Leading Article: Apocalypse the day before yesterday

Click to follow
SO THE world did not end in Kiev yesterday. The Great White Brotherhood, the latest millennial sect to capture the world's imagination, failed to realise the hopes - or fears - of its deluded members. Many were arrested, among them the new Messiah, Marina Tsvygun, a former Komsomol member who discovered she was God as a result of an anaesthetist's error during an abortion.

It is usually only the grotesque aspects of these excitements that are noticed in the press. But premillennial tension is a serious complaint and more widespread than most people realise. Western Europe is one of the few places relatively immune to fantasies of an apocalypse. Russia, disoriented by the loss of Communism, is particularly vulnerable at the moment. South Korea was recently in the news with the same complaint. It is also far from unknown in the US. Among many others, Ronald Reagan, before he became president, was reported as saying that 'We may be living in the final days.'

A disturbing aspect of the Bosnian war is the apocalyptic flavour of some Croatian fervour: pilgrims to the shrine at Medjugorje, where the Virgin has supposedly been appearing for the past 12 years, will be told by its Franciscan guardians that the conflict may be the beginning of the final battle between Christ and the Antichrist. Such beliefs are not a seedbed of peace.

In the West we have derived considerable pleasure from contemplating the fanaticism of certain Muslim fundamentalists. But Islam does not have nearly so developed an apocalyptic consciousness as does Christianity. The suicide bombers of Hizbollah expected to go to heaven as themselves: they did not hope to implicate the whole created world in their martyrdom.

The Book of Revelation is, alas, an integral part of the Bible, able in every generation to inspire fresh idealists to absurd beliefs. And these beliefs show an extraordinary power to resist the pressure of reality. From the Seventh-day Adventists through Jehovah's Witnesses to the present-day Protestant enthusiasts for nuclear armageddon in the Middle East, nothing short of the end of the world can dissuade some people from believing that the end of the world is at hand.

None the less, we should not feel too superior in our rationalist fastnesses. Irrationality can take many shapes. Moreover, no matter how lurid and grotesque those shapes, an interest in the apocalypse at least expresses a belief that we must face the consequences of our actions.