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10 Times People Swore the Apocalypse Was Just Around the Corner

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and we feel fine! Pretty much as long as humans have been around on this planet, they’ve been swearing that the end is imminent, the apocalypse is near, and the world is nearing its total and complete collapse. Any day now, they used to claim—and still do!

Then, after Jesus Christ popped up onto the scene about two thousand years ago, the apocalyptic talk took on a totally new dimension. Ever since, religious groups, sects, cults, and, um, imaginative individuals have been proclaiming loudly to whoever will listen that the apocalypse is right around the corner.

In this list today, we’ll take a look at ten infamous times that apocalyptic talk took hold throughout history. It’s tempting to think we are living in the end times. And hey, maybe we are! Or maybe 2024 will be no different than the few thousand years before it when seemingly smart and certainly persuasive people convinced others that the world was just about to crumble down. These ten cases were some of the most fervent, but believe us when we say there have been plenty more doomsday beliefs that didn’t make the cut!

Related: 10 Creepy Apocalyptical Predictions

10 The Montanists

What is Montanism? | Fr. Darryl Fitzwater

The Montanists were an offshoot Christian sect that bubbled up in the middle of the 2nd century under the lead of a man named Montanus. He and his followers all believed that the end was near. And, of course, they thought that they were real Christians—and more filled with the zest of the spirit than other Christians whom they saw as worshiping in a deficient manner. Basically, Montanus was a prophet who founded his own religious schismatic movement in the city of Phrygia, in what is now modern-day Turkey, in about AD 156.

Amazingly, those humble beginnings didn’t stop it from flourishing in the West, specifically in Carthage, where it peaked throughout most of the 3rd century. It nearly died out from there, but incredibly, Montanism lasted in various ways until as late as the 9th century. Which is impressive, considering they were calling for the apocalypse the whole time! Crap or get off the pot there, guys.

Montanism specifically took hold in rural districts of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean areas. While many urban people cast it aside pretty quickly, if they ever took it up at all, Montanism flourished out in the countryside. Throughout the 3rd century AD, a number of small towns entirely converted to Montanism.

Then, they simply waited patiently for the Second Coming of Christ. Seriously, that was pretty much the most important belief in Montanism. They thought that they worshiped Jesus Christ more fervently than anyone else. Thus, when the heavenly Jerusalem was to descend onto earth (any day now), they would reap the benefits.

The supposed apocalyptic point was going to be between the two tiny villages of Pepuza and Tymion in the area around Phrygia. So the prophet Montanus himself and many of his followers moved there. Eventually, entire towns in rural areas were abandoned, traditional Christian beliefs were dropped, and Montanist followers scurried to the supposed Second Coming location.

That Second Coming never came, though. In time, most of the Montanists died out. That there is evidence it lasted past AD 800 speaks to the persistence of apocalyptic beliefs. It just wouldn’t die![1]

9 The Donatists

Donatism in Under 3 Minutes

Just like the Montanists before them, the Donatists were another Christian schism group in the early period after Jesus Christ’s life that believed the apocalypse was imminent. Donatus was a man who belonged to a Christian group in North Africa in the 4th century AD. His group broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in AD 312 after a man named Caecilian was elected as the bishop of Carthage.

So Donatus started his own off-shoot Christian group in protest of Caecilian’s election. And yes, Donatus’ followers had been inspired by Montanus and his Montanist followers, who were riding high before them. So, in this case, one apocalyptic off-shoot (sort of) begets another.

Among the Donatists’ beliefs was that the state shouldn’t interfere in church affairs. They also eschewed commercialism and consumerism (at least insofar as those things were practiced back in the fourth century AD) and wanted to live a life of penance followed by martyrdom in the name of the Lord. The Romans, Vandals, and then Byzantine rulers didn’t care for this at all and wanted the Donatists back in the fold for centuries after that.

