Hell on Earth

by Richard Allen Landes

A Book Review by Wendell Krossa

‘Heaven on Earth’ covers The Varieties of Millennial Experience, as another great study of apocalyptic thought and history.  Landes says historians often resist seeing the influence of apocalyptic myth on modern secular movements.  But, Landes insists, apocalyptic is there working on allegedly modern, enlightened minds.  He sees apocalyptic notably in contemporary Islamic radicalism.

Landes approach looks quite intriguing as he tries to understand the dynamics of this mythology on past peoples and on the present…”The most striking and horrifying of these movements respond badly to disappointment.  They deny, they rage, they grow paranoid, they lash out, they turn the passion of their followers into rivers of blood and mountains of skulls, they go down in flames”.  He notes that post-moderns have declared the end of all grand narratives, but he says, grand narratives are still here and “Indeed, millennial world histories are the mother of all grand narratives (and I would argue, mother to many of the West’s grand narratives)”.

This book is one of those volumes that satisfy on many levels. The sense of getting to the root of what is wrong in public consciousness and corrective alternatives (he doesn’t deal so much with alternative narratives, as he spends all his effort on critique of the millennial one), but his work opens up the vista with ideas for alternatives that avoid the violence of the millennial narrative.

This work has such rich detail on periods of history that we are all familiar with. For instance, that Napoleon brought a second apocalyptic surge after the failed French Revolution  and was viewed as a God of the Last Judgment come to bring the Second Coming, a cataclysmic event in which the old world is replaced by a new and better world.   Why did the American Revolution not follow this apocalyptic/millennial pattern? Landes suggests that George Washington refused monarchy when offered and held less pretentious views of absolute freedom and equality.  Also, he did not enjoy the military successes that Napoleon did so was able to resist imperial models. He withstood the ‘dominating imperative’ and “The American Revolution constitutes one of that rare category that deserves a great deal of attention- demotic revolutions that do not turn totalitarian”.

Landes then does a treatment of Marx and Marxism as millennialism that is thorough and extensive.  Millennialism secularized but was still intensely millennial and apocalyptic.  As Landes concludes, “Marx was modern millennialism writ large”.  And this type of thinking has not been purged from contemporary consciousness.  It is still everywhere.  This is a good thoughtful study of history and analysis of what is wrong in human thinking and at the root of so much violence in history.  At the core of all this is apocalyptic insanity that persists as THE grand narrative of all narratives…Here is a thorough look at this grand narrative and its tenacious grip on human consciousness and its prevalence everywhere even today all through secular outlooks where people believe they have left anything religious behind.  It is shown how this millennialism was all through Marxism/Socialism and in that variant was more destructive in terms of human life than anything ever before in  history.  It especially shows the psychological dynamics at work in this apocalyptic thing.

Landes appears to view any progress in terms of millennialist extremism and this appears to make him overly cautious and suspicious of any sort of progress.  Even the worst millennialists, like Lenin, have some form of belief in the inherent goodness of people, although grossly distorted.  Landes recoils from such perception (and elsewhere he makes reference to the ‘fallenness’ of people and how any attempt to perfect society is due to fail).  This would then appear to reveal that he may hold elements of apocalyptic himself (i.e. fallen humanity).  Other elements of the complete template of apocalyptic thought are missing – such as the lost paradise and how this figures in the entire schema.  Overall, he offers a detailed picture of this narrative and its horrifically destructive impacts on human life over history, and how it is still prevalent all through our societies and ideologies.

Landes presents a details of new outlooks I have not read elsewhere.  Herman, for instance, notes Hitler was raised in a time of apocalyptic fervor in Germany, the first generation raised on cultural pessimism.  Landes adds interesting detail on the young Hitler attending a Wagner opera (Wagner was key in Herman’s treatment of German apocalyptic development).  The opera impacted Hitler powerfully and his friend believes that was when Hitler began to see himself as the savior of Germany, with a divine mission (he was only 17 then).  He would liberate Germany from the Jewish impurity that was destroying the vital Aryan spirit.

Many historians prefer to view the Nazis as anti-religious, says Landes.  But Hitler initially saw himself as a John the Baptist-type announcer of apocalyptic, preparing the way for the Messiah, though this later morphed more into seeing himself as the actual Savior.  Christian theology, specifically Christian apocalyptic, was central to his thinking.  He quoted scripture repeatedly.  The emphasis he took was not Jesus as pacifist, transformationist, but more John’s Warrior Jesus of Revelation, and chosen people theology along with us versus them dualism all completed his Christian outlook (and of course, taken to extremism).  Historians prefer, to see him as mad, not as messianic pretender, fueled by Christian apocalyptic vision, with traces of the German Evangelical role.

“He is not so much the measure of the unthinkably impossibly evil, as he is the measure of how, with modern technology and an only partially developed civil polity, a nation of people, ridden by a millennial passion, can become one of the great dealers of death in human history”.  The point? “By failing to recognize well-known (if grotesquely exaggerated) patterns of active cataclysmic apocalyptic and hierarchical millennialism, observers can miss subsequent avatars. The study of Nazism’s appeal and of Hitler’s charisma, belong to the field of millennial studies…only then can we identify the key problems of how movements go from the margins to the center of society/culture”.

