(This is the 9th installment of a series of blog entries. Be sure to start with Part 1.)
One of the common cheerful memories most people have of childhood is rousing games of hide ‘n’ seek. What better way to while away a lazy summer day than to gather up the neighborhood gang and take turns “counting to 100” while everyone else tries to find a hiding place? Remember the giggles when you were finally spotted by the one who was “it” and you raced to get back and touch “home base” before he or she could tag you as the new “it”?
Ah, the simple pleasures of youth!
Well, not for everyone. I once knew a woman who had spent her young childhood in the 1960s playing a hiding game that wasn’t quite as cheery. In this game, she and her siblings, who lived in the Deep South of the US, were taken periodically by their mother out into the woods near their home at night to hide.
The point of the game was not to gleefully run to touch base if seen by another player. The point was to stay concealed among the trees and bushes and totally quiet for hours at a time. You weren’t hiding from other children. You were “practicing” how to hide from … The Nazis.
The Nazis? In the 1960s in the US? What on earth was that mother thinking?
What she was thinking was that the Nazis only went “underground” at the end of WWII, and that the great enemy of the US in the 1960s, contrary to popular opinion, was not Russia and its Hydrogen bombs. It was a Nazi Germany that was going to Rise Again. This mom was a subscriber to the Plain Truth magazine.
Here’s what she would have read in that article in the June 1958 edition of the Plain Truth:
…Even as trainloads of captive Jews, Poles and Czechs rumbled across Europe in 1940, ’41, ’42 and ’43, and as Hitler’s efficient scientists conceived of the burning of bodies, and scattering their crushed bones and ashes on the fields for fertililzer—SO SHALL THESE THINGS BE DONE AGAIN!
But THIS TIME—UNLESS WE REPENT OF OUR SINS AND CALL OUT TO GOD IN REAL DEAD EARNEST—it will happen HERE!
…Jesus Christ promises His own people—those who are in the true Body of Christ—and members of His true Church, which will be performing His WORK on this earth, will be taken to a secret place of hiding—a place of protection and safety—to KEEP them from the “hour or trial” that will come on the earth. May God help YOU to REPENT! This IS the way out—for YOU! Grasp it while you may!
The bottom line of this and many other Plain Truth articles throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s? Some time before 1972, a United States of Europe with a re-armed and re-militarized Germany as its leader, was going to arise and become The World Power to be dealt with—the “Beast” of Revelation. It would instigate a nuclear war with the US, killing perhaps a third of the population. And perhaps another third would be “taken captive” right in the US by these Neo-Nazi forces, and removed to Slave Labor Camps in the US and Europe.
The only hope for US readers of the Plain Truth to escape this fate was to be under God’s protection. And the only way to get that protection was to regularly and faithfully send a tenth of one’s income to PO Box 111, Pasadena, California. If they were found by God to be doing this, and loyally following the leadership of Plain Truth editor Herbert Armstrong, they would be miraculously protected from this fate.
It wasn’t quite clear to me how the mom in the story above got it into her head that she’d need to proactively “prepare” her family to escape when the Nazi troops came calling. Perhaps she had read and believed the predictions in the Plain Truth, but hadn’t been ready or willing to make the commitment to the organization. So her only alternative was to take matters into her own hands.
What I do know is that over twenty years later, her daughter had never gotten over the terror that had been instilled in her by those childhood experiences. She’d seen the illustrations of the coming horrors of nuclear war, famine, pestilence, earthquakes, and more by Basil Wolverton in the Plain Truth and other literature published by the Radio Church of God. And as vivid as the impression those made may have been, they couldn’t quite compare to the actual, on the spot panic she felt in those dark woods, holding her breath, never knowing if “tonight” wasn’t just a “dry run.”
There was a time when, at least in America, people were able to “hide their heads” from the idea of great disasters affecting them and their family. Well, maybe not for many decades at a time. After all, the devastating Great Depression, with its Dust Bowl and Financial Crash sure were disasters that had affected many. But after the great success of the US in WWII, it would have been typical for American parents to want to shield their children from worry about such things as war and natural disasters. And want, even themselves, to think that such times were past. The idea of having to deal with such things became “unthinkable.”
Yes, tornadoes and hurricanes and other disasters really did continue to affect people around the world and, at times, in America too. But few people had a mind-set of literally “anticipating” that such things would affect them, and of preparing for them. Tragedies and disasters were commonly viewed as “freak circumstances” that most people tried to avoid thinking about at all. “It can’t happen here” was a typical mantra, while the post-war generation tried to establish the idyllic American Dream in their new VA-Loan subsidized homes in suburbia.
But for many people this didn’t last long. The “duck and cover” exercises mentioned in earlier installments of this series were the beginning of “facing the unthinkable.” And before long the movie theaters were full of “disaster” movies that rubbed the noses of audiences in “what if” scenarios. Many in the early and mid-50s were more based on sci-fi sort of plots with radiation creating big bugs and other gigantic creatures to worry about. It was hard to take these seriously as a real threat—except while watching the movie!
But by the late 1950s, things took a turn for the worse in movies for anyone trying to tune out the serious reality that the world had become a really scary place. I remember the first such movie that made me really nervous when I saw it in 1959 at age 12.
