Recently Pew Research Center released the results of a study on “How Religion Intersects with Americans’ Views on the Environment.” In it, more than 10,000 U.S. adults demographically representing the nation responded to an online survey of several dozen questions. A few of the questions touched on beliefs about the end of the world. The results are important.
In response to the question, “Do you believe we are living in the end times,” 76% of Black Christians said Yes, and 68% of all Black Americans said Yes. This means that 3 out of 4 Black Christians, and almost 7 out of 10 of all Black people, believe the end is near. When asked, “Do you believe Jesus will return to Earth someday,” 86% of Black Christians responded Yes, and 77% of all Black people said Yes.
For this many people in a group to believe anything is remarkable. But it is especially striking when compared to other ethnic groups in the U.S. Only 34% of white people believe we are living in the end times, 41% of Hispanics, and 33% of Asians. So roughly twice the number of Black Americans believe the end is near than other Americans.
You may be tempted to dismiss Black people’s belief in the end times as irrational religion-inspired fears left over from a bygone era. But beliefs, wherever they come from, are important, especially for Americans, who claim that big beliefs like democracy make the nation what it is. Beliefs that have persisted for a long time are also important because they endured for reasons that afford insights into people groups and their world.
Black people have believed the end is near for a long time. During their enslavement, they collectively composed and sang songs with lyrics like, “I ain’t got long to stay here,” “Looks like my Lord a-comin’ in de sky,” and “swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” When the teenaged slave Frederick Douglass witnessed a meteor shower he took it as a “harbinger of the coming of the Son of Man” and “was prepared to hail Him as my friend and deliverer.” Abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth once told an audience, “I believe the Lord is as near as can be, and not be it.”
After Black people obtained their emancipation, they kept believing the end was near. At the beginning of the 20th century Black leader Booker T. Washington observed that, “a large element of the Negro Church” had an “apocalyptic vision.” Around midcentury anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston described a typical revival meeting where a Black preacher waxed eloquent about a soon-coming heavenly city that would have a “Hallelujah Avenue” and “Amen Street.” He called to the crowd, “Are you ready-ee? Hah! For that great day, hah!” and the audience chanted, “You can’t hide.”
Black people continued to believe that the end times were near in the Civil Rights era. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a “militant adventism,” according to Senator Raphael Warnock, his civil rights activism grounded in a conviction in “the glory of the coming of the Lord.” As if serenading King, Mahalia Jackson sang “Precious Lord, take my hand,” with the subtly apocalyptic lyrics, “And the day is past and gone, at the river I stand.” Around the same time Malcolm X pronounced that it “is only a matter of time before White America too will be utterly destroyed by her own sins, and all traces of her former glory will be removed from this planet forever.”
As with Malcolm X, Christianity was not the only route for Black people to anticipate the end of the world during the upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s. X’s Nation of Islam and Rastafarians also held to an imminent apocalypse. During this era a Black liberation theology that articulated the crux of the apocalyptic orientation of Black people—ultimate emancipation from oppression—emerged and gained some popularity.
The apparent prosperity in America during the 1980s and ‘90s did not cause Black people’s belief in the end times to wane, especially as apocalyptic-level scourges such as the crack cocaine and the HIV/AIDS epidemics, as well as police brutality and gang violence, ravaged African American communities. After the 9/11 attacks, more Americans could relate to people’s feeling terrorized in an unsteady existence. In 2008 when Barack Obama’s presidential bid was almost derailed by his pastor Jeremiah Wright preaching, “Not God bless America, God damn America,” many Black American’s did not bat an eye at the sentiment. To be clear, Black people did not want America to go to hell, but knowing firsthand its atrocities, they were leery about their nation’s future.
Everyone is familiar with the events leading up to the 2022 Pew Research survey we are discussing. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its quarantine, unemployment, and death, caused Americans to become more depressed and anxious about the future. Predictably, the pandemic disproportionately affected Black people in terms of unemployment, illness, and mortality. Simultaneously was a racial pandemic, with the Trump presidency and the rise of white supremacy and the lynchings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Even the apparently race-neutral January 6 insurrection, one of the largest internal assaults on American democracy, possessed a nasty racist element. In the wake of all this in April 2022, Pew conducted its religion and environment survey and Black people responded that the end was near.
So why have Black Americans believed for so long in the imminent end of the world? And why have they believed it at a higher rate than other Americans?
To answer these complex questions simply: Black people’s belief in the end of the world reflects the oppression that Black people experience in the United States. Black Americans see themselves as oppressed, according to another recent study by Pew Research Center. In October 2021 Pew surveyed about 4,000 Black U.S adults. The results are stark. Nearly 80% of Black respondents said they personally experience racism in America. More than half said that American laws are racist. 63% of Black participants said that racism was “an extremely big problem,” and 68% said that “racial discrimination is the main reason” Black people can’t get ahead in America.
But what about the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter global protest, “perhaps the largest movement in U.S. history,” according to The New York Times? Did it improve the lives of Black people in America? Almost two-thirds of Black respondents said it did not. An overwhelming number of Black people hold that improvement to antiblack racism in the system is not likely to happen, with 67% saying that major disparities like the mistreatment of Blacks prisoners will not change, and 58% saying the police will not treat Black people fairly. Only about one-in-ten Black Americans believe that Black people will ever attain equality in the U.S. Wrongs in the past will not be rectified either, the survey reveals, with 82% of Black participants saying they will not get reparations in their lifetime.
It is an axiom in apocalyptic studies that the groups most likely to adopt apocalyptic beliefs are those who are oppressed or perceive themselves to be oppressed. This holds true for Black Americans. Audre Lorde’s quip that “oppression is as American as apple pie” is the sentiment of most Black people. Critical race theory and Afropessimism are not mere theories for the average Black person; they are givens.
For Black people, the American system that has been incurably racist from its start to the present has to end, the oppressed have to be liberated, and justice has to be served. As about eight-in-ten Black Americans say religion is important to them, they view this eventuality through a religious framework. Black people’s belief in the end of the world is about ultimate liberation from their oppression.
If the rhetoric to make America fairer and more just is genuine, then things like the apocalyptic beliefs of a people who played and still play a vital role in building this nation have to be taken seriously—because the seemingly otherworldly is very this-worldly, it turns out.
Reparations for the injustices that Black people endured for hundreds of years need to finally be paid, as part of a vigorous and rigorous project to right wrongs, as much as possible. The current disparities that Black people face across the board—health, education, housing, employment, criminal justice, environment—have to be equalized. Moving forward, the modus operandi must be complete equity and inclusion.
In short, we must make America into a nation that deserves to not be destroyed in an apocalypse.permission.