There have been thousands of end-of-the-world predictions. They have been the products of many great minds and have had many devoted believers from various religions and cults. For example in Christian England alone, during the reformation, "eighty books were published on the subject of the world's end"1. All have put a lot of time and effort in to each and every prediction, building up supporting evidence from religious texts, historical trends and numerology. What do all these predictions have in common about the end of the world? They have all been wrong.
Bible-based Christianity: Apocalyptism based on the Book of Revelation from the New Testament is by far the most common kind. The date of Judgement-Day has been proclaimed on countless occasions by Christians over 2000 years, and nearly every new Christian sect has had as its motivation a belief in the imminent end of the world.
UFO and aliens: The belief that aliens are going to rescue believers whilst everyone else burns is a common feature of suicide-cults and dangerous cults.
Technology-based doomsday prophecies: The nuclear arms race led many to declare that we, as a species, was only a generation away from total self-annihilation. Since the evaporation of the cold war this instinct has been consistently been replaced with warnings that artificially intelligent robots would emerge to suppress humankind although few consider this anything more than science fiction. (i.e.: The Terminator, The Matrix, "I, Robot"). See "General Neophobia in Everyday Life: Humankind's Fear of Progress and Change" by Vexen Crabtree (2009) for more. Secular scenarios have always proven to be much less prevalent than religious ones, as the drama requires a certain irrationality in order to become viral.
World-rejectionism is a commonly used category of religion, used by prominent sociologists such as Bryan Wilson (1959), J. Milton Yinger (1957)2 and Roy Wallis (1984)3. The world is deemed bad, even evil, and believers must distance themselves from it as much as possible, sometimes to the extent of denying themselves any pleasure, indulging in any desires, or enjoying anything except essential food and religious study. Such withdrawal has often been a hallmark of suicide cults although it is also present to an extent in otherwise peaceful groups such as the Amish.
Ironic though it seems, end-of-the-world cults have fostered a kind of common set of beliefs and writings and it is easy to imagine new prophets of doom being inspired by their (wrong) predecessors' writings.
People with the correct beliefs, and/or, members of the correct cult, will somehow survive either in body (being zipped away by a spaceship just in time, for example), or will survive in spirit (attaining heaven after death).
"The general opinion among doomsday cults is that the southern hemisphere is likely to be less badly affected than the north in the event of Armageddon"4.
End-of-the-world-mania is dependent upon certain properties of human ego. We want to witness important historical times, and we want to be at the fore and center of tumultuous and attention-grabbing events. See:
There was a massive media interest in the apparent number of people who expected the end of the world at the turn of year 2000. They didn't only expect it - but many people acted on the belief. Schroëder writes that "prior to the millennium there was an explosion of interest in cults particularly among younger, more impressionable members of society; few regions of the world escaped notice"6. Some people sold all of their possessions and literally head for the hills7. It was worldwide. In China, the Zhushen Jiao (a 1993 offshoot of The Shouters) numbered in excess of 10,000 followers in 1998 and aimed to establish a Kingdom of God, as the world was soon to end, however, the leaders were arrested and the founder attracted the death sentence for rape and fraud8. Another group, Dami Xuanjiao, was suspected of being on the verge of mass suicide. It had spread from South Korea to China and by 1992 had gained 100,000 followers.
“[Jesus would return again] in 1999 to judge survivors, and the end of history would occur in 2000. A unique feature of this group was periods of intense worship from midnight until 3am. 'Most followers simply felt disappointed or cheated when the prophecies failed' and local governments kept a close eye on Dami Xuanjiao communities for fear of an outbreak of mass suicide.”
It was difficult to work out at the time what actual theory underpinned this fear and what the genuine cause was for the massive increase in doomsday prophecies centered on that year during the 1990s. Clearly, most people over-estimate the significance of humankind's invented Gregorian calendar.
One of the causes of superstitious thinking involving dates comes from modern ignorance about dating systems: there have been many, used at various times by humankind. They have come and gone. All dating systems are arbitrary - you have to pick a year to use as 'year 0', you have to pick a base for the numbering system (nowadays: base 10). The resultant numbers from all of that are meaningless in any cosmic sense. But because most people never analyze the foundations of dates, it is easy to consider the system to be more important and more significant than it really is. Especially when you start measuring things like the movement of planets and stars - things that can fire the imagination - then you end up with a recipe for all kinds of crazy beliefs grounded in nothing but hollow numbers and coincidences. If you take into account enough factors, then, it is possible to make almost any series of stellar events sound ominous and portentous. The method of crunching numbers until amazing patterns emerge is called numerology, and the Human inclination to see patterns in random data is called pareidolia, and is one the most common causes of human thinking errors9.
“The Earth's rotation, angle of inclination, and passage around the sun result in astronomical and meteorological regularities. These regularities allow us to use a variety of relatively arbitrary mathematical systems to provide dates for all sorts of useful things, such as the proper seasons for agriculture. In view of the arbitrary nature of these systems, however, it is reasonably obvious that specific dates within any given system have no particular significance.”
