BBC News

Magazine

Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Monday, 8 September 2008 16:51 UK

Why the fascination with the end of the world?

Artists impression of asteroid hitting earth, placard and mushroom cloud from French nuclear test

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A huge particle accelerator experiment is about to start and a tiny group of people believe it could spell the end of the world. But why are we so obsessed with the possibility of apocalypse?

The world will end. That much is a certainty. But it may not be soon. And in all probability it will not come to a shuddering, fiery, boiling, cataclysmic end on Wednesday this week.

THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
At Cern on French-Swiss border
One of biggest and most expensive experiments in human history
Critics say micro black holes could be created, that could swallow the earth
Cern says any black holes will evaporate quickly and harmlessly
Effects will be less than cosmic ray collisions in atmosphere
LHC collisions could shed light on creation of universe
First beam on Wednesday
First collision later in year
Action ongoing at European Court of Human Rights to stop experiments
LHC Kritiks lead opposition

That is when the Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss/French border has its first full beam. The collider is a giant particle accelerator which, by smashing one particle into another, will tell us amazing things about the birth of the universe, scientists hope.

But there are a small but significant group of naysayers who worry that the LHC is not 100% safe. Opponents say it is possible the collider could produce micro black holes and dangerous "strangelets", and that catastrophic effects from these cannot be ruled out.

In this worst case scenario the earth could very well have had its chips.

However, the consensus of physicists is that the collider is perfectly harmless. Micro black holes would vanish almost instantaneously.

But when you see a headline in a newspaper that says "Are we all going to die next Wednesday?", one can't help but wonder at our fascination with the idea of the end of the world.

FAILED PREDICTIONS
Jehovah's Witnesses have predicted end several times, but have stopped
Millerites predicted end of world for 22 October 1844 - day known to followers as Great Disappointment
Edgar C Whisenant wrote 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 - followed up with predictions for 1989, 1993, and 1994
Argentinian goalie Carlos Roa gave up football in anticipation of end of world in 2000
Hal Lindsey in 1970's The Late, Great Planet Earth linked end of world to the EU

Whether you refer to it as eschatology (religious theory of the end of the world), millenarianism, end time belief, apocalypticism, or disaster scenario, it is one of humanity's most powerful ideas, and it goes way back.

"It is a very ancient pattern in human thought. It is rooted in ancient, even pre-biblical Middle Eastern myths of ultimate chaos and ultimate struggle between the forces of order and chaos," says cultural historian Paul S Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.

"It is deeply appealing at a psychological level because the idea of meaninglessness is deeply threatening. Human societies have always tried to create some kind of framework of meaning to give history and our own personal lives some kind of significance."

And although end of the world thinking crops up in many religions, those in the West are probably most aware of Christian eschatology. In the early days of the church it was taken as a given by many believers that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent.

Child holds placard
The concept of the world ending is key to mainstream Christianity

Mainstream Christianity moved away from this type of thought, but large numbers of believers returned to it at various times.

"It isn't just the lunatic fringe, it's an integral part of all Christianity. But [in mainstream Christianity] it is put into perspective that it may happen 'one day'," says Stephen J Hunt, a sociologist of religion and author of Christian Millenarianism: From the Early Church to Waco.

"But certain groups and movements believe it is in their generation. They are saying we have got the truth and nobody else has."

Cataclysmic scenarios

There have been many groups that have predicted the end of the world, or Tribulation, or Rapture, dealt with it not coming to pass and then issued new ones.

Jehovah's Witnesses have issued predictions about cataclysmic scenarios that have manifestly failed to come to pass, only ceasing predictions of the end in recent years. Failed predictions seem not to have alienated core believers. Indeed, it is denied by some that specific predictions - as opposed to speculation based on scripture - have ever been made.

RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR
"End of world" concepts include:
Destruction of planet
Extinction of human race
Significant change in situation of human race
Secular scenarios include:
Catastrophic climate change
Asteroid or comet strike
Massive nuclear war
Destabilisation of earth or moon orbit
Religious scenarios include:
Islam refers to "last judgement"
Some Buddhists believe in disappearance of Buddha's teachings
Christian end of world linked to second coming of Jesus
Hindus believe in cycle of ages
Zoroastrians may have had first codified end of world theory

No such luck applied to the 19th Century Millerite sect, led by William Miller. He didn't just predict the end would be soon. He nailed the day - 22 October 1844. As the day neared the sect's popularity snowballed, with thousands of newspapers sold. Only one thing was able to derail the movement's popularity - the safe and unexpected arrival of 23 October 1844. The failure of the world to end was known as the "Great Disappointment" and followers left in droves.

"The current prophecy popularisers are much shrewder," says Prof Boyer. "They say no man knoweth the day or the hour, but it's coming soon."

