1. The First Millennium
People have been predicting the impending end of the world since the start of civilization, probably earlier. There's a (possibly mythical) story about an 3000-year old Assyrian tablet in some museum somewhere, which says that kids don't respect their parents anymore, people are all degenerates and corrupt and everyone wants to write a book, so the end of the world must be coming soon. From ancient times until today, people have kept screwing up in hilarious ways when predicting doom and gloom. Here's a list of just a few of the greatest hits!
In the years leading up to 1000AD, there was a big panic about the coming of the apocalypse. Because, you know, "1000". It must be a special number, right? People abandoned all their possessions and went on pilgrimages. Some people committed suicide. Others had huge 'end of the world' parties. There was massive freaking out all over the place. They even exhumed the corpse of the emperor Charlemagne, who'd been dead for almost 200 years, because of a legend that a great king would rise from his grave to fight against the Anti-Christ. Of course, in the end, the year 1000 came and went and sweet diddly-all happened.
Boy, people sure were stupid back then, going batshit just because a year has a special-looking number, huh? Not at all like in our modern civilized world, in the year 2000, or 11/11/11, right?
2. Nostradamus (& Edgar Cayce & Philip Berg): 1999
Nostradamus is probably the most famous 'prophecy' person in the western world since the Oracle of Delphi. He made a ton of prophecies, and the secret to his success was that most of them were vague enough that if you tried to pin a date on them, and nothing happened, you could just blame the interpretation. But he did note a specific date (smartly for him, a date long after he wouldn't be around to have to answer for it): 1999. In the seventh month, he wrote, "the King of Terror will come from the skies". In the 20th century, some other would-be prophets decided to run with this, figuring Nostradamus was a good horse to back. The famous early-20th Century "psychic" Edgar Cayce predicted that Armaggedon would take place in 1999. Cayce was smart like Nostradamus: he knew he'd be long dead by then, so it was a safe prediction (one of many he'd be totally wrong about). On the other hand, Philip Berg wasn't nearly as smart. Berg was the founder of the Kabbalah Centre, the mostly-crappy mix of Jewish Mysticism with New-age nonsense that celebrities like Madonna have gone nuts for. He ripped off Nostradamus too, predicting that in 1999 a 'ball of fire' would fall from the skies wiping out most of mankind.
Of course, nothing at all happened in 1999. Nostradamus and Cayce are too dead to answer for it, but you really have to wonder why thousands of morons worldwide keep reading their books, or listening to anything Berg has to say.
3. Malthusian Overpopulation
Not all Prophecies of Doom are based on religion/magic/crazy-visions. Some of them are based on really bad pseudo-scientific ideas. The grand-daddy of them all is Overpopulation. In the late 18th Century, an English historian named Robert Malthus noticed how improved living conditions were leading to rising population, and thus theorized that human population would keep growing and growing until there weren't enough resources to maintain it, and this would lead to a catastrophic explosion of famine and plague that would potentially endanger civilization. Malthus' predictions proved to be totally wrong: he failed to take into account technological, scientific and agricultural innovation that more than managed the rising population of the time. He also couldn't imagine that increased prosperity would also eventually lead to declines in birth rates.
Malthus' predictions were (and still are) dangerous, because instead of claiming they came from God or the planet Neptune or wherever, he pretended they were incontrovertible Science, which people are more likely to believe. Worse, his proposed solutions involved forcibly keeping the population rate down; he was opposed to the (pretty dismal) laws that provided some welfare for the poor at the time, and supported taxes on basic food products, because he basically wanted more people to starve to death so the population wouldn't get too high. Incredibly, as you'll see later on in this article, there are academics right up to this day that still believe in Malthus' theories, and still share similar sentiments about how to 'fix' this problem.
4. The Great Disappointment
In the mid-19th Century, large numbers of Americans were convinced that the End of the World was about to happen. All this because a Baptist preacher named William Miller came along and claimed he'd decoded a secret Bible timeline that proved Jesus would return to Earth and 'cleanse' it sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. How did he figure this out? Crazy math. He even made complex charts showing how different numbers in the Bible "proved" his theory. Thousands of people went nuts with religious fervor. Many gave up all their possessions and joined the "Millerites" hoping that when Jesus showed up he'd favor them.
