Utopianism and apocalypticism are defined here as the millennial impulse with, respectively, an optimistic and pessimistic eschatological expectation. By utopianism I mean the belief that historical trends are inevitably leading to a wonderful millennial outcome (Manuel and Manuel, 1979), including the Enlightenment narrative of inevitable human progress (Nash, 2000; Tuveson, 1949). By apocalypticism I do not mean simply the belief that something very bad may happen, since very bad events are simply a prelude to very good events for most millennialists, but that the bad event will be cataclysmic, or even the end of history.
In that sense, utopianism is the default setting of most millennial movements, even if the Tribulations are expected to be severe and indeterminately long. The promise of something better, at least for the righteous, is far more motivating than a guaranteed bad end. Even the most depressing religious eschatology, the Norse Ragnarok - at which humans and gods are defeated, and Earth and the heavens are destroyed - holds out millennial promise that a new earth and Sun will emerge, and the few surviving gods and humans with live in peace and prosperity (Crossley-Holland, 1981).
Millennial expectations of better times have not only been a comfort to people with hard, sad lives, an 'opium for the masses', but also, because of their mobilizing capacity, an essential catalyst of social change and political reform (Hobsbawm, 1959; Jacoby, 2005; Lantemari, 1965). From Moses' mobilization of enslaved Jewry with a promise of a land of milk and honey, to medieval millenarian peasant revolts, to the Sioux Ghost Dance, to the integrationist millennialism of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, millenarian leaders have arisen out of repressive conditions to preach that they could lead their people to a new Zion. Sometimes the millennial movements are disastrously unsuccessful when they rely on supernatural methods for achieving their ends, as with the Ghost Dance (Mooney, 1991). Sometimes Utopian and millennial currents contribute to social reform even in their defeat, as they did from the medieval peasant revolts through the rise of revolutionary socialism (Jacoby, 2005). Although movements for Utopian social change were most successful when they focused on temporal, rather than millennial, goals through human, rather than supernatural, agency, expectations of Utopian outcomes helped motivate participants to take risks on collective action against large odds.
Although there have been few truly apocalyptic movements or faiths, those which foretell an absolute, unpleasant and unredeemed end of history, there have been points in history with widespread apocalyptic expectation. The stories of the Biblical flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah alerted Christians to the idea that God was quite willing to destroy almost all of humanity for our persistent sinfulness, well before the clock starts on the Tribulation-Millennium timeline. Although most mythic beliefs include apocalyptic periods in the past and future, as with Ragnarok or the Hindu-Buddhist view of a cyclical destruction - recreation of the universe, most myths make apocalypse a transient stage in human history.
It remained for more secular times for the idea of a truly cataclysmic end of history, with no redeeming Millennium, to become a truly popular current of thought (Heard, 1999; Wagar, 1982; Wojcik, 1997, 1999). Since the advent of the Nuclear Age, one apocalyptic threat after another, natural and man-made, has been added to the menu of ways that human history could end, from environmental destruction and weapons of mass destruction, to plague and asteroid strikes (Halpern, 2001; Leslie, 1998; Rees, 2004). In a sense, long-term apocalypticism is also now the dominant scientific worldview, insofar as most scientists see no possibility for intelligent life to continue after the Heat Death of the Universe (2002, Ellis; see also the Chapter 2 in this volume).
Was this article helpful?