Train tracks to the left, nothing to the right. No lights anywhere. I flicked on the radio, which was barely picking up a station from a couple towns over. There was a man very deliberately whispering, as if telling the most important secret in the world to a small crowd of gathered loyalists at a dive bar you can’t find unless you’re looking for it.
“I’ve been to Israel. I’ve walked through Jerusalem. I’ve walked where Christ walked. I’ve been to the tomb where Christ was buried. None of this will last much longer. It was designed that way.”
I turned it off immediately thereafter because I was briefly convinced the world was ending. At 11 at night on the way to a pharmacy, that was enough. I wasn’t intellectually convinced, of course. I’ve seen the iPhone 6 and I know there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out and Harrison Ford survived that plane crash. But I was physically convinced. I bought into his fantasy. Just for a little while, I mean. I switched from AM to FM and I was fine, it was a six- or seven-second reaction, but that’s all he needed to hook me. I just had to hear it in the right context from somebody who put on a good enough show.
He could have been delivering that hushed message, all theatrics and no message, at any point in the history of radio, but he happened to be delivering it on October 7th, 2015, which happened to be the date that yet another fly-by-night crypto-Christian organization said the world would be over.
The man who predicted this need not be named. He’s just another huckster with a modus operandi exactly equal to a thousand other hucksters who came before him to carve out his market. His organization is called eBible Fellowship. It has a logo that looks like it was designed for Netscape by a balding programmer named Jim with cigarette ashes in the vents of his Hewlett-Packard who maybe has a faux-leather jacket for the weekends and definitely thinks that AltaVista is the best search engine. (There are some podcasts on the website, averaging 10 megabytes to the hour, which means they are encoded at the bleeding edge of RealMedia’s Lewinsky-era prowess, so I didn’t listen to them.)
The huckster was wrong, of course. If he was right, we’d all be listening to Hendrix explain why he wants to make a jazz fusion record, and Lester Bangs would be talking over him to explain why it’s really a natural artistic progression. But we’re all still stuck here, reminded again that the whole end of the world routine is a grift. These overpromoted carnies come along every few years, in cycles as blue collar steady as a Tom Petty album and subsequent summer tour. But this huckster is special to me.
He’s special to me because he was basically a PR man for the last huckster who put a date to the end of the world: Harold Camping, who’s dead now. You know, Family Radio. The trucks. The billboards. I still have the card announcing their apocalypse prediction. May 21st, 2011. I have it on the refrigerator next to the phone number of a pizza place that in the last year has gotten too expensive to order from, and a plumber who’s out of business. The Family Radio card still manages to be the most useless of the three, and the most fun to stare at.
It was fun because in 2011 because it gave you a joke for the day. You could bond with any member of your family regardless of generational gaps over the prospect of your imminent death and the pointlessness of it all. Nihilist humor became widely accepted all of a sudden. It was like an international nihilist holiday. This last one was alright too, but a Wednesday is all wrong. The dead week between Christmas and New Year’s would have been better.
But that’s not why the hucksters do it. They do it for, you know, the PayPal account with $17,200 in it, not quite enough for that new truck, but a good start. That’s probably all any of them were after. That, or the illusion of control and exclusivity. But what a failure of imagination, to aim so low.
They fail in scope, always, by predicting one specific dumbassed date for the end of the world and getting laughed out of society for awhile. That turns it all into a joke and keeps the possible convert base consistently small. Loud, but small.
The end of the world is definitely coming, but stop trying to attach a date to it. We all have these little moments with the radio or at our laptops or Taco Bell where it’s blindingly obvious that everything is ending very, very soon. That there is no brave new world, just the end of this one. Our baseline stance on apocalypse is basically what Albert Brooks said on Twitter: “Thank God I don’t believe in the end times because if I did we’re in them.”
That’s why it’s so frustrating that these hucksters lack the imagination to cast a wider net. They could go worldwide and they don’t even see it. They could get real and permanent converts if they’d lose the date gimmick, deny the instant gratification of easy PayPal money, and instead adopt an evolving theology of garden variety dissolution and the atomization of modern society. Which is how the world will actually end anyway, so we can all get behind that. These hucksters could promote from grift to sect in a heartbeat.
The end of the world is not something to which you can assign a date – empirical evidence alone proves that. The end of the world happens in slow, creeping intervals. Have you ever been to Chowchilla? It already happened there during the Carter administration. There are ecclesiastical reasons too, reasons that are admittedly easy to miss for your Netscape crypto-Christian huckster, like Mark 13:32. “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”
I grant you that the end of the world as a slow-moving malaise and dissolve to static that hits you for seconds at a time on late night errands is not fun. You can’t plan whimsical parties around that. But it’s more honest and it’s a more workable philosophical position. Too bad you can’t elbow your way into the news cycle with a workable philosophical position. Can’t make a mob and weaponize it.
You also, short term, deny satisfaction to your followers. The end of the world as a date on your calendar you can circle, that impossible thing, is a nice idea. It takes away some of the meaninglessness of your routine. It gives every frivolous thing you do some purpose, adds gravity to your everyday footsteps. And it gives us a more dramatic story than the one we have right now, the one where we wake up groggy and try to get by for awhile, ending unknown. That story’s not much fun though, is it?