It’s fairly common to hear somebody blathering about the End of the World these days.
And by “these days” I mean, well, whenever you happen to be reading this, because one of the few constants over the past couple thousand years has been folks’ certainty — absolute certainty — that the end is nigh. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.
The end is nigh. Still. The date just keeps getting moved a little further down the road, a can kicked from one decade to the next — mostly by fire and brimstone preachers who, by the way, will accept cash, check, or credit card to make you feel better about the whole impending doom business.
At the moment I’m writing this, in fact, there’s a bigger surge than usual about Doomnation given the all-too-horrifyingly-real tragedy unfolding in Japan. Here, for instance, is an interesting mix of fundamentalist responses. I generally consider this kind of ranting rather silly on principle, but in the present moment, trying to imagine the horror the people of Japan are living through, I also find it bordering on despicable (as an interesting counterpoint, here’s an atheist’s response to the fundamentalist response).
But back to the subject at hand: The End.
In the sense of the end of the Earth itself, scheduled demolition is in about 5 billion years, when the sun swells to a red giant that will swallow Mercury and Venus, for sure, and quite probably the Earth, too. Not that we’ll care. We only have a mere 1 billion years before the heat of the sun increases to the point that Earth is no longer within the habitable “goldilocks” zone of our star (so buy real estate on Ganymede now, folks!).
In the sense of “the end of the world as we know it” — often referred to in short-hand as TEOTWAWKI — well, that end could hit even before we all pack up for the satellites of Jupiter, though not due to the prophecies of some ancient, time-worn mythology. No, I’m thinking of something like a gamma-ray burst of radiation. If a star explodes just right, it’ll release a jet of high-energy gamma-rays. If that star happens to be within a radius of a kilo-parsec around the Earth (that’s about 3,262 light-years), and the jet happens to be aimed at the Earth … well, it’ll strip off most of what’s left of the Ozone layer and basically fry us all to tater-totitude. TEOTWAWKI indeed.
Come to think of it, though, we’ll probably have destroyed the Earth’s ecosystem beyond recovery even before the Vegas-odds of a GRB hit us. For all our cleverness, humans aren’t terribly smart when it comes to nature: we tend to foul the nest. My dog knows not to do that, but I once had a hamster who was pretty comfortable sleeping amid its own pellets of feces. So there you go.
Anyhow, it seems that most of the “end-is-nighers” are old-myth-believers of one kind or another. I’m not going to get into the church-goer strain here, except to say that it goes back to the roots of Christianity, for certain: In the Gospel of Matthew alone Jesus himself twice predicted to audiences that some of them would still be alive when the End of All Things arrived (Matthew 16:28, 24:34).
No, what I really want to talk about are those old mythological “predictions” that get dragged out from time to time to “prove” that TEOTWAWKI is coming. It’d be amusing, except that so many people base life decisions on this kind of thing.
2012: Because the Mayans Knew So Much
Take the year 2012. It’s all the current rage to say that the world will end on December 21, 2012. Why? Well, because that’s when the Mayan calendar “ends.”
First things first, the Mayan calendar doesn’t. But even if it did, I can’t really get my head around why we’d take their word for such a thing. What exactly did the Mayans know that we don’t? I mean, sure, Tik’al is pretty awesome. But evidence that they somehow knew the fate of all things? ‘Tis lacking, I’m afraid. After all, if they had so much foresight don’t you think they would have been a bit more ready for that whole conquistadores thing? Just a thought.
And as for that myth of their calendar ending on December 21, 2012? I have here, hanging on the wall by my desk, a calendar. It currently tells me that it is March 1, 2011. Skipping ahead a bit, I can see that — egads! — it ends on December 31! Woe! TEOTWAWKI! My calendar is ending, so the world will clearly suffer some horrible catastrophic cataclysm of existence-altering awfulness! Run for your lives!
Silly, right? The end of my yearly calendar is just the end of an individual calendar cycle. It means nothing but the fact that I need to get the next cycle’s calendar on my wall and remember to change the date when I sign checks.
The same thing is true of the Mayans and this 2012 business: it’s the end of a single calendar cycle. Would it have been a big deal for the Mayans? I reckon so. Heck, we make a big deal about New Years these days, and that occurs on only a 1-year cycle. The cycle that ends on December 21, 2012 according to the Mayan calendar? It’s a b’ak’tun cycle, and they are over 394 years long! You can bet your sweet milk-of-an-alpaca that they would have partied in Tik’al like it was 1618! (Or not, given the aforementioned conquistadores business.)
Indeed, if you’re looking for an equivalent to this 2012 business that’s a bit more familiar, try to recall all the Y2K craziness. You remember the parties, right? And maybe, just maybe, you also remember how so many folks thought all our computers were going to crash, and how far, far too many Christians were convinced Jesus was coming back and the End Times were here. (I’m still simultaneously amused and saddened that so many sat on hilltops waiting for the strike of midnight and the Rapture, as if Jesus were coming back on Central Standard Time or some such.)
Indeed, I can say with supreme confidence that the year 2000 and year 2012 predictions about the End of the World (like the many similar predictions of the last 2000 years) will in the end have a single over-riding thing in common: they’ll be wrong.
Still Waiting for TEOTWAWKI
I led off referencing how seemingly every generation of the past two millennia has thought they were living in the End Times. This time-span, by no coincidence, overlaps precisely with the history of Christianity, which is rooted in eschatological (a fancy word for TEOTWAWKI) thinking.
I was going to back that up with a brief list of failed TEOTWAWKI predictions here. In fact, I started to write one up from memory. When I couldn’t remember the name of the founder of the Watchtower Society and his first date for TEOTWAWKI, I did a Google search for the information I needed. I quickly found out that his name was Charles Taze Russell, and his first failed prediction was for October of 1914.
Far more exciting, though, I also stumbled on a couple of prediction lists that are much bigger than anything I was planning. So I’ve deleted my own and instead will here supply you with a far, far better resource: the incredibly detailed TEOTWAWKI pages of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. There are lots of goodies there, but the lists of predictions are priceless. Note that there are so many they have to divide them up by categories.
For random fun, you can get something in a less “listing” fashion by picking a year for The End (and seeing how someone predicted it) on this awesome little website.
And just in case you thought listing such things is nothing but anti-Christian bias, here’s a list of over 200 Christian predictive failures (and predictions whose outcome is still unknown) put together by a professed Christian. This individual is quite certain that TEOTWAWKI will indeed come since the Bible said it would, but he or she also notes that the Bible says that Jesus said nobody can know the date for certain (Matthew 24:35-36). So therefore all predictions have been (and will continue to be) wrong.