God orders the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to spread wars, diseases, civil strife, and natural disasters
God orders the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to spread wars,
diseases, civil strife, and natural disasters

Conspiracy theories are sometimes generated through an apocalyptic worldview. An apocalypse is an approaching significant transformation that will mark a new phase of human experience. Those anticipating the apocalypse can passively wait for the event or actively promote its arrival. They can dream of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or fear the nightmare of a terminal nuclear wasteland.

The terms “apocalypse,” “revelation,” and “prophecy” share common root words related to the uncovering of hidden truths—a core claim of conspiracy theories. Apocalypticism is a major feature of Christianity, but the tradition has deep roots in Zoroastrianism and Judaism and can be found in Islam, Hinduism, and other religions. Today the influence of the apocalyptic mindset has emerged from these religious traditions and transmuted into a dizzying array of secular beliefs.

Apocalyptic movements often anticipate the betrayal of an idealized community by secret malevolent forces conspiring against the common good. Those persons sounding the warning urge immediate and drastic measures to stop the secret conspiracy from achieving its sinister goals.

Episodes of this type of apocalyptic conspiracism appear periodically throughout U.S. history: witchhunts in Salem in the 1600s; fears of “alien” sedition in the late 1700s; claims of plots by Freemasons or Catholics in the 1800s; allegations of a Jewish banking cabal behind the Federal Reserve in the early 1900s; and the anticommunist witch-hunts of the cold-war 1950s. Historian Richard Hofstadter studied U.S. anti-Masonic movements of the 1800s and wrote of the “apocalyptic and absolutist framework” of those warning of the claimed conspiracy (Hofstadter, 17).

He developed the theory that conspiracy thinking in U.S. right-wing movements represented a “paranoid style” in U.S. politics. According to Hofstadter, “the central preconception of the paranoid style [is the belief in the] existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character” (Hofstadter, 14).

He argued that grandiose conspiracy theories were constructed when a conspiracist channeled a sense of persecution and hostility into apocalyptic claims that were overheated, overly suspicious, and overaggressive.

Damian Thompson looked at Hofstadter’s thesis and concluded he was right to emphasize the “startling affinities between the paranoid style and apocalyptic belief,” especially the demonization of opponents and “the sense of time running out.” But Thompson felt Hofstadter “stopped short of making a more direct connection between the two.

He did not consider the possibility that the paranoia he identified actually derived from apocalyptic belief; that the people who spread scare stories about Catholics, Masons, Illuminati and Communists” had been primed by the dramatic conspiracist narrative of the End Times popular among Protestants in the United States. Thompson argued that the persistence of such belief in the United States rather than Europe surely explains why the paranoid style seems so quintessentially American.

In the 1950s academics postulated that those who join dissident social movements (and sometimes circulate conspiracy theories) are psychologically unbalanced. Phrases such as “lunatic fringe,” “extremists of the left and right,” and “wing nuts” gained popular usage—especially to dismiss the activism of the 1960s.

This view is sometimes called the classical or pluralist school, represented by authors such as Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset. Critics of the classical school call it the “centrist/extremist theory” because it glorifies an idealized center and implicitly defends the status quo, shielding the powerful from popular complaints.

Hofstadter actually drew a distinction between the psychological and the sociological in his work, but for years the idea that paranoidsounding conspiracy theories were a sign of mental illness reigned supreme as an influential concept, especially in mainstream media.

Since the 1980s academic theories about social movements have stressed their rational and strategic nature, portraying dissidents as people seeking the redress of grievances by collectively mobilizing resources and exploiting political opportunities.

All dissident movements involve some form of apocalypticism with their narrative of speaking truth to power and demands for a transformation of existing relationships that enforce dominance and oppression. Investigative reporters are practicing a form of apocalypticism when they uncover criminal conspiracies and malfeasance by political and business leaders.

Some analysts argue that when dissidents develop the more spectacular and dubious conspiracy theories, it is a misdirected attempt to understand and challenge the actual power and privilege of dominant groups (Fenster).

This type of conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating where the apocalyptic style is used to demonize targeted groups as wholly evil, and to valorize as a hero the person sounding the warning about the malevolent plot (Berlet and Lyons, 9). There is increasing attention to the apocalyptic style in the study of history, sociology, and political science; and it has a long pedigree in studies of religion and literature. As an applied way of seeing the world, however, it is as old as the Bible.


