This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. In 1978, on a farm in Guyana, over 900 people died because they were lied to. They were lied to, and they lacked the tools of skepticism to see through what they were being told. Out of a desire for community, out of a desire for change, out of a desire for salvation, these people entrusted their well-being to a charismatic preacher who promised them a better life. But for their misguided credulity they would pay the ultimate price. Two hundred and seventy six of the dead were children whose own parents fed them grape punch laced with arsenic. To say their parents failed them would be a gross understatement.
Jonestown was an extreme example of a common phenomenon — one I am not unfamiliar with. The first nineteen years of my life were spent in the fiery-warm comfort of my own apocalyptic cult: Jehovah’s Witnesses. I grew up with the certain knowledge that I was living in the “last days” of this world, and everything I knew would soon be destroyed by a wrathful (but loving) God. We Witnesses were fortunate enough to belong to the true religion, and, following this final holy war, would go on to live forever on a restored paradise earth. This was not just a story. This Armageddon was real and imminent. We were taught that it would come “like a thief in the night,” and were urged not to stray from the faith lest we be caught by surprise and perish in the looming, righteous destruction.
This is what my parents, whom I trusted, told me. We attended three meetings a week, every week, where this knowledge was reinforced. We studied books published by the Watchtower Society with illustrations depicting people being destroyed by fireballs. Men, women and children dying by God’s hand, while faithful Witnesses marched safely away from the carnage. We went door to door preaching to others in hopes of saving them from this destruction. So real was this fate that my best friend and I used to guess at how old we might be when it happened. “I hope Armageddon comes sometime after I’m sixteen,” he would say, “so that I at least get a chance to have a drivers’ license.” My mom used to speculate that so many Costcos were popping up so that Witnesses would have a place to hole up while God destroyed the wicked world. Sweet dreams, son!
These ideas are nothing new. Doomsday cults have been around for centuries, and each believes they will be first-hand witnesses to the end times. The human ego seems to tell us that we ourselves, naturally, will have a part to play in the most important events in all of human history. Most of these predictions are inspired by the Book of Revelation, one of many writings of its day depicting some version of the end of the world, but the only one which happened to be canonized in the Bible decades later. What luck. The book is rich with macabre imagery and seeming numerical significance (no skimping on the 7s and 12s, please). It is sufficiently vague so as to have thousands of interpretations and suggest that God communicates only through cryptic metaphor, allowing generations of would-be prophets to extract the date of the world’s demise.
“THOSE WHO DON’T LEARN FROM HISTORY…”
Apocalyptic movements were abundant in northern Europe in the middle ages, led by charismatic prophets eager to link current events to the malleable framework of Revelation. Indeed, many who witnessed the bubonic plague indiscriminately wipe out over a third of the population were convinced the end had come. Religious fervor erupted as desperate citizens tried to appease an apparently angry God.
Christopher Columbus seems to have brought apocalyptic thought to the Americas when he landed in the 15th century. Believing he was fated to find the Terrestrial Paradise promised in the book of Revelation, he wrote:
God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John… and he showed me the spot where to find it.
Centuries later, Americans were still obsessed with that darn book.
In the early 1800s an American Baptist preacher named William Miller created a national tizzy when he became convinced the second coming of Christ was imminent. Miller, once a Deist, had become infatuated with the idea of a personal savior following his participation in the war of 1812. After careful examination of biblical prophecy, he set the date:
My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.
Through his lectures and the publication of newspaper articles and tracts, Miller generated great interest in his prediction. By the early 1840s there were hundreds of thousands of so-called “Millerites,” eagerly awaiting the time of the end. When March 21, 1844 passed without incident, a new date of April 18, 1844 was adopted. When Christ failed to return even then, Miller publicly stated:
I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.
Again the bible chronology was revised and a new date was set, this time for October 22, 1844, a date that would later become known as the Millerites’ Great Disappointment. William Miller died on December 20, 1849, still convinced of Christ’s imminent return. His legacy became the modern day Seventh Day Adventist church.
In 1870, an 18-year-old boy named Charles Taze Russell attended a presentation by Adventist minister Jonas Wendell, who proposed that Christ’s second coming would be no later than 1874. While Russell didn’t necessarily agree with Wendell’s prediction, he did come away inspired to do some predicting of his own.
Russell collaborated with a group strongly influenced by Millerite Adventism to analyze the Bible and separate out what they considered unsubstantiated Christian traditions, discarding doctrines like the trinity, hell fire, and the immortality of the soul. Russell began to financially support the work of Nelson Barbour, who, through his newsletter “Herald of the Morning,” predicted that April, 1878 would bring the resurrection of dead Christians. After the failure of that prediction, Russell split from Barbour and founded Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society for the purpose of distributing tracts and papers espousing his own developing doctrines. Russell and his followers became known as “Bible Students,” and his publications were massively successful, with millions of copies being distributed all over the world in various languages. Russell became fixated on the Great Pyramid of Giza, calling it “The Bible in Stone,” and believed that its measurements could be used to deduce significant prophetic dates. He believed Christ had returned invisibly in 1874, and would take control of earthly affairs in 1914. He interpreted the outbreak of World War I as the beginning of Armageddon.