Carlos Roa thought he kneweth the hour. The Argentinian goalkeeper, best known for his penalty heroics against England in the 1998 World Cup, refused to countenance a new contract at Real Mallorca as the year 2000 approached because he believed the world was going to end and he needed to prepare. When it didn't he was soon donning the gloves back in Mallorca.

And for all it is easy to mock those who have tried and failed, thinking about the ways the world might end, or the timing, may be fulfilling a basic human need.

Edition of The End is Nigh
Eschatology is of interest to both academics and curiosity hunters

"It comes down to an issue of power," says Michael Molcher, editor of the magazine The End is Nigh. "What you get during times of particular discontent or war or famine or during general bad times is a rise in apocalyptic preaching and ideas.

"It is a way for people to control the way their world works. The one thing we can never predict is the time and manner of our own deaths."

The great periods of millenarianism - Europe around the year 1000, the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic, and the 20th Century - have been periods of intense turbulence. Putting an eschatological spin on current events is extremely tempting.

"A lot of fundamentalists are what we call 'sign watching'. If there's another tornado in Florida it must be a punishment," says Dr Hunt.

Sometimes the links to the temporal world can be tortuous to say the least. A common theme on the fringes of Christian millenarianism is a revived Roman Empire led by the Antichrist and consisting of 10 European nations. The theme is drawn out from the description of a beast with 10 horns in the book of Revelation.

THE TERMINOLOGY
Eschatology: Religious theory of the end of the world
Millenarianism: In Christianity, belief in coming of thousand year golden age linked with second coming of Christ
Apocalypticism: Belief based on end of present world order
End time: The end of the world or the end of the current age

It was historically linked to the EU, but now there are 27 members attention has shifted to the 10-nation Western European Union.

And these end times beliefs seem easily to find their way into popular culture. The Left Behind series of novels have sold millions and cinema-goers have happily trooped in to see three instalments of the Omen.

But it is wrong to say that belief that the world could be about to end is entirely confined to religious people. When the Cold War was going on, the likely culprit was nuclear weapons, at the moment it might be a catastrophic climate change scenario that leaves the world intact, but humanity gone. And Mr Molcher's favourite prediction of recent years involved a woman who was convinced that Chinese plans to build a base on the moon would throw its orbit out and send it hurtling towards earth.

Seventh Day Adventist next to poster for exhibition on the end of the world
Many religious groups have made more than one prediction

And end of the world believers, whether religious or not, have one thing going for them. The world will, one day, end.

And there are still plenty willing to name a date.

Preacher Ronald Weinland's book 2008 - God's Final Witness, predicts that the US will be destroyed within two years.

Sadly anybody wanting to find out more by e-mail receives an automated response. One can only assume he is too busy preparing for the end that is nigh.


Here is a selection of your comments.

Despite being a scientist I've been a little uneasy about things like the large particle accelerator after learning that Robert Oppenheimer had a bet going with other members of the Manhattan Project as to whether the first atom bomb (that they were about to set off) would start a chain reaction that would destroy the earth's atmosphere.
Peter, Nottingham

The world will end. Around 200 million years or so, we'll be unable to live on Earth. Around 500 million years, nothing will be able to survive. That is due to the sun becoming a red giant in those time frames. Eventually the sun will expand to the orbit of the Earth. I've scheduled the movers for 150 million years from now...
Stephen Villano, Philadelphia, PA. USA

Just read through your article, and thought I'd pipe up and say that Jehovah's Witnesses have never given an actual date or time for the end of the world, nor have they ceased to. As one of Jehovah's Witnesses, Armageddon, or "the end of the world", as it's described here, is one of the Bible's core teachings, and something we look forward to. While some dates and years have been bandied about by our members over the years, none have been officially endorsed by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
Dan, Wolverhampton, UK

The psychology of eschatology is interesting, but so too is that of the conservative who mocks predictions of catastrophe in order to argue that no large-scale disaster is possible. The Black Death was said by some to mark the end of the world; it wasn't. But it was rather serious. We do need to be prepared for extreme events.
Mr Henderson, London, UK

No Bible-believing Christian will claim to know, let alone predict, the end of the world. The teachings of Christ on the subject are very clear. He said only God the Father knows.
Oluremi Olakunle, Abuja, Nigeria

I was interested that an article about the end of the world made no mention of 21 December 2012 when the Mayan Long Count calendar rolls over. Many people believe this signals the end of our current civilisation, so don't expect any Christmas presents from them that year.
Ian, London, UK

