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Surprising Science

This is the Way the World Won’t End

Predicting the end of the world is a rough business. Everyone knows when you’re wrong; and when you’re right, you don’t get to take a victory lap. 

People throughout history have tried, very unsuccessfully, to set specific dates for the Apocalypse. These predictions come in many different forms. Five years ago there was a great deal of hysteria taking hold in Rome, based on a 1915 prediction that “the big one,” an earthquake, would strike the city on May 11, 2011. Rome dodged that bullet, and then they had to immediately hold their collective breaths again on May 21, 2011, the date of the next major Apocalyptic prediction.  

A fairly extensive list of predictions can be found on this site here, which separates the long history of apocalyptic predictions into different periods, such as 2800BC – 1700, 1701 – 1971, 1971 – 1997, 1998 – 1999, and 2000 – Now. Here is a list of some of the most colorful predictions, and how they panned out:

1. Jehovah’s Witnesses Predictions

A central tenet of the Jehovah’s Witnesses denomination of Christianity is Millennialism, derived from the Latin word millennium, meaning “thousand years.” Millennialism is a belief that Christ will reign for 1000 years prior to the Last Judgment, which is derived from Revelation 20, 1-6. So when would Christ return? The year 1874 was predicted, and when the world didn’t end then, the date was changed to 1881, then 1910, and then the very precise date of Oct 1, 1914 was set (World War I was believed to be the Battle of Armageddon). When the world did not end on that date, 1918 was substituted. Then 1925. Then 1941. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have today abandoned the practice of offering exact dates. 

2. Cult Predictions

Numerous cults have made Apocalyptic predictions that proved unfounded. Some famous examples in recent years include the Manson Family, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate. Things did not end well for the followers of any of those cults. Charles Manson told his followers that racial tensions would lead to an Apocalyptic race war. When this didn’t happen, the Manson Family went on a murderous rampage in 1969 in order to “show the blacks how to do it.” David Koresh and 100 of his Branch Davidian followers boarded themselves up in a compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. A 51-day F.B.I. siege ended with the outbreak of a fire and the death of 76 members, including Koresh. The presence of the Hale-Bopp comet in the sky spelled doom for the members of the UFO cult Heaven’s Gate. 38 cult members committed suicide in 1997

3. Isaac to the Rescue

Sir Isaac Newton was not so much a prophet of doom, but a scientist who was out to prove that the world would be safe from destruction. He searched the Bible for mathematical proof in the hope of putting “a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.” In 1704, Newton calculated that the world was safe until at least 2060–exactly 1,260 years after the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire. 

4. Party like it’s 1999

A computer glitch called the millennium bug, but also referred to simply as Y2K, added fuel to the fire and brimstone of the many apocalyptic predictions for the year 2000. Many handsome profits were made off the media hype and mass hysteria that gripped the U.S. and the world. In fact a whole cottage industry of Y2K survival guides popped up. But in the end, about the worst thing that actually happened was a lot of people woke up really hungover on January 1, 2000.

5. December 21, 2012

Predictions that the world will end in 2012 are not entirely unfounded. But this has nothing to do with the Mayan calendar or a mysterious asteroid strike. As the theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku and others have noted, a solar storm is possible and it could cause great damage to our infrastructure. This is something the government keeps a continuous watch on, at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. They provide “real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar events” and issue warnings and alerts for hazardous space weather events. Until NOAA sounds the alarm, I wouldn’t go running for the hills just yet. 

6. Anytime between 2020 and 2037

Jeane Dixon, an “astrologer claiming psychic powers“, predicted that Armageddon would occur in 2020, when Jesus returns to take on three devils between 2020 and 2037. It should be noted that she had also predicted the world would end on February 4, 1962. Her prediction misfires, at odds with her soaring popularity, is what caused mathematics professor John Allen Paulos to coin the term ‘the Jeane Dixon effect’, which the NY Times describes as “loudly touting a few correct predictions and conveniently overlooking the much larger number of false predictions.” 


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