The value of apocalypse

An end-of-the-world scenario, whether scientific or religious, should reorient us—but toward what?

Who is the most influential thinker in the history of American culture? A case can be made for John Nelson Darby, the 19th-century former Church of Ireland priest who cooked up what we now call premillennial dispensationalism—an es­chatological scheme by which disasters natural and supernatural presage the return of Christ.

Anthony Aveni and Lisa Vox describe how American culture, politics, and apocalypticism have been braided together in ways that tend toward paranoid conspiratorial fearmongering peddled as Christianity. Darby’s mistake—I would call it a heresy—has shaped the politics that rule our country and our world. That’s a much grander claim than these two good books by appropriately modest historians would ever let themselves make. Yet I think it’s the clear conclusion they offer.

Aveni, an astronomer at Colgate University, has a distinguished track record in publishing books about popular responses to astronomical phenomena, including a book even newer than this one about the recent solar eclipse. Perhaps his training explains his tone deafness with regard to Christianity. Some of his mistakes are mere editorial missteps (Tertullian is called a Roman emperor, perhaps confused with Trajan). He says Jesus is “disguised” as the prophet Daniel in apocalyptic literature, and the book of Revelation is about Jesus “transporting” people to a higher realm of existence after this world is destroyed. At least Aveni cops to his incapacity—as a scientist he thinks that all “occult” ways of knowing are simply incompatible with scientific ones, such that no bridge or dialogue can take place between them.