Apocalypticism Explained | Apocalypse! FRONTLINE (2024)

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Tell me about the rise of the apocalypse industry, if you will.

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Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin,Madison.

(more about Boyer)

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What we see in contemporary American mass culture really is that apocalyptic beliefhas become big business. It's become an industry. It's a subset of thepublishing industry. ... And books that become successful literally sellmillions of copies. And what we're seeing is a kind of synergistic process wherea successful televangelist will publish a book which is successful, whichwill then spin off into videotapes and movies and sometimes prophecy magazines,and even we have bumper stickers and wristwatches and other kinds of material,all of which reinforce popular belief and interest in Bible prophecy.
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Who is Hal Lindsey?Hal Lindsey is one of the most fascinating figures in the whole history ofcontemporary prophecy belief. A person of very obscure origins. Verylittle education.
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Late 1960s. He's a campus preacher out in southernCalifornia. 1970, publishes a book, The Late Great Planet Earth,which is really a popularization of John Darby's system. Theologically, there's nothing new there. What hedoes is link it to current events: the Cold War, nuclear war, theChinese Communist threat, the restoration of Israel. All of these events, helinks to specific biblical passages in the classic fashion of prophecypopularizers. And he and his ghost writer write the book in a very almostslang-like, very accessible language. It's not a heavy theological book atall. It's a popular book. And this book just took off and became the all-timenon-fiction bestseller of the entire decade of the 1970s, and it representedthe point at which publishers began to realize there's tremendous potential inprophecy books. And so many other writers begin to write books in the samepopular way, that have an enormously broad appeal.

The significance of Hal Lindsey, I think, is he represents another one ofthose moments of breakthrough, when interest in Bible prophecy spills outbeyond just the ranks of the true believers and becomes a broader culturalphenomenon. And people who had never paid much attention to prophecy at allhear about this book. They pick up the paperback. They see the way Lindseyweaves together current events and finds Biblical passages that seem toforetell those events, and they say, "Wow, this is amazing. There must reallybe something to this." So Lindsey's a very important transitional figure, Ithink. ...

Hal Lindsey seems to have had considerable influence not just on the part ofthe public as a whole, but at some of the highest levels of government. He's asomewhat boastful person, and it's not entirely clear how much to trust all ofhis stories, but he does tell of giving seminars at the Pentagon, seminars atthe National War College, that were crowded, thronged with people. So theredoes seem to have been in the 1970s a considerable interest in propheticinterpretations, particularly as they related to Russia and the Cold War, atsome of the highest levels of government.
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Go through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and give a general thought about howpopularizers turn to film, TV, paperbacks, and what's happening to the new wayof disseminating an apocalyptic message in that time.

Prophecy believers since the time of the Millerite movement, the 1840s,have been extremely skilled at using the latest technologies. And that's beenvery much true in our own day. It's fascinating to see how this ancient beliefsystem is being spread, really worldwide, by ... all the technologies, frommass paperback books to the Internet, World Wide Web sites, videotapes, evenfeature length films. The entire apparatus of modern mass culture is accessible to those who are believers and who wish to spread their message. ...It's also interesting to see how the prophecy popularizers view moderntechnology. On the one hand, they see all of these systems of masscommunication preparing the way for the Antichrist. But in the meantime,they're quite ready to use these same technologies themselves, to spread theword of their particular interpretation of Bible prophecy.

Again, Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth sort of set thestandard for this, because Lindsey proved to be an enormously successfulmarketer of his product. And The Late Great Planet Earth, publishedinitially by an obscure religious publisher in Michigan, is taken up by a massmarket publisher and produced in a mass market format that is sold insupermarkets and airports and so on. A film is made of The LateGreat Planet Earth narrated, actually, by Orson Welles. So it set thepattern of a multimedia phenomenon that we now see with a number ofprophecy popularizers today. ...

A perfect example of the mass marketing of prophetic belief is the LeftBehind series that is now selling by the millions of copies in modernAmerica. It's by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and it's a series of novelswhich deal in fictional form with pre-millennial dispensationalistbeliefs. It begins with the Rapture. It deals with a small group ofso-called Tribulation Saints that find each other during the period of theGreat Tribulation and try to survive the rise of the Antichrist. They're veryreadable. They're very well written. And they are being marketed in a verypowerful and successful way. The publisher has a web site. You can comment onthe book. The publisher has produced a children's version of four kids goingthrough the Great Tribulation. I understand that a film version is in theworks. So the Left Behind phenomenon is a classic example of the way a veryancient belief system has broken through into the mass market of modernAmerica. ...
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What does the Left Behind series tell us about the way prophecybelievers are using the media today?

The Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Ithink, tells us some very interesting things about the way prophecy belief isbeing used today in this post Cold War period. For one thing, it deals withcontemporary themes: the new communications technologies. The characters inthe novels are all using the Internet and communicating by e-mail, and so it'svery up-to-the-minute in terms of the cultural material that's described. Andyet it deals with a sort of fictionalized version of a very ancient traditionalsystem of Bible prophecy interpretation: the Rapture, the Great Tribulation,the rise of the Antichrist. The religious themes, the apocalyptic themes ofthe series are very well known, very well established. But they're combinedwith these contemporary allusions that give the series a very up-to-the-minutequality. ...
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Is there a contradiction between these stories both using and featuringtoday's latest greatest technology (Internet etc.) and being true to the storyof the Book of Revelation?

I think there's inevitably a kind of distortion and trivialization of what insome sense is a very profound insight. The apocalyptic world view isone that speaks to the human condition in very profound ways, in terms of theopposition of forces of chaos and order and so on. When it's translated intothe world of contemporary mass marketing, contemporary Hollywood filmtechniques, inevitably, it seems to me, much of the depth, much of thecomplexity, much of the meaning that it might have for people in terms ofencouraging them to really think about the nature of the world that we live in,gets lost, and it simply becomes another product to be consumed andforgotten.

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For more about the "doom industry," read Chip Berlet's essay "End Times as AGrowth Industry."

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