Didn’t Happen

The world didn’t end last Saturday. I wasn’t really surprised. Just within my

Entertaining Endings

lifetime, the end of the world has been predicted a bunch of times.

The end of the millennium caused a wide variety of predictions as to how the world was going to end. As I recall, the return of Haley’s Comet made many people nervous, too, for reasons I can’t recall at this late date.

There are also the less absolute “end of the world” predictions. I grew up during the Cold War. Back then, the threat of nuclear war made us school kids all wonder just how hard we should try to get good grades. After all, it seemed fairly likely that we weren’t going to get to grow up anyhow.

One of my favorites non-theological end of the world predictions was the Y2K fuss. That’s the one that said all the computers were going to crash all at once because of a flaw in the underlying calendar. At the very least, we were told, the banks were going to crash. If things got really bad, all the nuclear weapons would go off.

I heard about Y2K long before it became a trendy media pseudo-event when Gordon Garb made it the subject of  a presentation at Bubonicon, New Mexico’s Science Fiction convention. Gordon’s both a computer guru and a great speaker so he was the perfect person to make the threat seem very real. However, even as he unfurled all the reasons why Y2K could happen, I found myself thinking, “But the computer industry already knows the problem is there. Surely someone will work out a fix before all the banks crash and computer guidance systems go awry and everything goes to hell.”

Maybe that’s why end of the world predictions based on biblical or astrological or astronomical materials are so fascinating. The circumstances are beyond not only your control, but anyone’s control.

What fascinates me is that end of the world scenarios have entered what must be called “entertainment culture.” Print Science Fiction has frequently speculated on how the world might end, ranging through death by war, disease, asteroid, alien invasion, and a bunch of even less likely scenarios.

Even more popular are those books and movies that look at the end of the world as a neat challenge – neat, that is, if you’re one of those who get to survive and wear cool fur bikinis (as in the “Mad Max” movies) or rebuild the world from scratch (and presumably in your own image).

There have even been pop songs based on the premise. One of my favorites is David Bowie’s haunting “Five Years.” There’s also R.E.M.’s scarily perky “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” I believe the Carpenters sang about aliens warning us not to do anything dumb in “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Crafts.” I’m sure there are many other examples.

Oh… Let’s not forget the businesses that have developed to cater to apocalyptic interests – especially those where the world ends only for a small, select group. There are bumper stickers voicing various opinions on what a vehicle might do in case of “rapture.” Last week’s Wall Street Journal mentioned that one company offers to forward e-mails to your chosen list if you’re “raptured.” Another, staffed by atheists, promises to care for your pets if you’re taken bodily to heaven.

What is it that fascinates us so about not only the concept of the end of the world, but about these predictions? What keeps drawing people back, even when numerous expectations have been disappointed?

I guess the next big End of the World prediction is the one based on the ending cycle of the Mayan calendar in 2012. Anyone want to place a bet?


17 Responses to “Didn’t Happen”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Well, AFAIK some of the living Mayans actually sent out a press release saying that nothing in their culture predicted an end of the world, that was just a misinterpretation of what an archeologist said about some well-worn stele.

    I think there should be a law about shouting Armageddon in a crowded church. Why not? The Texas legislature is trying to outlaw people lying about the size of the fish they catch, and this law’s a bit less goofy.

    Personally, I hope the Oakland DA looks into whether what’s ‘is name intentionally mislead his followers about the rapture last Saturday. He seems to be doing quite well financially out of this whole business, after all, and since he’s now on his third predicted date (October 21), I tend to see this as a scam, false profit as well as false prophet.

  2. Patrick Doris Says:

    Predictions of Christians termination dates are of a necessity are doomed to failure since the Bible is very clear on the fact that is an unknowable datum.From a Christian perspective all such predictions are false so I find them further proof that people do not learn from history. I noticed you used a copy of Alas Babylon as a prop today. To me that is one of the best post nuclear war recovery books ever. A genre that due to the betterment of the world has went out of fashion .

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    I wonder if the secular/technological end of the world scenarios are a direct result of the Judeo-Christian influences on western culture. Is it just part of our worldview specifically? Do these themes come up in Asian literature, for example? But on some level, I think we “expect” the world to end, and that encourages speculation through fiction.