But amazingly, Donatus’s group survived for hundreds of years until the extinction of Christianity in North Africa during the early period of the Middle Ages. That’s not to say they weren’t persecuted, though. Despite some decades in the late 4th century when the Donatists held sway in North Africa, they were often ignored at best or held down at worst. In 412 and again in 414 AD, for example, a conference held by pals of the powerful St. Augustine of Hippo denied civil and ecclesiastical rights to the Donatists. Not great!

The whole way through, the persecution pushed the Donatists to a pretty dark worldview. They identified being rich with living in sin, which wasn’t necessarily bad. But in shunning the Roman world and the other empires that were around their sphere of influence, they turned to the apocalypse.

For centuries, their followers swore that the Second Coming was imminent, and they would be restored to their glory in the afterlife, free from persecution and hate in the mortal world. That apocalypse never happened, of course. But Donatus’s followers hung on until the early 7th century, waiting all the while for Jesus to return from above.[2]

8 Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus: Explorer Of The New World | Full Documentary | Biography

We bet you didn’t expect to see this name on this list, did you? Christopher Columbus is, of course, famous for sailing to the New World at the very end of the 15th century. But while he and those who backed him were keen on finding a trade route to the Orient and enjoying all the financial spoils that might be expected to come from that, it wasn’t the only reason he set off into the unknown.

For Columbus personally, sailing to the New World was to be a direct way to curry favor with God—and set out God’s plan for the world and the coming apocalypse. Very famously, Columbus himself wrote this about his planned journey to sail to what ended up becoming North America:

“Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures, urging me to press forward? … With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible. … The Lord purposed that there should be something miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies.”

He wasn’t kidding about that “something miraculous” in the Indies, either. In fact, he expected his journey to trigger the apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.

While we don’t know quite a bit about Columbus, based on his own writings, we can at least be sure of that. We may not know what he looked like, how his ships were designed and organized, or even the exact point where he first came ashore in the Western Hemisphere. But we know he expected to initiate the apocalypse after he achieved that last part.

In 1500, eight years after his infamous journey that landed him somewhere on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, he wrote: “God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John [Rev. 21:1] after having spoken of it through the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the spot where to find it.”

Of course, the world didn’t end after he found that spot—at least not from his European perspective. Taken from a different point of view, Columbus’s journey certainly could be seen as the catalyst for a slow-motion apocalypse for indigenous peoples across the Americas…[3]

7 Joachim of Fiore

Joachim of Fiore’s Theology of History

Joachim of Fiore was an Italian theologian and Catholic abbot who was born in roughly 1135. He founded the very influential monastic order San Giovanni in Fiore. And for his entire life, he believed that the apocalypse was imminent. But he didn’t just yell at whoever was listening about how the world was going to end. He gave his followers a very specific date for the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it: 1260.

In that year, he claimed, the world would be transferred over into a utopia, and life as we know it on this planet would cease to exist. Basically, Joachim’s theories were some of the most influential millenarian thoughts ever put forth. Many Christian-based ideas of the apocalypse that have come after Joachim can be traced back to his teachings and influence. So he was incredibly influential in that regard. But he didn’t bring about the actual apocalypse!

During his lifetime, Joachim argued that the world was partitioned into three epochs. The first was the Age of the Father, which was temporally matched with that of the Old Testament and relied on human obedience to the Rules of God. The second epoch was the Age of the Son, which was represented by the New Testament. This came about between the birth and rise of Jesus Christ and the year 1260.

Then, following 1260, the Age of the Holy Spirit would arise, according to Joachim. In that age, the world would enter a utopia. The Kingdom of the Holy Spirit would dispense universal love, and justice—through the actual Order of the Just—would rule the church and its happy followers. Sounds great, right? There are just two problems with that.