Techno-phobia is a predictable element in end-of-the-world predictions. The news scare of the "millennium bug" led to predictions that, not only would some computers and the like stop working, but that it would result in an accidental nuclear war destroying humanity. Eager Christians shouted loudly about a 2,000-year reign of Satan, after which Judgement Day would come, as predicted by the New Testament.
The press didn't examine the claim and investigate it. It is a simple procedure to set your system clock forward a few years to see what would happen. They didn't ask Microsoft or Intel about it. If the press had engaged with this kind of journalism - the kind that created the press in the first place - they would have discovered that not much happens when a computer's clock reaches the year 2000 and beyond. They could have then reported that some computer software firms are making outlandish claims in order to sell expensive yet pointless bug-finding software. But that's not what happened and even if they did know the truth, the papers wouldn't have ran it.
“By the late 1990s, a final wave of sources joined in as all kinds of maniacs and religious groups cranked up the anxiety to the point of apocalypse. They were led by Gary North of Christian Reconstruction who declared that 'We need times so hard that men will turn to God.' Mr North had got in early, explaining in 1997 [...] 'Month by month, fear will spread. Doom and gloom will sell, as it has never sold before. I have positioned my name, my site, and Christian Reconstruction in the center of this fear. All I have to do now is to report bad news.”
Gary North of Christian Reconstruction sounds rather like a modern newspaper editor! If the news services checked their facts, his claims would not have made the news.
When the Millennium Bug's big day came, nothing happened.
I continue the story on The Worst of the Modern Mass Media: 1.6. The Millennium Bug, pointing out that some countries and large companies spent billions on anti-millennium-bug software; whilst some entire countries completely ignored the issue and done nothing about it. No matter: in both cases, absolutely nothing newsworthy happened. The entire scare was hollow. Yet everyone wanted to believe it!
2012 was a good year for drama-loving end of the world theorists. The end of the world was to occur on Dec 21st 2012, and the main impetus for this mild mania was public-relations promotional material for a film and a suite of books published in 2007.
“We are currently being told by some media sources that the world will end on December 21 . It is suggested that this was predicted by the Maya, given that this date coincides with the end of a specific calendric cycle, a baktun, within their 'long count'.[...] There is at least one Maya document that mentions this date without affording it any apocalyptic significance whatsoever (Bower 2012). [...] We are currently inundated with cable-television programs on the forthcoming end of the world. The authors, together with the rest of the world, have seen numerous documentaries 'proving' the apocalyptic significance of December 21, 2012. These programs have roped in everything from the Maya and the Hopi to the predictions of Nostradamus.”
So, what's it all about? Mayan star-gazers noticed a cycle in the movement of stars in the sky. It is caused, we now know, by a slow wobbling of the Earth as it spins and orbits the sun: in this observation, the Mayans were correct: however, any symbolic and mythical conclusions borne from that long cycle are religious fantasy. Of all the various wobbles, tilts, irregularities and oddities of the Earth's orbit, none of them have caused any trouble for life on Earth. Not only that, but as all these things change incredibly slowly there are no moments when the Earth suddenly finds itself in a new condition. Changes are very small as they are spread out over periods of years, or thousands of years.
The Mayans were finalizing their calendars 2300 years ago in an era before we truly understood calendar events and cosmology. I am completely sure that the Mayans simply did not have detailed scientific information about the solar system, the Milky Way and cosmology, so could not make any sensible predictions about the end of the world. For example, their calculation of the length of a year was wrong, meaning that by today their calendar would have been 7 months off. In addition, historians well-versed in Mayan texts note that the Mayans themselves do not speak of an end of the world in 2012, or at any other points in the Earth's cycles.
NASA has been asked so many questions about 2012 that they have published an FAQ on the subject. They point out that the significance of the cycle period in the Mayan calendar is very mundane:
“Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then -- just as your calendar begins again on January 1 -- another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar.”
The Mayans thought that the world was created in 3114BCE. They definitely could not predict the end of the world on a specific date thousands of years in the future given such a flawed starting-point, nor could such a prediction be correctly made if it was based on some mystical religious-cultural reasons that stemmed from amateur stargazing. The Mayans could not even predict their own demise.
This story is now history but we must remind the public about the mass gullibility of their kin if ever we are to escape from the slow sequence of similar panics that emerge with disheartening frequently even in the modern age where people should know better than to trust in media-touted prophecies and unscientific twaddle.
NASA's FAQ on threats to the Earth in 2012 including notes on the Mayan calendar.
Rather than disappear when such dates pass without any sign of lava flowing around New York, many of the same people simply move their focus to whatever else looms large on the near horizon. All too frequently, when predictions fail, the voices of doom merely adjust their dates, and try again. It seems that the important thing is more the sense of drama, even though in all cases predictions are presented with an aura of complete certainty.
