The End Of The World Again

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There have always been doomsday predictions – and we're all still here. But is a new index which shows imminent Armageddon a cause for worry, wonders Ted Harrison

Have you been feeling anxious lately?

Depressed by the incessant stream of gloomy headlines from around the world? If so, you can take heart – up to a point. It may not go on much longer. The explanation lies in a little-known measure of current affairs known as the Rapture Index which monitors the frequency and intensity of the end-time signs mentioned in the Bible.

This year, the Rapture Index – a Doomsday Dow Jones – has been at an all-time high. In August it hit an unprecedented 184. Thousands of Christians around the world are on red-alert for the Rapture and Judgement Day.

In the last days, according to St Luke's Gospel, "there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring". There will also "be wars and commotions... Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom... and great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences."

Not surprisingly the fighting in Libya, continuing unrest in the Middle East, economic recession, natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis, are all being interpreted as signs that the last days are imminent.

The index editor, Terry James, of Little Rock, Arkansas, says he records the signs and then factors them into a "cohesive indicator". He stresses he is not in the business of making predictions, he simply measures the type of activity that "could act as a precursor to the Rapture. The higher the number, the faster we're moving towards the end."

In December 1993, when the index began, it stood at 57. Today it stands at over 180, comparable to its short-lived 9/11 peak 10 years ago. Any reading over 160, say the organisers, and it is time to "fasten the seatbelts". The Apocalypse will start, so thousands of Christians believe, with the Rapture, when, suddenly, the righteous will vanish from the face of the earth – whisked up into heaven, leaving the unsaved to face earthquakes, fire, brimstone and destruction.

Sounds familiar? That's because it is. The signs were all in place, and the Index high, five months ago. And, according to the 90-year-old American evangelist Harold Camping, the Apocalypse should have begun on 21 May. Shortly after his much-publicised prediction appeared to fail, Camping suffered a stroke, but even from his hospital bed he continued to number-crunch.

Now, he declares, he was right. 21 May was Judgement Day. And as the Rapture will happen exactly 5 months after Judgement Day, the Californian preacher has a new date in his diary. "We can be sure that the whole world [will be annihilated] on 21 October 2011."

The new date is not being as widely publicised as the May prediction. Since Judgement Day has already happened, there is nothing people can do to save their souls, Camping believes. Before the May date his radio station sponsored a worldwide publicity blitz.

Steve Whyte, 43, and originally from Leicester, has been one of the most dedicated end-time ambassadors. He was taken seriously ill in Africa, arrested in Laos and ridiculed everywhere, but remained determined to keep going to the end. Two years ago, Steve, who is an architect, was working as project manager in charge of a $50m development in New York. He heard about Camping's claim and, although sceptical, studied the biblical evidence himself. Unable to fault it, he decided he had to act. In January he left his home and handed the key to his sister. He didn't expect to be home again. When leafleting in Manchester, Steve was approached by Dave Kellar, a retired English teacher who had been spreading the same message for two years around Britain.

Marie Exley-Sheahan, a US military veteran, decided to take the message to the Islamic world, starting in Turkey. "We were temporarily detained by police but we had no serious issues," she wrote on her blog. "The Lord kept the angry people restrained and kept us out of harm's way..."

On 21 May believers across the globe kept in constant contact via social network sites. As the 6pm deadline expired uneventfully in New Zealand and Australia, American believers started an online debate about the exact timetable. Did six o'clock mean Jerusalem time, or American time? Eventually as 21 May ended at midnight in mid-Pacific, Exley-Sheahan posted a final message on Facebook. "'Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.' Love to all..."

Following Camping's first failed prediction in 1994, there was at least one suicide reported, and as time went by after 21 May, family and friends of some of the end-time ambassadors became increasingly anxious. After nine hours' silence, Exley-Sheahan's family made a desperate plea via Facebook for her to contact them. "Marie your Dad and I love u and will always We only ask u to think about this: NO ONE EXCEPT GOD KNOWS THE DAY AND HOUR OF JESUS RETURN TO EARTH. IF JESUS DIDN'T KNOW ISN'T IT CRAZY TO THINK SOMEONE ON EARTH KNOWS? PLEASE CALL."

