Plow through the next few paragraphs with me.
The fateful date—4 Ahaw, 3 K’ank’ in— is coming.
As it approaches, one can almost hear the grinding sound of the Mayan stone calendar wheels—the Long Count, the Tzolkin, and the Haab’— turning one against the other.
At night one can almost see the inky rift in the Milky Way, known to the Maya as “Xibalba Be” (the Dark Road), beginning to open.
On 4 Ahaw, 3 K’ank’in (December 21, 2012, by our reckoning), the five millennium-plus watch of the Long Count calendar reaches its end.
According to the Maya, that morning, for the first time in 26,000 years, the sun will rise precisely where Xibalba Be intersects the plane of earth’s orbit. This intersection forms a cross, which the Mayas consider an embodiment of the sacred tree, the tree of life.
All this sounds strange to our ears, indeed, weird, but not to the Mayas. They saw time as an ever-changing river, not of water, but of energy, ebbing and flowing, full of crosscurrents and eddies, making a sort of music as it flowed along. In their view, dates designated both a point in time and the energy signature of the universe at any one point in time. Viewing time as a river of energy, the Mayas considered their calendars to be prophetic, describing the flow of time and the energy state of the universe past, present, and future.
Surely the sophistication and complexity of Mayan mathematics make their predictions difficult to ignore. Their mastery of mathematics— they were among the earliest to use the concept of zero—and their careful observation of celestial objects enabled them to construct calendars (17 in all) based on the movements of the sun, moon, several planets, and even “precession,” the slight wobble in earth’s rotation that takes 25,800 years to complete!
The calendar that excites all the interest is the so-called Long Count calendar, which covers a period of more than 5,000 years. It moves in a series of cycles, each one 144,000 days long, called baktuns. Each cycle is at a higher level of energy than those that preceded it. This would be something like musical scales on a piano. If we start at C, as we move through the scale, every eighth white key is also a C but is an octave higher each time, vibrating exactly twice as fast as the C below it. On the Long Count calendar, every baktun is a new octave, with a consequent increase in the level of energy.
The Long Count calendar’s cycles, the first baktun, began in the year 3114 B.C., so the energy has been building up for a very long time. If the energy level doubles at each new cycle of the Mayan calendar, as it does with each octave on the piano, then that energy will have doubled 13 times, so that at the end of the thirteenth baktun, the energy state of the universe will have increased by 213 or 8,192 times the original!
According to Mayan belief, at the end of the thirteenth baktun, this cycle of the world’s history will come to an end, and the discharge of all that accumulated energy will occur at the winter solstice, 4 Ahaw, 3 K’ank’ in, which is on or about December 21, 2012.
The sheer scope of the Mayan Long Count calendar, combined with the many mysteries surrounding Mayan history and culture and our own openness to spirituality of all types, has stimulated much speculation concerning precisely what will take place on that date.
The Maya today
You may think that the Maya long ago ceased to exist, but their culture survives in remote areas of Central America. Some years ago, I found that out for myself in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. There, in front of the Santo Tomás Church, Mayan priests of the Ki’che’ tribe still burn incense and light candles, and sometimes they sacrifice a chicken. In fact, the church stands atop 18 steps, one for each month of the Mayan Tzolkin calendar.
In the marketplace, I found myself haggling with a woman over the price of a beautiful “bat-wing” style woolen cape for my wife. Our negotiations were hampered by the fact that she spoke Ki’che’ and knew less Spanish than I did. The Maya live on and are aware of the intense global interest their calendars have generated. Commenting on that interest, Carlos Barrios, who claims to be a Mayan elder and Ajq’ ij (a ceremonial priest and spiritual guide) of the Eagle clan, said, “Other people write about prophecy in the name of the Maya. They say that the world will end in December 2012. The Mayan elders are angry with this. The world will not end. It will be transformed.”
While that transformation may not mean the end of the world, it does sound very apocalyptic. “We are no longer in the World of the Fourth Sun,” Barrios says, “but we are not yet in the World of the Fifth Sun. This is the time in-between, the time of transition. As we pass through this transition there will be a colossal, global convergence of environmental destruction, social chaos, war, and ongoing earth changes.”
