There is a mantra Christian doomsday enthusiasts all seem to share: "We are living in exciting times." Well, I doubt they'd call it a mantra on account of the Eastern connotations, but nevertheless, they say it a lot.
This sentence, stage-whispered with a wondrous sense of promise, like a campaign slogan for the coming apocalypse, inaugurates lengthy and lurid descriptions of the the cruelties and abuses of the Antichrist's reign and concludes impenetrably complex exegeses of biblical prophecies as they pertain to Israeli foreign and domestic policy. It also serves as a sort of psychic balm for the fact that most of their personal lives are about the least exciting time you can imagine.
If the average American life is a daily 9-to-5 slog through petty humiliation and crushing boredom, at least there's beer and (hopefully) sex as an alluring carrot at the end of the day (or during lunch). Most evangelical Christians have the same workday cross to bear, but when your outlets for fun are limited to clapping at church, raising a family, and watching sports sober, what have you really got to look forward to but the fiery end of it all? And so these Christian millenarians (that's a fancy term for doomsday guy) read the papers in the morning, cross-reference the UN's sanctions against Syria with the book of Ezekiel, and tell themselves "We are living in exciting times." They're like the poor corporate drone who rocks back and forth at the desk he's been chained to and mutters, "Just two more days 'til the weekend. Just two more days 'til the weekend." Only their weekend is seven years of bloody moons and tribulation before the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. Amen.
Last fall I went on a tour of the Holy Land led by Rev. Irvin Baxter, who runs Endtime Ministries, an evangelical "prophecy teaching" operation focused on the eponymous moment when the shit goes down. Dr. Baxter has a physical church in Texas, but also preaches on TV, radio, and online, where he has a shockingly well-updated web presence for a man his age. Most of the people on the tour were members of his cyber flock. drawn from across the US to see the place where the battle of Armageddon will take place, which is a hill an hour north of Tel Aviv overlooking a McDonald's. Though they represented diverse walks of life—from investment bankers to little old ladies to sound technicians to Dominick, who played an Indian in a Wendy's commercial I have been searching for for MONTHS—they all drank in Dr. Baxter's descriptions of the Bible's grand finale with eager ears and faces right on the dividing line between "This sounds horrifying" and "I can't hardly wait."
The back of the Good Book has always been the most exciting part (except for that paragraph in Genesis about the Nephilim). All the humdrum, love-thy-brother, straight edge shit finally gives way to a good old-fashioned battle royale between the forces of darkness (led by a DRAGON), the army of Israel, and God's host of angels. Have you ever read the Book of Revelation? It's a fucking blast. It makes you want to wear your own sandwich board next to the "END IS NIGH" guy that says "HOW SOON IS NIGH?!"
The trouble is, for this Game of Thrones ragnarok business to pass as church, it has to be real. Especially if your parishioners are going to stake a lifetime of not drinking and not fucking on it. That means, until a seven-headed leopricorn carrying a woman in fishnets and a dingy fur coat comes walking out of the Mediterranean, you better have a pretty clear explanation of what this acid-trip nonsense means in regular earth terms.
Dr. Baxter is a master of this, of cherry-picking the prophetic symbols scattered throughout the Bible and lining them up with today's geopolitics. He can take the most arcane crypto-beast from the least-read verse in the Old Testament and tell you exactly which country, politician, or social trend it embodies. Even if you're the president. Not being facetious here, either—he's good. When he says that the four-winged leopard in the Book of Daniel represents the German-led European Union, and that the fatal wound he's been cured of in the Book of Revelation is the fall of the Third Reich as healed by the Marshall Plan, and that THAT makes Angela Merkel the most likely candidate for Whore of Babylon, I believe him. I don't necessarily believe any of this is going to happen, but if it were to happen, I think it'd happen his way. He's done his homework.
