It seems like every few years, someone comes out with a new doomsday prophecy. The latest apocalyptic craze places Earth's final day on Dec. 21, 2012 -- the end of the Great Cycle in the Mayan calendar. But whether the supposed agent of doom is aliens, asteroids, floods or earthquakes, the outcome is always the same -- the Earth manages to endure. Such predictions are nothing new. In the first century A.D., early Christians believed Jesus would 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. Whatever the case, you're sure to enjoy our list of 10 doomsday prophecies.
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 54-year-old housewife from Oak Park, Ill. 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.
The 2009 movie, "2012," is a 158-minute showcase of apocalyptic eye candy, with enough death and destruction to bring up the question, "What's so bad about 2012?" It depends on who you ask. The fear is based on the way some people interpret the Mayan Long Count calendar, which is divided into Great Cycles lasting approximately 5,125 years. One of these cycles ends on Dec. 21, 2012, giving some doomsdayers the ammunition they need to declare the impending apocalypse. They also have numerous theories about how exactly the world will end. Some claim that a mysterious planet known as Nibiru, Planet X or Eris, or a large meteor, will collide with Earth. Another popular theory is that the Earth's magnetic poles will reverse, causing the planet's rotation to reverse as well.
Scientists have already dismissed these theories as laughable. They contend that if a celestial body were on a crash course with Earth, they would have already noticed it. And while astronomers recognize that the magnetic poles do reverse every 400,000 years or so, they insist that this event does not affect the Earth's rotation and will not harm life on Earth. Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole apocalyptic fad is that the Mayans themselves don't expect that the world will end in 2012, rather, they expect it to be a time of great celebration and luck when the planet completes the current Great Cycle.
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 times. 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 89-year-old was brimming 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 Judgement Day message on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 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.
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 some 1 million people who heard his message, about 100,000 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 into heaven. 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 Adventist Church.
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 76 years. 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.
To anyone without a particle physics degree, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may seem like a scary piece of advanced machinery. The massive particle accelerator's circular tunnel, located just outside of Geneva, Switzerland, measures 17 miles (28 kilometers) in total circumference. It can send hydrogen protons crashing in to one another nearly of the speed of light, allowing scientists to discover new elements and particles that may shed light on the creation of the universe. That is, if everything goes as planned.
Some theorists suggest that the massive energies created during such collisions could potentially form black holes capable of engulfing the entire planet. These fears came to a head in March 2008 when Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court to stop the LHC from beginning operation until scientists produced a safety report and environmental assessment. While most scholars acknowledge the possibility of black holes, they dismiss the danger, insisting that any such anomaly would only last a matter of seconds -- hardly long enough to swallow the earth. Despite the controversy, researchers fired up the LHC in 2009 and have accomplished some remarkable feats, including the creation of a soupy mass of matter thought to resemble the conditions of the universe just after the Big Bang. By the end of 2010, no black holes had been detected in the LHC but according to doomsayers, that doesn't mean we're in the clear. Something could always happen before scientists conclude the project in 2012.
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 10,000 followers in Japan and 30,000 to 40,000 in Russia, and even produced several candidates to run in the 1990 Japanese legislative elections [source: Onishi]. 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 into three subway lines. The attack killed 12 people and injured another 5,500 [source: Onishi]. Asahara was soon arrested by Japanese authorities and sentenced to death in February 2004.
Marshall Applewhite, with his piercing, wide-eyed stare, looks 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 they started a Web consulting business called "Higher Source" to fund their activities. There 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 comet Hale-Bopp shined brightly in the night sky. It all started on Nov. 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 39 bodies dressed in black tunics with a cloth draped over their heads. They 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 supposed 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. A 1998 feature story from Microsoft offers an excellent example to illustrate the perceived problem:
Some people believed that this glitch would cause apocalyptic consequences. According to these gloomy predictions, at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, airplanes would drop from the sky, elevators would plummet from the tops of skyscrapers, and the world economy would come to a screeching halt. In response to these fears, the U.S. government and American corporations spent a total of $108.8 billion on Y2K computer fixes [source: Karl]. 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.
Not all apocalyptic predictions are steeped in religious fervor or science fiction; some are based solidly upon respected science. Most scholars agree that 7.6 billion years from now, the sun will enter its red giant phase when it has converted all of its hydrogen into helium. This will cause the sun to expand to a size 20 percent greater than that of Earth's orbit and shine 3,000 times brighter [source: Appell]. Once this stage is complete, the sun will then collapse into a white dwarf.
Whether this process will actually destroy the planet is a topic of debate in the scientific community. If Earth were to stay in its current orbit, it would undoubtedly be engulfed and vaporized by the expanding sun. However, as the sun swells it will also lose mass, meaning that Earth will drift further away from it and perhaps escape total destruction. Either way, this process would destroy life as we know it, that is, if there were any life left to destroy.
Wrangling Mother Nature has successfully saved many lives, even if, a few times, it's literally blown up in our faces. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
- Are major solar flares coming in 2012?
- How the Doomsday Ark Works
- How the Mayan Calendar Works
- How Nostradamus Works
- How the Year 2000 Problem Worked
- How Cults Work
- Is a major planetary alignment coming in 2012?
