To this day, you’ll hear people say that Psycho has left them afraid to take showers, or that they’re still terrified of the ocean because of Jaws. But no tale of terror has made a longer-lasting impression than the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. Two-thousand years after John of Patmos penned this weighty prophecy of cataclysm and deliverance, adherents continue to anticipate the day of reckoning, simultaneously haunted by the fear of global demolition and elated by the promise of salvation.
There’s a strong case for the idea that Revelation’s Armageddon predictions were never intended for the present day—rather, John’s writing was very much a piece for its time: a redemption song for persecuted Christians awaiting the fall of an oppressive Roman Empire. Among the factors supporting this view are the text’s statements that its prophecies “must shortly come to pass” and the fact that the Hebrew transliteration of the Roman Emperor Nero’s Greek name, Neron Kaiser, adds to 666. (This, of course, is the number of an acutely ill-mannered beast in The Book of Revelation who enslaves humanity before being cast into a lake of fire.) The Roman Catholic Church and most Biblical scholars contend that Nero, who was known for his brutal persecution and torture of Christians during or shortly before the writing of Revelation, was the very beast to whom John referred. To avoid further persecution, John is said to have put Nero’s name in code rather than stating it outright.
According to a 2002 TIME/CNN poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that The Book of Revelation’s predictions will come true in the future. Various believers have fingered the likes of Ronald Wilson Reagan and barcode inventor George Joseph Laurer—both of whose first, middle and last names contain six letters—as the beast. Another theory holds that the beast is the Internet: The Hebrew equivalent of the letter W has a numerical value of 6; thus, www = 666.
Like cockroaches crawling on after a nuclear holocaust, doomsday predictions continue to circulate in spite of the fact that one apocalyptic prophecy after another has bombed miserably. It’s no stretch to say I could fill this entire article with failed apocalyptic prophecies. Especially deserving of mention here are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, as of this writing, have made a total of nine incorrect end-of-the-world forecasts. No less memorable are the actions of apocalypse cults such as The Manson Family, The Branch Davidians and The Order of the Solar Temple, which stand as grim warnings of the extremes to which End Times beliefs can be taken.
Our fascination with the apocalypse (from the Greek Apokálypsis: “revelation” or “lifting of the veil”) is, of course, inextricably tied to religion. (The concept can be traced back to ancient Persia’s Zoroastrian religion. End Times themes also appear in the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Bahá'í and, of course, Christian faiths.) But at this point, the “end of the world” meme has saturated Western civilization so thoroughly that even nonreligious people embrace Judgment Day predictions like diet crazes. The movie 2012 made $225 million during its first weekend alone, and there are more than 200 books about the 2012 prophecy on Amazon.com. The popularity of such apocalyptic literature as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ “Left Behind” series stands as further testament to the enduring hold that eschatological ideas have on mass consciousness, as does the public’s undying interest in Nostradamus, alien invaders, etc.
The most popular doomsday forecast of the day is, of course, the 2012 prophecy. As this tale goes, December 21, 2012 will be the date of the worst pre-Christmas frenzy ever: Humanity will meet its doom, and lo, there shall be much pooping of pants and overturning of buses. A New Age remix of this prophecy holds that Winter Solstice 2012 will not mark the annihilation of the human race, but rather the arrival of a paradigm shift that will radically alter life on Earth for the better.
The 2012 prophecy supposedly comes to us from the ancient Mayans: The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar (often called the Mayan Long Count Calendar) is said to end on the Gregorian date of 12/21/12, which has been interpreted to mean that its makers believed the world was going to end at that time. Along with 2012, predictions generated by the computer programs Timewave Zero and the Web Bot are helping promote anticipation of the end of the world on 12/21/12: Through means unrelated to the Mesoamerican Calendar, both of these programs have determined that massive and possibly catastrophic changes for the planet will take place in 2012. The ways in which Timewave Zero’s predictions intersect with the end of the Long Count Calendar are especially noteworthy: By using a numerological formula designed to calculate the ebb and flow of “novelty” (defined in this context as increase in the universe’s organized complexity), Timewave Zero inventor Terence McKenna (1946-2000) arrived at the conclusion that the most novel event in human history will occur on—yes—December 21, 2012.
