Doomsday Preppers and virtue at the end of the world

I have to admit, it was not virtue that brought me to start watching Doomsday Preppers, which recently wrapped up its first season on the National Geographic Channel. More like morbid curiosity.

After watching my first episode, I found myself yelling at the television both “You’re crazy! That will never happen!” and “You’re preparing for your preposterous doomsday scenario all wrong!” This double reaction intensified even more when a Southern man’s pastor prayed over his food storage and extensive arsenal. He was preparing for civil unrest caused by hyper-inflation. I felt a real dissonance between the presence of a minister and a man with dozens of guns and Molotov cocktails.

I was surprised that so many people in the Bible Belt had a perspective on a potential apocalypse so uninformed by their faith. As Neil Genzlinger wrote in New York Times, "whatever their religious beliefs might be, something Preppers doesn’t generally explore, most of them put their real faith in firearms." It’s hard to say if this is the truth of these people’s experience or the way the show is framed, but I was stunned at how little religion comes up at all, with the exception of the pastoral prayer I mentioned.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to not hear about the kind of apocalypse traditionally discussed in churches. People who believe the rapture is near don’t prepare the kind of bunkers this show explores with great detail. They often prepare in the opposite way: quitting work and reducing their belongings. Perhaps they wouldn’t make as compelling of television as the folks Preppers profiles. They certainly wouldn’t appeal to advertisers in the same way. Beyond that, preparing one’s heart for Christ’s return is an exceptionally difficult process to film.

The absence of religion that troubled me most about many of the people featured on this show, though, was the lack of generosity toward others. The Times' Genzlinger believes that what these people really want is “a license to open fire.” To the show’s credit, it has featured exceptions to this selfish, suspicious ethos. One woman preparing for a pandemic flu assembled hundreds of pandemic safety kits and distributed them to her neighbors. This approach was in part self-interested, but also included the knowledge that communities matter and other people matter. The show’s “experts” frequently suggest that preppers get their neighbors involved so they would not have to work alone in their respective scenario (which varies but includes both natural and social disasters).

My objection to so many of these profiled preppers is that they are preparing to fend off their neighbors, not help them. In the event of a real disaster, we’d likely all be better off if we helped each other out instead of being suspicious and selfish. Even if that means somebody else takes advantage, I don’t think the fruit of the spirit expires.

I think it’s better to be hurt by your generosity than to hurt someone else with selfishness, and even more so in an extreme situation. After all, one person gave up everything to save us all in the apocalyptic scenario I know will happen eventually, and that’s a person I really want to imitate.

What Do You Think?

  • Have you watched Doomsday Preppers? What do you make of it?
  • Do you spend much time thinking about or preparing for end times?
  • What place should such concerns have in a Christian's spiritual life?


Comments (6)

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I’m curious what kind of apocalypse you believe is traditionally discussed in churches. I’ve always gotten the impression that there’s no real consensus and there’s quite a range of speculation.

In other words, I would not be surprised to find that the preppers believe their actions are informed by their faith.

Not all people who believe in a rapture believe it will happen before the tribulation, so it seems reasonable that preppers may believe in the post or mid tribulation rapture.  Most who believe in a pre-tribulation rapture also believe that things won’t exactly be peachy in the lead up to the rapture.

I think there are lots of subtle and not so subtle ways that one’s view of the end times influences what they believe is their and the Church’s mission.

If someone believes that on the eve of a horrible time period (when the world most needs the Church) that the Church will be raptured, I can see how that could wrongly translate into prepping to fend off your neighbors / unbelievers.

If someone thinks the world is declining into chaos and that finally in the end all Christians will be in heaven, why do we need to care for the Earth?

On the other hand, if you believe that our work here to be co-creators and co-renewers with God will be redeemed fully through Jesus with the new heaven and new earth then there’s lots of “earthly” business that the Church must participate in.

Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking about Noah’s ark. In many ways, he’s the closest thing we have to a Biblical “prepper” (with the caveat that he was prepping for something that he had perfectly good reason - even a divine command! - to get ready for). He builds a shelter to weather the storm, stocks it with supplies to last it out, and gets ready for the eventual storm.

I think the difference between Noah and some of these preppers (perhaps not all) is that Noah genuinely wished for his neighbors to come on board, even the day of the storm. There came a time when Noah could not let them onboard without destroying himself, and so I think he was justified in letting them drown. Similarly, I think some preppers expect people won’t accept the reality of the situation until it’s too late to save everyone - until it’s like Noah’s neighbors, who want on board once the rains start following. I don’t think this is particularly selfish, certainly not any more selfish than Noah was not to open up his ark and drown with his neighbors in the process. But then there are people who relish the thought of their neighbors dying. That is a problem, but I don’t think all preppers are really doing that.

Less than 30% of Americans go to church, according to many surveys out there.  So it isn’t surprising that they don’t really know what to expect from the end of days.

Even if they did attend church and learn about the end of days, they would still walk away with varying opinions and interpretations.

One thing that I think is important to realize is that not everybody intends on wiping out their neighbors.  The smart folk realize the importance for alliances and know how strength in numbers can help them.

Reading Bethanys post and Martas reply I’m reminded of John Manninghams view of Puritans which can be amended as a description of preppers, ” a prepper is such a one who loves God with all his soul but hates his neighbour with all his heart”.

Luke, your examples of how people might make that connection in different ways underscores my surprise that the faith aspect of their plans never comes up, even in the one prayer onscreen.

You’re right that I was vague about a complex variety of beliefs about the endtimes, I had more media-friendly versions like the Left Behind books or Harold Camping in mind. But I think we agree that any beliefs about the end times should harmonize with Biblical commands to love your neighbor.

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