Today is the 41st anniversary of the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. It was Lindsey’s fifth book and, like the first four, it was hugely popular, spending nearly half the year on The New York Times best-seller list.
Millions of white Rapture Christians read this book and trusted the “biblical prophecy” of its author, who warned that “the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” The end of history there isn’t some Fukuyama-style prediction of the culmination of historical trends. Lindsey meant the end of history as in the end of the world, the Last Days — the Rapture, the 7-year Great Tribulation, the Battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming, and the obliteration of the earth and the entire universe. Rocks fall, everyone dies, That’s All Folks! etc.
In 1985, half-way through the decade Lindsey “prophesied” would be our last, I began my senior year at Timothy Christian High School. In our “Bible” class at TCS that year, we studied two of Lindsey’s books: The Late, Great Planet Earth and There’s a New World Coming. His other titles — including Countdown — were among the list of options we could choose for book reports for that class.
It’s safe to say that The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon has not aged well. A book that claims divine and scriptural authority to assure its readers that it will never have a 10th anniversary looks increasingly foolish with every passing year — with every decade after what it said would be the last and with every new generation after what Lindsey had proclaimed to be the “Terminal Generation” (the title of another of his Rapture-mania books).
On one level, the demonstrable wrongness of this book and its thesis is simply funny. The 1980s came and went and none of what Hal Lindsey prophesied came to pass. The Soviet Union did not invade Israel, thereby somehow sparking a war with China, the rebirth of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Antichrist, one-world government, etc. “History as we know it” had, indeed, changed in 1989, but not in anything like the ways that Lindsey had prophesied.
Millions of people took it very seriously on January 1, 1980, when Lindsey assured them that there was no way this decade would end without the Rapture happening. By January 1, 1990, that assurance had come to seem ridiculous — seeming ever-more ridiculous by January 1, 2000, or January 1, 2010, or January 1, 2020.
It’s easy to mock failed prophecy. And it’s appropriate to do so and probably even necessary. Because, on one level, the title The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, read today in 2021, is just plain hilarious.
But there was nothing funny about it if you were a teenager in 1985 being taught that all this stuff was true. I got straight A’s in that senior-year Bible class, getting all the “right” answers on our final exam. Those right answers meant affirming, again and again, at the age of 17, that the world was surely going to end before I reached the age of 27.
James McGrath got me remembering what that was like with a post called “Evil in the Youth Group.” He writes about the disturbing experience of seeing the social media output of someone he remembers from his church youth group when they were teenagers, “an individual who was considered a pillar of the youth group and an exemplary born again Christian that could serve as a model for others.” The guy has gone full Q-Anon/Kraken, using his feed to promote the white-supremacist delusions of people like Lin Wood and wholeheartedly embracing all the pranks that the hoaxsters at chan sites toss out to dupe the normies.
McGrath considers how this fever of delusion and hate grew from the seeds that were planted back in that church youth group, a place where the fantasies of “Bible prophecy scholars” like Lindsey and fraudulent “evangelists” like Mike Warnke were drummed into good young white Christians as unquestionable dogma:
I am no longer surprised that members of my former youth group are full-out QAnon conspiracy theorists who spew hate and lies on social media. That is the natural place to arrive from where we started. Whether the subject is biblical inerrancy, the end times, Satanism, antievolutionism or anything else, people are inculturated (or should I say, less euphemistically, indoctrinated?) in such a way in conservative Christian circles that all the supporting “evidence” can be shown to be false, and yet the structure built on that foundation doesn’t fall.
The question is not how members of my old youth group can be sedition-promoting Trump supporters. What is surprising is that some of us manage to free ourselves from the worldview that makes us so susceptible to manipulation by malicious forces while believing we are the only ones who are resisting diabolical influences that everyone else is enslaved to.
He’s right about that. The transparent malarkey of Q-Anon and the thinly veiled white supremacist hate of Kraken conspiracism are, indeed, the natural flowering of the bonkers ideologies embedded in Lindsey’s and Warnke’s fantasies, related expressions of what McGrath rightly identifies as a toxic “spiritual pride.”
I think it’s also a predictable result of the nihilism force-fed to those young white Christians back in that youth group. And let’s be clear: that is what you are teaching when you tell a teenager, in 1985, to read a book called The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon and telling them they must believe every word of it. You’re teaching them that nothing means anything, that nothing matters, that nothing is true or good or beautiful or real.
That would have been the case even if any of Lindsey’s “prophecies” had been anything close to accurate and we had been able to fully believe the things that Lindsey and our teachers believed. We were being taught, and we were learning, that our lives, the lives of others, and the universe entire had no meaning except in its annihilation. We were being taught the futility of hope for anything other than that annihilation — that we should regard “Armageddon” as good news, as the best possible news. Attachment to this reality, we were told, was pointless, and thereby we were being groomed and trained to become detached from reality.
While some of our fellow Cold War kids went Goth, scarring their arms with ballpoint tats reading “No Future,” we were being taught an even weirder, darker ideology that saw “No Future” and everything they feared — nuclear Holocaust, environmental catastrophe, a deadly epidemic unacknowledged by our churches and leaders — as cause for cheer. Train your children to think of mass-death as good and thrilling and they’ll grow up to be the kind of people who simultaneously deny and celebrate a global pandemic.
But there was a second, subtler and more pernicious way that our Hal Lindsey syllabus was teaching us that truth was illusion and nothing means anything. Because at the same time we were being taught to believe in an imminent Rapture and a final cataclysmic Armageddon within the decade, we were also being told to study hard for that final exam because if we didn’t keep our grades up senior year, we wouldn’t be able to go to a good college, and if we didn’t go to a good college, we wouldn’t be able to get a good job, and if we didn’t get a good job we’d never be able to provide for our children or ensure our financial security in retirement.
None of this talk about the future — college, careers, children, grandchildren — was presented to us as contingent. It wasn’t a matter of “But just in case the Bible prophecy scholars are wrong and the Lord tarries, then you’ll need a Plan B.” It was, instead, a constant yet constantly unacknowledged contradiction. And what that contradiction taught us was that the things we believed or claimed to believe didn’t matter — that the substance of our “beliefs” did not need to correspond to reality or to affect the reality of our lives in any meaningful way.
That, too, was part of the “Evil in the Youth Group.” It was another lesson, dutifully taught and dutifully learned, that nothing matters. That, too, set us on a path to become “full-out QAnon conspiracy theorists who spew hate and lies on social media” without any qualms about how to reconcile that with our claims to be Jesus-following disciples of the Great Commission or the Golden Rule.