It’s estimated that 10% of Americans give the end of the world "serious consideration". Yet the track record of prophets through the centuries couldn’t be worse.
Leo Harris, founder of Australia’s Christian Revival Crusade argued for 1979 as the possible date for the return of Christ. He claimed Christ had to return within one generation of 1917. Some books of the sect also promote the year 2000 for Jesus’ return. (e.g. Foster 1977)
The Worldwide Church of God (founded in 1934 by Herbert W Armstrong) promoted 1972 for the outbreak of the "Great Tribulation" followed by world rule by Jesus around 1978. In 1955, for example, his magazine The Plain Truth said, "we will be totally consumed and carried away captive to other nations as slaves within 20 years."
Christadelphians have made predictions for about a dozen dates and Jehovah’s Witnesses for at least 25 dates. (Investigator 56) In Awake! (1993 March 22) JWs asked—cheekily in view of their own record—"Why So Many False Alarms?"
The 450-member True Light Church of Christ of North and South Carolina, USA, predicted the end for 1970.
The Children of God predicted catastrophe in early 1974 with the approach of the comet Kohoutec.
The Great White Brotherhood, a cult based in Kiev, Russia, ran amok in the city’s St Sofia Cathedral in preparation for the end of the world to occur November 14 1993. Over 600 of them were arrested.
Numerous writers in the 19th and 20th centuries set fairly precise dates. The article Survey of Christian Prophecy (Investigator 20) surveyed a number of their books. These include:
Behold The Bndegroom 1891, W T P Wolston
(Date set = 2000 AD)
The Coming King 1906, James E White
(Date = one generation from the mid 19th century)
When Will Our Lord Return? 1915, Harold Norris
(Date = 1919)
The Approaching End of the Age 1918, E H Horne
(Date = 1919-1998)
Pentecostal writers are often quite precise. The pamphlet A Tribulation Map (1974) by Leon Bates included a picture of a hypothetical future newspaper reporting the "rapture" when Christians are snatched off the Earth to meet Jesus in the sky. The date on the newspaper is February 8 1996.
Barry Smith, a New Zealand Assemb1y of God preacher wrote the books Second Warning (1984) and Final Warning (1989) which predicted the end before 2000 AD. Second Warning, for example, says that humans have: "less than 16 years then until the end of man’s allotted time to choose God or Satan." (Investigator 15)
History has numerous examples of cults which gathered on a mountain or other place to await the end.
The Russellites waited in white robes on Sixth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh on Passover night of 1878 to be swept up into the sky by Jesus.
In February 1979 Roch Theriault and 17 followers gathered in a log cabin in Quebec to wait the world’s end on February 19.
Mission for the Coming Days may have had 10,000 members. They gathered in houses and on bridges on October 28 1992 in a dozen countries. (Investigator 24 & 27)
The News (an Adelaide newspaper) reported, "A group of 25 people are entrenched in an Arkansas house keeping a vigil for the second coming of Christ to save them from doomsday." (1976 February 6)
In Western lands the main authority for end of-the-world predictions is the Bible—usually a misuse of the Bible. Jehovah's Witnesses with over 25 prophetic attempts are particularly bad. Their Governing Body still sums up their old books with the failed predictions as "Bible truth" and "true Christianity" decades after discarding them!
A plethora of books by Pentecostal and Evangelical writers in the 1960s and 1970s predicted the imminent "rapture" followed by the "great tribulation". The Soviet Union, many such writers argued, would invade Israel. Also (or alternatively) a ten-nation revival of the Roman Empire would be led by "Antichrist".
Probably the most popular book with such a theme was The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) by Hal Lindsey. It sold over 10 million and went through 140 printings! Lindsey predicted that the end will probably come within 40 years i.e. one generation after 1948!
The problem of false prophecy was present with Christianity at its start. Jesus, Paul and Peter all warned against it.
In 156 AD Montanus, assisted by two prophetesses, predicted the world’s end was just ahead. Such crowds flocked to the spot where heavenly Jerusalem would supposedly descend (near modern Ankara in Turkey) that a new town was created to house everyone.
In the third century Novatian had a huge following around Mediterranean lands.
So it went on in century after century. One historian of religion wrote, "Anabaptists, Waldensians, Albigenses, Moravian Brethren, Swiss Brethren became links in an unbroken chain of apocalyptic advocates."
Sabbatal Zevi of Smyrna (Turkey) convinced Jews in Europe and the Turkish Empire that he was the Messiah and that the world would end in 1666. After the prediction failed the prophet Messiah went to Constantinople where the Sultan converted the "Messiah" to Islam!
