Transcript

125:

Apocalypse
Transcript

Originally aired 04.02.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/125

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Paul Lalonde

Hello, I'm Paul Lalonde. You see, the world you're sitting in right now is a completely different world than the one I'm sitting in recording this message. An event the Bible calls the Rapture has taken place, and millions or even billions of people have vanished from the face of the Earth, including myself and all of the men you're going to see on this video today. You know, while we can't begin to imagine what the world you're sitting in right now must be like, we can at least say we knew this was going to happen, and we can answer many of the questions that are so important to you right now.

Ira Glass

This is a video called Left Behind, and it exists to solve a problem. In the view of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who try to understand the prophecies in the Bible, we as a species are on the verge of some terrible events, events that will usher in the end of time and the return of Jesus to the Earth. But the very first thing that will happen at the start of these times, according to these Christians, according to the Bible, is that good Christians will be lifted away to Heaven in an instant. That's what they call the Rapture.

This video and others like it are designed to explain to those left behind exactly what's occurred and what happens after the Christians are all gone.

Man 1

I would assume that there's a lot of fear, there's a lot of tension. I would assume that newscasters are speculating as to the disappearance of millions and millions of people on planet Earth. You are wondering what's going to take place next. I would refer you to the Bible. The Bibles are still left, all over the world--

Man 2

Well, the true believers have just been taken out, as those crazy Christians used to tell you they would. And they've all been suddenly, without warning, snatched out to meet Christ in the air, and they've been changed from mortal to immortal.

Ira Glass

Much of this videotape is a warning. It says that after the Christians all vanish, there will be seven years of tribulation with a false prophet, an antichrist. The video tries to warn us against all of the lies that the antichrist will tell, but it's very tricky business because the people putting together the videotape do not know what exactly the lies will be.

Paul Lalonde

And as we sit and ponder that, we think about if the rapture took place in the world in which we live today, the one frame of reference that most people would have for this event came from something that's been very popular in this world for the last decade or so. It's called Star Trek. And it's called the transporter beam. "Beam me up, Scotty." So stories will begin to explode that people have been taken off this planet on UFOs, that they've been sent to other planets, to slave planets, or that they have just been brought up to a UFO for some reason or another. This is simply not true, according to the Scripture. It is a lie that we know is forthcoming.

Ira Glass

There's a kind of Left Behind industry churning out product right now. A series of novels about what will happen after the Rapture during the years of tribulation predicted by the Bible has crossed over from the Christian bestseller list to the mainstream charts. The latest book in the series is at number seven on the New York Times Bestseller list this week. It sold a half million copies in its first two weeks. The other four books in the series plus the videos plus the audio books plus the special series about the end time for young people called Left Behind For Kids together have sold about 6 million copies, according to the publisher.

And if you don't think that the people in your life believe in these prophecies, just ask around. In an informal poll of the people who work at this public radio station where I speak to you from right now, WBEZ in Chicago, nine people out of the 55 that we asked said they do believe in the biblical prophecies of the Rapture and the end time. And yet, this is an area where religious people and secular people definitely do not see eye to eye. Secular people, non-Christians, usually do not take these beliefs very seriously. In this hour today, we try to demonstrate why they should.

Our subject today, the end of the world. Act One, Cowboys of the Apocalypse, the true story of fundamentalist Christians uniting in a project with orthodox Jews to create a cow that could bring about the end of the world. Act Two, the Cost of Misunderstanding, an explanation of why an FBI agent might want to pack a Bible along with his gun. Act Three, Again. Writer Sarah Vowell has seen the end of the world not once, not twice, but three times. And she is back to tell the tale. Act Four, None Shall Know the Exact Hour or Time, in which we answer the question, what do the dates October 22, 1844, May 21, 1999, and September 11, 1999, what do those dates have in common? We have answers coming up. Stay with us.

Act One. Cowboys Of The Apocalypse.

Ira Glass

Act One, Cowboys of the Apocalypse. Clyde Lott was a man with two main interests, cows-- he was a cattle breeder by profession-- and the Bible. He's also an evangelical minister. And one day, he was doing something that combined his two interests. Lawrence Wright wrote about him in The New Yorker magazine.

Lawrence Wright

He was going through the Bible and looking for all the references about cows. The early books of the Bible are essentially about an agricultural people, so there are a lot of references about cattle. And when he came upon Numbers 19, he found this reference. When God was speaking to Moses, God commanded that Moses tell his people to bring him a red heifer without spot or blemish, and it would be sacrificed to him.

And Clyde began to wonder where they might have gotten such a cow, because all of the cattle that he could find referenced in the Old Testament were spotted or striped. But what he also knew is that there's a breed of cattle call the Red Angus that's as red as an Irish Setter. And it seems to be unknown in the Middle East. So it struck him that he might be the very man who could bring the red heifer back to the land of Israel.

