It has many names: Armageddon, the Apocalypse, the Rapture and even the Last Judgment. Since the days of Abraham, religious leaders have been predicting that the end is near.
Given the current state of affairs, it can be safe to say that in many ways, the world is, in fact, going to hell. But, the problem is that many who buy into these “end-of-days” prophecies literally aren’t thinking about surviving; they’re thinking about the afterlife.
These prophecies suggest there won’t be a tomorrow. For those subscribing to these doomsday predictions, this often results in their taking actions that go against rational planning. People who bought into those fears quit their jobs, sold their houses and waited for the coming of the end. Then, when the sun rose the next day, they were left with an emptiness of spirit … as well as a paucity of worldly goods.
For every Noah and the Flood, there have been countless—and far less uplifting tales—about the guys who got it totally wrong. One of the most notable such “aftermaths” is today known as the “Great Disappointment,” which was the Millerite movement’s reaction to Baptist preacher William Miller’s proclamations that Jesus Christ would return to Earth in 1844. Many of Miller’s followers gave up their possessions in anticipation of the end. After the prophecy went unfulfilled, reactions included anger from those who were left spiritually and financially empty and ridicule of the believers by people outside the community.
Millerite leaders were left bewildered and disillusioned, while multiple Millerite churches were vandalized, and one was even burned. However, such disappointment only fractured the group, and a number of individuals who had ties to the original Millerites founded their own short-lived groups—some of which continued to prepare for Christ’s second coming. Giving up hope was not an option, even if many members gave up everything else.
“Strange as it may seem at first blush, most people aren’t embarrassed by failed prophecies,” says Dr. Lorenzo DiTommaso, professor of religious studies at Concordia University in Montreal. “What if you believed that this world was irredeemably corrupted, and its imminent end represented the culmination of human destiny—with a good dose of justice thrown in? If so, then the big question on the morning after is not What do I do now that it hasn’t happened? but Why didn’t it happen?”
THE SECOND COMING
Many of the end-of-days prophecies throughout history have been rooted in the Abrahamic religions that include Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Among the earliest of these prophecies was the Essene sect of Jewish ascetics who believed that the Jewish revolt against the Romans in A.D. 66–70 was the beginning of the end-time battle before the arrival of the Messiah. Simon bar Giora, the leader of the rebel faction, was so convinced the Messiah would come and save his people that he had coins minted to declare the redemption of Israel.
Instead of redemption, however, the Jews saw the city of Jerusalem sacked by the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple. A Third Temple, known as Ezekiel’s Temple, has been prophesied in the Book of Ezekiel, but because the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock—the third-holiest site in Sunni Islam—are located on the Temple Mount, it truly might be end of days before the Jewish temple is ever built on the site.
The early Christians, too, had their own end-of days-prophecies. As the Romans adopted Christianity and the religion spread throughout Europe, these prophecies also spread. They were usually based on the belief that the Second Coming was coming soon!
Among the earliest examples was in 365, when the French Bishop Hilary of Poitiers announced that the world would end that year. This was followed by predictions by Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus and Irenaeus that Jesus would return in the year 500—only to be revised by Africanus, who predicted the end times would come in the year 800.
Just as Y2K was a recent fear due to the arrival of a new millennium, so, too, was the year 1000 feared by many, including Pope Sylvester II. Riots occurred across Europe, and many sold all their worldly goods to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in hopes of being saved.
Following these events, many people were left poorer, and some became disillusioned. However, those making the predictions tended to not question their faith.
“The typical answer to a failed biblically based prophecy is not that the data is wrong, but that the interpretation of the data is wrong,” explains DiTommaso. “Scripture can’t be in error, so when Doomsday Pastor Jones preached that the end of the ‘70 weeks of years’ of Daniel, Chapter 9, culminated—for example—on 15 December 2016, and the 16th dawns, it’s not the Bible that’s wrong, but Pastor Jones’s calculations. Disillusionment for certain.
Some people lose interest in doomsday timetables; others double-down or find another authority figure or perhaps even work the prophetic data out for themselves.”ISLAM’S VIEW OF THE END
One of the more dangerous modern “doomsday cults” could arguably be the Islamic militant/terrorist group ISIS, which, after capturing the Syrian village of Dabiq in 2014, made claims that the Prophet Muhammad prophesied that the town would be the setting for an apocalyptic battle between the Islam faithful and a foreign invader.
That event was a catalyst that led to the group’s ability to recruit foreign fighters, many of whom truly believed this to be an end-times battle. The village’s name has since been used for the official ISIS propaganda magazine.
This is just part of Islam’s own end-of-days prophecy, in which the Mahdi (the “guided one”; “redeemer”) would rule for between five and 19 years, depending on interpretation, before the Day of Judgment, when he could rid the world of evil.
