A History of the End of the World
The sky is falling
People have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning of the world. Here are some notable developments in the armageddon that have occurred over the centuries.
An early Roman myth held that Romulus had been visited by 12 eagles revealing the lifetime of the city. Each eagle represented 10 years, thus many believed the city would be destroyed in the 120th year of its founding, producing the date of 634 BC. The Roman empire actually fell over a millennium later, in 476 AD.
The first generation of the followers of Jesus expected him to return within their lifetimes, bringing an end to the world:
"Then Jesus said to His disciples... Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (Matthew 16: 24-28)
When this did not happen, successive generations of Christians expected the end to come within their lifetimes.
Bishop Hilary of Poitiers predicted in 365 AD that the world would end in that year, believing that Emperor Constantius II was the Antichrist. (Amidst some bad blood between the two, Hilary had earlier been banished by Constantius to Turkey.) Subsequently, St. Martin of Tours, a student of Hilary, braced his followers for the definite end of the world between 375 and 400 AD. He said "there is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born."
Pope Innocent III predicted the end of the world in the early 13th century amidst the Crusades, famines, crop failures and other scary events of the time. This forecast failing, he is also said to have identified the year 1284, by adding 666 years to the founding date of Islam.
As 1000 years after Jesus neared, many predicted the end, producing various episodes of mass hysteria. As 1000 years after Jesus passed, many seers realized they had failed to account for Jesus' lifespan. Thus the new date was pushed up to 1033 AD.
Tomasso Campanella, a Dominican monk and philosopher, predicted that the sun and earth would collide in 1603. In the late 17th century a breakaway Russian Orthodox group calling itself the Old Believers developed an ultraconservative belief system that included the imminent end of the world. Many Old Believers opted to burn themselves to death, rather than be faced with the Antichrist.
American Christians and the end of the world
On May 19, 1780, the skies over New England turned dark, convincing many that Judgement Day had arrived. The darkness was caused by smoke from large-scale forest fires. American Preacher William Miller, whose beliefs informed Seventh-Day Adventism and Jehovah's Witness, famously predicted the end of the world for 1844. The non-event led to the equally famous "Great Disappointment."
Jehovah's Witnesses are famous for their many failed predictions of the end times. They have specified dates including 1914, 1925, 1942, 1975 and any minute now. Throughout the 20th century, followers have been encouraged by the leadership to sell off possessions, and to not bother pursuing college education, starting a family, or other major life commitments in preparation for the coming of Jesus. The Jehovah's Witnesses have been obliged to alter or change official doctrine numerous times, in the face of failed predictions.
Evangelist Jerry Falwell added a Christian apocalyptic twist to the Y2K mania, claiming in 1999:
[God] may be preparing to confound our language, to jam our communications, scatter our efforts, and judge us for our sin and rebellion against his lordship. We are hearing from many sources that January 1, 2000, will be a fateful day in the history of the world.
According to some scholars of the Hadith, Muhammad tied the appearance of the Dajjal (the Islamic equivalent of the Antichrist) to the Muslim conquest of Constantinople (The Hadith of Sunan Abu Dawud: Book 37, Number 4281-83). Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453. The Dajjal/ Antichrist did not appear, and the world did not end.
Other Hadith traditions claim that Muhammad, like Jesus, predicted the end of the world within the lifetime of his first followers:
Anas reported that a person asked [Muhammad] as to when the Last Hour would come. He had in his presence a young boy of the Ansar... [Muhammad] said: If this young boy lives, he may not grow very old till (he would see) the Last Hour coming to you. (The Hadith of Sahih Muslim: Book 41, Number 7051)
Another major Hadith scholar indicated that Muhammad predicted everybody would be dead within a hundred years:
Once the Prophet led us in the 'Isha' prayer during the last days of his life and after finishing... he said: "Do you realize (the importance of) this night? Nobody present on the surface of the earth tonight will be living after the completion of one hundred years from this night." (The Hadith of Sahih Al Bukhari: Vol 1, Book 3, Number 16)
In recent decades, new schools of thought have developed, often conflating "the Beast" with Israel, Zionism or the entire nation of the United States, and encouraged by recent American invasions into the Muslim world. One of the foremost adherents of these kinds of ideas is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
2012 and recent developments in the apocalypse
A Newsweek poll in 1999 indicated that 40% of Americans believed the world will eventually end in a battle between Jesus and the Antichrist.
In 2012 the sun is due to align with the Galactic plane for the first time in 26,000 years. In addition, the Mayan calendar, which is based on a cycle of 5,125 years, reverts to zero in December of that year. These facts have led many to believe the end of the world--or some other momentous event in human history--will take place. There is no clear indication the Maya themselves expected the kind of catastrophe currently being popularized.
Current projections for 2012 include earthquakes, floods, global political and social upheaval, a reversal in the magnetic polarity of the earth, collisions with asteroids and even a collision with another planet.
The most immediate threat as of this writing (April, 2011) is forecast by a small American Christian group led by Harold Camping, who has calculated that the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011. He then expects the world to come to an end on October 21.