When the March deadline passed, Miller claimed he'd gotten the math just a bit wrong, and that it would happen in April, and after that, October. Of course, nothing happened. Well, nothing except a ton of outraged people. Millerite churches were burned to the ground, Millerite followers were beaten with clubs or tarred-and-feathered. The whole thing came to be called "The Great Disappointment". As for Miller, he gave a half-hearted apology, but continued to insist that Jesus was going to show up any moment now, and kept claiming this until he died a few years later. Today, the 7th Day Adventist church is descended from what was left of the Millerites; 172 years later and they're still claiming it'll be happening "any time now".
5. Jehovah Witnesses: World Champions of Failed Prophecies
If someone gave out gold medals for failed prophecies, the Jehovah Witnesses would be the undisputed world champions. Founded by a preacher named Charles Taze Russell in the late 1870s, the JWs have predicted the Second Coming of Christ a truckload of specific times, plus an unending bunch of "any time now" vague predictions. Russell initially claimed (along with an associate of his named Barbour) that careful analysis of the Bible revealed that the 'rapture' (the rising up of the spirits of true Christians into heaven, now made famous by those cheesy "Left Behind" movies) would occur in 1878. When that date passed, Russell changed the date to 1881. Again nothing happened. After that, he switched tracks, saying that in 1914 Jesus would show up and establish his 'reign on Earth'. When that didn't happen, he retroactively claimed that the start of World War I (in 1914) is what his prophecy was really about. He again claimed the 'reign on Earth' for 1915.
Russell died in 1916 but his movement continued, and kept right on making baloney predictions. They claimed that WWI would end in 1917 (it didn't). They claimed that God would destroy all other religions in 1918 (nope). They claimed that the world would fall into anarchy in 1920 (nuh uh), and that the 'reign of Christ' would happen in 1925 (wrong). After that they got a bit smarter, and pushed the end-date further out, to 1975. Finally, when 1975 passed without incident, they switched over to just saying it would all be happening real soon.
6. The Boxer Rebels' Bulletproof Shirts
Nutty prophecies aren't just found in Europe. I could have done a whole article just about crazy Chinese prophecies over the last 2500 years or so. But let's use just one recent example: the Boxer Rebllion. In 1899, a large and very bloodthirsty popular uprising took place among Chinese rebel-nationalists. They were fighting against the western colonialist powers, against Christian missionaries, and against the corrupt and mostly-useless Manchu dynasty. This was a lousy time for China, as poverty, famine, plague, and corruption were widespread, and western domination had brought opium addiction and very unfair exploitation of the Chinese people. A lot of the rebels were politically motivated, but there was a ton of religion thrown in the mix. Traditional Taoist and Chinese Buddhist groups resented the invasion of Christian missionaries, who were often being forced on local populations. The troubled times also caused the rise of sects and secret societies. The Boxers themselves were really called the "Society of the Harmonious Fists", and they were a kind of cultish secret-society that trained its members in a kind of mystical martial arts. Their teachers claimed that initiates of the group could be taught secret techniques to connect their bodies with magical spirits who would give them special powers. Most important of all these powers was the kung-fu magic of the "Iron Shirt" technique. Supposedly, masters of this technique would be protected from bullets, and even cannonballs! Many of the sects associated with the rebellion claimed that if the people rose up against the 'invaders' and the 'oppressors', the Buddha Maitreya would appear on Earth and set right the 'celestial kingdom'.
The Boxers managed to cause widespread havoc, and the whole rebellion ended up being responsible for hundreds of thousands of casualties. But the Buddha Maitreya never showed up to back the rebels, and the 'iron shirts' didn't end up stopping European bullets.