What could be seen as an odd twist in this prophecy is that the Mahdi isn’t actually referenced in the Qur’an but was rather found in the hadith—the various teachings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad that were collected after his death. According to these teachings, he would arrive and join with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (“Isa” in Islam), and together, the two would defeat the al-Masih ad-Dajjal (the “false Messiah” or Antichrist).
Shia and Sunni Islam view the Mahdi differently, however. The Sunnis believe the Mahdi has yet to come, while Shiites believe the Mahdi has been born, only to disappear and remain hidden from humanity until he reappears to bring justice.
Several men have already claimed to be the Mahdi. One of the most notable was Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, a religious leader in the Sudan in the 1880s. Influenced by earlier Mahdist movements in West Africa, as well as taking influence from Wahhabism (a branch of Islam), he sought to create an Islamic empire in advance of the second coming of the Prophet Isa. He died just six months after capturing the city of Khartoum from Anglo-Egyptian control. His followers retained control of much of the Sudan until the British, under General Horatio Kitchener, led a re-conquest of the region in 1898. The “Mahdi’s” tomb was destroyed to prevent it from becoming a rallying point for supporters (but was later rebuilt).
Just as the Mahdi in the Sudan didn’t bring about the Day of Judgment, it looks as if ISIS will also come up short. In October 2016, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army drove the militant group out of Dabiq.END OF DAYS, THE EASTERN TAKE
Western religions based on Abraham have not had exclusivity about predicting that the world would end. While Buddhism is based on the belief that time is eternal, there is the view that time is cyclical and that humanity passes through phases from enlightenment to delusion. As delusion grows, a savior figure, known as the Maitreya Buddha, will appear. Only through his spiritual teachings and leadership can humans attain nirvana.
The good news is that while Buddhists tend to preach against material possessions, they don’t expect their followers to give up the goods as the end times—or, in their case, the delusion times—approach.
Hindus have a similar cyclical view, one in which harmony can give way to a degenerative stage. The last stage is known as the Kali Yuga (the “age of the demon Kali”; “age of vice”). During this time, rulers would be unreasonable, would levy high taxes and no longer see a duty to promote spirituality. However, at the end of this time, it is believed that Kali will appear to destroy the wicked and save the virtuous, thereby restoring humanity to its most virtuous state.
However, the most ominous of Eastern religions that prophesy doomsday might be Aum Shinrikyo, a cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984. It was responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995.
Asahara based his religion on his own interpretations of elements of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, along with Hinduism and incorporating millennialist ideas from the Christian Book of Revelation and even the writings of Nostradamus.
While membership in this new religious movement is around 1,950 members, many of whom live in communal compounds, the group has remained under the watch of Japanese authorities. Members of the group are unable to file resident applications, and this has denied them social benefits, including health insurance.
Local community groups have also created efforts to keep members from obtaining jobs and keeping members’ children out of school. Aum Shinrikyo, which has spread to other countries, was banned in September 2016 in Russia and declared a terrorist organization.
In many of the above cases, the end-of-the-world prophecies did lead to destruction and devastation, leaving many dead and others with destroyed lives. “There are many problematic social issues raised when the persons who believed in our hypothetical ‘Doomsday 15.12.2016’ sold their houses, cleaned out their accounts and moved to Mount Shasta,” DiTommaso points out. “Then (they) woke up on the 16th, homeless and on top of a mountain. These persons were left in a bad position.”
As you can see, past end-of-world predictions with specific end dates have been wrong 100 percent of the time. So, in spite of the panic and anxiety that are such a common part of American life these days, don’t let yourself get spooled up by apocalyptic forecasts.ONE OF THE MORE DANGEROUS MODERN “DOOMSDAY CULTS” COULD ARGUABLY BE THE ISLAMIC MILITANT/ TERRORIST GROUP ISIS… 5 TIMES THE WORLD DIDN’T END IN A BIG WAY
1. New England farmer-turned-Baptist-preacher William Miller predicted the world would end on April 22, 1843. He preached and published enough so that he had convinced thousands that the Rapture was coming. Many sold everything. While the group disbanded, many formed what is now the Seventh Day Adventists.
2. In May 1980, televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson informed viewers of the 700 Club that the world would end by 1982. The world didn’t end— and neither did the 700 Club, which is now one of the longest-running TV shows. It currently runs on the Freeform channel (formerly CBN, which became The Family Channel, Fox Family and then ABC Family).
3. On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the San Diego UFO cult named Heaven’s Gate committed suicide. They believed an alien spacecraft was following the comet Hale-Bopp and that by committing suicide, they would be reborn aboard the craft.
4. Y2K was widely feared—and overhyped by the media. It was based on concerns that computers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the year 2000 and the year 1900, with experts predicting massive blackouts and nuclear meltdowns.
5. While most professional Mayanists and others who studied the Mayan calendar noted that there was, in fact, no forecast of impending doom, there was a mass movement that suggested the Mayans predicted the world would end on December 21, 2012.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.