The Long View: Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric

William Miller

William Miller

In case anyone needs help with the terminology of millennial studies, I have a glossary in my lecture notes.

Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric
by Stephen D. O'Leary
Oxford University Press, 1994
314 Pages, US$19.95
ISBN 0-19-512125-2


The study of millennialism did not begin with the build up to the year 2000. Theologians, sociologists and anthropologists had been writing for decades (in the case of the theologians, for centuries) about the end of the world and about the ways that people react to that prospect. After a long period of subcultural obscurity, the subject again came to the notice of the general public in the 1980s, and a flurry of academic and journalistic treatments appeared in the 1990s. Among the most theoretically ambitious was this book by Stephen O'Leary, Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" attempts nothing less than a "general theory" for millennial studies, one that could help relate the many disciplines that have dealt with one aspect or other of the Last Things. The book develops the theory through a detailed examination of two familiar episodes of apocalyptic thinking in American history, the Millerite Movement that culminated in the "Great Disappointment of 1844," and the return of date-setting premillennialism that began, very approximately, with the publication of Hal Lindsay's "Late Great Planet Earth" in 1973.

The theory is useful, though the book does share some of the defects of late 20th-century literary studies. (I hope never to see the words "rhetor" and "topoi" again.) The historical exposition is gripping, and the author's insights are essential to anyone interested in the field.

"Apocalyptic" is really a term for a genre of biblical and apocryphal literature that flourished in the Near East around the beginning of the Christian era. It deals with a class of ideas that are part of the broader category of eschatology, the study of the final or ultimate things. The latter also includes questions addressed by philosophy, cosmology, anthropology and other disciplines. The aspect of eschatology that usually attracts the most interest, however, is the study of what societies do with apocalyptic literature, particularly with the prophetic books of Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament, and the Book of Revelation in the New.

The most conspicuous social manifestations of apocalyptic ideas are often called "millenarian" or "millennial," with reference to the thousand-year reign of the Saints, or "Millennium," mentioned in Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation. (To put an extraordinarily complicated matter quickly, "millenarian" usually refers to violent or even revolutionary expectations for the future, while "millennial," a more general term, can also refer to hopes for gradual improvement as history nears its end.) Though not all eschatological systems, not even all models of history, necessarily have a moral dimension, O'Leary deals with apocalypse as a solution to the problem of theodicy, of how God can permit evil to exist in the world. Essentially, the apocalyptic solution is that God will not permit evil indefinitely, and in the final accounting, all the suffering in history will have been justified.

There is a considerable literature that attempts to explain all or most millennial activity in terms of some single sociological or psychological cause. Class conflict was an early contender, but equally plausible cases have been put for millennial activity as a delayed reaction to disaster, or as a reaction to modernization, or as a manifestation of one kind of mass psychological pathology or another. "Arguing the Apocalypse" starts with the sensible observation that there is no obvious single cause underlying all the millennial activity in the world, but that there is quite a lot of similarity in the way that people talk about it. The beginning of wisdom in the understanding of millennial behavior, in fact, is the appreciation of the fact that apocalyptic rhetoric is persuasive. By examining millennial activity from the perspective of rhetoric, O'Leary is able to look at texts, the "rhetor" who expounds the text and the rhetor's audience as an interactive system.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" amplifies the long-standing thesis that apocalyptic is essentially a form of drama. (This is particularly the case with the Book of Revelation, which looks for all the world like a classical Greek play; it even has a chorus.) Now drama, according to Aristotle, comes in two flavors. There is tragedy, which features good and evil characters who proceed to an inevitable catastrophe. Dramatic plots tend to be about how sin is met with revenge. Comedy, on the other hand, is about foolish or mistaken characters who stumble into a happy ending. Error is cured by enlightenment, eventuating in reconciliation.

The Book of Revelation has both tragic and comedic strands: the Beast and his followers prosper mightily in this profane age but meet with everlasting punishment on the last day, while the sufferings that the Saints endure in this age are all set right at the end. These tragic and comedic strands also appear in the history of millennial movements, often as pure types.

