Belief in the apocalypse is pervasive in human nature, across societies, cultures, and time periods. Why is the belief in the apocalypse still so pervasive today? In what ways is it believed in, and why does it bring hope and fear in turn to different people? This paper will examine these questions through the lens of two articles: “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich” by Evan Osnos and “‘In the Lord’s Hands’: America’s Apocalyptic Mindset” by Robert Jay Lifton. I will compare where these two authors differ in opinion—whether belief in the apocalypse stems from fear or hope—and how they ultimately agree in many fundamental ways. The fear and hope they argue for are two sides of the same coin, showing the perspectives of different people of the same apocalypse. Why and how people believe in the apocalypse today is constantly changing, and its view as a negative or positive is based on whether the world stands to get better or worse for you. Different individuals will see the same apocalypse with either hope or fear depending on if the world as they know it could improve (as is Lifton’s view) or worsen (as is Osnos’ view). I argue it is the same type of apocalypse they are writing about, viewed from different vantage points of what someone stands to lose or gain.
In “‘In the Lord’s Hands’: America’s Apocalyptic Mindset” Lifton’s focus is that ordinary people can believe in the apocalypse and that apocalyptic thinking can bleed into politics, for example, in situations like political coups, which can change the status quo for the better, or for the worse. A dramatic example of such political upheaval is World War II because “even secular movements like the Nazis have followed a version of the Armageddon script.” (Lifton 64), even political and secular apocalypse-like events follow themes and narratives of the religious apocalypse. Lifton details the historical definition of the apocalypse as “a form of ultimate idealism, a quest for spiritual utopia” (Lifton 59) and traces religious beliefs and their influences on politics. There is a major influence of religious apocalypses in America, clearly seen with the war on terror which was used “as a vehicle for our own salvation” (Lifton 69). This can also be seen as a protection of traditional Christian values and feeling threatened by other belief systems inherent to apocalyptic thinking which Lifton describes as “desolation as a possible means of fulfillment” (Lifton 66). While some may fear this desolation (as Osnos argues), Lifton sees it as a source of hope—a cleansing fire. Lifton thinks people’s motivation for apocalyptic belief is a mixture of hope and fear as “apocalyptic visions…have flourished during times of great suffering…powerful sources of hope” (Lifton 62). The idea is that if the world is going to end, it is for a grander purpose, a comfort for many who feel powerless. In this way, themes of the religious apocalypse feed secular apocalypse as a way of feeling in control of humanities destiny—that the way forward is clear, a set narrative path towards betterment. This can clearly be seen with President Bush “making the war on terrorism a war on evil” (Lifton 67); here, religious ideals were tied to political moves just as religious narratives influence secular apocalypse.
Views of the apocalypse change with the times, and the changing status quo is a potential for things to get better, just as the apocalypse brings a sense of hope through rebirth. As mentioned earlier, Lifton describes “desolation as a possible means of fulfillment” (Lifton 66)—before rebirth and the betterment that comes with it, current suffering must be endeared. Typically, the apocalypse connotes disaster—the world ending before it is reborn, getting worse before it gets better. Things have to get worse before they get better, and for some people, there is nothing left to lose. For these people, the apocalypse is nothing to fear, it is something to anticipate and welcome—the benefits are worth the price. For the majority of people, the apocalypse brings a sense of peace. The apocalypse is seen as “all-consuming violence in a hopelessly corrupt world was, in fact, required for the hopeful and lofty rebirth that was to follow” (Lifton 59), a necessary evil to get what you want, a sacrifice so that things can get better for those in desolate situations, and a promise that their suffering is not in vain.
In Lifton’s view, only the sinners—those who do not deserve nor benefit from rebirth—need fear the apocalypse. This description may very well fit those whom Osnos describes—the elite who stand to lose everything. In “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich” Osnos interviews multiple prominent survivalists “among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort” (Osnos 2), who typically benefit from the status quo. Those elite who fear this type of apocalypse, which directly affects them, and is more easily believed than a grand religious one. There are two major ideas presented in Osnos’ article: that doomsday prep is no longer a radical position, but as common as insurance for those who can afford it, with “forty percent of Americans [believing] that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter [is] a wiser investment than a 401(k)” (Osnos 5). Second, that it perhaps distasteful that money and resources are sunk into these personal preparations rather than mitigating the causes of apocalyptic fears, such as political discourse, and environmental collapse. Osnos quotes Max Levchin, a founder of Paypal “‘It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.’ To Levchin, prepping for survival is a moral miscalculation; he [says]… ‘All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.’…In [Levchin’s] view, this is the time to invest in solutions, not escape” (Osnos 8). The thoughts of the possible apocalypse depicted in Osnos’ article stem from fear, fear which would be greatly assuaged if the causes of that fear, from political to environmental issues, were dealt with head on, rather than only anticipated as a future concern.
