Millenarianism – Monotheistic Machinations or Universal Utopias?

What does Harold Camping's failed prophecy have to do with the Japanese new religion Aum Shinrikyō? Is millenarianism an essentially monotheistic phenomenon, or does it hold universal appeal? How come notions of the End Time and radical world renewal are still in vogue today, despite the fact that history continues to prove them wrong?

Following recent events, in this essay I will discuss some of the aspects of millenarianism, and argue that it may be a useful concept for cross-cultural comparison that deserves to be explored further. 

It was a funny coincidence. A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Netherlands, where I participated in a conference on religion and violence entitled ‘The Root Causes of Terrorism: A Religious Studies Perspective’. Several internationally acclaimed scholars presented their ideas, as did a number of selected PhD candidates. I was one of them: I presented a paper on millenarianism in modern Japanese religious ideology. The conference took place at Leiden University, but I was staying at a friend’s place in the city of Rotterdam. When I arrived at Rotterdam Central Station, I could not help but notice the huge billboards hanging everywhere. The message was clear: the Day of Judgement would come soon. That following Saturday, May 21st, to be precise. There were only a few days left to repent before the event would take place, and the billboard urged me to have an immediate look at the website, where I would receive further instructions. But I was too busy preparing my paper to worry about this dramatic prophecy. Fortunately, the conference was planned before the predicted date, so I would have the opportunity to present my paper anyway - even if the Day of Judgement were to take place two days later.

Family Radio is an American Evangelical organisation, led by a wealthy 89-year-old man named Harold Camping. It was he who calculated and predicted the Day of Judgement, and spent significant amounts of money on advertisements in order to reach as many people as possible – not only in the US, but also internationally, as the billboards in Rotterdam made clear. His efforts to get the message across were quite impressive, and several journalists who came across the predictions mentioned them in newspaper articles. Apparently, the failed prophecy was considered newsworthy. However, as any student of religion can confirm, Camping’s predictions were hardly unique. In the course of history, hundreds if not thousands of charismatic leaders have predicted the imminent overthrowing of the present world order, and the subsequent establishment of a perfect new world. Many of them have mentioned concrete dates on which this apocalypse would supposedly take place. So far, all of them have been wrong. Nevertheless, promises of a radical rupture continue to hold popular appeal among certain groups of people.

Millenarianism and Monotheism

In religious studies, these ideas are referred to by the terms ‘millenarianism’, ‘millennialism’ and ‘apocalypticism’. The Encyclopedia of Religion defines millenarianism as ‘the belief that the end of this world is at hand and that in its wake will appear a New World, inexhaustibly fertile, harmonious, and just.’ The transition from the present world (perceived as corrupted and degenerate) to the utopian new world is often imagined as radical, definitive and violent. The just will be separated from the wicked by force, and divinely ordained violence will play a central part in purifying and liberating the world from its corrupt and polluted elements. Hence, if the utopian promise is convincing, millenarian expectations can have great mobilising potential, and may be employed as justification for real acts of violence. Significantly, there are several structural similarities between so-called ‘religious’ millenarianism, and other types of radical ideologies, such as utopian nationalism or Maoism. These similarities include notions of moral and racial purity, divine election, and a lost glorious past that will be reestablished in the near future. It comes as no surprise, then, that in modern times millenarian belief systems often incorporate nationalist elements, and vice versa.

Millenarianism is often associated with a ‘lineair’ view of history, and, accordingly, with the so-called ‘monotheistic’ or ‘Abrahamic’ religions. For instance, as stated on the website of the aforementioned conference: ‘Monotheistic traditions have introduced a new notion of ‘time’ and henceforth, of ‘history’. They all contain ideas about apocalyptic violence inaugurating the end of history and the definitive realisation of a divine kingdom.’ The questions are, of course, a) whether such notions of time are limited to the so-called ‘monotheistic traditions’; b) whether it was really these traditions that introduced such notions, or whether similar ideas were developed in other traditions; and c) whether the very category ‘monotheistic traditions’ is adequate as an analytical category – or, rather, a normative theological notion.

To start with the latter: I strongly doubt the empirical validity of the commonly used dichotomy between ‘monotheistic’ and ‘polytheistic’ religions. While the concepts are relevant as normative, ‘emic’ categories employed by followers of religions themselves, their descriptive value is questionable, as concrete religious practices do not necessarily correspond to normative theological notions. That is, as an observer, I am not convinced that there is a structural difference between, say, certain types of Catholic or Islamic saint worship, and the worship of deities and bodhisattvas in East-Asian cultures. Besides, I am sceptical of the popular assumption that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have something unique in common, which sets them apart as a group and makes them fundamentally different from ‘polytheistic’ religions – a diffuse rest category, defined by nothing but its supposed otherness.