“From the oracles at Delphi and Cumae [...] people have always sought accurate knowledge of the specifics of the future. Human beings have repeatedly failed and these failures have occasionally been horrendously consequential. During the Greco/Persian wars, for example, the Delphic Oracle's prediction that the Athenians would be safe behind their 'wooden wall' did not work out so well for the Athenians, who built such walls around the Acropolis. [... The prophecy] was immediately fine-tuned to refer to his ships at Salamis (Herodotus 2006) [which was] something of a stretch.”
The believers themselves are often unphased by failed prophecies. Although in many cases disappointment results in some leaving the movement, it seems that many believers are freely manipulated by their charismatic and confident leader. If they move on, they often find new dramas to engage themselves with - thankfully - some move in to embrace more rationalist and truthful dangers.
Miller (1843) and Julia Smith: There was a massive furore emanating from William Miller and his followers, that the world would end on 1843 Jan 01. His expert and lifelong study of the scriptures was convincing, and one of the families that followed him were The Smith family. Julia Smith kept a diary, in French, for 32 years and her last entry is on 1842 Dec 31 amidst expectation of the cataclysm on the following day. However, nothing happened (as usual). She discontinued her diary entries and embarked on a new adventure: Disappointed with the incorrect calculation of the date by Miller, she set out to translate the Bible herself, starting by learning its languages. Her translation was published 33 years later in 1876 by the American Publishing Company, of Hartford.11
“The cult movements if the 1990s that too often wound themselves up into the hysteria of mass suicide and other tragedies have lost much of their impetus and allure. Some have refocused on global warming, excessive materialism, and indeed the growing conflict with more radical Islam as evidence that the end of the world is still nigh.”
Unfortunately, rather than turn around or admit their mistakes, some groups take to mass suicide in order to protect themselves against the embarrassments and confusion of failure - and, I think that subconsciously they all know that they are wrong, because all too often, these mass-suicide events are planned somewhat in advance.
In 1978 over 900 people died when the People's Temple (frequently known as Jonestown) murdered their (276)13 own children with poison. The rest of the community then followed suit, 200 of them killing themselves and shooting the others. The dead included 383 Americans14. They had previously practised the suicide routine. Their leader shot himself. He was American Rev. James (Jim) Warren Jones, an ordained priest in the mainstream Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He had previously left the Methodist Church because they did not allow African-Americans to be members. Jones preached "an apocalyptic end of the world through race war, genocide and nuclear war. He maintained that he was the manifestation of the Christ principle and that he had the power to heal"15. The sectarianism and religious extremism of the Christian community brought about its own isolation. Its religious ideals were not compatible with the demands of the practicalities of real life, and the group was fixated by a Bible-based fear of the end of civilisation. Conflicts led Jones to move the community to a remote part of Guyana in 1977, but a Congressman soon followed with two investigators, worried by the concerns of relatives of members of the cult, and the stories of defectors. The community murdered them in 1978, and the same night put their suicide plan into action.
The Aum cult were responsible for two sarin gas attacks in Japan. The cult believed that humanity was doomed from an imminent eruption of Mount Fuji, and that only their leader could save us all. Oh, and a UFO would save the members of the cult and take them to a different planet.
“Shoko Asahara based his teachings on a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism, Egyptian mysticism and New Age philosophies. [...] In 1989, he moved the main commune of cult members to Kamikuishiki in a remote country district near Mount Fuji. The following year he [...] issued a warning that Mount Fuji was about to erupt. He alone, he asserted, was in a position to save at least some of humanity and he prophesied that Aum members would be delivered by spaceship to a new civilization in some far-off galaxy before the day of Armageddon came in 1997. [...]
In June 1994, seven people died in the coastal city of Matsumoto after Sarin gas was released in the vicinity of an apartment building where three judges lived. These same judges were poised to rule on a lawsuit brought against Aum. From that moment it seems clear that Shoko Asahara intended to launch a full-scale guerrilla war on the Japanese civilian population. There was another Sarin gas attack, this time again the Tokyo subway system, on 20 March 1995. [...] In February 2004, Shoko Asahara was finally convicted and sentenced to death.”
Another American group, the Branch Davidians, also took on an increasingly them-and-us attitude. They started out with Biblical ideas about the cataclysms of judgement day, and ended up stockpiling weapons. It culminated with the Waco siege where over 80 of the religionists died during a shoot-out with authorities17 in 1993. In 1935 they relocated to Waco, near Texas, under their leader Houteff's instructions.
“Florence Houteff then predicted that the beginning of the end was scheduled to commence in the spring of 1959. [...] When the apocalypse did not descend, many members became disillusioned and left. [...] In 1986, David Koresh - as Howell [a convert] came to be known - gained control of the commune and ruled it until the disastrous conflagration of April 1993. He introduced ideas of [...] violent resistance to outside authorities. [...] By 1993, the federal authorities were looking for justification to get inside the heavily armed camp of Mount Carmel after tip-offs that the cult possessed illegal firearms. On 28 February, 76 armed agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to storm the complex. [...] The assault was repelled and a stand-off ensued that lasted for 51 days and provided abundant and often lurid media fodder. During that time, the inhabitants of the commune appear to have remained steadfast in the belief that 150 years of Adventist history could not let them down - they truly believed they were God's chosen people.