Ira Glass

Now, there's an important reason Clyde Lott might want to do that, and that reason involves biblical prophecy. In Clyde Lott's reading of the Bible-- and many people see it this way-- the second coming of Jesus, Armageddon, the Rapture, the thousand-year reign of Jesus on Earth, all this will occur only after three things happen. Number one, the establishment of the state of Israel. Number two, Jerusalem has to be in Jewish hands. And number three, the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, a temple that was destroyed in 79 AD, that temple has to be rebuilt and reestablished as the center of Jewish worship.

Now, numbers one and two, of course, have come to pass in the last few decades. But to reestablish the ancient Jewish temple, somebody would first have to purify the ground for the temple, and then they would have to purify the temple itself. And to do that, according to the Bible, somebody would have to sacrifice a pure Numbers 19 red heifer without spot or blemish. Where would a cow like that come from? Clyde Lott turned the question over and over in his head, until one day in the summer of 1990.

Lawrence Wright

Well, he was out baling hay and his baler broke. And he started to go into town to get a new part, and he found himself, he said, driving instead to Jackson, Mississippi, the capital, and walked into the Department of Agriculture.

Clyde Lott

And I can remember walking into his office straight out of the hayfield--

Ira Glass

This is Clyde Lott.

Clyde Lott

--with blue jeans, Wal-Mart tennis shoes, baseball cap, dirty, smelly, hay and grass all over me, grease on me, and asking the question, or stating the fact and then asking the question, where did Israel get their red cow from? And you could imagine his response for the first few minutes.

Ira Glass

Yeah, what was his response? Was he like, well, you're the third person in here today asking me this?

Clyde Lott

No. He looked at me for several minutes before he realized that I was serious.

Ira Glass

When this official realized Mr. Lott was serious, he helped him write a letter that made its way from one US government official to another until finally it was forwarded to a private organization in Israel called the Temple Institute. The Temple Institute is run by very religious Jews whose goal is, as you might expect, to reestablish the ancient temple in Jerusalem.

They want to do this because it's the belief of some Jews that to be truly Jewish, you have to obey all the commandments in the Bible. And it turns out that about a third of those commandments are specifically about things that happened at that original temple. Also, many orthodox Jews believe that the Messiah, the Jewish Messiah who's been awaited for millennia, cannot arrive until the temple is rebuilt. And it turns out that the rabbis at the temple institute had been pondering the question of where they were going to find a Numbers 19 red heifer without blemish or spot. And so naturally they were very interested to talk with Mr. Lott. After some letters and phone calls, he flew to meet with them in Jerusalem.

What they put into motion was a project that now involves dozens of people, volunteers, cattlemen, many Christian and Jewish donors, and very high-tech, 20th-century breeding techniques all to create a Red Angus that would conform to biblical law and also thrive in the heat of the Mideast. From the very start, Clyde Lott says, they found they had a lot to talk about. Though, coming from his part of Mississippi, he had never really talked much with many Jews.

Clyde Lott

In meeting with Rabbi Ariel and meeting with Rabbi Richman, we began to talk about producing cows, red cows for Numbers 19. And Rabbi Richman was interpreting for Rabbi Ariel. And one of the things that they had asked us was, how many cows did we think it would take to produce a Numbers 19 red heifer? And we told him we thought that it would take approximately 200 head. And what was amazing there, then, was they asked us how much they thought it would cost. And we told Rabbi Richman $2,000 a head. And he turned to Rabbi Ariel and told him $20,000. There was a mistake.

Ira Glass

He told him that in Hebrew?

Clyde Lott

Yes. Yes, he was speaking to Rabbi Ariel in Hebrew. And you can imagine the next few minutes got pretty excited between those two rabbis, because that was quite a sum of money when you figure 200 head at $20,000 a head.

And after several minutes of listening to them talk back and forth, we interrupted Rabbi Richman, and we asked him what the problem was. And he said, well, $20,000 is a lot of money for these cows. And we made the statement and said simply this, that we're not trying to take advantage of you as you're seeking to turn back to God.

Lawrence Wright

And they were astonished because there was a parable in Jewish tradition about a Gentile who was a jeweler. And a jewel had fallen out of the vest of the chief rabbi. And a delegation had gone down to this jeweler who was supposed to replace this precious stone. And they asked him how much it would cost to replace. And he said it was 100 shekels, but he couldn't replace it at present because the box with the precious jewels was under the bed where his father was sleeping and he didn't want to disturb him. And they thought that was a ruse, so they raised the price and doubled it and then doubled it. And finally it got up to 1,000 shekels and he still refused. And the delegation left very angrily.

Clyde Lott

And shortly thereafter, according to the story, Dama ben Natina's father awoke and retrieved the jewel and ran down the road and gave it to the priest. And they in turn gave him the 1,000 shekels. And he gave them back 900, correcting the price to 1/10, the same thing that we did. And as soon as he gave back the 900 shekels, he made the statement that I'm not trying to take advantage of you as you seek to turn to God, word for word, the same thing that we said almost 2,000-plus years later.

