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That Pesky Apocalypse

May 24, 2011

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.” -writings found on Assyrian clay tablets, circa 2800 BC (Book of Facts by Isaac Asimov)

Latter days? Corruption and degeneration? The frequency and ubiquity of this theme in the social milieu of modern conservative religion would be difficult to overstate. Hence my interest at seeing the same sentiment expressed in the ancient medium of clay writing some 5,000 years ago.

In my own relatively short stint in corporeal existence, I’ve heard a constant, rumbling undertone of world-ending, Jesus-coming, apocalyptic anticipation, with occasional attribution to specific world events–from Soviet communism, to Y2K, to the invasion of Iraq, and most recently to the quirky end times predictions of Harold Camping. [Correction: the judgment day did actually occur on May 21, 2011, as predicted by Harold Camping…it was just invisible.]

Through oral history, I’ve been told about similar end times panics stirred by just about any stressful event in United States history: Cold War tension, the Cuban missile crisis, World War II, and so on. Indeed, when it comes to cataclysmic destruction and Biblically ending the world, it seems that the modern mind has a distinct tendency to cry wolf. And wolf. And wolf. And wolf…

To be fair, it’s not just the Jesussed among us who fall prey to this panic of presentism. Myriad scare stories have been floated and foiled about the eminent, total annihilation of the planet by human impact on the environment–cooling, warming, or otherwise–with their own history of bankrupt predictions and subsequent revisions.

I would love to understand the human affinity for cataclysm. It seems that each generation tends to think that they will be that last. I have to wonder if the human proclivity for apocalyptica is not intrinsically linked to our deep egoism–to a sense that the planet couldn’t go on without our presence. And rather than imagining a world that will continue like clockwork without us, we fall ourselves upon the martyr’s sword, and project our own personal absorption of the end of history.

To date I have not seen any published articles that look specifically at the human brain’s engagement of apocalyptic rhetoric (although there are a surprising number of virology articles using the horsemen of the apocalypse to dramatize their abstracts). Indeed, the only neuro or psych-related article that I unearthed boasting the keyword “apocalypse” is a 2011 Berkeley paper in which psychologists conjecture that the reason why global warming denial is increasing in the United States is because it threatens people’s belief that the world is orderly and just. (Um…have the authors heard of Glenn Beck? Because I’m pretty sure that he is a walking $32 million-a-year’s worth of evidence that people are not deterred from buy-in because of their innate belief in an orderly and good world.) In truth, there are empirical questions that I am interested to ask regarding the apocalyptic indulgence of the human psyche–an indulgence that seems unshakably glued to the history of the human narrative.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the world is going to end on Wednesday, May 25, 2011, with the final broadcast of the Oprah Winfrey Show. It will sweep across each time zone at 4 pm local time, and when the lights go out, they’re out. There is nothing to fear, though: every ending is a new beginning, and the glory of Oprah will be revealed as the Oprah Winfrey Show becomes the Oprah Winfrey Network. It’s very post-millennial.

As a parting memento, I found a site that does a bang up job cataloging apocalyptic fears and forecasts throughout the history of human civilization. (The site was so overwhelmed by hits surrounding the Harold Camping May 21st predictions about the end of the world, that it has been temporarily shut down because it exceeded its traffic limits, but this is the cached site as of May 20th, 2011):