Christianity has been central to bringing this madness into Western society and the modern world. This goes far beyond the scandal of the bones of Jesus and other related Christian scandals.  It fills out further what Constantine’s Sword only touches on.

In regard to the science/human experience issue- there is a 2-way dynamic operating here.  Philosophy/theology needs the discipline of rational science to temper its understanding.  But science also needs the disciplining influence and insights (reasoning) of philosophy/theology/spirituality to temper its perceptions.

For those wanting a good analysis of Islamic terrorism, Landes chapter on jihad and Islamic millennialism is helpful.  Themes of honor, shame, and vengeance, all expressed via millennialism, are covered here.  It is a well done analysis of the Islamic jihad problem.  Islamic humiliation before Western modernism and success, after centuries of hope for an Islamic millennium, has shifted Islamic hope from a more pacifist apocalyptic to the demand to act aggressively as the agents of God’s intervention, to take vengeance for God on the enemy.  Landes notes the shift in Mohammed’s thinking after his humiliation from failed apocalyptic hope.

An interesting claim is that the prophets were protected from unhealthy extremism because Jewish writing had a notable tradition of self-criticism.  This is a protective against extremism, which is seen all through the OT. Apparently, other ancient traditions lack this element.

A comment that is quite revealing of Landes’s own views on apocalyptic.is shown by his statement. “Given some of the worrisome trends- weapons of mega-death, global warming, chaotic family, gender, and social roles, demographic decline/explosion- the future seems so tumultuous…the modern world encourages, if not demands, millennial thinking…”. And maybe his own belief in some sort of apocalypse enabled him to dissect the topic more thoroughly.

Landes reveals a somewhat dissonant conservatism in railing against liberal idealism.  This is a strain all through his book, almost fearing the dangers of progressive thinking and desire for a better world, and noting human ‘fallenness’ as the fly in the soup.

The section on Islam is better than good.  It is profound. What motivates Islamic extremism today?  Their apocalyptic thinkers are taking their views mainstream and still building momentum.  You can see why the Western effort to introduce democracy has failed in many areas.

How is Israel viewed in all this apocalyptic millennialism.  The success of Israel heightens the issue of honor and shame and the need to seek vengeance.  It is another element in Arab apocalyptic thinking.  The reason to understand this, is that it still building in the Arab world.  Repeated disillusionment leads to adapting the narrative in new ways to continue the jihad against the enemy. The belief is that the Islamic millennium will eventually succeed, but needs intensified action, intensified death.

I felt that Landes was weak on differentiating between authentic attempts to improve society and millennial utopianism.  He does not appear to clearly distinguish between authentic exodus/progress hope and millennial excess.  One embraces the present imperfect historical process and engages the hard work to improve it; the other seeks a violent purging and abandons the present process for some instantly inaugurated new world order.  One embraces the messy process of democracy with its checks and balances (left vs right) for some coercive overthrow and elimination of enemies (something not slow, gradual, and messy with major opposition forces).  Perhaps some of this is cleared up in later statements. A proposal of a different kind of millennial reading of the French Revolution

Landes is noting the characteristic shift from transformational demotic (roughly bottom up) to catastrophic hierarchical millennialism.  He says “the apocalyptic-millennial one focuses specifically on a central paradox: the clash between perfectionist ideals and bitter disappointment.  these same perfectionist drives under different circumstances driven by a coercive and increasingly paranoid apocalyptic scenario…Here one might argue, the more perfectionist the search for the millennium- absolute freedom- the more devastating the failure and the more violent the response to it (he adds in a footnote- “(this is to explain the fanaticism of the true believer, religious or secular”)…it is precisely the ‘good conscience’ of the totalitarian, the conviction that he does this for his victims, that he is ‘saving’ both them and others, that marks the true believer…In other words, neither external circumstances nor ideology alone make for the potent brew that leads to terror and its institutional offspring, totalitarianism.  Rather, it is what happens to demotic millennialism  (Talman calls it democratic political messianism), when its millennial premises have failed, and cognitive dissonance sets in precisely as the revolution feels threatened from without and within.  At once fear and impatience seize hold of at least some of the actors, who believe that they alone can save the perilous situation.  At that point of crisis the most messianic of revolutionaries engage in apocalyptic improvisation whereby they turn a transformative scenario into a cataclysmic one, where they ‘up the ante’ and move from persuasion to coercive purity…These patterns may be powerfully compelling.  What happened in the French Revolution had already happened in the explicitly millennial cases of the Anabaptists at Munster and…it would happen again- often in even more violent forms- in Russia, China, Syria, Iraq, Cambodia, Iran.  But such developments are not inevitable: It did not happen in the US in 1781, nor did it happen in Israel in 1948…” The difference, being the search for perfectionist scenarios (perfect freedom, heaven on earth) that is so devastating and disillusioning when reality sets in after millennial zealotry and enthusiasm has gripped a people.  Then violent salvation by the leaders becomes the only solution.  God (or some historical dialectic) has not intervened for whatever reason, so we must move from persuasion to coercive purification or perfection.

The point of this is to understand what is going on in varied segments of human society today- Islamic terrorism, environmental extremism and what might emerge there as the global warming alarm peaks and recedes now, and other similar movements.  Landes gets to the most fundamental issues in human perception, outlook, narrative and psychology.  This book is a very worthwhile read.