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10 Eerie End of the World Theories Across Time

Some say the world will end in fire... others say a computer glitch.

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  • Photo Credit: Rubén Bagüés/Unsplash

Let's be honest, the past couple of years have been rough. A global pandemic, mutterings about World War III, reports of giant spiders—nobody is having a good time. It feels a lot like these are signs of the end of the world, but if they are... Well, been there, done that.

Related: 8 Twisted Post-Apocalyptic Movies

Throughout time, people have predicted the end of the world again and again. They just can't seem to get it right. Whether it's a religious leader wielding the threat of the end as a tool, cult leaders going off the deep end, or a culmination of society's technological anxieties—we've lived through it all. "Lived" being the operative word. While there are truly too many apocalyptic prophecies to count, here are 10 of the best conspiracy theories about the end of the world.

The Crusader's Apocalypse of 1284

In an effort to convince Europe to launch a fifth crusade to take Jerusalem from the Ayyubid Empire, Pope Innocent II would often wield apocalyptic theology. He claimed that an increase in Islam would herald in the reign of the Antichrist; defeating this Antichrist would open the door to the Second Coming.

In 1213, Innocent III predicted that this Second Coming would take place in 1284. This year passed without apocalyptic incident. And while the city of Acre—the last crusader kingdom—fell in 1291, the rest of the world went on.

The Great Flood of 1524

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In 1499, highly respected German mathematician and astrologer Johannes Stöffler predicted that the end of the world would come on February 25th, 1524. Why? On that day, all of the known planets would align under Pisces, which is a water sign. Thus, a great flood was assumed to be on the way, destined to swallow the world whole.

As hundreds of pamphlets announcing this grim news were distributed, a great panic ensued. With the belief of this oncoming doomsday spreading, boat sales skyrocketed. Most notable, one German noble, Count von Iggleheim, constructed a massive three-story ark. Ironically, however, 1524 was actually a drought year for Europe. But in Stöffler's defense, February 25th brought light rain.

The 1666 Great Fire of London

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Anyone with a casual knowledge of religion or the occult knows that the Bible considers "666" to be the number of the Beast. It's a fair enough assumption to take the appearance of this number as one of the signs of the end of the world. As the Christian religion had a stranglehold in the earlier days of Europe, it should come as no surprise that many 17th-century Christians of the region believed the year 1666 would be their last.

On September 2nd, the Great London Fire consumed a large portion of the city, including 87 parish churches and roughly 13,000 homes. As the flames raged on through September 5th, it seemed like the prophecy had been fulfilled. However, despite the toll on the city's buildings, only 10 people were reported dead from the disaster. Ultimately, it was more of an economic crisis than an apocalyptic event.

The Second Coming of Christ in 1843 (... or maybe '44)

In 1831, religious leader William Miller began preaching that the world as we know it would end in 1843 with the return of Jesus Christ. Around 10,000 followers clung to this belief, confident in the fact that, when the day came, they would be carried off to Heaven. Unfortunately for them, 1843 saw no rapture.

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How embarrassing for Miller. Naturally, he recalculated and stated that, actually, 1844 would be the end of the world. Obviously, he struck out twice. The reaction to this lack of apocalypse was, somewhat hilariously, called "The Great Disappointment."

The Crash of Halley's Comet in 1910

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Every 76 years, roughly, Halley's Comet passes by the Earth. It's always an exciting time for viewers from the ground, but in 1910 things got a little too exciting. Comets are commonly seen as an omen of doom, and the theories for this orbit were no different. Some English and Irish writers saw it as a sign that Germany was going to invade. People in Paris attributed the devastation of their city from the Seine's flooding to the dastardly comet. But no theory incited more panic than the announcement from the Yerkes Observatory in Chicago that the tail of Halley's Comet contained a poisonous gas called cyanogen.

As belief spread that the gas would extinguish all life on the planet, people began to take drastic measures around the world. Gas masks were flying off the shelves, and scammers started hocking "anti-comet pills." People prepared safe rooms and sealed off any weaknesses in ventilation. One group in Oklahoma even tried to sacrifice a virgin to appease the looming force of doom.

Other people, however, didn't buy into the end of the world conspiracy, choosing instead to host rooftop parties in celebration of the comet. They probably had the right idea, as Halley's Comet passed by the Earth without incident.

