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MANKIND'S OBSESSION WITH THE END
It seems like every few years someone comes out with a new doomsday prophecy. But whether the supposed agent of doom is aliens, asteroids, floods, or earthquakes, the outcome is always the same—Earth manages to endure. Such predictions are nothing new. In the first century CE, early Christians believed Jesus would soon return to Earth, bringing an end to life as they knew it, as described in Mark 13:24-26: "But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory."
Since then, there has been no shortage of apocalyptic forecasts. But why? Why do people continue to predict the end of the world, and why do others insist on believing them? Perhaps some zealots feel the need to justify their preconceived worldviews through revelations about the latest celestial event or natural disaster. And maybe those who trust such doomsayers are simply hopeful for an escape from a world that seems cruel or chaotic.
Let's look at some of the most intriguing doomsday prophecies and their proponents.
The Seekers, December 24, 1955
In December 1954, a headline in the Chicago Tribune read, "Doctor Warns of Disasters in World Tuesday—Worst to Come in 1955 He Declares." The doctor, Charles Laughead, was a follower of Dorothy Martin, a fifty-four-year-old housewife from Oak Park, Illinois. Martin believed that aliens from the planet Clarion had beamed down messages informing her that a massive flood would soon destroy the planet. Her wild prophecies attracted a small group of followers known as the "Seekers," many of whom had quit their jobs and sold their belongings in anticipation of The End. They gathered at Martin's home on Christmas Eve, 1955, singing Christmas carols while they waited to be saved by the aliens in their flying saucers. As the night wore on, Martin's followers became increasingly impatient. Finally, at 4:45 a.m. on Christmas Day, Martin announced that God had been so impressed by their actions that he would no longer destroy the Earth.
This story has a side note that is almost as interesting as the prophecy itself. A small group of psychologists and students organized by University of Minnesota social psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated the Seekers in an effort to study and better understand apocalyptic cults. Festinger revealed his findings in the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. This work was an early exploration of the psychologist's now-famous theory of "cognitive dissonance," a term that refers to the human tendency to rationalize when one's thoughts and actions are in disagreement.
Harold Camping, May 21, 2011
The Bible is pretty clear about doomsday prophecies: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father," reads Mark 13:32. But that hasn't stopped some believers from trying to make predictions anyway. One such man is Harold Camping, a retired engineer who believes that the Bible is a numerical code book that can be deciphered to reveal clues about the end-time. Camping, the founder of the independent ministry Family Radio International, first predicted that the world would end in September 1994. But when the apocalypse failed to materialize, he attributed the error to incomplete research.
Camping recently gained additional attention for his latest doomsday prediction: May 21, 2011. In an interview with New York magazine on May 11, 2011, the eighty-nine-year-old brimmed with confidence, saying, "God has given sooo much information in the Bible about this, and so many proofs, and so many signs, that we know it is absolutely going to happen without any question at all." Camping was so certain that his ministry spent millions of dollars plastering the Judgment Day message on more than five thousand billboards and twenty recreational vehicles as a warning to the general public. When May 21 came and went without interruption, Camping did what any good doomsayer would—he blamed the mistake on a mathematical error and moved the date back to October 21. Which still came and went with no apocalyptic result.
William Miller, 1843–1844
William Miller and the Millerites may sound like a good name for a 1960s pop act, but in the 1840s, they were a fairly successful doomsday cult. That is, if you measure success by the number of followers, not the eventual occurrence of the predicted apocalypse.
Miller was a product of the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious revival from which several modern denominations were born, including the Mormons and the Seventh-Day Adventists. A farmer-turned-preacher, Miller crested this wave of spiritual fervor with his prediction that Jesus would return to Earth in March 1843. He derived his prophecy from a complex system of mathematical calculations and promoted it by giving sermons and passing out pamphlets during the 1830s and early 1840s. Scholars estimate that of the roughly one million people who heard his message, about a hundred thousand actually chose to follow him. As March 1843 neared, many of these believers sold all of their possessions, donned white robes, and climbed to the tops of mountains and hills to await their Rapture. When nothing happened, Miller moved the date to October 1844, which also proved to be a bust, leading some to label the non-event "The Great Disappointment." Most of the preacher's followers then abandoned him, and some went on to form the Seventh-Day Adventist church.