In Western culture, apocalypticism traces back to the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament in the Bible. Revelation contains a prophetic story of God’s wrath caused by the rising tide of greed, sloth, lust, and sin in general. As a warning, God orders the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to spread wars, diseases, civil strife, and natural disasters.

Satan seizes this time of chaos to send in the Antichrist, who appears in human form as a popular world leader, promising peace through the building of one worldwide government. His accomplice, the False Prophet, urges all world religions to unite. A rumor is spread that the popular world leader is actually the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Some Christians are fooled.

The real aim, however, is the total destruction of Christianity. Once the evil Antichrist gains control of the world through a conspiracy involving betrayal by popular political and religious leaders, the storm troopers of Satan start to track down true Christians.

When caught, the Christians not fooled by the Antichrist are told they must accept the mark of the beast—666—as proof they have renounced their earlier beliefs. If they refuse, they are rounded up, tortured, and murdered. God eventually intervenes, and there is a huge battle on the plains of Armageddon in the Middle East. Good triumphs over evil, ushering in a millennium of Christian rule.

Many Christians see the Book of Revelation in metaphoric terms, but others read it as a God-given script in which they must play a role when the time comes. While apocalyptic millennialism based on the Book of Revelation is more prevalent in Protestantism, it exists in Catholic subcultures as well.

Christian Apocalyptic Millennialism

Most contemporary Protestant Christian fundamentalists are premillennialists, believing the Second Coming of Christ starts a thousand-year period of Christian rule. Some Protestant fundamentalists are postmillennialists who believe that godly Christian men must seize control of society and rule for one thousand years before Christ returns.

The most militant of these are the Christian Reconstructionists. The terms “millennialist” and “millenarian” are often used interchangeably to describe social and political movements that are apocalyptic and seek the ideal society. The concept is used regularly in anthropology, where an early and influential study looked at millenarian “Cargo Cults” that emerged in the Pacific Islands in the 1940s and 1950s.

It is the demonizing version of apocalyptic Christian millennialism that has played a major role in establishing conspiracism as a key frame of reference in European cultures—and later in the new colonies of the Americas. The problem starts when apocalyptic Christians in Europe started viewing current world events as “signs of the End Times,” and then scapegoated those with whom they disagreed as agents of the Antichrist.

This dynamic drew on the ancient tradition of dualism or Manicheanism, in which the world is seen as a stage for a struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. The cast of players is composed of “Us” versus “Them.” This divisive process is sometimes called the creation of the apocalyptic “Other.”

For Christians, Jews were often cast in the role of the “Other.” As early as the second century, Christians portrayed Jews as in league with the Antichrist. Twelfth-century Christians blamed Jews for the ritual murder of children, poisoning of wells, desecration of communion bread and wine, and other heinous acts.

Apocalypse by digital artist
Apocalypse by digital artist

During the Inquisitions that followed in later centuries, the apocalyptic scapegoating of Jews was often tied to a claim that they were engaged in a vast evil conspiracy. This process was repeated during the sixteenth century, and can be found in the anti-Jewish writings of Martin Luther, for whom the Reformation was a necessary purifying prelude to what he saw as the approaching End Times.

The conspiracist reading of Revelation became a central apocalyptic narrative in the political discourse of Christians. The image that reverberated down through the centuries was of a vast global conspiracy involving high government officials betraying the decent productive citizens, while subversive parasitic agents gnawed away at society from below.

Freemasons, Jews, and Communists

When the theories of the Enlightenment began to popularize the notion of the separation of church and state and the inherent rights of the individual, those intellectuals who defended the unrestrained prerogatives of church-state oligarchies were quick to cast their critics in the role of subversive conspirators.

In the 1790s John Robison and AbbĂ© Augustin Barruel claimed that the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment—and the French Revolution—were part of a plot networked through lodges of Freemasons.

The alleged culprits were the Illuminati, members of a philosophical study group started by a Bavarian free-thinker named Adam Weishaupt. Both Robison’s and Barruel’s books are apocalyptic in a generic sense, but excited readers quickly wove their themes into vividly apocalyptic scenarios.

