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PAUL BOYER

Tell me about the rise of the apocalypse industry, if you will.

Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

What we see in contemporary American mass culture really is that apocalyptic belief has become big business. It's become an industry. It's a subset of the publishing industry. ... And books that become successful literally sell millions of copies. And what we're seeing is a kind of synergistic process where a successful televangelist will publish a book which is successful, which will then spin off into videotapes and movies and sometimes prophecy magazines, and even we have bumper stickers and wristwatches and other kinds of material, all of which reinforce popular belief and interest in Bible prophecy.

Who is Hal Lindsey?

Hal Lindsey is one of the most fascinating figures in the whole history of contemporary prophecy belief. A person of very obscure origins. Very little education.

hal lindsey
Late 1960s. He's a campus preacher out in southern California. 1970, publishes a book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which is really a popularization of John Darby's system. Theologically, there's nothing new there. What he does is link it to current events: the Cold War, nuclear war, the Chinese Communist threat, the restoration of Israel. All of these events, he links to specific biblical passages in the classic fashion of prophecy popularizers. And he and his ghost writer write the book in a very almost slang-like, very accessible language. It's not a heavy theological book at all. It's a popular book. And this book just took off and became the all-time non-fiction bestseller of the entire decade of the 1970s, and it represented the point at which publishers began to realize there's tremendous potential in prophecy books. And so many other writers begin to write books in the same popular way, that have an enormously broad appeal.

The significance of Hal Lindsey, I think, is he represents another one of those moments of breakthrough, when interest in Bible prophecy spills out beyond just the ranks of the true believers and becomes a broader cultural phenomenon. And people who had never paid much attention to prophecy at all hear about this book. They pick up the paperback. They see the way Lindsey weaves together current events and finds Biblical passages that seem to foretell those events, and they say, "Wow, this is amazing. There must really be something to this." So Lindsey's a very important transitional figure, I think. ...

Hal Lindsey seems to have had considerable influence not just on the part of the public as a whole, but at some of the highest levels of government. He's a somewhat boastful person, and it's not entirely clear how much to trust all of his stories, but he does tell of giving seminars at the Pentagon, seminars at the National War College, that were crowded, thronged with people. So there does seem to have been in the 1970s a considerable interest in prophetic interpretations, particularly as they related to Russia and the Cold War, at some of the highest levels of government.

Go through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and give a general thought about how popularizers turn to film, TV, paperbacks, and what's happening to the new way of disseminating an apocalyptic message in that time.

Prophecy believers since the time of the Millerite movement, the 1840s, have been extremely skilled at using the latest technologies. And that's been very much true in our own day. It's fascinating to see how this ancient belief system is being spread, really worldwide, by ... all the technologies, from mass paperback books to the Internet, World Wide Web sites, videotapes, even feature length films. The entire apparatus of modern mass culture is accessible to those who are believers and who wish to spread their message. ... It's also interesting to see how the prophecy popularizers view modern technology. On the one hand, they see all of these systems of mass communication preparing the way for the Antichrist. But in the meantime, they're quite ready to use these same technologies themselves, to spread the word of their particular interpretation of Bible prophecy.

Again, Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth sort of set the standard for this, because Lindsey proved to be an enormously successful marketer of his product. And The Late Great Planet Earth, published initially by an obscure religious publisher in Michigan, is taken up by a mass market publisher and produced in a mass market format that is sold in supermarkets and airports and so on. A film is made of The Late Great Planet Earth narrated, actually, by Orson Welles. So it set the pattern of a multimedia phenomenon that we now see with a number of prophecy popularizers today. ...

A perfect example of the mass marketing of prophetic belief is the Left Behind series that is now selling by the millions of copies in modern America. It's by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and it's a series of novels which deal in fictional form with pre-millennial dispensationalist beliefs. It begins with the Rapture. It deals with a small group of so-called Tribulation Saints that find each other during the period of the Great Tribulation and try to survive the rise of the Antichrist. They're very readable. They're very well written. And they are being marketed in a very powerful and successful way. The publisher has a web site. You can comment on the book. The publisher has produced a children's version of four kids going through the Great Tribulation. I understand that a film version is in the works. So the Left Behind phenomenon is a classic example of the way a very ancient belief system has broken through into the mass market of modern America. ...

What does the Left Behind series tell us about the way prophecy believers are using the media today?

The Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, I think, tells us some very interesting things about the way prophecy belief is being used today in this post Cold War period. For one thing, it deals with contemporary themes: the new communications technologies. The characters in the novels are all using the Internet and communicating by e-mail, and so it's very up-to-the-minute in terms of the cultural material that's described. And yet it deals with a sort of fictionalized version of a very ancient traditional system of Bible prophecy interpretation: the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the rise of the Antichrist. The religious themes, the apocalyptic themes of the series are very well known, very well established. But they're combined with these contemporary allusions that give the series a very up-to-the-minute quality. ...

Is there a contradiction between these stories both using and featuring today's latest greatest technology (Internet etc.) and being true to the story of the Book of Revelation?

I think there's inevitably a kind of distortion and trivialization of what in some sense is a very profound insight. The apocalyptic world view is one that speaks to the human condition in very profound ways, in terms of the opposition of forces of chaos and order and so on. When it's translated into the world of contemporary mass marketing, contemporary Hollywood film techniques, inevitably, it seems to me, much of the depth, much of the complexity, much of the meaning that it might have for people in terms of encouraging them to really think about the nature of the world that we live in, gets lost, and it simply becomes another product to be consumed and forgotten.


For more about the "doom industry," read Chip Berlet's essay "End Times as A Growth Industry."


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