There is a long history of human expectation of the end of the world. Almost every religious tradition has both a cosmogony and an eschatology, neatly summing up the world from beginning to end, alpha and omega.
It has been suggested that human thought is essentially narrative in character, and if this is true then it stands to reason that when thought advances to the point at which it can form a conception of the world entire, that it will ascribe to the world, in authentic narrative fashion, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Cosmogony gives us the beginning; life today is the middle; eschatology gives us the end.
One of the most common variants of millennialism is apocalyptic or catastrophic millennialism. Here is how Catherine Wessinger describes catastrophic millennialism:
“Millennialism” has become an academic term used to refer to belief in an imminent transition to a collective salvation in which the elect will experience well-being and the limitations of the human condition will be transcended. The collective salvation is often expected to be earthly, but it can also be heavenly. If physical events thoroughly disconfirm the establishment of the millennial kingdom on earth, the millennialists may shift to focusing on a heavenly collective salvation. The terms “millennialism” or “millenarianism” derive from Christianity, because the New Testament book of Revelation states that the kingdom of God will exist on earth for one thousand years (a millennium). Increasingly, “millennialism” is a term that is applied to particular religious patterns found in a variety of religious traditions. Catastrophic millennialism has existed for several thousand years, and will continue as a religious pattern past the 2000 date that is exciting religious imaginations, because it appeals to the perennial human desire to achieve permanent well-being that is at the heart of the religious quest.
Catastrophic millennialism is the most common millennial religious pattern. In the catastrophic millennial pattern, there is belief is in an imminent and catastrophic transition to the millennial kingdom. Catastrophic millennialism involves a pessimistic view of human nature and society. Humans are so evil and corrupt that the old order has to be destroyed violently to make way for the perfected millennial kingdom. Catastrophic millennialism involves a radical dualistic worldview; reality is seen in terms of the opposition of good and evil, and this easily translates into a perspective of “us vs. them.”
While the advent of industrial-technological civilization and its peculiar forms of modernity has swept away much of the past, the perennially eschatological cast of the human mind continues to return to millennialist themes right up to and including the present day.
● Traditional Millennialism —Traditionally religious millennialism is alive and well in our time, especially in violent and well-armed societies in which clever politicians play off the fears of the people in order to keep themselves in power, as, for example, in the case in the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Whether one is living in expectation of the imminent second coming of Christ or for the Hidden Mahdi to emerge from his occultation, in practical terms it amounts to the same thing.
● Communism — Throughout the twentieth century, the principal form that millennialist expectation took was that of communism. I have discussed this in several posts (most recently in Marxist Eschatology). Marxism conforms perfectly to the model explicated above of, “belief… in an imminent and catastrophic transition” i.e., revolution, “to the millennial kingdom,” i.e., the communist classless society (also known as the worker’s paradise, as if its soteriological content hadn’t already been made sufficiently clear).
● Conspiracy Theories — We live in the age of the efflorescence of conspiracy theories. Information technology and telecommunications have placed powerful tools in the hands of those who feel thwarted by contemporary socioeconomic arrangements, and so they construct elaborate fantasies in which, “the old order has to be destroyed violently to make way for the perfected millennial kingdom.”
● Peak Oil — The narrative of peak oil is a classic instance of catastrophic millennialism, being radically dualistic and carrying with it the expectation of an earthly salvation after the trauma of the peak oil catastrophe is passed and human society has been reorganized on a sustainable basis.
● The Technological Singularity — Some varieties of catastrophic millennialism focus on the catastrophe (as with peak oil) while others focus much more on the millennium to follow. We may include the technological singularity among the latter. While prophets of the singularity distinguish between scenarios of a “hard landing” in which the machines take over within days or hours, and others rhapsodize over a more gradual transition, the common vision is that of the achieved technological singularity when human intelligence has been exceeded by machine intelligence, which latter then assumes its thousand year reign.
This is only a short list of millennialist items that I took off the top of my head, as it were. I am certain that but little research would reveal the rich vein of millennialist thought that runs through the political struggles of our time.
It is a valuable exercise to identify perennial human modes of thought that involve systematic distortions of experience (which Dean Buonomano has called “brain bugs”), as, in the above examples of millennialism, once we see millennialism for what it is, and are able to understand the role that it has played in human history, we have a much better appreciation for the nature of the movement, and we are able to examine the “evidence” put forward by true believers in the proper spirit of detachment.