7. Krishnamurti and the Theosophists
The Theosophical society (founded in 1875) was the source of almost all the new-age pop-spirituality we see today. They were the first westerners to talk about 'ascended masters', 'chakras', 'kundalini yoga', psychic healing, crystal-power and all kinds of other stuff middle-class post-hippies still go nuts over today. The "Maitreya Buddha" (the same one the Boxer rebels thought was going to come and save them) or "future World Teacher" was a big deal to the Theosophists, and they came to believe that the arrival of the World Teacher was imminent. But the Theosophists' leaders at the start of the 20th century, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, weren't satisfied with just waiting around for him to show up. They believed he would born as a human being, and in 1909 Leadbeater (who would end up being involved in multiple scandals surrounding the abuse of young boys) discovered a 14 year old Indian boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti (the son of an employee of a Theosophical headquarters in Adyar, India) and claimed that this kid was the incarnated World Teacher. The Theosophists "adopted" Krishnamurti (basically kidnapping him), and put the boy through years of special training in yoga, meditation, spiritual teachings, and also a European school education.
In 1929, they felt they were ready for his coming-out as the World Teacher, and held a big conference in his honor. They handed control of the order to Krishnamurti, and eagerly awaited his great plan; only things didn't turn out how they expected. Krishnamurti shocked everyone by announcing that he was NOT the World Teacher, and that he was dissolving the Order made for him to rule, effective immediately. As it turns out, they had taught him too well: he believed in spiritual truth, and he realized that what the Theosophists were selling wasn't it. Krishnamurti did become famous as a great teacher; he lived to the age of 90 and spent his whole life teaching meditation, personal spiritual responsibility, and the search for truth, and preaching against organized religion, dogma, prophecy, and messiahs.
8. Sri Aurobindo
India didn't need Theosophists to come up with crazy prophecies; they had plenty of their own home-grown gurus to do that. Sri Aurobindo was originally an Indian nationalist who engaged in activism for independence from Britain. While imprisoned for his writings against British-rule, he had a series of mystical experiences, and afterwards founded a spiritual school and started teaching as a guru. He developed his own style of yoga called "Integral Yoga" and claimed that through spiritual practices one could not only become enlightened, but could also obtain physical immortality through a process he called "supermentalization".
Unfortunately, he proved his own predictions wrong when he caught an mild case of death in 1950. At first, his followers tried to claim that Aurobindo was not dead, he had just entered into a very deep state of meditation. But after a while he started to smell, so they put the body in a special mausoleum (contrary to the standard Indian practice of cremation). His partner, called "the Mother" claimed she was continuing his work. Except eventually, she died too. These days, the Aurobindo movement still exists, and they claim that Aurobindo didn't really mean it when he talked about being physically immortal.
9. The 1970s Ice Age
Before we started to worry about global warming in the 1980s, several scientists in the 1970s believed the Earth was on the brink of a big Global Cooling. They predicted a coming ice age, and worried about the survival of civilization if we didn't start doing something right now to handle it. There were articles, books, and even TV shows (one narrated by Leonard Nimoy!) that talked about the dangers of the future Ice Age. After most scientists started talking about climate change in terms of rising (rather than falling) temperatures, "climate change skeptics" used the Ice-age theories to argue that scientists don't really know what they're talking about. That isn't quite fair, since there wasn't nearly as much consensus about the Ice Age as there is about climate change, but as you'll see in another part of this article, climate scientists and activists have their own failed prophecies about global warming too.
This year, it looks like the Ice-age theory might be making a little bit of a comeback: astronomers have noted that the Sun has almost completely stopped producing sunspots, and since sunspot activity is connected to global temperatures, some scientists have predicted that if the cessation of sunspot activity continues for too long, we might be in for a 'mini ice age'. What goes around comes around.
10. Global Famine
Remember Malthus and overpopulation? Even though he got it wrong in the 18th century, some know-it-alls kept pushing his ideas in the 20th. Various scientists and social scientists spent the 1960s and 1970s warning that rising population was bound to cause a massive famine where economies would be ruined and billions of people would die. These were mostly technocrats who believed the answer would come in more strictly controlling the population and taking measures to reduce personal freedom and restrict population growth. The most eminent of these founded the "Club of Rome", and issued a report in 1972 called "Limits to Growth" which predicted mass famine, starvation and inevitable collapse of civilization. They tried to support their theories with mathematical formulas of their own devising, projections of exponential population explosion, and appeals to 'scientific' authority. Fans of these theories advocated ideas like sterilization of large segments of the population, and restriction on access to goods and services in the name of 'sustainability'.
