Death and Doctrine, Part 6: The Allures of the Anti-Christ

I spent four years working as a therapist at a psychiatric hospital. You learn a great deal about the human mind working with the very worst of our mental breakdowns. Very little about human behavior now surprises me. I've seen it all.

To start this post, I want to share with you one of my big realizations about the human mind that I discovered during those years working at the psychiatric hospital. To begin, one of the things you notice about people in very bad and miserable life circumstances is that they often refuse to make changes. Think of the classic case of domestic abuse. You work with the battered wife, laying out a plan for her to leave her abuser and move toward a new and happier future. But after discharge she heads right back into the same situation. Why?

Many therapists think the woman's refusal to leave is due to some kind of co-dependent dysfunction or "battered woman syndrome." I'm not denying that those dynamics may be involved on a case by case basis. But I think there is a less exotic, a more workaday explanation. I think this because this explanation works not just for the domestic abuse situation but applies to all kinds of "failures to change"; those situations where people stick with a miserable Present and refuse to move toward a happier Future.

So what explains the inertia, the hesitance to move toward happiness? Here is my analysis:

The brain desires predictability over happiness.

To wit. The brain evolved to be a prediction machine. The brain is not a happiness machine. The brain doesn't exist to make you happy. The brain exists to keep you alive and to find your next meal. And it does this by making associations (learning) to create predictive expectations about the organism's immediate future. As cognitive scientists tell us, the brain exists to answer one simple question: What should I do next?

The point is, if the brain puts happiness versus predictability in the balance the brain will choose predictability. Which means we would rather live with a miserable but predictable life than venture out toward an unpredictable future, even if that future is potentially happier. We know our dysfunctions well. They are not fun and they are unhealthy. But they are KNOWN. And in that knowledge is a bit of biological comfort.

Okay, I bet you are now asking, "What does this have to do with the anti-Christ?" Let me explain.

Our world if filled with terrifying events. Hurricanes kills thousands. Tsunami's bring devastation. Earthquakes level nations. Terrorism and wars surround us. And global warming is going to put New York City underwater. In short, CNN brings us, on a daily basis, one global disaster after another. The world is a scary place.

But what if all this chaos was predicted? What if these events were not disasters but SIGNS? Signs of the End Times?

Many Christians are fascinated, transfixed even, by the Signs of the End Times. Numerous books and study Bibles fill Christian bookstore shelves on the subject. In recent years, this interest has been captured by The Left Behind series, a fictional imagining of the rapture, the rise of the anti-Christ and the battle of Armageddon.

If one reads these materials, some fictional and others purporting to be serious biblical scholarship, one is struck by the exegetical and hermanutical pyrotechnics. In a word, these readings of Scripture are very poor. And that is putting it nicely.

So the psychologist in me wonders, "Why would these poor readings of Scripture find such wide appeal? They can't be succeeding on intellectual grounds. So, what's the attraction?"

I think the attractions are existential and emotional. End Times theories take something chaotic, scary and unpredictable and turn it into something tamed, Providential, and predictable. Tsunamis become signs. Never fret, God is in control. Schematically, we can summarize:

(Scary World Events) = Unease and Fear

(Scary World Events) + (End Times Theory) = Security and Peace of Mind

Ah, the allures of the anti-Christ!

Recall my earlier point about the brain and predictability. The End Times theories are feeding this craving of the brain, the need for order and predictability.

Interestingly, this need for predictability goes haywire in paranoid disorders. As G.K. Chesterton noted, a sane person lives in a world where most things are random and meaningless. Like swinging a stick at some tall grass. We do it because it is pointless. For Chesterton, pointlessness was the hallmark of sanity. By contrast, a paranoid person sees TOO MUCH meaning in life. Nothing is pointless or random! That person swinging a stick is sending signals to malevolent forces out to get me. In short, when we see meaning in meaningless activities/occurrences we grow increasingly suspicious and paranoid. We might not have a psychotic break but we'll spend lots of time spinning or consuming conspiracy theories.

Perhaps this is why End Times thinking is so similar to conspiracy theories. Signs are everywhere. You see them in tsunamis, wars, and the resolutions of the United Nations. Nothing is simply what it is. It is MORE. And it is CONNECTED. The rapture is upon us! The End Times are NOW!

But at the end of the day, this is all just really about existential comfort. The need to render the inexplicable explicable. To tame the chaos and, as a result, attenuate the anxiety the chaos creates in us. We live in scary times. So it is okay to be scared. It's courageous to admit it. It's a form of lament.

But that might be too scary a prospect. So here's an alternative: Seek the comforts of the End Times Connect-the-Dots game. It's a game, like most games, that will allow you to pass the time.

Plus, it will make you feel better.

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14 thoughts on “Death and Doctrine, Part 6: The Allures of the Anti-Christ”

  1. This is awesome. It is true that apocalyptic expectations are comforting to people, which strikes me as odd since it's all about terror and destruction and mass calamity.

