Rumor has it that Judgment Day is this Saturday (May 21), and that the world will end in a few months. You probably have a few questions...
What are the distinctions between the Rapture, Judgment Day, doomsday and the apocalypse?
The Rapture is the name for an event many Christians believe will happen on Judgment Day, or the day Jesus will return to Earth to separate believers from nonbelievers. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, the apostle Paul describes Judgment Day: "[The] dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." The "being caught up" is typically thought of as the Rapture, which some people believe will occur on May 21, 2011.
The term "apocalypse" may mean, depending on the context, a revelation received in a dream or trance that tells a person about the end of the world, or the catastrophic world-ending events themselves. Though not always specific to Christianity, the term originally referred to revelations outlined in the Book of Revelations in the Bible. [Apocalypse Now: The Gear You Need to Survive Doomsday]
"Doomsday" refers to end times generically. It isn't specific to Christianity (the Mayan calendar points to the end of the world arriving on Dec. 21, 2012) and many doomsday scenarios even attempt to be scientific.
Is May 21 Judgment Day?
Ahem, we think not. The May 21 Judgment Day meme is the brainchild of an 89-year-old radio evangelist named Harold Camping. Camping used a mathematical system of his own creation to interpret obscure prophecies in the Bible, and arrived at the May date.
Camping isn't a rookie at predicting Judgment Day, but he isn't exactly good at it, either: He previously announced that Judgment Day would come in 1994. His wacky prediction has become famous thanks to nationwide signs and billboards paid for by Camping's followers.
Other Christians see a big flaw in Camping's idea. As Pastor Joseph Fuiten with the Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell, Wash., told the Seattle Times: "There are a long line of brilliant people who, through intricate calculations, have made predictions about the end of the world. Unfortunately, they have overlooked the obvious words of Jesus: 'You do not know the day or the hour' of such events." [10 Failed Doomsday Predictions]
What's the math behind Harold Camping's May 21 Judgment Day prophecy?
Camping believes Christ was crucified on April 1, 33 A.D., exactly 722,500 days before May 21, 2011. That number, 722,500, is the square of 5 x 10 x 17. In Camping's numerological system, 5 represents atonement, 10 means completeness, and seventeen means heaven. "Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story," Camping said on his Oakland-based talk show, Family Radio, last year. "It's the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you're completely saved." [End Times Math: The Equation That Predicts May 21 Judgment Day ]
Does the Bible really contain doomsday clues?
The Bible contradicts itself on the date of the Rapture, and on whether or not that date is knowable in the first place. Matthew 24:36 states, "Of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only," while Matthew 16:28 clearly suggests that Jesus would return during this disciple's lifetime: "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
The Bible also gives mixed messages about whether the Earth will be destroyed; 2 Peter 3:10 states that "The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up," while Ecclesiastes 1:4 says "The earth shall abideth forever."
What are the different doomsday scenarios?
There are endless guesses as to how the apocalypse will go down. Some apocalypse predictors say the eruption of a supervolcano will alter the Earth's atmosphere, making it uninhabitable. Others say an asteroid collision or human-caused climate change will do the same thing. Some believe the Earth will end when the Mayan calendar does in 2012. And, as already mentioned, many doomsday scenarios have a religious basis: They hold that the world will end by God's wrath. [Doomsdays Past and Present]
Why are people so ready and willing to believe doomsday prophecies?
Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal, calls it the "apocalyptic worldview." "It's a very persistent and potent way of understanding the world," DiTommaso told LiveScience. What ties disparate groups of people with apocalyptic worldviews together is a sense that the world's problems are too big to solve, DiTommaso said.
"Problems have become so big, with no solutions in sight, that we no longer see ourselves able as human beings to solve these problems," DiTommaso explained. "From a biblical point of view, God is going to solve them. From other points of view, there has to be some sort of catastrophe."
In short, people take comfort in the belief that the evils of the world are heading toward some sort of cosmic correction. [The Draw of Doomsday: Why People Look Forward to the End]
Forget May 21 will the world end in 2012?
There's no scientific reason to think so. The 2012 doomsday prophecy, which was popularized by the 2009 film "2012," says the world will end in a cataclysm of volcanic eruptions and floods on the day the Mayan calendar ends, but in fact, the link between global catastrophe and Mayan calendar-based prophecy is largely fiction. Ads for "2012" begin with the phrase, "The Mayans warned us," though of course the Mayans did not "warn" anyone they simply had a calendar system that happens to "end" in 2012, much as the way the Gregorian calendar on my office wall "ends" on Dec. 31.
The Mayans never said the world would end that year, and modern Mayans have shown irritation with how their culture has been co-opted into pop culture notions and Hollywood blockbuster film promotions. The 2012 link to the Maya is not a hoax; their calendar does in fact conclude in that year. Just what that means if anything is the question.
The Mayans were only one of dozens of major civilizations, and there is no particular reason to assume that the Mayan calendar is any more cosmically significant or valid than any of hundreds of other calendar systems used throughout history. [The Truth About 2012 Doomsday Hype]
- Infographic: A Brief History of Doomsday
- Apocalypse Now: The Gear You Need to Survive Doomsday
- 'Rapture Parties' Planned to Celebrate Doomsday Saturday May 21
Natalie Wolchover, Stephanie Pappas, Benjamin Radford and Robert Roy Britt contributed to this report.