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Epic Fail: End Of The World Prophecies

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 1 8

One Day. . .

. . . Maybe Next Week

End-of-the-world prophets are responsible for some of the greatest egg-on-the-face blunders in human history. 

The smugness with which these perpetrators cast their webs of factoids, misinformation, and fabrications makes the non-apocalyptic anti-climax even more of a “win-win” for rational, thinking people who all get to say, “I told you so, moron!”

On the one hand, it is certainly a good thing that the “prophet” failed in his or her “prediction” (the world gets to fight for another day).  On the other, it is also good that the “prophet” is exposed (in some cases) as a fraud or con artist.  Also critical, if the “prophet” is not an outright fraud, is exposing him or her as either extremely gullible or actually an idiot. 

Sadly, the latter oftentimes does not change the opinion of the doomsday messenger’s followers.

Hand of Glory
Death (and the general fear of death) plays a major factor in why people believe in end-of-world prophecies.  Religion forms around this fear: simply put, people find it easier to accept the conceit they are going to a “better place” upon expiration and not face the fact that, once life is over, it
Homage to Mexico's "Day of the Dead"
is truly over. 
When the doomsday prophet comes along with a fixed date and time for Armageddon, people who fear the unknown rejoice because now they have a known measure upon which to rely.  They know when the world will end, although they may not know exactly how, and this gives them time to prepare for their “just reward” (a concept the followers anticipate with great pleasure).

This is misguided, but understandable. 

Anyone who so fears the unknown that he or she would willingly accept an apocalyptic and charismatic version of End Times wants to have that unknown element erased from his or her life. 

This brings a certain amount of serenity to the adherent; comfort is drawn from no longer being “in the dark”.  It is an easy concept to grasp—all people want to feel better.  If a “prophet” removes the fear of death from such a person, that is a comfort.  And, in reality (barring any outright bilking by these false prophets), no real harm is done except to the egos and sense of self to the adherents when the prophecy fails.

History is rife with doom-and-gloomers, and there are many apocalyptic personalities that famously faltered. 

No less a personage than Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was misinterpreted as claiming the world will end in 1891.  His actual prophecy, however, upon closer reading, states clearly that 1891 was not the date of the Apocalypse, but that it would not start any sooner than that.  The distinction is critical.  This means any member of the Mormon faith can believe he or she is now living in the End Times (although few actually do). 

What is endlessly fascinating about false prophets is their ability to dupe their flock multiple times.  The word “dupe” is perhaps a bit strong: most doomsayers are not con artists, they are misguided.  If they truly were cons trying to bilk the rubes they would not be as specific in their prophecies as they have been.  They would be deliberately vague (like all psychics, spirit communicators, past-life mediums, et al).  This lack of specificity would then leave the soothsayer a credible “out” when the prophecy inevitably goes wrong.