    It also ties in nicely to Girardian thought about humanity ascribing meaning to meaningless violence as a way of manufacturing false unity.

    Does this put eschatology as a whole beyond reason in your opinion?

  2. Hi Aric,
    I don't think this puts eschatology beyond reason. The "content" of the belief isn't the question for me. The "motive" behind the belief is more my aim. I think someone can believe in various millennial formulations in a way that wouldn't be a quick existential fix. My expectation would be that this person would manifest this style of belief by being more circumspect and critical of his/her own beliefs. That is, he/she would resist quick event/sign mappings while still believing that such mappings are possible, if only knowable in retrospection at the eschaton.

  3. So in a way, my belief in universalism has no biblical basis and is really a psychological product of my brain wanting everything to be ok...


    Great post.

  4. Richard,

    Grandchildren and banana pudding are much more comforting than apocalyptic literature. Such texts, by the way, are metaphorically predictable at the cosmic and social level but not at the individual level.


    George C.

  5. Daniel,
    I probably need to post on universalism in this series as my universalism might be viewed as the classic "feel good" position. But let me respond here, for those who care:

    1. As I wrote in my comment to Aric, the issue isn't "content" but "motive." Thus, of course, a person could believe in universalism for "feel good" reasons. But this isn't necessarily the case.

    2. I don't think the "feel good" diagnosis fits me for the following reasons:

    a.) I'm a universalist for theodicy reasons. That is, I've adopted the position for the sake of God, not for myself.
    b.) I have a lot of death anxiety (well, it's more like morbid rumination) so it doesn't feel like I'm repressing anything! That is, I hold my beliefs about the afterlife hopefully, not as certainties.

    Banana pudding... In my opinion, banana pudding and sweet iced tea are two of the great contributions that the American South has made to Western Civilization.

  6. Dr. Beck,
    I hope you do make a post elaborating on that, but I was definitely joking. That's usually the reaction I get when I tell people I'm a Beck-ian Christian Universalist... (Okay, I don't really say that, but you did give me a great start into that study with your series on universalism.)

  7. Hi Daniel,
    My comment probably miscommunicated. I knew you were joking. You just reminded me that I wanted to address that issue at some point. So I used your comment to take a quick stab at it for the benefit of those listening in.

    On a random note, have you seen the documentary Jesus Camp? I bring it up because I just finished watching it about 10 minutes ago and it has me totally freaked out. I mean, totally freaked out.

  8. Yes, Jesus Camp will freak you out. I recommend watching it with the commentary turned on, it is quite interesting.

  9. I've heard a lot about it... Not sure if I have the strength to sit through it, but I'll try and watch it one of these days.

    I knew you knew I was joking. In my constant drive to be funny, sometimes I have a tendency to be misunderstood, so I was mainly throwing that out there so others didn't think I was taking a jab at universalism.

    But I'll definitely be interested to see you elaborate on universalism as it relates to this series.

  10. I wonder if you could say this formula is also at work...

    (Scary World Events) = (Impulse to do Justice)

    (Scary World Events) + (End Times Theory) = (Nothing to be done about it, so may as well let everyone get what they have coming)

  11. Matt,
    You know, I think that is right. End Times views expect the world to morally degenerate, it's a sign of course. Thus, there is little need (or hope) to try to get in there and reverse the process. The church's main job then is to play fortress, a gated community pushing away the encroaching forces of darkness. You can see this mentality in the predominance of the "warfare" metaphor.

    (Which, btw, was the dominant metaphor all through the Jesus Camp documentary.)

  12. As a psychology major ( and a schizophrenic with positive symptoms ), I love you post.

    But I would question your thesis.

    I don't think most Christians are really in it for the comfort, or what they see going on in the world.

    That's just my two cents.

    Great blog by the way. I've just bookmarked it and plan to be reading through your archives.

  13. Another excellent post.

    I was wondering if there might be a difference here between happiness, as in the temporary experience of pleasure (for a definition), and something more broad one might call 'flourishing', more like happiness in an Aristotelean sense. Fullness of life and so on.

    I think the brain is a "happiness" machine in this sense - it rewards you for certain behaviors with endorphins and whatnot - but it isn't a "flourishing" machine. To flourish requires a lot of reflection and volition - it isn't 'built in', but has to be cultivated consciously over time, often at the expense of "happiness" as defined above.

    I think that the predictability of Left Behind "theologies" does entail happiness/pleasure, a brief sense of well-being, but it never lasts. So you have to go over it again and again, keep reminding yourself, and if someone threatens this illusion, you respond as if your flourishing was threatened, and not just your temporary pleasure.

    Meanwhile, your true flourishing is postponed until you surrender the illusions, because they insulate you from the world as it actually exists and anesthetize you against genuine suffering that is part of life and part of growth as well...

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