Waiting for the end of the world

The obscure cult behind the sarin attack in Tokyo is only one of many b urgeoning doom-saying organisations, says Andrew Brown
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The Independent Online
The End of the World has been a long time coming. The hope was originally Jewish, though soon taken over by the early Christians. No other religion seems to have come up with the idea that God would eventually intervene in history to set everything right after a tremendous cataclysm which only the good would survive. Once launched on the world, the idea has proved tremendously adaptable. It flares up whenever the world seems really dangerous and confusing. It does not need to be associated with nice round numbers like 1000 and 2000: there were great millennial excitements during the Middle Ages, and again in England during the Civil War. But the approach of such dates certainly helps to induce an apocalyptic frame of mind. It is probable that more people believe in the imminent, supernaturally-caused destruction of the world at the end of the scientific and rational 20th century than ever before in history. The end of the world in its modern form is only about 180 years old. It originated in a portion of rural New York State known as the Burned Over territory because the fires of religious revival had swept over it so often. It was, for example, the region where the Mormon religion was invented by (or revealed to) Joseph Smith. An interest in the End Times often goes together with a penchant for spontaneous prophecy, fainting, speaking in tongues, and apparently causeless hysterical laughter Originally, however, the manifestations preceded the theory, which grew out of concentrated Bible study. A group of Christians known as the Millerite, after their leader William Miller, concluded Jesus would return in the spring of 1844; later they concluded the date meant must have been October 1844. After what was later known as the Great Disappointment, a group of them concluded that Jesus had in fact returned, or at least "re-entered the temple", but he had done so spiritually, since the fleshly earth was still too sinful for him to visit. This belief led to an interest in purifying human nature to make it fit for the return of the messiah; that, in turn, to an interest in vegetarianism as a way of diminishing lust, and that, in the hands of a devout businessman, to a hugely successful lust-diminishing breakfast cereal: Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Flakes are only important early in the lifetime of an apocalyptic group. Once it has become obvious even to true believers that the world has once more missed its appointment with destiny the group may either decay or settle down to eminent respectability, like the Seventh Day Adventists, the sect to which Mr Kellogg belonged. But however often it is damped down in one place, the flame will always spring up somewhere else. After the example of the Millerites, Protestant sects have been wary of naming a date for the end of the world, though the Jehovah's Witnesses originally picked 1914, and must have felt for most of that year as if they were on to a winner. But a belief that the end was imminent has never really gone away since the 1840s. An interest in fulfilling Biblical prophecies was one of the most powerful motors involving Britain in the Middle east in the nineteenth century: Barbara Tuchman's book "Bible and Sword" chronicles the adventures of an extraordinary succession of Politicians and soldiers, convicned that it was their God-given duty, as servants of the most powerful country the world had ever known, to see to it that the Jews were returned to Palestine. This motive still operates in American politics, where the Israeli lobby is powerfully supported by fundamentalists Chirstians who believe that the presence of Israel is necessary to bring about the end of the world, and who welcome the prospect. Both sides in this bargain believe they have the better of the other. A belief in the imminent return of Jesus and so in an imminent end to the world has been growing in Christian fundamentalist circles ever since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947. Secular scholars regard the prophecies on which the hope is founded, chiefly in the Book of Daniel, as factual accounts of the wars in which an independent jewish kingdom emerged from the wreckage of the empire of Alexander the Great: a prophecy of future victories would gain credence if it was prefaced by otherswhich appeared to predict victories already won. But to fundamentalist Christians, these prophecies are still to be fulfilled. In the Seventies an American book called "The Late Great Planet Earth" sold a claimed 17 million copies. It was certainly very influential and widely read.The book's message was that the Bible infallibly predicted the end of the world after a Soviet invasion of Israel leads to a nuclear exchange. This line of prophecy has had to undergo a certain amount of readjustment since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similar readjustments must be made every time the European Union expands, and spoils all the prophecies which fitted when there were six, or nine members but which were wrecked when the number grew to 10. But prophetic schemes are tremendously resilient to the blows of reality. Last week, the leader of the largest single congregation in the world, a Korean evangelist whose church claims 740,000 members, spoke to an ecstatic audience of 11,500 at Wembley Arena about the apocalyptic significance of the European Union in a meeting sponsored by, amongst others, the head of the largest evangelical Anglical Church in London. Yet faith -- indeed delight -- in the imminent end of the world need not be Christian at all. It seems an idea so deeply satisfying that it can survive when it is cut off from any belief in God. Marxism had apocalyptic elements deeply embedded in its mythology. The revolution corresponded to the apocalypse and the dictatorship of the proletariat corresponded to the millennium: the thousand-year-rule of the Saints on Earth predicted in revelation. The Nazi Party, too, might be regarded as an apocalyptic cult: the Thousand year Reich was an almost literal translation of "millennium". Against such huge movements of history, the tiny sects which have taken the predicitons so seriously as to end their own worlds in some horrendous acts of mass violence seem hardly significant. Yet they are numerous. They will grow more numerous as the year 2000 approaches. In fact there is only one religious leader who seems quite immune to these millennial excitements: when the next century starts, Pope John Paul II expects still to be at his post. The Prophets Of Doom

