Comparative Eschatology
A Position Paper for the Center for Millennial Studies
by
John J. Reilly


My interest in millennial studies grew out of an interest in theories of history. It is an old observation, for instance, that the Marxist structure of history and the structure of history posited by Christian millenarianism have a great deal in common. They are, in effect, stories with the same basic plot. More than one scholar has collected and compared models and myths of history from a variety of sources to see what they have in common. When you do that, you soon see that there really are not many different varieties of models of history. For the most part, they can all be accounted for by the sort of general structural formula that folklorists sometimes use to describe folktales. Even linear and cyclical models of time have more in common than is usually thought. This means that there are only so many ways that cultures have imagined "the end," whether of the world or of some dispensation within a larger story. Maybe there are only so many ways societies can imagine an ending. In any event, this cognitive constraint seems to have had some effect on the way that societies have actually behaved in history.

The most familiar kind of revolutionary millenarians, such as the Fifth Monarchy Men of the English Revolution or Hong Xiuquan of China's Tai Ping Rebellion, seek to remake the world without quite ending it. When they achieve a measure of success, their movements follow the pattern of revolutionary episodes such as the French Revolution: enthusiasm to terror to reaction. Perhaps not coincidentally, this pattern greatly resembles the plot of the old W. W. Jacobs story, "The Monkey's Paw," a cautionary tale about what happens when you get what you wish for. A recurring theme in the study of millennialism is the behavior of people who have been disappointed by the failure of the millennium to arrive. It seems to me that an equally interesting subject for discussion is the behavior of people who are appalled when it does arrive.

The comparative study of models of history suggests that it is possible to distinguish between different types of "apocalyptic movement." There are, for instance, types of prophetic belief that seem to have fundamentally conservative effects. Examples include the medieval expectation of the Emperor of the Last Days and today's dispensationalist theory of a pre-tribulation Rapture. In the "plot" of history, both these events precede the final act of the drama. They encourage people to put society in order in preparation for the climactic struggle between good and evil. For that matter, "millennialism" properly so-called, the belief that you are living in the prolonged final age of the world which is called the Millennium, has long been associated with the idea of progress. It need not be, of course. In some models of history, the final age is a time of withering and decay, but in Christendom this eschatological orientation has usually conduced to optimism. There is a great deal more to the study of the end of the world than the cataloguing of irrational terrors.

For lack of another term, "comparative eschatology" is the expression I use to refer to the approach to millennialism outlined above. It has the virtues and defects of any comparative approach. The notion of a general paradigm of models of history suggests a classification system for millennial beliefs and millennial movements. It should make researchers cautious about assigning too much causal weight to any one element in an apocalypse-minded social milieu, since it is usually possible to cite a quite different milieu where people acted much the same. On the other hand, a comparative approach like this is bound to be somewhat acausal and even superficial. Formulas can be useful, but the formula should not be mistaken for the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it is enough to get started with.


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