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The End of the World is always nigh Richard Landes's much underrated Heaven on Earth explores our lust for Armageddon

Cultish behaviour runs through politics (Photo by Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Cultish behaviour runs through politics (Photo by Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

December 31, 2019   4 mins

Not long after I moved to Texas in 2006, I got heavily into the end of the world. It’s just the kind of thing you do over here. We have the apocalyptic heat, the empty wastelands ideal for receiving prophetic messages, and — of course — easy access to the weaponry required for waging war in the battle of Armageddon.

But the apocalyptic vibe in Texas, home to both David Koresh and a very big plant for assembling nuclear weapons, felt like a more condensed version of a zeitgeist that was abroad in the culture more generally. Anxieties about jihadi terror, global warming and the decline of the West were widespread, and zombie plague movies were just starting to take off. Society, it seemed, was in a state of apocalyptic arousal, and I detected a weird undercurrent of yearning, as if some people liked it. But why?

I started taking the bus to the Austin public library to read whatever they had about the end of the world. This being Texas, they had rather a lot, and I have fond memories of sitting among the homeless people and the hippy burnouts, leafing through the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements, absorbing endless factoids about strange religious movements, cults and prophets.

The theme would follow me home; on the way back to the bus I would always pick up a free street newspaper that informed me that the Maitreya, a messianic figure from Buddhism, was already among us. (He still is, apparently, although his prophet has since died, alas.)

I soon realised why some people seemed to crave the end of the world; they want this terrible world of suffering to pass away and be replaced by a new world (and some people really want to see the wicked punished). I also discovered that belief in an earthly heaven on earth — Millennialism — had inspired some extraordinary behaviour over the centuries. Why had nobody ever taught me about the naked Adamites of Bohemia, or Sabattai Zevi, the mysterious messiah who aroused the hopes of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire only to convert to Islam, or the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the enormous devastation it wrought in the dying days of the Qing dynasty.

Come to think of it, why was it not better known that Isaac Newton and James Napier were profoundly apocalyptic thinkers? The neat line between their scientific-mathematical studies and their religious obsessions was an anachronism imposed by revisionist historians. Then there were the obvious millennial aspects to the French Revolution, and communism, as well as Nazism; throw in the messianic-apocalyptic aspects of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and it seemed as though maybe this whole end of the world thing was one of the most important ideas going…

It was as if I had discovered an alternate history of humanity, where the dream of a happy apocalypse had inspired prophets, saints, scientists, madmen and martyrs to repeatedly attempt to birth new, better worlds out of the flawed ones they lived in. I liked how strange, and wild it was, and how ambiguous it was in its legacy. There was a whiff of the disrespectable about it, which appealed to me; but that in turn meant that many “serious” writers ignored the theme, or quarantined it in the “mad cult” category.

Maybe digging into this stuff wasn’t good for your academic career. And as for those who did write about it, well they talked about Protestant Europe and the USA a lot. Even Russia, with profoundly deep millennial tradition, barely got a look in. Clearly somebody needed to write a book that would tie all these strange events and threads together, clearly articulating why the End was so important, and why.

Then, in 2011, that book appeared: Heaven and Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, written by Richard Landes, the editor of Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements. Landes is a mediaevalist and he could easily have turned out a book focusing on the likes of Joachim of Fiore and Rodulfus Glaber but instead he took inspiration from Georges Perec’s novel A Void which omits the letter “e” entirely, and wrote a book about the millennialism that didn’t include Jewish or Christian case studies. This radical exclusion enabled him to more clearly highlight just how much the phenomenon cuts across time, space and culture.

Thus Landes highlights the tale of Nongqawuse the Xhosa prophetess in southern Africa, who told her followers to slaughter their cattle that the dead might arise and drive out the British; the Taiping Heavenly kingdom, cargo cults, the French and Russian Revolutions, UFO cults and the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

We see millenniums pursued from the top down as well as from the bottom up, and Landes explores how an accelerated sense of “apocalyptic time” acts upon those who welcome the advent of an earthly paradise and those who resist it. We read of great and terrible deeds, and of course, the repeated experience of failure, disappointment and what follows it.