Name: The Children of God, established 1960s HQ: California, USA Leader: David Brandt Berg, aka `Moses David' Credo: "Enjoy yourself in sex and what God has given you to enjoy....let God do it to you in an orgasm of the spirit....Hallelujah!" Followers adopt biblical names and live in a `colony,' awaiting the `end-time'. Renowned for the technique of `fancy fishing' - attracting new members by use of sexual favours. Membership: 10,000 worldwide (claimed)

Name: The Church Universal and Triumphant, established 1958 HQ: Montana, USA Leader: Elizabeth Prophet, aka `Guru Ma' Credo: The `last days' are approaching, and only CUT followers can expect to be saved. They must abstain from drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and give 10 per cent of their income to the Church. The CUT has built underground bunkers for its members, and has been accused of stockpiling arms. Membership: Over 5000 worldwide

Name: The Raelians, established 1973 HQ: California, USA Leader: Claude `Rael' - meaning "the messenger of those who came from the sky" Beliefs: In 1973, Claude Vorilhon was taken up into a spacecraft, warned that the end of the world was nigh, and told he was the prophet of a new religion. His followers meditate every day, give 10 per cent of their income to the movement and strive towards the "cosmic orgasm".

Membership: 28,000 worldwide

Name Reiha-no-Hikari, established 1956 HQ: Chiba, Japan Leader: Nidai-Sama, who "descended in human form" in 1915 Beliefs: In 1954, Nidai-Sama came to believe that he was God's incarnation on earth, and that he must "bring salvation to mankind" before the world ends. His followers frequently pray for 14-day periods to "cleanse" their souls of materialism. Membership: "Over a million families worldwide"

Name: Morris Cerullo World Evangelism Inc, established 1950s HQ: California, USA Leader: Morris Cerullo Beliefs: Cerullo has a mission from God to save a billion souls before the "endtime" arrives in the year 2000. Funded by donations from his worldwide flock: £10 will convert a Jewish soul and save a member of the donor's family from eternal perdition Membership: No official membership, but regularly fills stadiums worldwide

Name: Aum Shinri Kyo, established 1980s HQ: Mount Fuji, Japan Leader: Shoko Asahara Beliefs: A Buddhist sect, which lives in a village commune and rejects earthly materialism. They expect to be the only survivors when the world ends in 1997. Currently suspected of the nerve-gas attck on the Tokyo underground Membership: 10,000 approx.

When cults implode

Jonestown In 1978, the Reverend Jim Jones led over 900 followers of his cult, the People's Temple, to the jungles of Guyana, and set up `Jonestown.' Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered while investigating the cult. Jones knew he would be arrested and administered cyanide to his followers. 913 people died.

The Solar Temple In 1994, the bodies of 48 members of the obscure Solar Temple cult were discovered in two separate Swiss villages. The deaths were thought to be a combination of ritual execution and mass suicide, led by Luc Jouret, who predicted Doomsday and stockpiled weapons to prepare for it.

Waco The infamous Waco siege climaxed in April 1993, when fire engulfed the headquarters of the Branch Davidian sect in Texas, killing almost 90. The Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, were fanatical seventh-day adventists who stockpiled large numbers of weapons to prepare for the end of the world.