Editor's note: Aaron Sagers is a New York-based entertainment writer and nationally syndicated pop-culture columnist. He has specialty knowledge in "paranormal pop culture," has lectured at conventions across the country on the topic and is a media pundit on supernatural entertainment. He covers pop culture daily at ParanormalPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter @aaronsagers.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel confused.
Instead of a lone doomsday-sayer on a city street corner with a sandwich board, the news media and popular culture have taken to talking about the end being nigh. Especially with the 2012 Mayan calendar predictions, the big one has become big business. But not all end-of-days scenarios are equal within the world of dedicated apocalypse nerds.
There are multiple theories that go beyond the zombocalypse or rise of the machines, and even the words themselves that are used to describe humanity’s last hurrah have different meanings, depending on the groups that use them.
To understand the nuances of the language of the end times, we compiled the following key phrases from the nerd set as a glossary to go out on, along with the help of John R. Hall, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and author of “Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity.”
An apocalyptic-minded group (or “apocalyptic warring sect,” according to Hall) within Islam seeking to bring on the end of this world and the beginning of the next. Al Qaeda believes that “only through the exercise of violence can God’s plan for a new age be realized,” and its members see themselves as God’s agents, Hall said. The same definition may apply to actors within the Puritan Revolution in the 17th Century (Oliver Cromwell) and the Crusades, he said.
In Greek, "apocalypse" means something like “disclosure of things previously hidden.” “That being the title of the [Christian] Book of Revelation, it’s often taken to mean the revelation of the last things before God’s final judgment,” Hall said. Apocalyptic movements emerge many times through history where profound changes are said to occur and a new world is dawning. But, Hall added, “those movements are not generally about the end of the world in the ultimate sense.”
“End times” is simply a popular usage for talking about the end of the world, and the same thing can be said for “doomsday.” "Armageddon" is a specific reference to the Book of Revelation or apocalypse in the Bible's New Testament. Said Hall: “It is the final battle between good and evil that comes just before God’s judgment at the end of the world.”
This is essentially the opposite of the big bang. This theory among cosmologists posits that the constant expansion of the universe will one day stop and reverse, and the universe will collapse until it becomes a black hole.
Books of Chilam Balam
These Mayan books from the 16th to the 18th centuries speak about history, myths, medicinal recipes, daily life, war and politics - along with some apocalyptic predictions. In 1951, astronomer and linguist Maud Makemson, a recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship for the study of Mayan astronomy, released “The Book of the Jaguar Priest.”
The book contained her translation of “The Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin” from the 1500s, which presented a Mayan end-of-world scenario on December 21, 2012: “Then the god will come to visit his little ones. Perhaps after death will be the subject of his discourse.” Makemson also translates that, “in the final days of misfortune, in the final days of tying up the bundle of the 13 [cycles] … then the end of the world shall come” and “these valleys of the earth shall come to an end.” Then again, the Maya may have believed that the end of one world was followed by the beginning of a new one.
Evangelist and religious broadcaster Harold Camping predicted the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, which would have righteous believers of Jesus Christ rising up to heaven, followed by a five-month period of torment on Earth brought on by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. On October 21, 2011, the world was then supposed to end. Camping had previously made predictions for 1988 and 1994. “Harold Camping is probably the most successful date-setting apocalypticist the world has yet seen,” Hall said.
A theory by John Michael Greer, an author and “Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America,” catabolic collapse refers to what happens when civilization can’t meet the demands for the stuff it produces. When maintenance needs cannot be met by available resources, societies may cut back for a bit and are impoverished, then return to business as usual, or they could begin to amass even more stuff for the next round.
Greer suggests that we’re at the end of a big collapse, largely because of fossil fuel consumption. He is, however, optimistic that as this current cycle of civilization comes to a close, it will re-emerge as a radically different, newly optimistic one.
A belief or theology regarding the end of humanity or the end of the world.
The superwave theory by physicist Paul LaViolette, Ph.D., in the book “Earth Under Fire” posits that as spiral galaxies detonate on a periodic basis, the explosions can expand to encompass our entire outer space neighborhood. Not only would we not know of an impending superwave for thousands of years after it began, but the explosion would probably bring a lot of debris that would cover up our sun.
LaViolette also thinks a superwave might be heralded by a gravitational wave and then a gamma-ray burst. He suggests that the Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004, was actually caused by a gravitational wave and said the largest gamma-ray burst ever recorded occurred on December 27.
This doomsday scenario involves the arrival of a new ice age, and perhaps one brought about by global climate change. As ice packs in the Arctic melt, the oceans become less salty, which could prevent the Gulf Stream’s warmer currents (driven by salt falling to the bottom) from reaching the North Pole. Things would get very cold, very fast, and the Northern Hemisphere would be covered in ice for quite a long spell. Then again, a recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience said greenhouse gas emissions have delayed the next ice age.
Mayan long count calendar
The 2012 doomsday scenarios are based on the nonrepeating Mayan long count calendar, which was actually used by other Mesoamerican people and originated a significant amount of time before the Maya. The calendar has cycles (“baktuns”) of about 400 years, the 13th of which will end, and the 14th begin, on December 21. The long count calendar was used to record time for periods longer than the 52-year “calendar round.” The Mayan “Chilam Balam” jaguar priests eventually switched over to the 260-year short count calendar before the Maya began to abandon their cities.
Nemesis is a red or brown dwarf star hypothesized to orbit the sun that periodically (every 26 million years or so) disrupts billions of comets from a surrounding - also hypothetical - “Oort” cloud, some of which would then hit Earth and lead to a mass extinction event. This “death star” theory was independently published in 1984 in the journal Nature by two groups of astronomers after paleontologists David Raup and Jack Sepkoski said they’d discovered a time pattern to extinction over 250 million years (later updated to 500 million years).
Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin elaborated on Ukrainian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of the “noosphere” (the idea that human thought and the mastery of the physical realm, as during the atomic age, has significantly transformed the planet) to postulate that a planet-wide shared consciousness was emerging between humans. The omega point - which some believe we’ll reach in 2012 - is the culmination of evolution. Humans will be organized in the best possible way, which then will lead to telepathy and a transcendence. In a way, when humankind reaches this point, it is joining God in the Christosphere, where we will be redeemed.
Within the scientific community, there is an accepted idea of “true polar wander,” which states that the Earth’s poles readjusted themselves about 800 million years ago. But whereas the poles shifted about 50 degrees over 20 million years, author Patrick Geryl theorizes that the Earth might capsize and dramatically roll over in 2012, thus causing continents to collide, natural disasters and an upheaval of ecosystems.
In 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, wrote that computing power essentially doubled every two years, and he predicted that the trend would continue for at least 10 years. Nearly 50 years later, Moore’s prediction has remained true. In his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” mathematician and sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge expanded on Moore’s Law to suggest this means that computers will gain “superhuman artificial intelligence” and that the human era will be ended.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil is a proponent of the technological singularity theory and supports the concept of transhumanism, which means the singularity could lead to an improvement of our physical state (goodbye, mortality) and a digital-human consciousness - or to a Cyberdyne-esque rise of the machines.
A pop-culture apocalypse concept introduced by George A. Romero, in the 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead,” that showed the dead being resurrected as flesh-eating, mindless ghouls. Romero was inspired by Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic story “I Am Legend.” While originating in entertainment, and enjoying a resurgence because of books such as Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” and Max Brooks’ “World War Z,” the zombie apocalypse has taken hold as one of semi-serious conversation and planning.