The Never Ending Story

A History of Apocalypses that Never Happened

By Joel Bleifuss | May 2, 2012
The End Is Near (Again)

In SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, a 70-mile-wide asteroid is hurtling straight to Earth, giving the inhabitants of this world just enough time to plan their last days. Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley), strangers who live in the same apartment building, measure their final moments by trying to figure what really matters to them. For writer/director Lorene Scafaria, what mattered was love and death: “I had a small obsession with ‘the end is near,’ and a larger obsession with love. So it became a fun challenge to see what would happen when worlds collide – so to speak.” She is not alone in her “small obsession” about the end. The last few years have been big for apocalypse watchers. At the start of 2011, Harold Egbert Camping’s Family Radio proclaimed loudly and often that the Rapture, the New Testament event that would signal the end of the world, would occur on May 21 – and when it didn't occur, Camping just rescheduled it for October 21, 2011. (Camping had previously calculated the end of the world for May 21, 1988, and, then, Sept. 6, 1994.) But while Camping’s end proved to be a bust, the ancient Mayan Calendar supposedly has penciled in the end of the world for December 21, 2012 – a date that provided disaster movie director Roland Emmerich the plot for his 2009 big-budget apocalyptic film 2012. It appears that the end is always coming, and is generally very entertaining when seen in the rearview mirror. So to celebrate the coming of SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, we travel back in time to the various moments when time was supposed to have stopped.

156: The Coming of New Jerusalem

The New Jerusalem (Tapestry of the Apocalypse) from 14th Century Tapestry

In the year 156, during the early days of Christianity, a prophet, Montanus, and his two female followers, Priscilla and Maximilla, were among the first to set a date for the end of the world. Montanism, the movement created by Montanus in Phrygia in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), soon spread throughout the Roman Empire and parts of Africa. In their prime, these three prophets attracted a sizable following. They spoke in tongues, fasted, avoided sex, ate dry foods only, disproved of art and discouraged women from dressing in finery. Indeed, the Montanists were, as scholar Philip Schaff describes them, “the first example of an earnest and well-meaning, but gloomy and fanatical hyper-Christianity.” But most importantly, reading from Revelations, the Montanists believed that Jesus would soon return, ending the world as we knew it, and ushering in a 1,000-year reign of peace in the form of the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens. Unfortunately for most Montanists, the end didn’t come from Biblical prophecy, but rather from Roman persecution or church excommunication. While Montanus’ fate is unclear, it is believed that Priscilla and Maximilla became targets of exorcism from the orthodox church. Montanism lingered briefly in North Africa under the leadership of Tertullian of Carthage, who continued to preach the impending Second Advent of Christ and the establishment of the Millennial rule on Earth.

1525: Anabaptist Thomas Muntzer’s Revolutionary Kingdom of God

“The Battle of the Angels” from the Apocalyptic series by Albrecht Dürer

On July 13, 1524, Thomas Müntzer, a radical Catholic theologian, gave what became known as his Sermon to the Princes. In it, as a critique of Papal authority and class oppression, Müntzer focused on Daniel 2:44, which spoke of how the kingdom of God would consume all earthly kingdoms. Müntzer positioned himself as a new Daniel, calling for Christians to rise up by arms to issue in the kingdom of God. He preached, “A godless man has no right to live if he hinders the godly … The sword is necessary to exterminate them. And so that it shall be done honestly and properly … At the harvest-time one must pluck the weeds out of God’s vineyard … But the angels who are sharpening their sickles for that work are no other than the earnest servants of God. For the ungodly have no right to live.” In 1425, Müntzer, in an effort to prepare for the end of the world, led what came to be known as the German Peasants’ Revolt. “Harvest time is here,” he told his followers, “so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair, soul, body, life curse the unbelievers.” But the scythes of the peasants were no match for the cannons of the nobles. About 5,000 of the 8,000 peasants he rallied to the cause were slaughtered. And, Müntzer himself was captured, tortured and then beheaded on May 27, 1525.

