The Mayans haven't given the world much time, but doomsday gloom is hardly new, says Ted Harrison.
According to John of Toledo, it should have been September 23 1186, but nothing happened. Judgment day failed to materialise again on April 5 1761, as foretold by William Bell of London. Nothing apocalyptic happened on April 28 1843 and again on September 21 1945.
Those anxious that the world will end on December 21 this year – such as the residents of Chelyabinsk in Russia, who have built a Mayan-style archway from ice – may be comforted to know that over the past 2 000 years there have been at least 200 confident, date-specific prophecies and they have all been wrong.
Some forecasts have attracted a mere handful of believers; others have alarmed people in their thousands. Today, apocalyptic rumours spread rapidly and globally. Probably the most widely disseminated date in the history of end-time prophecy is December 21, outstripping the last great scare instigated by American radio evangelist Harold Camping. His ambassadors travelled the world with the message that all the Bible's end-time prophecies would be fulfilled on May 21 2011.
The date was seen on the sides of buses in the United States, billboards in the Middle East, leaflets handed out in dozens of countries from Mexico to Cambodia, T-shirts in London's West End and universally online on Twitter and Facebook. His YouTube site, on which he explained how he had arrived at the date from researching Noah's flood, received more than 1.75-million hits.
How the world will end is open to as much speculation as when. Broadly there are two schools of thought: religious and secular. The religious scenario suggests the end is the day when God chooses to judge the world. Those destined to escape eternal punishment will, say some Christians, be taken to heaven in the "twinkling of an eye" at the time of "the rapture".
The rapture index, a US-based Dow Jones of end-time activity, has recently been running at record high. Secularists fear a chance cosmic or natural disaster; being struck by a giant chunk of space debris, perhaps, or being zapped by freak solar waves. Some fear the Earth will be colonised by superior beings from another world.
This year, the end of the ancient Mayan long-count calendar is said to be The Date. On December 21 either the Earth will be wiped out by cosmic disaster, or there will be a profound shift in global consciousness leading to an unprecedented epoch of universal peace. Some of the most dedicated believers in the Mayan prophecy fear for the worst and say that the only hope lies in being whisked away to safety in a giant spaceship awaiting its cue under a mountain near Bugarach in France.
Deciding where to wait is crucial. Some followers of William Miller in 1844 sat on top of their homes so that when they were raptured heavenwards they would not crack their heads on the ceiling. Others watched for the dawn on mountain tops expecting Christ to appear in his glory with the rising sun.
Last year, Camping's followers were glued to their laptops for news of a rolling wave of destruction starting in New Zealand. The Californian evangelist himself went home and asked not be disturbed.
Londoners who heeded Bell's apocalyptic warnings in 1761 took to the Thames in boats, reasoning that if the end came as a great flood, they at least would stay afloat.
UFO cult the Seekers gathered at the home of their founder on December 21 1954, waiting for a knock at the door. Aliens were expected to take them to safety before disaster struck. At 12.20am, a knock came. Two members went to greet the aliens, only to find some sniggering boys having a joke. The group sat dejected until it was almost morning. Then a telepathic message was received. The destruction had been postponed thanks to the loyal prayers of the believers. There was much rejoicing.
History shows that if a date comes and goes uneventfully, it's not the end of the world, so to speak. After their disappointment, the Millerites thrived – their millions of descendants are better known as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. Not dismayed, Camping declared that the world had ended, but on a spiritual plane. However, the unfortunate Bell was flung into Bedlam asylum and people came to laugh at him. – © Guardian News & Media 2012