It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (Again…)
After reading the blog of my esteemed colleague a couple of days ago (http://wp.me/p2UTL7-b), I was inspired to write my own little blog about the coming apocalypse to help him quell the madness that has arisen now that we are told that we are just days from the end. Yes dear friends, the ominous date, the end of days, December 21st 2012 is here. As you may know, this is the last day in the Mesoamerican Mayan calendar and, whether you’re Mayan or Non-Mayan, the whole world seems to buzzing with the chatter of the end of all things.
It seems that despite the efforts of Taz and the fine folks at NASA to point out the scientific flaws of all these end of the world theories, as well as Mayan historians who point out that we are merely nearing the end of a calendar cycle, rather than the end of life as we know it, it seems that people are still going nuts about it. A friend of my sisters’ was rushed home a few weeks ago by an anxious mother who wanted to spend her last few days with her loved ones. Meanwhile, panic has gripped the people of Russia and people have been buying dehydrated food supplies and candles on mass in preparation for the apocalypse.
So, I’m writing today to do my bit to bolster rational thinking over the next few days of madness. As a historian, one of the values in dealing with current affairs is the ability to ask yourself “Has this happened before?”
And actually it has. Quite a few times. Not the end of the world obviously, but rather scores of people convinced the world is about to end. Just consider how many other end of days’s we have lived through already:
Only last year, Harold Camping (pictured below), an eminent preacher from Oakland, California predicted the Rapture, where the physical world would end and all the Earth shall be judged. He predicted it numerous times and each time, he and his followers were predictably disappointed. You may also remember a similar frenzy in the lead up to new year’s day 2000. Because surely, if there were a prophecy that the world would end it would happen on a nice round number like that?
But this doomsday prophesising is far from a new thing. In the 19th Century, there was a sect called the Millerites who followed an influential Baptist preacher called William Miller. Like Camping, he used the power of spending way too much time with a bible and a maths book to predict the Rapture on October 22nd 1844 in which Jesus himself would return to Earth. Followers who waited the whole day became literally sick with disappointment, and this day was henceforth known as the Great Disappoinment.
Looking even further back to the 13th Century, during the days of Genghis Khan and his conquest of Asia and Eastern Europe, many people were convinced that such brutality and destruction signified the beginning of the end.
And these are not just isolated incidents from history – it seems that, as a species, we are obsessed with apocalypse. From the millennia long tradition of taking to the streets shouting ‘the end is nigh’ to all the movies about cataclysmic events, nuclear armageddon and zombies overrunning the earth, it seems we can’t get enough of it! This Mayan prophecy is just the current incarnation of our love affair with apocalypse. So why is it that for generations we have been so drawn to this morbid tradition?
Apocalypse in Religion
Let’s have another look at our old preacher friend, Harold Camping and his 2011 Rapture. Credit to him, he was very precise about when it would happen: May 21st 2011 at 6pm. And it takes a lot of guts to have that much conviction about something that has no logical or reasoned backing whatsoever. After unsuccessfully predicting the Rapture earlier in 1994, the guy did not give up in his conviction that the world was still definitely going to end, he just got the math a little wrong. Even after the world continued to exist in May 2011, he unrepentantly came out to clarify that May was just the beginning of the Rapture, which would reach it’s dramatic conclusion on October 21st 2011.
And the scary thing is just how many people took him seriously and still do! With his influence through his Family Radio Network and billboards across the United States, he managed to convince his vast following that the end is nigh. And before you start thinking that he is just one man making a lot of noise, consider this: Family Radio Network is entirely funded by supporters. That’s right, people not only believe his theories on the end of the world, they actively finance him thinking that will ensure their salvation in the coming Rapture!
He predicted that only around 2% of the world’s population would be taken to heaven whilst the rest of us would be taken to the ambiguously named Other Place. Imagine actually believing that! How scared would you be if you thought you were part of the 98% that were going to burn in hell for all eternity? More importantly, what lengths would you go to to ensure that you are part of the 2% that are saved.