[The siege was ended by two M60 tanks who allowed CS gas to be deployed by punching holes into the compound's walls.]
The remnant of the cult concluded that Koresh would return to earth on 13 December 1996 in some sort of apocalyptic event. [...] They relied on interpretation of a somewhat obscure prophecy contained in Daniel 8:14 that speaks of 2,300 days after which 'the sanctuary shall be cleansed'. When no cleansing actually took place, they re-calculated the dates and decided that matters would to a climax on 6 August 1999. Again, their world did not undergo a shattering transfiguration but undaunted they continue to meet in the expectation that on a date yet to be determined Koresh will reincarnate and lead them to some new Branch Davidian utopia.”
The most confusing thing about these cults, and about religious leaders who continually predict the end of the world, is the way that their followers continue to have faith in them. It seems that the human spirit becomes almost infinitely malleable once a leader claims to have divinity on his side!
Mass suicide frequently punctuates the progression of self-isolating religious communities. They are nearly always associated with belief in another world that they can travel to after death - be it heaven or a paradise on Earth. They often do not see themselves as belonging to this world, and consider the whole world evil, and often think that there is about to be a great war, worldwide cataclysm, or, judgement day. These beliefs were strongly apparent in Jonestown, where Jim Jones led the Peoples Temple to murder their own children before mostly committing suicide themselves. They believed in an imminent apocalypse and Jim Jones had previously predicted when it would happen (it didn't). The Branch Davidians had similar, urgent beliefs, which is why they stockpiled weapons. The sources of strong life-denying beliefs have varied sources: one French New Age group, the Solar Temple, was steeped in new age beliefs and practices, complete with Rosicrucian, Knights Templar and other esoteric interests. 74 of them died, mostly by suicide in Switzerland and France, then Quebec, in 1994, 1995 and 199719. They believed that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent, and that they had to prepare for this. As with all such groups, they had issues with the real world, and in their farewell letters, they spoke of the "hypocrisies and oppression of this world"20.
Heaven's Gate committed their final act of self-destruction when all 39 members killed themselves in San Diego, USA, in 1997. The leaders, Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, believed that "they were the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation 11"21, and combined weird New Age beliefs with UFO theories and were committed to detaching themselves from this world through physical training and suppressing all emotions. Over time, they became more and more isolated, and in keeping with other religious groups discussed on this page, also embraced the idea of a final departure from this world and they sold all of their possessions. In the case of Heaven's Gate, when the Hale-Bopp comet approached, they decided it hid a spacecraft that they could enter by committing suicide. They would be reborn, according to New Testament lore, into physically perfect bodies21. Clearly the group had little grasp of cosmology or physics and their spiritualist beliefs about travelling souls and an idealistic life overrode their common sense. The Skeptical Inquirer describes it in this entertaining manner:
“[They] committed mass suicide [so] their souls could travel to Heaven, Nirvana, or somewhere else, flying to this indefinable infinity in the company of hypothetical aliens in their physics-proof starship.”
"Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam" by Andrew Wheatcroft (2004)22
Almost every era of religious change is proclaimed by the religious to be a warning of the end-times. The rise of Islam, capitalism, democracy, the United Nations, and secularisation have all been clear signs (to some) that Judgement Day is approaching. For example the evangelist Kurt Koch warned in 1969 that the proliferation of non-Christian spiritualities is proof that we are living in "the last phase of the end of the age"23. The fundamentalist Christian Hal Lindsey warned vehemently that the end of the would occur before the 1990s, because of conflicts in the Middle East would engulf Russia, China, the European Union and the USA resulting in a nuclear holocaust and the return of Jesus - the arguments for this were all from Scripture as you would expect. Hal Lindsey was no outcast: his books were the biggest seller (after the Bible itself, in the English world) during the 1970s24. Their voices are amongst a continual stream of similarly minded Christian. But no matter how clever the theology, how expert the theologian, and how sternly and seriously the beliefs are held, the many Christian predictions of the end of the world have turned out to be illusions. It seems that not only that fellow believers seem unable to curb the exclamations of their brothers and sisters, but, that the general populace repeatedly get caught up in whatever the latest/loudest prediction is.
Listed below are a few more Christian doom-sayers not already mentioned on this page. I could list hundreds (even thousands), but the following will do as examples!
