“The Second Coming was expected at any moment; Antichrist was abroad in the land — he was the pope, or he was Martin Luther, or he was just the general vibe.”

— Michael Robbins, essay in December 2022 Harper’s


In my increasingly-fallible memory, I stopped believing in heaven when I discovered there were no dogs there. Heaven without dogs would be like tiramisu without mascarpone: What’s the point? Better to fry in Hell with your pals — human and canine — than suffer those damn 24/7 harps, dogless.

(Curiously, there’s no explicit reference to “Hell” in the Christian Bible. Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was a homeless encampment for lepers cum garbage dump outside Jerusalem, while Sheol, the other Biblical word associated with hell, was the Hebrew equivalent of Greek Hades, abode of the dead, neither good nor bad — just gloomy and boring.)

But the end really is nigh, at least the end of what we’ve come to think of as “business as usual.” Earth’s resources really are finite; global warming is happening as we speak; ocean acidity is real; species are going extinct faster than ever; fascism and censorship are back in vogue; the current (post-gold standard) economic system is broken; US citizens have 1.3 guns per man, woman and child; sperm counts worldwide dropped by over 60 percent in the last 50 years; and wildfires… flooding… 

John — Revelations John who wrote the definitive book on the “end times” around 95 AD as he looked out over the lush green fields and soft blue water of the isle of Patmos — John wasn’t thinking of anything like the above list of doom and gloom. He was more interested in “unveiling” (Greek: apolalypsis, first word of the Book of Revelation) the future, which in his fevered imagination was just around the corner. (Patmos has a reputation for magic mushrooms.) The immediate consequences of mankind’s wickedness would include: fiery lakes, multi-headed dragons, locusts with human heads, boiling seas, total darkness, fresh water turning to blood, and much other good stuff. Not forgetting the Sea Beast who would force the unbelievers to bear his mark, the number 666. Or 616, according to the earliest version we have — whichever, he was probably referring to the Roman emperor Nero. (Transliterating Nero’s Greek title “Neron Caesar” into Hebrew, letters standing for numbers, gives 666, while the Latin version, “Nro Caesar,” gives 616.)

St. John the Evangelist on Patmos by Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1489 (Wikimedia)

John’s apocalypse was one of many in vogue during the late first century AD. We have apocalypses of Peter and Paul, Stephen and Thomas, Golias and Elijah, and more — not counting several Gnostic apocalypses. Why John of Patmos’ version, Revelation, made it into the Bible is something of a mystery. Martin Luther, when he was compiling his version of the New Testament, put it in the appendix. Seems no one paid it much attention after the Second Coming failed to make an appearance soon after Jesus’ proclaimed that “some standing here will not taste death.” (They did.)

But something happened about 200 years ago, during the Second Great Awakening in this country, when cult leaders found it to their advantage to interpret Revelation according to their lights. Perhaps the most infamous of these was William Miller, who in 1831 prophesied the Second Advent of Jesus Christ would happen in 1843. Or 1844. Leading to the Great Disappointment. After that, we had Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses (whose official end-time date of 1914 looked like a winner at the time) and many more.

Recently, the most popular recent end-time claims are all about the Rapture, when the Good among us — no dogs — will suddenly woosh up into heaven. (To be fair to John, the Rapture actually has its origins in Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians.) We can thank Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth for initiating contemporary Rapture thinking (30 million sold, best-selling non-fiction book of the 1970s), although his claim that it would happen in the 1980s was (probably) a bust. Not to be outdone, Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of Rapture books has sold around 80 million copies. Good business, the Rapture.

All this excitement makes mundane talk of the Antichrist’s arrival a bit of an anticlimax. These days, when everything seems to be falling apart, what’s actually happening is (quoting Michael Robbins, above) just the general vibe.