World didn't end, what now?
May 13, 2011 11:46 AM   Subscribe

What happens to believers when the world DOESN'T end?

So, in case you haven't seen the billboards, the world is ending next Saturday.

I haven't been paying much attention to the rapture chatter because, well, it seems like every few years somebody somewhere predicts the end of the world...and it doesn't happen.

I'm wondering about those Somebodies who seriously thought the world was going to end on such-and-such-date...and then the sun rose the next day. Did any of them ever write about the experience? I'd love to read about how their lives changed once the world didn't end/rapture passed them by/etc.
posted by Elly Vortex to Grab Bag (32 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to give this a read. Great insight into the psychology on these believers.
posted by wesker at 11:48 AM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

It varies. Most people seem to get one "oopsie" on this - one mistake that is found and quickly fixed once the date passes. For the second and subsequent mistakes, sometimes it's just that God decides to give the world one more chance. Obviously you can't blame a mere mortal for not seeing that coming.

I think usually the believers drop away, leaving just a core group of die hards who believe just because belief is their whole life.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:50 AM on May 13, 2011

A man in our congregation sold all his possessions and went to India to evangelize the first time Harold Camping predicted the end of the world (1994). Actually, he might have just put some things in storage, because I think he still had his car when he came back. Anyway, he came back to church and went back to work and stopped listening to Camping, and that was about it. There were a few people in the congregation who thought, "You know, the world might end," although they were discouraged from acting on that idea in a significant way and so just sort of waited to see what happened. But the takeaway for most people I knew of that persuasion was "you can't predict the end of the world. It could be tomorrow, or it could be a million years from now. Live as if it's tomorrow."
posted by brina at 11:52 AM on May 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nothing happens to them. They're deluded before their apocalypse date comes and they're deluded after, just about some other stupid thing.

People are very flexible in their beliefs--hell, look at everything that religion or previous cultures believed that was proved patently false by science (the sun revolves around the earth, the earth is the center of the universe, the earth is flat, etc). These people just move onto some other piece of bullshit to believe in and they sweep what was previously the focus of their lives under the rug as if it wasn't actually significant to them.
posted by dobbs at 11:55 AM on May 13, 2011 [5 favorites]

they just recalculate... it happened in 94, 2000, and will probably(no one knows for sure) happen again in 2011...

main lesson to learn, Math doesn't work for predicting end of the world, especially when we are dealing with numerous numbering and dating systems.... and assumed dates from creationists...
posted by fozzie33 at 11:57 AM on May 13, 2011

Festinger wrote all about it. Cialdini touches on Festinger's work and writes a bit more about the topic. I can't say enough about how interesting Cialdini's book is, even though the material goes far beyond your question.
posted by Silvertree at 12:03 PM on May 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I know there's a lot of understandable hate for religion here, but perhaps they get their bibles out and read on to Mt. 24:36, instead of stopping at 24:33...
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:05 PM on May 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

This very question gave rise to the concept of Cognitive Dissonance in 1956. A couple of social psychologists read a similar billboard, one for an apocalyptic UFO cult, and because they were curious what would happen to these people when the predicted date came to pass and nothing happened, they joined the cult and hung out and people-watched through the End-Of-Days and aftermath.

From their experience, they developed the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails (wikipedia link) after finding, counterintuitively, that members of the UFO cult were even more certain of the truth of their beliefs after the prophecy failed to come true.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 12:06 PM on May 13, 2011 [16 favorites]

Or what Silvertree said.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 12:07 PM on May 13, 2011

right before the millennium, there was young adult novel about this very thing: Armageddon Summer by Bruce Coville and Jane Yolen.
posted by changeling at 12:19 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

When Prophecy Fails is a great book and quite readable.

The estimable Alison Lurie wrote an excellent novel (Imaginary Friends) based on When Prophecy Fails, and that novel constitutes the best discussion I know of the ethical lapses of Festinger's conduct of that seminal study, which-- I hope and trust-- would make it hard to get past Human Subject Review Committees today.
posted by jamjam at 12:27 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It probably becomes just another miracle. Something along the lines of something as miraculous as a virgin birth or a resurrection.
posted by Sal and Richard at 12:28 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, in this guy's case, what he did after the world failed to end was keep raising his family; an act which ultimately lead to my own existance. (William Miller is my thrice-great-grandfather.)

His followers may be an interesting case study, though; it looks like a lot of them continued to hang around each other, and morphed his apocalyptic theology into more everyday theology, with different sects splitting off; one of those sects eventually became The Seventh-Day Adventists.

Amusingly, Miller's followers referred to the whole failure-of-the-world-to-end incident as "The Great Disappointment".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:28 PM on May 13, 2011 [11 favorites]

The Haromonic Convergence in 1987 didn't destroy the world. The step-mother of one of my best high-school buddies had put away dry rice and potable water in huge drums all over the house, just in case.
When the supposed Armageddon passes I think they look to the loony leader who convinced them in the first place that everything was going to end to rationalize it and tie it up in a neat bow.
posted by dgeiser13 at 12:31 PM on May 13, 2011

See also the Eschatology of the Jehova's Witnesses. We've been living in the last days since 1914! Wake up, sheeple!
posted by kaibutsu at 12:39 PM on May 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: This is great, folks. I'm going to find a copy of When Prophecy Fails - it sounds exactly like what I was going for.