A Brief History of the Apocalypse

Predicted date Commentary
ca. 2800 BC According to Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts (1979), an Assyrian clay tablet dating to approximately 2800 BC was unearthed bearing the words “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.” This is one of the earliest examples of the perception of moral decay in society being interpreted as a sign of the imminent end.
634 BC Apocalyptic thinking gripped many ancient cultures, including the Romans. Early in Rome’s history, many Romans feared that the city would be destroyed in the 120th year of its founding. There was a myth that 12 eagles had revealed to Romulus a mystical number representing the lifetime of Rome, and some early Romans hypothesized that each eagle represented 10 years. The Roman calendar was counted from the founding of Rome, 1 AUC (ab urbe condita) being 753 BC. Thus 120 AUC is 634 BC. (Thompson p.19)
389 BC Some Romans figured that the mystical number revealed to Romulus represented the number of days in a year (the Great Year concept), so they expected Rome to be destroyed around 365 AUC (389 BC). (Thompson p.19)
1st Century Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28) This implies that the Second Coming would return within the lifetime of his contemporaries, and indeed the Apostles expected Jesus to return before the passing of their generation.
ca. 70 The Essenes, a sect of Jewish ascetics with apocalyptic beliefs, may have seen the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-70 as the final end-time battle. (Source: PBS Frontline special Apocalypse!)
2nd Century The Montanists believed that Christ would come again within their lifetimes and establish a new Jerusalem at Pepuza, in the land of Phrygia. Montanism was perhaps the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult. It was founded ca. 156 AD by the tongues-speaking prophet Montanus and two followers, Priscilla and Maximilla. Despite the failure of Jesus to return, the cult lasted for several centuries. Tertullian, who once said “I believe it just because it is unbelievable” (a true skeptic if ever there was one!), was perhaps the most renowned Montanist. (Gould p.43-44)
247 Rome celebrated its thousandth anniversary this year. At the same time, the Roman government dramatically increased its persecution of Christians, so much so that many Christians believed that the End had arrived. (Source: PBS Frontline special Apocalypse!)
365 Hilary of Poitiers predicted the world would end in 365. (Source: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance)
380 The Donatists, a North African Christian sect headed by Tyconius, looked forward to the world ending in 380. (Source: American Atheists)
Late 4th Century St. Martin of Tours (ca. 316-397) wrote, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.” (Abanes p.119)
  • Roman theologian Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160-240) claimed that the End would occur 6000 years after the Creation. He assumed that there were 5531 years between the Creation and the Resurrection, and thus expected the Second Coming to take place no later than 500 AD. (Kyle p.37, McIver #21)
  • Hippolytus (died ca. 236), believing that Christ would return 6000 years after the Creation, anticipated the Parousia in 500 AD. (Abanes p.283)
  • The theologian Irenaeus, influenced by Hippolytus’s writings, also saw 500 as the year of the Second Coming. (Abanes p.283, McIver #15)
Apr 6, 793 Elipandus, bishop of Toledo, described a brief bout of end-time panic that happened on Easter Eve, 793. According to Elipandus, the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana prophesied the end of the world that day in the presence a crowd of people. The people, thinking that the world would end that night, became frightened, panicked, and fasted through the night until dawn. Seeing that the world had not ended and feeling hungry, Hordonius, one of the fasters, quipped, “Let’s eat and drink, so that if we die at least we’ll be fed.” (Abanes p. 168-169, Weber p.50)
  • Sextus Julius Africanus revised the date of Doomsday to 800 AD. (Kyle p.37)
  • Beatus of Liébana wrote in his Commentary on the Apocalypse, which he finished in 786, that there were only 14 years left until the end of the world. Thus, the world would end by 800 at the latest. (Abanes p.168)
806 Bishop Gregory of Tours calculated the End occurring between 799 and 806. (Weber p.48)
848 The prophetess Thiota declared that the world would end this year. (Abanes p.337)
Mar 25, 970 Lotharingian computists foresaw the End on Friday, March 25, 970, when the Annunciation and Good Friday fell on the same day. They believed that it was on this day that Adam was created, Isaac was sacrificed, the Red Sea was parted, Jesus was conceived, and Jesus was crucified. Therefore, it naturally followed that the End must occur on this day! (Source: Center for Millennial Studies)
992 Bernard of Thuringia calculated that the end would come in 992. (Randi p.236)
995 The Feast of the Annunciation and Good Friday also coincided in 992, prompting some mystics to conclude that the world would end within 3 years of that date. (Weber p.50-51)
1000 There are many stories of apocalyptic paranoia around the year 1000. For example, legend has it that a “panic terror” gripped Europe in the years and months before this date. However, scholars disagree on which stories are genuine, whether millennial expectations at this time were any greater than usual, or whether ordinary people were even aware of what year it was. An excellent article on Y1K apocalyptic expectations can be found at the Center for Millennial Studies. (Gould, Schwartz, Randi)
