Why do humans love end of the world prophecies so much? It’s more than just a spiritual or existential crisis; it impacts our ethics, the ways we interact with each other, and how we care for our planet.
As I was watching, a male goat appeared from the West. The goat grew exceedingly great; but at the height of its power, its single horn was broken, and in its place there came up four prominent horns toward the four winds of heaven. When I had seen the vision, I tried to understand it. Then someone appeared before me, having the appearance of a man, and I heard a human voice by the Ulai river, calling, “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision.” So he came near where I stood, and I became frightened and fell prostrate. But he said to me, “Understand, O mortal, that the vision is for the time of the end.”
~Book of Daniel, Chapter 8
In Part One of this series, we looked at how the guru-culture that emerged out of the ’60s in America drove the explosion of spiritual commerce that happened over the last 30 years. This includes the enormous popularity of yoga, large weekend personal growth seminars, popular movies, best-selling books, digital products, a plethora of New Age cults, and predatory multi-level marketing organizations. This sector is defined by underlying appeals to emotion and intuition and to turning off critical thinking—which prepared a whole demographic of spiritual seekers to be vulnerable to prophetic conspiracy theories like, most recently, QAnon. Part Two will go even further back in time, to trace the roots of doomsday prophecy and ascension fantasies.
The Great Awakening
On October 22nd, 1844 estimates say that close to 100,000 people across the United States and smaller numbers in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Norway, Chile, and Hawaii woke up expecting the world to end. More specifically, they believed that the world would be cleansed by fire and that Jesus would visibly descend from the clouds to reign over the earth. As with all prophecies like this though, nothing happened. In this case, its failure went down in the history books with the appended name “the Great Disappointment.”
The disappointed ones were all followers of a Baptist lay preacher named William Miller, who had been building up steam on his prophecy for 21 years during the period of Protestant religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. He had spent many years in earnest decoding of the apocalyptic 8th book of Daniel, excerpt. Though Miller’s teaching is referred to as Millerism, and his followers are often called Millerites, theirs was part of a larger movement (a bit confusingly) referred to as millenerianism, or the belief that a destructive or apocalyptic event is about to change everything and bring about a foretold utopian age.
Miller believed that the angel Gabriel’s message to Daniel about the cleansing of the sanctuary represented the Earth’s destruction by fire at Christ’s Second Coming. He became convinced that a 2,300-day period mentioned in the scripture actually referred to 2,300 years, which he calculated as having started in 457 BC with the King of Persia’s decree to rebuild Jerusalem. It would therefore end in about 1843. In September 1822, Miller formally stated his conclusions in a twenty-point document, which included, as Article 15,
“I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years,—on or before 1843.”
Though initially obscure, Miller’s prediction gained exposure and popularity via a Boston pastor and publisher named Joshua Vaughan Himes who in 1840 established a paper published twice a month, called Signs of the Times, which publicized it. That Adventist paper is still active today. In addition to Signs of the Times, Himes was responsible for 48 other Millerite papers which sprung up in various cities, and the strategy was perhaps prophetic of today’s demographically fine-tuned marketing. One paper specifically targeted women, was called The Advent Message to the Daughters of Zion. Another, The Advent Shield, catered to academics. Himes announced in May of 1844 that 5 million copies of these various papers had been distributed.
Miller was initially quoted as saying that “My principles, in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.”
When the latter date passed without the savior’s arrival, a new date was calculated as being April 18th. Still no Jesus. Finally, in a crisis camp meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, the voice of one Samuel Snow arose in what would become known, in Millerite lore, as the “Midnight Cry.” Snow delivered a complex theological discussion based on scriptural typology (which is a complex type of exegesis that relates the old testament to the new testament) which concluded with the interpretation that the real date of Christ’s awaited return was October 22, 1844. Miller’s movement, which had been flat and disconsolate for months, caught fire with the bold certainty of this new date.