According to O'Leary, the topics (that's "topoi" to you, partner) on which apocalyptic rhetors engage audiences are "evil," "time" and "authority." There is some reason to suppose that, for the earliest Christians, the evil that faced them was the malice of the devil working through the powers of the Roman Empire. The time when the evil would be amended was very near, and the authority for these propositions was the direct prophecy of the apostolic generation and then of texts ascribed to them. This type of apocalyptic is often associated with "premillennialism," the belief that the Second Coming will occur before the Millennium. Premillennialists are often profoundly pessimistic about the future, which scripture says will be filled with disaster and persecution in the days prior to the Second Coming. Postmillennialism, in contrast, is the belief that the time of the Second Coming will not occur until the end of the Millennium, during which period the church will have gradually rid the world of natural evil. The "authority" invoked by postmillennialists tends to be a metaphorical interpretation of scripture at the service of pragmatism. This distinction between pre- and postmillennialism roughly corresponds to the tragic and comedic "frames" that Aristotle proposed. (St. Augustine was a comedian? Wonders never cease.)

The Second Great Awakening, a generation of reform and revival that characterized the first few decades of the nineteenth century in the United States, produced just about every possible form of millennial activity. It's earlier phase, however, was predominantly postmillennial in theology. This Awakening was associated with a variety of reform movements, from the abolition of slavery to the prohibition of alcohol. These movements were attended by acute religious fervor. When some of the reform movements made little or no progress even after years of mass rallies and evangelism, however, some members of the generation of the Awakening began to doubt whether real reform was possible in the current world. The result was a turn toward premillennialism, manifested most spectacularly in the Millerite Movement and the Great Disappointment of 1844.

William Miller was a respectable farmer in Upstate New York who came to believe, probably about 1830, that the Second Coming would occur around 1843. A diligent amateur student of scripture, his authority was arithmetic, as applied to the complex prophetic number system of the Old Testament prophets and the Book of Revelation. The transparency and reasonable tone of his argument seized the imagination of a large fraction of the public.

Respectable and learned ministers from many denominations either embraced Millerite ideas wholeheartedly or expressed sympathy for them. (Miller himself was an influential voice rather than a prophet in the movement. Indeed, the date of the Great Disappointment, October 22, 1844, was not set by Miller, but welled up out of the movement.) Publications with large circulations sprang up to spread the doctrine, and the mass meetings used to promote the reform movements of the earlier phase of the Awakening were put to new uses. As O'Leary notes, all this activity was not intended solely to persuade people. Proselytism was supposed to be one of the features of the latter days. By proselytizing, the Millerites were not just telling people about the apocalypse; they were enacting it.

The Disappointment itself was dealt with in various ways. The kernel of the Millerite movement decided that the event actually foretold by Miller's computations was an event in Heaven that prepared for the earthly Second Coming at some imprecise point in the future. Many went on to found the Adventist movement. Other Millerites threw themselves into the Abolitionist movement. O'Leary reports that the fiasco of 1844 ensured that, for a long time to come, only the most marginal rhetors would dare set a specific, near-term apocalyptic date. However, we should also note that the turn to premillennialism evidenced by Millerism survived the Great Disappointment, at least in evangelical circles. After the end of the Civil War, the historical pessimism associated with premillennialism was one of the factors that induced evangelicals to recuse themselves as much as possible from public life and practical politics.

There are many reasons why evangelical Christianity returned as a public force in the last quarter of the 20th century. One of the chief reasons, as O'Leary notes, was that history was making their worldview more plausible. The Jews really had returned to Israel, something that evangelical eschatologists had been talking about for over a century. Furthermore, the invention of the atomic bomb made the apocalypse something that everyone could believe in, one way or another. Indeed, not only did premillennialism again challenge the implicitly postmillennial "civic religion" of the United States, but apocalyptic date-setting came back, too.

O'Leary is at pains to emphasize the differences between Millerism and the brand of apocalypticism that Hal Lindsey promoted in his fantastically popular books that began with "The Late, Great Planet Earth." Their scenarios were different, for one thing. Although the doctrine of the pretribulation rapture of the Saints existed in the 1830s, it was not incorporated into Millerism, and did not really become important until after the Civil War. Lindsey's future, in contrast, contains both the prospect of another world war and a pretribulation rapture of the Saints to Heaven that would save believers the trouble of living through the final struggle. The difference that chiefly impresses O'Leary is that, granted their premises, the logic of "The Late Great Planet Earth" is much shakier than that of William Miller and his followers.

