Say the year 2012 to most people and chances are they will think of doomsday, which is remarkable considering that just ten years ago few people would have assigned any special significance to the date at all. Today, however, all one has to do is type the year into a search engine and they will register a quarter of a billion hits. Refine the search to just “2012 doomsday” and it will still produce almost 600,000 hits, while a quick check of Amazon.com lists a whopping 96,000 books with the year 2012 in their tag! Clearly, 2012 has captured the public’s imagination like few things have been able to do.
But 2012 is nothing new. Other years in recent history have been almost as popular with the public in terms of portending ominous events but up to now, every one of them has proven to be utterly and laughably mistaken. In the interest of alleviating the fears of those who imagine the Mayans might be on to something (they’re not), it might be interesting to take a look at some of the most note-worthy examples of failed doomsday prophecies throughout history. Enjoy it while there’s still time!
10. The Jupiter Effect, 1982
In 1982, two professional astrophysicists, John Gribben and Stephen Plagemann, floated the idea that a rare alignment of all nine planets in 1982 would create a combined gravitational pull that would place huge stresses on the planet’s tectonic plates, causing killer earthquakes and severe changes in the Earth’s climate. The book they wrote together, The Jupiter Effect, caused quite a stir at the time, but after the alignment passed without incident (with even the combined gravitational pull of all eight planets having barely any measurable effect on Earth at all) their professional reputation took quite a beating. They later claimed the theory was intended simply as an exercise in astrophysical speculation, but by then the damage had been done. While The Jupiter Effect proved to be a bust, however, it was one of the first popular doomsday scenarios which held nature responsible for the end rather than God’s wrath, for which I’m sure the Almighty was mightily pleased.
9. Elizabeth Clare Prophet & the Church Universal & Triumphant, 1990
While all the attention lasted only a short time (with much of it being negative) for a time in the late 1980’s the founder and spiritual head of the Church Universal and Triumphant, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, (a.k.a. Guru Ma), had quite a few people convinced that a nuclear war would start on April 23, 1990, which convinced many of them to stockpile food and guns in her underground bomb shelter in Montana. While the federal government is always encouraging preparedness in the face of potential disaster, the church proved to be a bit too prepared for their taste and they promptly seized her arsenal of firearms and convicted a hand-full of her followers—including her husband—on federal weapons charges. Curiously, the lack of nuclear war did not immediately spell the end for her movement as they continued to hunker down in her Montana bunkers for some time afterwards, with some of them not venturing out until only recently.
8. 1666 CE
Much like today, almost every year throughout history has been picked by someone as “the big finale”, but some dates garner more interest—or fear—than others. One year that proved to be especially popular with end-times types was 1666, which was arrived at by combining the 1,000 years of the first millennium with the mark of the beast of Revelations (666). Using such a complex mathematical formula must have seemed pretty impressive to our ancestors, which is what made 1666 such a sure bet among doomsday aficionados during the Renaissance. Astonishingly, it proved to be entirely wrong; with the exception of the great fire that gutted London that year, killing hundreds and destroying 70,000 homes in the city—thereby making the year a sort of doomsday for Londoners—for the rest of the planet the couldn’t-miss return failed to materialize, leaving many theologians and astrologers scratching their collective heads and returning to their charts and writings to come up with the next can’t miss date.
7. 1000 & 1033 CE
Considering the role the number 1,000 often plays in scripture, it would be hard to imagine that the turn of the millennium would not be considered extremely significant, especially among those who took the book of Revelation’s thousand year millennium reign of Christ literally. Interestingly, many scholars tend to dismiss the notion that the change of the millennium created any great disturbance among the population of Europe, though others challenge this premise and insist that there is far more evidence for apocalyptism being rampant around the year 1000 than previously thought. Some also note that over the last few decades many medievalist scholars have come to view the period around the turn of the millennium as a time of great social and cultural transformation, making it possible to speculate that doomsday expectations around this period may have been more influential than earlier historians were willing to concede. Further evidence suggesting that doomsday fever continued right up to 1033CE—the 1,000th anniversary of Christ’s death and resurrection—are contained within the writings of the Burgundian monk Radulfus Glaber (985-1047CE) as well as other chroniclers of the age.