The theories of the Global-famine crowd would have limited human freedom and led to billions of people stuck in permanent poverty. And just like their hero Malthus, it turned out that most of their predictions thus far proved drastically wrong, because they underestimated the value of human innovation. Especially in food production, thanks to something called the Green Revolution, a set of agricultural innovations in the 20th century spearheaded by people like Norman Borlaug, probably the greatest 20th-century genius you never heard of. His breakthroughs in agricultural sciences are credited with saving at least billion people from starvation, while the elitists of the "Club of Rome" crowd spent their time thinking hard about how to do the opposite of progress.
11. Earth Changes Maps
In the 1980s, various different 'psychics' made predictions of impending catastrophic events: polar shifts, Hopi prophecies, magnetic events, cosmic rays, mass volcanic eruptions, nuclear war, etc. Their reasoning for this was based on "messages" they claimed to receive, from ascended masters, angels, or aliens. A couple of prominent new-age psychics/'channelers' went as far as to mass produce and sell "Earth Changes Maps" which they claimed were projections of how the United States or the whole world would look like in the near future after these catastrophes. These amusing maps showed huge areas flooded over, the Mississippi River flooding until it was 50 miles wide, the rise of ancient Atlantis or Lemuria, and other equally absurd details.
Along with the maps came predictions. One psychic, Gordon Michael Scallion, made one of these maps claiming that the main cause of these astounding geographical changes would likely be a magnetic polar shift, which he predicted would happen in 1993. When that date passed, he just kept going, changing the date to 2002. And when that one passed, he pushed it forward another ten years to 2012.
Another 'channeler' named Lori Toye made an extremely similar map (I'm surprised the two didn't sue each other), predicting that the apocalyptic year 2000 would bring about these great changes. Her version was extra-new-agey; apparently those few wise believers and New-Age spiritual people would survive the calamities while the nasty unbelievers would drown or starve or whatever; and that after the catastrophe great spiritual beings (Saint Germain, El Morya, and the Theosophical master Kuthumi) would guide humanity to build Golden Cities with ridiculous names like "Klehma" or "Shalalah". When 2000 came and went she too just revised her date to 2012. Both of these hucksters sold tens of thousands of copies of their maps, magazines and books to gullible new agers.
12. Y2K (& Jerry Falwell)
There was no greater fake-apocalyptic date where bad science and dumb religion combined to make crappy predictions than the year 2000. The stupidity associated with this year made our medieval ancestors in 1000 look like sensible people in comparison. Computer nerds, survivalists, scientists, Christian preachers and new-age prophets all predicted terrible dire events on this date, and a ridiculous number of people spent new years eve of 1999 hunkered down in fear of what might occur.
The biggest prediction of doom centered around the "Y2K Bug", a predicted error that would happen when computers got to the end of 1999 and suddenly switched to the year 0000 instead of 2000 due to outdated programming errors. Now, in some computer programming languages this was a real problem, but one that was eminently fixable by people just doing the necessary work. In spite of this, doomsayers gave terrifying visions of planes falling from the skies, buildings catching fire and your toaster trying to kill you. If you believed the predictions, from one day to another our entire technological infrastructure was just going to blow up. People stockpiled food, guns and survival gear, and headed for the hills in fear.
Christian preachers didn't want to miss out on the opportunity either. None less than Christian TV Evangelist and religious-right-wing celebrity Jerry Falwell made the claim that the "Biblical End Times" would happen, or at least start, in 2000. But he was just the most famous one; dozens of preachers popped up all over the place claiming they'd used their secret-decoder-rings on the Book of Revelation and this proved that the Second Coming, the Anti-Christ, the Rapture, or Armageddon would happen in this very important number/year.
Mostly, it proved that 1000 years later, people are just as gullible as ever.
