A History of the End of the World

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Podcast Transcript

Over the centuries, there has been a host of self-proclaimed prophets, astrologers, scientists, and cranks who have predicted the end of the world. 

Some of them have been extremely precise in when they predicted when the world will end. 

Spoiler: to date, none of the end of the world predictions have come true.

Learn more about end of the world predictions, and how the people who believed it reacted when it didn’t happen, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The history of the end of the world goes back about 2,000 years to the beginning of Christianity, although early Christians were certainly not the only group who engaged in apocalyptic predictions. 

What is meant by “the end of the world” or “the apocalypse” can vary from person to person. It could mean the literal destruction of the Earth, or it might mean some religious revelation, or, as is more common nowadays, the visitation of aliens. 

Even if the person making the prediction doesn’t literally mean the end of all life on Earth, they are almost certainly referring to something happening which would be the end of the world as we know it. 

To be fair, the end of the world as we know it certainly did happen to many people in history in very localized cases. If a city was sacked by Ghengis Khan, for example, it might as well have been the end of the world for them. 

Most of these predictions that I’ll be talking about were religious in nature. All three of the main Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, have some sort of apocalyptic traditions. In Christianity it comes from the Book of Revelations, in Islam it can be found in the Hadiths, and in Judaism, it can be found in the Talmud. 

The word “apocalypse” has come to mean a cataclysm or catastrophe in English. However, in the original Greek, the word simply means a revelation. In several early versions of the Bible, the Book of Revelations is actually called the Book of the Apocalypse. 

In the Coptic Orthodox Church, the evening of Good Friday is known as Apocalypse Night. 

Some of the earliest apocalyptic predictions came from an early Christian sect known as the Gnostics. 

The Gnostics were a heretical sect that appeared in the first century. They borrowed liberally from early Christianity and Judaism and they believed that the return of Jesus was imminent. Not at some indefinite point in the future, but could happen at any time.  The return of Jesus wasn’t going to be measured in centuries but in just a few years. 

While the Gnostics were one of the first groups, predictions of the end of the world became a regular event that popped up every so often.

It would literally be impossible to discuss every apocalyptic prediction, so I’m going to try to limit the discussion to either major predictions which garnered a lot of attention, or very specific predictions. 

One of the first predictions which tried to nail down the end of the world to a particular day was given by a bishop in what is today Portugal, by the name of Hydatius. 

Hydatius lived in a time and place where the Roman empire had gone, and chaos reigned. His prediction for the end of the world came from the Gospel of Thomas, which is one of the apocryphal books of the bible. Those are the books of the bible that basically didn’t make the cut because they couldn’t be authenticated. 

Hydatius predicted the return of Jesus and the end of the world on May 27, 482.

He actually died in 469, so he wasn’t around to know if his prediction came true. 

Another early specific prediction came from a monk known as Beatus of Liébana, who lived in what is today northern Spain. He wrote a treatise called Commentary on the Apocalypse in 776 where he predicted the end of the world would come on April 6, 793. 

On March 25, 970, the feast of the Annunciation fell on Good Friday. There were several theologians which believed this was the date that the world was created, so they figured this would be the day that it ended. 

The year 1000 was a big time for end of the world predictions. Everyone was concerned about Y1K because of a line in the Book of Revelations that says After a thousand years have passed, Satan, released from his prison, will leave to seduce the nations of the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog and, as numerous as the sand of the sea, to muster them for the war “. 

So, naturally, many people thought that the 1000 years would come due in the year 1000. The problem was, if you remember back to my episodes on the calendar, is that no one shared the same date for the beginning of the year. 

A monk by the name of Joachim of Fiore was one of the biggest apocalyptic thinkers of the middle ages. He predicted that the world would end between 1200 and 1260. 

He died in 1202, but he spawned a group known as the Jochimites who continued his apocalyptic predictions. When his prediction didn’t come true, his followers moved it back to 1290 and then 1335.

One notable apocalyptic prediction occurred on February 1, 1524. A group of astrologers in England predicted the world would end on this date by a flood that would start in London. An estimated 20,000 people fled the city in anticipation of the flood. 

When their prediction didn’t come true, the same astronomers changed the date to February 1, 1624, one hundred years later, when they would safely not be there to see it happen. 

The German astronomer Johannes Stöffler said the world would end just 19 days later on February 20th, because there was a planetary alignment in the constellation of Pisces. 

With the Protestant Reformation, a whole new wave of apocalyptic predictions occurred. 

Anabaptist reformer Hans Hut predicted the end would occur on May 27, 1528. 

The mathematician and theologian Michael Stifel made a very specific prediction that the world would end at 8 am on October 19, 1533.