The first is that, well, it didn’t happen. And the second is that Joachim of Fiore wasn’t even around to see his prediction fail! As we said, he was born in about 1135, according to historians. And wouldn’t you know it—he died in 1202. So he got his followers all excited about the nirvana-like apocalypse that would surely fall upon society and take us all to a higher plane, only to die sixty years before it happened! Not only did he leave everybody hanging, but he didn’t have to stick around to take responsibility for his phony promises. Devious![4]

6 William Miller

The Great Disappointment – US History – Extra History

In the early 1830s, a man named William Miller predicted that the world would end in 1843. And then it became 1844. And then he kind of hemmed and hawed on the specific date. Still, he was fiery and passionate and sure that the apocalypse would happen right around then.

Miller was a passionate preacher from upstate New York who knew how to draw a crowd. So, when he began very boldly asserting that Jesus Christ was due to return soon, people followed him. Those people came to be known as the Millerites, and they were one of the earliest and best-known apocalyptic religious off-shoots in the United States.

Throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, Miller held all kinds of tent revival meetings all across the country. He convinced hundreds of thousands of Americans that Christ was due to be resurrected at some point between the spring of 1843 and the spring of 1844. Again, he waffled a bit on the specific date, but he was absolutely sure it would happen somewhere in those twelve months.

His followers bought it all: hook, line, and sinker. They abandoned their homes and cities to follow Miller around. Others sold off possessions or otherwise prepared to meet their maker. And then (of course!) nothing happened. The spring of 1843 came around, and Jesus Christ didn’t show up. Then the months dragged on, the spring of 1844 ran its course, and still, no Jesus Christ. Eventually, Miller set a hard date for the absolute return: October 22, 1844.

However, when that didn’t happen, either, people who hadn’t bought into his claims started to ridicule him. Miller and his followers, then derisively termed the Millerites, became the laughingstock of the news media. The word “Millerite” even became something of a meme in its time to mean people who are duped into believing apocalyptic ideas.

Eventually, Miller’s followers mostly faded away and went off to do other things. After all, if a guy promises the apocalypse for well over a decade and picks out several dates on which it never happens, what else can you do? As they say: fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice… well, you know.

Anyway, William Miller landed on his feet. Even after his followers ditched him, he ended up playing a key role in forming the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He never again earned as much national acclaim for his own personal beliefs, though.[5]

5 Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola and the Bonfires of the Vanities

Girolamo Savonarola was a well-known Dominican friar living in Florence, Italy, in the 15th century. He preached often and aggressively about leading an ascetic lifestyle and eventually came to lead a robust and unsettling period of moral reform known forever after as the “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Beyond his calls for secular withdrawal and moral reform in what he saw as over-the-top communal focus on worldly possessions and status, Savonarola was also very well-known for preaching about the impending apocalypse! To hear him tell it straight from his mouth during the latter half of the 15th century, the Second Coming was right around the corner… if only everybody would just do as he said!

Savonarola’s public rise really started in 1494. That year, King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and threatened to take Florence. Savonarola used that invasion to claim that the end times were upon them. Then, while the Florentine people expelled the ruling Medici family, Savonarola rose to lead a republic based on clearing out church-wide corruption and secular influence.

He swore that Florence was going to become the new Jerusalem and would soon rise to become the center of the Christian world. In turn, he enlisted the help of the young people of Florence to become activists and moral crusaders on his behalf. They engaged in an extremely aggressive moralistic campaign to rid Florence of sin and everything else in order to prepare for the apocalypse.

Down in Rome, the Catholic Church didn’t like that very much. In 1495, Pope Alexander VI asked Savonarola if Florence would join them in their fight against the French. Savonarola turned him down, and he was summoned to Rome. He disobeyed the order, though, and went on preaching his campaign of the end of Catholic Church corruption and the bonfires of the vanities.

Pope Alexander eventually excommunicated Girolamo in 1497. Then, the following year, another Florentine preacher challenged him to a trial by fire. That turned into its own fiasco, and Florentine people started to turn against him. By late April of 1498, Savonarola was imprisoned, and his movement of Florentine youth was pretty much quelled.

People moved on to other religious movements or returned to the more standard offerings of the mainstream Catholic Church. In turn, religious fervor died down quickly around Girolamo. It further hurt his cause that the apocalypse never did show up like he’d promised. The Catholic Church showed up, though—and they didn’t forget what he’d been up to before.

