There is a time in Israelite history known as the Late Second Temple Period, which spans roughly from the Maccabean war of 166 BCE to the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. According to historians, this was a time in the Kingdom of Israel of disillusionment and eschatological yearnings. The Maccabees had achieved a great victory over the Hellenistic Seleucids, yet the new rulership they established, the Hasmoneans, turned out to be as corrupt and blasphemous as their predecessors. Unfortunately, the kingdom of Israel had not been cleansed by the sword; only a new monster had taken hold and the sacred temple remained a den of thieves and wicked kings. This grave letdown resulted in a newfound iconoclastic movement among devout Jews. Historian Karen Armstrong writes about this period in her book entitled The Bible: “At the end of the second century [BCE] there was an explosion of apocalyptic piety. In new texts, Jews described eschatological visions in which God intervened powerfully in human affairs, smashed the present corrupt order and inaugurated an age of justice and purity. As they struggled to find a solution, the people of Judah split into myriad sects, each insisting that it alone was the true Israel.”
One of the said ‘true Israel’ sects may have been the community of Qumran, from which emerged the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars debate the true nature of the Qumran community, but the mainstream theory paints for us an interesting look into what a historical end-times cult would have looked like from this period. Karen Armstrong writes “[the Qumran community] revered the Law and the Prophets, but believed that they alone understood them. Their leader, the Teacher of Righteousness, had received a revelation which convinced him that there were ‘hidden things’ in the scriptures that could only be uncovered by a special pesher (deciphering) exegesis. Every single word in the Law and the Prophets looked forward to their own community in these last days.”
Perhaps this description may sound eerily familiar to many modern day manifestations of these end-time cults. In fact, such a phenomenon is not unique: human history is replete with groups of all shapes and sizes convincing themselves that end of all ends was imminent and that they alone were on God’s side (or vice versa) in the coming cataclysm. It’s the same story dressed up in contemporary headlines, and although the expression of this trajectory of faith may vary from group to group, they all bear the hallmark of eschatological escapism, which can become a very poisonous spiritual malaise for both the individual and the collective. Such daydreams of global destruction are not only an immature reverie, but worse, they can slowly corrode all the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is a classic scene in The Simpsons episode “Lisa’s Rival” where Lisa is playing her saxophone one sunny afternoon. The sound carries over to the Flanders’ living room where an excited Ned proclaims “Hey. Why, that sounds like Gabriel’s trumpet. You know what that means kids!”. The two sons then jump up cheering “Yea! Judgement Day!” Silly parody to be sure, but it really does touch on the some of the secret yearnings of the eschatological escapist. To such a dreamer, the thought of the world’s destruction is the ultimate panacea, for in one fell swoop, all the indignities, the unfairness, the pain, the bottled up bitterness, the empty longings and everything else will be resolved to the dreamer’s desire. And so much stronger is this secret wish to the sufferers who have been living under the heavy yolk of a difficult life or a legalistic religion. One of the most heartbreaking examples of this secret wish can be found in this video of the Strong City cult.
During a bad day, when the stress and shame begin to reach an intolerable level, I sometimes catch within my thoughts a glimmer of what might be described as a Thanatos impulse. In the midst of the hardship and for a fleeting second, I conjure up an image of myself in a dire predicament where my life is about to end. The strange vision then passes as quickly as it came, but it always leaves me curious as to why my mind took refuge in such a thing. I suppose this may just be a common psychological reaction to stress, and I suspect that it is not terribly uncommon for folks in times of burden. I believe eschatological escapism is a concrete manifestation of such a reaction.
Unfortunately, the real danger of eschatological escapism is not just in the wish for an easy way out. When it is mixed with a general bitterness towards the world and biblical motifs of judgment, this fantasy can spawn a much more sinister element. In much the same way as a psychologically troubled individual may make a cruel and fateful decision to go on a murderous rampage before ending it all, some of the secret fantasies of a burdened escapist may stem from a similar desire of not only seeing their own destruction, but also to witness the suffering and retribution against all those who are not burdened by the same heavy yolk. Such a creeping desire is the essence of anti-Christianity, and tragically many religious institutions promote such hate. Some warning signs may be: 1) a perverse fascination with hell and global destruction 2) infantile daydreams of rapturing into the sunset 3) exclusivity of in-group and dehumanization of all outsiders 4) the teachings that the world is altogether evil.
We all know spirituality is not easy. To embark on a quest for meaning and wisdom is to enter into a vast and unknown forest full of wolves, thieves, and pitfalls. There are wondrous groves, gardens, and treasures along the way as well, but all too often they are obscured by shadows and dark enchantments. Our religious texts are full of ambiguity, our religious history is full of atrocities, and some of our religious leaders seem to be nothing more than snake oil salesmen. It is not easy to sort through all these entanglements. To make matters worse, the callings of spiritual growth necessitate a journey out of one’s comfort zones and into an uncharted sphere of sacrifice, self-denial, blessing, self-realization, learning, unlearning, death, and life. To follow Jesus is to take up a cross and to walk firmly against the evil tides corrupting our world. It is not easy, and before we may realize, we are lulled back into dark tides.
I have become convinced that indulging in eschatological escapism is going along with one of these dark tides. This is not to say that the world as we know it cannot be destroyed at any moment – it can. And this is not to say that the yearnings for a prophesied age of purity and justice is wrong – it isn’t. The purpose of this article is merely to point out that a fixation on this motif of destruction is, well, destructive. It will not only cheapen our wonderful gift of life, but it will also leave the indulger with both disappointment and/or cognitive dissonance as the world trucks on. Worse than that, this fantasizing can be spiritual poison, which at best is immature escapism, and at worst is passive-aggressive malice. It does not honor the God of the living to dream of mass death. It does honor the God of the living to embrace the life of all those around us.
ThM recommends reading Escape into Eschatology.