It was Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins in the Cold War drama On the Beach. The premise of the 1957 book on which it was based was that a nuclear war had actually occurred, fallout had destroyed all life in the Northern Hemisphere, and was creeping south and would finally overtake Australia, where the movie begins and ends.
The story is set in a future 1964, in the months following World War III. The conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all life. While the bombs were confined to the northern hemisphere, air currents are slowly carrying the fallout south. The only areas still habitable are in the far southern hemisphere, like Australia.
From Australia, survivors detect an incomprehensible Morse code signal from the United States in San Diego. With hope that someone is alive back home, the last American nuclear submarine, USS Sawfish, under Royal Australian Navy command, is ordered to sail north from Melbourne to try and make contact with the signal sender. The captain, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), leaves behind his good friend, the alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), despite his feelings of guilt about the death of his wife and children in Connecticut. Towers refuses to admit they are dead and continues to behave accordingly.
The Australian government arranges for its citizens to receive suicide pills and injections, so that they end things quickly before there is prolonged suffering from the coming radiation sickness. An Australian naval officer, Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), has a baby daughter and a naive and childish wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), who is in denial about the impending disaster. Assigned to travel with the American submarine for several weeks, Peter tries to explain to Mary how to euthanize their baby and kill herself with the lethal pills in case he’s not yet home. Mary, however, reacts violently at the prospect of killing her daughter and herself.
If you have the stomach for it, see the rest of the plot.
No, nuclear war was no longer “unthinkable.” And as time went on, neither were other kinds of disasters. From that day to this, there has been an unending stream of disaster, post-apocalyptic, and general “dystopian future” movies and books. You can see an amazing list of these in the Wikipedia article Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.
Now mind you, I think the average American has perhaps tended to watch such movies for “entertainment,” and not internalize the fear they induce much beyond a day or two after going to the movies. But for that subset of people tending to paranoia in the first place, the extreme realism of many such movies can feed that paranoia. It’s like diseases. The average person who is in basically good health can read an article about some obscure disease and just find it “interesting.” But a person with hypochondria can immediately begin seeing in themselves vague hints of the symptoms of the disease!
Now put yourself back in the 1950s and ‘60s inside the mind of a person who has become “hooked” on the allegedly “plain truth” about pending disasters chronicled in the literature of the Radio Church of God. Month after month the magazines would tick off a litany of “facts” accompanied by alarming photos and charts and maps, leading up every time to a pitch that YOU needed to FACE the reality that these things were very likely to strike you and your community and your family in the foreseeable future.
And it wasn’t just the Radio Church of God that fed readers on such material. The Jehovah’s Witnesses went door to door by the thousands in that same period passing out their own magazines, Awake and Watchtower, that peddled much the same paranoia.
And it wasn’t just “fringe religious groups” that pushed the paranoia.
In 1970, evangelical author Hal Lindsey (well, actually “ghost writer” Carole C Carlson, who later got minor billing as “co-author” but who likely did most or all of the actual writing …) created a best-selling non-fiction book titled The Late Great Planet Earth. It ticked off the same claims of “increased earthquakes, famines, droughts, wars” etc. as being evidence that the End was Nigh. Lindsey’s theological/prophetic speculation theories even lined up to a certain extent with that of the Worldwide Church of God of that time, expecting the Common Market of the time to morph into the “Ten Nation Beast Power” of Revelation. And all within the next decade.
And Lindsey wasn’t the only evangelical author peddling paranoia.
In a 1975 book titled The Vision, author Dave Wilkerson claimed he had received a direct, divine revelation in 1973 that … taDA!… the End is Nigh, as could be seen by current conditions at the time. His book contained many specific declarations of what was “soon” to happen. (None of which actually happened, but which got him a reputation as a Prophetic Voice in The Modern Church. Why, I’m not sure. He continued for the next 30+ years, up to his death in 2011, to issue regular “prophetic words,” sometimes with very specific predictions, that never came to pass either. I’m not sure what some folks’ definition of “false prophet” is…)
I think it’s fair to say that by the 1970s, at least most people with an interest in Bible prophecy no longer considered really horrific conditions, that might affect them and their loved ones, as unthinkable. And as the decades have gone by, this has been more and more true.
For a long time now, many such people think about those conditions almost constantly! They feed on every tidbit put out by their favorite religious prophetic speculators on the Internet, in print literature, and on TV and radio. Even formerly disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker has jumped on the paranoia bandwagon with his new ministry!
Bakker used to teach that Christians would be “raptured” to heaven before the Bad Times came. But he’s changed his theology now and thinks Christians should expect to have to “survive” the Great Tribulation by their own efforts. So he’s selling “survival supplies” … everything from generators to WAY-overpriced food in big ol’ buckets, via his TV program and through his website to make it easy for people to Prepare for the Imminent Inevitable.
Bakker’s regular viewers and supporters seem to have no problem now thinking what they may “used to” have thought was unthinkable—that they will likely very soon be facing a world in total chaos. And if they can only endure through that–with the help of a stash of Jim’s Survival Supplies– they will find themselves seeing the Second Coming of Christ.
Well, I’m no televangelist. And I don’t have any buckets o’ anything to sell. But I’m going to buck the trend, declare that all these Prophetic Pundits have gotten it all wrong, and insist that, instead of preparing for the imminent inevitable, you really ought to Prepare for the Unthinkable.
And I’ll share with you how to do that in the next installment of this blog series, A New Kind of Unthinkable.