13. Sathya Sai Baba
India has produced some of the greatest philosophers and spiritual teachers of the world. It's also produced more than its share of frauds and hucksters and scandalous teachers. In the 20th century, none was a bigger piece of crap (and fooled more people) than "Sathya Sai Baba". He claimed to be the reincarnation of an earlier, much more legitimate teacher by the name of Shirdi Sai Baba and to be a living god. His proof of 'godhood' was cheap magic tricks where he used common stage-magic to make little baubles, gold watches, ashes or other objects appear in his hands for his followers (you can see videos of his tricks on Youtube). This and his afro were apparently enough to convince millions of Indians and westerners alike to worship him. His decades-long career as a fake guru included allegations of murder of prominent critics, and the mass physical and sexual abuse of young boys in his care.
Sai Baba was at least original in his choice of incorrect prophecies: he predicted when he would die. He told his followers he would die at the age of 96, in 2022 (and that afterwards he would reincarnate one more time as "Prema Sai Baba" and would lead humanity into a new golden age). But he screwed up this one too; he died in 2011, at the age of 84. Allegations of corruption and abuse continue to be revealed.
14. Nibiru/planet x
Since the 1970s and the writings of a weird amateur-archaeologist named Zecharia Sitchin, there's been a theory floating around about a planet that periodically passes through our solar system. Stichin claimed that this was connected to 'proof' he had about "ancient astronauts" (the kinds you hear about in "history" channel documentaries), and he claimed that this planet ("Nibiru") wouldn't return to our solar system until sometime around 2900 (we can bet our descendants will be freaking out about that date, too). But in 1995 a woman named Nancy Lieder claimed that she had been in contact with a race of aliens called the Zetas (not to be mistaken with the Mexican Drug Lords of the same name), and that this planet (which she initially called "Planet X") was going to arrive in our solar system and cause a cataclysm in 1997. She also claimed the Hale-Bopp Comet was fake and a government cover-up to hide the terrifying truth. When Hale-Bopp turned out to be real, she tried to cover up her incorrect prophecy and immediately switched to claim that Planet X (which would come to be associated with Sitchin's Nibiru) was actually going to arrive in 2003. She got all kinds of airplay, and even warned people in interviews that they should mercy-kill their pets to spare them the 'darkness' that was about to arrive.
When the 2003 date passed without incident, she eventually crawled back out of whatever rock she lives under to declare that it would actually arrive in 2012, connecting it to the Mayan Calendar nonsense. She claimed that President Obama wanted to make the truth public but was being prevented from doing so by evil overlords or something. The fact that crap-all happened in 2012 didn't stop her, and she announced that in October, 2014 the world leaders would announce the approach of Nibiru once it was too late to keep hidden; when no world leader bothered to make the announcement, she claimed that "the establishment" was still covering it up.
Sitchin, by the way, went public to totally reject Lieder's prophecies. Neither that nor Lieder proving herself a fraud four times over has managed to stop conspiracy nuts and True Believers from still expecting Nibiru to fly by at any moment.
After 2000, 2012 was the biggest year of living history for failed prophecies, and all because of those lousy Mayans, right?! Actually, wrong. The Mayans had nothing to do with it. It was because of a couple of westerners who made up nonsense about the Mayans! Jose Arguelles sounds Mexican but he's actually the U.S.-born son of a European Spaniard and a German; he's not Mayan and never even lived in Mexico. But he decided, based on a misreading of really bad theories about the ancient Mayan astronomical calendar, that the Ancient Mayans "prophesied" the end of the world at the "end" of their calendar (not really an end, since the calendar is circular). He was also the dunderhead who promoted the "Harmonic Convergence" event in 1987, where he claimed that if people all over the world meditated together on August 16th they would bring about a new age of world peace.
The other big pusher of the Mayan Apocalypse theory was Terrence McKenna, a crazy psychedelic philosopher and big time writer on hallucinogenic drug spirituality. Some of his stuff is even good. But he predicted, based on his own (totally made up and non-traditional) mathematical studies of the I Ching that time itself would effectively end on November 2012; but then he read about Arguelles' Mayan Calendar nonsense and switched the date one month over, to December 21 2012 to match the Mayan Doomsday. Neither of the men responsible for creating tons of panic and bullshit Facebook posts from your hippie cousin lived to answer for their wrongdoing: McKenna died in 2000, and Arguelles in 2011.
