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Why did you believe in the end of the world?

I’ve been thinking — or more honestly, feeling — a great deal about this weekend’s purported Judgment Day, when there will supposedly be huge, planet-wide earthquakes, a rapture into heaven for 200 million true believers, and the beginning of the end of the world. The Apocalypse, Armageddon, Judgment Day.

Of course, none of that will happen. It never happens. Hundreds and thousands of Judgment Days, Armageddons, cataclysms, end times, and planet-wide disasters have been prophesied for centuries, but none of them has ever come to pass. For instance, just two months ago, an astrologer predicted that worldwide catastrophes would be set in motion by the Supermoon, and of course, that didn’t happen. And come Sunday morning, we’ll add yet another failed Judgment Day to this endless list.

Yet there’s something much more important than just another failed prophecy — and that’s the people who believe in it. Right now, these people are praying hard — for themselves, certainly, but also for you and me. They’re worried about us, and most of them don’t want us to suffer.

But come Sunday morning, we’ll have yet another devastated group of people who were promised an end to their suffering, a victorious place in the afterlife, and a reward for their faith and diligence. These people are what interest me (far more than failed prophecies do), because I care about their welfare — and because I can empathize with them.

Preparing for the cataclysm

I grew up as an agnostic atheist, but when I was ten years old, my mom discovered a group that believed in all sorts of fascinating paranormal things like reincarnation, spirit guides, magical healing diets, karma, positive affirmations that could bring you whatever you wanted, and psychic powers. It was a blast at first, and I really enjoyed the things I learned in that group.

However, many of the group members also believed in a New Age prophecy about a worldwide cataclysm, where — due primarily to the imbalances caused by human greed, callousness, and a lack of spirituality — the poles of the Earth would shift, massive earthquakes and volcanoes would be activated, and many land masses would be destroyed or deluged with water. In essence, the Earth was going to shake us humans off her back.

It was going to be the end of the world as we knew it, and it was supposed to happen at the end of the Mayan calendar, first in the late 1970s, and when that didn’t happen, in 2003 or 2004, depending on whom you asked. Most notably, California (where our group was based) was supposed to crack off and sink into the ocean.

photo of nordstrom's piano playerI’m not sure why, but the cataclysm never felt plausible to me. It just seemed preposterous somehow, and I sort of ignored it. I remember joking that if it did happen, I would be on a small floating piece of destroyed California, which would contain a fully-stocked Nordstrom’s department store (this was my idea of luxury at the time. I mean, come on — a grand piano in the lobby of a department store? That’s mad swanky.) People in the group thought I was too young and too silly to understand the importance of the cataclysm. Perhaps they were right.

I remember some people in the group who left their beloved California for many years, because they were afraid of the cataclysm. Of course, the cataclysm never happened, but those people who left California — I think about them a great deal. How do they feel now, looking back? Do they understand more about the world and the way these prophecies hook powerfully into very specific psychosocial and emotional needs, or are they now preparing for the updated 2012 version of their cataclysm?

The never-ending story of the end of the world

Though many people like to characterize end-time believers as dupes, the belief is actually very common. In fact, it’s a basic tenet of Christianity on the religious side of things, while some form of end-times theorizing (the eventual supernova of our sun, for instance) is a basic tenet of astrophysics on the scientific side of things. Environmentalists and climate scientists have yet another series of end-time or “dark-time” scenarios.

The idea that the world will end and that humanity will cease to exist — this is a very common idea. What seems uncommon is the specificity we’re seeing now, where people swear that the end is going to occur on a specific day (May 21), through a specific event (the Supermoon), or in a specific year (2012).

But in fact, these prophecies are made constantly, regularly, and almost predictably. They’re actually sort of addicting, because once these prophecies get into you, it’s really hard to let them go. Consider the Millerites, a group of nearly 100,000 Americans who believed the prophecies of Baptist lecturer William Miller, who told them that Jesus would return (and end the world as they knew it) in December, 1843. When that didn’t happen, Miller re-prophesied the return of Jesus in March, 1844. When that didn’t happen, Miller re-re-prophesied the return of Jesus in October of that same year (now known as the Great Disappointment).

But even after two failures and a Great Disappointment, the Millerites still had enough followers to form a series of Adventists groups, including one that would become the Seventh Day Adventist church (a more recent Adventist splinter group, formed in 1955, was the Branch Davidians, many of whom died at Waco Texas in 1993).

Many people in the Jehovah’s Witnesses believed that Armageddon would occur in 1975, but that didn’t happen and the church is still going strong. Harold Camping, who is behind this weekend’s end-times prophecy, previously predicted Judgment Day and the return of Jesus on September 6th, 1994, but when that didn’t happen, he realized that he had gotten his math wrong. He re-prophesied Judgment Day, first to 1995, and then to this coming Saturday. And obviously, people are lined up behind him, ready to believe once again.

Christopher Lane, author of The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty notes. “Thirty to forty percent of Americans report believing that the end times are coming eventually, so while most reject the teachings of Camping, there is a strong strain of this kind of thinking in this country.”

