Religious Visions of the EndAny discussion of doomsday prophecies must begin with various religious attempts to foresee the end. While it would be wrong to use cranks and eccentrics to paint all religions with a broad brush, the fact that these beliefs are inherently irrefutable creates a wide field for frauds to make things up as they go along.
Speaking of round numbers, it doesn’t get rounder than 1000, which was the date predicted by Pope Sylvester II in the fourth century. Ironically, there was a Pope Sylvester III, who was born in the year 1000, amid riots caused by panicky idiots who didn’t know that even the Catholic Church doesn’t place Christ’s birth in the year 0, seeing as how there was no year 0 in the Western calendar, which is another thing the rioters probably didn’t know. Eschatological scientists learned from this mistake and revised their estimates to 1,000 years from Jesus’ death, rather than birth. Nothing happened in 1033 AD, either.
We have better records of the Late Middle Ages than we do from the early period, so naturally there are dozens of lurid prophecies littering the archives dating from the period 1000 to 1500. According to various theologians, cardinal archbishops, and the occasional saint, the world met its doom in: 1260, 1284, 1290, 1335, 1351, 1370, and 1378. It’s worth noting that none of these prophets saw the Black Death (1346) or the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) coming, which you’d think would be useful information.
Never mind that, the Moon is kind of red tonight! It’s the END!!!
Christianity certainly doesn’t have a lock on end times, though that’s ironically what Christian doom preachers claim, and various schools of Islam have blazed their own trail of embarrassments. According to (some versions of) Islam, al-Qiyāmah – the Day of Judgment – is to be preceded by 12 signs. The reasoning here gets more complicated than Lord of the Rings fan fiction, but it boils down to this: the world will be ruled by corrupt men, wars will be fought, things will generally suck, and various other totally unusual occurrences will come to pass right near the end.
Specific dates are hard to come by, probably due to the Muslim abhorrence of mere men claiming to be prophets, but some of the specific signs are the sort of thing you’d expect to notice. Mecca, for example, is slated for total destruction along with the Kaaba. People will also reportedly fornicate in the streets “like donkeys,” and the Sun will rise in the west. So – if you happen to see any of this going on, maybe let someone know about it.
Con-men become con-men largely because getting a real job is hard work. To that end, many of the obvious fakes in the doomsday racket like to appropriate existing religious stories, rather than having to come up with their own stuff from scratch. Despite this, some characters practically leap off the page as going above and beyond the call of ordinary crazy. Nostradamus, for example.
Michel de Nostredame was born in 1503 and grew up to be an apothecary, which, in 16th-century Europe, meant he was basically a drug pusher. Nostradamus supplemented his income by uttering purposely vague prophecies that could be taken as accurate predictions, or they could not be, depending on how hard you need them to be true. An example, written in a meter called iambic tetracycline – and backwards in Medieval French, at that:
The year 1999, seventh month,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror.
To bring back to life the great King of the Mongols,
Before and after Mars to reign by good luck.
Far from immunizing the modern world against obvious scams, the legacy of failed prophets seems instead to have built up a cultural expectation of them. Unsurprisingly, given that a fool and his money are soon parted, the number of money-gobbling fakes has multiplied with the advent of better communications technologies. A quick rundown:
UFO cult leader Dorothy Martin predicted flooding and worldwide devastation to take place on December 21, 1954.
Celebrity astrologer Jeane Dixon used the absolutely unprecedented occurrence of the Sun, Moon, and visible planets sort of being kind of close to each other (within 17 degrees of arc, with none of the planets visible during the daytime) to predict the destruction of the world. She would later claim to have predicted the assassination of President Kennedy – shortly after it actually happened.
George Van Tassel, channeling an alien named Ashtar, predicted the end in 1967.
American prophet Herbert W. Armstrong, having unsuccessfully predicted the end in 1936 and 1943, pegged 1972 for the total, absolute, take-it-to-the-bank end of days. Also, 1975.
All of this is great fun, unless you’re one of the hundreds of millions of people who have been bilked out of money, or worse, by the doom prophets. But how will the world really end? After all, all things must end eventually, surely there must be some end we can actually predict, right?