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The end of the world as we… don’t know it: a review of the eschatological theories and predictions Print E-mail
Written by Antonis Kousoulis   

Disaster_Film_2012

The first prediction over the end of the world was probably phrased at the first time someone realized that we will not be here forever. Just like the way the origins of philosophy coincided with the first complex thought, or the first medical practices followed the first human disease, eschatological predictions immediately followed the initial realization that Earth, in fact, is not immortal. At first, it was religious books which gave the idea, but nowadays everyone can share his thought on the end of the world through the internet or make a movie. The “2012” science fiction disaster film talking about the, seemingly, upcoming end of the world is only the tip of the iceberg.

Religious Eschatology

Every religious belief has foreseen the end of the world. For Christians, the book of Revelation occupies a central place for the religion. Along with the return of Jesus Christ and the last judgement, the world, as we know it, will come to an end. However, it is not clear when that will occur: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mathew 24:35-36).

return_of_Jesus_Christ

Image 1: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel.


Among others, for Hindus, despite their cyclical conception of time, Shiva shall destroy the world at the end of the kalpa (Flood, 1996). For Muslims, prophet Muhammad has documented major and minor signs on the Day of Judgement (Smith, 2006). For Buddhists, human life span is gradually shortening and the conditions will deteriorate to the point of a sword-interval(Cousins, 1996). For Brahma-Kumaris, the old world will come to an end, at the end of the cycle, through extensive destructive events which will wipe out the whole population of the old world (Hodgkinson, 2002).

It seems that the religious and philosophical tradition of apocalyptic thought stems from the teachings of Persian prophet and philosopher Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, around the 14th century BC. According to the Zoroastrian doctrine of the final renovation of the universe, evil will be destroyed and everything else will be then in perfect unity with God (Taylor, 2000).

So, no matter each one’s beliefs of the formation of the world, there is one common argument: the world will come to an end, following, or followed by, a godlike effect.

 

The millennium perception

The year 2000, the millennium, gave rise to major perceptions and predictions on the end of the world, which were occasionally considered as quite probable. It was a year considered very special, simply because it contained three zeros. Some believed that the universe was created circa 4000 B.C. Thus, it would have its 6,000th anniversary about the time of the millennium and that would be 1,000 years for each of the six days of creation.(Gould, 1997)

Moreover, many people worried about the Y2K bug, or the year 2000 problem. This was a limitation found in many computer programs, because year were represented as two digits; e.g. 1999 became "99." In the year 2000, many programs would register the year as 1900, something that would, allegedly, cause a significant number of computer failures (Carrington, 2000).

Many expected that major events of cosmic proportion would happen: airplanes crashing; economies collapsing; life support systems failing, massive data loss, etc (Gould, 1997).  However, no overwhelmingly serious events actually came to pass.

 

The 2012 phenomenon

Recently, anxiety has grown over the prediction of the end of the world in the Mayan calendar. The 2012 phenomenon comprises a range of eschatological beliefs that cataclysmic or transformative events will occur on December 21, 2012, as the Mayan meter reaches the end of a 394-year cycle called a baktun. This time, the worry can be paralleled to a mass hysteria.

The prediction that the world will end in 2012 originated with claims that Nibiru, a planet supposedely discovered by the Sumerians, is headed towards Earth. This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but after nothing happened, the doomsday date was moved forward to December 2012. Then, these two fables were linked to the end of one of the cycles in the ancient Mayan calendar at the winter solstice in 2012, hence the predicted doomsday date of December 21, 2012 (NASA, 2009; Pixtun, 2009).

However, scientists of many disciplines and astronomers rule out the eventuality of a 2012 mass destruction. Firstly, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period and then another long-count period begins. Moreover, if a Planet X was heading for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade. Planetary alignments, magnetic reversal, huge meteor impacts, giant solar storms, all have been recorded as possible reasons for a 21st December doomsday, but experts have ruled all of them out as close to this date events (NASA, 2009; Impey, 2010).

