May 8, 2008

World to End in 2012 (Check Back for Updates)

Three children were recently removed from a remote church compound
called Strong City in New Mexico. There had been allegations that
children at the cult may have been sexually abused, though the matter
remains under investigation and charges have yet to be filed.

The leader of the group, Wayne Bent, claims to be the son of God.

In early 2007, Bent said that the world would end on Halloween of
that year. That apparently fell through, however Bent was undeterred
and has updated his prophecy to say that the Apocalypse will happen at
any moment: "The seven last plagues are all falling now and the end of
all things is at hand," Bent wrote on his church's Web site.

Failed doomsday predictions
are nothing new, of course. There have been thousands of people
predicting the imminent end of the world, dating back to at least 2800
B.C. They have all been wrong for thousands of years (or however how
long since they spoke), but that doesn't keep people from trying.

End-times claims are often rooted in Bible passages, but also based on everything from schizophrenia to misunderstood astronomy.
Most doomsday promoters are quite sincere, genuinely believing that
they have discovered a (literally) Earth-shaking secret that must be
shared with others.

Doomsday deferred

It seems quaint now, but as the last century came to a close, there
was fear of the "Y2K bug," the computer programming glitch that supposedly was going to bring the world to its knees as the millennium turned. The news media
ran alarmist stories of possible consequences, ranging from the timing
on your coffeemaker being off to a global nuclear war started by
mistakenly-launched missiles.

While most people were only mildly concerned, many stocked up on
survival gear, and some even headed to remote areas to wait out the
impending holocaust.

And it wasn't just the Y2K bug; there were dozens of predictions that the world would end in 2000
(just as there had been a century earlier - some things never change).
For example, author Richard Noone decided that the planets would align
catastrophically almost exactly eight years ago, on May 5, 2000. The
result would be the end of civilization through the melting and
shifting of the polar icecaps.

Noone was so concerned about it he wrote a book titled "5/5/2000:
Ice, The Ultimate Disaster." (About 18 months before doomsday, I
interviewed Mr. Noone about his book and prophecy; when we concluded, I
asked if we could arrange a follow-up interview on May 6, 2000, just in
case the world didn't end. He declined. Noone's book is currently for
sale on for 1 cent.)

Now what?

So how do true believers react when it's clear that the world didn't
end? In many cases, followers have sold or given away all their
possessions, assuming that they would have no need of them after the
apocalypse. There must be some red faces as the hour of judgment comes ...
and goes.

You might also think that followers would decide they'd been fooled
and rebel. More often, however, the failed prophecy actually makes
their belief stronger. In the case of cults,
members have invested their money, time, lives, and sometimes even
children in the cult leader. It's very difficult to suddenly reject all
that, since their very identity is often linked to the beliefs.

Believers may rationalize away the failure in one or more of the
following ways: They may decide that the end is in fact near, but that
the time or date was simply misinterpreted and move the true end-times
date forward (as Wayne Bent did); they may decide that their faith and
prayer actually saved the world and averted disaster; or they may
believe that the end of the world did in fact occur, but nobody else
noticed it because it was a mystical or spiritual apocalypse, not a
physical one. For more on the psychology of failed apocalyptic
predictions, see Leon Festinger's classic book "When Prophecy Fails."

The latest fad in end-times predictions is for the year 2012, which
(depending on which "expert" you listen to) will supposedly bring about
either a new age of global spiritual awakening, or the end of the
world. Or maybe something in between.

There are several Web sites dedicated to cataloging hundreds of past
doomsdays. One of the best is A Brief History of the Apocalypse. Check
the site in 2013 to see what it says.

Benjamin Radford has a degree in psychology and uses it often. His books can be found on his website.