Eve of destruction? Doomsday prophecies spiked before Dec. 21, 2012

Predictions about the world’s demise are not new but rumors of apocalypse spiked as Dec. 21, 2012 approached, a date when many said an ancient Mayan calendar will wind down – and signal the end of the world as we know it. Experts debunked this idea but the story illustrates our fascination with The End.

In 2011, for example, all the focus was on apocalyptic preacher Harold Camping and his prediction that the world would end with Jesus’ return on May 21 of that year. That didn’t happen, but those of a more secular bent often see the end coming by way of climate change or other environmental shifts that could threaten human existence.

This edition of Religion provides experts and resources for reporters covering the latest predictions about the end of the world – and any that may come later.

Why it matters

Apocalyptic thinking is a characteristic of the American religious imagination and has been a staple of popular culture and belief throughout history. Such ideas can illuminate important aspects of the national culture and societal trends, in terms of short-term versus long-term thinking, for example.

But apocalyptic thinking is also of critical importance when it comes to understanding cults like the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; Aum Shinrikyo in Japan; and the Heaven’s Gate sect of San Diego, Calif. Scholars say it is crucial to understand the apocalyptic and millennial underpinnings of different groups and their agendas, from religious terrorists to those who welcome signs of an apocalypse.

Articles

Polls and background

Definitions

The Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University maintains an apocalyptic glossary of terms used by many different religions and groups within those religions to discuss their ideas and visions about the end of the world. Here are a few of the most important:

Armageddon – This is the site of the final cosmic battle between good and evil, generally referring to the prophecy in the Book of Revelation. The term can refer to an actual battlefield, which some place at Megiddo in what is now Israel. Others use it in a metaphoric sense, or to denote any cataclysmic clash.

end times – Generally refers to the time of tribulation preceding the Second Coming of Jesus — though, as the Wikipedia entry notes, it has parallels and roots in all three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Sometimes also called the “End of Days.”

millennial – [religious] referring to a 1,000-year period of messianic peace on Earth. Thus, a phenomenon can be millennial without occurring at a millennium (chronological marker), and vice versa. The turn of a millennium or a century has, historically, intensified manifestations of religious expectation and social enthusiasm.

postmillennialism – The belief that Christ will return after the establishment of the millennial kingdom, which arises from divinely inspired human efforts. In mild forms, blends with progressive reforms; in more extreme ones, with violent theocracies.

premillennialism – The belief that Jesus will return before the beginning of the millennium and will be the impetus for the final battle between good and evil. It often includes apocalyptic expectation of Rapture, tribulation, Antichrist, strong dualist tendencies, emphasis on preparation of self and missionizing.

Rapture – The belief that Christ’s faithful followers will be taken bodily into heaven before the tribulation period. There are, however, variations on this belief, as some Christians believe the Rapture will occur at the end of the tribulation period and others believe it will occur in the middle.

Apocalypse online

  • Apocalypse Soon

    Apocalypse Soon is a website devoted to signs of the end. It’s written and compiled by Pietro Arnese, a Christian layperson.

  • Midnight Call

    Midnight Call is an online magazine of Christian prophecy that watches world events with an eye toward the Second Coming of Jesus. Email through the website.

    Contact: 800-845-2420.
  • Prophecy News Watch

    Prophecy News Watch compiles news its editors feel is relevant to the Christian apocalypse.

  • Rapture Index

    The website RaptureReady.com offers a Rapture Index that measures physical signs and events that indicate the Rapture may be near.

National sources

Doomsayers

  • Pietro Arnese

    Pietro Arnese is editor of the website Apocalypse Soon. He lives in Italy.

  • Irvin Baxter

    Irvin Baxter is founder and president of Endtime Ministries, a Christian non-profit organization located in Plano, Tex.

    Contact: 972-422-0857.
  • Harold Camping

    Harold Camping is president of Family Radio and its attendant ministries. He predicted the Second Coming of Jesus on May 21, 2011, followed by the end of the world on Oct. 21, 2011. Camping previously predicted the end of the world in 1994. He lives in Alameda, Calif.

  • Wilfred Hahn

    Wilfred Hahn is founder of Mulberry Press, publishers of the Eternal Value Review. Part of the company’s mission statement is to proclaim the imminent return of Jesus, which it does by keeping watch on world economic developments.

  • Tim LaHaye

    Tim LaHaye, co-author of Left Behind, the apocalyptic novel series, also wrote Faith of Our Founding Fathers: A Comprehensive Study of America’s Christian Foundations.

  • David Reagan

    David Reagan is founder and director of Lamb & Lion Ministries, a Christian organization that proclaims the imminent return of Jesus. It is based in McKinney, Texas.

    Contact: 972-736-3567.
  • Todd Strandberg

    Todd Strandberg is executive director of RaptureReady.com, which publishes the Rapture Index.

Doom naysayers

Watching the watchmen

  • Abbas Amanat

    Abbas Amanat is director of the Iranian Studies Initiative at Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and former chairman of the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He is author of Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism (2009).

  • Michael Barkun

    Michael Barkun is a professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. He is the author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America and Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement.

  • Darrell L. Bock

    Darrell L. Bock is a well known author of over 30 books exploring biblical topics and earned international recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), for his work in Luke-Acts, historical Jesus study, biblical theology, as well as with messianic Jewish ministries.

  • David B. Cook

    David Bryan Cook is an associate professor of religious studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He specializes in the origins and historical development of Islam. He has written several books on historical and contemporary Islamic writings about the apocalypse and has taught a course titled “Jihad and the End of the World.”

  • Joseph Gelfer

    Joseph Gelfer is an adjunct research associate in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University in Australia and editor of the anthology 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse (2011).

