The Long View: The End of the Age

This short review contains much of the material, in embryo, that I used to craft some popular lectures I have given on millenninalism. The basic distinction between kinds of millennial belief, its cross-cultural appeal, and the combination of wide popularity with elite dismissal. I can't imagine ever wanting to read this novel, but I learned a great deal from John's review of it. That was a big reason I kept going back to his site.

The End of the Age: A Novel by Pat Robertson Word Publishing, 1995 $21.99, 374 pp. ISBN: 0-8499-1290-3

Apocalypse Politics

According to Paul Boyer in his study of prophecy belief in America, "When Time Shall Be No More," the apocalyptic novel has been a feature of American popular culture since the 1930s. At any rate, it has been a feature of that portion of popular culture inhabited by certain types of Christians, particularly premillennialists. ("Premillennialism" is the variety of belief about the end of the world which looks forward to a literal Second Coming of Christ, followed by the reign of the Saints for a thousand years on earth, a period called the "millennium.") Not so long ago, popular eschatology (the study of "the Last Things") was off the radar screen of secular America entirely. Then, starting in the 1980s, the notion began to seep into elite consciousness that maybe the traditional secular scenarios for the future did not exhaust the views of history to be found in American culture. It wasn't so much the great commercial success of Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth" that drew enlightened attention to the phenomenon. Despite their supposed fascination with the inner meaning of "popular culture," American elites ("agnostic Swedes ruling a nation of pious Hindus," in one famous formula), have an astounding capacity for overlooking popular enthusiasms until they blow up in their faces. It was not until President Reagan began talking along much the same lines that some people began to pay attention. In recent years, of course, militant millenarianism has indeed blown up in several spectacular and bloody incidents. The subject is no longer obscure. For a variety of reasons, it is worth keeping an eye on.

Traditional eschatology has sometimes provided the theme for works that found a wide audience in the post-WWII era. The film Rosemary's Baby in the 1960s is an example. Still, it is rare for an apocalyptic novel, one whose incidents include the reign of Antichrist, the Tribulation and the Descent of the New Jerusalem, to be pitched to a general readership. Certainly it is something of a novelty to see such a book written by a man who, as recently as seven years ago, was a reasonably plausible candidate for president of the United States. People interested in divining Pat Robertson's political agenda will have no trouble finding relevant material in this story. Not altogether incidentally, the book is even more interesting for the ways in which it alters the classical themes of the genre precisely to appeal to a wider Christian readership, and specifically to Roman Catholics.

The endtime scenario of popular American apocalyptic reached its mature phase just after the Civil War. It has been remarkably stable ever since. It involves a period of growing crisis, culminating in some universal threat or disaster. The chaos of the times affords a charismatic person the opportunity to seize control of the world by promising to restore order. This tyrant, who turns out to be no one other than the Antichrist himself, is often the current pope, or is supported by the pope. Before his period of misrule can begin, however, the true Church (various defined) is wonderfully withdrawn from the world in an event called the Rapture. Some people remaining on earth can still hope to be saved, but they must suffer persecution by the Antichrist, who will gradually turn his government into a religious cult, with himself as an object of worship. The period of his reign is normally coincident with the Tribulation, which in most narratives lasts seven years. By the end it, the Antichrist seems poised to snuff out the remnant of the Tribulation Saints. However, then the Second Coming occurs, the Antichrist is destroyed, and the Millennium begins.

There are various incidental features of this scenario which, as Boyer has noted, actually afforded those who accepted it a prospect of the future that turned out to be rather more realistic than that of their secular liberal contemporaries. From before the First World War, for instance, American millenarians anticipated the creation of the state of Israel and the formation of a European Union. They cultivated a most un-Wilsonian anticipation of continued cussedness in international affairs. An old staple plot element that plays a major role in Robertson's book, the belief that the impact of a large meteor could significantly affect the course of history, has become a positively fashionable idea.

