End of the world May 21?! Don't panic – but don't ridicule Project Caravan, either.
Project Caravan is a bus convoy traversing America to warn that the world will be destroyed this Saturday, May 21. The media depict them as crazies, but 41 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return by 2050. End-of-the-world prophecy is all around us, whether we know it or not.
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War is a boon for end-of-world beliefs
Miller’s companions later adjusted the final day to October 22, 1844; when that didn’t pan out, either, he faded into obscurity. But some of his remaining followers formed the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which continues to preach end-of-world doctrines today. So do the Jehovah’s Witnesses – founded after the Civil War – and the Assemblies of God, forged amid the oubreak of World War One.Skip to next paragraph
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The Great War was a boon for such beliefs. “War! War!! War!!!” proclaimed one journal in 1914. “The Nations of Europe Battle and Unconscously Prepare the Way for the Return of Lord Jesus.” The British capture of Palestine – and especially Britain’s Balfour Declaration, which promised “a national home for the Jewish people” – also sparked new excitement among prophecy believers, who pointed to Biblical passages suggesting that the Jews’ return to Israel would harken the last days.
Not surprisingly, then, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was welcomed as yet another sign that the end was near. Into the present, prophecy-minded Americans are among Israel’s strongest supporters; many Israelis have welcomed their aid, even though these same Americans often say that non-Christians will be destroyed upon Jesus’ arrival.
Since World War Two, indeed, nearly every international development has triggered doomsday warnings. The rise of the Soviet Union during the cold war evoked Gog, the evil empire that threatens Israel in the Bible before Christ comes back; the United Nations conjured the “world government” established by the Anti-Christ, prior to his climactic battle with Jesus; and the threat of nuclear weapons foretold the fiery annihilation of the world itself.
Most recently, Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese earthquakes have both provoked end-of-days predictions. And anyone can issue such warnings, which also helps explain their recurrence. In a country without an established church, Americans can promulgate whatever doomsday theories they choose. May the best theory win.
Surely, that’s something to celebrate. No matter what you think about the end of time, we should all be glad we live in a place – and in a time – where we can say what we’d like about the subject. And everyone else is free to come along for the ride! This Saturday, then, don’t mock Project Caravan if the world keeps turning. Instead, think about your own good fortune in finding such a safe place within it.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author most recently of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”