The thing is, the year before 2012, every new-age hippie I knew was freaking out about "11/11/11", claiming that there would be an apocalypse on November 11th 2011, because some new age pyschics had predicted it. Then literally the next day, they all switched to 2012. When December 21 2012 passed, did they learn anything? No. Now they're all following the exact same liars and con-men, and have already started sending Facebook posts about 2017. It's like they demand to be stupid!
16. Climate Change Prophecies?
I'm not trying to make this political: this isn't about whether you believe in Climate Change or not. Whether you think it's real or not, man-made or not, the fact is that there have been predictions made by climate scientists and environmentalist activists that turned out to be really wrong. You don't have to disbelieve in Climate Change to admit that there's times people got it wrong.
Here's just a few: in 1995 environmentalist Ross Gelbspan predicted there would be 200 million 'climate refugees' by 2010. In 2005, the U.N. claimed there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010, and when that didn't come true they tried to erase the evidence they'd ever said it. In 1999, biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg claimed that due to climate change the Great Barrier Reef would be dead in a matter of months; he made the same claim in 2006, and again in 2007; as of today, it's still very much alive. In 2000, environmentalist Dr. David Viners claimed that by 2010 "British schoolchildren won't know what snow looks like" due to global warming. In 2004 the World Wildlife Fund claimed that by 2010 Polar Bears would be extinct in the Hudson Bay region; they are still here. In 2007 Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery claimed that Australia would suffer permanent drought due to climate change and that the city of Perth would have to be abandoned completely by 2009 (it still has 2 million people living there, just like before).
In 2008 Canadian environmentalists Dr. David Barber and Dr. David Suzuki claimed that by that summer the polar ice cap would completely melt; when it didn't, they revised their estimate to "no later than 2014". The ice cap is still there.
17. Harold Camping
You might remember Reverend Camping and his church; they got a lot of media attention when they launched a massive publicity campaign all over the U.S. claiming that Judgment Day was coming on May 21st, 2011. Camping believed, like most of these failed Christian prophets, that there was a kind of secret code in the Bible, of hidden numbers and dates in the books of Daniel and of Revelation, which would provide the timeline of the Apocalypse.
This wasn't actually the first time that Camping wrongly predicted the End Times, actually. In 1992 he wrote a book claiming that Christ would return on September 6, 1994. This didn't get nearly as much notice just because there wasn't the same kind of massive publicity back then as his church did for 2011.
When May 21st passed without the Rapture, Camping moved the date to October 21st. By that date, Camping had suffered a stroke, and apparently decided that this was Jesus' way of saying he didn't want him making any more predictions.
18. Bill Kristol
This isn't a political entry, it's definitely not about whether you like Donald Trump or not. Whether you love him or hate him, one thing that's for sure is that last year a lot of political prophets made totally wrong predictions about Trump. None of them were nearly as hilarious as Bill Kristol, the neocon editor of the Weekly Standard. When Trump was gaining ground as a GOP candidate in 2015, Kristol started making a series of declarations, especially on Twitter, claiming that Trump's campaign would be a total failure and he would go nowhere. What made it funny was the level of obvious bile Kristol had for Trump, and the fact that he kept doubling down. Even when everyone else was reluctantly admitting that Trump was winning, Kristol kept right on insisting that Trump would never get the candidacy. Every single prediction he ever made about Trump proved wrong.
Keep in mind that Kristol was also one of the biggest cheerleaders of the Iraq War. His prophecies for how that would go were just as accurate as the ones about Trump. This is also the guy who said "If we invade Iraq we will be respected throughout the Arab world", that it would be "a two-month war, not an eight-year war", and it would "have terrifically good effects throughout the middle-east". He makes the Jehovah Witnesses look credible by comparison!
If you are a Trump fan, nothing should give you more hope for your candidate's chances of winning the Presidency than the fact that Bill Kristol still keeps insisting Trump is doomed. The day Kristol says Trump's going to win, that's when you should be worried, because he hasn't got one right yet.