The 1982 Los Angeles Earthquakes

In 1974, two Cambridge-educated astrophysicists—John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann published a book called The Jupiter Effect. This best-selling book portended that, due to an alignment of the major planets on the same side of the Sun, a series of earthquakes would erupt from the San Andreas fault to decimate Los Angeles in March of 1982.

While plenty of scientists criticized this theory, the support of other well-known doomsayers resulted in global anxiety. As the date of doom approached, Los Angeles residents called into the city's Griffith Observatory in a tizzy. People considered moving to get out of the deadly zone. In the Philippines, a Christian group devised a padded maze and padded suits to ensure safety during such a disaster.

When the dreaded date passed without incident, Gribbin and Plagemann of course published The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered.

True Way's Televised Apocalypse of 1998

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Amalgamating elements of Christianity, Buddhism, UFO conspiracy theories, and Taiwanese folk religion, religious leader Hon-Ming Chen created a movement called Chen Tao—otherwise known as True Way. The cult eventually left Taiwan and relocated in Garland, Texas. Here, Chen preached that on March 25th, 1998 God would appear on American television. Channel 18, to be more precise. Chen stated that during this appearance, God would announce his plans to return to Earth at 12:01 a.m. on March 31, in a physical form that mirror Chen himself.

When this prophecy proved false, Chen offered to be stoned or crucified for misunderstanding God's plans. No one decided to pursue that option. But True Way did go on to prophesize that in the following year, a nuclear holocaust would wipe out the Earth, and followers would find safety by buying their place aboard a spaceship. When that prophecy also fell through, True Way mostly dissolved on its own.

Y2K

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At the turn of the millennium, technology was advancing at a rapid rate. Many believed an oversight in these developments would bring about the world's destruction. Over the years, computer programmers had used only the last two digits in the year's four number sequence. Throughout the 90s, this was fine. However, it was believe that on January 1st, 2000 machines across the world would be unable to make sense of the year "00," resulting in a complete technological meltdown.

It was a bad time for programmers, as believers in the Y2K bug sneered at their arrogance and cost-cutting measures. A fair amount of Americans even suspected that Microsoft was withholding the solution to this problem. Newspapers declared threats of glitches resulting in nuclear war, economic crises in less developed nations, and a shortage of food and supplies.

Clearly, this catastrophic event never happened. By the time the date neared, most people had lost belief in the panic. Polls show that while 34% of Americans anticipated problems from Y2K in 1998, the number had dropped to 3% by 1999.

The 2012 Maya Apocalypse

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This end of the world conspiracy was all the rage when I was in college. Maya predictions are definitely sexier than scientific mistakes. But where did this looming sense of doom come from?

The Maya Long Count calendar started way back in 3114 B.C. and spanned a period of time longer than 5,000 years. The end of the "Great Cycle" recorded by the Maya was December 21st, 2012. But rather than intuiting that this end meant the beginning of a new cycle, many believed this meant life as we knew it would be over. Speculation ran wild about how the world would end, including everything from a massive tidal wave to a planetary collision.

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Most people just used this snowballing prediction as an excuse to throw a really cool dorm party, but for some it was a more serious affair. A man in China built yet another doomsday ark. Survival kits and bunkers were thrown together by amateur survivalists and corporations alike. But, student loans and all, we're still here.

Isaac Newton's 2060 Prediction

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It sure is nice that the world didn't end all those other times, huh? But don't get too comfortable. Back in 1704, Isaac Newton predicted that the world would come to an end in 2060. A prediction from one of the most influential mathematicians and physicists of all time is pretty hard to dismiss right off the bat.

However, while he was a great scientific mind, Newton also dabbled in biblical prophecy and occult beliefs. A co-existence of reason and more magical thinking was not wholly uncommon during Newton's period, but even then he stood out as a particularly paradoxical man. Through a series of exhaustive and bizarre calculations using the Book of Daniel, he actually came up with several varying dates for the end of life as we know it, but 2060 has risen as the most popular estimate.

Of course, Newton wasn't predicting an end of the world in a destructive sense. Like many other religious minds, he believed this is the time that Christ would return to reign and set up his eternal kingdom. While this isn't exactly something that can be disproved, there's nothing to suggest it has more validity than the predictions of the past. What do you think? When is the world going to end?

Featured image: Rubén Bagüés/Unsplash; Additional images: Jonathan Bowers/Unsplash; aj_aaab/Unsplash; Peter Herrmann/Unsplash.