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Art in Paradise: The Great Non-Disappointment

Despite a good few tries, the world keeps not ending.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Something to get straight right out of the gate: according to current Mayan spokespeople, the world isn’t actually supposed to end this week. Which is good, because Arrested Development won’t be back until spring.

The big deal day is apparently only the end of the current Mayan calendar. It’s merely time to get a new day planner (at least if you’re Mayan). Though six months of living on a planet soaking in “Gangnam Style” may make some of us fervently wish the world would go ahead and end.

Still, all this kerfuffle about global catastrophic demise, all the ensuing rush to attend last-minute raves and finally give up flossing like you just don’t care—it’s old hat to those of us who grew up in the evangelical world. And a quick look at history reveals a longstanding, heavily American bent toward getting all het up about some apocalypse or other. It gets a bit tedious. We’ve been trying to end this thing for centuries, and still haven’t got it right. Not even once.

It seems like a given that the year 1000 brought about some kind of plague-ridden, mud-drenched prototype of millennial angst, but the American vision of hellfire, damnation/salvation and rapture only got up to speed in the 1840s. That would be the time of the Millerites.

Other Americans had predicted Jesus’ return and gone disappointed, but William Miller’s movement was apparently the Beatlemania of the end-of-world camp. In the 1830s, he went public with his view that the world would hold out till 1843, tops. When 1843 led to 1844, Millerites started getting itchy. So they did what all good eschatologists do: they set a new date. It won’t ruin the suspense to note that this one, too, did not bring about the expected hootenanny. A sort of do or die date later in the year was quickly configured by the diehards. The world kept ticking.

Nature has, so far, been unimpressed with the fevered calculations of country preachers, doomsayers, prophets and channelers of every stripe. Granted, only one of them has to be right, but the world’s billions of years of all that not-ending are a pretty weighty precedent.

The Millerites eventually dubbed their apocalypse misfire “The Great Disappointment,” which is, when you think about it, pretty insulting to those of us born since the carefree days of the Tyler administration. Even if you hope to summer in celestial splendor, it’s hard to see how the world not ending is all that big a disappointment. Most of us wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves after a good apocalypsing anyway.

Lest you think the Millerites’ failure a sufficient deterrent, the list of more recent end-predicting is fairly lengthy. The smartest avoid a specific date. The most earnest go ahead and chart the thing out, as Harold Camping did in 2011. When his May date didn’t work out, Camping changed course and said the spiritual version of the rapture had occurred, and that the standard rapture would heave into view along about October. At least, according to news reports in the wake of his failure, Camping then said he’d been wrong to make a hash-up of the thing and foreswore such predicting as sinful.

If you want to try your hand at end-times prediction, it’s relatively easy in these days of the Internet. Just swing by the Rapture Index at raptureready.com, where world events are tallied up to yield the likelihood of the big moment. Though its creator, Todd Strandberg, says on his site that it’s not a prediction machine, he adds, “You could say the Rapture index is a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end time activity, but I think it would be better if you viewed it as prophetic speedometer.”

Which ought to prove mighty helpful out on the prophetic turnpike.

Having noted that the Rapture Index is at an all-time high (a Mayan collaboration?), I’m personally going to step out on a limb and predict this thing the scientific way: if the world doesn’t end before then, it will end when the sun packs it in and becomes a red giant star in a few billion (give or take a million) years. Either then, or maybe the same second the fire-and-brimstone crowd gives up prophesying it.•

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