Halley's Comet, May 1910
A unique astronomical event is a surefire way to inspire a doomsday prophecy. Enter Halley's comet, a ball of icy dust that is visible from Earth every seventy-six years or so. When this celestial body was scheduled to make a pass in 1910, the claims of impassioned astronomers at Chicago's Yerkes Observatory inspired fear in a surprising number of people. They insisted that the comet's tail was made of poisonous cyanogen gas, and when Earth passed through it on May 18, the toxic fumes would cause widespread death. Some opportunists tried to profit from the hysteria, selling "comet pills," masks, and bottled oxygen intended to help people survive the noxious Armageddon.
As the deadly date approached, some concerned citizens stuffed towels under their doors and covered their keyholes with paper to protect themselves from the gas cloud. Others refused to go to work, choosing instead to stay at home with their families or seek refuge in their churches. Conversely, those not taken by the apocalyptic predictions watched the night pass without incident at rooftop "comet parties" held across the United States.
Shoko Asahara, 1997–2000
Why wait for the apocalypse if you can make it happen yourself? This was the mindset of the Japanese doomsday prophet Shoko Asahara. Born Chizuo Matsumoto in 1955, Asahara was completely blind in one eye and partially sightless in the other. His rise as a cult leader began after he was arrested in 1982 for selling fake cures from his traditional Chinese apothecary business. The would-be prophet was reportedly crushed by the incident, which left him embarrassed and bankrupt.
In 1984, Asahara opened a yoga studio, boasting that he had achieved satori, a Japanese term for enlightenment, and claiming that he could levitate. He established the Aum Shinrikyo religion in 1987, a name derived from a sacred Hindu symbol and a Japanese word that translates as "supreme truth." He soon gained more than ten thousand followers in Japan and thirty thousand to forty thousand in Russia, and even produced several candidates to run in the 1990 Japanese legislative elections. As Asahara's success increased, his behavior became increasingly peculiar. He began encouraging his followers to drink his bathwater and blood, and claimed that he could save them from the apocalypse, which he believed would occur after a poison gas attack sometime between 1997 and 2000. Perhaps in an effort to speed along this process, Aum members boarded five trains on March 20, 1995, releasing toxic sarin gas into three subway lines. The attack killed a dozen people and injured another 5,500. Asahara was soon arrested by Japanese authorities and in February 2004, he was sentenced to death.
Heaven's Gate, 1997
Marshall Applewhite, with his piercing, wide-eyed stare, looked like a man who was destined to lead a doomsday sect. He was the leader of Heaven's Gate, a cult founded in Texas during the early 1970s. The group soon moved to the American Southwest, where Applewhite began to preach about a spaceship that would spare true believers from the apocalypse and take them to the heavenly "Level Above Human." After two decades proselytizing in the desert, Heaven's Gate moved to California, where its members started an Internet consulting business called Higher Source to fund their activities. They lived in a sprawling Spanish-style house and reportedly watched episodes of X-Files and Star Trek religiously.
Heaven's Gate took a grim turn in 1997, the year that the Hale-Bopp comet shone brightly in the night sky. It all started on November 14, 1996, when Applewhite and his followers were listening to Art Bell's Coast to Coast, a radio show dedicated to UFO topics. During the program, an amateur astronomer called in and claimed to have photographed a mysterious object hiding in Hale-Bopp's tail. This was all the evidence that Applewhite needed to confirm his spaceship prophecy from the 1970s. He and his group soon began preparations to board the UFO through the execution of a mass suicide. When police entered the California compound on March 26, 1997, they found thirty-nine bodies dressed in black tunics with cloths draped over their heads. Applewhite and his followers had killed themselves with a cocktail of vodka and barbiturates, or by smothering themselves with plastic bags.
The year 2000 sparked a number of doomsday scares, but none was more prominent than the anticipated Y2K computer glitch. The problem was this: When computer codes were first written, dates were abbreviated to two digits in order to save memory; for example, "1998" would simply be written as "98." This system worked just fine until 2000, when the date code "00" threatened to cause inaccurate calculations.
