End of the world: The 2012 'Maya' prophecy is one of many

Sign predicting the end of the world

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It may stem from an interpretation of the Mayan calendar, but the 2012 "end of the world" phenomenon tells us more about our own fears, hopes, and beliefs than about ancient culture.

It is derived from a curious mix: misconceptions about ancient Maya texts, 1980s-style "new age" spiritualism, and an ancient Christian conviction.

We have all seen bedraggled people in the street carrying signs announcing "the end is nigh." In Christianity this is called millennialism, but it also exists in Islam, Judaism, and even Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest religions.

Such thoughts come from the foundation of a belief that the world is corrupt, evil, and in need of cleansing. In the US, we see evidence of this pervading view every day in political polls that show that the majority of citizens believe their country to be "on the wrong track".

The end of the world promises believers a chance to be rewarded, that the wicked will be punished, and - for some - that a new golden age will begin.

The 2012 phenomenon is just the latest twist in this long-standing belief.

Failed prophecies

In the US, the leaders of a national religious movement called Millerism predicted the end of the world by 22 October, 1844.

Thousands of followers, or Millerites, some of whom had given away all of their possessions, waited expectantly for the prophecy to be fulfilled and for Jesus to appear. When that did not happen, the event became known as the "Great Disappointment".

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Religious descendants of the Millerites include the Jehovah's Witnesses, who infamously proclaimed the end of the world in 1878, 1881, 1914, 1918, 1925, and 1975, as well as the Seventh-Day Adventists, who have made similar predictions.

These predictions have led to some tragic events.

Reformist Adventists, known as the Branch Davidians, sadly died in 1993 with their leader David Koresh in a siege that began when the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) attempted to execute a search warrant at their ranch in Waco, Texas.

The group's apparent willingness to fight to the death to keep the authorities out of their compound was fuelled by millennialist beliefs; they were preparing for the approaching final judgement.

In 1996, the Heaven's Gate Cult predicted the end of the world and committed suicide in order to enter a spaceship hidden in the Hale-Bopp comet.

In central Africa, Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army also has strong millennialist beliefs.

And most recently, in 2011, in Los Angeles, radio preacher Harold Camping announced that the world would be destroyed on 11 October.

None of these predictions have come true. But their popularity and frequency tell us how much people want to believe in the end of the world.

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