On May 23, 1498, they hanged Savonarola and two of his supporting friars, then burned their bodies in the main square of Florence. Not a bad reminder to keep everybody else in line, now, is it?[6]

4 The Fifth Monarchists

The Fifth Monarchists in England and Their Biblical Inspiration

The execution of King Charles I in January of 1649 marked a major turning point in England. But it wasn’t just the change of ruler in such a violent and shocking way that was on call at the time. In a growing subset of believers, the execution of King Charles I was a sign that the Kingdom of God was upon the earth, and the apocalypse was imminent, with the Second Coming of Christ supposedly right around the corner.

The men who followed these beliefs came to be known as the Fifth Monarchists or the Fifth Monarchy Men. They held significant sway in the Commonwealth of England from 1649 through about 1660. Basically, the Fifth Monarchists were named as such in honor of the Book of Daniel. In that biblical text, a prophecy claims that the Four Monarchies of mortals would precede the Fifth Monarchy, which was to be the establishment of the Kingdom of God upon the earth.

The execution of King Charles I was thus supposedly the sudden end of the Fourth Monarchy. Then, the Fifth Monarchists claimed that the subsequent two major events in English history—the institution of the Protectorate in 1653 and the 1660 Stuart Restoration—were sure signs that the Fifth Monarchy was on its way. Interestingly, even Oliver Cromwell was an early sympathizer of their beliefs until the 1653 Protectorate swept in.

Of course, it wasn’t, but that didn’t stop the men from believing it to be the case. The English leaders at the time were the ones keen on stopping the men, though. Fifth Monarchists were actively persecuted by both the Protectorate and the Stuart regime.

The best-known Fifth Monarchist, Major General Thoams Harrison, was executed in October 1660 for his beliefs. Many of the rest of the Fifth Monarchist’s leaders were then executed after they participated in Venner’s Rising of January 1661. The group dissolved from there with no apocalypse in sight![7]

3 The Shakers

An Introduction to the Shakers

The Shakers were a religious group founded in the 18th century and had somewhat similar notions to the much better-known Quakers. Considering the time period, the Shakers were remarkably progressive in terms of believing in then-advanced notions of gender and racial equality. They also believed in communal living, where everybody in the community helped out with every task.

Children and young people were raised in a communal style, and everybody in the community had a say in how things were run and how the entire group was governed. Sounds pretty good, right? At the very least, it sounds pretty peaceful. And for the most part, it was. While the Shakers weren’t major players in the American religious movements of the 18th century, they did find some success in drawing converts.

Oh, yeah, that’s the other thing: They had to draw in converts because they didn’t believe in procreation. No, really. One of the Shakers’ core beliefs was in celibacy. Specifically, they wanted to be celibate because they believed that the end times were coming, the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and they would only be granted access to the Kingdom of Heaven if they didn’t do it.

So, instead of procreating happily and making many more little Shakers who could continue the religion, they stayed out of the bedroom altogether. While they waited for the Second Coming, they would adopt orphaned children in need and/or take in wayward people looking for a different way of life.

That’s all good and fine, but a lack of procreation certainly makes it hard to continue a religion’s momentum from generation to generation. And it didn’t help that any adopted children were (very generously) granted the right to leave the Shaker way of life altogether if they wanted to do so when they became adults.

That’s very kind and, indeed, very progressive for the time. But again, those customs don’t exactly bode well for keeping the religion going. And then there was the fact that the apocalypse never came, either. Unbelievably, there is still a Shaker community active today. It is very, very small, though. And nearly 300 years later, the Second Coming still hasn’t shown up to whisk them all away.[8]

2 Jan Matthys

Catholic History: The Munster Rebellion (1533-1534)

Jan Matthys was born in 1500 in Holland and, as a young adult, converted to become an Anabaptist. At the time, the Anabaptists were controversial in northern Europe as an off-shoot of Christianity. Among other things, they believed in getting rid of infant baptisms. And they very badly wanted to reform the ways of those living in Holland, Germany, and other places so as to prepare for the supposedly imminent Second Coming of Christ.

