Although millennial thought dates back to the ancient Persian philosophers and was sustained through the centuries by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teachers, Americans especially seem always to have been fascinated by the horror of a certain apocalyptic vision that includes plagues, earthquakes, and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions. Christopher Columbus was a devout student of biblical prophecies who believed that the world would end in 1650. He perceived that his personal mission was to find a new continent that would be a special refuge for those who survived the purging of Armageddon, the final battle between the armies of Christ and Satan, that he believed would occur during the mid-seventeenth century.
Scores of American preachers and mystics from colonial times through the Civil War and up to the present day have continued the precedent set by Columbus and occupied themselves with predicting the exact time of Christ's return and the subsequent final battle between Good and Evil.
Of course such obsessions with apocalyptic teachings and personal quests for spiritual fulfillment are by no means limited to Americans. By the twentieth century, many formerly loyal followers of organized religious bodies throughout the world were beginning to become impatient with doctrinal rules of order and began to blend the new discoveries of science with the faith of their forefathers. In the West, many spiritual seekers chose to combine the teachings of Eastern religions with those aspects of western science which they felt supported their spiritual beliefs, including meditation, biofeedback, and extrasensory perception as means of attaining higher awareness.
These amalgamations of science, conventional Christianity, and such eastern religions as Hinduism and Buddhism offended many individuals who deemed themselves to be the true followers of the revelations disclosed in the Bible; and these apocalyptic groups, such as the Branch Davidians set themselves apart to prepare for the time of judgment that they believed was imminent.
While members of organized church bodies, as well as the general public, were quick to brand these various splinter groups as cults, in contemporary language usage such a term is considered negative and judgmental. Although the beliefs practiced by some of these groups may seem strange to certain of the more conventionally religious, the sincerity of the members of such evolving spiritual bodies cannot be so readily discounted by those who have not carefully examined what may be a blending of several traditions and a serious attempt to achieve enlightenment.
It may be that many of the spiritual experiments of the twentieth century will be assessed by more conventional students of theology as modern expressions of the Christian Mystery Schools that combined elements of the occult within their dogma. Unfortunately, far too many of these newly emergent groups began with visions of peace and love and ended with the mass suicides and deaths of their followers. In the United States, The Peoples' Temple began with Pastor James Jones expanding the teachings of a liberal Protestant denomination into a doomsday cult and later revealing himself to group as being the reincarnation of Jesus and the Buddha. In Jonestown, Guyana, on November 14, 1978, Jones joined 638 of his adult followers and 276 of their children in a mass suicide. In Rwanda, Credonia Mwerinde combined a cult of the Virgin Mary and Roman Catholicism with aboriginal religious traditions and allowed the heavenly messages to end the lives of over 1,000 members by mass murder on March 15, 2000. In Switzerland, The Order of the Solar Temple sought to prepare humankind for the return of Christ through the wisdom of occult and extraterrestrial masters, but when the illusion of immortality faded, a series of mass suicides of cult members took place in Switzerland, France, and Quebec, from October 1994 to March 1997.
Many of the new spiritual groups combine aspects of Christianity with the "new gospels' that they claim to have obtained from extraterrestrial Masters. Members of some of these UFO groups call Jesus by what they believe to be his true name of Sananda and recognize him as an extraterrestrial who is circling Earth in a spaceship, awaiting the proper time for his Second Coming. While UFO cults such as Heaven's Gate, the Raelians, and the Order of the Solar Temple developed sensational or negative images, there are many UFO groups who seek to develop a new religion that will blend science and more traditional religious concepts.
Falun Gong, although branded an evil cult by the Chinese government in 1999, claims to have 100 million members worldwide. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the movement who lives in the United States, insists that his group is not a religion, but a series of five daily exercises by which individuals may activate the higher abilities of mind, body, and spirit.
The Church of Scientology is classified as a cult by its detractors, but its members assert that Scientology is a new religion that was founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the twentieth century and has its roots in the deep beliefs and ancient wisdom that go back more than 50,000 years. By combining with the physical sciences, Scientology offers an application of scientific methodology to spiritual questions and allows individuals to approach their lives with more confidence.
As the world continues to shrink and millions of pulpits on the Internet become available to new mystics and visionaries, it remains for the individual reader to judge which groups contain the precepts, the truths, and the moral values to survive into the twenty-first century and beyond.
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