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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?