The Real History of the End of the World: Apocalyptic Predictions from Revelation and Nostradamus to Y2K and 2012
by Sharan Newman
Reviewed by Katie Schneider
"Warning," the bumper sticker reads, "in case of rapture, this car will be unmanned."
The sticker refers to a story by evangelist Jerry Falwell, who told followers to imagine themselves in a car with non-Christians. When the trumpet of Judgment Day sounds, he said, they'd be taken bodily into heaven, leaving the non-believers behind. "This is a fairly dramatic image," Portland historian Sharan Newman writes. "My initial reaction is not to let the Christian drive."
It's easy to forgive Newman her cynicism about Falwell's particular vision of doomsday. Ever since societies began, people have been speculating about how they're going to come crashing down. In The Real History of the End of the World: Apocalyptic Predictions from Revelation and Nostradamus to Y2K and 2012, Newman documents more than 6,000 years of speculation on the subject.
The Real History of the End of the World is an engaging look at world religions, charismatic leaders and ancient civilizations. Newman starts with the story of the Great Flood in Mesopotamia, a version of which trickles down to the Judeo-Christian tradition as the story of Noah. The Zoroastrians in ancient Egypt struggled to maintain balance between the forces of good and evil, eventually adopting the idea that the wicked would be punished at the end of the world. They may have "borrowed the idea from the Greeks," Newman writes. "Interesting ideas tend to float about with trade routes and get adopted by a variety of cultures that find them attractive."
Given Newman's pithy prose and clear summaries of great swaths of time, The Real History of the End of the World is tailor-made for dipping into. Chapters are short, self-contained and informative. Hindus, Jews and Muslims have their own versions of the end times. Charismatic leaders like Savanorola and Nostradamus made fiery predictions. In America, phrases like the "seven seals" and "666" and "the mark of the beast" have filtered out of the Book of Revelation and into our culture (and horror movies). Modern man, living with the threat of nuclear war and environmental degradation, is just as preoccupied with the end times as his predecessors -- some current predictions set the world to end in 2012.
"The more I researched," Newman writes, "the more I realized that the ideas about the end of the world were astonishingly similar." People behave immorally, bringing down the wrath of the deities. Societies are destroyed. Still, "each story includes those who are saved: the righteous, the devout, the ones who put the secret sign over their door."
That explains those bumper stickers.