November SkepTalk - End of the World Predictions - Dr. Patrick O'Reilly, UCSF

On Wednesday, November 9th, 2011, we were treated to an excellent talk entitled “End of the World Predictions” by Dr. Patrick O’Reilly, psychology professor from U.C. San Francisco.Patrick O'ReillyPatrick O'Reilly

Dr. O'Reilly delivered a detailed and interesting one-hour talk about the phenomenon of predicting the end of the world, some religiously motivated, some not. This talk was particularly timely, you'll note, since the popular media has become so interested lately in feeding us stories about such predictions.

O’Reilly's lecture began by focusing on religiously based end-of-world predictions. He provided some basic terminology which also helped explain some historical and theological facts necessary to understand those who make end-of-world predictions. Paramount to this effort was his definition of Christian Eschatology, a branch of Christianity concerned with the final events in the history of the world, or of humankind. This involves the Second Coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment, and exists as three distinct philosophies: pre-millennialism, post-millennialism , and amillennialism, each of which differs in its prediction of when, or whether, Jesus will literally and physically be on the earth for his Second Coming.

Although not exclusively a Christian phenomenon, end-of-world predictions in the United States are primarily a Protestant trend, taking their cues from the book of Revelation where the time of judgment and the details of the End Times are described. Followers of these sorts of philosophies also believe in The Rapture as described in the book of 1 Thessalonians, where it is stated that god will descent from heaven and take up all dead and living Christians to be in heaven with him. For the rest (the unsaved), the Earth will become a “bottomless pit” of suffering for 1000 years.

A good deal of detailed, albeit often confusing, descriptions are provided in the Bible, however the most obvious omission is the exact date that these events will occur. This is where the various sects of believers differ, and has provided hundreds of years of failed prophesy for groups of followers all over the world. Dr. O’Reilly mentioned a number of these. For instance, a prediction was made in 968 CE by German Emperor Otto III, based upon an eclipse that year. The round-number year of 1000 CE seemed a logical hallmark for many, as did the somewhat more complex prediction by Pope Innocent III who added 666 to the date that Islam was founded. Some groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have offered a number of proposed dates for the end of the world, including 1914, 1915, 1918, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1994.

The private apocalyptic beliefs of members of various religious sects around the world are mostly of little concern to the rest of us. Their predictions come and go with little fanfare, and surprisingly modest effect on membership or devotion. Of far greater concern are the highly publicized and well organized predictions from groups who put their beliefs into action. One such example occurred when Luc Jouret, a Belgian religious leader and neo-Nazi, formed a group in the 1980s called The Order of the Solar Temple. Hiding out in a small Swiss village, the group is alleged to have kidnapped and sacrificed a child they believed to be the Antichrist. Jouret later committed suicide, along with dozens of his followers.

Closer to home, the failed musician Charles Manson, convinced that the Beatles were the living embodiment of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, attempted to begin End Times by convincing his followers to murder actress Sharon Tate and several others. His hope was to trigger a race riot between Black and White Americans that would bring an end to our earthly existence.

In the 21st century, the U.S. has had two major end-of-world predictions with which to contend. One was the May 21st, 2011 prediction by Harold Camping. This date was explained, in rather confusing mathematical terms, by taking 391 BCE (the year in which the Old Testament was finished), adding it to 2011, and subtracting 1. This leaves 2401, which is 7x7x7x7. This equation, according to Camping in his book Time Has an End was a clear indication of when The Rapture would occur. As you will note, the date has passed. Camping reacted by pointing out that he had predicted only a spiritual end to humanity on that date, and set the end of the physical world for the following October. When that date passed, Camping (who by then had suffered a stroke) and his followers stopped making public announcements.

As of the writing of this post, the most highly publicized end-of-world date of the 21st century, the famed “end of the Mayan calendar” has not yet passed. According to this theory, the Mayan calendar lists dates only up to December 21st, 2012. Some have taken this to mean that the world will no longer exist after that date, and all manner of predictions about how this end will manifest have been proposed. Anyone taking this claim seriously should read (or listen to) Brian Dunning’s excellent deconstruction of the Mayan calendar predictions on his Skeptoid podcast.

Although many of us would like to know what the future holds and when the end of humanity will come, none of the prophesies have yet come true. This lack of evidence leaves us squarely in the category of “we don’t really know,” however, scientific data clearly indicate that our time on this planet is limited. The sun, which provides the energy necessary to sustain life on our planet, is about halfway through its main-sequence evolution (the period in which nuclear fusion reactions in its core fuse hydrogen into helium). This means that, in about 5 billion years, the sun will enter its Red Giant phase, and whether we’re still here or not, all hell will break loose on Earth (you’ll excuse the expression).