Marie eventually broke her silence on the 24th. "I am totally OK, alive and it is well with my soul... thank you all for your love, care and support." Since then she has continued posting Bible texts relevant to Judgement Day.

"We're still here," said Dave Kellar, on the Monday after the apocalypse-that-wasn't. "We've had some hassle and we are going to have a rethink of direction. One day what the Bible says will happen." When asked now about the October prophecy, both Dave Kellar and Steve Whyte cite the latest message from end-time blogger "Brother Mike".

"Even if the end of the world... does not come this year due to the frailties of our human understanding, that does not disprove everything we have taught; nor would it disprove the date of 21 October 2011, but it would simply mean that... we were not granted a clear understanding of the nature of the happenings on 21 October."

Over the past 2,000 years there have been at least 200 confident prophecies made that the end would happen on a specific date. All, so far, have ended in disappointment and disillusionment.

Christians do not have the monopoly and several secular prophecies are currently going the rounds. The Cern collider will create a black hole; a hidden planet is said to be heading for the earth; the last day will be 21 December next year – according to an ancient Mayan calendar. No doubt, when 22 October arrives uneventfully, there will be acute disappointment felt. It is unlikely however that Camping will suffer the fate of the failed prophet Corporal William Bell. So angry were Londoners with him when 5 April 1761 came and nothing happened, that they had him thrown into Bedlam Asylum. What can be fairly safely predicted is that as long as the economic outlook remains gloomy the Rapture Index will stay high.

'We're all doomed' - The apocalypse in film

The Rapture

Aimed squarely at the US evangelicals who might be keen on Camping's rapture theories, and funded by a Canadian Christian film company, Left Behind sees the world's Christians disappear into thin air (and/or heaven) while Johnny Atheist is left to deal with an end-of-days conflict on Earth. Based on a 16-book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, there are two movie sequels. Go figure.

Nuclear Armageddon!

Yee-ha! Dr Strangelove, one of Kubrick's masterpieces, manages to both capture the absurdity of the Cold War and make a nuclear armageddon funny, peaking with the immortal scene of Slim Pickens straddling a falling nuke before "We'll Meet Again" plays out over a montage of nuclear catastrophe.

The Mayan prophecy

Mega-tsunamis! Dust clouds! Earthquakes! Volcanoes... Roland Emmerich's block-apoc-buster 2012 packs them all into this 2009 schlocker in which John Cusack and his family battle to avoid the 2012 Armageddon predicted in a Mayan prophecy. A scenario which, if true, is at least good news for those who missed out on Olympics tickets.

The environmental disaster

Wall E, family-film company Pixar's take on the apocalypse – humans just giving up on the ecosystem after filling it with junk – is probably the most likely endgame for Earth. Let's just hope that when the real world ends, no cute junk-collecting robots are left behind on their own.

The flood

Waterworld was the first in the diptych of transcendentally bad apocalypse movies made by Kevin Costner in the mid-Nineties (the other was the dire The Postman). It sees Coster's unnamed "Mariner", a drifter with mutant web feet, entangled in a battle for a map of the last bit of dry land on Earth. Or Drylands, as the film has it. Apocalyptically bad.

It's judgement day...or perhaps not

23 September 1186: John of Toledo

After calculating that a planetary alignment would occur in Libra (!) on this date John of Toledo sent out a letter (the "letter of Toledo") warning of armageddon.

Result: Wrong!

5 April 1761: William Bell

Londoners literally ran for the hills after this religious extremist took a few minor earthquakes to mean a coming endtime. After 6 April dawned, Bell was promptly thrown into Bedlam. He didn't see that coming.

Result: Wrong!

17 December 1919: Albert Porta

Meteorologist Albert Porta predicted that the conjunction of six planets would cause a huge magnetic current to destroy the Milky Way. It didn't.

Result: Wrong!

Various dates: Nostradamus

History's most famous Chicken Little has dominated the end of the world prediction business for five centuries now but – despite some dodgy claims that he predicted 9/11, WWII, etc – none have so far come true.

Result: Wrong (or is that what They want us to think?)

21 May 2011 (and next Friday): Harold Camping

American evangelist Camping hastily revised his prediction after the world didn't end in May, claiming a five-month cooling-off period between Judgement Day and Armageddon.

Result: Wrong!/TBC

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