Keep it Real

By Max Plissken

This page is about who and what not to put your faith in when you’re pondering the apocalypse. Many visionaries throughout history have produced sophisticated literary works which should not be downplayed simply because of their modern applications. It is those modern applications which continue to help mislead and misinform people who may be vulnerable to doomsday prophecies – particularly when couched in religious imagery. Are we being hypocritical by advising our readers to beware of doomsday prophets? Not at all. The objective of Apocalypse University is to help others prepare for society’s imminent collapse. But in matters of timing, cause, bad guys and victims, we make no claims to prophetic ability or special knowledge beyond the reach of everyday humans. And we’re certainly not asking you to give us your first-born children. Unless they’re really rich, of course. Or influential. Anyway. For now, we all have to keep it real. In the chaos of Armageddon, the last thing anyone needs is the added madness of being led mentally and physically astray by prophets of questionable authenticity.

Introduction  Apocalyptic visionaries can be separated into 3 categories: 1) those whose works lean toward political metaphor; 2) those who prefer social metaphor; 3) those who attempt a more precise depiction of the apocalypse. Broadly speaking, the first two types of oracle depict their own unique visions and leave an interpretation to those who hear them. The third type takes the existing imagery from religious, mythological or mystical texts, and creates a new interpretation, aimed at influencing a given audience.

Whether the figure in question is claiming to actually be divine, as in the case of David Koresh, or is claiming to be the only correct interpreter of God’s message, such as Harold Camping, the reader/listener is under no legal obligation to tune out. But the potential consequences of heeding the message of such individuals are such that there is an obligation to think before you tear your life apart.

The Book of Daniel , written in the 2nd  century BC, is the Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. It is the only complete example of apocalyptic literature in the Jewish canon. The book is divided into a series of stories (chs 1-6) and visions (chs 7-12). The contents of the Old Testament regularly assume a setting of open conflict, and for this reason its verses – particularly the Book of Daniel – are often favoured by apocalyptic authors and preachers. The Book of Daniel is a veritable feast for such authors, being filled with religious symbolism, much of it quite cryptic, and containing favourite themes such as the Kingdom of God and the resurrection of the dead.

This text’s primary focus is political metaphor, having been composed during Judea’s occupation by the Seleucid Empire. The permeation of Jewish religion throughout all aspects of their society would have resulted in social messages being conveyed aswell. In broadest possible terms, the Book of Daniel’s purpose was to assure Jews of the 2nd century BC that the powerful and – in Jewish eyes – blasphemous kingdoms of the world were destined to be brought down by God and His faithful. Sorry to disappoint modern apocalyptic visionaries, but the text is more than a little anachronistic by now. Use it for spiritual guidance all you want, but it says nothing about the end of our world.

The Book of Revelation is an example of a preference for political metaphor. The book was composed by the Christian author John, around the year AD 100 – possibly the same John who authored the Gospel of the same name. This date of composition, combined with the recorded periods of heightened Christian persecution, places the book within the reign of either the Roman emperor Domitian (AD 81 – 96) or Trajan (AD 98 – 117). While the first large scale persecutions of Christians occurred under the emperor Nero (AD 54 – 68), the first state-sponsored persecutions began under Domitian and Trajan. This was an extremely dangerous and terrifying period for the Christian community, which found itself at odds with the Imperial cult, and these concerns are clearly reflected in their contemporary literature.

An example of a passage which can be easily re-interpreted by modern apocalyptic authors is Rev 3.10-11, which reads: ‘Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon…’ It is not difficult to preach that these words are a sign to believers that they will be kept safe during imminent Armageddon. But a swift examination of previous verses in the book, coupled with a knowledge of when it was composed, reveal clearly that Rev 3.7-13 are aimed specifically at the 1st century church in Philadelphia (in the Roman province of Asia). The words in these passages, and indeed the entire Book of Revelation, are intended to provide hope to a young, threatened community. Despite the early Christian community’s belief in the return of Christ, the prophetic value of this book was never intended to extend beyond a few generations from its composition.

Nostradamus’ quatrains  Certainly, some of the writings of Michel de Nostredame (AD 1503 – 1566) are interesting. By far the most credible are those (few) in which he uses specific names or dates, such as quatrain I.25, in which the name ‘Pasteur’ is clearly written, and (by interpretation) the timeframe of the 1880s is given. Louis Pasteur did indeed complete his most valuable work during the 1880s, though the rest of the quatrain is far more open to interpretation. Being ‘dishonoured’ through ‘others’ slanders’ is applicable to any well-known person in history, not just Louis Pasteur. ‘The unseen is discovered’ can be interpreted as referring to the micro-organisms (unseen to the naked eye) which so fascinated Pasteur, but it might also logically refer to any object which has been hidden.

Other writings provide minor details, and are often all the more appealing to sincere believers in the prophecies of Nostradamus. Consider this quatrain (II.6):

“Near the harbours and within two cities,

There will be two catastrophes and such as never seen before;

Intense in torment, incalculable human lives ended,

Cries for help from the great God immortal.”

Depending on what a reader is looking for, this quatrain could be interpreted equally easily as referring to either the 1945 atomic bomb blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the 2001 Al-qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. In both these scenarios, two cities were involved, both cities had harbours, the attacks were unprecedented, they involved massive loss of human life, and there were quite certainly “Cries for help from the great God immortal.” A believer can pick whichever scenario suits him best and declare it factual.

Most importantly, Nostradamus did not predict the apocalypse. He states how long a time his prophecies allegedly span (several thousand years from their composition in the 16th century), and the most popular theme of his work is certainly chaotic events such as earthquakes, fires and wars. But he does not write that the world will end after the last of his prophecies has manifested, or at any other event predicted by him. His quatrains and sixains are constantly used either as ‘proof’ to back up the doomsday prophecies of modern visionaries, or as new prophecies of doom in themselves. Astute readers and listeners should realize that correlations between Nostradamus and the apocalypse are either works of
fiction, misinterpretations of the original text, or deliberate misrepresentations.