One major player in the apocalypse that doesn't take much scrying is Israel. Israel is Israel. Which is sort of good and bad for interpreting prophecy. Not only does everything that happens to Israel in the Bible foretell what happens to the actual Israel, but everything that happens to actual Israel should be foretold in the Bible. That make sense? It goes both ways. So for instance, while we were on our tour, John Kerry was in town to stump for his new peace plan between Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority. Even an interpretive whiz like Baxter couldn't have predicted this specific event would be happening at this moment in Israel, say a year ago, but since it was happening, it had to be somewhere in the book. Then someone tipped him off that in lieu of giving Jerusalem to one side or the other, the plan would create a shared Israeli-Palestinian government for the city, and it clicked. If signed, Kerry's plan would be the beginning of the Great Tribulation. Which definitely ramped up the excitement on our trip! (Fortunately for us heathens, the issue is once again moot.)
As a professional interpreter of polysemic language, Baxter also understands the other meaning of "it has to be real," which is it has to feel real. While fire and brimstone may have put asses in pews a century ago, today's preachers are competing with both the Alien AND Predator franchises for the attention of a populace who couldn't tell you what brimstone is, if they even bothered looking up from their iPhone when you asked them. In deference to this attention-span gap, Baxter illustrates his teachings with some of the best Christian doomsday graphics since Doré did Dante. Check out how nice the box art is on his DVDs. It looks like he got the guy who did the Yes covers to design them.
Baxter isn't the only millenarianist to fancy up God's word for the post-Quake world. In Victoria Clark's book Allies for Armageddon, she uses the term apoca-lit to describe books like the Left Behind series and its film equivalents like The Omega Code that repackage the the Book of Revelation as sci-fi action thrillers. Give or take the "sci." This may seem like yet another Stryperesque scheme to make Christianity cool, but these movies are as much for the devout believers as a conversion tool for vacant teens.
In the same way books like A Child Called It came along to give churchgoing ladies a morally sound way to read Peter Sotos-level torture porn, apoca-lit fills the gap left in Christian pop culture by the biblical prohibition on violence. Or more accurately creates a convenient loophole. When Michael Ironside makes an inferior scanner's head explode with the powers of his mind, that's a sin. When our lord and savior does it at the Mount of Olives? God's glory. Amen. (Amen.)
Apoca-lit serves as more than just guilt-free escapism for the bored and pious. As doomsday aficionados consume increasingly vivid and realistic depictions of judgment day, it cements their personal vision of the apocalypse and whets their appetite for the real thing. We worry about fiction blurring the line for people between fantasy and reality; here's an entire audience whose fantasy and reality have no lines to blur. Of course, jonesing for armageddon and trying to make it happen are two different things.
Naturally, you can't pipe-bomb your way into hell to shoot the devil in the face. One thing you CAN do, however, is egg Israel into kicking off armageddon on her own. You see, one of the main preconditions of the apocalypse—not one of the crazy leopard ones, the one basically every Christian millenarian agrees on—is the end times aren't going to start until the Jews control Israel and build the Third Temple in Jerusalem. And for the Jews to start work on the Third Temple, they have to clear off what got built on top of the Second Temple. Which is the Dome of the Rock. Ruh-roh is right.
The Baxterites are nice enough sorts—their interest in the end of days is primarily geared around getting the word out early and keeping the faithful safe during the Antichrist's reign. As one of my tourmates explained to me, there's a split in the doomsday prediction community as to when the Rapture occurs. Baxter's flock are post-tribulationists, meaning they believe they'll have to live through the entirety of the Tribulation. This tends to soften their hard-on
PRE-tribulationists, on the other hand, believe the Rapture will occur at the start of the apocalypse, sparing them the rivers of blood and barcodes et al. These are the guys you gotta watch out for. Since God's zapping them to heaven before all the harsh stuff, the pre-tribbers don't just have nothing to lose, they have an active stake in the world's end.
Anyway, I've been yammering plenty down here. Watch tonight's episode of Vice on HBO to see where these jeezballs have been doing.
Thomas is on Twitter @babyballs69 and Instagram @babyballs. You know, in case you've been wondering.