Osnos’ article deals overwhelmingly with the fear of the wealthy elite, such as those from Silicon Valley, that America as it is known will collapse. Revolution against the 1%, while not likely, is one of the most likely apocalyptic scenarios America could face. In relation, Osnos writes, quoting Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook product manager, “when society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos.” (Osnos 2). The primary founding myth of American culture is that of the “American Dream” the ideal that if one works hard enough, they can attain the life and status they desire. In recent decades, many have lost faith in this ideal, as the wealth gap increases, and further distance is driven between the 1% and the rest of the nation, leading to this aforementioned “chaos” that leads to apocalypse prep. He defines the apocalypse in terms of survivalism and preparation; “less focussed on a specific threat—a quake on the San Andreas, a pandemic, a dirty bomb—than…the aftermath” (Osnos 2). Osnos views the belief in the apocalypse as a manifestation of fear at the changing status quo as well as a coping device—there is ego and self-defense as well as perhaps a sort of guilt at play.
Lifton and Osnos disagree in many ways. Osnos presents the apocalypse as a varied and fearful thing—though even among survivalists there is contention about the specifics, the core belief system holds constant. Lifton shows different religious views that seem very different and are often argued on, even to the point of war and bloodshed, but they essentially boil down to the same narrative structure: some general hope, fear and expectation—that the world will end and be reborn. Those who stand to benefit from a new world order look to the apocalypse with hope (Lifton’s view) and those who stand to lose status or success in this new world order fear it (Osnos’ view), but the apocalypse itself is one and the same. Lifton and Osnos at their core present a very similar argument—that it is fundamental human nature to believe in the apocalypse. The difference in attitude towards the apocalypse does not come from a different belief in what the apocalypse is, but what a person stands to lose of gain from the apocalypse. No matter the ideal of separating the religious and secular—it never works.
More than their differences, Osnos and Lifton don’t seem to disagree too much, in so much as they analyze separate aspects and perspectives of the very same fundamental facet of human nature. While Lifton and Osnos’ thoughts on the apocalypse seem to be separated as religious and secular respectively, with only slight influence from the other type of apocalyptic theory, they are speaking of the same type of apocalypse, split less along secular/non-secular lines and more on socio-economic lines. Lifton’s arguments and beliefs lend more to the common experience of the majority, while Osnos details the experiences of the 1%—while very different thought goes into the why of the fear, the fear and anticipation of the apocalypse is held common. It is the same apocalypse. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn told Osnos in an interview “Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘now I have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’” (Osnos 7). This idea of a safety net is important, because this is how Lifton portrays apocalyptic views in his article; the apocalypse brings a sense of hope that things will one day get better for them. As Lifton says, “Apocalyptic visions…have flourished during times of great suffering.” (Lifton 62). Lifton’s view of the apocalypse offers hope, a safety net of sorts, for those who need it, that things will get better eventually. But the duality of Lifton and Osnos’ arguments is, that for things to improve for the people Lifton is describing, it is generally thought that they have to worsen for the elite Osnos offers insight to, painting a common apocalypse as a sort of zero-sum game.
Fear is the driving belief of the apocalypse, not necessarily fear of the apocalypse, but its cause, coming from an external force. Fear of being unprepared, or the consequences if it isn’t your apocalypse—that if you are not a part of it, you’ll be left behind. For the masses analyzed by Lifton, there is a fear that if the apocalypse, or some apocalyptic-like event does not come to pass, things will never get better. For them, the apocalypse is a source of comfort and hope. For the upper-crust described by Osnos, this very same apocalypse which gives the majority comfort is a source of fear, because they have achieved what they see as their best possible lives, and any change in the status quo may mean the downfall of their money or power. But there is also a comfort to naming this fear; comfort in feeling as if one can prepare for an apocalyptic event rather than a nameless, faceless uneasiness which can stem from an unconscious sense of guilt for leading these better lives. The apocalypse changes with times and places, as the status quo shifts and power changes hands, but the core belief remains the same: a name, a system to believe in, for the fear people have, and the hope they crave.
Lifton, Robert Jay. ““In the Lord’s Hands”.” World Policy Journal 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2003): 59-69. Accessed September 1, 2018. doi:10.1215/07402775-2003-4002.
Osnos, Evan. “Doomsday Prep for The Super-Rich.” The New Yorker. August 10, 2017. Accessed September 01, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich.