Dr Stefan Skrimshire, University of Leeds
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, both Leave and Remain campaigners were accused of invoking apocalyptic scenarios. For instance, EU president Donald Tusk told Bild newspaper, “as a historian I fear that Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also of western political civilisation in its entirety.”  That might have sounded like great news for those on the far left of the Leave campaign (‘Lexit’), while most Remain voters wonder whether that sort of rhetoric damaged their credibility at a crucial moment of the campaign. In any case it turns out that for at least one small section of the Leave camp, the opposite scenario heralded the real apocalypse. A group of evangelical Christians in a small town in the west of Northern Ireland are reported to have set up stalls instructing voters that a vote for the E.U. was a vote for the Anti-Christ. Meanwhile in Tiger’s Bay, a Loyalist area of Belfast, a mural was found with the words: Vote Leave E.U. – Rev. 18:4.
The citation refers to this passage in the Book of Revelation: “Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues.” The seer John is referring to Babylon (widely believed to mean the Roman empire), who in this chapter is portrayed as a woman with whom the kings and merchants of the earth have committed fornication and are “waxed rich” by her luxuries. The text exhorts its audience to “come out of” this allegiance with worldly power and wealth as they await the end-times.
From the Reformation onwards figures of religious and political opposition – from popes to prime ministers – have been identified with these two central figures of the apocalyptic drama: Anti-Christ, a false Messiah; and the harlot or whore who rides ‘the Beast’ and tempts believers with promises of dominion. The European Union has long been identified by some evangelical Christians as the ‘new Rome’ in this latter role. Its ascendency to power has thus always been read as a sign that the end-times are at hand. Ulster Unionist and evangelical minister Ian Paisley, who as MEP infamously called John Paul II the Anti-Christ as he addressed European Parliament in 1988, also liked to identify the E.U. with the whore of Babylon. Were proof needed of this, he pointed out the similarities between the “woman sitting on a scarlet beast” (Rev 17:3) and the image of Europa riding Zeus as a bull, now a symbol of pan-Europeanism adorning Euro coins and the statue outside the EU Parliament in Brussels. E.U. expansion has also been of consistent interest to premillennial prophecy decoders in the U.S. As early as 1970 Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth predicted the birth of a European confederacy by 1980 as the fulfillment of the “ten horns / ten kings” who “have not yet received a kingdom” (Rev 17:12). In the wake of Brexit, pre-millennialist prophecy portals (such as Raptureready.com) are thus scrambling to decipher its meaning. Some appear to be disappointed at the referendum result, as it would seem to delay the end-times that a consolidated European power would confirm. If anything, the result hands the UK the dubious mantle of “Katechon”, another biblical apocalyptic figure (2 Thess 2:6-7) whose role is to “restrain” the forces of chaos and thus delay the end of time.
These eschatological interpretations of the referendum are niche, of course, and not representative of the majority of Christians who voted to leave. There are also inconsistencies throughout this type of millennialist belief. For example, leave campaigners (and certainly followers of Paisley) will have believed as much in the consolidation of another economic power, that of the UK, as they did in the condemnation of Europe. But I think there is at least one important aspect of apocalyptic argument that might shed light on the wider debate. For most theologians the apocalyptic vision is story of the oppression of the weak by the rich and powerful whose time has finally come. Its target is the unjust economic power of Rome. The visions of the Beast and the kings of the earth is disempowering, but the end of the story gives hope: the persecuted inherit a new heaven and earth, and the worldly powers are cast into a lake of fire. Any social group can, of course, claim identification with the persecuted, and herein lies the enduring appeal of apocalyptic prophecy across diverse cultural, ethnic and class contexts (from the American ‘Moral Majority’ to peasant revolutionaries). Each believes that the social order against which they define themselves is based on deception and is bound to fall. The apocalyptic vision, promising a better world, lies outside of this order.
Leave voters also perceived the vote to Remain as the maintenance of an unjust status quo led by wealthy, corrupted elites; they identified with the persecuted. Of course, the irony for those of us who voted and campaigned to remain is that the same arguments ought to have worked equally well the other way: it is hard to see how the real persecuted and excluded of UK society are feeling any sort of eschatological euphoria in the wake of Brexit (more racist attacks; more job insecurity). Remain voters are wondering how they missed an opportunity for a thoroughgoing political critique – a recognition that both economic systems (Brussells and Westminster) are failing the poorest of society and need pressure from below to hold them to account – that might have united the country instead of dividing it. But then, an ‘in or out’ referendum was always doomed to eviscerate this more complex debate and reduce its message to deflationary hyperbole. Hence the tragic failure of Corbyn’s message, shared by so many, to register: that a vote to remain could mean a vote to change.
So Brexit seemed like an apocalyptic vision without any of the vision. Instead of a critique uniting the poorest of society in holding all the powers of the world to account, we were left with caricatures of only this polarizing, fearful kind. In the absence of any outside vision of a better future, people voted for a different future. Emerging anecdotal evidence suggests that leave voters in poorer communities felt faced with the choice between maintaining a system they perceived to be based on false promises of security and wealth, and an act that would shake down that system. No matter how dangerous and reckless that shaking down seemed to them – however apocalyptic, indeed – a crucial and defining number of people opted for the latter.