Ummm . . . Maybe Next Time
One of the best known “repeat offenders” for Armageddon mistakes was William Miller, a 19th Century New England farmer and lay Baptist preacher. 
Miller claimed vehemently that the Day of Judgment could be divined from a literal interpretation of The Holy Bible.  According to him, allegedly after several years of intense study and calculations, the end of the world fell somewhere between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.  [It is unknown if his dates are merely coincidental, but they do happen to be the first day of spring, and of the vernal equinox.  The vernal equinox in turn, is in the constellation of Pisces, the fish.  Finally, extending the argument, the fish was the ancient symbol for Christ].  Regardless of how Miller made the connection (if he did at all) between Pisces, Jesus, and March 21, his date range was modified and refined later by people he had convinced of his prophecy.  He managed to gather thousands of adherents who anticipated the firm Judgment Day of April 23, 1843.  [Perchance another coincidental date—New Testament biblical texts themselves suggest Jesus was born during the month of April.]
Post apocalyptic forest of sanctuary
On the appointed day the Millerites gathered on a hillside awaiting the end. 
Nothing happened.
William Miller (like Harold Camping would over a century and a half later) claimed he’d made a mathematical error and retreated. 
Most of his followers elected to remain faithful even though most had given away all of their material goods (with Judgment Day nigh, material wealth was not needed).
Miller came up with a second date, that of October 22, 1844.
The same thing happened, only this time the Millerites fractured over what came to be called “The Great Day of Disappointment”.  In the true spirit of the human ability to rationalize, justify, and bury its collective head in the sand, many of the Millerites decided that Jesus had “shifted his place in Heaven” (meaning he would come back some other time).  This subset of believers broke away from the Millerites and formed what is now known as The Seventh-day Adventists.
Considering the Apocalpytic leanings of The Seventh-day Adventists group it seemed inevitable that a more sinister turn should occur within that sect.  In the early 1930s in the US a schism arose within the group with a more Armageddon-bent faction developing under the aegis of a lunatic named Vernon T. Houteff (died: 1955).  In 1935 he purchased some land in Waco, Texas, and separated himself and his group to await the End Times. 
This schismatic bunch were named Davidian Seventh-day Adventists (to distinguish them from the “regular” Adventists).  After Houteff died (with no end of the world in sight) in 1955, his wife Florence took over.  She predicted The Apocalypse would fall on Easter (!) 1959. 
When this, of course, did not happen, yet a third faction emerged. 
Benjamin Roden and about 50 followers of Vernon Houteff’s original “vision” left Florence behind.  Roden renamed his group “Branch” or “Branch Davidians”.  He died in 1978, and his wife, Lois, took over the ministry of this cult.  Lois came to believe, and espouse, the idea that the Holy Spirit was a female energy, and this ancient Egyptian cultic teaching did not sit well with many.  Furthermore, her son was a wastrel, there was no clear leadership in the group, and she suddenly had a new, younger man in her life.
Vernon J. Howell (born: 1959) shared Lois’ bed; later, after much political internal maneuverings in a jockeying for power, he became the de facto Prophet and leader of the Branch Davidians in Waco.  Lois died in 1986; in 1990 Howell changed his name to David Koresh (from a variant of a Hebrew name “Cyrus”, which translates into “death”). 
Koresh’s stockpiling of firearms (in the way of the paranoiac) and sexual abuses of women (only he was allowed sexual partners—all marriages within the group were ordered dissolved) alarmed the locals.  Eventually federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in a joint operation with the FBI routed the group, destroying the Waco compound in the process.  Many of the group died in fires that were proven to have been intentionally set by Davidians.  Koresh himself was shot, execution style and almost certainly under orders, by a henchman who then turned the gun on himself. 
Thus, at least, one group’s Apocalypse was realized (just not on the date they had chosen).
Party Like It's 1999
The “predictions” of Nostradamus (Les Propheties, a frustratingly opaque group of mid 16th Century writings purporting to be a prophetic record of human activities, past and future) are rabidly open to interpretation and have spawned several Judgment Day prophecies as well.
None of these have come true, obviously.
The text was written in a loose verse form, called “quatrains”.  One of the better known ones, though, that caused a stir before the year 1999 was this quatrain’s lines:
“The year 1999, seventh month
From the sky will come great king of terror”.
The original writings of Nostradamus are written anagrammatically in many cases and in more than one language.  As with the Bible, these have been translated and re-translated in dozens of different versions since it was written over 400 years ago.  [And in some cases, the work was willfully mistranslated and misinterpreted to support some crackpot’s pet theory.] 
There is nothing in Nostradamus at this late date that can tell anyone anything about anything at all.  Any original meanings are long since lost.  [If there ever were any to begin with.  The whole book is suspect on its face, and may be nothing more than a cleverly disguised heresy of some kind – not a hoax, but legitimate writings of a heretical nature that Nostradamus had to obscure for fear of being put to death if discovered.  Galileo published his “heresy” and was punished by The Church, saving himself from execution only by recanting and accepting house arrest for the rest of his life]. 
Dark Desert Night
Lake Shore Apocalypse
Another case of misguided devotion came about in 1954.
A Chicago woman named Dorothy Martin divined (from messages received from the populace of a hitherto unknown planet she called “Clarion”) that a cataclysmic flood would wipe out the planet before dawn on December 21, 1954.  [Again, note the coincidence of her choice of date to the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.]  The Clarion aliens would come down and save true believers.  She had enough time to develop a real following, and her group was known as The Seekers. 
It should come as no shock or surprise her predictions failed.
Her group gathered on Lake Michigan’s shores at the appointed time, and awaited the end. 

Nothing happened.

An outsider had infiltrated the group as part of an assignment for a journal.  He reported later that when the designated time came and went, the believers sat around stunned and dismayed.  Martin’s reaction was of steady calm; she directed the group to stand by.

She deliberated and a few hours later claimed she’d been granted another prophetic message.  This time, Jesus told Martin that The Seekers had been so devout in their belief in the prophecy that God himself decided to cancel the Apocalypse!  The group willingly accepted this explanation, and celebrated.

