This is part 2 of a review of annual apocalyptic predictions that the world will end. It is excerpted from my book “The Messiah.”
As noted in Part 1, Christianity initiated apocalyptic ideas some 1900 years ago because Jesus failed to bring about change in his society. Since, in the belief of his followers, he was the son of God, he therefore was expected to return to accomplish the messianic goals. When he returned, of course, the world would end and be replaced by a “Kingdom of God.”
Prophets have identified multiple years for such an event to take place.
Not that long ago, the year 2000 naturally enhanced dire predictions of the immediate end of the world and the coming of the foretold messiah. It was a nice, round number and was accompanied by tribulations – the possible undermining of computers because of the internal dating problem. Nothing happened, of course.
By then, some of the most ardent supports of the Apocalypse had begun to back away from pinpointing the exact date of the end. The Seventh Day Adventists, a branch of Christianity born from an erroneous 1800s prediction of the apocalypse, has announced that its members should no longer predict a date for the End of Days. "While anticipating Christ's return, Adventists reject any attempt to set specific dates," the church said in a July 1995 news release issued from its 56th World Session then being held in the Netherlands.
Jehovah's Witnesses, the door-to-door salesmen of the Apocalypse, have also dropped their concerns about an immediate end after "re-examining" church literature. The masthead of the organization's Awake! magazine once forecast the end of the world before the generation alive in 1914 passed away. Now it merely promises a "new world that is about to replace the present wicked, lawless system of things."
Under the circumstances, it's extremely unlikely we will ever see a repeat of what happened in the year 1000 A.D. Then, relying on chiliastic predictions, so many people left home and walked to the Promised Land that they were compared to a "desolating army." They sold their belongings to finance their wait in Jerusalem. "Buildings of every sort were suffered to fall into ruins. It was thought useless to repair them when the end of the world was so near. Many noble edifices were deliberately pulled down. Even churches, so well maintained, shared in the common neglect. Knights, citizens and serfs traveled eastward in company, taking with them their wives and children, singing psalms as they went, and looking with fearful eyes upon the sky, which they expected each minute to open, to let the Son of God descend in his glory," one historian noted.
More recent studies of ancient records seem to indicate that such descriptions are overblown and that few people actually noted the millennial shift. Still, the philosophical base for such ideas still exists, especially in the non-Jewish world.
In Part I, I also explained how prediction tied to 1666 also failed.
In the 1970s, conservative author Hal Lindsey shook up readers with his prediction of a coming apocalypse in his best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth. (Such predictions always find a market.) In it, he said Israel would be invaded by Russia, and the world would end in the late 1970s. He has since chastised himself for pinpointing a date, although he still claims the basic prediction is accurate.
We should not expect such forecasts to disappear. The prediction of an apocalypse is as much Christian as the cross. "For better or for worse, the notion of the apocalypse was part of the canon," said historian Paul Johnson, referring to Augustine's failed efforts to remedy the situation. "The idea could be reinterpreted to fit almost any political situation, identified with kings and emperors, even popes, whether good or bad. All the signs could be made to fit."
As such, people will not stop praying for the messiah to return and to kick off the disaster. Something in the idea continues to retain its grip on the human mind. “Faith was not something that could be gradually eliminated from the human scene,” noted English writer A.N. Wilson pointed out in God’s Funeral, his account of the collapse of religious belief in the 1800s. “It was a vital component in the human make-up — personal and collective. If it was not directed towards the true God, it would be directed towards idols. Hence Carlyle’s view — … a fatal though perfectly accurate one — that the human race, having discarded belief in the unseen God of Israel, would look towards a… Superman as its God-substitute.”
There’s a psychological term for “persistence in a behavior or a belief even after one has discovered that it really doesn’t work — perseveration,” according to Dr. John C. Meagher “The churches … have doggedly protected various beliefs despite their powerfully being called into question by competent and authoritative investigation.” A professor of Theology, Religious Studies and English at St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto, Meagher was referring to Christian beliefs in general, but the comment is valid for the messianic concept.
That belief has survived almost 2,000 years of consistent failure and gross disappointment. You would think such failure would dissuade people, but they continue to expect a messiah regardless of circumstances. The Church of England, for example, still foresees a final Armageddon, but, like the Roman Catholic Church, avoids pinpointing an exact timetable.
That hasn’t deterred true believers.
In England, in the mid-1800s, Henry Drummond, a conservative member of Parliament, presided over the Aubury Conference, which was called to examine the Bible for signs that the world was about to end. Participants founded the Catholic Apostolic Church to promote their beliefs. Members of the group concluded that Jesus was due shortly and set out to alert the populace. When Jesus didn’t appear and the world kept on turning, the newly found church limped on. Leaders didn’t attempt to amend the date, but without any reason to continue, one-time parishioners typically found other homes.
A more typical example occurred around the same time in this country. On Oct. 22, 1844, thousands of followers gathered in homes, roofs and on William Miller's farm in Hampton, New York to await the end. Miller had been preaching about the apocalypse since 1831, initially choosing 1843. When that year passed uneventfully, Miller said he miscalculated by following Hebrew rather than Roman chronology. Announcement of the new date was greeted with "excitement and hope,” an historian of the event noted. "Those were solemn hours, hours big with hope -- the last hours of time, they believed. They were standing on the brink of eternity, and would soon see He whom, not having seen, they loved. They were at peace with all men, with every sin confessed. Their work was done, and they were anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of God's promise."
When the morning arose -- some overly optimistic believers actually confused the sun with the coming messiah — disappointment replaced happiness. The movement, naturally confused and upset, fell apart. But the faith did not vanish. As with other failed predictions, people clung to the belief that only the date was incorrect. They still call Miller's mistake "The Great Disappointment." The religious organization based on Miller's predictions endures today, as do other sects with similar beliefs.
As a result, in the future, as predictions of a coming Armageddon arise anew, some people will stand on roofs, anxiously surveying the blank skies, waiting until embarrassment brings them down; some, like the handful of people I met in Connecticut in 1985 or the few who gathered at a mountain top in Colorado a year later, will simply giving up everything and get nothing in return. Some, like those that followed self-proclaimed messianic prophets David Koresh to Waco, Texas, or Jim Jones to Guyana, will die with their beliefs intact.
And, still, the world will not end with Gideon’s trumpet and the return of anyone. There are multiple other options, none of which are related to religion, God or messiahs.
We don’t need them for an Armageddon. The Earth may be hit by a meteor; a new ice age may start; human-caused pollution, climate change or other ecological disaster may do the trick; a volcanic eruption, such as one building in Yellowstone National Park, would be sufficient.
No messiah is necessary.
Bill Lazarus is a religious historian whose books are available via Amazon.com, Twitter or through his website, www.williamplazarus.com. Comments are always welcome.