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The Best Apocalypses in History

The end of the world is near—again! For centuries, doomsdayers have prophesied the apocalypse. But there's a tiny catch: None of the end-of-world predictions ever come true.

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Doomsday looms.

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Apocalypse 2020?

Every year, new apocalyptic predictions waft through the dark fringes of the internet and the tabloid media. In 2019, for example, the world was predicted to end in a nuclear war, an asteroid impact, and a new ice age, to name but a few of the more popular doomsday prophecies.

But also in 2020, according to some, we need to prepare for the end of days. This year, the following predictions are particularly en vogue among apocalypse enthusiasts:

  • “World One” – A computer program named “World One,” which was developed in 1973 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), predicts 2020 to be the year when a series of catastrophic events kick off a 20-year process of a slow demise of human civilization.
  • The second coming – According to a 1973 book by astrologer Jeane Dixon, Jesus is scheduled to return sometime in the years 2020–2037, ushering in the apocalypse. But then again, she also predicted that there would be a cure for cancer by 1967.
  • The Viking stone – A team of Swedish researchers recently managed to decipher the writings on a stone slab dated back to 800 CE. It turned out to be a Viking prophecy about the end of the world due to a “battle with the weather”—a wording eerily reminiscent of the currently unfolding climate crisis.

If you are worried now, have a look at the following list of some of the more notorious doomsday scenarios in history that fizzled out, just like hundreds of other prophecies through the ages. While some of the listed events had tragic consequences for those involved, a look at the track record of prophets and prophecies also serves to remind us that there is no need to worry more than necessary. After all, predicting the end of days is a tricky business.

The Mayan Calendar

The end of the world was predicted to occur on December 21, 2012, when one of the great cycles in the Mayan calendar came to an end. In the run-up to the day, the internet abounded with predictions about an apocalypse happening on “12/21/12”. Faced with the wealth of alarmist information available on the world wide web, even NASA was compelled to publish an information page about why the world would not end on December 21, 2012.

Camping and the Rapture

The world was also supposed to end on October 21, 2011. American radio host Harold Camping had arrived at the date for the apocalypse through a series of calculations that he claimed were based on Jewish feast days and the lunar calendar. In addition to his claims about the end of the world, he also predicted that on May 21, 2011, at precisely 6:00 p.m., God's elect people would be assumed into heaven, in an event he called the Rapture. Those who were not raptured, he said, would have to remain on Earth to wait for their doom five months later. According to media reports, some of his followers quit their jobs, sold their homes, and invested large amounts of money in publicizing Camping's predictions. When the Rapture did not occur, Camping re-evaluated his predictions saying that the event would take place simultaneously with the end of the world. After October 21, 2011, the self-proclaimed prophet stated that “nobody could know exactly when the time of the apocalypse would come.”

The Black Hole from Geneva

Scientists use the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, to set up controlled collisions of particles at very high speeds. The experiments have caused some to believe that the energies set free by the collisions will form a black hole powerful enough to consume Earth and all life on it. No such black hole has been sighted yet, and several high-profile studies have concluded that there are no such dangers associated with the experiments conducted at the LHC.

Y2K and the Millennium Bug

Towards the end of the second millennium, people around the world feared that the world would end simultaneously with the beginning of the year 2000, or Y2K. This prediction was based on the practice followed by computer programmers of abbreviating year numbers with two digits when developing software. For instance, "1999" would be coded as “99.” At the turn of the century, computers would revert to “00,” assuming that the date was 1900 instead of 2000 and leading to software errors. According to popular belief, this so-called “Millennium Bug” threatened banking systems, planes, and even the safety of weapon systems, leading to an all-consuming chaos on planet Earth. However, at midnight on January 1, 2000, the world celebrated the new year, and no planes dropped out of the sky.

Nostradamus and the King of Terror

Renowned seer Nostradamus prophesied 250 years ago that a “king of terror” would come from the sky in 1999. Austrian geologist and Nostradamus buff Alexander Tollmann decided to play it safe by sitting it out in a self-built bunker in Austria. Tollmann was convinced that the apocalypse was to come early in August, a fear that was consolidated by the total solar eclipse on August 11, 1999.

The Great Flood and the Flying Saucer

Chicago housewife Dorothy Martin (a.k.a. Marion Keech) claimed to have received a message from planet Clarion in the early 1950s: the world was to end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. Martin and a group of followers were convinced that a flying saucer would rescue the true believers before the inevitable destruction of Earth. The belief was so strong that some broke completely with their previous lives, quitting their jobs, leaving their spouses, and giving away money and possessions. Social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter infiltrated Martin's group to study the effects of such convictions and the group's reactions when the prophesied event did not occur. Their work, When Prophecy Fails, delivers the first instance of Festinger's noted theory of cognitive dissonance.

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