Relax, it's not the end of the world. Like U.S. Christian broadcaster Harold Camping's rapture prophesy last year and Y2K before it, the apocalypse – this time, purportedly forecast for Dec. 21 by the Mayan calendar – has not happened after all.
But as unlikely as the imminent annihilation of humanity may be, fears of Armageddon still prompt panic among believers around the globe. In China, Russia, France and the U.S., those convinced the world would end Friday reportedly stockpiled supplies in an effort to survive catastrophe, or they made preparations for their last night on Earth.
Professor Lorenzo DiTommaso, chairman of Concordia University's department of religion, explains why people get swept up in apocalyptic prophecies – and what happens when they are proven wrong.
Why do people believe these predictions?
Broadly speaking, people believe in apocalyptic doomsday predictions because they perceive a fundamental wrongness with the world and human existence, and can't see toward a solution in terms of human intellection and imagination. Hence the solution, necessary and imminent as it must be, is ascribed to something or someone else, such as God or the deep forces of the cosmos.
Are certain individuals or personalities more prone than others to believing in them?
Studies don't tell us much about who might be inclined to believing in doomsday predictions. It's also difficult to qualify the degree to which people feel dissatisfied with the world and understand it in apocalyptic terms. It's even difficult to identify the triggers.
That said, certain social settings seem more fertile to the rooting of apocalyptic speculation. Most common is the small religious group or sect, often dominated by a charismatic leader, which feels itself to be under oppression, persecution and perhaps the menace of death, and which looks to an overthrow of the present order as a way of expressing a hope for radical change.
How do believers react and cope when the predictions don't come true?
One response is for members to leave the group, or otherwise disengage from the theology or philosophy that gave rise to the prophecy in the first place. When in 1844 the world did not end as predicted by U.S. religious leader William Miller and his group, many members left with such a letdown that the event went down in history as the Great Disappointment.
Another response is to move sideways, conceptually speaking. If one prophecy fails, then another might just do the trick. These people might be called "doomsday seekers."
A third response is to admit that the calculations were wrong. After all, biblical prophecy is the word of God and as such must be true. So the error, as it were, must have crept into the calculations. This was Harold Camping's response – in effect, back to the drawing-board.
This interview has been condensed and edited.