So for some, anxiety spurred by the recent natural and economic disasters makes apocalyptic thinking more appealing, he says. “It becomes easier to convince people that things are getting worse and that the answer will come through divine dispensation, rather than have them face the fact that humanity must fix its own problems.” From Doomsday Psychology: The Appeal of Armageddon at ABC

The difference this weekend is that this particular prophecy got a lot of press because Camping has a radio show and because his devotees spent a lot of money on billboards and ads. When this prophecy fails, these people may become laughing stocks, but many of them will continue to believe in Camping as a prophet.

Bringing empathy to the situation

When I think back to the people who believed in our group’s cataclysmic prophecy enough to actually move out of California, I remember this: These were the sensitive ones. These were people who deeply felt the pain of the world, and who struggled with despair. The idea that the Earth could see their despair, and was planning to do something drastic about it — well, it seemed to fill them with as much joy as it did fear.

It was as if they were thinking, “The Earth sees these devastating problems with humanity, and she will act decisively to put an end to them.” There’s a tremendous relief in imagining the end of everything that is wrong and the possible beginning of something that is new and clean. End-times scenarios have been important to people since the beginning of recorded history, and they continue to be important today.

So instead of laughing at or deriding this all-too-human tendency, which affects so many of us, I have this empathic crowd-source question:

Have you lived through your own Great Disappointment? Have you ever been a follower of an apocalyptic prophet, or were you ever a member of an end-times community? If so, how did you cope when the end didn’t come?

And what would you say to the people who will wake up this Sunday morning, strangely heartbroken by the fact that the world didn’t end, that millions didn’t die, that their loved ones weren’t raptured into heaven, that their suffering hasn’t been relieved, and that the prophecy wasn’t true?

As an empathic, loving, and deeply caring fellow human being, what would you say to welcome these people back to the world?

Thank you for utilizing your empathy.

8 Responses

  1. Chris
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    I was actually a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. No, not during 1975 (and I have to correct you that it was not an official proclamation that 1975 would see Armaggedon – it was just strongly hinted at and many believed it). But I did feel that this world could not possibly last beyond the end of the 20th century. We were taught that the end is just around the corner. Well, the transition from that viewpoint to the viewpoint that there is not going to be an Armaggedon as the Witnesses believe was gradual but difficult. The main focus is in changing the view of your own future. Instead of counting on God or Jehovah to ensure your future, you need to count on yourself and take action to create the future you want. Spirituality is still important to me, but I believe that the scriptural references to Christ’s coming apply on an individual level and not a global one.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Chris, thanks so much. I updated the JW reference. I got the info from my study of GLBT JWs, many of whom were brought into the JW pre-1975 on the direct promise that their homosexuality would be cured as a part of the end times. I assumed it was an official pronouncement. Thanks for the correction!

      Thanks also for your point about spirituality and theories about the rapture being healthier when they can be approached as individual rather than corporate or global endeavors.

      When you mentioned the 20th century, you also reminded me of the Y2K end-times prophecy for computers worldwide, which also didn’t come true. Remember that, with the bottled water and emergency food rations? Bless our hearts; we humans are adorably susceptible to end-times prophecies.

      • Karla
        | Reply

        So here’s what I’m noticing; empathizing with people who are similar to you is very easy. It’s empathizing with “the other” that throws people. Here’s the problem: there’s no such thing as “the other,” it’s all just human nature.

        Nothing that Camping’s followers did is outside the realm of meaningful and valid human behaviors. To think otherwise is to miss important learning and important intellectual, moral, and practical growth.

        I’m noticing some other Christians feeling sorry for Camping’s followers because they obviously don’t have the right version of Christianity to fall back on; while some unchurched people laugh about the followers’ supposed gullibility and completely miss their own; and while my new age pals silently wait for the real prophecy that will occur in 2012. Bless our hearts.

        Bless all of our hearts, I tell you.

  2. Katrina
    | Reply

    I’m catching up on several months of postings here; the last few months have been crazy-busy for me.

    Anyway, as I read this, I found myself drawing comparisons in my mind between people looking for the salvation of the world through an end-times event and people looking for what I call a “get well quick” solution to their problems and/or to the problems they see in the world.

    Personally, I don’t believe that there is a quick solution to most problems — whether those problems are with society or with oneself.

    “Change is slow and incremental,” author Julia Cameron says. I would add to that — from my own experience — that change — especially healing change — can be difficult and painful. But ultimately — in my view — well worth the effort.

    But in the face of the pain and difficulty of healing change, it can be incredibly tempting to grab a “get well quick” solution. Or an end-times prophecy. Something fast and easy, something that requires little or no effort. Just “bam,” and everything’s fixed; everything’s great.

    When I see someone grasping for a “get well quick” scheme or an end-times prophecy, I want to ask, “What is it about this that appeals to you? What is it about a slower process — that might be more difficult, more painful in the short term — that scares you? Are you willing to put in the time and effort to effect change in your own life? Are you willing to make an effort to be a positive influence in your little corner of the world — even if you don’t see any positive results right away? Or is it simply easier to grab onto what looks good — even when it’s not a viable answer or solution?”

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