And right there on the road, the priest of the temple prayed a blessing over this man. And the blessing was that out of his Gentile lineage one day would come the producer of the red heifer. So the rabbis of the temple saw a striking similarity between the two. And it really went a long way to establish our relationship with them.

Ira Glass

Do you believe that you are descended from that man?

Clyde Lott

I have no idea. But what I believe is very simply that we have been called by God to perform a needed function in the life of Israel.

Ira Glass

So when are the first cows going to be flown to Israel?

Clyde Lott

We hope possibly as early as May. If not May, we feel like that it will be October, November.

Ira Glass

And how many cows do you think are going to be in that first group?

Clyde Lott

We hope to fly over approximately 300 head of heifers and 15 to 20 bulls.

Ira Glass

And then how is that done? What kind of plane does this?

Clyde Lott

A 747. There are a number of planes that fly cattle, but we are working with a 747.

Lawrence Wright

You know, that's not the only group of cows. There's apparently some cattle that are being bred in Texas as well. So I think that the chances of a red heifer being born in Israel that meets all the requirements within the next several months is pretty strong. I can't stress too strongly what a catastrophic thing it would be from a political and diplomatic point of view.

Ira Glass

It would be catastrophic, says Lawrence Wright, because once there was a red heifer, Jews and Christians would certainly start to agitate for the rebuilding of the ancient Jewish temple, and agitate hard. A small portion of that temple still exists in Israel today, the Western Wall. You can see it if you go to Jerusalem. But to rebuild the temple in its original form on its original site, which is the only thing that would be acceptable under Jewish law, most people believe that you would have to tear down two holy Islamic sites that stand near the Western Wall, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock is the oldest building in Islam and one of its holiest sites. Muslims believe that it was from this spot that Muhammad ascended to Heaven on his winged steed.

Lawrence Wright

I think that it's extremely likely that one of two things will happen. Either some religious group will succeed in destroying or severely damaging one or both of the mosques on top of the temple mount. Or else the extreme religious, political wing that is so ascendant in Israel now will gain enough power to decide to remove the mosque and reestablish the temple. And I think it would be an unmitigated diplomatic catastrophe, and that it would excite a religious war such as we haven't seen since the Crusades.

Ira Glass

Really?

Lawrence Wright

Well, you know, it is--

Ira Glass

I was with you up until that very last sentence.

Lawrence Wright

I can't underscore too strongly how tense this situation is and how jealously the Muslim authorities guard this. Just a few years ago, there's a little tunnel that runs alongside the temple mount. And as a tourist, you can go walk along. You see these immense and quite beautiful stones that were fashioned under King Herod. And the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to extend that tunnel so that people could walk all the way through without doubling back, so people could pass freely out into the street. And that itself was regarded with such suspicion that there were riots all over Jerusalem and the West Bank. 90 people died.

Ira Glass

Just to build these tunnels for tourists?

Lawrence Wright

Just to open the tunnel to the street.

Ira Glass

90 people died over that?

Lawrence Wright

90 people died for that.

Clyde Lott

We've been accused of-- once cows getting over there-- starting World War III. And in fact, I've even been accused of being the antichrist.

Ira Glass

Wow. Do you worry that perhaps one of the things that could happen, though, once red heifers are reintroduced to Israel, that it could lead to violence of one sort or another?

Clyde Lott

This is a faith walk with us. And when we commit our life to a walk of faith, we are committing our complete trust in God to do with us as he sees fit to accomplish his end. So from that standpoint, I have never been worried about the outcome because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the outcome is going to be the outcome that God wants.

Ira Glass

You're lucky to have that kind of faith.

Clyde Lott

Well, we as Christians all should exercise this kind of faith.

Ira Glass

You quote this incredible statistic, poll number, in your article where you say that about half, 46% of all Americans, believe that the state of Israel in its existence and being held by Jewish hands is the fulfillment of prophecy.

Lawrence Wright

Right. It's not just fundamentalists. I know a lot of people who would not consider themselves to be fundamentalist who are mainstream Christians who read the Bible and see these events that are happening in the Middle East and think that it's resonating with the prophecies of the Old Testament.

It's an overwhelming feature of American support for Israel. The Jewish population of the United States is not that significant. But the fundamentalist Christian and evangelical Christian population is substantial, and especially in Southern states, states where senators like Lott and Helms and so on have traditionally been great allies and friends of Israel. It's not because of their love of Jews in my opinion.

And millions and millions of Christians give money to support Israeli causes, Jewish causes, because they believe that this is where the end times will unfold. And they have a genuine and heartfelt belief that this should happen and that it should be a part of American policy to speed that along. And indeed it is.

Ira Glass

Mr. Lott, let me ask you-- how old are you, may I ask?

