Doomsday Clock: Why Americans love apocalyptic predictions

From Acts of Faith newsletter: Conversations about faith and values
By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Judging from the popularity of Hollywood’s numerous apocalyptic-themed blockbusters, Americans appear fixated on stories that predict ways the world could end. Humans have been making religious predictions about the end of days for centuries, but more secular versions of “doomsday” predictions have entered popular imagination in recent decades.

Responding to recent global events, a group of scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” just moved 30 seconds ahead and is now reflecting that the world is the closest it has been to metaphorical midnight.

Unlike some religious predictions in the past, including hyped predictions from people such as David Meade and Harold Camping, the scientists’ clock is symbolic, and the scientists don’t predict a specific date. The idea they propose is that if we were to consider our closeness to annihilation on the scale of an analog clock, where midnight is the end, then we are at two minutes to midnight.

The clock, set every year by the nonprofit U.S.-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, measures the planet’s safety based on global threats such as climate change and possible nuclear events. The group of scientists, who have been doing this for more than 70 years, cited recent conversations between U.S. and North Korean leaders, the “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides” and President Trump and other world leaders’ failure “to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.”

The scientists moved the “Doomsday Clock” forward 30 seconds last year, which broke the record for the closest to “midnight” since the height of the Cold War.

There was a shift after World War II and the atomic bomb when humans suddenly realized we had the ability to self-destruct and help usher in the end of the world compared with previous predictions that God would usher in the end times, said Robert Joustra, a professor of international studies and co-author of the book “How to Survive the Apocalypse.”

The street preacher who predicts “the end is nigh” doesn’t feel so far from a recent mass text sent to Hawaii residents urging them to seek shelter because of a ballistic missile threat that proved to be false. Religious people have long had formalized rituals to make sense of life and death, but people outside a religious context still need to make sense of death as a universal human experience, Joustra said.

“Secular and religious conversations are coming together on the fears of our way of life and the end of the world,” he said. “It’s not just a religious conversation anymore.”

Older, more religiously focused apocalyptic narratives usually had some kind of comforting message, including “Come, Lord Jesus,” a call for Jesus’s return summoning the end times.

“Revelation is terrifying, but the message is supposed to be Jesus Christ is king,” Joustra said. “With modern apocalypses, there is no comforting message.”

While religious people have been fascinated with these questions for centuries, questions of how the world will end have seeped into political and popular culture. Popular TV shows and movies such as “Game of Thrones,” “The Hunger Games,” “World War Z” and “The Walking Dead” deal with deep moral questions about self-survival and how a society should reform and with what values.

Many stories in popular culture don’t necessarily feature God-ordained destruction. They include alien invasions, pandemic viruses, artificial intelligence run amok, global war and environmental catastrophes.

Books of previous decades such as “Brave New World,” “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451” looked at dystopian futures, Joustra said, but talk of the end of the world has “reached a new hysteria.”

“We haven’t stopped predicting the end of the world, but we’re debating how it’ll happen,” Joustra said. “It’s choose your own adventure, probably one of five ways.”

The idea of progress since the Enlightenment period has always suggested an endpoint, said Bob Royalty, a religion professor at Wabash College. And since the atomic bomb, there has been anxiety surrounding events such as the advent of HIV/AIDS and other health pandemics and technology breakdowns.

“People who are not claiming to be religious still have this [idea] that time has a beginning and end,” Royalty said. “That strongly influences people’s interpretation of scientific or political senses since the nuclear age.”

Like fundamentalist Christians in previous centuries, these scientists have latched onto the idea of a clock, he said, even though it’s symbolic.

“Even though it’s a scientific organization, they’re borrowing from Christian fundamentalist rhetoric and using [the metaphor of a clock],” he said. Scholars have documented how these fundamentalists believed in an imminent, preordained end of the world and a literally ticking cosmic clock.

When humans were faced with major events such as the two world wars, the Great Depression and the Holocaust, there was a general attitude that those problems were solvable. A shift has taken place in the past 40 to 50 years where people see many of today’s problems as beyond human control, said Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal.

Many people believe that the environment is beyond repair, the U.S. political system is broken, and the economy has gotten out of control, leading to a desire for something or someone who can control it. Enter the popularity of Trump, who made big promises about making America great again.

“You have many people who feel powerless and look beyond themselves as agents of change,” he said. “You can see how that sort of idea leads to a conservatism and also a sense that you need a supernatural or superhuman figure, like a popular political figure.”

In the Bible, the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation offer specifics of the end times that have captured Christian imaginations. Jesus also is quoted as saying that “no one knows” the day or the hour of his return, but that hasn’t stopped many religious leaders from making specific end times predictions. And many Christians point to the promise God made Noah after the great flood that he would not “curse the ground because of humans” and that “never again will I destroy all living creatures” in the biblical book of Genesis.

Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, said Christians would have a very specific twist on the apocalypse that you wouldn’t see in scientific explanations.

“Apocalypse in the modern day means destruction. But for Christians, it means disclosure or revelation,” he said. “Christians are not excited about doomsday, but they are excited about the return of Christ.”

Many Christians believe that the end of the world is going to come, even if they don’t know when, and that it’s part of God’s plan. But for the nonreligious doomsday messages, the end is something to avoid, and the clock serves as a warning.

Americans are more likely to say that recent natural disasters are the result of climate change (62 percent) than an example of biblical “end times” (49 percent), according to a 2014 survey from polling firm Public Religion Research Institute.

Views about climate change and the end times vary by education level. Americans with a postgraduate education are much more likely to say the severity of recent natural disasters is a sign of climate change (62 percent), compared with those who attribute disasters to the biblical end times (22 percent), according to the survey. On the other hand, Americans with a high school education or less are about as likely to say that these disasters are because of climate change (67 percent) as they are to say they are because of biblical end times (61 percent).

Abigail Ohlheiser contributed to this report.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a religion reporter, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and… everything. She runs Acts of Faith, the Washington Post’s religion blog.