6. Edgar Cayce and the Battle of Armageddon, 1999
While the noted psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) made a number of dire Earth change predictions during the 1930s while in a trance state (hence his nickname, the Sleeping Prophet) that went either unrealized or their fulfillment is open to debate, it was his Bible-based doomsday predictions that are most disappointing (or fortuitous, considering that they didn’t occur as predicted). Possibly foreseeing the various catastrophic Earth changes just mentioned as a harbinger of the end, he unwisely implied that the epic Battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ would occur in 1999—which, despite being made almost half a century ago, still manages to sound very contemporary. Obviously, when these events failed to materialize on cue, it also made him as wrong as many of his contemporaries as well, though in having been dead for fifty-five years at the time, it made him one of the few end-times prognosticators who didn’t have to suffer the consequences of his failed predictions.
5. Y2K Bug, 2000
Probably no end-time, “this is it!” date has been as well advertised and yet produced the least splash than was the belief, promulgated by computer geeks everywhere, that with the turn of the millennium, creaking old twentieth century computers would get confused by all those zeros and do all sorts of nasty things or, at a minimum, simply shut down. While millions of people waking up on January 1st, 2000 with the blue screen of death pasted on their monitors might not sound like that big a deal, it was supposed to really snarl up the day-to-day operations of the planet by doing things like shutting down air traffic control radars—resulting in numerous mid air collisions as pilots blindly crash into each other—and forgetting to send coolant into nuclear reactor cores, causing them to blow up like a hundred little Hiroshimas. As a result, in the weeks and months leading up to the big non-event, there was a run on everything from bottled water to toilet paper as people prepared for Microsoft Armageddon, only to awake the next morning none-the-worse for wear (and with a huge stockpile of non-perishables to boot.) Who could have known all that was needed to prevent doomsday were a few software patches and a bit of diligence. (Of course, we’ve since learned not to take these things so seriously, haven’t we?)
4. Hal Lindsey and the Late Great Planet Earth, 1970
Few people got the Christian community anticipating the Rapture (an event in which all the good Christians of the planet instantaneously vanish), the appearance of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, and the seven year Great Tribulation period than did the steamboat captain turned preacher Hal Lindsey, whose landmark 1970 paperback, The Late Great Planet Earth, became an overnight international bestseller. (It even remains in print today, despite being thoroughly discredited by subsequent events). Outlining a remarkable chain of events designed to culminate in the Christ’s triumphant return at the end of a seven year cycle of abject horror, literally millions of Christians looked to 1988 (the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 when the doomsday clock literally started, according to Lindsey) as “the date”. While in all fairness Lindsey never came out and specifically named the year, it was apparent by his arguments that the 1980s was to see all the events described in the Book of Revelations come to pass which, to readers in the 1970s, was pretty scary stuff. Remarkably, Lindsey suffered little from his prophetic faux pas and went on to write several more books on the end times (each with similarly unrealized fulfillments) and even acquired his own cable TV prophecy show today, demonstrating that nothing breeds success quite like failure. Way to go Hal!
3. Heaven’s Gate, 1997
On the morning of March 26, 1997, San Diego police were called to a rented mansion in the upscale community of Rancho Santa Fe, California to investigate reports of a possible death. When they got there, they where to make a most horrific discovery: there, each lying in their own bunk and dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants and wearing brand new black-and-white Nike tennis shoes, were thirty-nine rapidly decomposing bodies, the apparent victims of a mass suicide pact.
Who were these people and why did they all commit suicide within a few days of each other? They were each members of a group of cultists known as Heaven’s Gate—a tiny group of dedicated believers who had been convinced by a former music teacher turned New Age guru, Marshall Applewhite, that planet Earth was about to be recycled and that the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately in the spaceship that rode in the tail of the then recently discovered comet Hale-Bopp. Unfortunately, the only way their souls could hitch a ride on this spaceship was by ingesting poison and releasing themselves of their Earthly shell so they might make their “transition”. Apparently, his followers took him seriously enough that over three dozen of them joined him in taking their own lives as part of a ritualistic suicide act, demonstrating that doomsday beliefs are far from being simple, harmless fun.