Clyde Lott

How old am I?

Ira Glass

Yes, sir.

Clyde Lott

I just turned 43.

Ira Glass

Do you believe that you will see the Rapture and the end time in your lifetime?

Clyde Lott

I think so. I think, as fast as events are moving. And the reason I say that is because, when we began this project 10 years ago, it seemed like we began it at a very slow walk. And then it got a little faster, and it got a little faster, and it got a little faster, to the point now where we feel like we're almost running.

Ira Glass

I know you have your Bible with you there in the studio. You're talking to me from Mississippi. I'm speaking to you from our studio in Chicago. Is there any passage of the Bible that you look to for strength as you do this work?

Clyde Lott

There's a number of scriptures. One of them that comes to mind now-- I'm turning there-- is found in Ezekiel, chapter 12. It says, "therefore say unto them, thus saith the Lord God; there shall none of my words be prolonged anymore, but the word which I have spoken shall be done, saith the Lord God." And what that is speaking to me is that God is going to fulfill every word that he has said and that he's going to do it now.

Lawrence Wright

For years, there have been religious maniacs who have tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. And just last week, there was a Jewish extremist who was expelled from Jerusalem by Israeli authorities for fear that that's what he was trying to do.

Ira Glass

You know, when you talk about the inevitability of this conflict over what will be done with this site, the phrase self-fulfilling prophecy is the thing that keeps coming to my mind. It just seems like they have a prophecy about the end of the world and the end of time. And because they have it, they're putting all of the elements into place so they can have this huge argument over this religious site that could turn violent so simply and quickly.

Lawrence Wright

Well, and they welcome that because that's prophetic. That's a fulfillment of the prophecy. So it brings on the apocalypse. That's exactly what they expect. And moreover, from the Christian point of view, they're going to be raptured and out of here before that actually happens, so they've got nothing to lose.

Ira Glass

Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker and cattleman Clyde Lott. That interview was first broadcast in April of 1999. We have tried repeatedly to reach Clyde Lott and his organization to check on whether they have successfully flown cows to Israel or bred a red heifer there by now but didn't get a call back by the time of today's broadcast.

[MUSIC - "THE LAST ROUND-UP" BY SONS OF THE PIONEERS]

Act Two. The Cost Of Misunderstanding.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Cost of Misunderstanding. This is a true story of a group of Christians who devoted themselves to studying the Bible's prophecies about the end of the world, and about Jesus' return, a story about people who tried to live in a way that matched what it seemed the Bible was saying, and about how US government officials did not understand what the group was doing and killed 74 of them, including 21 children, when they raided their compound, the compound of the Branch Davidians, followers of David Koresh, on April 19, 1993 in Waco, Texas.

James Tabor is a religion professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte who not only followed the intricacies of what the group's leader David Koresh was saying about the Bible and its prophecies, in Koresh's final days, when he wanted to release a statement to the world explaining what he saw as the exciting news from his reading of scripture, Tabor was one of the two religious experts that Koresh wanted to give the manuscript to. Tabor sees the government's actions at the time as a tragedy of misunderstanding. FBI agents thought Koresh never discussed issues of substance with them because he was always talking to them about the Bible during negotiations. While from Koresh's view, talking about what the Bible required was explaining his position on all the relevant issues. By rolling in tanks and helicopters, Tabor says, the government unwittingly convinced David Koresh and his followers that perhaps the Bible wanted them to die in a bloody showdown in Waco, something they hadn't believed beforehand.

James Tabor

I think the misunderstanding of the biblical apocalyptic language of David Koresh and his followers was at the heart, really, of the whole tragedy at Waco. In other words, I don't think it needed to have ended that way.

Ira Glass

One of the things that you write is that the government demanded that they surrender to proper authority and that when the Davidians heard that, they heard something very different than what was meant. What did the Davidians hear when they heard that?

James Tabor

Yes. In fact, on the last day, as the tanks were inserting the tear gas all morning into the building, on a loudspeaker, there was a recording played over and over and over-- this is not an attack. We want you to come out. Come out with your hands up. Come out unarmed. Surrender to proper authority. That was the last public word spoken to the Davidians before the fire. From the Davidian point of view, it simply meant never, never could we come out under those sorts of circumstances, because obviously they believe that the only authority was God, and then David as their leader and anointed prophet. So it was just a complete crossing of wires, as we say, in terms of communication.

Ira Glass

Even one of the things that was usually cited as being one of the most inflammatory things to the public about the existence of his group, the fact that he had children from so many different women. Even that, there was a scriptural reason for.

James Tabor

Yes. It's something a little difficult to justify, I think, in terms of our culture. But David did believe that he was the last and final and true prophet that God has sent to the world. And this final figure is obligated to have the seven wives, which he had, and to raise up 24 children. Now, as bizarre as that sounds, it's based upon text from the Psalms that speak about the anointed one coming, and that he will beget children, and it mentions his wives.