“Among those fringe religious organizations that achieved a degree of notoriety linked with the apocalyptic scenario is the Denver-based cult known as the 'Concerned Christians'. Founded in Colorado by Monte Kim Miller in the early 1980s, it was established as an activist group with the mandate of fighting a perceived threat to Christianity in North America posed by the New Age movement. It then adapted an increasingly apocalyptic view linked with the belief that the Second Coming was imminent and developed a paranoia towards authority or jurisdiction emanating from any other quarter than its own. [... In 1997] Miller predicted, on behalf of Concerned Christians, that the onset of the millennium apocalypse would take the form of a massive earthquake which was to strike the city of Denver on 10 October 1998. [...] Towards the end of October 1998, the FBI authorities in the USA passed a precautionary warning to counterparts in Israel since concern was mounting that cult members were planning to provoke a violent incident on the streets of Jerusalem in order to facilitate Miller's self-proclaimed fate.”
In January 1999, 14 members were deported from Israel as authorities believed them to be planning an intentional triggering of a religious conflict in order to bring about the end of the world (OCRT26). From the same source, other groups of Israel-bound Christians appear to have had the same ideas:
1999 Oct 11: 25 Irish Christians were detained in Israel. "Security forces described them as "an extreme Christian cult" who were planning a mass suicide. Linda Hemuhin, a police spokesperson, said that there was no connection between this group and Concerned Christians. The 25 are apparently part of the Pilgrim House Community from Castletown, Wexford. They appear to have a special concern for people with mental disabilities. Eugene McCarne, a local priest, claims that the community is a "committed and dedicated Christian group" without an apocalyptic agenda. They were forced to return to their ship and were detained there until it set sail for Cyprus. Since they refused to answer any of the questions of the immigration authorities in Cyprus, they were refused entry there as well.
1999 Oct 25: 21 Christians were arrested in Israel. They were members of two groups: the House of Prayer and Solomon's Temple. Most were Americans. Spokeswoman Linda Menuhin from the Israeli police stated that "their stay could have brought, under certain circumstances, damage to public safety." The groups lived near the Mount of Olives where they expected Jesus to return very soon. The media reported that the groups planned to execute violent acts in order to induce Jesus Christ to return to earth. House of Prayer members claim that they are non-violent.
The Hookers for Jesus, established by Berg, were an unwholesome and sexually promiscuous group who fell foul of police suspicion. As is often the case, increasing pressure from outside resulted in the group retreating even further into insanity, and they became The Family, predicting the end of the world for all (not just the end of free life, for themselves).
“Berg also established 'Hookers for Jesus'. These were attractive women, both married and single, who were commanded to go 'Flirty Fishing', or 'FFing', around clubs, bars and any other venues where they could find men who were willing to be lured first to bed and from there into the fold. [...] Dozens of women gave birth to children whose fathers were infrequently identified. The cult was supposed to look after these victims of religious promiscuity but rarely carried out fostering duties in any proper manner. Cult members who tried to escape did so with the warning of eternal damnation ringing in their ears and faced the prospect of life in poverty for themselves and their illegitimate dependents, while the outside world viewed them with wariness and distaste.
Toward the end of the 1970s, police in various countries around the world became alerted to claims that the cult's activities included child abuse. [...] Police enquiries continued, however, and it was established that in the south of England alone as many as 1,000 children had been recruited over a ten-year period, during which at least 116 had died from a variety of causes.
[...] Rebranding themselves as The Family, the organization allegedly forecast the end of the world in 2006 or 2007. Presumably with this in mind, its international headquarters is believed to have relocated from Zurich to India towards the end of the 1990s, while its British-based leaders, Gideon and Rachel Scott, left Britain in 1998, heading for South Africa, where the main part of the membership may also have moved. [...] The Family's Endtime News pages on the Internet have now dropped a recent forecast of the end of the world in 2006 or 2007 in favour of something imminent but less specific [... and] this labels everything from the flu bug to global warming as evidence that the apocalypse will shortly be upon us.”
At the time of writing there is a Christian preacher making headlines with yet another prediction of the end of the world. Harold Camping, a popular preacher from Oakland, California, is preaching to his tens-of-thousands of listeners that time is short. His campaign includes 2000 billboards, radio sermons and newspaper articles. On the 21st of May 2011, at 6pm, the world will end, he preached. His calculations are based on bible-based numerology where important and recurring numbers are multiplied, added, etc, and the result interpreted in terms of days, or dates, that may signify the end. The approach is familiar in many conspiracy and nutcase theories and is thoroughly discredited by mathematicians and rationalists. It seems that not many maths-aware or science-aware people converse with this preacher, because, this isn't his first shot. He gathered hundreds of followers on Alameda in 1994 Sep 06 to await an end which never came. They still believe him this time around; the Independent news report quotes Adam Larsen, 32, from Kansas, who is among those who have quit their jobs and have devoted themselves to warning of the impending doom - although thankfully he does assert that 2% of us will actually be taken to heaven rather than get sent to the 'other place'. Lunacy.28
So, Harold Camping had to face reporters and his followers on 2011 May 22 after his failed prediction.