Circa 1666: Fifth Monarchy Almost Comes to England

Thomas Harrison; a Merian engraving of the four beasts

In the 17th Century, during the English Civil War, a group of radical Protestants known as the Fifth Monarchists predicted England’s political future and the end of the world, as they knew it. The name of the group itself was derived from the prophetic part of the Hebrew Bible called the Book of Daniel, a text that announces Christ's return. In his 1642 book The Personall Reign of Christ Upon Earth, Fifth Monarchist Henry Archer calculated that Christ reign’s would begin somewhere around 1655 and 1657. According to Daniel, once the four beasts — the Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman (read Papal) empires — were destroyed, the fifth and final monarchy, under the leadership of Jesus the King, would be established, ably governed by earthly saints, the Fifth Monarchists. Like many other radical Protestant groups that arose during the Interregnum, the Fifth Monarchists attempted to use divine text to interrupt England’s complex political situation. Among signs of the coming of Christ was the connection of the contemporary political upheaval and approaching year of 1666 (whose last three digits, “666,” were infamously cited in the Book of Revelation). Unfortunately they ended up on the wrong side of history. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Fifth Monarchists were brought up on charges of regicide (for Charles I), as well as plotting the death of Charles II. After Thomas Harrison was executed –– his sentence read, “[Y]ou shall be hanged by the neck and, being alive, shall be cut down, and your privy members to be cut off, and your entrails be taken out of your body and, you living, the same to be burnt before your eyes, and your head to be cut off, your body to be divided into four quarters, and head and quarters to be disposed of at the pleasure of the King's majesty” –– Samuel Pepys recounted the event: “[L]ooking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. … [H]e said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him; that that his wife does expect his coming again.”

1697: Cotton Mather’s New World Demise

Cotton Mather

For American colonial theologian Cotton Mather, the end of the world was part and parcel of the promise of the New World. Mather, who wrote widely on a range of subjects from theology to medicine to child psychology, was often torn between his belief in America’s unique destiny and his stern puritan view that the world, even New England, was the battlefield upon which Satan and God waged war. Many believe that Mather’s puritan religious writings set up the ideological basis for the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. For Mather himself, argues historian Robert Middlekauf, all of these events –– witches, earthquakes, and New World politics –– coincided with Biblical prophecy, pointing to the end of the world. “As he imagined the event, the ‘supernatural’ shower of the Spirit would be transmitted by holy angels,” explained Middlekauf. “These angels would enter and possess the Lord’s ministers who inspired, would speak with a divine ‘energy’ and ‘fly through the World with the everlasting Gospel to preach unto the Nations.’” Mather first believed this event would come in 1716, and then 1717. When nothing happened, Mather resigned himself to the fact “The Days are prolonged and Every Vision faileth.” Yet he held out hope that the God’s end might come in 1736. Unfortunately his own end came in 1728. 

1783: Real Disasters, Imagined Apocalypses

Painted by J.C. Leclerc. Ingrid, the Laki fissure

While many predictions of the end come from Biblical or other apocalyptic texts, at one point in 18th century England, actual events pushed people to believe the end had come. In the summer of 1783, a strange and horrible blight hit England. The skies darkened and a sulfurous fog spread through the country. In Gentleman's Magazine, a visitor to Lincoln observed: “A thick hot vapour had for several days before filled up the valley, so that both the Sun and Moon appeared like heated brick-bars.” The poet William Cowper wrote, “We never see the sun but shorn of his beams, the trees are scarce discernable at a mile's distance, he sets with the face of a hot salamander and rises with the same complexion.” By the end of the year, nearly 23,000 people had died from respiratory failure. In addition, the blight destroyed crops, creating famine and food riots. For the superstitious, the answer was obvious. Reverend John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, reported, “Those that were asleep in the town were waked and many thought the day of judgment had come…Men, women and children flocked out of their houses and kneeled down together in the streets.”  The truth, while just as lethal, was more geological than theological. These deadly events were the result of volcanic eruptions of the Laki Craters in Iceland in which an estimated 120 million tons of deadly gases were released into the atmosphere — 100 times more than were released in 2010 during the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, also in Iceland. Clouds of sulfur dioxide and fluorine drifted across the Atlantic, and mixing with atmospheric moisture, produced sulfuric rain.