By explaining it, I certainly don't intend to endorse it. But the point I would make is, if you're going to deal with the group, instead of calling him a polygamist, child-molesting, sex maniac, to understand how they would have understood all of these women and their understanding of things.

[MUSIC - "THE CITY SLEEPS" BY MC 900 FT JESUS]

Ira Glass

James Tabor is the author with Eugene Gallagher of the book Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Coming up, make friends, have peace of mind, solve the problems of 20th-century Socialism, all because of the end of the world. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Again.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, the end of the world. Today's program was first broadcast in 1999. In the first half of our show, we heard about things that we should worry about when it comes to the apocalypse. In this half-- I know it sounds strange to say-- this half of the show is all about how the end of the world can be a good thing, how it can be a good thing in the lives of people who think about it all the time. We've arrived at act three of our show.

Act Three, Again. We have this story from our contributing editor Sarah Vowell.

Sarah Vowell

Whenever I hear people talking about the end of the world, I think, the apocalypse again? I would go so far as to say that the end of the world, an event which has not happened, is the most important event of my life. I've been there not once, not twice, but three times. Here's what I can report. While the actual end of the world will, of course, involve a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, thinking about the end of the world can be kind of uplifting.

Apocalypse one, 1970s. I've had this recurring dream since I was six years old. My mother's gone. She is not running errands gone, not at a friend's house gone. She's gone for good. Vanished. My sister's still here. My dad's around. In fact, all the kids and dads in town are present and accounted for, but all the mothers have vanished overnight. That's how I figure out the Rapture has happened. Only the women are worthy enough of God's grace to get whisked off to Heaven. The wicked men and wicked children are left to tough out Armageddon on our own. That means my sister and I will have to suffer through the lake of fire, the rivers of blood, and our father's cooking.

And yet, I am calm. I have my loophole, my get out of tribulation free card, which I learned about in church. I go to the supermarket, Gibson's in Muskogee, and fill a cart with food. At the checkout counter, I line up vegetables by the cash register. The clerk informs me that in order to pay for the food, I must take the mark of the beast. I refuse. Soldiers with machine guns appear. They gun me down, my blood spattering all over the salad fixins. Then poof, I'm in Heaven, dead, harp in hand.

I still have that dream sometimes. And thinking about it now as an atheistic adult, I realize how many things are going on in it, that it is a microcosm of my childhood world. At my church, Braggs Pentecostal Holiness in Braggs, Oklahoma, the sermons were about the Book of Revelation when I was in first grade, the year I learned to read. So it was the first book of the Bible I ever read myself, not to mention one of the first books I ever read period. The loophole about not accepting the mark of the beast comes from scripture, as does the grocery store setting.

According to Revelation 13:17-- "and that no man might buy or sell save he that had the mark or the name of the beast of the number of his name." And that number, of course, revealed in verse 18 is "six hundred three score and six." 666. The other reason I refuse the mark in the grocery store is tied up in the fundamentalist uproar over bar codes in the 1970s. Bar codes were thought by many to be the mark of the beast.

Armageddon is kind of a lot to lay on a kid. The Book of Revelation is verse after verse of dragons and demons and the blood of the lamb. A typical passage-- "and the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun and the power was given unto him to scorch men with fire." Mom, can I have another cookie? Frankly, I could have done with more seven dwarfs and less seven seals.

But living in eastern Oklahoma, believing in the apocalypse made a lot of sense. I could buy the gaudy deaths and grisly details set forth in Revelation because Oklahoma itself was a biblical landscape. It seemed like half the year we were on tornado watch, and the place was literally crawling with snakes, snakes in my tree house, snakes on the porch, snakes in the yard. Because I was a baptized when I was eight in a water moccasin infested lake. And as if I wasn't petrified enough, fangs and drowning being two my bigger fears, Sister Minnie's drunken husband drove up in his pickup right after I came up for air, and he started scream-singing, "shall we gather at the river?"

Because our cousin Gary John's wife got shot dead in the head with Gary's own gun by Gary's sister's husband who was joking around and didn't know the gun was loaded. Ha-ha. Because the leader of my Brownie troop with smashed into a million pieces trying to cross the train tracks. Because my grandfather Pa Vowell buried another wife every few years. Because my other grandfather Pa Parson was a Cherokee wart doctor who could tie a string around a wart and bury the string in the ground and that made the wart go away.

Because my grandmother Ma Parson lost her mind one day and couldn't remember my name, though she could remember all the words to "Bringing in the Sheaves." And today we call this Alzheimer's, but back then we called it "God's will." Because on Wednesday nights, my mother would drive this ancient witchy widow to church, a lady who believed haircuts for women were a sin, which did stop her from trimming that mangy white rope dangling off her scalp around 1923, but did not stop her from scamming rides off my mom, a hairdresser.