When Russell died in 1916 at the age of 64 (a 7-foot-tall pyramid marks his grave), Joseph Rutherford took over as president of the Watch Tower Society. This proved controversial, and resulted in a great schism with thousands of members leaving the fold, many to form their own bible groups. Rutherford re-energized the Society with his campaign “Millions Now Living Will Never Die,” predicting that 1925 would be the beginning of an earthly resurrection of the righteous, starting with some of the biblical greats. Rutherford writes:
Seventy jubilees of fifty years each would be a total of 3500 years. That period of time beginning 1575 before A.D. 1 of necessity would end in the fall of the year 1925, at which time the type ends and the great antitype must begin. What, then, should we expect to take place? The chief thing to be restored is the human race to life; and since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favour, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death, being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth. – Millions Now Living Will Never Die p.88
Rutherford even acquired a 10-bedroom mansion in San Diego intended to be the home base for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they oversaw the rest of the resurrection and restoration of earth to an Eden-like paradise. One can’t help but snicker at the following:
No doubt many boys and girls who read this will live to see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, and other men of old come forth in the glory of their better resurrection, of perfect mind and body… The world and all the present conveniences will seem strange to them at first, but they will soon become accustomed to the new methods. They may have some amusing experiences at first; for they never saw telephones, radios, automobiles, electric lights, aeroplanes, steam engines, and many other things so familiar to us. – The Way to Paradise pp. 224, 226
“Millions Now Living Will Never Die” was the defining message of Rutherford’s presidency. Between 1918 and 1925, this message was echoed around the world through countless lectures, newspaper advertisements and other publications, heralding 1925 as the end of the world as people knew it, and resulting in tremendous growth for the Watch Tower Society.
Can you guess what happened next? Or, rather, didn’t happen? Following the failure of the 1925 prophecy a majority of the Bible Students decided to place their bets elsewhere. Rutherford attempted to divert blame to the membership:
Question: Have the ancient worthies returned? Answer: Certainly they have not returned. No one has seen them, and it would be foolish to make such an announcement. It was stated in the ‘Millions’ book that we might reasonably expect them to return shortly after 1925, but this was merely an expressed opinion; besides it is still shortly after 1925. … The difficulty was that the friends inflated their imaginations beyond reason; and that when their imaginations burst asunder, they were inclined to throw away everything. – Watch Tower 1926 pp. 196, 232
Rutherford next overhauled Watch Tower doctrine, further distancing himself from Russell, and in 1931 the Bible Students adopted a new name: Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the late 1960s, the Watch Tower began to strongly imply that 1975 was the new year of Armageddon, citing, as usual, dubious bible chronology. Many Witnesses sold their homes, cashed out their assets, and organized their lives around this prediction. The year 1976 saw another drastic fall in membership, but the Watch Tower Society maintains even today that the end is imminent, indeed at our very door.
KOOL-AID AND KOMETS
While Jim Jones of People’s Temple largely rejected biblical text, he often wove apocalyptic themes into his teachings, painting the United States as the Antichrist and predicting a nuclear holocaust to occur on July 15, 1967. This kind of rhetoric ultimately convinced devotees that communal life in Jonestown was their only option. The latest doomsday hysteria to capture the world’s imagination was, of course, the Mayan-calendar-New-Age-prophecy-thingy. Fortunately, by the time the date rolled around there were few to be found who actually believed in it, and the vast majority spent their “last night on earth” at a kitschy, ironic party. The members of the Heaven’s Gate cult weren’t so lucky. In 1997, 38 of these Hale-Bopp-comet-worshippers lost their lives, as did 83 Branch Davidians in 1993 in Waco, Texas (also an off-shoot, by the way, of Seventh Day Adventism).
While tragedies like Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate and Waco may be few and far between, apocalyptic religiosity is alive and well. Today, the Seventh Day Adventist Church boasts 17 million members, Jehovah’s Witnesses hover around 7 million, and Mormons at 14 million. People like Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping aren’t bashful about making repeated doomsday predictions, even advertising them on billboards (“May 21, 2012. The Bible Guarantees It!”). We may dismiss them, yet a 2007 poll said that up to 44 percent of Americans expect Jesus to return in the next 50 years. Humans clearly have a tendency, even a need, to suspend disbelief and latch onto fantastical belief systems, evidence (and history) be damned. It’s an unfortunate cousin to the human imagination and creative impulse. Luckily, and perhaps contradictorily, we also have an intense curiosity, which has afforded us profound insights into the actual nature of our universe.
I used to have dreams as a kid that the entire Jehovah’s Witness religion was just one big prank on me. The whole story had been concocted for my benefit and everyone was in on it, like I was living in my own Truman Show. Eventually, I found out I was right, in a way. The whole story was false, but it wasn’t only at my expense. It was at the expense of my sister, my friends, indeed all the kids being raised by adults who were passing on dangerous ideas to their children: Teaching them to live for an imaginary future existence. Teaching them to be afraid of an impending Armageddon. Teaching them to reject science and instead embrace blind faith. Teaching them to withhold critical thought and accept what they were told.
For people like me who were raised with this kind of religion, part of growing into a mature adult is accepting that our parents were wrong. They are flawed people who were too credulous themselves, and, even if it wasn’t intentional, wronged us by perpetuating false ideas. Go ahead and say it, it’s okay: “My parents were wrong.” That wasn’t so bad, was it? “My parents were wrong.” Through admitting this we can begin to forgive them and, more importantly, avoid doing the same to our own children.
Recent polls suggest that 1 in 6 Americans now claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. This is encouraging, and begins to put us on track with the rest of our industrialized counterparts. We “nones” now constitute the second largest “religious” group in the country, behind Christians. Our potential influence is great, and we must continue to promote positive skepticism and scientific literacy wherever we can. In doing so, we will render unto our children the best future this world has to offer.