What happens when the world does not end?

Each and every year an end-of-the-world prediction will inevitably pop up. Perhaps the most recently well-known example of this was Harold Camping’s 21st May prediction back in 2011. That one is perhaps famous due to the $100 million that his group, Family Radio, spent promoting it via an advertising campaign that included billboards such as the one pictured above.

The Latest Prediction

There was nothing specifically unique about Harold Camping, except perhaps the quantity of cash used to promote his claim. Such claims are common and as many as a dozen or more will pop up each and every year. The current one at the moment concerns a claim that the world is going to end next Saturday (23rd September). Well hey, that’s going to really screw up my plans for Sunday. The Washington Post has the details of this one …

according to David Meade, is in six days — Sept. 23, 2017. Unsealed, an evangelical Christian publication, foretells the Rapture in a viral, four-minute YouTube video, complete with special effects and ominous doomsday soundtrack. It’s called “September 23, 2017: You Need to See This.”

Why Sept. 23, 2017?

Meade’s prediction is based largely on verses and numerical codes in the Bible. He has homed in one number: 33.

“Jesus lived for 33 years. The name Elohim, which is the name of God to the Jews, was mentioned 33 times [in the Bible],” Meade told The Washington Post. “It’s a very biblically significant, numerologically significant number. I’m talking astronomy. I’m talking the Bible … and merging the two.”

And Sept. 23 is 33 days since the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, which Meade believes is an omen.

Read on there and yet get more of the same “logic”, and yes the word “logic” really does need air quotes.

Your first reaction is of course the correct one, this guy is a religious nut. Interestingly enough the vast majority of deeply religious people will agree with you when faced with such claims and will happily join hands with the non-religious to ridicule them, and this is something that the article within the Post illustrates quite well …

Ed Stetzer, a pastor and executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, first took issue with how Meade is described in some media articles.

“There’s no such thing as a Christian numerologist,” he told The Post. “You basically got a made-up expert in a made-up field talking about a made-up event.… It sort of justifies that there’s a special secret number codes in the Bible that nobody believes.”

… “Whenever someone tells you they have found a secret number code in the Bible, end the conversation,” he wrote in an article published Friday in Christianity Today. “Everything else he or she says can be discounted.”

That is not to say that Christians don’t believe in the Bible’s prophesies, Stetzer said, but baseless theories that are repeated and trivialized embarrass people of faith.

OK, so all that was background and sets the scene for the far more interesting question.

What happens the next day?

Mr Meade, and all those that believe this latest claim (thanks to the vigorous promotion of it by tabloids such as The Sun, and The Express), have very much nailed their colours to the mast in the public square, so what happens on 24th May the day after, how will those that truly believe cope with the rather obvious complete and utter failure of this prediction, how will they handle the public humiliation?

Will the belief collapse, or will something else happen?

Cognitive dissonance

We do actually know exactly what happens. Not only does past experience with how these claims play out reveal the end-game, but it is a topic that has been seriously researched by Psychologists.

Back in 1954 there was a small UFO Cult named the Seekers that became truly convinced that the world was about to end on 21st December of that year. Dorothy Martin was a Chicago housewife who started the cult. Through her automatic writing she had inspired a small collection of individuals to gather around and take such scribblings seriously. It may have been small, but the belief itself was potent.  Members demonstrated an astonishing degree of commitment to the end-of-the-world prediction, and that not only resulted in them leaving jobs, college, and spouses, but also involved them giving away money and possessions.

Martin claimed to have received her message from a fictional planet named Clarion. These messages revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. They also soon believed that a visitor from outer space would call upon them at midnight and escort them to safety within a waiting spacecraft.

After reading a story in the press about this small group a psychologist named Leon Festinger along with some colleagues decided to study what happens when the prophesy failed, so they infiltrated the group and joined up to see how things would play out.

This is the sequence of events that they recorded …(Side note, to keep Dorothy Martin anonymous, they called her Keech in their notes)

Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated Keech’s group and reported the following sequence of events:

  • Before December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Keech’s house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
  • 12:05 am, December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 am. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 am. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 am. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

When Prophesy Fails

The results of what the psychologists observed became the now famous paper When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World. This is a classic work of social psychology by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter.

Leon Festinger then went on to write A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957). In this he explains that a person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance: either by changing parts of the cognition, to justify the stressful behavior; or by adding new parts to the cognition that causes the psychological dissonance.

In the case of the UFO believers they simply added a bit to the belief and so in essence the belief became stronger and not weaker after the collapse of the prophesy.

What happened to Dorothy Martin?

She simply carried on with more of the same and was not in any way shaken by the failure of her predictions, but instead added to the belief so that internal consistency was maintained and the investment in it could be retained.

She went on to found the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara. Under the name Sister Thedra, she continued to practice channeling and to participate in contactee groups until her death in 1992. That Association is active to this day.

What happened after 21st May to Harold Camping and his believers?

They did something very similar.

After May 21 passed without the predicted incidents, Camping said he believed that a “spiritual” judgment had occurred on that date. Vice writes an inside view about how it all panned out …

Even true believers had to reevaluate things when, on May 22, the world was still here. (Camping half-heartedly “clarified” that his May 21 prediction regarded final judgement, while the actual day of apocalypse wasn’t until October 21. By that point, most folks didn’t even have it in them to make fun.) “Many coped by deferring to the Bible and God as their ultimate source of truth”, said Helen Shoemaker, Sarno’s co-writer. “Seemingly, but respectfully, putting Camping in the benign position of a wise, but fallible human”.

What will happen next Sunday to Mr Meade?

We can perhaps safely predict exactly how it will pan out. When absolutely nothing happens, Meade will most probably respond in one of several ways …

  • The world really did end and a new age has begun, it all happened within a spiritual sphere
  • Enough people prayed and so God has decided to spare us all and give us a bit more time.
  • Oops, I got the date wrong, it will instead be …

If indeed some wholly natural event does happen, for example a Tropical Cyclone tragically devastates somewhere, then Meade will instead latch on to that as confirmation and declare that it marks the official beginning of the end times or similar.

There are a couple of Predictions that we can be certain about

The sun will rise on 24th September and it will be a perfectly normal day like any other.

Predictions like this will continue to pop up on a regular basis, and some people will be gullible enough to take them seriously.

Further Reading

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