The LHC will not spell out the end of the world! What happens when these particles collide at nearly LS (Light Speed) is unknown but we do know that the creation of exotic particles, micro black holes (thousands of times smaller than an atom) and other materials will only exist for a small nanosecond and will not cause a massive amount of damage if any!! - It did make the headlines though; which may have been the goal of these scaremongers.
Daniel Thompson, Heckmondwike

My house is actually situated within the perimeter of the LHC ring. The LHC uses the same stuff Nature does: protons, and it does the same thing with them that Nature does: collide them. Only, Nature does it over a much wider energy range and has been doing it to Spaceship Earth for billions of years and nothing has happened. If Nature would tell us where and when it produces its cosmic ray collisions, we would not need the LHC with its (by comparison) puny energies. I'm looking forward to the results of the experiments.
Robert Cailliau, Prevessin, France

It's my 18th birthday on Wednesday. I hope this is codswallop as it would be a pretty rubbish birthday.
Laura Walker, King's Lynn

Scientists have already come within a few milliseconds of the Big Bang which is a massive achievement but let's not tempt fate. Let's not try and create a scenario where we think it might be a good idea to see if we can duplicate the Big Bang. I say we should move on to solving famine, world peace and over crowding. Surely more pressing matters.
N Kearns, UK

I have no problem with people believing that the world is coming to an end, they can believe whatever they want. However, I do take issue with people who feel the need to constantly remind us all about the end. I for one, and i'm sure there are many more alike, would prefer not to think about the end of the world and just get on with living rather than worry about dying.
Kyle Billington, Crewe, England

There are people who have serious concerns about the LHC - these concerns should be addressed seriously, not trivialised by association with crank groups from the past.
Brendan Carton, Galway, Ireland

As I understand it the world as we know it has already ended and we are now bits of binary code in a computer program.
Peter Baines, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, UK

Genius! What a fantastic idea that the world will end on Wednesday. Does that mean by Thursday my mortgage will be clear? A quick question, what makes the magazine "The End is Nigh" the "official" magazine of the apocalypse? Do they really know something we don't?
Jon Nichols, Enfield

What always tickles me, is no-one seems to want to distinguish between the end of mankind and the end of the earth as a planet. We will either wind up wiping each other out - some sort of plague causing sterility seems most likely and if that doesn't happen we'll probably just up and leave - very few surface places on earth have proved insurmountable, so it seems unlikely that space cannot be conquered.

Earth, as a planet, has always known it's fate - to be consumed by the sun as it (the sun) dies and turns into a white giant, red dwarf and then black hole.
Graham T, Basingstoke UK

Immanuel Velikovsky, writer on ancient catastrophes, had a disturbing theory that human kind blocks our memory of the failure of civilizations of the past and while simultaneously desiring those catastrophes, like a collective death wish. Considering war, global warming and other ways we might collectively destroy ourselves this is particularly worrying.
Chris Makepeace, Glastonbury

Is it certain that "the world will end"? Scientists seem to disagree whether it will vaporise soonish in the gently expanding Sun, or spin off into the chill of intergalactic space - which would take VERY much longer - as near to endless as you can get.
Steve, T Wells

Back at the height of the cold war, it was a real and present danger, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, it was only a few well made decisions and a bit of bluff that narrowly averted the end of the "world" ie civilisation. Now the threat is less immediate. Climate change won't happen suddenly (if at all) and terrorist activities are unlikely to anything more than local damage, plus the political effects of course.
Richard, Sheffield

I believe the world is set to run for a very, very long time. Whether we manage to blow ourselves off it somewhere along the way, is another matter. Life will go on. If there is life specifically adapted to boiling temperatures and deadly poisons in deep sea water alongside volcanic fissures, something or things will most surely adapt to whatever mess we manage to create.
Val Gaize, Studley, United Kingdom

Every dated prophecy made about the coming of Christ and the end of the age supposedly based on Biblical predictions has failed. This is not because of some error in the Bible, which never gives any date of "the end of the world", but on the error widely shared both in orthodox and unorthodox groups that there is a hidden arithmetic in the Biblical text which very clever or spiritual people can add up to get the right date.

Most predicting errors are based on a misreading of the sequence of kingdoms in the book of Daniel, where it seems obvious that Daniel's 'fourth kingdom' is Greece, not Rome (or the EU), and so most of the events referred to in prophetic language took place already in the period of Alexander and the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings of the Greek empire. Spurious predictions by fundamentalist Christians unnecessarily brings the Hebrew and Christian scriptures into ridicule amongst its "cultured despisers". What is clear is that the Bible is a story of two "cities", Babylon (representing the world's system as it opposes God) and the New Jerusalem, God's multi-ethnic new humanity, which prevails in the end. Whether one believes this perspective (as I do) has little to do with the prediction industry which detracts from the Biblical vision.
Fergus Ryan, Dublin, Ireland




RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific