May
7th 2011
End-of-the-worlders, again! (And I feel fine.)

Posted under: American history, fluff, unhappy endings, weirdness

I heard a story today on NPR about another group of Christian True Believers who believe in a clear end-date of time.  This time, it’s May 21, 2011, two weeks from today.  (Gee, it’s too bad my grades for the spring term are due May 17!  Bummer.  Then again, if they’re right, who’s gonna know the difference as of May 22?)

These millenialist groups never learn from history, or from anyone I guess–but I suppose they’re betting that someone is bound to be right about the end of life on Earth sometime, right?  One of my favorite stories from nineteenth-century U.S. history is the story of the Millerites, Christian enthusiasts of William Miller who believed that the end of time would be in 1843, or maybe 1844, or perhaps in 1845.  When each of the dates he picked turned out not to be the end of the world, most of his enthusiasts drifted away.  Remember all of the excitement about Y2K and the coming end-of-times/computer meltdown that would return us all to the bronze age?  Funny how that just didn’t come up very much after January 1, 2000.

It is utterly strange to me to be disappointed that the sun rises again each morning–but what the hell do I know?  I love life. Even if I were one of these nutty nihilists, the last season I’d be rooting for the end of the world is spring, especially now that it’s May and green and lovely again. But I guess I don’t know anything about loving life or respecting creation. I’m an unbeliever, a profane scoffer even, so we all know what my reward will be if I’m wrong!  Mumble along if you know the words:   “Lenny Bruce is not afraid. . . BlahblahblahmamamamamaLEONARD BERNSTEINfliffafliffablahblahblah. . . ”

25 Comments »

25 Responses to “End-of-the-worlders, again! (And I feel fine.)”

  1. squadratomagico on 07 May 2011 at 9:21 am #

    The May 21 group has purchased billboards all over the country — my city has some that advertise the end of the world on that date, with a little “stamp” over that saying, “The Bible Guarantees It!” I believe they also have gone on a cross-country preaching tour, bringing the Good News to everyone they can.

    Their way of reckoning the Day of Reckoning has roots in the Middle Ages: take the Psalms verse (I don’t know the exact numbers off hand) that suggests that “a thousand years are like one day unto the Lord;” assume that the End can be calculated by deciding upon a certain number (usually 7) of “Lord’s days” — that is, millennia — as the duration of the world; and voila! You have a date! In the Middle Ages, this was called the “Cosmic Week” theory of History: the idea was that the history of the world would figurally echo the Creation Process. So, God worked for 6 days & on the 7th day he rested; so, the world would last for 6, 1000-year “days” before the initiation of the millennium of rest mentioned in the book of Revelation, which corresponds to the 7th “day.”

    The May 21 group has used a classic Cosmic Week scheme of 7000 years. However, their innovation is to start counting the 7000 from the Flood, which they place at 4990 b.c. Here is a quote from some of their literature:

    “Therefore, with the correct understanding that the seven days referred to in Genesis 7:4 can be understood as 7,000 years, we learn that when God told Noah there were seven days to escape worldwide destruction, He was also telling the world there would be exactly 7,000 years (one day is as 1,000 years) to escape the wrath of God that would come when He destroys the world on Judgment Day. … Seven thousand years after 4990 B.C. (the year of the Flood) is the year 2011 A.D.”

    This same group, btw, originally predicted the End in 1979. After the apocalypse failed to happen then, they recalculated. Again, a classic response.

  2. squadratomagico on 07 May 2011 at 9:27 am #

    (Every time I hear or read about millennialists recalculating dates after a failed apocalypse, I picture some guy slapping his forehead and saying, “Oh no! I forgot to carry the 2!!)

  3. Comrade PhysioProf on 07 May 2011 at 9:43 am #

    Is there anything on Earth that makes people fucken stupider than religion? Religion ranks up there with war, murder, rape, and slavery as among the absolute worst most despicable aspects of humanity.

  4. Nicole on 07 May 2011 at 10:11 am #

    mmmmm I love REM.

  5. Bridgett on 07 May 2011 at 11:00 am #

    And for practical issues such as the care of your pets after 5/21, an organization is available to help you in your planning…

    http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/

  6. koshem Bos on 07 May 2011 at 11:03 am #

    These people are actually very funny. On the bell curve there is enough room for circus acts of all sorts.

    I don’t think it a religion. They just use want they know for their strange hallucination.

  7. Historiann on 07 May 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Bridgett: that’s hilarious. I assume they expect payment up-front, because once someone is Raptured then ze can’t really write a check or access funds in the bank account.

    I’m not against religion, although I agree with CPP that some religious traditions suppress or even persecute critical thought, which tends to produce teh stupid. I guess what baffles me about any millenarians is that their vision is so punitive and nihilistic and yet so improbable. I think Christians (or what have you) might get a lot more converts or adherents by talking about what they can do to alleviate suffering on Earth as well as in the hereafter.

    The really sad part of the linked story at NPR about the 5/21/11 crowd is the fact that among the men they interview, 2/3 of them have family members (or even a wife and children) who disagree with them, so it’s causing a big rift in their families. The two men say that they’re pulled between excited anticipation for their own Rapture, and terrible dread for the fate of their families.

  8. Brian Ogilvie on 07 May 2011 at 11:33 am #

    In philosophy of science, the “Duhem-Quine thesis” holds that evidence that seems to contradict a scientific hypothesis can be rendered compatible with it by changing certain background assumptions.

    The fate of the Millerites, and of apocalyptic cults more generally, shows a similar phenomenon in work. After the “Great Disappointment” of October 22, 1844, many of Miller’s followers drifted away. Others held a conference in 1845 in Albany, out of which emerged several groups. One of those would ultimately produce the Seventh-Day Adventists, who hold that the significant event of October 22, 1844, occurred in heaven, not on earth. By changing that background assumption, the core truth of Miller’s revelation could be preserved.

    Bonus: The Millerites used the same “day-age” approach to reckoning Biblical time clues that the May 21 group uses. I’m sure that some of them will remain faithful even on May 22.

  9. Brian Ogilvie on 07 May 2011 at 11:33 am #

    D’oh! Read: “a similar phenomenon *at* work.” Speaking of which, back to the book review I’m at work on.

  10. Bardiac on 07 May 2011 at 11:41 am #

    I remember reading that the year 1300 was supposed to be the very last, and that up to one third of the people in Western Europe made a pilgrimage to Rome in that year so that they’d be ready for the day of judgment. (Alas, I can’t remember where I read it now.)

    The happy news is that my grades aren’t due until the afternoon of the 22nd! Should I wait to start grading?

  11. Bardiac on 07 May 2011 at 11:42 am #

    ps. What would the dean make of that excuse? “I was expecting to be raptured, so…”??

    Also, Squadrato made me laugh out loud in my office. (Why am I in the office if I expect to be raptured (or something worse) in just over a week?)

  12. Notorious Ph.D. on 07 May 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Technically, the prediction is not for the world to end on the 21st. That date is for the rapture. The rest of us have to stew in agony until sometime in October. So not only do you have to grade; you also have to prepare your fall syllabi.

  13. quixote on 07 May 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    I was driving through bumper to bumper city traffic in LA with the usual crazy drivers pulling out of parking spots, turning left, switching lanes, pedestrians and bicyclists weaving about (and me, entirely rationally of course, popping lanes like one possessed), when I saw one of those billboards way back in January.

    It was the first I’d heard of it. Mostly we have movie billboards in this company town. They show things like LA being swallowed up in 2012 and asteroids striking and nuclear apocalypses and sky-filling armadas of alien space ships arriving.

    So I couldn’t figure out which movie the billboard was for….

    Very interesting to hear about the historical background of these movements. I always wondered how they came up with the dates. I have a suggestion for a background assumption to change on May 22nd: “D’Oh! God counts in base 16!”

  14. quixote on 07 May 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    So not only do you have to grade; you also have to prepare your fall syllabi.

    Bwahahaha. Oooh. Vicious.

  15. Indyanna on 07 May 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    Too complicated. I’m going off-shore shortly after the 21st. Even if the world ends that day, I’m *still* going off-shore on the 23rd.

  16. Dr. Koshary on 07 May 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    I also laughed out loud at Squadrato’s comment; the image is awesome. And, for the record, I’d *better* not get raptured up/sucked up by aliens/whatever the hell happens to the nice people who probably hate me on May 21. I intend to enjoy my first year as an actual university professor to the fullest, even if Satan comes to earth and makes everyone watch skee-ball championships on TV. Nothing can stop me from having an office for the first freaking time ever.

    Come to think of it, Jews are pretty much always left out of the ‘good’ option in these millenarian scenarios, right? Badass! Bring on the textbook order forms!

  17. thefrogprincess on 07 May 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    So I grew up Southern Baptist and, per my mother’s Biblical interpretation, it can’t be May 21 b/c the Bible says nobody knows when. So, according to her, the moment a date is mentioned, that won’t be it. So looking forward to May 22!

  18. Feminist Avatar on 07 May 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    I actually find millenarianism entirely compelling- not because I believe it, but because I can emphasise with the sense, the anxiety or excitement, that you get watching events unfold around you and having a sense of their significance, that something is going to change, to be historically significant, that you are on the edge of something… . And, ‘the end of the world’ is the only popular narrative that helps explain that sensation, outside of science. And let’s face it, science’s explanation- change happens and feelings are body chemistry plus socialisation- is rather less satisfactory (yes another emotion) when trying to understand ‘why’ you feel the way you feel. You want to believe that sense of anticipation is meaningful.

  19. Lexia on 07 May 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    “Even if I were one of these nutty nihilists, the last season I’d be rooting for the end of the world is spring,”

    They’re also closet T.S. Eliot fans. Who knew?

  20. Retrochef on 08 May 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Apparently if you cannot do mechanical engineering math, you are not limited only to mechanical engineering technologist jobs — you can also do your own calculations of End Time predictions.

    I can only imagine if I had to endure a family member who was constantly fretting at me to repent. I feel really grateful that my one seriously religious uncle is also a sorta-hippie and prefers love-and-happiness Bible interpretation to fire-and-brimstone.

  21. Belle on 08 May 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    I heard the NPR story, and loved the bit about the main guy saying his previous predicted date had been wrong, because he ‘hadn’t gotten all the way through Jeremiah.’ The story got me through graduation ceremony, because with every person told, the potential excuses got funnier & funnier. Carry the 2! Base 16! Oops, typo in this version of the protestant text!

    But the couple who’d quit their jobs, and were living on savings that ran out on 5/21? Scary. They said she’s preggers too, and due in June. So… does childbirth hurt in heaven?

  22. ntbw on 08 May 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    Back in March, I had to make a very long road trip, and driving through the rural south I kept seeing billboard with just the date May 21, 2011 on them–no additional information. I thought this was hilarious, because that day will be my 41st birthday. Now that I know the apocalypse scenario, I kinda love the idea that my turning 41 will, evidently, be the beginning of the end. My parents always have said I’m a hell-raiser! I never interpreted that quite so literally to this point.

  23. Profane on 09 May 2011 at 5:26 am #

    uh oh this means no fear cavalier renegade steer clear a tournament a tournament a tournament of lies

  24. Susan on 09 May 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    My husband replaced his old (1988) computer in 1999. But on January 1, 2000, he went to the basement where the computer lived, and turned it on. It said it was January 1, 1966.

    And these calculations always crack me up, just as much as Archbishop Ussher’s calculation of the date of creation, which as I recall was 9 AM on October 23, 4004 BC. In which case, if the universe is to last 7000 years, those May 21 folk are a little early…

  25. Rapture, Judgment Day, Billboards: Oh my. : Kelly J Baker on 19 May 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    [...] posted on the historical legacy of end of the worlders last week, and I couldn’t resist reflecting on this topic over at Religion in American [...]