Alternet's Adam Lee explores the history of the Christian obsession with the End Times, from St. Paul to Cotton Mather to the Jehova's Witnesses to that crazy Harold Camping who predicted that the world would end in 2011, and contends that end timers are responsible for serious political and social harm. I'd argue that the effects are pretty minimal, but the more interesting question is, why does this this idea continue to have so much power?
It's important to realize just how widespread the idea that the apocalypse is coming very soon really is. A poll conducted last year by the Public Religion Research Institute found an incredible 44 percent of Americans (and 67 percent of white evangelical Christians) agreeing with the statement, "The severity of recent natural disasters is evidence that we are in what the Bible calls the end times." The Left Behind apocalypse potboilers have supposedly sold over 65 million copies. So isn't just complete nutballs who are anticipating the end of the world. Even ordinary people who aren't giving away their cars at least suspect that the end is near.
I think the reason this notion is so powerful is that we all want to believe we live in vital, historic times, participating in vital, historic events. The trouble with the arc of history is that it's long, no matter which way it bends. What if I said to you that in your time on Earth, nothing much of lasting significance will occur. There will be some small-scale wars and some social and technological progress, but for the most part your time on this planet will be a string of meaningless personal struggles while outside you the world shambles along in a procession of subpar cultural products and not-particularly-notable world events, dooming the 80 years of your life to be a historical period nobody bothers writing books about. Well, that would suck, wouldn't it?
Just as each of us is, to ourself, the most important human being to ever have lived, it's only natural to hope that we live in the most important time there ever was. When you're already a strong religious believer, you know that you weren't there for the beginning of your religion's story, but maybe you'll be there for the end. And hope turns easily to belief, so when you see something dramatic happen, like a hurricane, you're tempted to say, "This is it!" One might think that after the signs keep turning out not to be the first part of the apocalypse, more people would change their minds about it. But apparently not.