As a novel, Robertson's book is pretty dismal. The least painful parts are the didactic Bible-study scenes, in which the characters come to understand the true meaning of the Book of Revelation for their lives. This is not much of a compliment. Still, the author can take some cold comfort from the knowledge that, at least in one regard, this lifeless exercise fits into a long history of gradual degeneration. Bernard McGinn notes in his recent book, "Antichrist," that this key figure in the imagination of the West has been in decline since at least the 17th century. The problem is not so much that theologians have lost interest in him or that he has ceased to command popular belief. (The first is certainly true, the latter possibly not.) The decline consists in the fact that the artistic possibilities of the figure seem to be exhausted.

The height of Antichrist art was achieved in the early 16th century, with the painting of the highly disturbing fresco by Luca Signorelli, "Sermon and Acts of the Antichrist," in the San Brixio Chapel of the cathedral of Orvieto. (This work was alluded to by a gothic parody in the film, "The Omen." The producers would have been better advised to have used the original.) Since Signorelli, it has been mostly downhill. Still, McGinn finds three notable literary presentations of this figure even in the twentieth century. Two are novels, Hugh Benson's "The Lord of the World" and Charles Williams' "All Hallows Eve, the other a polemical dialogue by Vladimir Solovyev, "Three Conversations: War, Progress and the End of History, Including a Short History of the Antichrist." These Antichrists at least have personalities of their own. Benson's Antichrist even delivers himself of "logia," like the sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. "One does not forgive, one merely understands," he is quoted as saying in an anti-gospel. On my bad days, I am inclined to agree. None of these examples, by the way, is by an American evangelical, or even by an American. For a sincere and rather colorful sample of the genre from this side of the Atlantic, complete with a papal Antichrist, you could do worse than Carol Balizet's "The Last Seven Years" (1979). Frank E. Piretti's more recent novel, "Piercing the Darkness," culminates in the failure of a would-be Antichrist to attain quite the necessary level of demonic possession. It, too, has a certain disarming charm, and unlike a fully apocalyptic novel, it allows for sequels.

Robertson's Antichrist, regrettably, is colorless even by the undemanding standards of characterization in contemporary evangelical fiction. Great villains deserve better. Robertson's Antichrist is an American trust fund kid with a Jewish mother who sells himself to the devil while working for the Peace Corps in India. As his career progresses, he is more and more possessed by Satan. You can tell, because his eyes go all demonic during television addresses. By the time he rules the world, he can do little more than rave in his palace in the rebuilt city of Babylon, pausing only to execute fresh batches of Christians. How the wicked have fallen.

However, the most interesting thing about "The End of the Age" is not its lack of novelistic merit, but the way in which it departs to a significant extent from the now nearly canonical endtime pattern. The story is told from the perspective of several individuals caught up in the drama. As is often the case in this kind of fiction, some of these are ordinary people, some of them are important persons who later come into direct contact with the Antichrist. One important person who does not come into contact with the Antichrist is a prominent evangelist, whom his friends call Pastor Jack. Seeing the drift of the times (the story takes place about the year 2000, though nowhere does that date appear in the text), he establishes a refuge for Christians, in the neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico. (You can tell it's a refuge; it's called "El Refugio"). There he establishes a global telecommunications network that permits him to spread the word and organize all around the world. Even before the Tribulation begins, his community becomes a haven for those in need and those who share his understanding of the historical moment.

The years just before the new millennium have not been all bad. The twentieth century as a whole, of course, has been the bloodiest in history. It has in fact been the time of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, so that much of the endtime scenario has already been accomplished. Since 1980, however, a new phase had begun, the "sealing of the elect" described in Chapter 7 of Revelation. The time of the harvest of souls predicted in various places in the New Testament was underway. In 1995, many people around the world received the inspiration that the time was short, and that a worldwide revival was necessary. This last season of God's grace is brought to an end in the opening pages of the book by the impact of an asteroid off the coast of southern California. (The scriptural warrant for this prediction is Revelation 8:8. Some apocalyptic novels have helpful notes to the biblical proof-texts for every major turn in the plot. Robertson puts them all in the text itself.) This event, which destroys not just the West Coast but most of the Pacific Rim, begins the period of history's ultimate evil.