Maybe the best prediction was that of Jan Matthys, who lead the Anababpist Munster Rebellion in Germany. He predicted the end would come on April 5, 1534. On that day, he and his followers lead a procession from the city when he was captured and beheaded. 

So in a way, his prediction did sort of come true….at least for him.

The 17th century saw tons more prophecies of the end of the world. Of special note are two people you might know from other things.

Christopher Columbus actually published a book called the Book of Prophesies where he predicted the end would come in the year 1656. 

Likewise, Isaac Newton also predicted the apocalypse.

I’ve mentioned Newton on many episodes about how he basically created the foundation of modern physics, invented calculus, and inadvertently created the Gold Standard.

What I haven’t mentioned is that most of his life was actually spent trying to decipher the bible, and turn lead into gold, not engaged in actual science or mathematics. 

His apocalyptic prediction was well into the future. He said it would occur in the year 2060. 

The prophetess Joanna Southcott claimed that she was pregnant with the new messiah at the age of 64. She predicted the world would end on October 19, 1814. The world did not end, and she herself died just two months later. An autopsy showed that she was not pregnant.

One of the greatest apocalyptic predictions, and one of the ones we have the most information about, occurred in the 19th century. An American Baptist preacher by the name of William Miller established a religious movement known as Millerism. 

Miller, after extensive study of the Bible, concluded that the end would come on October 22, 1844….after previously predicting April 18. 

Thousands of people were gathered in Millerite churches around the country. When the day came and went, it became known as the Great Disappointment. 

Millerite churches were vandalized and one group in Toronto was tarred and feathered. 

Religious predictions of the end of the world kept popping up over the years. The 20th century saw a new breed of doomsayer: the paranormal prophet.

Charles Piazzi Smyth who was an Italian-Scottish astronomer predicted that the apocalypse would come between 1892 and 1911. He came to this conclusion from studying the Great Pyramid of Giza.

It is hard to even track all end of the world predictions in the 20th century. It seems that every year someone was predicting the apocalypse.

One notable prediction was made by a woman by the name of Dorothy Martin. She was the leader of a UFO cult called the “Brotherhood of the Seven Rays”. She predicted flooding would destroy the Earth on December 21, 1954. 

This is notable for being the first apocalyptic prediction from a UFO cult.

The astrologer Jeane Dixon predicted a planetary alignment would destroy the world on February 4, 1962.

The American mystic Elizabeth Clare Prophet said a nuclear war would start on April 23, 1990, with the end of the world happening 12 years later. She died in 2009.

The predictions around this time were also very religiously inclusive. 

The rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson predicted the messiah would return on September 9, 1991.

National of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said that the Gulf War was the “War of Armageddon which is the final war.”

One of the most tragic predictions occurred on March 26, 1997, when 38 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves, thinking that a UFO in the Hale-Bopp comet would pick them up if they died. 

The year 2000 saw a flood of end of the world predictions, both religious and technological. 

The predictions kept on coming, however.

Gregori Rasputin, an advisor to Tsar Nicholas II, predicted in 1916 that the end of the world would come by fire on August 23, 2013.

A self-proclaimed conspiratorial astronomer who goes by the pseudonym David Meade predicted that the Earth would be destroyed by a planetary object known as Nibiru in 2017….and then updated it to April 23, 2018.

Jeane Dixon, who I mentioned previously, modified her prediction when she got it wrong in 1962 and moved it to the year 2020, which, if you lived through 2020, you sort of have to give her partial points for. 

There are some future predictions that are of a different nature. There are predictions of the world ending in about 300,000 years due to a nearby supernova and gamma-ray burst. 

…or in 1,000,000 years due to supervolcanism….or 600–800 million years due to the brightening of the sun, and 1-4 billion years when the sun turns into a red giant. 

So, with all of these predictions, and again I barely scratched the surface, what happens to all of the people who believed this stuff when the predictions didn’t come true?

There was a book published in 1956 called When Prophecy Fails, which studied the 1954 end of the world prediction from the “Brotherhood of the Seven Rays” UFO cult. 

The researchers pretended to be a part of the cult so they could see firsthand how the members reacted when the prediction didn’t come true. 

They called the phenomenon “disconfirmed expectancy”.

What they found was similar to what happened to the Millerites in the 19th century and almost every other movement that predicted the apocalypse. A few members left, but most stayed and simply adjusted their views to explain what happened. 

Perhaps they got the date wrong, or perhaps there was divine intervention that prevented it from happening. 

Not only did most people stick with the group, but most of them were more fervent in their beliefs than they were before. 

Despite the sheer volume of failed end of the world predictions, and how easily falsifiable such a prediction is, such predictions keep getting made, and some people keep believing them. 

In fact, we’ll probably keep seeing predictions for the end of the world, until someone finally gets it right. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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