- Top 10 Space Conspiracy Theories
- Why do scientists think we're nearing the end of the world?
- Will the world really end in 2012?
More Great Links
- "A Conversation With Harold Camping, Prophesier of Judgment Day." New York Magazine. May 11, 2011. (June 15, 2011) http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/05/a_conversation_with_harold_cam.html
- Appell, David. "The Sun Will Eventually Engulf Earth--Maybe." Scientific American Magazine. Sept. 8, 2008. (June 15, 2011) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-sun-will-eventually-engulf-earth-maybe
- Brumfiel, Geoff. "No Black Holes Formed at Large Hadron Collider." Scientific American. Dec. 14, 2010. (June 15, 2011) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=no-black-holes-formed-at-large
- Burke, Garance. "Doomsday Date Was Miscalculated, Says Harold Camping." May 26, 2011. (June 15, 2011) http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/0526/Doomsday-date-was-miscalculated-says-Harold-Camping
- Crawford, Kathryn. "Tick Tock: The Year 2000 Problem." Microsoft. May 4, 1998. (June 15, 2011) http://www.microsoft.com/misc/features/features_2000.htm
- Derbyshire, David. "Birth of the Universe 'Re-created': Large Hadron Collider Generates 'Mini Big Bang.'" The Daily Mail. Nov. 9, 2010. (June 15, 2011) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1327769/Large-Hadron-Collider-creates-mini-Big-Bang.html
- Johnson, John Jr. "The End of the World As We Know It." Los Angeles Times. April 13, 2008. (June 15, 2011) http://articles.latimes.com/print/2008/apr/13/science/sci-collider13
- Karl, Jonathan. Y2K Precautions: Successful or Excessive?" CNN. Jan. 2, 2000. (June 15, 2011) http://archives.cnn.com/2000/US/01/02/y2k.hyped/index.html
- Maeder, Jay. "Doomsday: When Halley's Comet Came To Town, 1910." New York Daily News. March 28, 1998. (June 15, 2011) http://articles.nydailynews.com/1998-03-29/news/18068556_1_edmond-halley-great-comet-skies
- Minard, Anne. "Red Giant Sun May Not Destroy Earth." National Geographic News. Sept. 14, 2007. (June 15, 2011) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/09/070914-red-giants.html
- Moser, Whet. "Apocalypse Oak Park: Dorothy Martin, the Chicagoan Who Predicted the End of the World and Inspired the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance." ChicagoMag.com. May 20, 2011. (June 13, 2011) http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/May-2011/Dorothy-Martin-the-Chicagoan-Who-Predicted-the-End-of-the-World-and-Inspired-the-Theory-of-Cognitive-Dissonance/
- Newman, Sharan. "The Real History of the End of the World." New York: Berkley Books, 2010.
- O'Carroll, Eoin. "Judgment Day? Five End-of-the-World Predictions." May 2011. (June 13, 2011) http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/0518/Judgment-Day-Five-failed-end-of-the-world-predictions/October-22-1844
- "One Year Later, Heaven's Gate Suicide Leaves Only Faint Trail." CNN. March 15, 1998. (June 15, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/1998-03-25/us/9803_25_heavens.gate_1_cult-members-marshall-applewhite-wayne-cooke?_s=PM:US
- Onishi, Norimitsu. "After 8-Year Trial in Japan, Cultists is Sentenced to Death." The New York Times. Feb. 28, 2004. (June 15, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/28/world/after-8-year-trial-in-japan-cultist-is-sentenced-to-death.html?ref=shokoasahara&pagewanted=1
- Overbye, Dennis. "Asking the Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More." The New York Times. March 29, 2008. (June 15, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/29/science/29collider.html
- "Profile: Shoko Asahara." BBC News. Feb. 27, 2004. (June 15, 2011) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3504237.stm
- Purdum, Tom S. " In Serene Setting in California, A Suicide Investigation Unfolds." The New York Times. March 30, 1997. (June 15, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/30/us/in-serene-setting-in-california-a-suicide-investigation-unfolds.html?ref=heavensgate&pagewanted=1
- Robinson, Wendy Gale. "Heaven's Gate: The End?" Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. December 1997. (June 15, 2011) http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue3/robinson.html
- Sanders, John. "Y2K Bug Has No Bite." The Globe and Mail. Jan. 1, 2000. (June 15, 2011) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/archives/y2k-bug-has-no-bite/article577373/
- Strauss, Mark. "Ten Notable Apocalypses That (Obviously) Didn't Happen." Smithsonian. Nov. 12, 2009. (June 15, 2011) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Ten-Notable-Apocalypses-That-Obviously-Didnt-Happen.html
- Walsh, James and Edward W. Desmond. "Shoko Asahara: The Making of a Messiah." Time. April 3, 1995. (June 15, 2011) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,982749-1,00.html
- Weber, Eugen. "Apocalypses: Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
- White, L. Michael and Paul Boyer. "William Miller and the Second Great Awakening." Frontline. 2011. (June 15, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/explanation/amprophesy.html
- Yeomans, Don. "2012--A Scientific Reality Check." NASA. Nov. 10, 2009. (June 15, 2011) http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/yoemans20091110.html