Numerous groups also sprouted in America. An early doom-watcher commune was The Women in The Wilderness. Led by Johann Jacob Zimmerman the group predicted the end for February 1694. By 1750 the cult had died out.
The Rappites were founded by George Rapp who went to America from Germany in 1804. He taught that the Second Coming would occur before he died. His last words on his death-bed at the age of 90 reaffirmed this belief!
William Miller predicted Christ’s return for 1843, then 1844. About 200,000 people in the eastern United States got involved. From the shambles as the movement broke apart arose the Seventh Day Adventists and numerous smaller groups. The latter in turn gave rise to the Russellites (=the early Jehovah’s Witnesses).
R D Cronquist of Grace Chapel, California, predicted the end within 40 years of the birth of Israel in 1948. The book The True Believers (1986) quoted Pastor Cronquist as follows:
A few years ago I thought that 1970 would bring the end. And then I received more light, and I thought that 1973 or 1974 would bring the end. Then I received more light, and I thought 1977 or 1978 would bring the end. Then I received more light, and I feel it could possibly go to 1980 or 1981 or possibly 1982, or somewhere in there.
In 1987 over 90 USA radio stations advertised that Jesus would return in 1988 on September 11, 12 or 13 and take Christians off the Earth. The excitement stemmed from the book 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be In 1988. The writer was Edgar Wisenant a former NASA rocket engineer. (Investigator 7 pp. 52-53)
British Israelism—the doctrine that Britain or Britain plus America are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel is also associated with date setting. In 1840 London phrenologist John Wilson published Our Israelitish Origin, and in 1842 The Millennium. He concluded that the Second Coming was imminent.
Other writers making similar claims followed: The Remnant of Judah and the Israel of Ephraim (1861) by Reverend Glover; The English Nation Identified (1870) by Edward Hine. British Israelism became part of the doctrine of many cults including Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God and Leo Harris’ Christian Revival Crusade.
Not all prophets of doom use the Bible. Some base their predictions on environmental or political considerations,or some alleged innate prophetic talent, or potential threat from Space. Lately the idea of comet or asteroid strikes has gained publicity.
The Jupiter Effect (1974) by John Gribbin and Stephen G Plagemann suggested that the line up of planets on one side of the Sun to occur in 1982 and 2000 would cause major destruction via sunspots and earthquakes.
In his best seller The Population Bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich forecast ecological catastrophe from overpopulation in 1983.
Charles Berlitz in Doomsday 1999 says: "Seventeen years from now the world will come to an end." He wrote that in 1981. Therefore hold on to your seats for the time has come!
The book The Survival of Civilization (Hamaker & Weaver) had a picture of a tombstone on the back cover. The tombstone reads:
BORN 8000 B.C.
DIED 1990 A.D.
Sean Blair in End of the World (Focus, 1996 December) speculated on ten different scenarios which could end the world. These ranged from dust clouds in space and killer rays to failure of the food chain, giant volcanoes, superbugs, self-destruction, energy wave from space and a "solar hiccup".
Mother Shipton lived in the 16th century. Prophecies in her name were published in 1797. They included the line "The world to an end shall come in eighteen hundred and eighty one." However, a London publisher, Charles Hindly, admitted to adding this and other lines to an 1862 reprint.
"New Agers" often comment on the "Age of Aquarius"—a time of global peace and brotherhood. Bensley (1995) listed some of the claimed starting dates for the Age of Aquarius:
Gerald Massey 1905; Willaru Huatya 1962; Alice Bailey 1999; Wolben 2000/2023/2160; Peter Lemesurier 2010; Adrian Duncan 2020; Dane Rudhyar 2060; Robert Hand 2813.
Dot Griffiths, a "witch" in Britain predicted a "world holocaust" for November 1988. (Time 1988, July 3)
Numerous tribes in North and South America and in Africa had prophets at one time or another who predicted doom or raised unwarranted hopes.
North American Indians developed the EarthLodge cult in California in l870 and the Warm House cult on Oregon reservations. Several tribes in Brazil undertook mass migrations to escape destruction and find paradise. In 1539 for example the Tupinambas trekked for 9 years through the Amazon jungles to Peru.
The Hawaiian prophetess Hapu founded a cult in 1825. She claimed she was the third member of the Trinity and that the world was about to end.
An illiterate laborer, Alexander Bedward, gained a huge following in Jamaica in 1920. He predicted he would ascend to heaven on December 31 and then return and destroy the Earth. He was placed in a lunatic asylum.
