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If you’re reading this article, either the afterlife has wi-fi, or the world has once again not come to an end.
It’s beginning to get tiresome. There’s only so often you can postpone a date before it becomes obvious that it’s just not going to happen at all. If the apocalypse was my boyfriend, we’d be having some serious words right now. (That is if I hadn’t already chucked him for leaving fire and brimstone all over the place. And he’s always so judgmental…)
Yet time and time again, despite the fact that every single prediction of Armageddon so far has conspicuously failed to come true, humanity keeps on getting its collective knickers in a twist over the imminent end of the world.
The most recent fuss has been over the supposed prediction in the ancient Mayan calendar that the world would end on December 21st, 2012. Not that the Mayans themselves ever believed any such thing, but little things like facts have never got in the way of a good doomsday scare, and the impact has been surprisingly wide-ranging. From panic-buying of candles and salt in Russia to cultists being arrested in China, an awful lot of people around the world will be feeling slightly embarrassed this morning.
This isn’t anything new of course. History is littered with examples of people confidently predicting the imminent destruction of the world and the subsequent awkward moment the next day when they had to come up with a reason why everything was still there.
As is so often the case with history, you can blame a lot of it on religion. Many of the early Christians, possibly including St. Paul, were convinced that Jesus had just popped home to say hi to Dad and would be returning shortly. While other religions have their accounts of how the world will end, and apocalypticism has become less prevalent in the Christian mainstream as the centuries have gone by, the fact that Jesus said he’d be coming back means that every so often, some crank or other pops up to tell us all to dust the mantelpiece and get out the nice crockery because he’s going to be here any time now.
You might remember Harold Camping, who said the world was going to end in May last year, or the minor fuss in July 1999 which was when, according to some interpretations of his notoriously vague prediction, Nostradamus had set the date. Further back, there was the delightfully-named Great Disappointment of 1844, which is exactly what it sounds like, while a contemporary but separate group known as the Bible Students made at least ten different guesses at the date, presumably not in the least bit discouraged by all the previous times they’d got it wrong. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists still fervently believe the end of the world will be here very soon, despite the fact that both groups have existed for well over a hundred years with nothing to show for their beliefs so far.
And while we’re on the subject, let us not forget the Prophet Hen of Leeds, who in 1806 began laying eggs with ‘Christ is coming’ inscribed on the shell. It turned out to be a hoax, of course, but I’d argue that wanting to convey a message of impending doom through the medium of chickens suggests a spark of divine inspiration in itself. (Or having an awful lot of time on one’s hands. Leeds can get pretty dull on a wet Sunday afternoon, but it’s never driven me to interfere with poultry.)
Doomsday scares often seem to attach themselves to particular dates. The Romans, for example, worried Rome would be destroyed in the 120th year after its founding, and were relieved when 634 BCE passed without incident. Jesus’s great comeback tour was predicted for the years 500 and 1000 as well as 2000, not to mention 1033, a thousand years after his supposed death. You may remember all the faffing about over the Millennium Bug, when huge amounts of money were spent preventing a hypothetical technological meltdown caused by computers not being able to change the date properly. In the event, however, no planes fell from the sky, no nuclear power stations went into meltdown, and no computers developed sentience and turned on their human masters. Apparently a couple of bus ticket machines in Australia stopped working and the US Naval Observatory displayed the wrong time on its website, but that was about it.
Years that are round numbers are particularly attractive to predictors of the end of the world. Even though all calendars are entirely arbitrary, human creations, people somehow expect something significant to happen when there’s a year with a lot of zeroes in it. And I think it’s that expectation that something ought to happen at certain times which accounts for the continued popularity of predictions of the end of the world. Contradictory though it sounds, it’s almost comforting to imagine that the world has a set end date that can be predicted in advance and happens to fit in nicely and neatly with one human calendar or other. Some people believe in an apocalypse because they are sure they will be saved and their enemies punished; others just because, deep down, they’d like to believe that the universe follows simple narrative rules rather than being sprawling and chaotic and entirely unconcerned with them and their petty little existence. Some people like to focus their worries on ridiculous things that’ll never come to pass rather than focussing on the much more likely chance of being hit by a car or dying of a sudden brain aneurysm. And some people just wish life was more like an episode of Supernatural.
At any rate, history shows that the world’s stubborn refusal to end in sudden and spectacular fashion has never deterred people from predicting that it will do eventually. And certainly, if there really is a set date when the world will end, there’s nothing any of us can do about it.
I do hope that this one doesn’t come to pass, though. If only because I’ll feel rather miffed to have wasted one of my final days on earth working on a facetious article about how everything was going to be fine.