In the late-1970s, I made a habit of reading several magazines that arrived in our family’s mailbox. These included Time, U.S. News & World Report, and The Plain Truth. The latter was published by the Worldwide Church of God, which was a doomsday cult. The publication was cleverly packaged to seem like just another newsmagazine as it told of how current events relate to the Book of Revelation. I recall reading that a biblical passage had described helicopters in all but name, and that sounded plausible to me. I might’ve been 12 or 13.
My mother probably had signed up for a free subscription, though I don’t recall her taking any interest in the magazine. At some point, my brother, three years older, asked me why I was reading it, and I laughed it off as something done for entertainment. Yet for some period I took The Plain Truth seriously, and I don’t remember any clear-cut moment of shifting to skepticism; it was probably just a gradual fading of belief and interest.
By the time I was reading The Plain Truth, the Worldwide Church of God was already repositioning itself from the failure of some specific predictions to come true, such as of an apocalyptic convulsion culminating in 1975. Going forward, the prophecies had a less definite quality, especially about timing. The organization was adaptable. Its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong, had a falling-out with his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, in 1978, and the latter’s magazine column and line on the masthead disappeared, unexplained.
After the elder Armstrong died in 1986, his successors renounced his more unorthodox ideas, eventually renaming the church. Free magazines subscriptions stopped, though I’d long ceased paying attention. Splinter groups broke away to uphold Armstrong’s original vision. One complaint among such dissenters was that the church’s leaders wouldn’t give credit to Armstrong’s prophecy that Germany would produce yet another powerful dictatorship, which supposedly was coming true with that country’s post–Cold War reunification.
An apocalypse fascination stayed with me, even if my outlook on it bore little relation to what The Plain Truth had espoused.
One day in the early-1980s, I was angered by something Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said, where he wondered if maybe “time is running out.” Such end-time rhetoric came repeatedly from the Reagan administration, especially when talking to Evangelical audiences and including from the President himself, and normally it didn’t impede my enthusiasm as a budding Republican. But I didn’t want to hear it from Weinberger, whose responsibility for weapons systems meshed poorly with his eschatological musings.
Demon movies were a source of joy for me. The original version of The Omen, which I saw on its release in 1976, frightened me, and perhaps was a factor in my taking an interest in The Plain Truth. The 1988 movie The Seventh Sign, with Demi Moore, elicited another intense response, in this case of uncontrollable laughter. The Prophecy (1995) intrigued me with Christopher Walken’s portrayal of the archangel Gabriel gone bad. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1999 End of Daysentertainingly presented a once-in-a-millennium conflict.
Similarly, I took an interest in scientific discussions of how and when the world might end. One topic is the “doomsday argument,” proposed by some physicists and philosophers, which makes a controversial statistical case that it’s unlikely for a large human population to endure far into the future. Over the years, I’ve written about various possible world-ending scenarios, including asteroid strikes, out-of-control AI or nanotechnology, and viruses or other pathogens.
In the late-1990s, I contemplated pitching to New York Press, institutional forerunner of Splice Today, a regular column discussing “apocalyptic and millenarian thought.” I never got around to submitting any writing along such lines, and the only piece I ever got published at New York Press was about a barge in the Hudson River advertising “Dirtpile.com.” A few years later, working at Space.com, I wrote reviews of The X-Files, in which one topic I pondered was what would happen if the series’ aliens and demons were to combat each other.
In recent years, a rising public and political interest in “spiritual warfare” has had a distinct end-times odor. This phenomenon poses a challenge to the rational mind. The onetime prominence of The Plain Truth offers a relevant reminder of the diversity of human belief and the appeal of its far-reaching extremes.
—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and is on Twitter: @kennethsilber