Huge_meteor_impact

Image 2: Artistic representation of a meteor impact with Earth.

 

Forming the impossible: Science, fiction and myth

Many supernatural and science fiction hypotheses or mythological narratives have often been formed as potential or have played a major role in classical or modern culture.

A common theme in stories and films is the alien invasion, during which an extraterrestrial form of life would invade Earth with the intention to exterminate and supplant human life, even enslave it under a colonial system, and finally destroy the planet altogether. Ever since 1898 and H.G. Wells’ allegoric The war of the worlds, this scenario about the end of the world has been very popular (Flynn, 2005).

The case of the collision of a large celestial object with Earth has been reported since the prehistoric times, allegedly causing the end of the dinosaurs’ era. An extravagant impact event would cause both localized and wider consequences, as well as  a mass destruction both on land and at sea (Lewis, 1996). The latest major impact event occurred in Kaali, Estonia, about 700 BC, creating the Kaali crater, and even though the potentiality theoretically exists, astronomers have repeatedly denied anything akin occurring anytime soon (NASA, 2009). Impact events threatening the existence of the planet have been a plot and background element in science fiction since the scientific establishment of the knowledge about real impacts.

Armageddon is an Abrahamic religious epic battle associated with the end of time. A wide range of sometimes disturbing Abrahamic and related religious texts and traditions have warned humankind of an impending eschatological calamity or catastrophe. Additionally, the sacred books of the world not only predict a global catastrophe but also an ensuing millennial world peace. On occasion, the Báb and the Bahá'u'lláh undertook a courageous demythologisation of apocalyptic scenarios anticipated in Biblical and Islamic scripture and tradition. However, scenarios of Armageddon don’t seem likely and it is the Bahá'í belief that the “catastrophe” or the apocalyptic upheaval of the last days has very largely, if not completely, been already realized in the troubled 20th century (Lambden, 1999).

Regional mythological narrations, reflecting the social perceptions of each nation, occasionally end with a world-destroying event. In Norse tradition, Ragnarok refers to the demise of the gods, followed by the demise of the cosmos they had created, with the sun turning black, the earth sinking into the seas and smoke and flames licking the sky (Lindow, 2001). According to the Native American mythology, Earth will move up within our system to reach its crowning place and all of its life would then be raised to its perfected-eternal form, in a Purification Time (Bierhorst, 2002). However, mythologies usually provide a rebirth phenomenon, while Greek and Egyptian myths don’t give a definitive end of the world in their stories.

Ragnarok__demise_of_Gods

Image 3: Artistic depiction of Ragnarok. (Wägner, 1882)


On the border between history and mythology lie the writings of Nostradamus. The reputed seer, who published collections of prophecies, wrote in an intriguing way, which gave him seemingly everlasting fame. Most of his quatrains deal with disasters, such as plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods, invasions, murders, droughts, and battles, all presented in the context of the supposedly imminent end of the world, a conviction that has sparked numerous collections of end-time prophecies. However, his predictions come probably as a result of misinterpretations or mistranslations, not providing any specific evidence to allow a clear identification of any future event (Lemesurier (a), 2003).

 

Setting the date for the end of the world

Numerous people have made an uncalculated number of predictions on the year when the earth, as we know it, will cease to exist. Obviously, as we are moving into 2012, all of these predictions, based on varying perceptions, have turned out to be wrong. This fact can be the most powerful argument why we shouldn’t take into account any new predictions about forecoming eschatological dates.

Starting as early as 2800 BC, with an inscription on an Assyrian clay tablet which read: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end”, every plague or large-scale destruction led to thoughts of upcoming Apocalypse” (Strauss, 2009), every religion and faith has its own perceptions. Perhaps most notably, the magazine Watch Tower, published by Jehova’s Witnesses had predicted at least 10 times in the 20th century the end of the world with Christ’s return (Crompton, 1996).

