What Happens When the World Doesn’t End

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Maybe there is no one reading this because there is no more internet, because there is no more Earth. According to a prophecy from a Christian organization called eBible Fellowship, on Wednesday, October 7, the planet was supposed to be destroyed “with fire,” according to Chris McCann, the leader of the online-only religious group. “According to what the Bible is presenting it does appear that 7 October will be the day that God has spoken of: in which, the world will pass away,” McCann told The Guardian. “It’ll be gone forever. Annihilated.”

You have to wonder: What happens to doomsday cults when the world doesn’t actually end? The classic text on this subject is When Prophecy Fails, a 1956 book by three University of Minnesota psychologists — Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter — who “joined” such a cult in order to study its members. The belief system of this group, as Psych Central reported back in 2011, was a kind of mash-up between Christianity and UFO conspiracy theory: The two leaders claimed to be receiving secret messages from aliens, one of which had “revealed itself … as the current embodiment of Jesus.” Eventually, the leaders said that the Jesus-alien had warned them of a great flood that would destroy Earth and everyone on it — except for the members of this group, who would be spared. 

There was a particular time and day that the flood was supposed to happen, and this time came and went. Nothing, as you might’ve guessed, happened, and so the three undercover psychologists got to watch the cult members’ reactions. At first everyone was stunned; one of the leaders openly wept. But things began to turn around when the leader the researchers referred to as Mrs. Keech alerted the group to another message she’d received from the aliens: Because of the faith of this little group, the world would be spared! As Maia Szalavitz pointed out in a piece for Time, this resulted in “a blitz of proselytizing,” with the group members “more convinced than ever that their beliefs were correct.”

Szalavitz also notes that this is an example of cognitive dissonance at work. Most people are uncomfortable holding two opposing ideas in their heads, and so they do their best to resolve that discomfort as quickly as possible. In this case, that resolution came by the cult members clinging even more closely to their belief system, insisting that they weren’t wrong and that this new prophecy says so. 

But, by some reports, that same psychological principle seemed to play out in a very different way for the believers in Christian radio host Harold Camping’s prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011. Journalist Tom Bartlett spent some time with some of those believers in the days before May 21; a year later, he checked back in for a story in Religion Dispatches, an independent online magazine. Bartlett wrote:

I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.

There’s a little bit of personal revisionist history going on, in other words — another attempt to realign the facts of what actually happened with what they’d believed. The October 7 Apocalypse prediction wasn’t the first — and it surely won’t be the last — of its kind. But even though believers in these things seem (and, indeed, usually are) extreme, there are lessons here for any of us who’ve had to figure out how to move on when something you expected — loudly and publicly — to happen doesn’t end up happening. It’s embarrassing, but life moves on. Unless, of course, one of these prophesies is eventually right, and it doesn’t.