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The History, Myths and Future of the Apocalypse

By Jac Kern · December 12th, 2012 · Cover Story

For as long as humans have walked the Earth, they’ve been trying to figure out how we got here and predict how it will all end. Over time, everyone from respected scientists to complete nutbags have claimed to have discovered a clue about humanity’s demise. As one of the most widely recognized apocalyptic dates approaches, take comfort in the fact that so far, none of them have been right.

Street prophets and Internet kooks spout rambles about the end of times often, but every once in a while someone with an actual following will claim to know the human expiration date. Apocalypse fails have been recorded as far back as 634 BC, when the Romans feared a myth that their city would perish in its 120th year. Nearly every common-era century has featured a significant end-of-times prediction, many of which surrounded the second coming of Christ (500, 1033, 1533 and 1694, to name a few). But it’s the 20th century conjectures that seem so fascinating, because (one might think) people have become more educated, savvier and less gullible than our antichrist-fearing ancestors. Nevertheless, Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping has famously predicted five raptures since 1994, the most recent of which was Oct. 21, 2011. Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nation of Islam, international cults and other religious sects have also unsuccessfully foreseen the apocalypse over time.

But not all predictions are based on religion. Who could forget the Y2K hype, when all of our computers and electronics were supposed to shut down because their clocks would set back to 1900, before they were all invented? There have also been claims throughout the past 30 years that Halley’s Comet (in 1987) and other outer space bits will plummet into Earth, ending it all.

But they didn’t.

So what makes Dec. 21, 2012 one of the most widely recognized end-of-the-world predictions? The Mayans, of course. Contrary to popular belief, the Mayans were a Mesoamerican civilization and not just a fictional basis for the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. The Mayans are shrouded in mystery, having developed some of the earliest advanced art, architecture, written language, math and astronomical systems; “predicting” numerous world events and scientific findings; and, essentially, disappearing off the planet around the ninth century CE. So, they’re really the perfect source for a good old apocalyptic premonition. They are known for helping create a system of laborious, intricate calendars made up of 13 144,000-day cycles or “b’ak’tuns.” When does the 13th b’ak’tun end? On Dec. 21, 2012. 

What the Mayans haven’t laid out for us — if this last calendar date is in fact the last day on Earth — is how the end will pan out. Based on the variety of predicted (and failed) scenarios, the apocalypse could come in many ways.

Religious Rapture: We find out which religion is the truth, and which of the rest of us are going to burn in Hell/walk the dead Earth until our painful demise. Likelihood: 2/10. There are just so many religions, ideas about God and ulterior motives that we can’t trust one book or religious leader to predict this kind of doomsday. If the world ends, we’re all screwed. Sorry, Mr. Camping.

Simultaneous Natural Disasters: Blizzards, tornadoes, tsunamis and earthquakes rock the planet at midnight. Likelihood: 5/10. There have been an increasing amount of natural disasters that occur with more force and frequency over the past decade. Was Sandy our final warning?

Geological Magnetic Polar Reversal (Pole Shift): Think The Day After Tomorrow. Rapid polar shifts forever change the planet’s axis of rotation, causing extreme flooding and other disasters as well as massive changes in Earth’s geography. Likelihood: 3/10. There’s a slim chance that Roland Emmerich is omniscient and Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal really will end up saving a bunch of people when North America is covered in ice.

Nuclear War: Perhaps the end of times won’t be out of our hands at all, but actually brought on by villainous world leaders blowing each other up. Likelihood: 6/10. North Korea is actually very scary.

Hopefully we’ll all wake up on Dec. 22 safe and sound, ready to continue living our normal boring lives again. Christmas is right around the corner, so there will still be some excitement to look forward to. Just don’t ditch your bomb shelter/zombie attack arsenal/personal baptismal font quite yet — there are future apocalypse predictions still lurking around the corner.

Scientist Peter Turchin claims 2020 will be the next disastrous year, based on long-term cycles of violence throughout history. Sir Isaac Newton took off his science hat and looked to religion to determine the world would end in 2060. Late biochemist Rashad Khalifa studied the Quran Code and decided the end of times will come in 2280.

Whether it’s the four horsemen of the apocalypse, a killer storm or an anthropomorphic stone Olmec head, the end could come in many forms, on any day. In the meantime, there are plenty of other conspiracy theories to obsess over. ©



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