Many experts on Mayan culture insist that the ancient Mayans never foretold any sort of world change in 2012. Rather, they claim that 12/21/12 is merely the day when the current cycle of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar (often called the Mayan Long Count Calendar) will end, only to be replaced by a new cycle. Archaeologist and Mayan scholar David Freidel likens the end of this cycle of the Long Count Calendar to the moment when an odometer reaches zero and begins again. Mayan elder Apolinario Chile Pixtun and archaeologist Guillermo Bernal have both stated that the apocalypse—a distinctly Western concept—played no part in classic Mayan thought, and Mayan scholar Mark Van Stone has asserted that “the notion of a ‘Great Cycle’ coming to an end is completely a modern invention.” The claim that the ancient Mayans did not expect the world to end in 2012 is backed up by the fact that many of their prophecies foretell events far beyond that year. (One is set in the year 4772 A.D.)
Nonetheless, a good catastrophic forecast is too alluring for the public to resist. The Web teems with theories as to how the world will be destroyed in 2012: At 11:11 Universal Time, the sun will align with a black hole at the center of the Milky Way, bringing calamitous results; geomagnetic reversal (perhaps caused by a solar flare) will cause earthquakes, huge tsunamis and other such catastrophes; a planet called Nibiru (or Planet X) will collide with the Earth; there will be a new Ice Age; an explosion of gravity will pull the planet to the center of the galaxy, etc. (NASA refutes many of the most common 2012 doomsday theories on its Web site.)
Nancy Lieder, founder of zetatalk.com, is the woman who first proposed one of the most widespread 2012 catastrophe scenarios: that of a hypothetical planet called Nibiru smashing into the earth. (The name Nibiru had previously appeared in the works of author Zecharia Sitchin, but Sitchin denies any connection between his writings and Lieder’s apocalyptic ideas.) To state the matter bluntly, Lieder is a lady who appears to have taken the brown acid: She claims to have an implant in her brain that allows her to receive messages from a star system called Zeta Reticuli and to have had encounters with aliens to whom she has given names like Slinky Man, Chicken Man, Bean Bag Man, Octopus Man and Pumpkinhead Zeta. She also once wrote at her Web site that when she reached into a cardboard box to find a piece of Starburst candy that was not individually wrapped in wax paper, she took it as a message from extraterrestrials to quit her job and move to Wisconsin.
On June 1, 2009—nearly half a year before the release of 2012—NASA Astrobiology Institute Senior Scientist David Morrison stated that “Ask an Astrobiologist" had received nearly a thousand questions about Nibiru and 2012. (The count now stands at more than 2,500.) Morrison claims to receive between 20 and 25 e-mails each week concerning Nibiru’s imminent arrival. Some express fear and panic; others accuse Morrison of being part of a conspiracy to bury the truth about the coming apocalypse.
It’s not surprising that the release of 2012 coincided with the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. As Michael Molcher, editor of the magazine The End is Nigh, told BBC News Magazine in 2008, “What you get during times of particular discontent or war or famine or during general bad times is a rise in apocalyptic preaching and ideas.” Lending credence to that notion, Veronica Tonay, Ph.D., a licensed therapist and psychology teacher at the University of California (Santa Cruz), states that when former colleague Frank Barron (1922-2002) conducted studies about people’s end-of-the-world dreams, he found there was an increase in such dreams during the 1970s and ’80s, when fear of nuclear war was at a height.
Tonay notes that the public’s fascination with the apocalypse moves in cycles. The last spike in apocalyptic interest, she says, began at the turn of the millennium. “Although it may not seem like it to us, we’re still pretty close to the year 2000,” she offers. “It seems like at times of the cyclical change, all these millennial cults pop up, and this idea that we’d better prepare for the end of time will come. We’re in one of those right now.”