Table I reviews the most important date setters and the perceptions they followed. It is not exhaustive, but the 38 most famous dates listed provide more than the basic information on how people predicted and awaited the end of the world. Of course, as long as the earth remains intact, new years will arise. For the imminent future, such years include 2012, 2013, 2016, 2034, 2047, 2060 and the list never ends (Flynn, 2008).

 

Conclusion

It is an impossible task to try and find credibility in the predictions and the perceptions on the end of the world. Mankind is aware of the fact that our planet, the world as we know it, has a finite lifespan and has been for centuries intrigued with the attempt to figure out when any apocalyptic, scientific or simply disastrous event will occur. With religions and regional cultures forming their own perceptions, the internet aiding the transmission of any intuition, and a vast number of predictions already proven wrong, it would be irrational to believe any of the occasionally suggested dates. Therefore, the best thing anyone could do would be to embrace the present and not worry about indeterminate predictions.


 

Table I. Predictions and perceptions dating the end of the world

Year

Prediction / Perception

Source

80

Ben Zacai, Jewish sage, expected the second coming of the Messiah around the time of his death.

Barnavi et al, 2002

130

Jose the Galilean thought the Messiah would come in three generations (60 years), after the destruction, namely 130.

Martin, 1994

381

Tichonus, a writer of the 4th century, predicted the imminent return of Christ. A small movement started expecting the rapture to come.

Martin, 1994

434

Hippolytus, an important 3rd century theologian, calculated that 5,500 years separated Adam and Christ and that the life of the world was 6,000 six full days of years until the seventh day of rest. His calculations in 234 indicted there were still two centuries left.

Rubinsky et al, 1982

435

Judah haNasi, leader of Judea’s Jewish community, believed Messiah would come 365 years after the Temple destroyed in 70.

Martin, 1994

950

Benedicte of Aniane, monk and monastic reformer, left a note about the end of the world in 950.

Blanc, 1850

950

Adso of Montier-en-Der wrote a Treatise on the Antichrist, predicting a 950 Armageddon, which rapidly became a central text in the European eschatological literature.

Verhelst, 1977

989

Halley’s comet appears as a potential danger for a destructive impact.

Moore et al, 1984

1000

Abbo of Fleury dates 1000 as the year of the unleashing of Antichrist after hearing a preacher in Paris. The Last Judgment would allegedly come shortly thereafter.

Chisholm, 1911

1000

Bishops Aelfric Wulfstan explicitly linked at points to the year 1000 and the emergence of Antichrist.

Gatch, 1977

1005

A severe epidemic starting from England gives birth to perceptions that the end of the world is close.

Hepidannus, 1005

1006

The Super Nova of 1006: a new star sighted in the sky creates fear of a definitive impact.

Goldstein, 1965

1033

The 1,000th anniversary of the Passion of the Christ brings anticipation of the second coming.

Rubinsky et al, 1982

1186

John of Toledo, English Cardinal, after observing the alignment of many planets, predicted that the end of the world would take place during 1186. The Letter of Toledo warned everyone to hide in the caves and mountains, as the world would be destroyed and only a few would be spared.

Bellenger et al, 2001

1284

In 1213, Pope Innocent III predicted that the Apocalypse would come 666 years after the founding of Islam, that is in 1284.

Strauss, 2009

1350

The Black Death, plague epidemic, peaking in the mid-14th century took Europeans’ lives by thousands. It was considered as a sign for the upcoming Last Judgment.

Lerner, 1981

1420

The religious community of Taborites predicted that in 1420 every city would be annihilated by fire and only five mountain strongholds would be saved.

Turnbull, 2004

1504

Famous Renaissance artist, Sandro Boticelli, in an inscription under his painting The Mystical Nativity, referred to John the Apostle’s writings and placed the Apocalypse at around 1504.

Strauss, 2009

1524

In 1499, the German mathematician and astronomer, Johannes Stöffler predicted that a vast flood would engulf the world on 20 February 1524. His calculations also foretold 20 planetary conjunctions during this year.

Gunella et al, 2007

1533

Jesus Christ’s second coming and judgment was set by, Anabaptist prophet, Melchior Hoffman at a millennium and a half after His execution. The New Jerusalem would become established in Strasbourg of Germany.

