There’s a lot of money to be made in predicting the end of the world. Take, for example, the case of Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster and self-proclaimed biblical scholar whose end-time predictions brought in millions of dollars to his organization, Family Radio. In 2009 alone, Family Radio received $18 million in contributions, and as Camping’s May 21, 2011, deadline for Judgment Day approached, hundreds of devout listeners emptied their bank accounts to help him spread the word. Naturally, this left many families broke and Camping fabulously wealthy.

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Needless to say, Jesus didn’t make his long-anticipated earthly return on 5/21/11, the righteous didn’t float on up to Heaven and the world didn’t end in a fiery, horrific cataclysm – all of which had been foretold by Camping. But since he isn’t shy when it comes to predicting the Apocalypse (on two earlier occasions, Camping had set the Day of Judgment for May 21, 1988, and September 6, 1994), he simply guessed again: This time it would happen just five months later on October 21, 2011 – which, as you probably know, also passed without incident. After mistakenly predicting the end of the world four separate times, Camping has now decided that no mere mortal can know the date of the Rapture for certain. Unfortunately, that realization hasn’t brought about the return of his followers’ money.

For centuries, self-proclaimed prophets have sought to swindle the faithful by claiming a special knowledge of sacred texts. In doing so, they tap directly into a pre-existing belief system and thus are perceived as credible when they would otherwise be seen as untrustworthy or simply mad (imagine if Camping had gone around trying to convince people that the world was coming to an end based on his interpretation of a bus schedule rather than the Bible).

This same basic principle can be seen in some of the predictions and theories surrounding the 2012 phenomenon. While many well-intentioned scholars and theorists have weighed in on the subject, they unfortunately get lumped in with the con men (and con women) who are using the popular modern conception of the Maya – as a mysterious and wise civilization with eerie ties to the occult – to lend credibility to their outlandish theories. Once that credibility has been established, it’s a lot easier to sell books, line up speaking engagements and separate the gullible from their hard-earned money.

But what did the Maya themselves intend with this whole 2012 thing? Nearly every current prediction for the Earth’s demise (or massive, transformational event) is rooted in the Mayan calendar’s “end date” of December 21, 2012. However, the Maya themselves are long dead – and since they weren’t trying to sell books or incense or magic crystals, their specific thoughts on the subject are infuriatingly vague.

Before we take a tour of the various scenarios that some believe will play out on the 2012 winter solstice, let’s examine the basics regarding that particular day.

The Maya are revered for what many see as their preternatural understanding of mathematics, astronomy and time. Indeed, for a civilization that reached its height well over a thousand years ago, the Maya managed to establish an incredibly elaborate and accurate system for tracking the passage of time. The Mayan calendar is at the heart of the 2012 phenomenon in part because, all these years later, we still have no idea how they did it. Their basic cycle was the Tzolk’in, which had a 260-day count (a time period similar to the period of human gestation). The Tzolk’in was used in conjunction with the Haab’, which had a 365-day count. The two calendars synched up once every 52 years and usefully kept track of specific days and events.

However, to track longer periods of time, the Maya used the so-called Long Count calendar, which follows a 5,125- year cycle that began (when correlated with modern calendars) on August 11, 3114 BC, and ends – you guessed it – on December 21, 2012. This is the root of the many Maya-related doomsday prophecies, the idea being that these wise, mysterious people created a calendar that kept impeccable track of time for over 5,000 years and then abruptly stopped – so surely they must have foreseen the end of the world or else the calendar would have kept on going.

Yet scholars and skeptics are quick to point out that 12/21/12 doesn’t signify the end, since the Maya thought of time as cyclical. Thus, they naturally believed that time would continue in the next cycle.

But wait, a 2012 adherent might proclaim, you’re missing the point: Of course time and the universe will continue into the next cycle, but we here on Earth won’t; hence the Maya end date, since once we’ve been destroyed, we won’t be needing any more calendars. Which is valid enough, as far as it goes – but many scholars also believe that, far from a cause for trepidation, the Maya viewed the end of a cycle as something to celebrate. Still, the doomsday scenarios abound because, as we’ve seen, death sells.

So how exactly will the Earth bite it in 2012? There are far too many cataclysmic scenarios associated with the Mayan calendar to examine here, everything from massive solar storms to an alien invasion (and some even believe the Maya themselves were aliens who came here to help prepare us for the new age of global harmony that will kick in after 2012).

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However, a few scenarios in particular have really caught on with the 2012 crowd. One such theory involves the Earth’s magnetic poles suddenly – and catastrophically – changing places. Theorists claim that this has happened many times over the last 76 million years and is bound to happen again. (What’s more, we’re supposedly long overdue for such a reversal.) Some people claim that the process has already begun, as the Earth’s magnetism is gradually weakening. However, if it occurs suddenly instead of gradually, the pole shift could trigger earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that would leave most of us very dead.

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Another scenario that sets 12/21/12 as the date of global cataclysm involves a massive collision with “Planet X,” also known as Nibiru – supposedly a large heavenly body orbiting the sun at the far reaches of the solar system, on a collision course with Earth. Despite the fact that this planet’s existence has been thoroughly debunked by scientists around the world, some people still believe that Nibiru is out there. Attempts to inject reason into this scenario are generally met with fervent claims that NASA is involved in a far-reaching cover-up of the evidence that this deadly planet exists.

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Can’t We All Just Get Along Once A Large Portion Of Us Die Horribly?

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Some 2012 theorists don’t foresee the end of the world occurring on 12/21/12; instead, they view the final day of the Mayan calendar as the beginning of a new cycle that will usher in an era of global harmony. Unfortunately, many of these theories still involve a rather intense thinning of the planet’s current population. However, on the bright side, those who survive will live together happily in a new age of peace and prosperity. These folks liken the whole process to human birth, in which the bringing forth of new life is intrinsically accompanied by pain. According to these theorists, the best way to ensure that you’re on the winning team is to get with the program early: start living a positive, forward-thinking life, and prepare for an existence devoid of the so-called technological “advances” that impede our innate ability to relate to others in a profound and authentic way.

The truth is that no one knows for certain what December 21, 2012, has in store. While it’s likely that date will bring about nothing more noteworthy than the year’s shortest period of daylight (as it does every winter solstice), apocalyptic visions will continue to proliferate – an indictment of sorts of our society in and of itself. Ultimately, it’s up to us to examine the evidence and draw our own conclusions. In the process, however, beware of false prophets bearing prognostications of doom, as history is filled with opportunistic swindlers and con artists using the sacred (or the esoteric) in an attempt to cash in.