Belief in the end of the world may be very old, and it is certainly not a delusion unique to evangelical Christians. But for more than thirty years now, there has been a growing phenomenon of a particular type of eschatological thinking among some evangelical churches. In the United States it has given birth to a whole subculture that, according to polls, has recruited many millions of American citizens who apparently hold that certain passages of scripture describe the coming destruction of the world in our era. Where you have a subculture, it is likely that you will find people with merchandise to sell to it. The End Times – for that is how the Apocalyptics refer to this prelude to Armageddon – have created a vigorous market of mass extinction tat: novels, DVDs, bumper stickers. The internet, naturally, is lousy with this stuff.

Cover of Have a Nice Doomsday by Nicholas GuyattNicholas Guyatt, an English-born history lecturer at a Canadian university who lived for several years in the US, has written about his experiences tracking down some of the purveyors of this guff and the ministers who preach it from their churches. Unsurprisingly, many of these are fixated with the Middle East and tend to see each emerging tragedy from that region as fresh evidence of the incipient destruction of everything.

Guyatt describes the almost hallucinatory experience of meeting amiable and apparently balanced individuals who are blithely open to the most catastrophic suggestions: such as demolishing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site, in order to rebuild the original Jewish temple.

He also raises the question of whether we should be alarmed at the access they have to the American government and the respectability their most high-profile spokespeople are winning in the mainstream US media. There is, for example, Joel Rosenberg, author of a series of End Times novels who has appeared on Fox News under the title of a “Middle East expert”. At no point, says Guyatt, was Rosenberg identified as an apocalyptic Christian who favoured a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Tehran.

However, while Guyatt has identified several eschatologists circulating in Washington, he admits that he hasn’t really found any evidence that they are trying to hijack government policy, or would get very far if they tried to do so.

These churches have dropped old style anti-Semitism. But they have replaced it with a neurotic obsession with Jews that is deeply unhealthy and only a shade less alarming. We meet John Hagee, tele-pastor, darling of the End Timers and a strident enemy of anti-Semitism. But Hagee’s enthusiasm for Jews is based on their role in speeding the arrival of apocalypse. This will be a time when Jews will either be killed or convert to Christianity, the true religion to which they have been blind for two thousand years, and to which they will eventually be admitted. It is a tolerance of Jews only in so far, as Guyatt says, as they are made “past and future Christians.”

The popular imagination, perhaps, has the apocalyptos mixed up with the neocons, the pro-Israel lobby and the Republican Party machine: an aggressively on-message, uncannily univocal regiment of media manipulators. But the ones Guyatt meets tend to be far more flaky than that. They can’t keep appointments or present a media-friendly face to a journalist. You get the feeling that they operate in a closed system, where the only people they can really talk to are already caught up in the machinery of apocalyptic prophecy.

However, Guyatt has provided interesting glimpses of the eschatological mindset: one that can seriously prepare for the highest levels of violent destruction and assimilate them into a banal existence.

Toby Saul is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New Humanist. Have a Nice Doomsday is published by Ebury Press.