1843: Millerites and William Miller

Miller’s illustrated calendar detailing the whole of the world’s history

William Miller, one of the great doomsday-sayers of the 19th century, arrived at his revelation of the world’s end in 1818. After converting to Christianity in 1816, he threw himself into Bible study, calculating from his exegesis “that in about 25 years from that time all the affairs of our present state would be wound up.” Armed with this revelation and great oratorical gift, Miller amassed a following estimated to be as high as 100,000, many who gave away their earthly possessions in order to join him for the end of the world. By 1843, Miller had determined that sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, “Christ will come, and Bring all His Saints with Him.” Ridiculed by some, and scolded by others –– like Noah Webster, who chided, “If your preaching drives people into despair or insanity, you are responsible for the consequences” –– Miller and his Millerites nevertheless rushed headlong into the oncoming abyss. In the days after March 21, 1844, when it became clear his prediction had come to naught, papers were filled with stories of mad Millerism, like the story of Mr. Shortridge, who’d “attempted to ascend to Heaven from an apple-tree, but found the attraction of gravitation too strong for his celestial aspirations, and came to the ground with such momentum as to cause his death.” Publicly humiliated, Miller bowed his head long enough to revise his prediction, resetting the end for October 22, 1844, a date that, when it also failed to end anything, lived on as “The Great Disappointment.” While Miller died some five years later, his beliefs lived in on in such Adventist churches, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists, who under the leadership of Ellen G. White talked about the coming end of times, but, wisely, refrained from marking an exact date on their calendars.

1910: Halley’s Comet and The Select Followers

At the beginning of the 20th Century, many used science to justify their belief in the end of the world. In 1909, astronomers at Chicago's Yerkes Observatory, using the new science of spectroscopy, detected the presence of poisonous cyanogen gas in the tails of comets, a fact that threw fear into the hearts of the pseudoscientific. With Halley’s Comet set to pass through Earth’s orbit in 1910, panic began to spread. Some concerned citizens bought and took “comet pills” while others purchased special “comet protecting umbrellas.” More fearful citizens committed suicide, and one gold prospector, in an attempt to sacrifice himself and thus save humanity, nailed himself to a cross. In Oklahoma, a sect known as the Select Followers took the craze a bit too far. On May 20, 1910, the Oklahoma City Times reported that the police had found 16-year-old Jane Warfield, “nude and partially unconscious, … tied to a stake in the center of a dancing group of the crazed followers of [Henry] Heinman and within a few minutes was to have been stabbed and bled to death.” After police saved Ms. Warfield, and rounded up and jailed the Select Followers, authorities determined that “Heinman instigated the act by telling his companions that the comet meant the end of the world and the sacrifice was necessary for their atonement.”

1914: Jehovah’s Witnesses bear Repeated Witness to the World’s End

Despite the failure of Miller’s prophetic visions in the 1840s, his followers continued anticipating the end times. One group of Millerites known as Second Adventists latched onto the idea that the world would end in 1873-74. This band of believers fell under the spell of a young preacher, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), who in 1884 went on to found Zion’s Watch Tower Track Society, which came to be known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Russell, among his other unusual beliefs, was dedicated to the ideas of pyramidology, which stated that the Great Pyramid at Giza was “God’s Stone Witness” — a witness whose secrets could be divined through understanding its architectural measurements. Using the Book of Daniel as their basis for prophecy, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted that the world would end on the following years: 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994. After the “battle of the Great Day of God Almighty” (Armageddon) failed to occur in 1914, 1915, 1918 and 1920, the “Watchtower” set its sights, with a clever caveat, on 1925: “The year 1925 is a date definitely and clearly marked in the Scriptures, even more clearly than that of 1914; but it would be presumptuous on the part of any faithful follower of the Lord to assume just what the Lord is going to do during that year.”

