As viral videos and various tabloids tell it, September 23, 2017, will mark the end of an age. Depending on your taste, the date will either bring forth a collision between Earth and a rogue planet or a world-changing celestial alignment that heralds the End of Days.
A word of historical and scientific advice: Don't cancel your plans for the rest of September.
Both space-tinged doomsday prophecies reflect two separate efforts from evangelical Christian groups, neither of which enjoy broad support among Christians.
One of the claims, championed by self-published author David Meade of Wisconsin, says that on September 23, Earth will encounter a supposed rogue planet called Nibiru, according to his disputed work on Biblical numerology.
Meade’s prediction is the latest spin on the Nibiru conspiracy theory, with roots dating back to the 1970s. Originally, this rogue planet was supposed to collide with Earth in 2003. However, an uncooperative cosmos forced conspiracy theorists to reschedule for 2012. (See artists' miniature models imagine a world without humans.)
Five years later, the planet still poses no threat, because it doesn't exist.
“Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax,” NASA said in a 2012 statement. “If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth … astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye.”
At the same time, an evangelical Christian publication called Unsealed has argued that the Book of Revelations foretells a September 23 alignment of several planets, the sun and moon, and the constellations Virgo and Leo. They claim the alignment heralds the era leading up to the Rapture, the moment when Christians believe the devout will vanish from Earth to join Jesus in a new paradise.
The alignment in question will actually happen. But the significance of the astronomy is debatable. The Biblical sign depends on the number of stars in play, and even astronomers don’t agree how many stars officially make up Leo. Some star charts count nine, while others—including National Geographic's star atlas—count ten. (Find out more about September's can't-miss sky events.)
How unique is this alignment? Again, the details are murky: For a couple of days in September or October every year, the moon passes near its supposedly foretold position.
This year’s alignment doesn’t seem particularly unusual, says Colgate University emeritus professor Anthony Aveni, who specializes in the study of astronomical practices in the ancient world. What’s more, Virgo wasn’t incorporated into Hebrew astronomy until after the New Testament was written, he notes.
But Aveni emphasizes that he’s not interested debunking apocalyptic claims. Instead, he wants to understand their cultural roots. For instance, U.S. religious and cultural traditions are steeped with millenarianism, which focuses on prophecies and apocalypses.
According to Aveni, these types of claims also seem to grow out of people getting bored with—and actively resisting—the natural world’s penchant for randomness, opting instead for narrative clarity.
“Everybody wants to know the chemical composition of the burning bush, or where exactly is the Ark of the Covenant … we want the final story, the bottom line,” he says.
Ultimately, all efforts to decode the universe for signs of foretold doom come down to interpretation. And for millennia, humans haven't shown an accurate knack for it, as National Geographic reported in 2009:
- In 65 A.D., the Roman philosopher Seneca warned that the planet would “burn in [a] universal fire.” While Vesuvius buried Pompeii in lava and ash 14 years later, the end wasn't exactly nigh for the entire planet.
- Many 17th-century Christian Europeans worried that the world would end in 1666, a year containing the ominous Number of the Beast, described in the Book of Revelation.
- The 1910 arrival of Halley's comet whipped some citizens of Rome into such a frenzy, they stockpiled oxygen tanks, fearful that the comet's tail would poison Earth's atmosphere. (Also find out why Newton believed a comet caused Noah’s flood.)
- On May 5, 2000, the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn aligned in the sky—a conjunction that some authors claimed would bring about earthquakes, volcanoes, and a sudden onslaught of melting ice. It didn’t.
- Since 2008, the Large Hadron Collider has fixated conspiracy theorists with fears that the particle collider would spawn a world-ending black hole. Billions of particle collisions later, the world remains safely uneaten.
- Much ado was made out of December 21, 2012, the end of the Maya long-count calendar—but the frenzy was about nothing. Scholars reject the very idea that the calendar’s end was designed to signal the apocalypse at all.
In sum: Nibiru doesn't exist, the skies are anyone's to interpret, and the apocalypse has long been elusive. In all likelihood, we'll see you on September 24.
The nickname for this cosmic object—the Sunflower galaxy—is no coincidence: The arrangement of the spiral arms in the galaxy Messier 63, seen here in an image from the Hubble Space Telescope, recalls the pattern at the center of a sunflower.