Predictions about the world’s demise are not new but rumors of apocalypse have spiked as Dec. 21 approaches, a date when many say an ancient Mayan calendar will wind down – and signal the end of the world as we know it. Experts debunk 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.
The current interest in the so-called Mayan Long Count calendar has been building for years – there was a 2009 disaster movie titled 2012 – and as the apocalypse speculation approaches a crescendo, news hooks are also proliferating.
As always, there are some who take the doomsday forecasts seriously, and others who use them as an opportunity to make fun of the “Chicken Littles” of the world. For example:
- The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is hosting a “Final Countdown” party on Dec. 21 and inviting young people to enjoy “drinks, light fare, entertainment, and music to ring in the end of the world.”
- In Russia and elsewhere, the end-of-the-world predictions are causing some to panic, as this Dec. 1 New York Times story reports.
- Concerns that people were taking the Dec. 21 deadline seriously and causing anxiety, especially among children, led NASA officials to post information debunking the prophecy.
- That has not stopped television networks from using the date to promote their apocalypse-themed programming, while hotels in Mexico and Central America are using the Dec. 21 date as a hook to lure tourists.
- “Preppers” – people obsessed with preparing for the end times – are flourishing under the shadow of the looming catastrophe, as this Nov. 25 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story shows.
- Meanwhile, many Mayans are objecting to this perceived exploitation of their traditions, while mainstream religious leaders, like Pope Benedict XVI, say Christians should focus on Jesus and not on doomsday prophecies.
Despite such cautions, many Americans continue to focus on an imminent Christian apocalypse via the Second Coming of Jesus. Consider these facts:
- The “Rapture Index” – a measurement of the nearness of the biblically promised end of the world – at RaptureReady.com hit a record high of 186 on Nov. 19, 2012.
- A March 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 44 percent of Americans believe recent natural disasters are signs of the end times. The number rises to 67 percent among white evangelicals.
- A poll in 2011 by the National Association of Evangelicals showed that a majority of its board of directors believe in one of various end-times scenarios.
- Sixteen years after it published the first of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic thrillers by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, Tyndale publishers in April 2011 released an updated version aimed at appealing to a new generation, as well as a repackaged version of a companion title by the same authors, Are We Living in the End Times?
So what will happen if the end of the world does not come on Dec. 21? How will disappointed believers cope? Is it apocalypse now? Or later? Or never?
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.
- Read a Dec. 18 blog post at the website of Scientific American, “Psychology Reveals the Comforts of the Apocalypse.”
- Read a Nov. 25, 2012, column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about “preppers,” a growing subculture of people focused on preparing for the end times.
- Read a Nov. 20, 2012, LiveScience.com article, “Does Anyone Really Believe in the Mayan Apocalypse?”
- Read a Nov. 19, 2012, story at CatholicCulture.org about the pope urging Christians not to fixate on end-of-the-world predictions.
- Read a Nov. 13, 2012, article from The Sun in San Bernardino, Calif., about NASA rebutting doomsday claims based on the Mayan calendar.
- Read an Oct. 31, 2012, Huffington Post report about Mayans protesting what they call profit-motivated “twisting of the truth” in 2012 doomsday predictions.
- Read a March 9, 2012, Huffington Post story about an online post in which Harold Camping acknowledged being wrong about a 2011 doomsday. “God has humbled us,” Camping wrote.
- Joseph Gelfer, editor of the anthology 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse, discusses the Mayan calendar, his book and the public’s fascination with end times in an interview posted Feb. 1, 2012, by Sacred Tribes Journal, an online journal that focuses on the academic study of New Religious Movements.
- Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (2011), wrote a June 7, 2011, column in New Scientist explaining that for both religious and secular people, apocalyptic thinking is spurred by a desire to bring order to the randomness of events.
- “Why Would Nonreligious People Find Apocalyptic Views Appealing?” is a May 20, 2011, essay at the Science + Religion blog that explores the appeal of apocalyptic thinking for secular people.
- “Save the Date” is a March 18, 2011, essay at First Things by Meghan Duke, in which she recounts the history of failed prophecies and critiques the tendency to believe in them.
- “Prophets of the Environmental Apocalypse” is an April 28, 2011, column at Religion Dispatches by Peter Laarman that compares religious and secular “end times” impulses.
- Read “FAQ: Apocalypse 2012 Explained,” an April 6, 2011, story at CNBC.com on the current wave of apocalypticism.
- Read a March 23, 2011, story from Religion News Service (published in USA Today) about Harold Camping and his prediction that the world as we knew it would end on May 21, 2011.
- Read a March 23, 2011, column at Crosswalk.com, “Is the World About to End? What Should I Do Now?” by Roger Barrier, senior teaching pastor at Casas Church in Tucson, Ariz.
- Read a March 9, 2011, article from The Christian Post about a poll among evangelical leaders about end times beliefs.
- Read a March 6, 2011, story by CNN’s Jessica Ravitz about various end times scenarios and predictions.