Subsequently, they made much of how they had “saved the world” with their devotion (dutifully sensationalized in the press).

In the wake of her epic failure Martin left Chicago and changed her name later to “Sister Thedra” and continued prophesying.  She died in 1992.

This Time, For Sure!!
Harold Camping (a retired civil engineer and California preacher) holds the longevity record for keeping believers on a string.
Camping was the founder and head of a religious-based radio station called Family Radio International. 
Back in the early 1990s, he convinced a large group of people the world would end in 1994.  This didn’t happen.  He back-pedaled and claimed he’d made a mathematical error in his mystical calculations. 
He came up with a new Judgment Day of May, 21, 2011.
Post-apocalypse barren forest
His prediction said roughly 200 million Christians on the planet would be “Raptured” (immediately and instantaneously taken to their “better place” in Eternity) before a series of natural disasters wiped out the planet.  [And Camping did not say “people”: he specified “Christians” (most likely meaning only Protestant Christians at that).  Apparently God does not love his Chosen People—the Jews—or, for that matter, Muslims, or Buddhists, etc., enough to include such people in his long-term plans for eternal happiness in his heaven.]
Also interesting in his prediction was the time of day, roughly 6 PM local time (meaning wherever one was in the world when it was 6 PM in that place that’s when it would happen).  He also said this process would begin in Asia.  This meant the world would be destroyed on a time-zone-by-time-zone basis, one hour at a time!

The media had been all over this story for several months before the non-event.  The coffers of his ministry fattened dramatically.  Foolishly, many of the believers in his prophecy gave away all their material wealth (as the Millerites had done).  Curiously, one believer who did not divest himself of his worldly goods was Camping! 

The 89-year old continued to smugly assert his certainty as the day approached.

Nothing happened. 

Camping’s failure was epic, more than any other before him for two reasons: the huge media hue and cry, and his own arrogance about his prediction.

Many people had given up much time and money in preparation and were left destitute while his ministry gained millions of dollars in donations since the time of his first failure in 1994. 

This next time, too, there were people who simply would not believe it happened (or, more accurately, didn’t happen) again.  Camping, for his part, could not be reached for comment, going into hiding for several days. 

And, just like William Miller and Dorothy Martin, he emerged with an explanation.  As expected he claimed he’d miscalculated.  His prediction, he said, was short by five months, that the world was now actually in the End Times, and the real Rapture with the disasters, etc., would be October 21, 2011.  [Curiously, Camping’s newer date was only one day shy of the Millerite’s Judgment Day of October 22.  This may be mere coincidence, but unlikely.]

As expected, October 21, 2011, came off without a Rapture or an Apocalypse.  There were two minor earthquakes that day in San Francisco and some flooding in Thailand, but that was it (and natural disasters occur in many places on the planet on any given day and are not signs of a coming Apocalypse). 

Harold Camping was suspiciously quiet in the days before this second major non-event.  He suffered a mild stroke in June 2011, and at 90 years old by the time of the second Second Coming of 2011 he had retired from the airwaves of his radio station (only five days before October 21) and was not speaking with reporters (since May 23). 

His method of calculating the doomsdays he had predicted boggles the mind of the rational.  He based his “prophecies” on a calculation using the number of years since the Noah’s Ark flood and the number of days since Jesus’ crucifixion!  He also threw in some numerology. 

His failure was pre-ordained based upon his faulty methodology (if anyone can be so generous as to call what he did “methodology”).  One cannot calculate anything from an event that did not occur (Noah’s Flood); anyone would be just as badly served basing a calculation on the years since Santa Claus’ or the Easter Bunny’s birth dates.  Nor can anyone be assured of any result obtained from numerology (which is not a science, and the results of which are open to interpretation).  

In March 2012, Camping finally came clean and reportedly realized his attempts to predict the future were “sinful”, though he never issued an apology for causing gullible people to drive themselves into financial ruin thanks to his machinations.  He died in mid December 2013 at the age of 92. 