In Vietnam the prophet Huynh Phy So awaited the world’s end on a hill-top with his followers when the Japanese invaded during World War II.
Numerous so-called psychics, astrologers, UFO groups and other prognosticators of various sorts also set dates which also nearly always fail. Jeane Dixon, for example, predicted:
Towards the middle of 1980 the Earth will be struck by a comet. Earthquakes and tidal waves will be the result of this tremendous collision which will take place in one of the world's great oceans. Although the approximate point of impact has been revealed to me, I believe I should not reveal it yet, but at a future date I will give more detailed information. (Woldben 1973)
Jeane Dixon also claimed the "Antichrist" was born in 1962 and:
The influence of this man will begin to be felt by the end of 1980... The power of this man will increase greatly until 1999. (Woldben 1973)
This and a lot else she predicted just isn’t happening.
Canadian psychic Winnifred Barton said on television and radio that the world would end on June 13 1976.
The News quoted Criswell, an American psychic:
The world will come to an end on August 18, 1999. A black rainbow will draw the oxygen from the earth. Earth will race toward the sun and the only people left will be colonists on 200 space stations. (1976 February 2)
Table 1 accompanying this article is a table of some doomsters and their dates. Some of the predicted dates were for the end of the world or of civilization, and others for the return of Christ.
Another set of calculations and predictions is based on the "days" mentioned in the Bible book of Daniel.
These are 2300 days (Daniel 8:14); 1335 days and 1290 days (Daniel 12:11-12); and 2520 days—these often being identified by interpreters as the "Gentile Times".
Some cults even try to pre-empt God and arrange Armageddon or otherwise set up the "Kingdom of God" by force. The book Jehovah’s Witnesses: A statistical Survey (1992) suggests this for the long-range hopes of the J W leaders. The Aum Shinri Kyo cult of Japan tried out chemical weapons in the Tokyo subway and had plans of acquiring and using nuclear weapons. Cult leader Shoko Asahara predicted the world’s end for 2000 AD.
The Taborites, an extreme section of the Hussite movement in Bohemia in the 15th century, used force of arms leading to bloody battles in the "Hussite wars". The Anabaptist "Kingdom of God" in the city of Munster (Germany) in 1534-1535 is another example. The great German "Peasants’ War" in 1524-1525 in which Thomas Muentzer and the Zwickau prophets were leading figures is also an example.
A fascinating book which describes various medieval pretending messiahs, kingdoms of God, peasant uprisings, and end-of-the-world predictions is The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn. Some of the dates for failed predictions Cohn mentions include 1200-1260; 1348; 1365-1367; 1369; 1420; 1467; 1515.
It’s not just religious crazies who long for a doomsday or a millennium or try to produce a doomsday or a utopia. Their political counterparts are far more destructive.
Hitler was a savior-like figure who tried to produce a 1,000-year Reich. In the process about 35 million people died. Karl Marx foretold a Communist millennium. Mao of China tried to bypass intermediate stages of "socialist reconstruction" and establish full Communism via a "Great Leap Forward" starting 1958. Famine, forced labor and civil unrest may have killed over 20 million. The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia wanted Communism in "one leap forward" and murdered 1/4 of the population.
Doomsday predictions flourish because they offer hope and release to people lacking hope, love or purpose. Doomsday and the promise of survival for a chosen few is a seductive dream of a better life. The fantasy of such selective rescue from a powerless situation provides a sense of security and an apparent serenity. And wars and other uncertainties always ensure that doomsday expectations have a minimal basis in reality.
The secularization of society has seen increasing secularization of the apocalypse. It’s no longer limited to Christ and Judgment Day but can be anything from alien invaders and comet impacts to biological warfare and climate change.
However, as we near the 21st century End-of-the-World cults still proliferate. Ed Daniels, editor of Millennial Prophecy Report maintains a watch on 1,100 of them!
St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) the "Doctor of the Church" wrote his famous work City of God after the fall of Rome in 410 AD. He warned:
It is in vain, therefore, that we try to reckon and put a limit to the number of years that remain for this world, since we hear from the mouth of Truth that it is not for us to know this. And yet some have asserted that 400, 500 or as much as 1,000 years may be completed between the Lord’s ascension and his final coming. (Pelican Books 1972 p. 838)
St Augustine supported his case by paraphrasing Jesus:
It is not for you to know the times, which the Father has reserved for his own control. (Acts 1)