So in such a superstitious town among such accident-prone citizens, Revelation seemed more like gossip than a ghost story. In fact, considering all the random wrath of God around me, Armageddon appeared refreshingly well thought out. So well thought out that it included that escape clause. I was a believer.

But there was something stronger than my belief in God. The thing the preacher said that I believed more than anything else I heard at church was that I was a sinner. When I sang "Amazing Grace," the key phrase wasn't the title's promise of redemption but this-- "wretch like me." Even as a six-year-old, I knew I'd never be good enough to get into Heaven.

So I seized on the escape clause, the idea that I could refuse the mark of the beast at a grocery store and everything would be all right. I knew I was evil. I knew I couldn't get through a lifetime adhering to daily virtue. But I was pretty sure I had the guts to stand two or three seconds of machine gun pain when the time came. And this comforted me. It kept me from panicking about the eternal consequences of every childish trespass. And so, even though it's the scariest book, Revelation did more to ease my mind than any other book of the Bible.

Apocalypse two, 1980s. I'm not exactly proud to admit this, but I owe my life to Ronald Reagan. My family moved from Oklahoma to the pleasant college town of Bozeman, Montana in 1981, the year Reagan was inaugurated. I was 11. Away from the Bible Belt, my family was forced to attend a nondenominational church about which my mother said, "too much teachin', not enough preachin'." Religion became an increasingly less urgent part of my life.

This did not mean that the end of the world faded from the forefront of my psyche. I merely replaced one apocalypse for another. In the early '80s, President Reagan made so many mortifying announcements about the evil empire and his strategic defense initiative, AKA Star Wars, and "we begin bombing in five minutes," that I was utterly convinced I wasn't going to get to grow up.

What with waking up every morning surprised there was still a world to wake up to, I was not a particularly fun-loving high school student. By junior year, 1986-- Chernobyl-- my free time was filled up with doing my homework and writing orchestra music derivative of my then-hero Philip Glass, repetitive music predicated on the notion that time perhaps is going nowhere.

But then my twin sister Amy, who had friends and fun and, unlike me, was an actual human being, told me that some kids she knew from art class were starting an anti-nuclear group. I was immediately excited, impressed. I only knew the kids who, like me, took band. I thought the art class kids who showed up for the first meeting of what would become Youth for Global Peace were the most glamorous people I'd ever met. They played in rock and roll bands and wrote poetry and didn't eat meat. They had spiky hair and smoked cigarettes and debated whether or not William Burroughs' Junkie was better than his Naked Lunch.

Yeah, yeah. We talked about nukes. We were against them. We'd meet every Saturday night at Greta Montaine's house. We handed out pie graphs of Reagan's 1986 federal budget, in which defense spending was the biggest slice of pie, at grocery store parking lots. We got up really early one morning and plastered the school walls with xeroxed posters of a mushroom cloud on which we had scribbled, "this could happen to you."

My biggest moment was probably representing the group on a round table discussion on the local public television channel. The adults said a few mundane things about a saner nuclear policy before I started screaming, "you got to grow up! Do you know what it's like to think you're not going to grow up? Do you?"

In retrospect, the anti-nuclear part of the anti-nuclear group was the least important thing about it. I had had friends before them, but I had never had a gang, never had a group of people I liked and admired and enjoyed. The anti-nuke group taught me a lesson which changed my life-- how to hang out. And the first time Matt Brewer, the coolest boy, invited me over to his house, and I got there, and he and Jimmy Harkin were sitting around listening to Black Sabbath and spray-painting Legos black, I sort of hugged myself, contrary to conventional leftist wisdom, with nuclear arms. I didn't know life could be that fun.

Apocalypse three, 1990s. Berlin Wall falls. Cold War ends. I start believing I might live long enough to die of something other than a first-strike Soviet attack or refusing the mark of the beast. Goodbye darkness, my old friend.

Ah, the good old days. When I was a kid, the end of the world really was something, nuclear holocaust, the Rapture. But they don't make apocalypses like they used to. Just look at the cheap little cataclysm they're trying to pass off to unsuspecting future-phobes lately. These kids today and their Y2K. Do they know what it's like to think they're not going to grow up? Do they?

To find out, I traveled to San Francisco. I heard about a community group there which was organizing for the possible Y2K aftermath. The good people of BAY2K were not the young, Silicon Valley computer programmers I'd hoped for. Instead, the group felt very ex-hippie, very new age, very Marin. One part of the evening ended with a women reciting a Hopi prayer.

They broke down into small groups to address specific problems, from pragmatic topics like community preparedness to the less tangible psychological and spiritual issues. They admit it could be that, come January 1, nothing will happen. This is how Y2K differs from previous apocalypses. The old ones, we knew exactly what would happen, we just didn't know the date. Y2K, we know the date. It's what'll happen that's up in the air. One woman says that if nothing happens on January 1, well, at least she had a good excuse to meet her neighbors and have a really good dialogue.

