Don't they know it's the end of the world?
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- On October 22, 1844, a man named William Miller gathered his followers -- many of whom had sold all their earthly possessions -- and awaited the end of the world, as he had predicted months earlier.
The end did not come. The event was soon termed the "Great Disappointment." Part of the group later became the Seventh Day Adventists. The world went on.
On December 31, 1999, the odometer turned over on the millennium. People, primed for a Y2K computer glitch and terrorist activities, worried something dramatic would happen. But the calendar changed to 2000 without a hitch. The world went on.
On September 11, 2001, jetliners pierced the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington. The New York buildings collapsed, 3,000 people died, and Web sites trumpeted the predictions of Nostradamus and concerns Armageddon was at hand. But it's more than two years later and the world, though sadder and more aware of terrorist tactics and possibilities, has gone on.
On March 30, 2004, the 12th and final book in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' "Left Behind" series, "Glorious Appearing" (Tyndale House), will be published. Bookstores may rock and cash registers may rumble, but the world, almost certainly, will go on.
Many members of the human race, it seems, have a craving to be present when the end comes -- whether it's out of a belief that they'll go to heaven or, perhaps, just to be able to say, "I was there."
And there is no shortage of works trying to read the signs. In the '70s and then again in the early '80s, Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," with its dark mutterings about the Trilateral Commission and what's now become the European Union, found a huge following. The recent "Bible Code" books claim to predict assassinations and conflagration.
There are other forecasters of the future, of course, ranging from Nostradamus and Jeane Dixon to the children of Fatima and the Book of Revelation.
Eye on Entertainment wonders if the end is nigh.
The "Left Behind" books, which begin with the Rapture (and an ensuing spectacle in which planes fall out of the sky and organizations fall to pieces), have been a huge success story. Since the first one, "Left Behind," appeared in 1996, more than 40 million copies have been sold.
The story is drawn from Revelation, down to the appearance of an Antichrist and a mighty battle near Jerusalem. But the heroes have broad, multicultural names such as Rayford Steele, Chang Wong, Chloe Williams and Tsion Ben-Judah (not to mention the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia), and the good guys' group is named the Tribulation Force.
You can take or leave "Left Behind" -- many take it seriously, and many read it for its potboiler qualities -- but there's no doubt that it taps into a rich vein of interest, where pop culture, science and theology meet.
Sometimes the end comes with disease, as it does in Stephen King's "The Stand"; more often, since World War II, it's nuclear war (as in "On the Beach" or "The Day After"). "Deep Impact" was about a killer meteor, "Independence Day" involved aliens from another world, and "The Quiet Earth" ... well, I'm still not sure what happened in "The Quiet Earth." (Technology malfunctions, people on the verge of death -- something like that.)
There's also my personal favorite, Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God," in which a group of monks is compiling a list of God's names, with interesting results.
But sometimes this interest in doomsday troubles me, particularly nowadays, when it seems like many religious extremists give the impression that they want the world to end. They'd rather be fixated on the world to come rather than fix the world that's here.
Sure, life can be hard, but we're here to enjoy the world we're given, I would think. Hoping for the end doesn't say much for this planet and its beings, does it?
So ponder this: On October 30, 1937, the asteroid Hermes passed within 500,000 miles of Earth -- a mere hair's breadth on a cosmological scale. The event, little noticed at the time, has been almost forgotten in the years since. (And Hermes came even closer in 1942.)
But had Hermes hit, it would have caused pretty much the end of the world as we know it. And all that with no warning, no battles between good and evil, no time to think about everything you could have done with your life.
Look outside. It's spring. Take time to smell the roses, OK?
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