Numbers Games
Biblical numerology can never work in modern hands for the same reason no one can ever accurately know what Nostradamus was trying to say: the Bible, once it was finally committed to writing, was then translated into multiple languages, edited, and bowdlerized (in at least one famous version).
Secondly, it is filled with allusions, allegories, and symbols.  And, biblically, numbers do not always mean what they literally say: the number “7” holds special meaning and is applied to things of great significance. 
The number “40” also is used in a very vague way to mean “a long time”.  For example, when the Noah myth claims it rained for “40 days and 40 nights” this should not be construed as literally 40 calendar days and nights.  It should be seen as meaning “a long time” (whatever interpretation one wishes to apply—ancient Hebrews had a fairly fixed notion of what that actually was but it is lost to antiquity).
Similarly, when Moses and the nascent Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, it isn’t meant as a literal 40 years.  These people could not have survived under desert conditions and thrived as they did for 40 years.  Rather, this should be perceived as the Hebrew “very long time” and nothing more. 
Because of this language confusion and transmutation of texts over the centuries, anyone who claims he or she can predict anything at all based upon literal scriptural  passages involving time calculations is either deluded or an outright, lying fraud.
Prophet of the Ice-Cold Profit Margin
Harold Camping and people of his ilk probably genuinely believed what they espoused.
There are others, however, who seem to be prophets for profit.  One such “notable” is Richard Noone who, in 1997, wrote a book called 5/5/2000 Ice: The Ultimate Disaster.  As hyperbolic and eye-catching as the book’s title was it espoused an even more bizarre hypothesis.  Noone claimed the earth would end that particular day because a certain number of planets would be aligned and the Antarctic icecap would magically increase to three miles thick, causing a global, icy end to the world. 
The book sold well, even though there is no science in it.  And, obviously, nothing he said came to pass.
Dark Frozen Planet

Another prophet for profit was Ronald Weinland, a minister of God’’s Church, wrote a book in 2006 named 2008: God’s Final Witness.  Weinland, like Noone, did not give the world much in the way of forewarning from his publication date.  He claimed hundreds of millions of people would die, and by the end of 2006 there would only be two years remaining before the End Times.  He predicted by 2008 the US would no longer be a world power nor would it be an independent nation. 

His book, too, made some money for him.  His absurd ideas, however, only bore financial fruit and nothing else.

Y2K + 2001 = Zero
Doomsday prophecies tend to bring out the idiotic among the masses
A fine one for creating much hullabaloo over nothing were two events loosely tied together by the calendar.

The first was the “Y2K” computer debacle.  This was a glitch in older computers in their date and time recording methods.  Early programmers lazily simply designed software to store and display the years of the 20th Century as two-digit values.  For example, “1989” was recorded as “89”.  This isn’t a problem until the computer reaches the year 1999.  With its last two digits reading “99” the computer would roll over to the next two-digit year, “00”.  In theory, it was believed computer data would go haywire because older operating systems would not recognize “00” as the year “2000” but would instead configure its functions as if “00” were the year “1900”. 

This assumed, then, that the world's financial markets, all driven by computer, would collapse, utility companies would lose power, etc., and anarchy would result.  The world would be plunged into a sort of Electronic Armageddon.  A massive global effort went into play (and this problem was anticipated several years before 2000 fortunately) and almost every computer on the planet was patched or upgraded. 

There were no disasters even though some people believed, with the “Y2K” glitch and the "millennium" approaching, the double-whammy certainly meant the end of the world (financial ruin when all computers reverted to the year 1900 coupled with Armageddon at the dawn of the new millennium in the year 2000).

People had no reason to fear the year 2000, however, simply because the year 2000 was not the start of the new millennium

There was no year “0” (zero) in our current reckoning of time.  The first year in any calendar system (whether it is Anno Domini or Common Era time) is the Year One (that’s the number “1”).  Any year ending in “zero” is the end of the previous time span, not the beginning of the next. 

Therefore, the first day of the new millennium was actually January 1, 2001.  And, as always, nothing bad happened that day.  [Arthur C. Clarke, the great science-fiction author, got it completely correct when he named his classic novel 2001: A Space Odyssey].

Calendar Crackpots
Finally, the last of the great apocalyptic time draws upon us.  This, of course, is the End Times as “predicted” by the Mayan Calendar, December 21, 2012. 
The Mayans were extremely accurate
Mayan glyph
in their time keeping methods and calendar watching.  They actually perceived time in two basic versions: a “long time” and a “short time” (this is an oversimplification, but will suffice for the argument).
The calendar which had many in the world worried about December 21, 2012, is the “long” version of Mayan timekeeping.  [And, once again, December 21 is, coincidentally, the day of the Winter Solstice.  It is interesting how the solstices and equinoxes keep figuring into these predictions.]