“Camping told Will Kane of the San Francisco Chronicle that he was "flabbergasted" that the Rapture did not arrive as predicted and that "it has been a really tough weekend." [...] Retired MTA worker Robert Fitzpatrick, who spent his life savings spreading the message, said to Reuters after the promised event failed to manifest:
"I do not understand why...," as his speech broke off and he looked at his watch. "I do not understand why nothing has happened."
Adrienne Martinez, 27 and pregnant, gave up medical school and her family´s life savings to spread the message of May 21. Her baby is due next month.”
Washington Post (2011 May 23)
So after seeming completely surprised at yet another doomsday prediction failure, what did Camping do next? With his complete confidence in his crazy numerology and his complete confidence in his ability: he done two things. (1) He made another altered prediction, and (2) he therefore shows us all he cannot learn from his mistakes. If a person can't learn from his mistakes, it makes them untrustworthy - and blind.
“Harold Camping said it had "dawned" on him that God would spare humanity "hell on Earth for five months", and the apocalypse would happen on 21 October.”
BBC News (2011 May 24) (includes video interview)
It is perhaps understandable if one old man's religious convictions turn out to be fantasy (although he was less old in 1994 when his first one failed). What is more confusing are the numbers of followers he still has, that his radio station doesn't rebel and drop him, and, that generations of new Christians have somehow, against all the odds, not learned anything from the last few hundred Christian leaders who predicted the end. They were all wrong, the believers all gullible, and all displaying a very strange set of beliefs about the world and how it works.
Martin Gardner has authored a perfectly good introduction to the Jehovah's Witnesses, which I will quote at length. The JWs initial predictions of the end of the world were based on pyramidology and numerology. This is the use of measurements and dates surrounding the great pyramid in Egypt to predict days. Because the number of potential numbers to use are as plentiful as the imagination, almost any date can be made meaningful. Pyramidology and numerology is thoroughly discredited by mathematicians, and prophecies based on them have had an uncountable number of failures.
“An American preacher enormously impressed by Smyth's researches [on pyramid numerology] was Charles Taze Russell, of Allgheny, Pa., founder of the sect now known as Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1891, Pastor Russell published the third volume of his famous series Studies in the Scripture. It is a book of Biblical prophecy, supplemented by evidence from the Great Pyramid. A letter from Smyth is reproduced in which the Scottish astronomer praises Russell highly for his new and original contributions.
According to Russell, the Bible and Pyramid reveal clearly that the Second Coming of Christ took place invisibly in 1874. This ushered in forty years of 'Harvest' during which the true members of the Church are to be called together under Russell's leadership. Before the close of 1914, the Millennium will begin. The dead will rise and be given a 'second chance' to accept Christ. Those who refuse are to be annihilated, leaving the world completely cleansed of evil. Members of the church alive at the beginning of the Millennium will simply live on forever. This is the meaning of the well known slogan of the Witnesses - 'Millions now living will never die.' [...]
To the great disappointment of the Russellites, 1914 ushered in nothing more dramatic than the World War, and the sect lost thousands of members. New editions of Russell's Pyramid study were issues with the wording altered at crucial spots to make the errors less obvious. Thus, a 1910 edition had read, '... The deliverance of the saints must take place some time before 1914....' (p. 228) But in 1923, this sentence read, '... the deliverance of the saints must take place very soon after 1914....'
Judge J. F. Rutherford, who succeeded Russell after the pastor died in 1916, eventually discarded Pyramidology entirely. Writing in the November 15 and December 1, 1928, issues of The Watch Tower and Herald, Rutherford releases a double-barrelled blast against it [...] The Judge did not remind his readers in these articles that he, too, had been guilty of a prophetic error. For many years he had taught that 1925 would mark the beginning of the great jubilee year. Alas, it also had passed, without perceptible upheavals. The sect now discourages the sale and reading of Russell's writing, and although members still believe the Millennium is about to dawn, no definite dates are set.”
Schroëder says "The Chen Tao doctrine argues that earth has suffered a series of apocalyptic upheavals each of which has culminated in nuclear war. In each case limited numbers of the faithful have been airlifted to safety in flying saucers before being deposited back on Earth":
“Chen Tao, meaning 'True Way', is considered by observers in the USA to be particularly dangerous with its leadership once suspected of contemplating a mass suicide bid. The cult was founded in 1996 by a 42-year-old Taiwanese national, Hon Ming Chen. [...] The cult moved into the USA in 1997. [...] Chen Tao philosophy appears to constitute a confusing mix of Christianity, Buddhism, local Taiwanese folk religion and belief in heaven-sent UFOs. [...]
The next in line end-of-world scenario was scheduled for 1999 [involving nuclear holocaust] and, in order to avoid the final chapter, Chen Tao was primed for a mass suicide on 31 March 1999. Nothing untoward took place and the next date of doomsday was set a little later in the same year, sometime between 1 October and 31 December 1999. The world kept turning and, in the years up to 2006, Chen Tao has not made any further public pronouncements about an impending apocalypse, although it still functions as a cult, largely in North America.”
“... a small band of misguided seekers in quest of living on a higher level than that afforded most of us on planet Earth. Dorothy Martin led a small UFO cult in the 1950s. She claimed to get messages through automatic writing from extraterrestrials known as The Guardians. Like the Heaven's Gate cult forty years later, Martin and her followers - known as The Seekers or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays - were waiting to be picked up by a spaceship. In Martin's prophecy, her group of eleven would be saved just before the total destruction of Earth by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. When the day of reckoning came and went, it became evident that there would be no flood and that the Guardians were no-shows. Martin allegedly became euphoric. She claimed that she'd received a telepathic message from the aliens explaining that God had decided to spare the planet as a reward for their great faith. All but two of her merry little band failed to recognize that this new revelation was rationalized rubbish. They not only stuck with her despite the absurd improbability of her claim; their devotion actually increased. [...] Their belief that a spaceship would pick them up was based on faith in Martin's prophecy, not evidence. [...] With this kind of irrational thinking, it is pointless to produce evidence to try to persuade people of the error of their ways.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Carroll (2011)31
See: "Christianity v. Astronomy: The Earth Orbits the Sun!: 5.2. Christian Flat-Earth and Geocentric Societies" by Vexen Crabtree (2006) for more on this church.
Since its creation in 1895, The Christian Apostolic Church in Zion has thoroughly embraced ignorance and wilfully rejected notions of science and astronomy. A community of 6,000 followers remained in the little town of Zion, besides Lake Michigan in Illinois, USA under the leadership of Voliva. Aside from believing that the world is flat amongst many other crazy things, Voliva predicted the end of the world. I don't think I need to tell you that his 1923, then 1927, 1930 and 1935 predictions were all somewhat wrong. Thankfully little bastions of the dark ages such as this tend to wield to the realities of the world sooner or later, and by 1957 then town was returning to normal there - motorists could again stop by without getting arrested for smoking, wearing the wrong clothes, or whistling on a Sunday.32
“One of the most famous mathematicians in Europe, named Stoffler, who flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and who long worked at the reform of the calendar, proposed at the Council of Constance, foretold a universal flood for the year 1524. This flood was to arrive in the month of February, and nothing is more plausible; for Saturn, Jupiter and Mars were then in conjunction in the sign of Pisces. All the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa, who heard speak of the prediction, were dismayed. Everyone expected the flood, despite the rainbow33. Several contemporary authors record that the inhabitants of the maritime provinces of Germany hastened to sell their lands dirt cheap to those who had most money, and who were not so credulous as they. Everyone armed himself with a boat as with an ark. A Toulouse doctor, named Auriol, had a great ark made for himself, his family and his friends; the same precautions were taken over a large part of Italy. At last the month of February arrived, and not a drop of water fell: never was a month more dry, and never were the astrologers more embarrassed. Nevertheless they were not discouraged, nor neglected among us; almost all princes continued to consult them.”
"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary" by Voltaire (1764)34
This kind of combination of astrology and superstitious seeking of meaning in stellar coincidences is exactly of the kind warned against by the Skeptical Inquirer article in section 2. The World Will Definitely End on a Nice Round Number. And as with many other cases, the masses keep on believing in magical thinking and New Age confusion.
Jesus in the Christian Bible proclaimed many times that the world was about to end: judgement was about to come and he specifically said that this would happen in the same generation that he first appeared in. Obviously, there has been a delay. St Paul taught the same message, preaching the urgent admission of sins, because of the imminent end. The rest of the New Testament, especially the Book of Revelations, provides many more cryptic clues about when this will occur. This is what has spurred the endless stream of historical proclamations by studious Christians that the end is near. Matthew 24:27-44 is a lengthy commentary on when the Son of Man comes to end the world, but various hints and comments are scattered throughout the rest of New Testament.
Jesus quotes Isaiah 13:10, 34:4, saying that the sun will go out and the stars will fall from the sky (Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:20-26). The Son of Man will arrive in the clouds with great power and trumpets (13:27, 1 Thess. 4:16). It will be obvious to all (Matthew 24:27).
It is imminent: Jesus warns clearly that "this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. This world will pass away..." (Matthew 16:28, 24:34-35, Mark 9:1, 13:30 and Luke 9:26-27). In Matthew 10:23 Jesus warns his disciples to preach very rapidly in town after town, fleeing at the first sign of persecution, because they will not have enough time to go through all the towns of Israel before the end of the world occurs. In 1 Corinthians 7:27-31 St Paul says that time is so short, people should no longer bother getting married, mourn or bother with possessions: "Those who have wives should live as if they had none; ... those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away". Matthew 8:22 dismisses niceties of funeral arrangements "let the dead bury their own dead" because followers must join Jesus immediately, before it is too late!
The Rapture: The end of the world starts with the rapture, when approximately one in two men and one in two women will be raptured and taken into heaven, suddenly, by God (Matthew 24:40-41). 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 says that first, the dead will rise to meet Jesus in the sky. Then, the living will also float up to be with him forever35. Presumably, the rest will suffer the horrible torments on Earth as described in Revelations, before being sent to hell.
One thing is clear: All predictions of the imminent end of the world have been wrong; Jesus and St Paul in the bible were also both wrong with the frequent assertions that the end was "near".
An ancient apocryphal document found amongst the famous Dead Sea Scrolls highlights the fact that religious thinking - Christian thinking - has often been apocalyptic for all of its recorded history. Which is ironic, for one of the world's oldest religions!
“The Epistle of Enoch, which combines themes from both the Book of Watchers and the Book of Dreams, is written in the form of an exhortatory testament attributed, like all the previous works, to Enoch. Here again the history of the world is described, but this time it is divided into a sequence of ten consecutive 'weeks', each with its special features, from the time of Enoch until the Last Judgement. This so-called Apocalypse of Weeks would have been important for sectarian groups, since it outlines a repetitive pattern in historical events where wicked people rise to power only to be overthrown or destroyed in some way. [...]
In each of the cyclical 'weeks' a certain group of righteous, pious people are chosen or predestined for salvation. So, for example, Noah is chosen for salvation when God decides to rid the earth of evil people who have been corrupted by the fallen angels.”
Scientists and researchers have imagined many ways in which the world might actually come to an end. Civilisation could be wholly undermined by continuing overpopulation and its side-effects, for example. Some scenarios spell an even worse doom. Although many religious end-of-world predictions have centered on a combination of natural disasters and often nuclear war; not many have entertained many meteor-strikes. These have occurred frequently in Earth's history and have previously been responsible for many major mass-extinction events, sometimes wiping out 90-some percent of all species on Earth. So for the sake of balance and truth, we should here examine the only end-of-the-world scenario that we have any geological evidence for.
|2382 have been found as of 2011 Apr|
"More than 2300 asteroids and comets that are big enough to cause considerable damage on Earth and could possibly hit us. [...] Scientists estimate that they have found fewer than 1 percent of the projectiles"
|Size in meters:||Quantity:||Impact:|
|30-100||991||Could destroy a city or country|
|Over 1km||158||Destroy civilization|
Source: Scientific American (2011)37.
The following description, by scientists, of the effect of a strike by the largest unstable objects seen in our solar system, is arresting (even though the actual existence of Chiron is disputed):
“Chiron, a recently-discovered planetesimal, is on an unstable orbit near Saturn and measures 180 km across. The consequences of it hitting the Earth are too horrible to contemplate. And Chiron is by no means the largest known minor planet. Four billion years ago such objects would have been far more common than they are today.
The dramatic effects of massive collisions have been analysed by Norman Sleep and his colleagues at Stanford University. An impactor 500km in diameter would excavate a hole 1500 km across and at least 50 km deep. A huge volume of rock would be vaporized in a gigantic fireball that would spread rapidly around the planet, displacing the atmosphere and creating a global furnace. The surface temperature would soar to more than 3000 °C, causing all the world's oceans to boil dry, and melting rock to a depth of almost a kilometre. As the crushingly dense atmosphere of rock vapour and superheated steam slowly cooled over a period of a few months, it would start to rain molten rock droplets. A full millennium would elapse before normal rain could begin, presaging a 2000-year downpour that would eventually replenish the oceans and return the planet to some sort of normality.”
The Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance have compiled lots of lists of failed prophecies - or rather, they've compiled lots of lists of end-of-the-world prophecies which have, obviously, failed. Some of these predictions are still in the future, however, given past failures, it is very likely they will be wrong, too.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.
Carroll, Robert. Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Kindle edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
(2008) "Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths" (2008). Accessed 2015 Apr 08.
(2008) Flat Earth News. Hardback. Published by Chatto & Windus, Random House, London, UK.
(2009) Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. Hardback. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2003) The Origin of Life. Originally published as The Fifth Miracle in 1998. Published by the Penguin Group.
(1995) The Dark Side of Christian History. Published by Morningstar & Lark, Windermere, FL, USA.
Gardner, Martin. Died 2010 May 22 aged 95.
(1957) Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. Published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, USA. Originally published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1952 as "In the Name of Science".
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. 1993 paperback edition published by The Free Press, NY, USA.
(2004, Ed.) Encyclopedia of New Religions. Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.
(2007) Cults: Secret Sects and Radical Religions. Hardback. Published by Carlton Books.
Stanton, Elizabeth C.. (1815-1902)
(1898) The Woman's Bible. Amazon's Kindle digital edition. Produced by Carrie Lorenz and John B. Hare. Public Domain.
(1764) Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. Digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Accessed via Amazon.co.uk
(2004) Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam. 2004 edition with extra material published by Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK. First Published 2003 by Viking.