The band REM sang about the end of the world as we know it, and they felt fine. In fact, many people not only feel good about the world ending, but actually welcome it with open arms, often joining with others of like mind to predict, plan, and prepare for the demise of humanity and the extinction of existence. But why? Who in their right mind would want the world to come to a crashing halt, taking all of life with it?
Just recently, an end of the world prediction for July 29th went bust. A group calling itself End Times Prophecies predicted a solar flip, which would lead to an apocalyptic chain reaction ending all life. Never happened. Days later, another prophesized end was all over the place, courtesy of a YouTube psychic named T. Chase who warned the world of the apocalypse to come in the year 2017…complete with a giant alien spaceship invading earth, shooting out death rays upon humanity. Chase went on to predict that Jesus himself would lead an alien army in UFOs against Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, who will start the third world war. This alien army will stop us from extincting ourselves in a nuclear showdown.
Chase claims he gleaned this revelation from, well, the New Testament Book of Revelations (specifically chapter 19) and the teachings of Nostradamus. But fear not, because according to Chase, the alien-army of Christ will win and we will all be happy living under a one-government confederation (New World Order?)
These are not the first predictions of end times, and they certainly won’t be the last. Prophecies of the end go back probably as far as the beginning, when the first humans pondered their own mortalities and wondered how long their like would hold up against vicious animal predators, wicked natural disasters and marauding tribes. But to actually form a club, or a cult, with a leader whose sole purpose is to drive his or her members to their deaths in a pre-emptive bid on immortality? That’s more of a modern thing. Remember the followers of a man named Harold Camping? In May of 2011, the then 89-year-old self-claimed scriptures expert stated the world would end on the 11th day of that month. It didn’t. Yet he ended up making millions of dollars off of believers and those who had hopeful expectations of the end. You could say, end times predictions turn a good prophet, I mean, profit. Just ask all those who benefited off of the alleged Mayan Calendar end date of December 21, 2012. Or maybe I should shut up because I wrote a book about the entire shebang that did quite well (although in my defense I wrote about the mythologies and predictions and not that I thought they would come true. I never did!)
Doomsday cults, also known as Apocalyptic Cults, or End Times cults, usually have at their basis a fundamentalist religious belief system that focuses on the literal interpretations of symbolic and metaphorical texts. This unhealthy focus on the final destruction of earth leads some of them to mass suicides in an attempt to be taken elsewhere before the apocalypse occurs. Two such cults that made the international news were the Guyana/People’s Temple, led by Jim Jones, and Heaven’s Gate, led by Ti and Do, which occurred right in my own area. But before we get to them, a little more background into these cults in general.
There are two basic types of belief systems driving doomsday cults; apocalypticism and millenarianism. Apocalypticism suggests there will one day be an apocalypse that will end the world in a fiery global catastrophe, resulting in the end of civilization itself. Some groups believe they will be spared, or that if they commit mass suicide first, their souls will be taken to heaven before the rest of the wicked ones on Earth perish in agonizing suffering.
Apocalyptic end times cults often believe in a messiah and that their own leader is that messiah, following him or her blindly to their own deaths. The leader may instead claim to be a representation of God’s will on earth or an offspring of the messiah, but some are so arrogant as to claim that title for themselves. In fact, many Biblical scholars refer to Jesus Christ as a type of apocalyptic messiah prophesying the end of the world for the Jews and a final judgment day to be unleashed upon humanity. He was said to return on a cloud as the “son of man” and the divine judge during the end times spoken of in the Book of Revelation.
Millenarianism is a belief in a coming mass transformation of society by a specific event or catastrophe. This was a widespread force behind a lot of predictions surround the year 1000 A.D. and then again on 2000 A.D., or Y2K when religious sects and cults alike awaited doomsday, or at least utter technological breakdown that might lead to it. Christian millenarian cults await the Second Coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth and in Heaven that will free the oppressed and usurp the powerful status quo. Often this goal can turn to mass suicides or violent acts of terrorism, such as the acts of Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, The Manson Cult, The People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians (led by David Koresh). Other millenarian cults include the Cult of the Holy Spirit and The Living Church of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Cult of the Holy Spirit, Joachimites and the Lord’s Resistance Army.
There are some common tenets shared by these extremist cults.
- A charismatic leader who calls his/herself a God/Messiah/Messenger.
- A specific prophecy members must believe in and adhere to.
- A powerful and compelling argument for cult members being special and the chosen/saved.
- An exit strategy or plan should said prophecy not come true, or should the government crack down on them first.
When a prophecy doesn’t happen, the cult leaders are adept at deflecting criticism and coming up with a new end times date, usually admitting responsibility for misinterpreting a date or time during their “vision.” However, cults like Aum Shinrikyo go as far as to help bring about the very apocalypse they desire with acts of violent terrorism. This Japanese New Religious Movement founded in the mid-1980s by Shoko Asahara Aum, released the deadly gas, sarin, into the Tokyo subway system in 1995 and procured military grade weapons from Russia. Their leader was eventually sentenced to death for various criminal acts.
The term “doomsday cult” was first coined by John Lofland in a 1966 study of the Unification Church, titled “Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith,” which eventually became a book in 1966 published by Prentice-Hall. He examined methods of conversion of members, the charismatic characteristics of cult leaders and how members were kept from losing faith and straying outside of the cult.
His book was followed by numerous psychological studies asking why and how ordinary people could get sucked into something as crazy as a doomsday cult hell-bent on death and destruction. One such study, by Leon Festinger and his colleagues, later published in a book, “When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World,” found that people tended to turn to such cults and the concept of the world ending in their lifetime when their own lives were meaningless. They found a purpose and meaning in these cults, becoming a part of a group with a very specific outcome, and belonging made them feel special. This is the driving mechanism behind why most people, in general, join cults, but the promise of salvation amidst a coming extinction served as extra magnetic fodder for the lost souls looking for meaning.