1033 After Jesus failed to return in 1000, some mystics pushed the date of the End to the thousandth anniversary of the Crucifixion. The writings of the Burgundian monk Radulfus Glaber described a rash of millennial paranoia during the period from 1000-1033. (Kyle p.39, Abanes p.337, McIver #50)
1184 Various Christian prophets foresaw the Antichrist coming in 1184. (Abanes p.338)
Sep 23, 1186 John of Toledo, after calculating that a planetary alignment would occur in Libra on September 23, 1186 (Julian calendar), circulated a letter (known as the “Letter of Toledo”) warning that the world was to going to be destroyed on this date, and that only a few people would survive. (Randi p.236)
1260 Italian mystic Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) determined that the Millennium would begin between 1200 and 1260. (Kyle p.48)
1284 Pope Innocent III expected the Second Coming to take place in 1284, 666 years after the rise of Islam. (Schwartz p.181)
1290 Followers of Joachim of Fiore (the Joachites) rescheduled the End to 1290 when his 1260 prophecy failed. (McIver #58)
1306 In 1147 Gerard of Poehlde, believing that Christ’s Millennium began when the emperor Constantine came to power, figured that Satan would become unbound at the end of the thousand-year period and destroy the Church. Since Constantine rose to power in 306, the end of the Millennium would be in 1306. (Source: Christian author Richard J. Foster)
1335 Another Joachite doomsday date. (McIver #58)
1367 Czech archdeacon Militz of Kromeriz claimed the Antichrist was alive and well and would manifest himself between 1363 and 1367. The End would come between 1365 and 1367. (McIver #67)
1370 The Millennium would begin in 1368 or 1370, as foreseen by Jean de Roquetaillade, a French ascetic. The Antichrist was to come in 1366. (Weber p.55)
1378 Arnold of Vilanova, a Joachite, wrote in his work De Tempore Adventu Antichristi that the Antichrist was to come in 1378. (McIver #62)
Feb 14, 1420 Czech Doomsday prophet Martinek Hausha (Martin Huska) of the radical Taborite movement warned that the world would end in February 1420, February 14 at the latest. The Taborites were an offshoot of the Hussite movement of Bohemia. (McIver #71, Shaw p.43)
1496 The beginning of the Millennium, according to some 15th Century mystics. (Mann p. ix)
ca. 1504 Italian artist Sandro Botticelli wrote a caption in Greek on his painting The Mystical Nativity:“I Sandro painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the eleventh chapter of St. John in the second woe of the Apocalypse in the loosing of the devil for three and a half years. Then he will be chained in the 12th chapter and we shall see him trodden down as in this picture.”Apparently, he thought he was living during the Tribulation, and that the Millennium would begin in three and a half years or so, which is understandable given the fact that he is known to have been a follower of Girolamo Savonarola. (Weber p.60)
Feb 1, 1524 The End would occur by a flood starting in London on February 1 (Julian), according to calculations some London astrologers made the previous June. Around 20,000 people abandoned their homes, and a clergyman stockpiled food and water in a fortress he built. (Sound familiar? It’s just like the doomsday cultists and Y2K nuts of today!) As it happened, it didn’t even rain in London on that date. (Randi p.236-237)
Feb 20, 1524 A planetary alignment in Pisces was seen as a sign of the Millennium by astrologer Johannes Stoeffler. The world was to be destroyed by a flood on this date (Julian), Pisces being a water sign. (Randi p.236-237)
1525 The beginning of the Millennium, according to Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer. Thinking that he was living at the “end of all ages,” he led an unsuccessful peasants’ revolt and was subsequently tortured and executed. (Gould p.48)
1528 Stoeffler recalculated Doomsday to 1528 after his 1524 prediction failed (Randi p.238)
May 27, 1528 Reformer Hans Hut predicted the end would occur on Pentecost (May 27, Julian calendar). (Weber p.67, Shaw p.44)
1532 Frederick Nausea (what a name!), a Viennese bishop, was certain that the world would end in 1532 after hearing reports of bizarre occurrences, including bloody crosses appearing in the sky alongside a comet. (Randi p. 238)
1533 Anabaptist prophet Melchior Hoffman’s prediction for the year of Christ’s Second Coming, to take place in Strasbourg. He claimed that 144,000 people would be saved, while the rest of the world would be consumed by fire. (Kyle p.59)
Oct 19, 1533 Mathematician Michael Stifel calculated that the Day of Judgement would begin at 8:00am on this day. (McIver #88)
Apr 5, 1534 Jan Matthys predicted that the Apocalypse would take place on Easter Day (April 5, Julian calendar) and only the city of Münster would be spared. (Shaw p.45, Abanes p.338)
1537 French astrologer Pierre Turrel announced four different possible dates for the end of the world, using four different calculation methods. The dates were 1537, 1544, 1801 and 1814. (Randi p. 239)
1544 Pierre Turrel’s doomsday calculation #2. (Randi p. 239)
ca. 1555 Around the year 1400, the French theologian Pierre d’Ailly wrote that 6845 years of human history had already passed, and the end of the world would be in the 7000th year. His works would later influence the apocalyptic thinking of Christopher Columbus. (McIver #72)
Jul 22, 1556 In 1556, a rumor was circulating that the world would end on Magdalene’s Day, as recorded by Swiss medical student Felix Platter. (Weber p.68, p.249)
Apr 28, 1583 The Second Coming of Christ would take place at noon, according to astrologer Richard Harvey. This was the date of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and numerous astrologers in London predicted the world would end then. (Skinner p.27, Weber p.93)
