An Apocalyptic trend -- Sales of books about the end of the world are growing in popularity

”I turn back to the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon and I find myself wondering if — if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about.”
— Ronald Reagan, in 1983, to Israel’s chief U.S. lobbyist

The former president isn’t the only one fascinated with the specter of Armageddon. Suddenly, the end of the world is becoming a multi-media mega-hit. Sales of apocalyptic books are mushrooming — Hal Lindsey’s Bible inspired The Late Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, is about to enter its 109th printing after a third-quarter sales jump of 83 percent over last year. Public television broadcast a two-hour documentary, After the Warming, on Nov. 21. And such diverse singers as George Michael and Johnny Cash are cashing in with hot-selling songs hinting that the final act may be at hand, or at least just around the corner. What’s making doomsday so profitable?

There are three popular villains, none by itself completely persuasive. Undoubtedly, the Persian Gulf crisis is provoking anxiety, but it is not yet in the same league with, say, the Cuban missile crisis and its possibilities for nuclear catastrophe. Jitters about the economy and the environment are also blamed, but neither a U.S. recession nor ecological threats are new phenomena. What seems to be different is the confluence of such major concerns combined with the end of the second millennium — not to mention that the world’s most innovative century will end in only nine years and four weeks. ”These are dark economic times,” says Lou Aronica, mass-market publisher for Bantam Books. ”People are turning to these books to find out if it’s all been foretold.”

The book world is clearly ahead of the other media in the doomsday sweepstakes. Like rap tunes that hit the Top 40 pop charts, prophecy titles are beginning to cross over from Christian bookstores to secular ones in a big way. Pat Robertson’s The New Millennium — which predicts a ”cataclysmic war” if Saddam Hussein orders troops to use poisonous gas — has been out only a month and is already a top seller for Word Books. Bantam Books targeted the secular market in July when it released Armageddon: Appointment With Destiny by Grant R. Jeffrey; the book has gone back to press twice, with an estimated 100,000 copies in print. And nearly any book translating forecasts of the 16th-century French seer Nostradamus has seen a recent uptick in sales too. Nostradamus, perhaps best known via the Orson Welles video The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, predicted the world would end by the year 2000.

Some publishers are also pulling old apocalyptic titles from their warehouses and dusting them off for new printings. Zondervan this month will send bookstores 100,000 copies of an updated version of its 1974 Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, by John F. Walvoord. Billy Graham’s ministry will give out 200,000 copies to its newsletter subscribers. ”It’s a lot of books for such an esoteric subject,” admits Stanley Gundry, general manager of Zondervan’s book division. ”But we decided to capitalize on the renewed interest.”

The end of the world has been striking a chord with pop music fans, too. George Michael’s bleak hit single, ”Praying for Time,” hit No. 1 in October. In the mournful song, Michael bleats: ”And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late/So maybe we should all be praying for time.” Living Colour’s new album, Time’s Up, has sold 500,000 copies. And Johnny Cash’s new single, ”Goin’ By the Book,” actually recorded in 1986, draws parallels between Mideast tensions and the apocalyptic vision in Revelations (”And that rumblin’ in the desert like thunder getting closer/Are the trumpets getting ready to blow/There’s gonna be a shout that will wake the dead/We better get ready to go”). Says Cash: ”It’s a very timely song, considering the unrest in the world today.”

Although publishers and producers may be pleased by the country’s growing obsession, apocalyptists fret that the public isn’t getting serious about the grim prospects ahead. Warns Armageddon author Walvoord, who is chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary: ”I make no predictions about the apocalypse. But the stage is set.”