In case you haven’t heard, the world is supposed to end at midnight on December 21—this year.
At least, that’s according to some popularized interpretations of what the Mayans said. But predictions of the end times are hardly a new or unusual thing. For Christians, prophecies of an imminent apocalypse are just about as old as the Church itself. Those predicting the end were an eclectic lot, with wild ideas and strange teachings. They include an antipope, a saint who rode the devil like a donkey, and cultish charismatics who dressed like harlots. Some were inspired by their false interpretations of the fantastic visions in the Book of Revelation, calling to mind G. K. Chesterton’s remark that [t]hough St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.
Here are just a few of the greatest—and ultimately false—predictions of the apocalypse from Church history:
Montanus, 2nd Century: Suspected of demon-possession and accused of wearing makeup like harlots, the heretical Montanists stirred up the Asian churches in the second century AD, even ensnaring the early Christian writer Tertullian. Their founder, Montanus, was a former priest in the Eastern pagan cult of Cybele, a fertility goddess. After turning to Christianity, Montanus would reportedly go into frenzied states of ecstasy in which he claimed God was speaking directly through him. He predicted the end times were imminent and infamously declared the center of modern-day Turkey to be the New Jerusalem, which the author of the Book of Revelation had envisioned as descending out of heaven. The two leading prophetesses of Montanism also made extravagant end-time predictions. One of them, Maximilla, warned of an impending time of warfare and anarchy—which never came to pass, as contemporary Christian critics were quick to point out.
Montanists were a motley crew. They believed the apocalypse was imminent and told their followers to prepare accordingly. Fasts were harsher and longer than was the norm; penances were more severe; and they denied the priestly absolution of some sins after baptism. But they were also lax in other areas. Women’s ordination was allowed. Usury was permitted and salaries were issued to its teachers—the latter being a practice derided by other Christians, who essentially said it resorted to greed to help spread false teaching. Montanists also stood out for their bizarre behavior and appearance. They dyed their hair and used makeup on their eyelids—inviting unflattering comparisons with harlots.
Ultimately, Montanus and one of his chief prophetesses died as a result of their ecstatic states, according to an account quoted by Eusebius, a fourth century Church historian: “But by another kind of death Montanus and Maximilla are said to have died. For the report is that, incited by the spirit of frenzy, they both hung themselves; not at the same time, but at the time which common report gives for the death of each. And thus they died, and ended their lives like the traitor Judas.”
St. Hippolytus, 3nd Century: Antipope, saint, and martyr, St. Hippolytus of Rome used math and exegesis to predict that the end of the world would come at 500 AD. St. Hippolytus started with the assumption that the six days of creation foreshadowed six millennia of human history. He then used the dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant to infer that the birth of Christ had come 5,500 years after the dawn of mankind. He believed this was backed up by a reference to Christ’s crucifixion occurring at the sixth hour in the Gospel of John—the sixth hour being a half a day and therefore equivalent to an increment of 500 years in the timeline of human history. All this led to the conclusion that humanity had just half a century after the time of Christ before the world came to an end. His account of the final days of mankind is laid out in striking detail in his book The Work on Antichrist.
St. Hilary of Poitier, 4th Century: An epic clash between a saint and a heretical emperor in the mid-fourth century led the former to conclude that the apocalypse was at hand. Other than Athanasius, perhaps no one worked harder to exterminate the Arian heresy than St. Hilary of Poitier. But his efforts ran afoul of pro-Arian Emperor Constantius II, who banished him to Phrygia, which is modern-day Turkey. St. Hilary denounced him in the most damning terms imaginable for a Christian—he accused him of being the Antichrist. He wrote: “The time for speaking is come; the time for silence is past. Let Christ now appear, for Antichrist has begun his reign. Let the Shepherds give the alarm, for the hirelings have fled. Let us lay down our lives for our sheep, for thieves have got into the fold, and a furious lion is prowling around it.” Far from abandoning his criticisms of Arians, St. Hilary ramped up his attacks on the heresy. He also composed a major treatise on the Trinity, earning him recognition as a Doctor of the Church. But when it comes to the end of the world, the man known as the Hammer of the Arians got it wrong. Just how wrong is not clear: St. Hilary is commonly credited with fixing the end of the world at 365 AD, although it’s not certain from his writings that he actually committed to a specific date.