1988: Profits of Doom

In the 1970 evangelical tract The Late Great Planet Earth –– which sold over 15 million copies when it was first published, and later was immortalized in a 1977 movie –– Hal Lindsey used Biblical prophecy to establish the end of the world. While refusing to provide an exact date, he pointed out that according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus would return within “one generation” of the rebirth of Israel, which happened in 1948. And since, according to Lindsey,  “a generation in the Bible is something like 40 years,” it stood to reason that the Tribulation and the Rapture would occur no later than 1988. In fact, in his follow-up bestselling The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey predicted that "the decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” When 1988 passed, and the world survived, Lindsay “updated” (his term) The Late Great Planet Earth and thereby edited out all his predictions that failed to come true. In 2008, Lindsay wrote an essay on Christian Right website WorldNetDaily that explained that candidate Barack Obama was none other than the Antichrist. “Obama is correct in saying that the world is ready for someone like him — a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib ... The Bible calls that leader the Antichrist. And it seems apparent that the world is now ready to make his acquaintance,” he wrote from his headquarters in Tulsa. While this prediction has yet to be proven, people are nevertheless still listening to and believing in its veracity. According to a Pew Research poll 41 percent of Americans believe that Christ will come — and the world will end — by 2050.

1997: Heaven's Gate

While most end-of-days predictions turn into public jokes, the Heaven’s Gate cult ended as a massive tragedy. On March 26, 1997, the police in the upscale San Diego community of Rancho Santa Fe, CA, discovered the bodies of 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, all dead of an apparent suicide from phenobarbital-laden applesauce with a vodka chaser. And each victim, dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, lay in their bunk beds with a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets and a purple square cloth over their bodies. In time, it became clear the Heaven’s Gate members, pushed by their messianic leader Marshall Applewhite, had killed themselves, not simply to end their lives, but to escape the Earth’s imminent destruction. In taped messages, Applewhite repeated, “it was the only way to evacuate this Earth." Accorded to Applewhite’s convoluted theory, once freed from their earthly bodies the Heaven’s Gaters would be transported to a gigantic spacecraft that was accompanying the Hale-Bopp Comet through the Solar System, which would ferry them to the “Kingdom Level Above Human.” Daniel Wojcik, in The End of the World as We Know It, observes: “Like other UFO groups, the theology of Heaven’s Gate consists of a synthesis of concepts borrowed from Christianity, Theosophy, science fiction, Eastern religions, and New Age mysticism, as well as notions associated with Gnosticism, Mormonism, and Scientology, melded together and reinterpreted. A central ideal among this diversity of beliefs is that doomsday is at hand and that by living an ascetic lifestyle one may transcend earthly existence and ultimately be transported by a UFO to a higher realm.”

The Future of the End: Planet Nibiru

The asteroid hurtling towards earth in SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is, of course, fictional. Or is it? For some, Planet X – also known as Planet Nibiru – is coming and will mark the end of the world. The main proponent of the Nibiru collision is Nancy Lieder, a woman from Wisconsin who claims that extraterrestrials — of the variety known as “grays” — kidnapped her as a child and implanted a communications device in her skull. Lieder says that she is communicating with these space beings, from the Zeta Reticuli star system, who have chosen her to warn humanity that Nibiru is on a collision course with Earth. The proposed impact was to have occurred in May 27, 2003. About a week before Nibiru was due to hit, Lieder advised listeners to put their pets to sleep in anticipation to the event. And she herself set an example by euthanizing her dogs. “The puppies are in a happy place,” she said. When nothing happened in 2003, Lieder confessed it had all been a “white lie … to fool the establishment.” But despite her mea culpa, the myth continues. Writing in Astronomy Beat, astronomer David Morrison calls this fear of the universal destruction “cosmophobia.” Morrison, a scientist at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute at Ames (Iowa) Research Center, says he get about 25 emails a week about Nibiru’s coming. Some of the writers are frightened, some are angry at him for his complicity in the NASA cover-up, and others ask him whether or not they should kill themselves, their children or their pets.

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