In the early 1900s, charges that the Freemasons controlled the banks, the press, politics, and the government were rewritten into an antisemitic hoax document claiming a Jewish world conspiracy.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion first appeared in Russia as a creation of the czarist secret police, and its most popular early version specifically linked Jews to the conspiratorial machinations of the Antichrist. The Protocols argues that behind the Freemason conspiracy is an even more secret conspiracy run by rabbis.

Implicit in both the anti-Masonic and antisemitic conspiracist narratives, as they were first modified for U.S. consumption, is the theme that the United States is essentially a Christian nation threatened with subversion by anti-Christian secret elites with allies in high places.

The secular version of U.S. conspiracism omits the overtly religious references and simply looks for betrayal by political and religious leaders. Conspiracist movements in the United States derived their specific narratives from these historic roots, ranging from mildly generic to harshly antisemitic.

Godless communism was the central conspiracy scapegoat for many conservative Christians in the twentieth century. The rise of U.S. Protestant Fundamentalism in the early 1900s coincided with a secular political attack on bolshevism and anarchism as un-American. Defense of democracy and capitalism became interwoven.

This buttressed support for the Palmer Raids in late 1919 and 1920, during which socialist and anarchist labor organizers were accused of plotting an apocalyptic campaign of bombing and insurrection. Projecting their apocalyptic fears into action, the government launched a countersubversive campaign that deported thousands of immigrants from Italy and Russia based on the false perception that they were all part of a conspiracy of criminal sedition.

Events such as the establishment of the Federal Reserve System and the income tax were woven into Christian apocalyptic conspiracism, and flourished during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. These were sometimes portrayed as part of the efforts of the Antichrist to socialize and collectivize all societies under a oneworld government as prophesied in Revelation.

Christian evangelical tracts discussing the relationship between communism and the apocalyptic End Times were popular from the 1920s through the 1960s. Different subcultures could easily weave in claims that behind the evil of the “red menace” were Freemasons, Jews, or both. Later it was the UN, the Trilateral Commission, or other scapegoats.

Apocalypticism and Fundamentalism

Hal Lindsey reignited Protestant apocalyptic speculation in 1970 with his book The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold 19 million copies. U.S. Protestant fundamentalists were the main audience for this and the many apocalyptic books that followed.

The original use of the term “fundamentalism” referred to a populist theological protest movement that arose within U.S. Protestantism in the early twentieth century. Fundamentalism was a reaction against mainline Protestant denominations in the United States such as Presbyterians and Baptists and, to a lesser extent, Methodists, Episcopalians, and others.

Leaders of these major denominations were accused of selling out the Protestant faith by forging a compromise with the ideas of the Enlightenment and modernism. In the early 1900s conservative critics of this denominational leadership developed voluminous lists of what they considered the fundamental beliefs required for people to consider themselves Christian—thus the term “fundamentalism.”

The term is now used to describe similar but not identical religious renewal movements in other religious traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Fundamentalism is often confused with orthodoxy and traditionalism.

Fundamentalists claim to be restoring the “true” religion by returning to “traditional” beliefs and enforcing orthodoxy—the set of theological doctrines approved of as sound and correct by a faith’s religious leaders. In fact, while fundamentalist movements claim to be restoring tradition and orthodoxy, they actually create a new version of an existing religion based on a mythic and romanticized past.

There is a basic apocalyptic framework common across religious fundamentalist movements—the idea that a struggle between good and evil is reaching a crucial moment in history. One way to mobilize people to join a religious fundamentalist movement is to claim that the idealized Godly society is being subverted by an evil conspiracy. This raises the stakes in the anticipated apocalyptic confrontation.

Fuller ties the Christian millennialist viewpoint to the larger issues of demonization and scapegoating when he argues that many efforts to name the Antichrist appear to be rooted in the psychological need to project one’s ‘unacceptable’ tendencies onto a demonic enemy.

It is the Antichrist, not oneself, who must be held responsible for wayward desires. And with so many aspects of modern American life potentially luring individuals into nonbiblical thoughts or desires, it is no wonder that many people believe that the Antichrist has camouflaged himself to better work his conspiracies against the faithful.

