News / USA

Belief in End Times in America Attributed to Economy, Natural Disasters

Harold Camping speaks during a taping of his show "Open Forum" during which he said his prophecy that the world would end was off by five months because Judgment Day actually will come on October 21, in Oakland, California, May 23, 2011
Harold Camping speaks during a taping of his show "Open Forum" during which he said his prophecy that the world would end was off by five months because Judgment Day actually will come on October 21, in Oakland, California, May 23, 2011

A silver-haired gentlemen has just stepped out of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. With its collection of pioneering airplanes, telescopes and rockets, the museum is a temple to the triumph of science.

Billy Johnson said that's all fine and good, but he puts scripture above science. The gentleman from Mississippi, which recently has been hit by floods and tornadoes, believes what the Bible calls 'the end times' could begin at any moment.

He said that when it does, "the believers in Christ are going to be called up, and they'll go to heaven to be with Christ. Then," he adds, "oh, it gets complicated - then you've got a thousand-year reign, Satan will be turned loose."

Johnson is describing what is known as the Rapture - an apocalyptic scenario that experts say a fifth of American Christians believe.

Many people have been mocking followers of U.S. radio preacher Harold Camping, who wrongly predicted that the Rapture would occur on May 21.

Johnson is not a Camping follower, but he is one of many Americans who believe the Rapture could occur at any moment. And experts say such beliefs are fueled by the current mix of natural disasters and economic insecurity.

Historians say there have always been people who thought they were living in the end times. But surveys suggest that apocalyptic sentiment is strong in America today.

According to a March poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, 44 percent of respondents said the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence the end times are happening now.

Richard Fenn, a professor of Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, said such beliefs are rooted in the American middle and lower classes' economic insecurity and sense of institutional failure.

"Schools don't educate, hospitals don't heal, insurance companies don't insure, pensions don't materialize, banks don't lend money." And that, he says, contributes to "this whole sense that something is out of whack, fundamentally not working."

He said there's also something else going on.

"I think you have to take into account that America has a safety net that is far thinner, far weaker, has more holes in it, than comparably industrialized nations, say, in Western Europe," said Fenn, suggesting that the prospect of facing a job loss or health catastrophe without support can intensify existential fears.

Fenn has written a book called Dreams of Glory, in which he blames the apocalyptic thinking in monotheistic faiths in part for global terrorism. He accuses the Christian fundamentalists of having a Manichean view of the world. He added that they are trying to foment conflict in the Middle East in the hope it will be Armaggedon, an end times battle prophesied in the New Testament.  

"There is in the Christian right a real belief that in the end there are only two kinds of people. And the others, whoever they are - homosexuals, ACLU, Muslims, feminists - they're going to go down," he said.

But another school of thought sees apocalyptic belief as having a mostly benevolent effect, helping people cope with their immediate problems.

"People have financial panic, they have political turmoil, they have uncertainty in their personal lives and you can use a negative word here but this is kind of an escape theology," says Doug Weaver, a professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "You can escape all the problems of the past because Jesus will come back and take you out of it."

And, he argues it can even encourage moral behavior. Many believers say the possibility of an imminent end to it all makes them focus on what's important. They say they try to live every day as righteously as possible, in the hope that when it does happen, they will be among those saved.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs