might beattracted to Christianity-but there was never an attempt at forced conversion.

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