St. Martin of Tours, 4th Century: St. Martin of Tours is a towering figure in early Christendom, known for leaving the Roman army to become a monk whose life was marked by many miracles and other extraordinary events. St. Martin reportedly raised two from the dead, deflected a fire from a house, and even changed the devil into a donkey, riding him into Rome. When it comes to end time predictions, St. Martin was no less dramatic. A disciple of St. Hilary, he apparently shared his master’s conviction that the Antichrist had arrived, telling his future biographer “that there was no doubt but that Antichrist, having been conceived by an evil spirit, was already born, and had, by this time, reached the years of boyhood, while he would assume power as soon as he reached the proper age.” Given the timeline of his biography, that would have put the end of the world on or about 400 AD.
Year 1000: In 1,000 AD, all Europe was convulsed by an apocalyptic fervor, fueled in large measure by the assumed eschatological significance of the first millennium coming to an end. Debts were forgiven, criminals were released from prison, lovers admitted to cheating, commerce screeched to a stop, and farms fell into disuse as livestock were liberated and people stopped working, according to various accounts of the panic and piety that swept the continent. Suicide rates skyrocketed in an effort to ease anxiety over the apocalypse—or mounting guilt over sins soon to be punished on Judgment Day.
Many, expecting Christ to return to Jerusalem, sold their lands and possessions and journeyed eastward, according to the nineteenth century writer Charles MacKay:
Knights, citizens, and serfs traveled eastwards in company, taking with them their wives and children, singing psalms as they went, and looking with fearful eyes upon the sky, which they expected each minute to open, to let the Son of God descend in his glory. Every phenomenon of nature filled them with alarm. A thunderstorm sent them all upon their knees in mid march. It was the opinion that the thunder was the Voice of God, announcing the Day of Judgement. Fanatic preachers kept up the flame of terror. Every shooting star furnished occasion for a sermon, in which the sublimity of the approaching judgement was the principle topic. [sic]
Meanwhile, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Sylvester huddled with the faithful to offer a last Mass on December 31, 999. The scene is vividly described by the writer Frederick H. Hartens:
Though his face was pale as death with excitement, he did not move nor did his hands tremble. The midnight mass had been said, and a deathly silence fell. The audience waited. Pope Sylvester said not a word. He seemed lost in prayer, his hands raised to the sky. The clock kept on ticking. A long sigh came from the people, but nothing happened. Like children afraid of the dark, all those in the church lay with their faces to the ground, and did not venture to look up. The sweat of terror ran from many an icy brow, and knees and feet which had fallen asleep lost all feeling. Then, suddenly the clock stopped ticking! Among the congregation the beginning of a scream of terror began to form in many a throat. And, stricken dead by fear, several bodies dropped heavily on the stone floor.
Needless to say, the dreaded moment came and passed. And the Pope simply dismissed the crowd with a blessing.
Joachim of Fiore, 12th Century: Apocalyptic prophesies did not end with the Year 1,000. In the 12th century, an Italian mystic and monk named Joachim of Fiore reportedly spent months “wrestling” over how to interpret the Book of Revelation before claiming to have had an epiphany over its hidden meaning. Joachim ended up developing a whole theory of history, which he divided into three ages, each corresponding to a person of the Trinity. The first age, of the Father, was chronicled in the Old Testament. The second age began with Christ and was expected to draw to a close around the year 1260. Afterwards would come the third and final age of the Spirit, a new world order of justice and love in which the clerical hierarchy of the Catholic Church was no longer necessary. Instead, the world would be ruled by contemplative monks.
Joachim even drafted a constitution for the new universal Christian society that he envisioned, spelling out strict rules for the dress, duties, and permitted possessions for the various members of this new society and assigning animal mascots to the various social groups that would exist within it—such as a dove for the oratory of ruling monks and sheep for the laity.
In his time, Joachim was a highly regarded figure. Richard the Lionheart conferred with him before the Third Crusade and Dante believed he had been “endowed with prophetic spirit,” saving a spot for Joachim in paradise. But his radical departure from official church teachings made some kind of an official rebuke inevitable. Ironically, it was his innovative writings about the Trinity—not his apocalyptic prophesies—that earned his teachings the formal condemnation as heresy by the Fourth Lateran Council. However, the council spared Joachim any personal condemnation, noting that he had submitted his writings to Church authorities for evaluation. The council also went out of its way to avoid casting any aspersion on the monastery at Flora that Joachim had founded (he’s also known as Joachim of Flora.) And so, his followers, known as Joachites, persisted—several of them issuing revised and updated forecasts for the end of the world after the apocalypse failed to materialize in 1260.