Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/7/2020 (429 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Is the world coming to an end? With the planet in the grip of a pandemic, some might be wondering if that’s the case.
Fifty years ago, lots of people believed the end was nigh. And it was all because of The Late, Great Planet Earth.
Written by evangelical Christian author Hal Lindsey, the book popularized end-times thinking about the apocalypse for tens of millions of people across North America.
In the book, Lindsey linked the upheavals and challenges of the late 1960s with Bible verses in the Old and New testaments that proved, he said, the beginning of the end.
Lindsey didn’t give a date. But he strongly suggested events like the rapture, where true believers are taken away from the earth to heaven to set in motion a thousand years of tribulation, would take place no later than 1988.
He based this claim on the idea that the events foretold in the Bible about the end of the world would occur one generation, or 40 years, from the founding of the state of Israel. That happened in 1948.
Lindsey’s book had a profound effect on me as a young teenager. I can still vividly remember one evening in the early 1970s looking up at the stars, believing that I would soon be taken up and away to heaven.
Why make long-term plans? After all, the end was coming "soon and very soon," as a popular song at the time put it.
But 50 years later, the world is still here and so am I — both a bit worse for wear, but still chugging along.
I’m not the only one thinking about The Late, Great Planet Earth these days. Over at Religion News Service, Jana Riess was thinking about it, too.
The book’s 50th anniversary "tickles my irony bone," she wrote, given that it "expressed a near-total certainty that there would be no Earth left by 2020 to mark such milestones."
As for why it was so popular, she said, Lindsey’s genius was the way he incorporated bleak contemporary realities of that time, casting them as part of God’s master plan.
"Every crappy and seemingly random thing that was going on in the world was part of a carefully crafted blueprint that God encoded ages ago in the Bible, if people only had eyes to see and ears to hear," she said.
"Everything is part of the same long game God is playing," she added, noting it helped people make sense of the crazy and out-of-control world.
The popularity of books like The Late, Great Planet Earth isn’t surprising, she said — then or now.
"When the going gets tough, we want to know what’s going to happen next," she said, adding end time thinking offers "a weird kind of comfort in that they first acknowledge that, why YES, the world is just as horrible as we’ve always thought it was, but that those horrors are necessary steps toward something beautiful God’s got cooking."
Even though Lindsey got it wrong 50 years ago, that hasn’t stopped him from promoting end-times thinking about the pandemic.
Today he runs a prophesy website called "The Lindsey Report." A video on that website says the pandemic — or "pestilence," to use the biblical term — is another sign of the times, along with other factors such as the economic collapse caused by the virus and the "lawlessness" that accompanied some of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Lindsey isn’t alone in that thinking. A poll by the Joshua Fund, an evangelical organization, found about 44 percent of American voters see the coronavirus pandemic and economic meltdown as either a wake-up call to faith, a sign of God’s coming judgment, or both.
The word for this kind of end times thinking is the Greek word apokalypsis, or apocalypse in English. It means an unveiling, or a revelation. When it comes to revelations, the pandemic has produced some important ones.
For example, it has revealed the sorry state of elder care in many places in North America. It has revealed how little value and importance we, as a society, have placed on those we now consider "essential" workers. And it has revealed how health crises like the virus disproportionately impact people who are poor and marginalized.
In the U.S., it has revealed even more starkly the polarized state of politics in that country, with people dividing along partisan lines over things like staying indoors or wearing masks.
On the other hand, it has also revealed some positive things. That’s what The Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted in March.
According to Monbiot, the dystopian movies and books about the future got it wrong.
"Instead of turning us into flesh-eating zombies, the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbours," he wrote.
There’s still a ways to go, he said, and things could change. But, "I have the sense that something is taking root now, something we have been missing: the unexpectedly thrilling and transformative force of mutual aid."
So, is this the end of the world? Maybe not. It might even be the beginning of a new and better one.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.