Some people believed that this glitch would cause apocalyptic consequences. According to these gloomy predictions, at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, airplanes would drop from the sky, skyscrapers' elevators would plummet, and the world economy would come to a screeching halt. In response to these fears, the US government and American corporations spent a total of $108.8 billion on Y2K computer fixes. In the end, nothing fell from the sky, but the world's computers did manage to disrupt some credit card terminals in Britain and send out some bills supposedly due in 1900. To the relief of billions, civilization survived almost completely unscathed.
After the horrific attacks of 9/11, the United States and the rest of the world searched desperately for clarity and solace amid the chaos. Like countless others before them, many people turned to the writings of Nostradamus for answers. Books about the prophet leaped off the shelves, with four Nostradamus titles landing in Amazon's top-ten bestseller list in the week following the disaster. Those sales probably got a big boost from an eye-opening prophecy, purportedly from Nostradamus, that began flooding inboxes that week. In case you never saw that prophecy, here it is:
In the city of God there will be a great thunder
Two brothers torn apart by chaos, while the fortress endures
The great leader will succumb
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning.
Even skeptics could see how the verse mirrored the events of 9/11 and, more alarming still, foretold World War III. Except Nostradamus didn't write it. A Brock University student named Neil Marshall did. Marshall wanted to demonstrate how the vague language in Nostradamus's predictions allows them to be twisted to fit any situation. The incident illustrates an interesting phenomenon that's arisen around Nostradamus's legacy: In an effort to piggyback on the fame of one of history's best-known prophets, some people are willing to put Nostradamus's name on work he had nothing to do with.
Before we look ahead to his predictions on the apocalypse, let's get a better understanding of who Nostradamus was and how he became such a famous soothsayer. Born in France in 1503, Nostradamus originally tried his hand as a healer. With the bubonic plague in full swing, Nostradamus had plenty of opportunity to practice his craft and experiment with different herbal remedies. After losing both his wife and his children to the plague and suffering irreparable damage to his reputation as a healer, Nostradamus turned to astrology and the occult.
Initially, he produced a series of almanacs known informally as the Prognostications, but by 1555, Nostradamus had begun publishing a set of much grander predictions that would come to be known as the Centuries. The tome was filled with gloom and doom, foretelling wars, natural disasters, and untold misery for future generations, and it remains as popular today as it's ever been.
In order to understand what Nostradamus may or may not have said about the apocalypse, it helps to understand the structure of the soothsayer's work. Nostradamus's Centuries consist of hundreds of four-line rhyming verses called quatrains, written in French, Greek, and Latin, among other languages.
Because Nostradamus lived in an era of intense religious and political persecution, he made sure to use vague language when writing his prophecies. His approach proved to be a wise one. By 1558, Nostradamus had gained favor with Catherine de' Medici, the queen of France, who eventually appointed him court physician. And like Catherine de' Medici, millions of others have been fascinated by Nostradamus's writings, claiming they've predicted everything from the French Revolution to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
To understand how people have interpreted Nostradamus's writings throughout history, let's examine a translation of a quatrain frequently credited for predicting the Great Fire of London in 1666, courtesy of Sacred-texts:
The blood of the just will commit a fault at London
Burnt through lightning of twenty threes the six:
The ancient lady will fall from her high place
Several of the same sect will be killed.
This quatrain is unique in that Nostradamus specified a number related to the event he describes. Still, while the prophecy has some specifics like a location and what could be a date, terms such as "blood of the just" and "ancient lady" are left open to interpretation, just as Nostradamus intended. Because we can deconstruct his prophecies in so many different ways, they've never been used to predict an event before it has occurred. And since Nostradamus's prophecies are so vague, it's difficult to pin any of them to a particular era, much less a specific year.
For instance, while the quatrain that many feel predicted the London fire of 1666 contains the number sixty-six ("twenty threes the six"), it doesn't specify a century or even that the number sixty-six is referring to a year at all. Instead, we're left combing through verses after a major event occurs, looking for anything that might apply.
In examining what Nostradamus had to say about the end of the world, it helps to review theories of total annihilation and compare them to his work. For example, some predict the world will end from Earth's collision with an asteroid or other celestial body.
Excerpted from The End Of The World by How Stuff Works, Inc.. Copyright © 2012 How Stuff Works, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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