Spoiler alert: this day passed like all others without a visit from the son of God. Which left our true believers with the dilemma of how to adapt. Some grabbed onto a string of new dates that would be proposed, others left their jobs based on an interpretation that said the earth had in fact now entered the seventh millennium, during which the saved should not work. Others took to behaving like children, taking Bible verse Mark 10:15 to heart, which says that only those who receive the Kingdom of God as a child can enter it. Still others joined the Shakers who believed Jesus had already returned in the form of someone named Mother Ann Lee—a fire and brimstone preacher who despised sexuality, had been frequently imprisoned for shouting and dancing ecstatically on the Sabbath, claimed to have had many miraculous escapes from death and to have spoken in 72 tongues while being examined by four clergymen. “We, The Shakers,” she is quoted as saying, “have turned the world upside down.”
I have only one question for you, dear reader: is any of this sounding familiar?
Dangerous empty calories and existential inquiry porn
I am going to propose that doomsday prophecy is really a kind of existential inquiry porn, in that it seeks to satisfy the drive for existential inquiry, for the discovery of authentic meaning, purpose, and depth—but with the empty calories of meaningless numbers and signs and pedantic interpretation of hallucinatory texts that, if we are honest, are most likely just the dehydrated ramblings of desert nomads.
That is not to say that the people caught up in these apocalyptic movements are not committed to working really hard in service of their delusions. They are. But what they are not doing is the kind of productive inquiry that in some cases might save lives.
In 1997 a spiritual group called Heaven’s Gate made international news because of a shocking mass suicide in their San Diego 92,000 sq ft mansion-commune of 39 members who believed that an alien spacecraft riding in the tail of the Hale-bop comet was coming to pick them up after they exited what they called their earth suits. Wearing black graduation outfits and uniform Nike sneakers, and covered in purple shrouds, the dead had all eaten applesauce and pudding laced with a fatal dose of phenobarbital, and washed it down with vodka. This death ritual was enacted in small sub-groups over a four-day period. Eight of the 18 men (including their leader Marshall Applewhite) were all found by the coroner to have been surgically castrated—which apparently had been done voluntarily some years before on a trip to Mexico.
They had also recorded extensive video “exit statements” and appeared to have been not only convinced of the mythology around what their anticipated suicides represented spiritually but also to be eagerly anticipating this climactic transition. Most of the members had been involved in the cult for around 20 years. They strove to look alike, with similar haircuts and outfits, and I will add here that watching them talk on camera is not only chilling and sad but there is an, I think, unavoidable impression that they all seem to share some kind of palpable mental or emotional vulnerability.
You can watch the exit statements here.
Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1974 and led by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, known within the movement as Ti and Do respectively. The couple met in 1972, and identified themselves as the two witnesses of Revelation, attracting a following of several hundred people in the mid-1970s. Their theology has been described by scholars as a mixture of Christian millenarianism, New Age and Ufology. The central belief of the group was that followers could transform themselves into immortal extraterrestrial beings by rejecting their human nature, and they would ascend to heaven, referred to as the “Next Level” or “The Evolutionary Level Above Human”.
After their final act of faith, the 39 bodies were discovered and reported to the police by former member, Rio Diangelo, who on the day he received a package that included a letter that said “we have exited our vehicles, just as we entered them.” Though Rio had left the group sometime before, he believed that this was so that he could tell the world the truth about Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate, which he told CNN.
“I can say with absolute certainty that Do was the second coming of Jesus. I know it’s true.”
The largest most infamous religious mass suicide of 918 people happened in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1974. There have also literally been hundreds of doomsday predictions, and as you read this right now, you know that they all had the same outcome.
Up Next: The Great Awakening of 2020
This series digs down into the roots of a phenomenon that delivered its poisonous fruit during the pandemic, as America hurtled toward the 2020 presidential election. The QAnon conspiracy theory that started on fringe messageboards in the dark corners of the internet hijacked social media algorithms to gain global traction, both by absorbing other conspiracy themes about 5G, vaccines, and child sex trafficking and by appealing to a religious sense of prophecy, destiny and spiritual rebirth. We have been tracking this alarming dynamic on the Conspirituality Podcast if you want to learn more.
In Part 3 we’ll look at the 2012 Mayan Prophecy, The QAnon-flavored “great awakening” content pushed out to millions by New Age influencers on social media like Dr. Christiane Northrup, and Lorie Ladd, and I’ll contemplate the evolutionary origins of our human propensity to becoming captivated by the destructive cultish spiritual beliefs and dark conspiracy theories that found their nexus in 2020 as the pandemic raged.