1584 Cyprian Leowitz, an astrologer, predicted the end would occur in 1584. (Randi p.239, McIver #105)
1588 The end of the world according to the sage Johann Müller (aka Regiomontanus). (Randi p. 239)
1600 Martin Luther believed that the End would occur no later than 1600. (Weber p.66)
1603 Dominican monk Tomasso Campanella wrote that the sun would collide with the Earth in 1603. (Weber p.83)
1623 Eustachius Poyssel used numerology to pinpoint 1623 as the year of the end of the world. (McIver #125)
Feb 1, 1624 The same astrologers who predicted the deluge of February 1, 1524 recalculated the date to February 1, 1624 after their first prophecy failed. (Randi p.236-237)
1648 Using the kabbalah, Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi from Smyrna, Turkey, figured that the Messiah would come in 1648, accompanied by miracles. The Messiah, of course, would be Zevi himself! (Randi p.239, Festinger)
1654 In 1578, physician Helisaeus Roeslin of Alsace, basing his prediction on a nova that occurred in 1572, foresaw the world ending in 1654 in a blaze of fire. (Randi p.240)
1656 Believed to be a possible date for the end of the world, 1656 is the number of years between the Creation and the Flood. (Skinner p.27)
1657 Final apocalyptic battle and the destruction of the Antichrist were to take place between 1655 and 1657, as per the Fifth Monarchy Men, a radical group of English millenarians who attempted to take over Parliament to impose their extremist theocratic agenda on the country. Not unlike the Christian Coalition of modern-day America! (Kyle p.67)
1658 In his The Book of Prophecies, Christopher Columbus claimed that the world was created in 5343BC, and would last 7000 years. Assuming no year zero, that means the end would come in 1658. Columbus was influenced by Pierre d’Ailly. (McIver #77)
1660 Joseph Mede, whose writings influenced James Ussher and Isaac Newton, claimed that the Antichrist appeared way back in 456, and the end would come in 1660. (McIver #147)
  • As this date is 1000 (millennium) + 666 (number of the Beast) and followed a period of war and strife in England, many Londoners feared that 1666 would be the end of the world. The Great Fire of London in 1666 did not help to alleviate these fears. (Schwartz p.87, Kyle p.67-68)
  • Sabbatai Zevi recalculated the coming of the Messiah to 1666. Despite his failed prophecies, he had accumulated a great many followers. He was later arrested for stirring up trouble, and given the choice of converting to Islam or execution. Pragmatic man that he was, he wisely elected for the former. (Festinger)
1673 Deacon William Aspinwall, a leader of the Fifth Monarchy movement, claimed the Millennium would begin by this year. (Abanes p.209, McIver #174)
1688 John Napier’s doomsday calculation #1, based on the Book of Revelation. Napier was the mathematician who discovered logarithms. (Weber p.92)
1689 Pierre Jurieu, a Camisard prophet, predicted that Judgement Day would occur in 1689. The Camisards were Huguenots of the Languedoc region of southern France. (Kyle p.70)
  • Anglican rector John Mason calculated this date as the beginning of the Millennium. (Kyle p.72)
  • The beginning of the Millennium, as predicted by German theologian Johann Alsted. (Kyle p.66)
Fall 1694 Drawing from theology and astrology, German prophet Johann Jacob Zimmerman determined that the world would end in the fall of 1694. Zimmerman gathered a group of pilgrims and made plans to go to America to welcome Jesus back to Earth. However, he died in February of that year, on the very day of departure. Johannes Kelpius took over leadership of the cult, which was known as Woman in the Wilderness, and they completed their journey to the New World. Fall came and went and, needless to say, the cultists were profoundly disappointed at having traveled all the way across the Atlantic just to be stood up by Jesus. (Cohen p.19-20)
  • The beginning of the Millennium, according to Anglican rector Thomas Beverly. (Kyle p.72, McIver #224)
  • The notorious witch hunter Cotton Mather was the Ken Starr of Puritan New England. When he wasn’t out hunting witches, he was busy predicting the end of the world, 1697 being his first doomsdate. After the prediction failed, he revised the date of the End two more times. (Abanes p.338)
  • The end of the world, according to some Puritans. (Kyle p.79)
  • John Napier’s doomsday calculation #2, based on the Book of Daniel. (Weber p.92)
  • The date of the Second Coming, according to Henry Archer, a Fifth Monarchy Man. Archer made this prediction in his 1642 book The Personall Reign of Christ Upon Earth. (McIver #158)

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  1. Enjoyed the post, Michael. Here’s a good related academic article from James Hughes:

  2. Carl Youngblood permalink

    It’s interesting to note that Camping’s approach is not novel. The Seventh Day Adventist church started under the same circumstances. A group of strong believers were devastated after the specific date of a prophesied apocalypse came and went. Most of them dispersed, but a small contingent decided to reinterpret the 1844 date to be a spiritual coming instead of a physical one.

  3. Christopher Bradford permalink

    Just look at how much more frequent the predictions of the end of the world are the more recent they are. It must be sign of the end of the world!

  4. Yea, great realization Chris.

    So, as we fall into the singularity, the frequency also approaches infinity?

    Of course, the singularitarians being the first of an infinite number of predictions that are all finally right.

    Brent Allsop

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