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. Continue reading