While many dissident movements (religious or secular) are in some sense apocalyptic, not all such movements utilize demonization and scapegoating to construct conspiracy theories. Even those Christians who think the End Times are imminent do not automatically succumb to conspiracism.

There is a deep division within modern Christianity between those Christians who identify evil with specific persons and groups such as Muslims, feminists, or homosexuals and those Christians who see evil as the will to dominate and oppress. The distinction cuts across theological and political lines. Some of the most vocal critics of apocalyptic demonization and conspiracist scapegoating come from within Christianity, such as Gregory S. Camp or Dale Aukerman.

Apocalyptic New World Order

When European communism began to collapse in the late 1980s, many Christian conspiracists simply shifted their attention to another godless philosophy—secular humanism. The attack on liberal secular humanism gave new life to fundamentalist conspiracy theory. On the one hand, the secular humanist conspiracy could be tied to the outward manifestations of the Satanic End Times, while on the other, a conservative critique of liberalism and moral relativism that omitted overt references to prophetic passages in Revelation could be crafted.

Apocalypticism remained central in both versions as a call for a return to “traditional” values as the only way to stave off the impending collapse of society. This came to be known as the Culture Wars.

As the calendar year 2000 approached, scores of books aimed at Christian evangelicals warned of the coming apocalypse and many contained elaborate conspiracy scenarios involving the Antichrist, the Freemasons, the UN, computers, universal price codes, and corporate globalization. Jeremiah Films produces videos with conservative Christian apocalyptic theology emerging in the form of conspiracist claims.

The 1993 video The Crash—The Coming Financial Collapse of America comes in two versions: one with a secular doomsday scenario and a Christian version featuring Biblical prophesy. Jeremiah Films distributed several videos claiming vast conspiracies by the Clinton administration, including allegations that the president had his aide Vince Foster assassinated.

Preparing to survive the coming apocalypse is the basis of the survivalist subculture that stores food and conducts self-defense training. Conspiracism, apocalypticism, and survivalism are a potent stew. The tragic shootout between federal agents and the Weaver family in Idaho in 1992 involved government misconduct and a failure to understand the power of apocalyptic belief.

The Weavers were survivalists because they were followers of Christian Identity, a theology rejected by all mainstream Christians that claims the United States is the Promised Land and white Christians are God’s chosen people.

The neo-Nazi version of Identity claims Jews are Satanic agents, and sometimes followers arm themselves for what they believe is an imminent apocalyptic race war. The Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, was a survivalist center, and leader David Koresh was decoding Revelation as an End Times script. The failure of government officials to understand this dynamic resulted in many needless deaths in 1993.

Spurred by anger over these events, the Patriot movement developed an armed wing, known as citizen militias, which briefly flourished in the mid1990s. Patriot social movements involve as many as 5 million Americans who believe that the government is manipulated by subversive secret elites and is planning to use law enforcement or military force to repress political rights.

The militias circulated an elaborate conspiracy theory about betrayal by secret internationalist elites that is a standard narrative of right-wing populist movements in the United States. A popular speaker in these circles is Robert K. Spear, author of Surviving Global Slavery: Living under the New World Order. Spear believed the formation of armed Christian communities was necessary to avoid the mark of the beast in the coming End Times.

The approach of the year 2000 seemed to stimulate apocalyptic excitement in a variety of groups. The Aum Shinrikyo sect turned its apocalypticism outward with a deadly 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in 1997 merged millennial apocalyptic visions from the Bible, the prophecies of Nostradamus, and the literary genre of science fiction.

Also turning its apocalypticism inward, between 1994 and 1997 the Order of the Solar Temple staged group suicides in Canada, France, and Switzerland. Other self-fulfilling apocalyptic events include the People’s Temple suicide/murders engineered in 1978 by Jim Jones in Guyana; and the Ugandan doomsday sect Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, where in the year 2000 some 1,000 devotees were murdered by the sects’ leaders.

Apocalypticism as a style can also be detected in doomsday scenarios circulated by some sectors of the environmental and antinuclear movements, although they point out that nuclear devastation or our atmosphere turning into toxic soup would effectively mean the end of time for the species that are aware of it. That would truly be apocalyptic, but no one would be left to appreciate the irony.