It can be argued that the ‘monotheism’-‘polytheism’ (or ‘Abrahamic’-‘Asian’) dichotomy is a variety of the classical West-East dichotomy, based on a similar set of binary oppositions: exclusivistic versus syncretistic, individualistic versus collectivistic, rational versus emotional, particularistic versus holistic,  masculine versus feminine, lineair versus circular and so on. These are myths, discursively constructed and cultivated, that have come to be taken for granted and continue to influence popular imagination. They are based on notions that were developed by European early modern and pre-modern Orientalist writers, but reappropriated by Asian intellectuals in the late 19th and 20th century, who employed them as ideological tools for nationbuilding and symbolic empowerment.

Polytheism and Othering

Japan is one example of a country that continues to be framed as a ‘polytheistic other’, defined by its stress on social harmony, the primacy of the collective over the individual, its aesthetics of simplicity and its holistic view of nature. All of these are stereotypes, and despite the fact that they are easily falsifiable (Japanese society and culture are much more diverse than commonly assumed, and offer plenty of examples of cases that do not fit the paradigm), they continue to be powerful. It comes as no surprise, then, that most popular introductions to ‘Japanese religion(s)’ focus on aspects that correspond to these stereotypes: their supposed ‘non-exclusive’ nature (as illustrated by the often repeated phrase ‘born Shinto, marry Christian, die Buddhist’); their anti-rational focus on intuition and spiritual experience (as popularised by the sizeable discourse on Zen, most of which builds on the nationalist mythmaking of D.T. Suzuki); their love of nature and the natural environment (recently appropriated and advocated by a number of Shinto representatives); and their fundamental focus on social harmony and, hence, peace (following mistaken assumptions about Buddhism as essentially a non-violent religion).

Clearly, a religious organisation committing a terrorist attack with the apparent purpose of killing as many innocent people and creating as much chaos as possible does not fit the paradigm. Yet, this is precisely what happened sixteen years ago. On March 20, 1995 several members of a small religious movement named Aum Shinrikyō committed an attack on the Tokyo subway by releasing sarin, a poisonous nerve gas. They killed twelve people and injured several thousands, some of them permanently. The attack was preceded by murders of community members and opponents of the movement, and it was supposed to inaugurate the apocalypse predicted by its leader, Asahara Shōkō. The population was shocked, and the authorities reacted in accordance with public opinion: leaders of the group were imprisoned, several of them (including Asahara) were sentenced to death, and the organisation was disbanded.

In the following years, a large number of books and articles appeared discussing the why and how of the event. Some of them were journalistic accounts, others were scholarly interpretations. They analysed the interactions between Aum and wider society, the processes of radicalisation and othering that culminated into the dramatic events of March 1995, stories of survivors, social consequences and responses by the authorities. In all discussions, the story of Aum was told as a more or less isolated case. Either implicitly or explicitly, it was suggested that ‘the Aum affair’ was a tragic anomaly; a symptom of the social anomy of the 1990s, perhaps, but essentially un-Japanese. The statement by scholar of ‘religious violence’ Mark Juergensmeyer that ‘the location for which a violent act of religious terrorism is least anticipated is modern urban Japan’ is illustrative for this commonly held assumption.

As I argued in the paper I presented at the conference, I do not think Aum Shinrikyō was as unique as often suggested. Nor do I believe ‘monotheistic’ religions are more prone to millenarianism than other traditions (let alone invented it). The notion of radical (possibly violent) world renewal has been a recurring theme in the history of Japanese thought, resurfacing in times of social and political turmoil. It ranges from mappō (‘end of the Buddhist Law’) thought in medieval Buddhism to the large-scale popular yonaoshi (‘world renewal’) uprisings in the premodern period; from the nationalist millenarianism in the 1920s and 30s (in groups as diverse as Ōmoto, the Holiness Church and Nichiren Buddhism) to the radical, utopian leftist groups that engaged in acts of violence in the 1970s; and from postwar new religions such as Sūkyō Mahikari, Agonshū and Kōfuku no Kagaku to recent popular culture and film, in which apocalyptic themes figure prominently. In sum, millenarian thought has been a significant, at times powerful undercurrent of modern Japanese ideology.

Universal Utopias

Fantasies of divine destruction, followed by the establishment of a brave new world, are not uniquely Christian or ‘Western’. On the contrary, they seem to hold universal appeal. They are not old-fashioned either, but continue to be reemployed periodically. Aum Shinrikyō was a modern, urban phenomenon; a product of globalisation, combining elements from a variety of diverse sources such as esoteric Buddhism, the prophecies of Nostradamus and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Likewise, Family Radio is a modern, international movement, that uses advertisements and communication technology to get its message across. As urbanisation and globalisation continue worldwide, and traditional social structures give way to more fluid identities and uncertainty, millenarian promises will continue to attract people with their alternative epistemologies. Millenarianism is more universal and modern than often suggested. Thus, it constitutes a potentially useful category for cross-cultural comparison – more useful than ‘religion’, perhaps.


Aike P. Rots is a Ph.D. scholar at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo

Published Jan. 2, 2012 1:22 PM - Last modified Dec. 8, 2020 2:16 PM