    Distinguishing between sincere believers and charismatic profiteers could be difficult, though. Many churches accept donations, offerings, tithes, etc. How do you decide which ones are legitimate and which ones aren’t? There’s some potential first amendment issues there.

  4. Paul Says:

    The second SF movie masterminded by forgotten-genius George Pal, “When Worlds Collide,” was my first brush with world’s end. (Later I would find the Balmer/Wylie novel and its sequel in my high school library.) Next came a comic-book story, “Strange Adventures” #2, using the same scenario of doom from a wandering planet. It was set in near-future 1956; I breathed a sigh of relief when that year came and went. Nuclear doom was next, in short-lived comic books like “Atomic War” and “World War III” (because where could you take the story after the initial attack?) and novels like “On the Beach” and “Alas, Babylon.” Somewhere in there I read H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” wherein the time traveler gets a peek at an Earth with all sentient life gone. Well, the world will end at some point, poisoned by its humans, swallowed by its sun, or in some way — but not in 2012 or any date we would recognize.

  5. heteromeles Says:


    Look up “Maitreya.” He’s the closest thing to the Second Coming in Buddhism, and the concept of a future Buddha coming to restore the fallen world has inspired any number of rebellions, including the White Lotus Society.

    There’s also the aum shinrikyo cult in Japan, although it is syncretic.

    The one thing I’d point out about false prophets be prosecuted is when the “prophet” is
    a) profiting from his work, at the expense of his followers
    b) causing them harm, or inspiring them to harm themselves,
    c) and unwilling to admit error or quit his harmful activities, then
    I think it’s legitimate for a DA to investigate. I believe all three apply to Harold Camping.

    To me, the essential issue is what he said afterwards. It wasn’t “Boy was I wrong. I’m so sorry, the bible was right, I’ll help everyone whose life was destroyed by what I said.” Instead, he said basically’ “Oops, that was embarrassing. I meant October 21.” Note that this is his third prediction, and he’s been wrong on the first two.

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether he’s deluded, or whether he’s making the predictions for profit. If it’s the later, I think some worldly justice is in order, just as for any other con man.

  6. Alan Robson Says:

    Jane is quite right when she (in reference to Y2K) says “But the computer industry already knows the problem is there. Surely someone will work out a fix before all the banks crash and computer guidance systems go awry and everything goes to hell.”

    That’s exactly what happened — and for a short time a lot of people made a lot of money as they dug deep into 30 year old COBOL programs and tweaked stuff. My wife was one of those people…

    And so Y2K was a non-event and the computer industry was perceived in the world at large as chicken little predicting that the sky was falling. No sky fell, so obviously the warning was wrong. Not so!

    Perhaps they were too successful and efficient for their own good…

    As far as SF and “after the catastrophe” stories go, my very favourite is “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart. I must have read it at least a dozen times. I recently bought a handsome new edition of it (my old paperback was falling to bits) and so I read it all over again and it has lost none of its power. A brilliant, brilliant book.

    For a time it seemed as if the British had cornered the market on after the disaster stories. Sometimes it seemed like there were dozens of them scattered over the bookshelves. “The Day Of The Triffids” springs to mind. Also “The Death Of Grass”. But there were lots of others. Brian Aldiss coined the phrase “cozy catastrophe” to define them. A cozy catastrophe tells the story of a world that has gone to hell, everyone suffers, lots of people die. But the hero wanders through the world having a really, really good time as he forages in supermarkets and meets other people, settles down, has children, starts a new community. And so on…

    American stories tended to be much bleaker (perhaps that’s why I like “Earth Abides” so much; it follows the cozy catastrophe model more closely than most American tales of the times).

    A friend has just informed me that the guy who predicted the end of the world last Saturday has admitted he got it wrong. It was an arithmetical error in his calculations. Apparantly the world will really end next October.

    I’m quite happy with that. It’s after the Rugby World Cup tournament has finished. Obviously God is a rugby fan. Presumably He’s on the side of the All Blacks, as all right thinking people must be.