2. The Millerites and The Great Disappointment, 1844
New York farmer turned Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849) was by all accounts a good and decent man who had a remarkable power to persuade people to his ideas. This turned out to be to his great detriment, however, when, after undertaking an exhaustive self-study of the Old Testament—especially the book of Daniel—he came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ would return to Earth in all His glory on October 22nd, 1844. How he arrived at that precise date is the result of a fairly complex series of calculations, but suffice is to say that by 1840 his powers of persuasion were sufficient to induce upwards of 50,000 (with some estimates being as high as 500,000!) of his fellow New Englanders to buy off on his teachings. When the day came and went without Christ’s return, however, the disappointment was, to put it mildly, more than a little palpable. Almost overnight his burgeoning church folded, leaving him a man without a congregation (or, at least, a much smaller one.) Undeterred, Miller recalculated and, finding a simple math error, decided he had been off by one year and named 1845 as “the year”. After Christ stubbornly refused to return that time either, Miller largely gave up and lived out the final years of his life a virtual recluse, devastated by his great disappointment but never for a moment giving up on his belief that the Second Coming was “imminent”. Not to worry, however, for a small remnant of his church survived him to become the foundation for the fairly substantial Seventh Adventist Church today which, while no longer setting dates, still maintains a strong end-times mentality.
1. Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1874, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, & 1975
One group that has traditionally been very into end-times prophecy are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose propensity for picking failed years for Christ’s return are legendary. A group founded in 1874 by a one-time Millerite and Congregationalist by the name of Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), since its inception, no denomination has been more guilty of repeatedly setting dates than have the JWs, usually to their own detriment. Though Russell originally proposed several dates for Christ’s return starting in 1874, his most famous doomsday date was October 1, 1914, a date which happened to dovetail nicely with the start of the First World War (which Russell—an ardent pacifist—and his followers believed to be the start of the Battle of Armageddon). When Christ didn’t physically return on schedule, however, Russell—taking a cue from some of Miller’s followers—simply suggested that the Lord had returned “invisibly” instead, though without defining exactly what that meant. In any case, it didn’t seem to impact the vigor of the church to any great degree, which continued to see extraordinary growth in the intervening decades after Russell’s death in 1916.
Undeterred by their 1914 “miss” (or, apparently, unaware of Christ’s aforementioned “invisible” return) church leaders, under the leadership of Russell’s energetic successor, “Judge” Rutherford, went on to name several other years as the date for the Savior’s return. 1918, 1920, 1925, and 1941 were all proposed at one time or another, but each passed uneventfully (with the exception of 1941, which saw some little ruckus being played out in Europe). While these “misses” seemed to have little deleterious effect on the church or its continued growth for several decades, the church’s penchant for date setting almost did it in when it announced that 1975 was to be the year of Christ’s final, visible return. (This sure-fire date was based on the belief that Adam was created in the year 4026 BCE, thereby making 1975 the 6,000th anniversary of that miracle.) Encouraging JWs to sell their homes, quit their jobs, and forego all planning for the future in deference to praying and doing door-to-door evangelizing until the end came, with the dawn of 1976 came considerable buyer’s remorse and, with it, a general exodus from which it was to take the church decades to recover. As a result, the organization has been considerably more careful about date setting since, though apocalyptic, ends-time beliefs continue to permeate their teachings to this day.
Dishonorable Mentions: Jack Van Impe, whose Bible-based end-times program continues to clog the airway with its nonsense to this day; Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God whose suggestion that the “beginning of the end” would start in January of 1973 proved to be the beginning of the end for his church; retired NASA scientist Edgar Whisenaut, who self-published book “88 Reasons why the Rapture will Occur in 1988” (a book which sold four million copies in a few short months), became the prime example why self-styled eschatologists should not be allowed to self-publish; and, of course, Nostradamus, whose vague quatrains have been interpreted to spell the end for so long that they have been long-since rendered almost meaningless.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.