And I Feel Fine

May 19, 2011 | 15 comments
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This Saturday, the world is going to end. At least, a few folks seem to think so. Why?

The idea comes from a dizzying combination of numerology (looking for special hidden numbers which God has placed as clues) and eschatology (discussion of the end of the world). In recent years, these kinds of claims have come up every few years — for instance, prior movements claim to have found hidden numerical clues indicating that Jesus would return in 1988, or 1994. Of course, each of the earlier movements predated the projected event, but not by much. Indeed, these sorts of movements typically project a very short time horizon for the Second Coming.

This year’s specific account is based on complicated calculations using numbers pulled from Bible verses in a rather ad hoc manner. First, you add up the ages of the patriarchs in the Old Testament to arrive at a date for Noah’s flood: 4990 B.C. Then, you add 7000 to that number, because God will let the world exist for one week after the flood, and because one God Day = 1000 years. Then, you add 23 to that number, because that is Michael Jordan’s jersey number.

Okay, I made up that last part. You add 23, because that is the scriptural time period of tribulation. There is a lot of detail to the overall account, which divides history into periods of tribulation, a period for the church, and a lot more. (For one nifty chart, see here. For detailed math and scripture verses, see here.)

Seriously, the charts are pretty cool.

And don’t get things mixed up. The end of the world isn’t happening on Saturday, that’s just the Rapture, during which the righteous will be taken to Heaven. The rest of us get to hang out for another five months, until the real End of the World this October.

As Kevin Barney notes, this is a dangerous game to play. On the one hand, the very short time window has the effect of galvanizing followers — it’s important to act Right Now because Jesus is coming very soon. On the other hand, there is the inevitable letdown when the projected End of the World doesn’t pan out. These movements tend to be defined by repeated recalculation.

Mormons have their own history with this kind of discussion. As scholars have pointed out, early church members held very millenarian views. Those views helped shape the course of the early church; Milton Backman summarizing Grant Underwood writes that “the Saints’ belief in the imminence of the Second Coming and the peace that will follow helped them endure some of the trials they encountered in northeastern Ohio and western Missouri.”

Did early saints look toward a specific date? That depends on who you ask. As Kevin notes, a somewhat ambiguous-at-the-time answer is found in D&C 130:

I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following: ‘Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.’ I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face. I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time.

This would give the early saints a loose target date of 1890; however Joseph Smith’s death in 1844 would mean that all bets were off.

The History of the Church contains a different prediction, without the escape clause. The minutes of the February 14, 1835 priesthood meeting (printed in History of the Church 2:182) state that:

President Smith then stated that the meeting had been called, because God had commanded it; and it was made known to him by vision and by the Holy Spirit. He then gave a relation of some of the circumstances attending while journeying to Zion—our trials, sufferings; and said God had not designed all this for nothing, but He had it in remembrance yet; and it was the will of God that those who went Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry, and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, or the coming of the Lord, which was nigh—even fifty-six years should wind up the scene.

(Apologists argue that this was a mistaken transcription.)

In any case, Mormons seem to have moved past their millenarian roots for the most part, but millenarianism still raises its head every few years: Bruce R. McConkie compiled a lengthy list of Signs of Second Coming in Mormon Doctrine; Cleon Skousen advanced his own arguments, some of them recently revived by Glenn Beck. And of course, there is always That Guy in Elders quorum, who makes vague predictions of doom.

There’s a reason why the church as a whole moved away from its millenarian roots, however. Doomsday movements are not particularly stable. And they can lead people to do irrational things. One NPR story discusses the behavior of folks in the current movement:

Joel says they’re spending the last of their savings. They don’t see a need for one more dollar. “You know, you think about retirement and stuff like that,” he says. “What’s the point of having some money just sitting there?” “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left,” Adrienne adds.

This makes sense if the world is really about to end. You want your last check to bounce, right? But it’s also behavior with leaves adherents unprepared for a world which continues to exist after the cutoff date.

My bet is that this particular movement will prove illusory like the ones before it, and we’ll all still be here on the 22nd. But as I see it, it’s a win-win. If I’m wrong, then we get five months of blogging without any interference from the righteous. And if I’m right, then we can stop talking about the end of the world for a while — at least until the Mayan calendar turns over in 2012.

15 Responses to And I Feel Fine

  1. Dan on May 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    looks forward to when right-wing Christianists are taken from this earth in their little rapture…

  2. Jenne on May 20, 2011 at 2:05 am

    I don’t remember the exact methodology of our exercise, but one YSA FHE, me and a group of other YSA in my ward counted the number of signs described by Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine, subtracted the signs that had yet to occur or conclude, averaged the length of time it had taken for those which had occurred and somehow came up with the year 2023 as a possible time when Christ would return to the earth. Not that I put much (or any) stock in it, but it was a fun exercise.

  3. Sgarff on May 20, 2011 at 2:10 am

    We all should seriously consider getting in on this action:

    http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/

    I know Mormons aren’t technically atheists, but I think most Christians would say we qualify.

  4. Wraith of Blake on May 20, 2011 at 2:15 am

    Dan, your opponent Glenn Beck got scalded for his offhanded reference to political activist within Reform Judaism as rendering them -ists, akin to the -ists of political Islam.

    (Lol – I jest. The LDS would probably not merit P.C. deference, due their being a religious minority, in that particular way.)

  5. Brian on May 20, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Hello, everyone knows that doomsday predictions are always based on Soccer not Basketball. Clearly the number 23 comes from David Beckham not Jordan.

  6. ESO on May 20, 2011 at 7:11 am

    I just wonder how a sect recovers from this sort of thing. Look at the JWs–how did they continue after their prediction?

  7. Marc D. on May 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I talked to JW about their prediction that the Lord would come in 1914
    and they told me that 1914 became the year that Jesus invisibly began his rule.

  8. Jacob M on May 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Even though he is an atheist, Ian McEwan gave a great speech a few years back about doomsday predictions. Sure, some of it is pointedly against some of the religious underpinings of doomsday worship, but he is quite balanced in showing non-religious examples of it, too. It’s called “End of the World Blues”, but I’m not sure where to find it via the internets.

  9. Wraith of Blake on May 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Here’s a link. http://www.skeptic.ca/End_of_World_Blues.htm

    (The rest of this post is filler so the blog software doesn’t think this post is purely spam, is all. So how long do I have to keep typing, I wonder, to fulfill that need? Well, here goes….)

  10. Jacob M on May 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you Wraith. I just realized that I have a book with an expanded edition of that speech where he gives the non-religious examples.

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I like the observation that predictions of the end of the world are usually on a short time horizon. They don’t generally offer a date that is decades in the future. Additionally, I would think that any method that is truly objective, and not being manipulated in order to produce the desired imminent future date, would come up with a date that falls within a distribution around the true date, since the true date is supposed to be an objective fact, while methods of calculating it would be inherently flawed human attempts to parse out the mind of God, and could not be tested without the arrival of the event. So why don’t predictions of this nature come up, in at least some cases, with dates that are already past? If we were approximating the mechanism that God was using to set the date, we ought to get in the neighborhood of the date, with various errors plus or minus.

    It seems to me that the typical forecaster in this genre is employing the same kind of calculation process that I would use when I was in college and assigned to write a computer program that would produce a specified result: I would depart from my formula at the end points and just force the program to deduce “If x = 100 then y = 10″. In other words, cheat.

  12. Suleiman on May 20, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    “And of course, there is always That Guy in Elders quorum, who makes vague predictions of doom.”

    Sorry Kaimi, one must be into the high priest stage before one breaks out into the doom and gloom mode. Elders are too busy raising kids and mowing the lawn.

  13. Murray on May 22, 2011 at 6:13 am

    I have often wondered what we (LDS) will do if by say 2999 Christ still has not come. I mean, one would think he would have come by then surely! But what if he hasn’t? OK, I know I don’t need to worry about it particularly, but my great-great-great etc. grand kids might need to. What should I write in my journal for them?

  14. Dan on May 22, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Murray,

    You should write your thoughts, feelings, and anything of the events in your life you think are of worthy note. If you think the world will end in the next 20 years, then that’s what you’ll write for your kids who will be living in the year 2999.

  15. Jax on May 22, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Hey,

    Sorry it took me so long to post on this thread. That rapture was fun and I forgot to let you all know how it went. It’s been CRAZY up here and with everyone trying to Facebook it crashed the servers….200,000,000 new arrivals will do that I guess. I must say I’m disappointed not to see so many of you still down there. Let me say though, Dinosaurs, totally a practical joke! See you all in eternity….

    Jax