  7. Emily Says:

    I’m going to go with Jay Leno on this one. Preachers predicting the world’s end should have a three strike rule. If Camping’s October prediction is wrong then he’s out.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Sometimes I think people actually WANT the world to end — especially if it means a fresh start.

    Christian lore is not unique in specifying there will be an End. The Norse had Ragnorok. Hinduism also has a cyclic creation/ destruction/ rebirth cycle built in.

    As I read people’s comments, the thought took shape that it’s not the End of the World, but rather the Start of a New World — always presented as a better one — that fascinates people.

  9. Ann M Nalley Says:

    A lovely Catholic-Christian “fable” has a man asking St. Francis of Assisi, who is gardening, what he would do if he knew the world was coming to an end that day. St. Francis replied, “I’d keep gardening.” For me, that is the crux of the matter. Am I doing my very best this day to live peaceably? Can I live, this day, with love to those around me?

  10. Susan Says:

    Well expressed, Jane, and I totally agree with your opinion–I’m just not sure theologically where we stand with regards to the end of the world–it probably means that we are spiritually evolving and eventually leave this world in one way for another. I just wonder if there is truth in Armageddon and that our Lord, Jeus, has a plan to surprise all of us wherein a second coming is around the corner, sooner than later and so it gives one room to circumspect all possibilities.

  11. Rowan Says:

    I think that there is a certain tendency to want to make the end of the world knowable somehow, and that’s what makes it fascinating and compelling. It’s easy to be afraid of the numerous known cataclysmic events that could end all or most of life on earth, but exploring the “what-ifs” makes it suddenly more knowable. When that scenario, as in some religious predictions, contains a “save” for a select few, all the better, because then the end of the world is both knowable and it may not be so bad for you personally.

    And I agree that it tends not to be a hard and fast end – there’s a narrative looping that brings it back to beginnings. “And then everyone died entirely” doesn’t seem to have the same appeal…

  12. Chad Cloman Says:

    I think everyone’s got it all wrong waiting until 2012. -My- calendar ends on December 31st, 2010. So that has to be the true end of the world.

  13. janelindskold Says:


    That sounds like a philosophy related to the “But I can’t be out of money! I still have more checks!” school of thought.

    Meanwhile, I’m off to plant some radishes. They germinate quickly…

  14. CBI Says:

    What is to me most interesting about Camping’s prediction(s) is the amount of publicity they have received vs. how many people put stock in them.

    I’m on a discussion list which has some extremely ‘conservative’ Christian members who generally hang out among people of similar theology. When the topic came up, I asked if any of them (a) believed Camping’s prediction, or (b) personally knew of someone who believed it. The answer: not a one. I asked the same of my Sunday Bible class, with the same results.

    So why all the publicity? Perhaps there is a bit of titillation at the possibility of a major catastrophe, as mentioned above. I’m wondering if perhaps there also is a component of self-superiority: a pleasure at being so much more wise or sophisticated than those mentally challenged people who fell for Camping’s prediction. In discussing something virtually no one believed — I doubt that 0.0001% of the population fell for it — I think I could often detect a barely-hidden smugness in many of the reporters and people around me. There also at times was a barely-disguised effort to use it to smear people who were *opposed* to Camping, such as those with various more traditional millenialist beliefs.

  15. janelindskold Says:

    It’s a hard call as to what will be picked up as news.

    However, I wish there was more that stressed positive events rather than negative or ludicrous — even in an event like this one, there must have been people who did generous things to prepare for the end, but we only hear about the foolish or gullible.

  16. Ann M Nalley Says:

    In response to Jane’s latest comment, I heard through my church that there were many churches throughout the United States that actively went searching for members of Mr. Camping’s church ~ those who had left their jobs, sold their homes, and traveled the country trying to save people from “judgement.” These churches not only offered new faith communities for those gulled by Harold Camping, but also have tried to find shelter, food, get children reregistered in school districts, and when possible, find jobs for the adults out of work. In this economy, however, all of it is very difficult.

  17. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks great news, Ann. Thanks for showing that not everyone is taking pleasure in mockery.

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