Which in a certain sense seemed to be the point. Just like my old church and my old anti-nuke group, they're using the end of the world as a means to meet and greet, planning block parties so they can come up with Y2K contingency plans in their neighborhoods. They were also very idealistic. This is the thing you might not realize about end of the worlders. They might seem like they're all about fetishizing doom and destruction, but stick around long enough for them to finish their spiel-- few people do, I know-- and before long, they get to a straight-up Utopian vision of the world. After all, after the biblical tribulation comes the new Jerusalem and 1,000 years of peace on Earth.

The BAY2K activists said they saw the possible societal shut down as an opportunity for community building. They talked about how American culture is unsustainable, out of control, optimistically opining that we brought this all on ourselves. They're looking forward to a saner, more agrarian way of life. One of the men said neighborhoods should get together and buy a tiller to start community gardens. To them, Y2K looks a lot like Y1K.

I grew increasingly alarmed at the picture they were painting, a golden picture of neighbor with neighbor throwing off the shackles of Capitalism to till the soil at one with the Earth. A woman named Leslie said she'd like to help out but, "I'm physically challenged so I can't even offer my strength. I can't garden. I'd like to, but I can't." [? Nityama, ?] the man sitting next to her, tells her that she could contribute in other ways, like canning. He says, "even the know-how of doing it is just as valuable as the manpower or the strength to do it."

Aw, each giving according to his abilities, each taking according to his needs. I'm not sure which thing I react to more, this brand of shiny, happy Marxism all expressed as if the history of the 20th century never happened or the talk about canning. Just picturing Mason jars full of stewed tomatoes, a bomb goes off inside me. I suddenly realize what they're proposing. Canning, gardening, spending time with your neighbors. This is Oklahoma minus God, the one thing that gave it all some dignity.

They're welcome to their millennial vision, to whatever gives them hope. I too have imagined a Heaven on Earth, a new Jerusalem that comforts me in times of tribulation. Behold my Revelation, I stand at the door in the morning and lo, there is a newspaper in sight like unto an emerald. And holy, holy, holy is the coffee, which was and is and is to come. And hark, I hear the voice of an angel round about the radio saying, "since my baby left me I found a new place to dwell."

After this, I beheld, and lo, a great multitude which no man could number of shoes. And after these things, I will hasten unto a taxicab and to a theater, where a ticket will be given unto me. And lo, it is a matinee and a film that doeth great wonders. And when it is finished, the heavens will open and out cometh a rain fragrant as myrrh. And yea, I have an umbrella.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell is the author of Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, where a version of this story now appears.

[MUSIC - "MODERN WORLD" BY THE MODERN LOVERS]

Act Four. None Shall Know The Exact Hour Or Time.

Ira Glass

Act Four, None Shall Know the Exact Day or Hour. The logical conclusion to believing that the end of the world is coming, to thinking about it, to preparing for it, is finally trying to compute when exactly it will happen in advance. We are a nation where many Christians have tried to do exactly that throughout our history. Somebody who's trying today is Bonnie Gaunt. She lives in Jackson, Michigan. Some of her calculations are based on the fact that every Hebrew letter corresponds to a number. So the Hebrew text of the Bible is filled with numbers that provide clues to the date of the Rapture and the end time. She's written nine books about this.

Bonnie Gaunt also points to scripture that indicates that the millennium will come on the sixth biblical day. Each biblical day, she says, is 1,000 years. And you start counting from the creation of Adam. Counting all the events in the Bible and since, she believes that she has discovered the exact day that good Christians will be raptured directly to Heaven and that the end time will begin.

I spoke with her back in April of 1999. And at that time, her calculations indicated that the exact date of the Rapture would be--

Bonnie Gaunt

September 11, 1999.

Ira Glass

And has it affected your behavior in daily life?

Bonnie Gaunt

Yes, that's very true. Such as our house is in desperate need of siding, new siding on it. And my husband says, well, when spring comes, let's put siding on the house. And I says, well, let's wait until after September 11 to put siding on the house. If we're not raptured, then maybe the house needs siding.

And there are things like when I get catalogs in the mail for clothes and shoes and this kind of stuff, and I look through the catalogs, and I toss the catalog down, I says, what am I looking in this for? What do I need new clothes for? I don't need any new clothes between now and the Rapture. I don't need any new shoes. I can wear what I've got.

Ira Glass

You know, I would think it could also go the other way. You would think, OK, well, after September, I'm going to be gone. So I can have the extra dessert. Do you know what I mean?

Bonnie Gaunt

I hadn't even thought of that. I had thought strictly in the other concept that I don't need these things because I'm going to be given something so much better. I guess what I'm attempting to do is prepare for it, but also still prepare to keep on living in case my date is wrong, in case the date that I have is not correct. I have told my sons, prepared both of my sons for the possibility that their father and mother might disappear.