Robertson omits the Rapture (or at least the pre-Tribulation Rapture). This omission robs the book of one of the great, surrealist staples of the genre. It is normally held among premillennialists that, one day, the world will be going much as usual when, poof!, all the true Christians will be snatched away to be with the Lord. The very bumper stickers in the streets cry out the currency of this expectation. In apocalyptic fiction, the Rapture occasions massive traffic accidents, suddenly pilotless planes fall out of the sky, major institutions are left rudderless as their pious leaders mysteriously vanish. (In "The Last Seven Years," the reigning pope is among those raptured away; the Antichrist who conspires to succeed him is thus also an Antipope. In evangelical circles, this counts as ecumenicism). In Robertson's book, we are somewhat compensated for the lack of Rapture-related disasters by a description of the ghastly end of Los Angeles. The description is informed, it seems, by the recent paleontological reconstruction of the asteroidal impact that probably finished off the dinosaurs. (The word "dinosaur" is not mentioned, doubtless because of the awkward fit of these creatures with the Book of Genesis.) However, the fact is that the Reverend Robertson is telling his readers that the saved, too, must go through Tribulation. Many of them will find this idea so disturbing that the change from the normal endtime pattern requires a little explanation.

While the notion of the "Rapture of the Saints" can be found in the Epistles of St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:17), there it is coincident with the Second Coming of Christ. The notion of a pre-Tribulation Rapture dates only from the 1830s, when it was expounded by John Nelson Derby, former minister of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland and founder of the Plymouth Brethren. However, it does chime with certain older patterns of apocalyptic expectation. In medieval times, standard popular eschatology had it that the degeneration of the world would be temporarily halted by the appearance of a figure called "the Emperor of the Last Days." He would purify Christendom and recover the Holy Land from the infidel, among other things. However, the end of his career was usually expected to be the beginning of the reign of Antichrist. Thus, the Emperor of the Last Days, like the Rapture, allowed for a lessening of tension in the story of the world. Before the bad times start, people would have something to look forward to.

Robertson introduces a similar plot element in his novel, the "sealing time" that his characters say began about 1980. This has two great advantages. First, it tells evangelicals that the progress they and their ideas have been making in American society for the past half-generation is not an anomaly. Indeed, it has eschatological significance. They are living, after a fashion, in the beneficent reign of the Emperor of the Last Days, and they should make the most of it. Second, dropping the Rapture broadens the appeal of the evangelical revival to that great majority of Christians who either have never heard of the Rapture or who dismiss it. As Robertson's sponsorship of the new, politically conservative "Catholic Alliance" illustrates, he is keen to enlist Catholics into his political projects, much though this annoys the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He therefore goes out of his way to emphasize the Catholicism of some his Tribulation Saints. One, a former presidential aide, is characterized as a Catholic and therefore a "hard-nosed idealist." Another, a Mexican-American woman, is even depicted in the popish practice of saying the Rosary. This sort of accommodation outrages many fundamentalists, of course, who look on any approach to Rome as dalliance with the Scarlet Woman. (There was, for instance, furious reaction in certain quarters to the mild statement of mutual cooperation, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," that appeared in May, 1994 issue of First Things.) However, purists of any description are always rather rare, which is why popular front strategies so often succeed.

The endtime scenario of this book is at least within polite shouting distance of the traditional view of the last days enunciated by St. Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century and recently reiterated in sections 668-679 of the new "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Augustine's view is, of course, anti-millenarian, in the sense that he condemned the idea of an earthly Kingdom of the Saints. Instead, he associated the era of the Church with the Millennium. However, the Catechism does have essential makings of apocalyptic dread and enthusiasm: the Antichrist, the Tribulation, the Conversion of the Jews, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment are all present. Progressive Catholic theologians often prefer to take historical eschatology heuristically. To some extent, this is what Liberation Theology was all about; the Revolution becomes the Second Advent. However, progressive Catholic theologians are Swedes to a man. Especially the women.