Lindsey's warrant for starting the countdown to the end is the assurance given by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse that "this generation" would see the fulfillment of all apocalyptic prophecy. In Lindsey's model of history, the machinery of salvation paused when the Jews failed to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Salvation history started up again only when Israel was founded in 1948. (This approach is called "dispensationalism," as opposed to the Millerite "historicism.") "This generation," therefore, refers to the people who were alive in 1948. In his earlier work, Lindsey made bold to wax more specific. Alleging that a biblical generation is about 40 years, he speculated that 1988 would be a reasonable date for the rapture to occur, followed by seven years of tribulation, and then the Second Coming.

Even granting the greatest deference to scripture, these interpretations are not obvious. That was not the case with the Millerite computations: they may not have been correct, but were reasonably clear. Furthermore, Miller and his colleagues invited criticism and answered their critics in print, something that Hal Lindsey never did. Nonetheless, while Millerism was extinguished in a bit over a decade, the apocalyptic revival of which Lindsey was so conspicuous a part is not completely extinct, even after 30 years. This is partly because Lindsey's system was tentative enough to avoid outright disconfirmation, even after the end of the 20th century. A factor that was at least as important, perhaps, was that evangelicalism has gained a measure of cultural acceptance, and even political power.

O'Leary devotes an interesting chapter to the conservative revival of the 1980s, and particularly to the eschatological aspects of the Reagan Administration. This period posed a problem for apocalypse-minded conservatives. Not only was the clock running out on the best-known estimate for the rapture, but evangelicals now needed a theory that would justify them in helping to reform a society that was doomed in several senses of the word. In O'Leary's nomenclature, they needed to move from the tragic frame to the comic frame. To a limited degree, this is what they did.

In his later books, Hal Lindsey held out the hope that conservatives could keep America out of the hands of the Antichrist right up to the rapture, if they all pitched in to aid the process of conservative reform. This was an exhortation to his readers to become tragic heroes, united in the last stand against the forces of darkness. Ronald Reagan became, in effect, "President of the Last Days" for some of his supporters. Like his medieval type, the mythical Emperor of the Last Days, his reign ensured present safety, while in no way compromising the inevitability of apocalypse in the more distant future.

Televangelist Pat Robertson went even further in his serious though failed bid for the White House. He stopped making premillennialist predictions of doom entirely, and began to speak about the future with the sunny optimism of a postmillennial preacher of the early Second Great Awakening. The strategy did not lessen the suspicion in which the press held him, though it did cause his erstwhile supporters to suspect him of backsliding on doomsday. Still, what did not work for Pat Robertson may work in other contexts.

"Arguing the Apocalypse" ends with a meditation on just what we are supposed to do with the apocalypse. There is obviously no getting rid of it. O'Leary suggests that the best course would be to seek to keep it in the comic frame. The idea seems to be that the apocalypse can be permanently tamed by turning it into the ever-receding horizon on the road of progress. People might still dread impending disaster, but they would not think some final disaster to be inevitable, and so would not be tempted to historical fatalism.

While there is something to be said for this strategy, we should keep in mind that the comic frame is not coextensive with postmillennialism, or St. Augustine's amillennialism. Even if the images of disaster and judgment in the Book of Revelation are taken as metaphors whose application is never exhausted by any particular event in history, that does not mean that ultimate questions are not posed by historical events. To take the most obvious example, even if all persecutions are types of an ultimate persecution by Antichrist that never arrives, martyrs throughout history have nevertheless been killed just as dead as the hypothetical Tribulation Saints are supposed to be. To make the apocalypse immanent or episodic does not lower the stakes. The opposite, rather. This is the real meaning of the saying of Franz Kafka that O'Leary quotes: "Only our concept of Time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name. In reality it is a summary court in perpetual session."

Copyright © 2001 by John J. Reilly

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