Ira Glass

And what were these conversations like with your sons? I would imagine that, if they're not believers in the same way that you are, that could be kind of a hard conversation to have.

Bonnie Gaunt

Well, they were very kind and polite to me. What they were really feeling inside was not revealed on the outside. The 38-year-old, when I was telling him all this, and he just sat there with this big grin on his face and this sparkle in his eye. And I couldn't tell whether he was happy for me because I had such a beautiful hope or whether he was secretly laughing at me. I don't know.

Ira Glass

How much of your time, how much of your thinking does it consume?

Bonnie Gaunt

I can think of little else. I go out for a walk and I talk with God and I'm just so anxious to see Him and to be in His realm. It's just such a beautiful, living hope for me that that hope is with me all day long. I lie in bed at night and think about it. And it's a beautiful hope.

It's difficult because people have been predicting the return of the Lord for centuries. And even the early church, the early church thought he was going to return in their day. So I have people telling me, well, why do you think your date's any different than anybody else's date? None of them have ever come true. So how do you know yours is going to come true? I don't know that it is. I'm hoping that it is.

Ira Glass

Marilyn Agee lives in California. Like Bonnie Gaunt, she studies Bible prophecy and has tried to compute the length of all the events in the Bible to figure out when the end time would begin. She's the author of three books on this subject. The latest is Heaven Found. Last year, she set a date for the Rapture, May 31, Pentecost.

Ira Glass

What did you do the day before? That must've been such a momentous day.

Marilyn Agee

I have a web page up called Bible Prophecy Corner. And I answered email constantly. I was answering email. And I meant to stay up all night because the Jews stay up all night. And my back hurt so bad-- I live in pain. I have lots of pain. So it hurt so bad I went to lay down just for a few minutes, just to rest my back, and was going to go back and answer email, left my computer on and everything. And I woke up in my clothes the next morning. I didn't get a chance to stay up all night. I hope I can do better this time. I want to stay up.

Ira Glass

Did anybody try to stay awake with you?

Marilyn Agee

No. Uh-uh.

Ira Glass

Like Jesus in the garden.

Marilyn Agee

Yeah, they couldn't stay awake. And I couldn't either. And I meant to. I really meant to.

Ira Glass

And when you woke up, what was that like?

Marilyn Agee

Well, I just knew it didn't happen. So back to the drawing board. What is there there, what clue is there there that I didn't see?

Ira Glass

You must have been so, so disappointed that morning.

Marilyn Agee

Oh, of course. Because I've been counting on it since 1969. But you know something? I wasn't cast down, and my faith is so strong there's no possible way that it could interfere with that. Nothing. They could kill me and I wouldn't give an inch, you know.

Ira Glass

Do you think there's anything that you'll miss about Earth?

Marilyn Agee

Not much. Things are getting so bad here, and I have so much pain here, and I think how nice it will be to have a day without pain. I haven't had a day without pain since I was 30 years old and I'm 70.

Ira Glass

You were saying before that you have back pain.

Marilyn Agee

Oh, I have muscular spasms, and they can hit anywhere. I was awake two times the night with my feet cramping just last night. I had to take quinine and Motrin.

Ira Glass

And so after the Rapture?

Marilyn Agee

After the Rapture, I won't have any more pain. That will be nice.

Ira Glass

Marilyn Agee has re-calculated her chronology since our interview back in 1999. She now believes that the rapture will occur on Pentecost of this year, which is May 28.

Let's close our program today with this last artifact. In 1818, a farmer in New England named William Miller spent two years studying scripture, especially a passage in Daniel that Marilyn Agee, in fact, pays a lot of attention to, Daniel 8:14. And William Miller concluded from his reading that the Rapture and the end of the world would happen in the year 1843. Many people, including mainstream clerics, became convinced that his calculations were sound and a whole movement started up.

And when 1843 came and went without the end of the world, he recalculated, set a date for 1844. This time, the anticipation was even more excited. Scholars who study the Millerites a century later noted dryly that, when people are committed to a set of beliefs, clear contrary evidence may simply result in them holding to their beliefs even more firmly.

And that's what happened in this case. All over New England, farmers didn't plant. Others planted but did not harvest as testament to their faith that the world would in fact end. And on the appointed date, October 22, 1844, when the sun rose and set on another ordinary day in New England, a Millerite wrote, "our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted and such a weeping came over us as I have never experienced before. It seemed that the loss of all earthly friends could be no comparison. We wept and wept until the day dawned. My advent experience had been the richest and brightest of all my Christian experiences. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my Christian experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God, no Heaven, no golden home city, no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable? Is there no reality to our fondest hope and expectation of these things? And thus, we had something to grieve and weep over if all our fond hopes were lost. And as I said, we wept till the day dawned."

The world is going to end. The world is going to end. So if you're going to love me, you should hurry.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus. Elizabeth Meister runs our website.

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Sarah Vowell

"Shall we gather at the river?"

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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