Saviours or destroyers in space: Modern incarnations of ancient apocalyptic worldviews (End 1.7)

One thing that can be said of the apocalyptic worldview is it is flexible. The notion that we are living in an evil age and that the end is near, when evil will be wiped out by some heaven-sent powers who will destroy the hell-sent powers, has seen many variations. As has the notion that there will be a path of escape or kingdom of God for the righteous. Among the most interesting, and at times disturbing, are those variations where space, sci-fi, and religion meet.

In my post on Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate, I discussed the case of Heaven’s Gate. This group looked forward to the arrival of their saviours, a superior race of aliens who they expected to take them away to live in a blissful kingdom of god, the “Level Above Human”. There I also mentioned a breakthrough in the convergence of apocalyptic expectation and sci-fi which came to heavily influence all subsequent uses of space-races as end-time saviour and/or end-time demonic figures: the 1950s film The Day the Earth Stood Still. I commented that

One could say that the beginnings of plugging aliens into an apocalyptic worldview began with science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has the alien (and his sidekick robot) clearly in the role of the alien saviour figure and destroyer of evil (evil associated with the military activity of humans–the nuclear bomb and the Korean war were in mind). The alien saviour figure is, in this case, clearly in the role of a Jesus-figure (he dies and raises from the dead).

Now I have just come across an online doctoral dissertation which explores other ways in which apocalyptic ideas may find a place in outer space.

Ryan Jeffrey McMillen, “Space Rapture: Extraterrestrial Millennialism and the Cultural Construction of Space Colonization.” Doctoral dissertation: University of Texas at Austin, 2004.

Here is the summary of the dissertation:

The dream of space colonization possesses deep roots in the Christian apocalyptic fantasy of the Rapture of the elect to occur prior to the return of Christ. Space colonization, like its predecessor ascension fantasy, the Rapture, has always involved a tension between the liberation of a holy vanguard and the imminent destruction of the Earth. With the rise of modern technology, rocketry and space travel became, for fundamentalist Christians and technological determinists alike, the man-made tools and signs of an imminent apocalypse. In this dissertation, the 1970s space colonization proposal of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill is offered as a case study of these millennial roots of the space-bound dream. O’Neill’s colonies, offered as a way to avoid an irrevocable time of Earthly tribulation, were touted as the means of depopulating the Earth and ending terrestrial conflict. O’Neill’s dreams for rocketry were no different than the dreams of those men who pioneered rocketry before him, although earlier rocketeers and space enthusiasts held more explicitly Christian-inspired apocalyptic beliefs concerning the fate of the Earth and the destiny of humanity.

In addition to examining O’Neill’s colonial fantasy, this dissertation analyzes the religious and philosophical beliefs of the rocketeers to show how each of them was deeply influenced by apocalypse and Rapture fantasy. While O’Neill’s plan resembled earlier space colonization and Rapture imaginings, it also incorporated the more terrestrially benevolent dreams of the burgeoning environmental movement of the era. In attempting to unite the Space Age with a newly powerful “Earth Age,” O’Neill sought to resurrect the dream of space colonization for a new generation. However, O’Neill failed in this attempt. Instead of seeing humanity’s future in the stars, off of a doomed Earth, many in Western culture began in the late 1960s to imagine human destiny within a long and peaceful future on Earth. This perspective came about, paradoxically, as a result of perhaps the most epochal achievement of the space race: the first photographs of the planet from the distance of the moon (pp. 7-8).

Who said that doctoral studies couldn’t be fun.