For example, in the 15th century, the French cardinal Pierre d'Ailly used biblical verses as well as the top scientific predictor of the day--great-conjunction astrology--to say the end of the world was not in his time but in a few centuries from then (the 17th century or so, if I remember correctly). Obviously, it didn't happen then. D'Ailly's goal was more to alleviate the stress he felt from fearing the end was coming because of the near civil war going on in the Catholic Church when there were at one time three rival popes all declaring themselves the real pope (see the Great Schism). But not everyone else.
Jim West has recounted an interesting story from the early Reformation period concerning the Anabaptists. This particular group from the early 16th century in the town of Munster was incredibly nuts by any standard. Their leaders shunned all worldly knowledge, they were themselves poorly educated, and when they took control of the town they burned all the books in the city library, save the Bible (or course). Instituting polygamy and wife swapping, the main figures declared themselves king, the town the New Jerusalem, and you can bet they saw themselves as making the Kingdom come. Their charismatic leader, Jan Matthijs, thought himself invincible, so when the combined Catholic and Protestant armies came to regain control of the town from the Anabaptists, Matthijs left the city walls to fight and was killed almost instantly. Oops!
One can also mention the Millerites in America. They predicted the end of the world twice in the 1840s, and failed both times. That group has now become the Seventh Day Adventists and don't predict exact days for the end times (though they say it's coming). The Taiping Rebellion in China also has apocalyptic fervor, leading to millions killed in the mid-19th century. And lest we forget, there was good ol' Hal Lindsey whose 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth predicted the end of the world for 1988. Damn that Ronald Reagan! Well, that didn't quite happen, but Hal is still talking about the Apocalypse as coming around the corner. Hey, he may not be wrong this time!
I have hardly covered all the failed predictions of the end of the world by various Christian figures and groups, but it gives a context to place yet another such collection of people. I mention this new group, the Family Radio broadcasting ministry, because they have been putting up billboards all over the country, and recently have come to my university with signs, pamphlets, and all. They even brought the kids. Education? Not when the Rapture is coming in less than a month! Wait, that soon? Well, no wonder their enthusiasm. They predict the end will come on May 21, 2011. And that is the day after Draw Muhammad Day, so God has good planning.
So, how did this group come up with their calculation? First, they figure the Great Flood happened in 4990 BCE (they use BC, but I have to piss them off), and that because a day is a thousand years to God, there is 7000 years between this even and the Second Coming. From another verse concerning the Flood, that event took place in the second month on the 17th day. So, looking at the Hebrew calendar, they find that Iyar 17 is May 21 this year.
How do they figure the Flood happened in 4990 BCE? It's strange considering Archbishop Usher figured that the world was created in 4004 BCE, so I wonder what their calculation is. If there is about a thousand year difference in time between events, that will throw a wrench into the calculating machines. Moreover, why seven thousand years? Why not one thousand years, or ten? Beside, the Bible does not say 1000 years is a day to God, but that 1000 years is like a day to God; making exacting calculations from a simile is a bit silly. And why take the date from the Flood? Why not from the Crucifixion? It looks like a lot of work just to get a date close to modern times.
Oh, and getting an exact day, that rather unbiblical. Again, Jesus said in Mark 13:32 that no one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven or the Son. If Jesus' doesn't know, then how does some pastor? Strange that this verse isn't mentioned in the pamphlet. Hal Lindsey at least had an interesting way out. He didn't say what day the end way, just what week! Such logic is so irritating, it makes you think that God would delay the Apocalypse just to mess with Hal.
Nonetheless, the interesting part will be when the day passes and everything is running like it did the day before, just as it happened every single time the end was predicted. I suspect one of two things will happen. First, the group will recalculate the date of the event; that is what the Millerites first did. But when that fails again, the second possibility will take place. The prophecy will be reinterpreted. Perhaps the end did happen, and Jesus actually did come back but no one saw him. That is what preterists believe, that Jesus did come back in 70 CE. Jehovah Witnesses are similar, except Jesus came to rule in 1914. I would bet that this new group will due something along these lines eventually. What they likely won't do is give up their faith. The sociological evidence is compelling that that is the very thing we can expect not to happen if this group has other things to fall back on. Considering that Christian beliefs are far more complex than just hoping for the end times, there is plenty for the group to keep them together and find a way to work about this disconfirming evidence. However, I do have to worry about the kids. I doubt there will be something like Jonestown or Waco, but who knows what sorts of mental issues they may have in such an organization.
So, I'm looking at May 21 as a good date to have a party. It is a Saturday, and if worse comes to worse, at least I had a good last time before all Hell breaks loose. Unless there isn't a Hell anymore...