Third Secret of Fátima was put to paper on 3rd January 1944, as the last of a series of visions, granted to three young Portuguese shepherds by the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1917. The document was released to the public by the Vatican only in June 2000. While much controversy exists over the veracity of the released document, it is, as it stands, just four pages long and contains only religious symbolism. There are no prophecies, warnings or concrete references to the terrestrial world at all. It is included here not because of what it says, but because of what it does not say. The text of the Third Secret of Fátima has been suggested to prophesy the decay of the Catholic Church, the influence of Satan and even the end of the world. Given the non-specific nature of the text, virtually all of this is derived from discrepancies in the Vatican’s descriptions of the text and their releasing the Third Secret in 2000 instead of 1960, as first planned.

The end of the world?! Seriously! In the Third Secret of Fátima we find a fine example of humans’ rabid desire to find apocalyptic references in texts which are in any way obscure or exotic. And when there is insufficient material for such references, fantasies are presented as facts to fill in the blanks.

David Koresh (b. August 17th, 1959; d. April 19th, 1993), born ‘Vernon Wayne Howell’, provides probably the most frightening modern example of just how dangerous humans can be when they come to believe their own misinterpretations and visions. In the nightmarish conclusion to the siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, more than 70 sect members died, including more than 20 children and 2 pregnant women. Koresh had convinced his followers that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and that his martyrdom was a necessary and imminent event. The Branch Davidian compound at Mt Carmel was called ‘Ranch Apocalypse’ by Koresh, indicating something of his fascination with the subject. He used imagery from both the Book of Daniel and Book of Revelation to convince followers of his divinity, his powers and his destiny.

The baffling question which instantly occurs when reviewing these events is: ‘How could dozens of rational people pledge their loyalty and lives to a dangerous fanatic like David Koresh?’ While violence and abuse against sect members were reported within the Davidian compound, these occured after their recruitment. Sect members joined Koresh for the same reason humans make any decision – because it seemed to be the right choice. Though self-obsessed and delusional, Koresh’s preaching was presented to followers in a fashion which gave them what they required: a charismatic leader to handle decisions in a difficult world – a world subsequently made exponentially more difficult by succombing to Koresh’s visions of an imminent apocalypse. Tragic and paradoxical, the Waco disaster is the most vivid reminder to be extremely careful where you place your faith.

Harold Camping (b. July 19th, 1921 ) made his most famous apocalyptic forecast by setting May 21st 2011 – at 6pm local time – to be the beginning of the Rapture. Five months of tribulation were prophesied to follow, until the last of the Christian faithful had been taken bodily into Heaven, and the rest of the Earth would be completely destroyed at God’s command. Camping’s previous attempts at doomsday prophecy had failed with equal totality in May 1988 and September 1994. Staying true to form, the radio broadcaster from California re-re-re-interpreted his supposedly infallible numerological calculations, and decreed that both the Rapture and the world’s destruction would occur on October 21st 2011, without the initial 5 months of tribulation. Now that both dates have passed without Armageddon-like incident, he has finally admitted that he may have made an error.

Camping is a Type 3 apocalyptic visionary, making no claims to visions or divine revelations of his own, but instead interpreting an existing text – the Christian Bible – in a specific way. Like all such forecasters, Camping began his calculations with an arbitrary interpretation of his chosen texts. In this case, he ascribed numeric values of his choosing to various Biblical and historical data. Camping openly stated that while some Biblical passages were to be taken literally, others were not. There could hardly be a more illogical system of interpretation. His methodology was entirely subjective, yet it allowed him to claim divine authority and Biblical source material. As a result of his most recent failed prophesy, many of his followers have lost almost everything they owned, having believed they would soon not need earthly possessions. Several people have committed suicide due to either fear of the imminent tribulation or disillusionment after the failure of the prophecy. One woman tried to kill both her children in order to spare them the suffering which she believed was about to cover the Earth. Camping has refused to take any responsibility for his followers’ actions, claiming that he was simply the messenger.

2012 End of Mayan Calendar  We’re not even going to dignify this one with a paragraph. If you want to know more, there are many rational pages on the internet. This one does the job well:  http://www.skepdic.com/maya.html

Now what have we learned? As a species, pretty much nothing. We take what we need, so if an apocalyptic visionary extends a philosophically helpful hand, we’ll take that too. In truth, if I walked down the street with a big smile and convinced thirty people that I could make them financially stable, protect them from cyber terrorism, and give them access to my private oil well, then I’d have my own cult up and running. From there it’d be just a short jump from ‘Trust me, friends’ to ‘Obey me, friends, and earn my protection’ and finally to ‘Kneel before me, mortal slime!’ We are not suggesting the abandonment of faith. We are reminding you that there is a difference between faith and gullibility. Before, during and after a cataclysm you will find those who thrive on chaos because of the power it promises for those with high charisma and zero scruples. Following such individuals is tantamount to signing humanity’s death warrant.

So what practical reminders can we at Apocalypse University provide that might help? For goodness’ sake: try to keep it real. If you do find yourself in the middle of a preach-bashing, separate the concepts of opinion and reality. What does the speaker believe, and what does he know? Charisma can be an overwhelming device, but Sean Connery himself can’t change fantasy to fact. Also, make all decisions with your mind, not your perceived needs. There’s nothing worse than looking back a few years, your every possession stolen by loonies, and realising ‘Hmm, I may have been hasty.’

You’re preparing for the apocalypse. You’re going to meet some bad people.

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