With its oil spills, devastating natural disasters, economic hardship, and threats of terrorism, global warming, and fatal disease, the present era offers no shortage of signs that “the end is nigh.” However, writer and scientific researcher David Jay Brown (mavericksofthemind.com) believes that similar things can be said of any era. “During every period of history, there have always been people proclaiming that the end is just around the corner,” he states. “Now, what’s really interesting is that since the beginning of history, people have also been claiming that the beginning is near, that the illuminated New Age is coming.”
Brown, who explores this subject extensively in his book “Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse” (St. Martin's Press), attributes this phenomenon primarily to a particular state of consciousness rather than to external conditions. “I think that it always appears that way if you’re in that state of consciousness: We’re always on the brink of chaos and the end of the human species, and we’re always on the brink of a new age, depending on how you look at it,” he ventures. “There’s never any kind of ultimate ending or ultimate beginning; I don’t think you ever reach a time where we say, ‘This is it.’ The universe is constantly evolving, changing, in flux. I think things have been getting worse and getting better for a long time, and those [apocalyptic] projections are just extensions of what we’ve believed for a long time.”
Tonay, too, sees preoccupation with the end of the world as the externalization of internal processes—specifically, a reaction to fear of figurative rather than literal death. “When people go through really major changes, they often start to have dreams, for instance, of the end of the world,” she explains. “It’s almost as though there’s so much change happening that the old self has died away. Everything the person has known has been obliterated, and they don’t yet see who they’re becoming.”
If apocalyptic ideas are primarily expressions of internal change, then the present popularity of such themes suggests that at the moment, a great many people are going through major personal changes simultaneously. In explanation of this, Tonay points to the recession that began in the United States in late 2007. “For many people, the idea of success was to make a whole lot of money,” she points out. “If you build your life on that foundation, then you’re very vulnerable, because it’s an external foundation and it can always be shaken. Many of us don’t know what to believe in anymore. [We’re] losing our sense of what’s of value and feel shaky and insecure.”
At the same time that apocalyptic imagery reflects this instability, it is also telling of our hope for transformation. Our dissatisfaction with modern life, our disconnection from nature and from one another, fills us with the desire to tear it all down and start fresh. Tonay notes that our collective hope for societal transformation can be seen in another theme currently prevalent in popular culture: that of finding “a new world somewhere out in space, which is [symbolic of] the far unconscious.” Citing Avatar as an example, she adds, “Along with all that destruction, there is the creation of something new, or the finding of what has maybe always been there, but we didn’t see it.”
If, as Tonay and Brown’s statements suggest, the concept of impending world destruction goes hand-in-hand with that of the imminent discovery or creation of a new world, then perhaps this says something about the power of human perception to make things appear positive or negative and/or about the choices available to us as co-creators of this planet’s history.
In the early ’80s, when Prince vowed to party his ass off before the world ended in 1999, he helped set the tone for a decade steeped in cocaine abuse, material excess and self-interest. Here at the start of the ’10s, it might be useful to view the prophecy that 12/21/12 will bring the end of the human race—or, as the New Age version has it, the dawn of a more enlightened era—as a modern answer to “1999”: an anthem urging us to adopt saner values and practices as an alternative to self-annihilation.
That said, things are seldom as clear-cut in reality as they are in mythology. Rather than becoming a paradise or a wasteland on a specific date, our planet is likely to continue displaying aspects of both. As Brown puts it, “There’s always going to be a mix of light and darkness. It seems like right now, the light is getting brighter, and the dark is getting darker. And it may continue that way. It just may be part of the laws of physics, Yin and Yang, that there are always positive and negative forces. It may be that everything seems like it’s on the brink of chaos or the brink of a new order, but really, it always stays perfectly balanced.”