Robertson's Tribulation is not all that original. The asteroid strike drives the president, who had vetoed an asteroid-defense project just a few years previously, to shoot himself. His successor, the vice president, is a witless alcoholic actor with a shrew of a wife. She cultivates persons of South Asian extraction involved in the occult, and thereby the devil is let into the White House. Through her influence, the Satanically- selected trust fund kid is elevated from his seat in the House of Representatives to the vice presidency, and thence to the presidency itself when the stupid actor is assassinated in his turn. (Another victim of assassination is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. However, we learn little about his successor's specific financial malefactions, beyond his participation in the plan to insert electronic chips under the skin of every person in the world, so that people cannot buy or sell without the Antichrist's say-so. See Revelation 13:16,17. I dare you.) The world by that time is suffering from "asteroid winter," caused by the volcanic activity sparked by the impact. President Antichrist, who had apparently become very persuasive as he became more possessed, creates an emergency world authority, the Union for Peace, which quickly becomes a world government.

He then does some batty things, even for an eschatological archetype. For instance, despite the fact his immediate authority rests on the power of the American presidency, he undertakes to disband most of the armed forces of the United States and incorporate the rest into the world government army. To maintain his rule, he imports troops in international uniforms from South Asia to occupy the United States. Since he had already suspended constitutional government, one might have thought it would be simpler to use US troops to do this. As we have already noted, he rebuilds the city of Babylon, so he can have someplace to rave in. Then, despite the fact Israel had quickly made an alliance with him, he prepares to make war on the country. (The problem is that his announcement of his own godhood, made from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is not well received.) All of this is boilerplate for the genre. However, Robertson's scenario is original not for what the wicked do (as you might expect, they do wickedly), but for the unusually pro-active stance the taken by the righteous.

America is not betrayed by all its leaders. The Secretary of the Treasury and, more important, the Secretary of Defense, are Christians who reject the Antichrist's policies, even before they clearly realize who he is. Taking advantage of his authority to use the armed forces for disaster relief, the Secretary of Defense begins concentrating loyal troops in the Albuquerque area. There, of course, they are providentially in a position to aid Pastor Jack's wilderness community, since swelled to many thousands by the Pacific disaster and the government's crackdown on conservative Christians. The angels who protect the Christians also provide air cover for the troops. In setting up their Western redoubt, the loyalist forces discover a dozen intermediate range nuclear weapons, inexplicably intact despite arms reduction treaties that required them to be dismantled long ago. This gives the Camp of the Saints the capacity to strike Washington. As it happens, this is not necessary. Attacks on El Refugio are foiled by supernatural means. The Antichrist's attack on Jerusalem is foiled not just by the supernatural destruction of the investing armies (which gather, predictably, in the plain of Armageddon), but by the Second Coming itself. Then the Rapture occurs and the Millennium begins, St. Augustine notwithstanding.

Millenarian activity runs along a continuum. It can be very passive and pietistic in the face of the darkening of the historical world. Until the 1970s, this was normal for American premillennialists, who more often sought to withdraw from the world than to change it. Millenarianism can also be violent but essentially defensive, as seems to have been the case with the Davidian cult at Waco. The community of the faithful may be willing to defend themselves, yet leave the remaking of the world in God's hands. On the other hand, millenarians may feel that the elect must play a far more active role. In European history, you can find many examples of this impulse, from Fra Dolcino's 14th century north Italian guerillas (the "Apostolic Brethren") to the Fifth Monarchy Men in Cromwell's New Model Army. The Aum Shin Rikyo in Japan is perhaps extreme as an end-of-the-world cult that hoped to end the world itself. (In East Asia, millenarianism is more likely to be informed by Buddhist theories of cosmic world cycles than it is by linear Christian eschatology, but the result is remarkably similar.)

Robertson's endtime community in "The End of the Age" is thus somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. While not aggressive, it is militant at need. It is willing to cooperate with the evil world system, at least to the extent that is necessary to subvert it. There is no real possibility of reform, since everything is soon to be corrupted or destroyed. However, in the years before the ultimate trial, there is still a great deal of work to be done before the harvest is fully gathered. Thus, they speak falsely who say that Pat Robertson is an extremist. He is an eschatological moderate. Which is no small distinction.

This article originally appeared in the January 1996 issue of The Millennial Prophecy Report.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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