2012: Beginning of new year, or beginning of the end?
Some predict that, by the end of this year, the Earth, as we know it, will end.
Tidal waves will level cities. The sky will burn. Nuclear reactors will melt. Volcanoes will roar. Humanity will suffer.
The 2012 predictions popularized in movies, books and the Internet stem partly from a belief that the Maya foretold that the world would end on Dec. 21, 2012.
Many Maya scholars have their own predictions.
"All of this will resolve itself, I guarantee you, by 2013," said Stephen Houston, a professor at Brown University and an expert on Maya civilization. "I can safely prophesy to you the world will not come to an end."
For years, pop culture has been building up to the end of the world in 2012, the year that a more-than-5,000-year-long Maya calendar cycle finishes.
But scholars generally agree that the Maya an advanced Mesoamerican civilization that peaked about 1,200 to 1,300 years ago did not predict that the world would end this year. Even so, 2012-apocalypse fever has flourished, fueled in part by a long human tradition, in and outside religion, of believing the end is near.
"It's not just a religious impulse," said Philip Barlow, professor of religious studies at Utah State University. "It's a human impulse to want to know the future and be assured about it or sensationalize it."
Fact and belief
Commotion about 2012 may just be the latest expression of this innate desire to know the future.
It's an idea whose origins can be traced partly to more-than-1,000-year-old Maya references to the end of a calendar cycle that began in 3114 B.C.
That is where fact turns to interpretation.
Many have taken these references as evidence that the Maya, known for their astrology, pegged the end of the world at December. Some are serious about that prediction, writing books, buying survival supplies and warning the world. NASA has even dedicated a Web page, under its frequently-asked-questions section, to explain why the world will not end in 2012.
Still others have taken a more lighthearted approach. Three years ago, John Cusack starred in a disaster movie about it, fittingly titled "2012." Salt Lake City's latest EVE celebration included a musical stage loosely modeled after a Maya temple called the Temple of Boom. And during the last week of December, the hashtag #HowtoEnd2012 was trending on Twitter in Salt Lake City, with some joking that the label was in error (saying it should have read #HowtoEnd2011) and others describing what they would do when the world ceased.
Many scholars see no indication that the Maya thought the end of the calendar cycle would mean Earth's demise. Some believe one Maya monument in particular contains a prophecy about the date, Houston said, but that's an issue that remains unresolved.
"At least to me," he said, "there is no evidence of any prophecy as to what's going to happen at that point."
Instead, to the Maya, the end of the cycle represented little more than the conclusion of one unit of time, much as we might think of the end of a month, the end of a year or the end of a millennium.
The Maya didn't view it as an end to time itself, Houston said. A scene in a pre-Columbian Maya book known as the Dresden Codex, he noted, does seem to show a kind of apocalyptic event, but it's unrelated to 2012.
Houston said the cycle now coming to an end is just one of many smaller and larger cycles within the Maya calendar.
"It's like getting overwrought when the week we're in is coming to an end when you know there's a month, you know there's a year, you know there's a millennium," Houston said.
Besides, said Allen Christenson, a professor of pre-Columbian art and literature at Brigham Young University, the Maya religion focuses mainly on creation and rebirth. Christenson is an expert on Maya religion, which is still practiced today.
"They don't think of the world as being in linear time," Christenson said. "They think of it as a cycle. Everything is constantly repeating itself."
Religion and the end times
The idea of 2012 as the end might be the latest manifestation of apocalyptic thinking, but it's certainly not the first.
Many other examples are rooted in religion.
The earliest Christians believed Jesus Christ would return in their lifetimes, said Barlow, the USU religious-studies professor.
"Gradually," he said, "they adjusted to, 'Oh well, maybe we'll have to reinterpret. We're in this for the long haul.' "
Similarly, many Americans were thinking about the end times in the 19th century. The Seventh-day Adventist movement traces its roots to a Baptist American preacher who predicted that Christ would return in the 1840s, Barlow said. And Jehovah's Witnesses emerged in the 1870s and believe that humanity is now living in "the last days."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also was born in the 1800s. Many early Mormons, like the earliest Christians, felt Christ's return was imminent, Barlow said, though that idea eventually faded as an all-consuming, central mentality.
Still, Latter-day Saints and other Christians expect, at some point, the end times. Mormons stock food in their homes in case of an emergency. The practice, Barlow noted, also has historic ties to apocalyptic thinking.
Among Christians in general, the apocalypse is more prominent in some denominations than others. The notion often has a stronger resonance among evangelicals than among more liberal Christian denominations, Barlow said.
Many evangelicals carry a more literal belief in the events of the apocalypse as described in the New Testament. It's a scenario that generally includes true Christians suddenly disappearing from the Earth, or being raptured, to be with God, while the rest of the world undergoes seven years of tribulation capped by the battle of Armageddon. That, they believe, will then be followed by 1,000 years of peace, at the end of which the devil will be destroyed, said Greg Johnson, president of the Standing Together Ministries coalition of evangelical churches across the Wasatch Front.
The idea of the rapture has spawned a series of popular books, called Left Behind, about those who remain on Earth after the rapture.
"It's something we do believe could happen," Johnson said.
Jesus and predictions
Despite this long religious history of apocalyptic views, most aren't buying the notion that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012.
They are not putting any more stock into it than other, similarly ominous predictions in recent years, including that the year 2000, or Y2K, would bring doomsday. And few Americans took seriously predictions by Family Radio host Harold Camping that Judgment Day would happen on May 21 or Oct. 21 last year.
Mormons generally believe that no man can predict the timing of the end, Barlow said. Some Latter-day Saints might be interested in the 2012 prediction because they have historically been conscious of the last days and because they believe Christ visited the ancient Americas, he said, but they wouldn't buy that 2012 is the end because of the Maya calendar.
"There are specific scriptural injunctions in the New Testament that are put into the mouth of Jesus that the Mormons take seriously, that no person knows the hour or day when the end time is coming," Barlow said, "so [Mormons] would be dubious and have been dubious in their history about any specific predictions or calculation like that."
In fact, senior LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer counseled young Mormons last October to live their lives and plan their futures without undue concern about the looming end times.
"Sometimes you might be tempted to think as I did from time to time in my youth: 'The way things are going, the world's going to be over with. The end of the world is going to come before I get to where I should be.' Not so! You can look forward to doing it right getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren."
Johnson said super-specific predictions of the end also tend to raise a red flag among evangelicals, who cite the same New Testament passage from Matthew 24:36 as Mormons: "But of that day and hour knoweth no [man], no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."
"Generally speaking â¦ those types of things are frowned upon," Johnson said. "We just shouldn't get into the prediction business. We should live our lives each and every day as if [humanity has] 1,000 years left to live on this planet."
Still, the end of the Maya calendar has sparked many people's imaginations as end-of-the-world predictions often do.
"What you're looking at is a weird mishmash or amalgam of New Age hallucinations and a feeling of quiet desperation in a time that we're passing through that seems very unstable and uncertain," Houston said, "and it's natural, I think, for people to seize on what they regard as ancient wisdom as somehow declaring our present course."
At the very least, he said, it's a teachable moment.
"It's seen by [scholars] as a chance to invite people to look more carefully at how the Maya are intrinsically interesting," Houston said. "They have this ravishingly beautiful artwork, architecture, cities that aren't far from the United States, that are easily visited and that's really the more interesting story."
Learn more about 2012
Some people believe the world will end in December, partly because a more-than-5,000-year-long Maya calendar cycle finishes then. But scholars generally agree that the Maya did not predict the world would end this year. To learn more about the myths and facts surrounding 2012, go to http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html.