2012 is almost here, and this exciting and troubling 2011 is almost over. I hope you’re warm, safe, and well, and I wish you a Happy New Year!
As we head into a year that is being promoted by some as either the end of the world or the beginning of a new dawn in human development, I’d like to take an empathic, historical look at prophecies that foretell the end of the world, the end of an era, or the beginning of a new, Utopian society.
The never-ending story of the end of the world
Though end-time beliefs and prophecies may seem unusual in our post-Enlightenment age, they’re actually very, very common. Humans have written down end-times prophecies since the beginning of recorded history, and these prophecies continue to be a central feature in many communities. In fact, the end times are a basic tenet of Christianity on the religious side of things, while some form of end-times theorizing (the eventual supernova of our sun, for instance) is a basic tenet of astrophysics on the scientific side of things. Environmentalists and climate scientists have yet another series of end-time or dark-time scenarios.
The idea that the world will end and that humanity will cease to exist — this is a very common idea. What seems uncommon is the specificity we’re seeing these days, where people swear that the end is going to occur on a specific day (remember Harold Camping’s May 21st prophecy?), through a specific event (the Supermoon of last April), or in a specific year (2012).
But in fact, these end-times prophecies are made constantly, regularly, and almost predictably, as this centuries long list from the Frontline story of Apocalypse shows. End times prophecies are absolutely everywhere, and they’re actually sort of addicting, because once these terrifying and ecstatic prophecies get into you, it’s really hard to let them go.
Consider the Millerites, a group of nearly 100,000 Americans who believed the prophecies of Baptist lecturer William Miller, who told them that Jesus would return (and end the world as they knew it) in December, 1843. Though the world was supposed to end in 1843, Miller’s followers were promised a life in Paradise with Jesus. Miller’s prophecy filled his followers with terrible fear and glorious hope; the Millerites were a deeply devout and deeply emotional group of believers.
December 1843 came and went with no apocalypse and no sign of the Messiah, so Miller returned to his prayers and re-prophesied the return of Jesus for March, 1844. When that didn’t happen, Miller re-re-prophesied the return of Jesus for October of that same year. That third failure is now known as the Great Disappointment.
But even after two failures and a Great Disappointment, the Millerites still had enough members to form a series of Adventists groups, including one splinter group that would eventually become the Seventh Day Adventist church, which is now an established church with missions in over 200 countries. The Adventists, like all other churches, still form splinter groups to this day (a recent Adventist splinter group, formed in 1955, was the Branch Davidians, many of whom died at Waco Texas in 1993).
More recently, many people in the Jehovah’s Witnesses believed that Armageddon would occur in 1975, but that didn’t happen and the church is still going strong. Harold Camping, who was behind the May 2011 end-times prophecy, previously predicted Judgment Day and the return of Jesus on September 6th, 1994, but when that didn’t happen, he realized that he had gotten his math wrong.
Camping then re-prophesied Judgment Day, first to 1995, and then to May 2011 — and in May, when the apocalypse still didn’t happen and Jesus didn’t return, he re-re-re-prophesied the end times to October 21, 2011. Yet the failure of Camping’s prophecies, and the endless centuries of failure of every single end-times prophecy that has ever been prophesied have very little effect:
Christopher Lane, author of The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty notes. “Thirty to forty percent of Americans report believing that the end times are coming eventually, so while most reject the teachings of Camping, there is a strong strain of this kind of thinking in this country.” So for some, anxiety spurred by the recent natural and economic disasters makes apocalyptic thinking more appealing, he says. “It becomes easier to convince people that things are getting worse and that the answer will come through divine dispensation, rather than have them face the fact that humanity must fix its own problems.” From Doomsday Psychology: The Appeal of Armageddon at ABC News.com
As we head into the overly prophesied, highly publicized, and internet-intensified Year 2012 doomsday scenarios, just remember this: End times thinking is an absolutely normal and expected part of human nature — as is dreaming of Utopias.
Bringing empathy to the situation
I grew up as an agnostic atheist, but when I was ten years old, my mom discovered a group that believed in all sorts of fascinating paranormal things like reincarnation, spirit guides, magical healing diets, karma, positive affirmations that could bring you whatever you wanted, and psychic powers. It was a blast at first, and I really enjoyed the things I learned in that group.
However, many of the group members also believed in a New Age prophecy about a worldwide cataclysm, where — due primarily to the imbalances caused by human greed, callousness, and wrong-thinking spirituality — the poles of the Earth would shift, massive earthquakes and volcanoes would be activated, and many land masses would be destroyed or deluged with water. In essence, the Earth was going to shake us humans off her back.
It was going to be the end of the world as we knew it, and it was supposed to happen at the end of the Mayan calendar, first in the late 1970s, and when that didn’t happen, in 2003 or 2004, depending on whom you asked. Most notably, the entire state of California (where our group was based) was supposed to crack off and sink into the ocean.
I’m not sure why, but the cataclysm never felt plausible to me. It just seemed preposterous somehow, and I sort of ignored it. I remember joking that if it did happen, I would be on a small floating piece of destroyed California, which would contain a fully-stocked Nordstrom’s department store (this was my idea of luxury at the time. I mean, come on — a grand piano in the lobby of a department store? That’s wild swanky.)
People in the group thought I was too young and too silly to understand the importance of the cataclysm. Perhaps they were right.
I remember some people in the group who left their beloved California for many years, because they were afraid of the cataclysm. Of course, the cataclysm never happened, but those people who left California — I think about them a great deal. How do they feel now, looking back? Do they understand more about the world and the way these prophecies hook powerfully into very specific psychosocial and emotional needs, or are they now preparing for the updated 2012 version of their cataclysm?
These were the sensitive ones
When I think back to the people who believed in our group’s cataclysmic prophecy enough to actually move out of California, I remember this: These were the sensitive ones. These were people who deeply felt the pain of the world, and who struggled with despair. The idea that the cosmos and the Earth could see their despair, and were planning to do something drastic about it — well, it seemed to fill them with as much joy as it did terror.
It was as if they were thinking, “The Earth sees these devastating problems with humanity, and she will act decisively to put an end to them.” There’s a tremendous relief in imagining the end of everything that is wrong and the possible beginning of something that is new and clean. End-times scenarios have been important to people since the beginning of recorded history, and they continue to be important today.
What is fascinating to me is that failed prophecies seem to have no effect on the devotion of believers. Harold Camping’s followers stayed with him through four failed prophecies. The Seventh Day Adventists created an entire worldwide church after multiple prophetic failures. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing just fine after the failed prophecy of 1975, and there are probably people from my old spiritual group who have been waiting patiently for proof that the Mayan prophecy — and their sincere devotion to their spiritual beliefs — was, is, and always will be true.
The genius of the new 2012 prophecy
I have my own prophecy for 2012, and that is that no matter what happens, many people who believe in the 2012 prophecy will continue to believe in it. No matter what happens in 2012 — good or bad — these believers will feel that their prophecy has come true.
I’ve been fascinated to see that there is a splintering in the 2012 prophecy. In the past few years, this end-times prophecy has been modified extensively, away from the complete devastation of the planet and toward a Utopian idealist vision of wonder. There’s been a growing prophecy that we will see a grand new awakening of humankind, supported by a cosmos that will send stars into a perfect alignment and also speed up human evolution in some fashion, thereby bringing a brand new form of embodied spirituality to everyone who follows and understands the new prophecy.
If we’re going to pick and choose, then certainly, I prefer the Utopian 2012 prophecy. I already lived through the cataclysmic version, and I have to tell you, it’s not worth repeating.
Filling people’s heads with terror and hopelessness — that’s a rotten thing to do (even though it’s very, very common). I prefer a prophecy that fills people with a sense of hope and wonder.
I also have to bow to the ingenuity of this new Utopian 2012 prophecy, because it’s bulletproof. I mean, think about it. If there are more — or fewer — natural disasters, wars, or political upheavals in 2012, all of them can be attributed to the 2012 prophecy. All of these outcomes can be fitted into the idea of a sea change in human spirituality.
If there are more upheavals, they will be attributed to the drama of human evolutionary change. And if there are fewer upheavals, they will be attributed to the calming effect of human evolutionary change.
If there are more — or fewer — deaths, births, disease outbreaks, crime waves, meteor showers, or scientific advances, then all of these outcomes can be fitted into the prophecy as well. This new 2012 prophecy is one of the most robust and all-encompassing prophecies yet created, and if I were in the market for a new prophecy, I would probably be lined up behind this one.
But I’m not in the market for yet another prophecy where forces outside of my control fix or end things that don’t work. I’d really rather do that myself. However, I know that no matter what happens in 2012, humans will still dream and prophesy about terrifying end times and glorious Utopias. It’s what we do.
Prophecies of doomsdays, end-times, supernovas, and Utopias are absolutely commonplace in human history. Our 2012 prophecy is brilliant, but it’s just the most recent in the never-ending story of the end of the world.
Understanding these prophetic visions is an important part of understanding human nature, human hope, and human despair.
And in that understanding, the question then becomes: How do we stay and address the problems we humans have created for one another, and how do we make life here and now as wonderful as the heavens and Utopias so many of us have dreamed of?
I’m saying it starts with empathy.