This makes me reflect on a short but intense period of my own life — I was 12 — when the monster-selling 1970s Christian apocalyptic book “The Late, Great Planet Earth” fell into my hands. I was a kid who read the newspaper constantly, and brooded over what I saw there. The year was 1979. Iranian militants held American hostages. Inflation ripped through the US economy. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Always, talk of nuclear war with the USSR. I well remember on Saturday morning driving back across a field with my dad, coming home from the hunting camp, looking up at the sky and thinking, “A Soviet ICBM could explode right up there 19 minutes from now, and we would all be dead.” It shook me up. [...]
I burned brightly with that stuff for about a year and a half, then burned out, and was done with religion for what turned out to have been years. The prophecies “Late, Great” made turned out to be false, mostly, but over the years, I’ve come to judge myself less harshly for falling under its sway. I think that’s because I have more sympathy for human weakness in emotional crisis, and the desperate need to discover (or to impose) meaning on chaos. But at the same time, reflecting on that experience has made me more aware, and skeptical, of my own susceptibility to apocalyptic themes in public discourse. The thing is, there really are apocalypses! Not big-A Apocalypses — though as a Christian, I believe that history will culminate one day in an End, though it may be thousands of years from now; nobody knows the date — but small ones. The Apocalypse is the end of the world; small-a apocalypses are the end of a world. The end of the Roman Empire in the West was an apocalypse. The Fall of Constantinople was another. Bolshevism and Nazism were both apocalyptic political cults that brought about real apocalypses for their victims and their victims’ cultures. If I were a pious Arab Muslim living in the Middle East at this time in history, I could well imagine that I would look to apocalyptic prophecies and figures (e.g., the Dajjal) from my own tradition to explain the losses and traumas wracking my culture and civilization, and to give consolation that All Will Be Well in God’s Good Time.
As Kermode, Gray, and others point out, apocalypticism (and utopianism, it’s sister) is by no means only a religious phenomenon. As I said, Bolshevism and Nazism were secular political forms. Today, you will find few more apocalyptic secularists than those whose minds are seized by the prospect of a global warming apocalypse. (But, remember: just because they’re terrified of it in ways many of us don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not real; perhaps they see something the rest of us don’t).
Some critics of apocalypse enthusiasts accuse them of taking pleasure in the prospect of the damnation of unbelievers. Many no doubt do, but I think this idea is misleading. When I was part of that Late, Great mindset and culture, I didn’t know anybody who relished the thought of sinners falling into the hands of the Antichrist, and suffering horribly. Surely some did, but not as many as you may think. To reiterate, the consolation offered by the Late, Great vision was rather this: 1) it offered an explanation for hard-to-understand, scary events in the world; 2) it assured you that none of this was random, that as chaotic as things seemed, God was actually in control, and things were unfolding according to His plan; and 3) as awful as things were getting, God was going to rapture His people off the planet before the worst happened.
Catholics have a tendency to look askance at small-a "apocalyptic" prophecies, particularly those from other traditions. Sure, you can meet a Catholic who has gotten caught up in the "Left Behind" and Rapture notions, or who has read something like The Late, Great Planet Earth, just as you can meet Catholics silly enough to take The DaVinci Code seriously. But before we Catholics get all superior about people who think that one day half of our neighbors will just disappear and the rest of us will have to muddle through the End Times (or the Nearly End Times, etc.) we should remember that Catholics have plenty of small-a "apocalyptic" stuff of our own to contend with.
Take, for example, the Three Days of Darkness.
This prophecy, which all of its adherents insist comes straight from the visions of reputable saints and blesseds, supposedly warns of a coming trial during which darkness will fall over the whole earth, and the only light will come from blessed beeswax candles (but they must be 100% pure beeswax, possibly from some approved source, or else they won't work when the Darkness comes). The power of Hell will be unleashed upon the world, and all humans except for the chosen with their candles will die in unspeakable torment as demons roam free to torture and destroy. The ordinary rules of Christian love apparently get suspended as the faithful are warned not to open a door or even a window, not even if they hear their own parents or children screaming for mercy and salvation outside, because either they're really hearing demons, or else they're being tested--for if their parents and children are outside, then God has chosen to smite them, and opening a door or window to let them come in will result in the immediate deaths of all the saintly and holy gathered in the home.
Mark Shea mentions such prophecies here and here, among his various writings. I find his take quite sane and sensible. To me, it's entirely possible that saints and mystics have had various disturbing visions of the End Times, but when those visions are somehow twisted into becoming specific survivalist instructions for a tiny handful of Catholics that include God's secret commands to purchase and store particular kinds of blessed candles and to be prepared to resign one's nearest and dearest to the unleashed powers of Hell in order to save themselves so that they can be among the ruling class of some new age of perfection which will last until the real End Times, the prophecy has gone from being something of possible spiritual benefit to being something that encourages people in the worst sorts of prideful faults and errors.
Interestingly enough, the Three Days of Darkness prophecy now has a sedevacantist twist: some of the words of the mystics who have had visions of darkness and a chastisement for the Earth include a mystical "reordering" of the Church, when St. Peter (and possibly also St. Paul) will come down from Heaven and personally select the new Pope for the tiny fragment of humanity that had their blessed candles ready and were in the state of grace, thus surviving the terrible trials. Some sedevacantist groups appear to see this part of the prophecy or message as a vindication of their present belief that there hasn't been a true pope for decades now, and that God will first plunge the world into terrible torment, killing off at least two-thirds of humanity, and then select a new pope who will condemn Vatican II and everything that came from that council, praising only the faithful remnant who managed to keep the True Faith intact without a pope since the death of the last true pope (Pius XII for some, but various "secret pope" contenders for others).
So why do people fall for this stuff? I asked that question at Rod's blog, and a poster countered by asking the same question about Christianity in general. But there's a big difference, to me, between believing that Jesus Christ is Who He says He is, and further that He founded a particular Church to safeguard His teachings (since He knows quite well how prone human beings are either to putting words in God's mouth on the one hand or to turning God's free and open revelations into gnostic or esoteric knowledge meant only to benefit a handful of "insiders" on the other) and believing that every vision every mystic, saint, or (in some cases) charlatan has had amounts to some sort of special insight, some literal truth into how to survive when God smites the Earth one of these days. In fact, if we really believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, it's easy to test these prophetic words and secret visions, because Jesus Christ would not instruct us to forget charity, or store up candles in secret without telling our neighbors, or keep our doors firmly shut in the faces of loved ones--or even strangers, for that matter--if the world were truly being smashed with all the power of Hell.
If our faith is in Him, we need not chase after the Rapture, or pine for the Three Days of Darkness, or secretly hope to survive the Tribulation. All we need to do is take up our cross and follow Him if we would be saved.