The “day of the Lord”
Anyone familiar with the Bible’s descriptions of the last day, the terrible “day of the Lord” (Jeremiah 46:10, KJV; 2 Peter 3:10), can recognize the similarities. When it comes to global environmental destruction, Revelation 16 describes seven plagues that result in global devastation: oceans, rivers, and springs of water turn to blood; the sun intensifying its heat; and a cataclysmic rain of 100-pound hailstones falling. Then there’s social chaos and war. Jesus Himself spoke of coming “wars and rumors of war,” and “nation will rise against nation,” and of “famines and earthquakes” (Matthew 24:6, 7).
The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah describes the last day as “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, a day of trumpet and battle cry” (Zephaniah 1:15).
The Bible also indicates that when this world ends, it will not disappear, but will be transformed. “ ‘Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. . . . The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 65:17, 25). That clearly describes a world that’s radically different from the one we inhabit today. It’s a world, to use Mayan elder Carlos Barrios’s phrase, “transformed.”
But unlike the Mayan predictions, the Bible does not see this new world simply being part of a new set of cycles. The Bible declares that in this new heaven and earth “God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:3, 4).
When it comes to the time of the end, the two prophecies differ in a fundamental way. The Mayan calendar, though calculated by hand several millennia ago, is actually more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use today, and it predicts a precise day for the beginning of this new cycle.
The Bible, however, tells us a much different story. While we can know that Christ’s second coming is near, we cannot know either the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36). And even if we did, it might not matter.
An object lesson
Charles Fitch felt certain that the world would end and Jesus would return sometime in 1843 or 1844. He based his conclusion on the teachings of William Miller, a New York farmer and veteran of the War of 1812, who in 1831 began preaching that Christ would return no later than March 1844. Miller drew this conclusion from a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Daniel.
Fitch encountered Miller’s teachings in 1838 and immediately accepted them, but opposition by colleagues led him to remain quiet on the issue. However, by 1840, Miller had transformed from an obscure New York preacher to become the leader of a powerful national movement. At this point, Fitch abandoned his silence and became one of Miller’s champions. On one occasion—and at considerable risk to his own reputation—he preached a fiery sermon that urged Miller’s followers to abandon the congregations that were hostile to them. He went so far as to identify these hostile churches as part of the corrupt Babylon described in Revelation 18.
When Christ failed to return between March 1843 and March 1844, some of Miller’s followers became disheartened. Not Fitch. In August of that year, a new interpretation of the biblical prophecies pointed to October 22 as the precise date of Christ’s second coming, and Fitch kept preaching, urging people to prepare, and baptizing new followers. Unfortunately, those final baptisms did him in. Following an outdoor baptism in the frigid waters of early October, he contracted pneumonia and died just eight days short of the expected end of the world.
The end came for Charles Fitch sooner than he expected.
And that should be a warning to us. Not only did Jesus declare that no one would know when He would return, what matters more to each of us personally is when our world will end. It’s easy for us to become so focused on the end of the world that we lose sight of where we are right now, today.
And there’s another mistake, just as serious. After all, the Mayans did not foresee the end of their own civilization, which occurred before Columbus came to the New World. If they didn’t see their own demise more than 500 years before the end of their own Long Count calendar, why should we think our predictions of the end will be any more accurate?
Over the centuries, numerous predictions of the end have come and gone. In recent years, Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping, among others, have made very specific predictions about the end. In the late 1990s, lots of people were agitated about catastrophes predicted to occur on January 1, 2000. All of those predictions failed. Camping predicted that Christ would return (or the rapture would occur) on September 6, 1994, then May 21, 2011, then October 21, 2011. All of these predictions also failed.
And it’s very likely that on December 22 the sun will rise on a world that looks much the same as the day before. This portends the danger that because of “apocalypse fatigue”—people becoming weary of all these false predictions—we will dismiss the whole idea of the end of the world.
Scripture foresaw this. Peter warned that in the last days, “Scoffers will come. . . . They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? . . . Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation’ ” (2 Peter 3:3–6). We wonder, Why is it taking so long? Unable to see the end, we despair and come to doubt that the world will ever end.
But that would be a mistake. “For . . . ‘he who is coming will come and will not delay’ ” (Hebrews 10:37). Knowing when the world will end matters far less than knowing that God is faithful and will fulfill His promises.
So will the end of the world occur on December 21? No.
Will something extraordinary happen? Wait and see!