Nov. 18, 1999
Contact: Rosemary Harty
New Media Help Fuel Doomsday Fears, Expert Says
When William Miller declared the end of the world would come between 1843 and 1844, he printed pamphlets and attracted some newspaper attention. But mostly the New York farmer relied on word of mouth to reach his band of believers, some of whom eventually went into the mountains of upstate New York for a fruitless wait for the end of time.
Today, those who engage in end-times prophecy have more sophisticated tools at their disposal, says William Dinges, professor of religious studies at The Catholic University of America. And thats helped fuel irrational fears and expectations about the new millennium, he says.
"Miller didnt have the Web at his disposal," Dinges says. "The Internet has given an immediate and powerful platform to many kinds of religious and secular groups who want to advance their views on the end of the world."
Dinges teaches a course at CUA in apocalyptic and millenarian thought in the American experience. He says a key to understanding the Christian traditions approach is whether a pre- or post-millenarian theology is promoted.
Catholicism has historically taken a post-millennial approach, Dinges said. This position holds that the second coming of Christ and the final judgment will occur at the end of a figurative period of time. And until that coming, Catholics by way of the Church have an obligation to "actualize the kingdom of Heaven on earth."
The post-millennial system which was prominent among most evangelical Christians in the first half of the 19th century helped foster the abolitionist movement, prison reform and other social and communitarian movements, as believers worked to change the world in preparation for Christs second coming, Dinges says.
Dinges sees a more pessimistic view in the pre-millennial approach. Crime, wars, famine, the nuclear threat in a pre-millennialist view, all these things have an inevitability because the end-times are here. In this view, the emphasis is on battles, carnage, punishment and divine retribution.
"Pre-millennialists accept the scenario of an antichrist, the Rapture, Armageddon and a final judgment. But the critical difference is that Christ comes at the beginning of the end-times scenario, and that all the bad things are part of a final unfolding of the end of the world," Dinges says.
The Millerites were the first Americans to make a large social movement out of biblical convictions regarding the end of the world, but their fate didnt discourage other groups.
In the 20th century, world wars, the establishment of a Jewish state, and nuclear weapons helped fuel psychological fears about the end of time.
"The idea that we could obliterate all life as we know it with just one action gave new credence to the apocalyptic view of the earth ending in a great fire," Dinges says.
Writers such as Hal Lindsey, author of "The Late, Great Planet Earth," and other works heralding the second coming, spin out paperbacks and videos that both promote and capitalize on millennium fears.
And today, groups as diverse as survivalists and radical environmentalists adopt the symbols and images of the apocalypse to advance their ideas, such as naming Bill Gates as the anti-Christ, he says.
"The level of imagination that is at work in developing these scenarios is incredible," Dinges says.
Even hysteria over the Y2K computer bug has an apocalyptic connection, Dinges says. "Its just like original sin the flaw is born in the soul of the machine," he says.
To contact William Dinges, call 202-319-5700 or 202-319-5999; e-mail: Dinges@cua.edu.
For more information, call 202-319-5065.
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