And now we’ve come to the last day of the month-long retrospective of Whatever, celebrating its ten-year anniversary. And to celebrate, I’m airing the last entry in my “That Was The Millennium That Was” series from 1999, in which I wrote about the best and most interesting stuff of the previous 1,000 years. Unlike the rest of the “Whatever X” entries, this one is actually in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, but what the heck. It fits. And it serves as a reminder that there’s still time to pick up a copy of the book, either from Subterranean (ordering from there will get you “Waiting for Athena,” the special exclusive chapbook) or from Amazon.
In any event, I hope you’ve enjoyed this month-long trip down memory lane. See you in September 2018, for Whatever XX.
DECEMBER 31, 1999: Best Armageddon of the Millennium
Thomas Muentzer’s Armageddon, in 1525. It wasn’t actually the end of the world, but really. When is it ever?
The history of the human species is the history of a people waiting for the other shoe to drop. The very first human who had the ability to think beyond the next five minutes probably got up one morning, looked around the cave and the savannah outside, smiled briefly and then thought, you know, this just can’t last. Humans are innately eschatological — looking for the signs and portents that signify that the end of the world is nigh. It beats Yahtzee.
While all humans everywhere seem to have some conception of a final end of our planet and our people, Western civilization has been particularly obsessed with the end time (our Eastern brethren look at the world in a less linear fashion, what with all reincarnation stuff, although even they believe in a eventual, final resting point of the human soul — Nirvana, which is literally the annihilation of desire. That’s right, when you finally reach complete understanding, you won’t want that Ford Expedition! Better stay on that Wheel of Suffering for a while, until you get it out of your system).
As a systematic collection of beliefs, the Western end-of-the world mania gets its start in Zoroastrianism, a religion out of Iran, whose prophet, Zoroaster, taught that the world was a battleground in at 9,000 year war between the forces of good and evil. At the end of it, a final savior, called the saoshyant, will come and lead the forces of good into triumph. God (or, more specifically, Ahura Mazda, the god of good) will then use him to redeem the world and resurrect the dead.
Sound familiar? It should; elements of Zoroastrianism deeply inform Judiasm and its own messianic writing, as well as Christianity and Islam. Zoroastianism’s god of evil, Ahriman, is even the blueprint for Ol’ Scratch himself — that’d be Satan, you know.
More recently, the concept of end times and apocalyptic struggle has expanded beyond the usual boundaries of religion. Take, if you will, the political system of Marxism. Marxism is full of the hallmarks of the end times: Belief in a protracted struggle between the forces of good (the workers) and evil (those who would alienate the worker from his labor), a final apocalyptic battle (your worker’s revolution), and then, of course, the Worker’s Paradise, which is your basic post apocalyptic Millennium, minus of course Jesus (who, however, was well-known to prefer the company of the poor over the rich).
This apocalyptic struggle is even more explicit in Nazism, which had the apocalyptic battle (the eradication of Jews and other non-Aryans), its messiah (Hitler), and, most explicitly, the Third Reich, which of course was also referred to as the “Thousand Year Reich,” aping the millennium exactly (the title “Third Reich,” though a reference to German history, also fits comfortably into an apocalyptic world view — in the 12th Century, Joachim of Fiore, an Italian monk, interpreted the Book of Revelation and discovered three ages of the world, hinged on the triune nature of the Christian God. There’s the age of the father, which was pre-Jesus, and the age of the son, which was the current time, and an upcoming “Third Age,” to be ruled by the holy ghost, which would correspond to the Millennium).
Nowadays, of course, most people are repelled by the explicit Nazi/Judeo-Christian parallels, particularly as it implies that the Nazis are the forces of “good” in this world view (the idea of Hitler as the Messiah is particularly odious). But in 1938, I’ll bet you a lot of Germans thought it was pretty keen.
Ironically, in this century, it’s science that has given us fuel for our apocalyptic fire. There’s the atomic bomb, most obviously. Nuclear annihilation, nuclear winter, Mad Max, Godzilla. But it’s just the fiery tip of the iceberg. AIDS is a favorite example for the obnoxious Bible-thumper of the incurable plague the precedes the apocalypse (rest assured other plagues, from the Black plague onward, have also pulled this duty). The advance of technology that allows global network and near- instantaneous access to vast reams information is also a piece of the end days puzzle.
Global warming, and its twin offspring El Nino and La Nina, contributes to those massive floods and hurricanes and fires we’ve been having recently. Hell, even meteors from space, the 1990’s favorite way to blow up the world, belongs in the pot: They didn’t call the movie “Armageddon” for nothing, even if they did manage to screw up the reference (“Armageddon” is a battle — and is in fact an actual geographic location — not the actual end of the world).
Ultimately, however, the problem for humans, and particularly Christians, has not been that the end is coming, but that it hasn’t come soon enough. Christians have literally been expecting the end times since the very beginning of the religion. The earliest Christians fully expected the Kingdom of God before they died; indeed, much of the literature conceptualizing and explaining the second coming (including the Book of Revelation) is about trying to rationalize why Christians are still loitering on earth instead of kicking up their heels on a cloud somewhere.
Subsequent interpretations of apocalyptic literature through this last millennium have filled its days with presumably definite dates in which the world as we knew it would end, and the new world would begin. This despite the fact Jesus himself noted that “No man knoweth the day nor the hour of my coming.” But you know how people are. They get all excited and stuff.