  • Crawford Gribben

    Crawford Gribben is a director of the Trinity Millennialism Project at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

  • John R. Hall

    John R. Hall is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (2009) and can discuss the history of apocalyptic movements, prophets and groups.

  • Jonathan Kirsch

    Jonathan Kirsch is the author of A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization. He says apocalyptic anxiety has never been wholly absent from our culture, but it is at an all-time high now, due to current events and natural disasters.

  • Richard A. Landes

    Richard A. Landes is an associate professor of history at Boston University, specializing in messianic and millennial movements. He was the director of the now inactive Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

  • Simon Martin

    Simon Martin is a Mayanist scholar and senior research specialist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, known as the Penn Museum. Martin is co-curator of an exhibit there titled “Maya 2012: Lords of Time,” and he is co-author of Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya.

  • Sharan Newman

    Sharan Newman is the author of The Real History of the End of the World: Apocalyptic Predictions From Revelation and Nostradamus to Y2K and 2012.

  • Barbara Rossing

    Barbara Rossing is a professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is the author of The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2005), and The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride, and Empire in the Apocalypse (Trinity Press International, 1999).

  • Daniel Wojcik

    Daniel Wojcik is a professor of folklore studies at the University of Oregon. He is interested in contemporary American apocalyptic movements and groups, especially those focused on UFOs.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Anthony Aveni

    Anthony Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and author of The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012.

  • John J. Collins

    John J. Collins is a professor of Old Testament interpretation and criticism at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn. He is an expert on Jewish apocalypticism.

  • Rebecca Denova

    Rebecca Denova is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pa., where she has taught a course called “Apocalypse Then and Now.”

  • Philip Lamy

    Philip Lamy is professor of sociology and anthropology at Castleton State College in Castleton, Vt. He is an expert on secular millennial movements, including among survivalist groups and militias.

  • Elaine Pagels

    Elaine Pagels is the author of the best-selling Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003) and a professor of religion at Princeton University. She has written a number of well-received books on gnosticism, an early Christian movement considered heretical, and early Christianity. Additionally, she is the author of  The Origin of Satan (1996).

  • Bishop Terry Wiles

    Bishop Terry Wiles is leader of Crossroads Community Cathedral in East Hartford, Conn. The church lists a literal belief in the Rapture as central to its members’ faith and membership.

In the South

  • Meg Barnhouse

    The Rev. Meg Barnhouse is a Unitarian Universalist pastor in Austin, Texas. She once preached a sermon titled “The Rapture in America.”

  • J. Scott Duvall

    J. Scott Duvall is professor of New Testament at Oachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., where he also holds the J.C. and Mae Fuller Chair of Biblical Studies. Duvall is a co-author of the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times.

  • Kenneth L. Gentry Jr.

    Kenneth L. Gentry Jr. is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the author of several books on Revelation and lives in South Carolina.

  • J. Daniel Hays

    J. Daniel Hays is a co-author of the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times. Hays is on the faculty of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark.

  • Mark Hitchcock

    Mark Hitchcock is pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Okla. He is the author of Could the Rapture Happen Today?

  • Kevin Lewis

    Kevin Lewis is a professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He teaches a course called “Visions of Apocalypse” and has written an essay on Americans’ obsession with the apocalypse.

  • Jonathan Marlowe

    The Rev. Jonathan Marlowe is co-pastor of Gibsonville United Methodist Church in Gibsonville, N.C. He preached a four-week sermon series on the Book of Revelation and blogged about it.

  • Dick J. Reavis

    Dick J. Reavis is an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University. He studied the history of end-times movements while researching his book about the Branch Davidians,  The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation.

  • Thomas B. Slater

    Thomas B. Slater is a professor of New Testament at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. He has said that Family Radio’s billboards claiming that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011, were inherently misguided.

  • Tim Warner

    Tim Warner is pastor of Oasis Christian Church in Tampa, Fla., and author of the website Answers in Revelation.

In the Midwest

  • John Byron

    John Byron is associate professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He has written about evangelical fascination with the Rapture on his blog The Biblical World.

  • Robert Royalty

    Robert Royalty is an associate professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., where he teaches a course titled “Apocalypse Then, Apocalypse Now,” which looks at the history of apocalyptic movements and groups from Rome to Waco.

  • Jerry Shirley

    The Rev. Jerry Shirley is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ill., where he has preached numerous sermons on the Book of Revelation and other biblical end-times prophecies.

    Contact: 217-877-0009.
  • Robert Vale

    The Rev. Robert Vale is pastor of Osceola United Methodist Church in Osceola, Ind., where he has preached about the Second Coming.

    Contact: 574-679-4435.

In the West

  • Greg Laurie

    Greg Laurie is pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif. He preached that the Japanese earthquake/tsunami disaster was a sign of the end times, but he declined to name a date. Laurie has preached several other sermons focused on the end times. He is a nationally known evangelist and serves on the board of directors for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. A frequent speaker at the Billy Graham School Training Center and the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, he calls Graham one of the biggest influences on his life.

    Contact: 951-687-6902.
  • John W. Morehead

    John W. Morehead is director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies and director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He is also co-founder and editor of Sacred Times Journal, an online journal focusing on New Religious Movements, and has posted there about the Mayan calendar and end-times fascination. Morehead lives in Salt Lake City.

  • Jeff Staley

    Jeff Staley is a core lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University. He co-edited Jesus, Son of D• V• D: A Handbook of Jesus Films (Westminster John Knox, forthcoming in 2007), an analysis of 18 Jesus films available on DVD.

    He has taught a course titled “Apocalypse Today.”

  • Grant Underwood

    Grant Underwood is a professor of history at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He has written about Mormon millennialist thought and history.

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