After reading the book, I was left with an unshakeable sense that apocalyptic and millennial undercurrents are always running through our societies, but that it is practically impossible to tell when they will erupt to the surface. Yet when they do, hitherto rejected and bizarre ideas can move to the centre rapidly, turning everything upside down. Thus Heaven and Earth powerfully underscores the importance of ancient dreams, phantoms and prophecies as motivating factors in human affairs.

That, no doubt, is why Landes wrote a very long introduction in which he defended himself against anticipated criticisms from his academic peers. Having taken such a bold stance, he clearly expected strong pushback. Instead the book shared the same fate as so many others: it entered the world, got some reviews, but not too many, and that was that. Not many people were outraged; not many people were paying attention. If they did pay too much attention they would see how deep these currents run even in themselves, and that might prove a difficult pill to swallow.

But Landes’s book does deserve a wider audience, and to be read, and debated. He provides powerful tools for thinking about the allure of the apocalypse and the millennium, and enables us to detect patterns, categorise types and recognise symptoms. I don’t think that the world has become less apocalyptic since I started getting into the end back in 2006; with the sudden rise of Extinction Rebellion we see a movement that is living in accelerated apocalyptic time, albeit without much hope of anything nice happening on the other end, unless you like wearing hair shirts.

But who knows how it will mutate, or what other ideas will emerge to surprise, disappoint or perhaps transform us. From reading Heaven on Earth it is clear that such ideas will emerge, though — as example after example in the book proves — we should hope it doesn’t happen in our lifetimes.

Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.


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4 years ago

Am shocked to find there are no comments or discussion on the topic here. Fact of the matter is that if one is to peak into the esoteric history of our planet and species they will come to find quite clearly that we indeed are at the end of a great age, in fact, we have ended a great year. An age is a period of time of roughly 2150 years, and each age is marked by the stars in the sky and one of the 12 zodiac signs. We process through the equinoxes as our planet spins amongst the back drop of the starry sky. And so for the past 2150 years we have been in the age of Pisces, the fish. And for this age the most impacting spiritual movement was that of the Christ. Hence why we see the fish on the back of peoples cars, and the abundance of fish stories in the bible, heck, even the popes hat is a fish. And so roughly every 2150 years goes by and on the winter solstice of a particular year we process out of an age and into a new age. The age of Pisces ended on December 21, 2012. At that very moment we then shifted into the next age; Aquarius. History shows us that super dynamic things occur at the end of an age. Each time this happens we are greeted with a new prophet, a new Bible, and a new spiritualty that thrusts us unto a forced evolution of our spirits. And so, while highly dynamic happenings occur as we switch ages we must also understand that this recent age change was no ordinary dynamic switch. Rather, this change was nt jjst going from one age to another, but we have processed through all 12 ages of the zodiac this time, and hence we begin at age 1, Aquarius. Hence this is the end of not just an age, but the end of a great year; a 26,500 year period of time. Did you know that a peculiar thing happens every year on the winter solstice? That if we are to look at the sun on December 21st we will see that the sun has reached its lowest point. But strange enough if we look at the sun again on the next day, it neither appears to move north or south, but stays at its lowest point. And on the 23rd and the 24th the same thing occurs.But on the 25th something magical happens, the sun appears to move northerly by 1 degree, and hence it begins its accent towards hotter days and warmer times. And so it has been said, the Sun died, was dead for 3 days, only to resurrect and spring forward with life, warmth and abundance. A good few ages ago the dynamic story was about these 12 ages and the sun. In a most dynamic fashion this past age brought us a story about 12 disciples and a son. And so today we await the next incredibly dynamic unfolding to the next story that will thrust us forward in our shared advancement of spirit. Love, Light and Power. God Bless!