This attracted Matthys to the cause in the 1520s. He was converted to Anabaptism by a man named Melchior Hoffman, who also converted thousands of other people. Then, Hoffman was imprisoned for his views. That might have worked as a clue to Matthys that he was going down an unpopular road, but he didn’t stop. In fact, he expressly rejected one thing Hoffman had believed in: nonviolence.

Matthys took over the Anabaptist push as its new leader. He thought that the only way to truly promote Anabaptism and bring about the Second Coming of Christ was by meeting oppression with resistance of their own. As you might expect, local governments were not thrilled by this. But Matthys went about his business anyway.

In January 1534, he and a group of Anabaptists stormed the German city of Münster, which was at that point in time the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire’s Prince-Bishop of Münster. Matthys swore that Münster was the “New Jerusalem,” and he was keen on baptizing adults there in order to prepare for the apocalypse. Soon enough, over a thousand adults in Münster were actually baptized. The plan was working!

And then, uh, it wasn’t. The expelled prince-bishop waged his own war on the fortified city and fought back hard. Matthys had previously prophesied that God’s judgment on the wicked would take place on Easter Sunday in April 1534. So, when the siege came, he and his followers were certain that God was on their side and would strike down the prince-bishop. Believing themselves to be disciples, Matthys and only twelve of his followers attacked the prince-bishop’s holdings.

Very soon in the fight, Matthys was, of course, killed. God never showed up, or if he did, he didn’t make his presence known. Instead, the prince-bishop dismembered Matthys, stuck his head on a pike, and nailed his genitals to the city door. Matthys’s fellow surviving Anabaptists took the hint from there and faded off into the distance, admitting to themselves that the Second Coming was not, in fact, on their doorstep.[9]

1 Hong Xiuquan

Hong Xiuquan: The Taiping Rebellion

Hong Xiuquan was born to a Hakka family in Guangdong, China, in 1814 and would become one of the nation’s most infamous revolutionary leaders. He would also become its most notable false prophet, who erroneously believed that the apocalypse would occur in his lifetime. After failing the high-pressure series of imperial examinations as a young man in the 1830s, Hong started claiming that he had seen very specific visions of God.

In those visions, Jesus Christ came to him as his brother (yes, really) and asked him to rid the world of demons and demon worship. So Hong rejected Confucianism, which was very popular in China at that time. In its place, he demanded that people worship a fusion of Christianity and Daoism. And he started aggressively preaching about the Second Coming of his brother, Jesus.

To Hong, this mix of Christianity and Daoism was supposedly going to restore the ancient Chinese faith in the deity Shangdi. So there was a historic Chinese foundation for what otherwise would be seen as some pretty crazy beliefs. Enough people started following him that Hong eventually founded the God Worshipping Society along with a pal named Feng Yunshan.

By 1850, the society had more than 10,000 followers, and it was starting to worry the leaders of the Qing Dynasty. Then, in January of 1851, the breakthrough came: Hong organized a rebel army. His group of fervent men stormed Jintian, routed Qing forces, and succeeded in what would infamously become known as the Taiping Rebellion.

Now in power after the Qing leaders fled, Hong declared himself the Heavenly King of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace. His rebels weren’t quite so peaceful, though. They routed more Qing forces and captured the city of Nanjing in March 1853. There, Hong withdrew to his new palace and began to rule through harsh and sometimes contradictory proclamations. He even grew so suspicious of another Taiping leader of his who had been a very close ally for years that he had the man murdered.

He then instituted a vicious 1856 purge of supposed dissidents. The Qing fought back, however, and by 1864, Hong’s kingdom was quickly losing influence. In June of that year, Hong fell ill and died; Nanjing fell to the Qing a month later. And, of course, Hong’s “brother” Jesus Christ never returned to earth to see any of it take place.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen