The end of the world is nigh. Call Jerry for information

There's a millenarian under every bed. Felipe Fernandez Armesto investigates the free market world of apocalyptic theory; The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium by Damian Thompson, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Millenarianism ought to be respectable: plenty of decent religions with clever, unthreatening believers started as end-is-nigh cults, including Mormonism, Shi'ism and good old Christianity. Yet when we meet modern millenarians we regard them as mad and suspect them as dangerous. Their beliefs are not much more irrational than our fears: more murders, suicides and terrorism happen outside millenarian movements than within them. So, what are we really afraid of?

The End of Time has the right answer, along with a few wrong ones, in a delightfully spooky, engagingly quirky, compellingly presented array of apocalyptic examples. Damien Thompson's thoughts on the subject have been concentrated by three well-publicised cases of lethally mad millenarianism in the Nineties. In 1993 the self-appointed "sinful messiah", David Koresh, was immolated with 80 followers in Waco. In 1994-5, 69 members of the chalet-chic "Solar Temple Cult" perished in mass murders and suicides, ostensibly "to escape a fate of destruction now awaiting the whole wicked world in a matter of months, if not weeks." In 1995 followers of a Buddhist cult-leader in Japan tried to stir up collective nirvana with a poison gas attack on Tokyo's deepest subway station.

Thompson helps to make these events intelligible by setting them in three contexts: the Christian millenarian tradition which goes back to the Book of Revelation and to Daniel; the New Age movement which expects vast changes to accompany the astral prominence of Aquarius; and the "cultural warfare" which makes some of the enemies of modern society demonise it as Antichrist.

None of these seems related to the year 2000, though Thompson makes it "a major factor in the current flowering of apocalypticism in the West." It is extremely hard to find any millenarian group which attaches special significance to a date with three zeros in it. The year 2000 will mark a thousand years since nothing-in-particular. It is quite close to the two thousandth anniversary of the incarnation of Christ but - owing to an error of computation by the monk who devised the system - misses it by a few years. Even among millenarian Christians, the incarnation has only occasionally figured as a key date from which to calculate the end of the world.

Most movements have expected Armageddon in years not divisible - in our system of reckoning - by 1000, or even 100. No evidence supports the myth, peddled in trashy history books, that the end of the world was widely expected in 1000AD. The year which aroused most apocalyptic excitement in the middle ages in Europe was 1260. Various prophets staked their reputations on dates in the 1670s. The early Adventists experienced their Great Disappointment in 1844.

Thompson is no fanatic but, after studying millenarians so earnestly, he sees them under every bed. For him, all Christian fundamentalists are millenarians by definition: by extension the whole "conservative evangelical world" is tainted by a "free market in apocalyptic theology". He accepts Norman Cohn's case that Nazis and communists are motivated by a secular version of millenarianism. He then goes farther, detecting "the rhythm of Daniel...underneath most political philosophies," including specifically "Liberals, Greens and Free Marketeers." All genocide, he suggests, is "only explicable in terms of an apocalyptic ideology". He represents the Renaissance and the founding of America as millenarian effects: America is the "Last World Empire" of prophetic tradition. Other millenarians include "perhaps a million people in Seoul."

Even the Pope is caught out in unguardedly apocalyptic language. I have just read the Pope's Agenda for the Third Millennium and am comforted to find that he expects the next millennium to be like the one we have just had.

This is a book to read with pleasure and contemplate with dread. It is well-written and has a gripping quality derived from the nice balance of rollicking subject-matter with judicious prose. Though not all his targets are hit, the real millenarians Thompson describes so vividly are seriously weird and worrying. Odious right-wing Protestant evangelicals are destroying cultures and backing dictatorships in their anxiety to prepare the Third World for the Second Coming. Susceptible Catholics are being duped and frightened by phoney visionaries, Anti-semitism is being cunningly masked as New-Age mumbo-jumbo. Pseudo-churches sell "ringside seats for the death- throes of civilisation." Aum Shinrikyo look-alikes dream of precipitating the end with spectacular feats of chemical and biological terrorism. These groups withdraw into self-nourishing communities of fear and nurse each other's fantasies on the Internet.

Even peaceable millenarians are disturbing. "Bo" Gritz, the much-decorated Vietnam veteran, has found peace as he awaits the end in Idaho. But adverts for his land-sales exploit the susceptibilities of other end-timers, promising "a refuge in a time of Lot, an ark in a time of Noah. If none of these signs are true, the Bible is false and God is dead. We are still left with a magnificent home in a secure environment. Call Jerry for details, plot maps and information."