The study, and others like it, also found that even as some members would leave the cult if the proposed end times date came and went uneventfully, others would stick it out, perhaps because they had already given up so much, they felt they had nothing to lose awaiting a new end date. This would keep members from humiliation and embarrassment of having to face the fact that they gave up their lives…for nothing.
To many suicide cult members, the promise of eternal glory elsewhere was so strong they didn’t even wait for the end date. They took matters into their own hands and took their lives in a mass ritual to find glory and salvation elsewhere. Heaven’s Gate was a UFO millenarian group in San Diego, California, that was founded in the 1970s by two enigmatic humans; Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. They became known as Ti and Do, The Two, Bo and Peep and a variety of other names signifying their leadership and intergalactic connections. They taught their members to give up all material possessions and that the only way to “level up” and be free of all human and earthly attachments, which brought suffering, was to be ready to board the Mothership. The spaceship was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp and coming to take them to the “next level,” and doing so required 39 people to poison themselves to death. That’s how strong their belief was.
As the UK Daily Mail reported, “All but three of the bodies were arranged neatly on their beds with their faces and torsos covered with a purple cloth. Each body had a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets and along with packed luggage at their sides. They mixed Phenobarbital poison into applesauce or pudding and then washed it down with vodka. They then tied plastic bags on their heads to asphyxiate themselves and speed their deaths. The followers, age 26 to 72, killed themselves in three waves March 24, 25 and 26. The survivors always neatly arranged their dead comrades’ bodies before committing suicide themselves.”
In 1978, the charismatic church leader Jim Jones called for an act of “revolutionary suicide” at the Jonestown agricultural compound in Guyana, resulting in the deaths of over 900 people, a third of whom were children, who took poison-laced punch and died at the hands of a clearly psychotic man who thought he was a messiah. Many were said to not want to go along with the suicide but were forced to do so at gunpoint. The Jonestown Massacre would go down in history as the deadliest non-natural disaster in history, until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In order to make people take their own lives, one must have a blend of a truly charismatic leader with so much charm and magnetism, people would follow him or her off a cliff, with a mission or purpose so compelling, that death by cliff would seem almost holy and sacred. Add to that a variety of mind control and brainwashing techniques such as coercive persuasion and intermittent reinforcement, and members don’t have much of a chance of leaving or even thinking clearly enough to contemplate it.
With complete control of their members’ minds and thoughts and behaviors, cult leaders can do anything, or make you do anything. Absolute devotion to a cult leader is equated with devotion to a deity or to God, and rules must and will be followed…or else. But the promise of salvation and being among the chosen few overrides the free will and instinct of people caught up in the fervor of end times proselytizing. Charles Manson had over 100 followers who hung on his every word…even committed murders for him. And he was nothing but a down on his luck musician who tapped into the emotions of the young and angry, the troubled and disillusioned. In them, he found his tribe and was able to manipulate them into believing in a coming race war that drove the violent acts of his most devoted followers. “Charlie,” as his cult members called him, is still in prison and gets thousands of “fan letters” every year from people who want to become a part of his “family.”
Sometimes, the government catches on and tries to stop a doomsday cult from bringing about doomsday…and yet bring it about anyway. Think of the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists Church, led by David Koresh, who went up against a coordinated siege by the FBI, ATF and Texas National Guard in 1993 that ended after fifty-one days in the fiery deaths of 82 members, including children. Koresh was also a musician, like Charlie Manson, who became a prophet and was accused of sexual abuse of young women followers, which led to the government investigation. The leaders of cults are not special people, but disillusioned people who come to believe they are special, and who have the ability to get others to believe the same.
In some cases, such as the followers of Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her Church Universal and Triumphant, founded in 1975, it was all about prepping – doing what was necessary to prepare for and survive a disaster such as nuclear war. In this case, Prophet encouraged the building of fall-out shelters in the late 1980s, anticipating a nuclear catastrophe that never came. She has since died.
The prepper movement, like the survivalists, plan for disaster and apocalypse, but with a bit more of a practical bent. Their mission is to be ready either by building bomb shelters or buying up tracts of land in remote areas to live off the grid, growing their own food, stockpiling guns or training in various survival and disaster prep methods. Without the religious obsession towards total Armageddon, preppers may go a tad overboard in the eyes of most of us, but to them, they are just being smart and getting ready for the inevitable government takeover, nuclear war, or clamp-down on Constitutional freedoms.
I belong to an organization called CERT – Community Emergency Response Teams. We are fully trained disaster responders under FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. I am trained in medical triage, disaster assessment, heavy lifting, urban and rural search and rescue, psychological trauma, crowd control, fire control, and a host of other things, including ham radio operations in an emergency. Does that make me a prepper? Sure it does. Does it make me a doomsday cultist? Nope. I am banking on a few disasters happening in my lifetime, and hope to be ready and able to respond…but I’m not waiting and hoping for full-on Armageddon.
I have too much to live for.
Marie D. Jones is the author of several books about the paranormal, metaphysics, and cutting-edge science (many coauthored with Larry Flaxman), including PSIence, The Déjà vu Enigma, Destiny vs. Choice: The Scientific and Spiritual Evidence Behind Fate and Free Will,11:11 The Time Prompt Phenomenon and Mind Wars. She has appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows worldwide, and on television, most recently on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Her website is mariedjones.com.