Cancelling the Apocalypse: 6 Famously Failed Predictions

Reports of the Earth’s demise are frequently greatly exaggerated.

Computer-generated image of the Earth exloding

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Idris Elba’s declaration in 2013’s Pacific Rim that the gathered heroes were “cancelling the apocalypse” may have seemed like a simple badass, applause-generating line. However, in the long history of doomsday predictions, the apocalypse has been cancelled repeatedly over the centuries. From comets to computers to calendars (mainly Mayan), a surplus of expected end times has been available to every culture. And yet, as far we can tell, we’re still here (though the world WAS supposed to end on this date in 2011). Here’s a look at some of the more famous prognostications of peril that turned out to be just another day.

1. Simon bar Giora, 66-70 CE

One of the earliest recorded predictions of the end of the world came from Simon bar Giora, a member of the Jewish Essenes sect. These years were a period in which the Jews of Judea rose up against the Romans who were in control of the area. The prediction ran that this fight would be the actual end times battle that presaged the coming of the Messiah.

2. Nostradamus, 1555

Fountain bust of Nastradamus
Fountain bust of Nostradamus. (Shutterstock)

The French astrologer and physician Michel de Nostredame, popularly known as Nostradamus, first published Les Prophéties in 1555. The book consisted of 942 quatrains (four-line poems), each of which was reputed to contain a prophecy. While it’s been in consistent print for years and the book is frequently cited for its claims about the end of the world, Nostradamus made no such prediction in the text. Scholars and skeptics argue that the quatrains are vague and can be made to meet a number of historical events with minimal effort. A 1981 film called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow repopularized the predictions, and it also added a projected end-time date of 2037. When the film was remade in 1991, the end-time prediction was omitted.

3. Mother Shipton, 1873-1881

Mother Shipton Oldsmobile Ad
Mother Shipton Oldsmobile Ad

The Post’s Archives Director Jeff Nilsson wrote about the Mother Shipton predictions in 2011. A new collection of the 16th century oracle’s visions was published in 1873; despite the fact that the publisher later admitted he made the whole thing up, people still bought into prediction that the world would end in 1881 as it said in the book. Contemporary evidence seems to indicate that it did not.

4. Harold Camping, 1994-2011

Harold Camping was an evangelist and president of Family Radio. The station group reached, at one time, over 150 U.S. radio markets. Family Radio began operating in 1958; Camping hosted Open Forum, a live call-in show, beginning in 1961. Camping would make a number of “end of the world” predictions, giving specific dates that kept moving; those dates would eventually include: September 6, 1994; September 29, 1994; October 2, 1994; March 31, 1995; May 21, 2011 (for The Rapture); and October 21, 2011.

It was the twin-billing of the May 21, 2011 Rapture date (nine years ago today!) and the October 21, 2011 “end of the world” date that generated a vast amount of attention outside of Family Radio. The company had devised a huge campaign beginning in 2010 to publicize the prediction and date. While many Christian groups rejected the campaign and date and others found it worthy of derision, some people took it very seriously and sold their belongings or quit their jobs. When May 21 came and went without incident, Camping appeared on May 23 to issue a revised prediction that the Rapture and end of the world would both occur on October 21. Camping retired soon after the world kept turning on October 21, and he died in 2013. Over time, Family Radio has removed the original prediction episode and more or less scrubbed his programs and ceased the sale of his literature.

5. Y2K, 2000

Less a prediction of the end of the world and more of a prediction of the collapse of civilization, Y2K Mania ran on the backs of two things: people who thought the world would end when the calendar flipped to 2000, and those who were convinced that the Y2K bug would wreck the world at the stroke of midnight. In case you don’t remember, the Y2K bug was the result a computer coding and programming time-saver that used six digits to account for a date (for example, 09/01/91). However, it was feared that after midnight on New Year’s Eve, programming would go wrong as the numbers flipped and zeroed out to a spot where machines might “believe” that they were operating on a wrong or previous date. A massive effort at many levels of business was undertaken to fix the glitch across numerous platforms in case things did go wrong and affect banking or other computers. The impending situation kicked off a “prepper” wave as some people stockpiled water, guns, and other supplies. When the calendar flipped from 1999 to 2000, a few bugs happened here and there, but the world (and the vast majority of its electronic systems) spun on.

6. The “Mayan” Calendar, 2012

The 2012 film trailer. (Uploaded to YouTube by Sony Pictures Entertainment)

This one is a little more esoteric, but it became very popular in the run-up to 2012. Based on what is popularly called the “Mayan calendar,” the theory actually arose from something called the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. This-time tracking system was most likely invented by the Olmec, but it more generally associated with the Maya, whose versions have been studied and translated in greater detail. The trigger point for the “world ends in 2012” theory is that the calendar essentially “ran out” on what would have been December 21, 2012. This wasn’t necessarily true, nor did the Maya themselves suggest this as an exact theory. Instead, many other theorists piggybacked on the date; the 2012 date even found its way into the mythology of The X-Files and suggested the disaster film 2012. In a bit of irony, a film based on an actual disaster, The Impossible, which dealt with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, opened in theaters on December 21.

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