Brow Beat

I Was Raised to Believe the End of the World Was Nigh, but It’s Never Felt Closer Than It Does Now

It doesn’t take an omnipotent being to bring on the end of the world. We’re eminently capable of doing it ourselves.

Photo illustration of David Tennant's Crowley and Michael Sheen's Azriphale surrounded by flames.
Good Omens Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix, VeroRo39/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and leolintang/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The reality of the apocalypse is as integral to American evangelicalism as the divinity of Christ himself. For most of us who grew up in evangelical circles, the apocalypse was presented as fact: something we needed to study closely to avoid being caught unawares. In the mid-’90s and early 2000s, the apocalyptic stakes were raised with the popularization of the Left Behind series, a series of novels that brought the End Times to life. I was one of the tens of millions who read these books, in which true believers are blissfully whisked away by Christ before all the trouble starts, while those less firm in their beliefs are left amid a horrific swirl of escalating crises: Earth’s water turns to blood; the light from the sun, the moon, and stars dims; and an invasion of supernatural locust-chimera creatures from hell sting people to death.

These weren’t an evangelical version of ghost stories to tell around a campfire; they were treated as absolute truth. By the time I was a teen, I was primed for more intense eschatological study when my family became involved in an extreme charismatic evangelical organization that built a significant part of its ministry on study of the End Times. There were streamed sermons, on-site workshops and conferences, a DVD set with workbooks, even a board game that walked families through the apocalypse, all of which parsed the end of the world using passages from Revelation, Isaiah, Job, and the Psalms. I went through the entire DVD set and even attended a three-week sleepaway camp for teens at the organization’s flagship location. The camp itself had a touch of the apocalypse about it: We were often malnourished and sleep-deprived, so much so that I got a severe strep throat infection that spread to my gums. I ended up staying back at our host family’s house for a few days to recover, away from the camp’s intoxicating environment. As I gingerly tried to brush my bleeding teeth in the empty house, I had my own sudden revelation: If what I had been taught was how things needed to go down in the End Times, maybe I didn’t really want Christ to come back after all.

About a month ago I wrapped up a writing project and treated myself to a binge session of Amazon’s Good Omens. Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and adapted into TV format by Gaiman himself, the show follows an angel, Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), and a demon, Crowley (David Tennant), who realize after thousands of years on Earth that they enjoy living among humanity and don’t want the world as they know it to end. To stop the apocalypse, they need to ensure that the Antichrist, a young boy named Adam who lives in the British countryside with his human parents, doesn’t come into his power. Between Sheen and Tennant’s charming onscreen chemistry and the show’s tongue-in-cheek irreverence for the religious iconography I grew up with, the six episodes went by quickly.

As a fan of British television, I expected to enjoy the show. What I didn’t expect that it would bring me back to the apocalypse, and the realization of how much more real the end of the world seems to me now. I moved away from religion in my early 20s and hadn’t given the apocalypse a second thought for years. Then the 2016 election sparked an outward rise in racist and fascist action, with similar fascist-leaning parties gaining political power globally, most recently in Austria. Along with the shift in political rhetoric came an even bigger cause for concern: the diminishing window of opportunity for combatting the detrimental and irreversible effects of climate change.

For all its good-natured silliness, Good Omens offers a surprisingly nuanced illustration of what the end of the world might look like, as informed by our current anxieties. Historically, the Four Horsemen of the Christian apocalypse are Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Good Omens swaps out Pestilence for Pollution, an adjustment that aligns with our most imminent problem as a species: climate change. The oft-cited report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from October 2018 presents a grim reality. There is only about a decade left to cut emissions and keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would lead to rising sea levels, unprecedented natural disasters, and resulting disruptions in and the supply of food, water, and power.

Those of us in countries with the greatest resources, and the largest carbon footprints, will not be exempt from these effects, and with the amount of time it takes to pass large-scale policy changes, let alone implement them, the time we have left to effect these changes continues to rapidly shrink. Calls for systemic change to address severe climate issues give me the same sense of panic I felt, years ago, while working through my End Times workbooks. The inevitable apocalypse feels so overwhelming and unstoppable, it seems that there is little any one individual can do.

The inevitability of God’s plan, along with the belief that the End Times will be terrible but necessary for Christ’s return, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for evangelicals. If the apocalypse is necessary for Christ’s return, and if the End Times are part of God’s plan, then the rapid change in climate is also part of God’s plan. In this paradigm, there is no incentive to save the planet—as it is destined to burn anyway.

In Good Omens the apocalypse is, thankfully, avoided. Aziraphale and Crowley’s original plan woefully fails, but the young Antichrist ends up halting the end of the world himself. Adam uses his newly awakened supernatural powers to reject the Devil, send him back to hell, and instead chooses his human father as his real father figure. The actions of a young boy forestall the apocalypse, rather than the intervention of two all-powerful spiritual beings.

The show’s emphasis on Adam’s actions reflects the media’s coverage of climate change, which focuses on individual action as the way to save us all from a fiery end. Take public transport, avoid using plastic straws, pressure your elected representatives to act. But there is a limit to how much individual action can accomplish.

The CDP Carbon Majors Report from 2017 concludes that 100 companies have been responsible for 71 percent of global emissions since 1988; half of industrial emissions come from a mere 25 corporations, more in the coal and oil sectors. As noble as our individual actions may be, they but up against a harsh systemic reality. At the end of Good Omens, Crowley admits that while humanity may have escaped this particular apocalypse, there’s still a “really big one” looming in the future. My heart sank a bit. Adam’s stance against the apocalypse was, in the grand scheme of things, for nothing.

I was always taught that the gruesome suffering brought on by the events of the apocalypse was ultimately a part of God’s plan. What I didn’t realize as a teenager was that humanity didn’t require an omniscient, omnipotent being to bring about the end of the world. We are quite capable of causing it on our own. Watching a show like Good Omens, based on poking fun at the idea of an apocalypse, seems both timely and alarming. Gaiman himself said in an interview with the Guardian that the story “feels a lot more apt now than it did [30 years ago].” I felt enjoyment at being able to laugh at a worldview that haunted me for much of my young life. Yet at the same time, it felt like a call to action. In this apocalypse there will be no rapture, no God to whisk the good ones away before the world ends. We will all be stuck here on earth, and this time, hell will come to us.