Deppermann, 1987

1534

Jan Matthys, Anabaptist prophet replacing Hoffman after his imprisonment (see 1533), claimed 1534 would be the date of the Return of the Christ with Münster being the New Jerusalem.

Waite, 1990

1656

Christopher Columbus saw 1656 as the date of the end of the world.

Oropeza, 1994

1666

Rabbi Sabbatai Zevi, who claimed to be the Messiah, predicted the end of the world in 1666. A plague outbreak and a great fire in London at the same year gave also ground to that perception.

Scholem, 1973

1780

On May 19, 1780, the sky over New England was enveloped in darkness. People came out wringing their hands and howling that the Day of Judgment had come. It later turned out that the unnatural gloom had been caused by smoke from forest fires, possibly coupled with heavy fog.

Strauss, 2009

1806

Mary Bateman, an alleged English witch, had a magic chicken that laid eggs with end time messages on them.

Goor, 2006

1832

Some journals predicted the appearance of a comet in 1832 and persuaded many of its collision with earth.

Randim 1995

1844

William Miller and his followers in his eschatological movement, Millerism, after some failed attempts, predicted that the date Christ would come would be the October 22, 1844, with a message known as the true midnight cry. The rising of October 23 became the Millerites’ Great Disappointment.

Knight, 1993

1881

Mother Shipton, an English fortune-teller of the 16th century, had written: “The world to an end shall come; in eighteen hundred and eighty one”. An edition of her prophecies published in 1862, spread panic among astronomers, historians and English masses, making 1881 a banner year for apocalyptic expectations.

Strauss, 2009

1910

The reappearance of Haley's comet (see 989) was for many an indication of Christ’s second coming. Noted French Astronomer, Camille Flammarion, was afraid of the comet’s allegedly poisonous gas leading people to hysteria, rushing to buy gas masks and comet pills.

Moore et al, 1984

1953

After a book by David Davidson with measurements made of the Pyramids of Giza, emerged the belief that they hold an encoded future history which predicted that the world would end in August 1953.

Davidson et al, 1992

1982

It all would end in 1982. After 1974, when Cambridge educated John Gribbin (editor of Nature magazine) and Stephen Plagemann (from NASA) wrote a best-selling book, The Jupiter Effect, warning that in March 1982, an alignment of the major planets on the same side of the Sun would trigger a series of cosmic events that would bring an Armageddon­-like disaster to the earth, people panicked in hundreds. This alignment would allegedly culminate in major, destructive earthquakes. At the time, seismologist Charles Richter had called the book as “pure astrology in disguise”.

Feldman et al, 1970

Strauss, 2009

1988

Books “88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988” and “Christ Returns by 1988”, predicted the second coming in 1988, but turned out to be more like economic frauds.

Whisenant, 1988

1992

Prophecies by Bible analysts predicted Armageddon and Judgment Day for 1992, notably with a full page advertisement in USA Today on October 20, 1991.

Oropeza, 1994

1994

Pastor John Hinkle of Christ Church Los Angeles caused turbulence when he announced he had received a vision from God that warned of apocalyptic event on June 9, 1994. Quoting God, Hinkle said: “On Thursday June the 9th, I will rip the evil out of this world”.

Hanegraaff, 2009

1994

Harold Camping, radio broadcaster, predicted Christ’s return in September 6, 1994, in a book by him full of methods adding up Bible numbers up to 1994.

Camping, 1992

1999

Among many predictions on alien invasions and deadly planet alignments, Nostradamus’ alleged prediction for 1999 stands out. Supposedly, he predicted the coming of the Antichrist in July of 1999.

Lemesurier (b), 2003

2000

See: The millennium perception

 

2008

Author Ronald Weinland stated in a book that the six seals have been opened up and the seventh, leading to the end of the world, would start in April 2008.

Weinland, 2008


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Correspondence:

Antonis A. Kousoulis MD, MSc

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ISSN: 1792-2933


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