Polls and background
- See a March 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that found 44 percent of Americans believe recent natural disasters are signs of the end times.
- An April 2010 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return by the year 2050, with breakdowns according to faith tradition. The data were drawn from a wider Pew survey on the public’s expectations of what life will be like at midcentury.
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 Soon is a website devoted to signs of the end. It’s written and compiled by Pietro Arnese, a Christian layperson.
- Midnight Call is an online magazine of Christian prophecy that watches world events with an eye toward the Second Coming of Jesus.
- Prophecy News Watch compiles news its editors feel is relevant to the Christian apocalypse.
- The website RaptureReady.com offers a Rapture Index that measures physical signs and events that indicate the Rapture may be near.
- The Trinity Millennialism Project is a blog written by academics who specialize in Protestant ideas of the apocalypse. It is based at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
- Pietro Arnese is editor of the website Apocalypse Soon. He lives in Italy. Contact email@example.com.
- Irvin Baxter is founder and president of Endtime Ministries. Contact via Dave Robbins, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact via Tom Evans, director of communication, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact via form on the company’s website.
- 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 is executive director of RaptureReady.com. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Gary DeMar is on the staff of the American Vision, a group that seeks “to restore America to its biblical foundation.” He is a biblical literalist but takes issue with those who predict a specific date for the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world. Contact via Liz Darnell, American Vision’s director of operations, email@example.com.
- Stephen C. Meyers is president of the Institute for Biblical and Scientific Studies and a critic of Harold Camping. Contact 215-423-7374, firstname.lastname@example.org.
WATCHING THE WATCHMEN
- Abbas Amanat is a professor of history at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and author of Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi’ism (2009). Contact 203-432-1368, email@example.com.
- Michael Barkun is a professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University and the author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Contact 315-443-9339, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Darrell L. Bock is executive director of cultural engagement and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas. He is a noted premillennialist. Contact 214-841-3715, email@example.com.
- David Cook is an associate professor of religion at Rice University in Houston. 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.” Contact 713-348-2440, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Lorenzo DiTommaso is associate professor and chair of the religion department at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of The Architecture of Apocalypticism (forthcoming). Contact 514-848-2424 ext. 2065, L.DiTommaso@concordia.ca.
- 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). Contact +61 409 350436, email@example.com.
- Crawford Gribben is a director of the Trinity Millennialism Project at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact 530-752-7035, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Richard Landes is director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, where he is also a professor of medieval history and millennial studies. His special expertise is apocalyptic movements focused on the years 1000 and 2000. Contact email@example.com.
- 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. Contact through Pam E. Kosty, the museum’s assistant director of public information, 215-898-4045, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact via Penguin Group publicity, Elizabeth.Tobin@us.penguingroup.com.
- Barbara Rossing is a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is the author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation and has been critical of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and other co-authors. Contact 773-256-0765, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact 541-346-3946, firstname.lastname@example.org.
IN THE NORTHEAST
- 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. Contact 203-432-2002, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact 802-468-1345, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bishop T.W. 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. Contact 860-895-1231 ext. 617, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact 315-228-7214, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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.” Contact 412-624-5989, email@example.com.
- Elaine Pagels is Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Her books include Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation (2012). Contact 609-258-4484, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact email@example.com.
- 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. Contact 803-777-2561, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact 336-449-4810, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact 919-515-4163, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact 678-547-6430, email@example.com.
- Tim Warner is pastor of Oasis Christian Church in Tampa, Fla., and author of the website Answers in Revelation. Contact 813-884-7296.
- 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. Contact 870-245-5136, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact 870-245-5599, email@example.com.
- 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. Contact 419-289-5722, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact 765-361-6155, email@example.com.
- 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.
- The Rev. Bob Vale is pastor of Osceola United Methodist Church in Osceola, Ind., where he has preached about the Second Coming. Contact 574-679-4435.
- The Rev. Meg Barnhouse is a Unitarian Universalist pastor in Austin, Texas. She once preached a sermon titled “The Rapture in America.” Contact 512-452-6168 ext. 304, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mark Hitchcock is pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Okla. He is the author of Could the Rapture Happen Today? Contact email@example.com.
- Kaye and Buddy Martin live in Seguin, Texas, and run the website and blog The End Times Are Here. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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. Contact 801-643-6983, email@example.com.
- Grant Underwood is a professor of history at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He has written about Mormon millennialist thought and history. Contact 801-422-7522, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Rev. Alan Kern is pastor of River of Life Christian Center in Oregon City, Ore. He preached a sermon in early 2011 in which he stated that he believed the end times were here, but that he was skeptical of date-setters like Harold Camping. Contact 503-656-0555, PastorKern@riveroflifeoc.com.
- 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. Contact 951-687-6902.
- Jeffrey L. Staley is a core lecturer in religious studies at Seattle University, where he has taught a course titled “Apocalypse Today.” Contact 206-296-5862, email@example.com.