First and foremost, of course, is the actual beginning of the second millennium, which (for all you math geeks out there), the people of the times took to be 1000 AD. Churches were packed with the cautious expectation that the Millennium, with the big “M,” might actually coincide with the millennium, with the small “m.” It did not. Later, the previously mentioned Joachim of Fiore, in formulating his three ages of God, pegged the age of the Holy Ghost to begin sometime in the early part of the 13th century, by which time, conveniently, Joachim would be dead and unable to answer for himself if there was a problem with the calculations, which of course there was.
Somewhat further up the timestream, the biggest End of the World event in the new world took place in 1844. Seems a New York farmer named William Miller predicted, after careful analysis of the Book of Revelation, that the Second Coming was on the way in 1843. Through skillful promotion and the use of helpful pamphlets, hundreds of thousands bought in, but when the appointed hour arrived, Jesus was nowhere to be found. Miller checked his records and discovered — oops — he’d dropped a year in the translation of dates from BC to AD. He set the new date: October 21, 1844.
Miller’s adherents, the Adventists, sold their worldly possessions and decamped to Miller’s farm to await the Lord. Jesus, alas, missed his Second Chance at a Second Coming. This event, or lack thereof, becomes known as the “Great Disappointment,” which, all things considered, may be the only time something described that way can be said to be an understatement.
(Adventists are still waiting, by the way. The new thinking is that the 1844 date was the moment Jesus started his examination of all the names in the Book of Life. After that, he’ll come down and start his reign. The Adventists have this time chosen not to set a specific date — though it’s real soon now — and that’s probably wise. As for the fact that Jesus needs 156 years and counting to read a single book, all one can say is: That’s some book.)
Thousands lost their property and some probably lost their faith in the Great Disappointment, but nobody died. The same cannot be said for Thomas Muentzer’s Armageddon, which is why I, after all this preamble, now bequeath it the title of End of the World of the Millennium.
Thomas Muentzer was a priest who, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, read into the Bible (newly translated into German by Martin Luther, with whom Muentzer had had some acquaintance) that the Apocalypse was coming, and that the forces of good and evil would be arrayed along social and economic lines. The good folks would be the peasants, who are, of course, the salt of the earth, while the forces of evil were in the form of the princes and landowners of Germany.
As you might expect, this particular interpretation of the Bible was not especially popular with the princes (or with Martin Luther himself — who at one point called Muentzer “The Satan at Allstadt”), but the masses ate it up. And it just happened to fit the mood at the time in Germany, where peasant revolts were popping up all over the lands. Muentzer found himself leading one of those peasant revolts, and in 1525, was at forefront of a peasant army, 8,000 strong, facing the army of the princes at Frankenhausen.
This is the battle Muentzer has been waiting for — he’d been riling up the peasants by telling them that this battle will signal the End of the World, that God himself would intervene and thus, the Kingdom of God would be at hand. The princes, whose well-armed, well-trained forces reasonably expected to wipe the floor with the peasants, reportedly tried to find a non-confrontational end to the battle (they needed those peasants back in the fields, after all). But Muentzer riled up the troops some more, proclaiming that he himself would catch the princes’ cannonballs in his shirtsleeves. What’s more, as the battle was about to commence, a rainbow appeared in the sky above the battlefield. As it happened, Muentzer’s flag featured a rainbow on it. It had to be a sign. Muentzer’s peasants marched into battle, singing hymns. Christ was coming, and he was on their side.
It was a massacre. Five thousand peasants died screaming as the princes rained cannonshot down on their heads (the princes’ forces lost maybe a dozen people all told). Muentzer did not catch a single one of those cannonballs with his sleeves; in fact he fled the field of battle and was discovered some distance away, hiding under a bed. Muentzer was arrested, tortured, made to recant his various heresies, and on May 27, 1525, executed by the princes. In one sense Muentzer was right, it was the end of the world, although the world that was ending was his. It was, alas, a very personal apocalypse.
Somewhat ironically, several centuries later, Muentzer would be held up as a national hero by the communist government of East Germany, who saw parallels in his actions and the actions of the Glorious Worker’s Revolution. So I suppose when communism fell, that made Muentzer a two-time loser.
We’re still awaiting the end of the world. And let’s be clear on this: The end is coming, one way or another, for the planet Earth. In the absence of planet-squashing meteors, horrifying viral or bacterial plagues that wipe out all known life, the sudden and unexpected appearance of an alien race that claims Earth in an eminent domain land grab for a wormhole superhighway they’re building to Alpha Aquilae, or even, yes, the Second Coming, the sun is still going to use up all its hydrogen one day. In burning helium instead, it will swell up like a big red balloon, swallowing the inner planets as it expands. That’ll be about five billion years from now. Wear sunscreen.
In the meantime, I will suspect we’ll have plenty of time to think about how everything is going get flushed, one day, sooner or later. Or (and I know this is radical idea), just don’t. Stop worrying about the end of things. Sure, things end: Divine intervention, celestial expansion, network cancellation, or simply an inopportune slip that causes you to crack your head on the toilet will all conspire to bring about the cessation of the things you know and love.
The remedy, the only remedy you have, is to keep at it: Keep doing what matters, keep seeing the world around you, keep loving those who matter to you. Because when the end of the world comes, however it comes, what’s ultimately going to matter in your life is what you’ve made of it.
You’ve got some time left. A whole new millennium, in fact. Get to it.