History has shown us just how powerful religious authorities are. In many religions, people are motivated to follow the moral laws set out by their holy books because they are told if they don’t they will be punished in the Rapture and the Afterlife. In bygone times, churches would tell there patrons that if they were sinful, the best way they could atone for their sins before the Rapture would be to offer your complete physical, spiritual and financial support to God’s church. The scope for abusing your power was incredible! Church leaders could scare people senseless and then convince them to give them all the money they can and instil loyalty and support over the masses. For them the idea of apocalypse was a hugely effective motivator: live righteously, follow the laws of the bible and the Church and you can look forward to the Rapture rather instead of fearing it.
But that was then and this is now. Like these bygone Church leaders, was Camping motivated by power and money? Of course not! That’s ridiculous! Who gave you that idea? You should be ashamed of yourself! Let’s move on!
Apocalypse – it’s the only explanation!
Now in my mind, the fears that surrounded the coming of the year 2000 actually did have some substance to them. I’m talking specifically about the Y2K problem, more commonly known as the Millennium Bug. Since the vast majority of 20th Century computer systems were programmed to handle dates up until around 31st December 1999 – in simple terms, computers all over the world couldn’t handle all these new space age dates from 1st January 2000 onwards and computer buffs all over the world had to work round the clock to get things working again. Whilst all this was being sorted, many Bank transactions stopped working, hospital records were disrupted and even some military computers stopped working. In total, dealing with Y2K cost the world around $308 billion.
This was all pretty disruptive, but what has this all got to do with the apocalypse? Good question. There had been a load of theories already circulating that 2000 years after the birth of Christ, he would return and the Rapture would come. All the trouble around Y2K seemed to confirm these theories.
This isn’t the first time apocalypse has been used to explain it when things go wrong. When Genghis Khan’s armies swept across the known world, people leapt on the idea of apocalypse and that he was an agent of God to punish the wicked. Looking back on it, we can now attribute his success to his diplomatic bullying, military strategy and terrifying leadership.
This belief in apocalypse doesn’t just come out of nowhere. People looking around seeing computers rebelling in the year 2000, financial breakdown in Europe and America, mass starvation in Africa, earthquakes in Japan and Hurricanes in America can reach the conclusion that these are signs of the beginning of the end.
It seems that a knee jerk reaction to things going wrong is to start yelling “It’s the apocalypse!” Because there are so many apocalyptic prophecies that there’s bound to be at least one made by someone happening around now.
Should we survive Friday’s apocalypse, there’s loads more to come! F. Kenton Beshore, a follower of Christian Zionist Hal Lindsey who predicted the end of the world in 1988, has predicted another second coming of Jesus followed by the Rapture for sometime between 2018 and 2028. Lindsey was a generation off in his prediction it seems. Should that not happen, Jeane Dixon used her psychic powers to predict Armageddon in the form of a war pitting Jesus against the Unholy Trinity of the Antichrist, Satan and the False Prophet.
So does all this mean we’ll be safe?
Well no, not entirely. We still have to face up to the fact that there are a load of nutters running around thinking the world’s about to end. It’s hard to say if anything significant will happen, but I’d keep a safe distance if I were you.
But my parting advice to you dear reader is that when you see something that looks like apocalypse, take a step back and find out what’s really going on. If you think the computers are rebelling and planning another Y2K, maybe you should try either understanding them better or trying not to be so dependent on them? If you think the recent hurricanes and earthquakes are signs of the beginning of the end, why not ask if it has something to do with global warming? If you think there’s an almighty force denying poor children basic necessities, why not reconsider the way the world shares its resources? If you’re worried that an imminent war that will destroy the Earth, then don’t vote for Sarah Palin in 2016.
The world today is facing so many challenges, but it’s not because of an ancient prophecy that we have no control over. It is because of real, logical issues that we do have control over and we can change. I’m hoping once a few more apocalyptic prophecies are laid to rest, people might actually start looking into what’s really going on in our world, and who knows, might do something about it? So please, apocalypse fans, get out of your bunkers and take December 21st for what the Mayans intended it to be: the end of an old cycle and the beginning of a new one, a chance for looking at the world afresh. There may not be a single day of judgment but we are in the midst of uncertain times which are going to test us as a species. So, rather than doing what’s right through fear of the Rapture, why not do what’s right so that we can face the real challenges of our time?