The Mayans had three different measurements, all in terms of days, for their “years” depending upon what they were measuring.  One version of their year was 365 days divided into 18 months of 20 days each (with 5 “unlucky” days to be distributed).  Another “year” was 360 days which they used for their “very long” count of time.  And, lastly, they had a “sacred” year consisting of 260 days.

The 2012 distress came from the “fact” that the Mayan “long count” calendar was allegedly nearing the end of its cycle.  Unfortunately, the junk science people and tabloid theorists interpreted this to mean the world was ending. 

The “end” date was calculated by someone, and simple methodology questions about the veracity of the results need to be asked.  Which Mayan version of a “year” was used as a baseline?  To what modern world calendar was it equated (the Julian or the Gregorian, or some other)?   There are so many variables involved here it tests credibility; it is difficult to fathom how any self-respecting crypto-analyst, archaeologist, or mathematician can factually say that particular Mayan calendar even ends in 2012, let alone on that specific day. 

The Mayan calendar does not predict Armageddon.  It does predict, however, that it is time for a new calendar.

Extrapolating the end of the world from reading the Mayan calendar’s last “date” is roughly akin to anyone walking into his or her kitchen, seeing December 31 on the wall calendar, and jumping to the absurd conclusion the world will end the day after that (on January 1).  All that means, as with the Mayan calendar, is it is time to buy a new calendar!

Randy Savage Prevents the Rapture
                           Randy "Macho Man" Savage Prevents the Rapture

The gullible will continue to be led by the nose, of course, and certainly the world will see more than its share of prophets claiming special knowledge about the end of the world.  But, much like all other false prophets before them these prophets’ failures will likewise be epic.


Author's update, December 21, 2012: As expected the world did not end on December 21, 2012.  Nor did anything untoward or out of the ordinary or unexpected happen. 

Almost certainly, however, some person or persons heavily invested in the world of crackpots or interested in junk science will come up with an excuse for why the "Mayan" End of the World prophecy (not foretold by the Mayans, but applied to their timekeeping device nonetheless) failed. 

Furthermore, as history has shown, someone will "calculate" a new date, claiming the “old” method of calculation was flawed or incomplete somehow.  The newer date will most likely be so far removed into the future than no one alive for the December 21, 2012 epic failure will be around to see the next one. 

The End

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Oct 11, 2011 11:51am
Good article, and I love the artwork you included.
Oct 11, 2011 5:57pm
Thanks for reading. The art punches home some of my points. A few things are stock images, the rest is my own work from my bad art that I've done. It's getting some use on this site to go with may material.
Nov 19, 2011 3:40am
vicdillinger, this was such an entertaining article... I have to admit that a tiny part of me worried about the Mayan end of the world because of all the hype surrounding it in the past few years... Of course, I never truly believed the end of the world was coming but a little part of me always wondered... haha
I guess I'm just as gullible as the rest of them.
I remember Y2K too... wow that was a long time ago. That one I didn't fall for however... I did do some reading in which I learned that before Y2K lots and lots of computer programmers were hired to fix the Y2K bug so it wouldn't cause too much damage. I don't know if they're the reason nothing too bad happened or whether nothing too bad was going to happen either way.

I saw your comment on my article and I thought I'd return the favour. I was really impressed with your article. You write like a real pro! Honestly, this article was really interesting and I look forward to reading more of your work!

Nov 19, 2011 2:06pm
These non-events will always be with us.

You have no fear until NASA says there is an asteroid tracking to hit the planet. We came close over a week ago -- an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier passed within 200,000 miles of the earth (that is INSIDE the Moon's orbit by about 40K miles!). This was the largest object to come that close in three decades -- nobody noticed. But talk some smack about a Mayan calendar and the sheeple will be all over it!!

Thanks for reading.
Jun 13, 2012 7:18pm
The best thing about the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy is the kick ass "end of the world" party I'm planning to throw! :)

Fun article and great as always!
Jun 13, 2012 7:35pm
Thanks for checking it out. Now Armageddon reddy for bed!!
Jun 13, 2012 7:36pm
Wah wah!
Jul 10, 2012 1:46pm
Yeah, I guess it IS kind of a sad letdown when the world doesn't end when some goober sez it will. Danged uncooperative planet, making people look bad!
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  1. Gregg O' McCrary with Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D. The Unknown Darkness: Profiling the Predators Among Us. New York City: HarperTorch, 2003.
  2. Richard Zacks An Underground Education. New York City: Doubleday, 1997.

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