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Cover of the tract Strange Events Forecast for 1982
The vanity of comets

Posted on 15 February 2013, 18:03

Today sees the rooftop-rattling flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14, a 50-metre chunk of space rock half the size of a football pitch. At 7.24pm (UK time) it’s going to miss hitting Earth by just over 17,000 miles, 5,000 miles closer than the SatNav satellites.

To get an idea of why it’s a good thing not to have an asteroid smacking into your planet, a rock the same size gouged out the mile-wide Baringer Crater in Arizona when it dropped from the sky 50,000 years ago, and another exploded in the air over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, flattening 80 million trees in a blast thought to be 1,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima.

Collision with asteroids is a popular form of apocalypse these days, along with zombie attack, neither of which feature very much in the Bible’s versions of Last Things. The 1998 movie Deep Impact, for example, had a 7 mile wide comet steering for Earth to trigger an ‘extinction-level event’.

Talking of comets, the heavens won’t be finished with us when 2012 DA14 flies back off into space tonight. That’s because the comet ISON is set to skim the sun on 28 November.

ISON is currently being touted as a once-in-a-civilisation sort of comet. ‘The comet could outshine the moon,’ muses Brian Cox in The Sun (that noted journal of heavenly bodies), ‘with a spectacular tail sweeping across the night sky.’

Back in 1974 when I was a teenager, I was severely ticked off by comet Kohoutek, which was similarly hyped up but turned out to be a dud. This has given me a lifelong suspicion of the vanity of comets.

The soothsayers of fundamentalism are already pitching ISON as Jesus’s very own firework display in celebration of the second coming. It’s a bizarre meeting of astrology and theology.

WND Faith lists the comet as a ‘celestial sign of things to come’ and links it to four total eclipses of the moon, which are apparently set to happen in 2014 and 15. It’s during one of those eclipses that ‘the Second Coming of Christ will likely occur’. I hope Harold Camping is taking notes as he reads this.

Meanwhile, over on the somewhat excitable Above Top Secret website, the comet will be just one event in the Great Tribulation described in the book of Revelation. The website gives us the schedule: ‘Nov. 16, 2013 kicks off Trumpet 5 and starts the 1st woe. Comet ISON is scheduled for an appearance at this time – this is the false “sign of the son of man in heaven”.’

Comets have been seen from pre-history as terrifying signs of impending change and disaster. Along with eclipses, they pointed to the deaths of kings, the outbreak of plagues or the coming day of doom. They caused fear and panic in the mouths of caves when we still lived in them, and later on the streets of ancient cities from China to Babylon to Rome.

These visceral beliefs were reinterpreted by monotheism as the righteous judgments of God. Because comets disrupt the regularity of the heavens, they must come from the hand of God as portents of disaster on Earth. They’re especially at home in apocalyptic writings – as brought to us by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, the book of Revelation and Jesus himself. Apocalyptic stocks its horror shows with falling stars, blood-red moons, fire from heaven, brimstone falling into the sea, the sun extinguished.

I’ve kept hold of a wonderful tract I found in the late 1970s about the line-up of the planets which took place in 1982 (pictured above). After predicting that the conjunction could cause storms on the sun, earthquakes on earth and even (shudder) disruption to TV programmes, the tract urged the following message on its readers:

‘All this means that the coming of the Lord is drawing very near. By 1982 our world could be feeling the wrath of God in the coming time of tribulation.’

The second coming – that most sci-fi of all Christian beliefs – did not happen on the strength of lined-up planets in 1982. And Jesus will not return riding on comet ISON (like the final scene in Dr Strangelove) in 2013. But that won’t stop Christians from co-opting comets and asteroids into their dark fantasies of doom for the next few months.

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We know what happened when Halley’s Comet appeared in 1066, but let us not forget what is recorded in The Saxon Chronicle for 793:

This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.

Brian Barratt, Sat 16 Feb, 02:38

I have happy memories of the oncoming visitation of comet Kohoutek. I was at St John’s College, Nottingham, at the time, learning everything there was to learn about Holy Writ. I seem to recall an evangelist David Moses* (and the Children of God) became very excited about its promised appearance. Publishing some very lurid tracts, which likened the comet to a giant phall… (that’s quite enough – ED).

*Whatever has happened to him?

taffy davies, Sat 16 Feb, 00:37

Unless, of course, God pulls off a sneaky double bluff and Jesus rides in on Comet ISON because that is precisely what all the theological experts are saying he won’t, of course, do.

Huw, Fri 15 Feb, 19:23

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