In the past I've halfway formulated an idea for a short story about two people who believed in something that was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be false (such as an angel visitation that turned out to be an elaborate hoax). Reading about The Rapture to Come has brought that half-written story back to the forefront in my mind.

Too bad I may only have eight more days to write it! Good thing I intended it to be a short story.
posted by Elly Vortex at 12:56 PM on May 13, 2011

They suddenly realize there was a miscalculation and make a new infallible prediction.

The End of the World sketch from Beyond the Fringe ends with the line "Never mind lads. Same time tomorrow. We must get a winner one day."
posted by KRS at 1:09 PM on May 13, 2011

You mention the Rapture. Have you seen The Rapture the movie? Not exactly what you asked about but might interest you.
posted by dobbs at 1:10 PM on May 13, 2011

Also exploring these groups is Alex Heard Apocalypse Pretty Soon.
posted by shothotbot at 1:12 PM on May 13, 2011

The problem with all these groups is they all totally disregard Jesus' instructions that no man knows the date or the hour.

But to answer your question, some folks dig into more research why they were wrong, some folks repent of timesetting, and some folks drift away from their faith. Most of the time all this stuff is is wishful thinking.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:30 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

The problem with all these groups is they all totally disregard Jesus' instructions that no man knows the date or the hour.

Some of them account for that and address it (sorry, no cites handy at the moment, although I think William Tapley has a rationalization or two).
posted by Rykey at 1:40 PM on May 13, 2011

If you are looking for a little ironic amusement, hop over to the Rapture Ready forums and see how they roll their eyes at those expecting the rapture on May 21st.
posted by yeti at 2:56 PM on May 13, 2011

::annoyed grunt::

I read an article on this exact topic in the past few years. I might have found it on Give Me Something to Read but can't find it, and I didn't star it in Instapaper and can't find it in my Pinboard archive. This sort of matches what I remember, but I thought it had been longer.
posted by davextreme at 3:05 PM on May 13, 2011

Over at Reddit they are doing an "Ask Me Anything" with someone on May 22nd.
posted by 47triple2 at 3:08 PM on May 13, 2011

The same thing that always happens to them, on the countless times they've played this stupid game before. They come up with an "error" in the calculations, fix it, tell you when the real date is going to be and start the whole demented performance all over again.

The problem with all these groups is they all totally disregard Jesus' instructions that no man knows the date or the hour.

Jesus' instructions? Do you mean what that guy who wrote about Jesus around thirty years after his alleged death said his instructions were?
posted by Decani at 3:24 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, I can tell you because I was about 11 when it happened. I grew up in a Pentecostal church firmly believing in both the Rapture and my secret-no-matter-what-they-said unworthiness to be taken up. Yep, fighting the Beast and guillotines in my future, for sure.

So one night, a Thursday, the choir was practicing, my mom and dad in it, and I was outside and somehow I'd never seen heat lightning before and that heat lighting just happened to correspond with the choir stopping mid-verse for no apparent reason. Yep, just like I thought; Rapture'd come and gone and I was still there.

Till about five minutes later when I became unterrified and walked inside and they were all sitting around talking about something adult and having to do with the song they were singing and look, there were my parents, all unraptured too.

tl;dr - you only get one shot at the Rapture not happening, but man when it doesn't it sure fucks you up anyway.
posted by digitalprimate at 4:52 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Apparently many of the May 21st faithful will form large groups in churches and whatnot, to be received en masse. Any MeFites who catch wind of such a gathering in their area must infiltrate and film.

Picture the molasses-drips of recognition trickling through the crowd as one of two truths sinks in:
* No rapture today
* God has forsaken these particular souls

I'd watch every minute.
posted by Municipal Hare at 6:36 PM on May 13, 2011

"The New Believers" by David V. Barret is a truly amazing book that deals with cults/alternative religions/new religions. Many of the sects discussed in the book, at one point or another, were certain the world was about to end. In many of the entries, Barrett describes what happened to those religions, and their members, when the sun came up the next day. The answers are all over the place. Here are a few that I remember:

-Some groups went through mini mutinies and changed leadership.
-Some groups just dissolved.
-Some groups found an "error" in their calculations and set a new date for the world to end.
-Some groups or select group members committed suicide.
-Some groups shifted their entire outlook and system of beliefs.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:21 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

My grandma gave me a million Iraqi dinars about three years ago, saying that the currency would soon be revalued and that we would be millionaires while the Muslims would be bankrupted. Nothing came of that, of course, but she still writes that she expects the revaluation imminently. I didn't worry too much about this, as the dinars were worth only a few hundred $US, so it didn't come to to much out of pocket for her (and was unlikely to harm Iraq's economy). I do worry, of course, about whatever cultish group she's got herself involved in; but there is not much I can do about that.

But fwiw... whatever the theory is, I think it's just adjusted to take into account actual events.
posted by torticat at 7:38 PM on May 13, 2011

If you're a Subgenius, X-Day is going to happen on 5th July, 1998. The fact that it hasn't happened yet means 1998 hasn't happened yet....or maybe there was a mistake and it was supposed to be 5th July 8991...or maybe it happened and we didn't notice. We just don't know.

Taking any excuse to have a party and get all weird, Subgenii now celebrate X-Day every year (just in case).
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 4:50 AM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

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