The odds are infinitesimal, but the reality is some people take this very seriously. Several religions predict some kind of end times, rapture, or rebirth. Certainly if you watch the news, one cataclysm seems to follow another these days. We live in strange, extraordinarily eventful times and that's producing a lot of apocalypse anxiety.
If you let your mind go there, the world can seem like its speeding out of control. From a record swath of twisters in the Midwest to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The destruction looks biblical in scale. The landscapes left behind are almost apocalyptic. And it's not just nature turning against us. Technology has brought us closer together. And yet, we've never been more divided.
The world has become a boiling cauldron of religion and politics. To many, all hell is breaking loose. Quite literally.
St. Thomas theologian John Martens has written a book about our fascination with the apocalypse in films and television, from cult classics like "Blade Runner" to over the top blockbusters like "2012."
"If you look historically at apocalyptic movement, it crescendos when there've been changes in cultures, when there's been changes in civilizations, way people deal with change is managing their fear," said Martens.
For Christian's, the blueprint is found in the book of revelation, and its final confrontation between good and evil. A time of unprecedented natural disasters and wars, ending with the return of Christ, the banishment of the wicked, and a new earth.
Language that can be interpreted literally, or as Martens recommends, as metaphor.
"When you look at the text 'dragon sweeping half the stars from the skies. It's clearly using figurative language and symbolic, so I think the attempt to predict the end of the world from revelation is problematic," he said.
That's not stopping Harold Camping, who runs a satellite radio service and is predicting the rapture will happen in just a few days, may 21, 2011 at 6 p.m., precisely, in all time zones.
"If you are rejecting May 21 and you don't want to talk about it, you are not fearing god," Camping claims.
Camping and a whole caravan of followers scattered across the country say the May 21 date comes from Noah's flood, which they estimate occurred at 4990 B.C. He interprets seven days in revelations as referring to seven thousand years. Thus, 7,000 years after the flood makes it year 2011 -- and he doesn't like it when his calculations are challenged. He abruptly ended our interview upon any questioning it.
Others believe we have at least a little more time. That the earth's expiration date is really, December 21, 2012, they say. This belief is based on the ancient Mayan calendar.
"I see New Agers kind of co-opting things here," said professor Skip Messenger, an expert in Mayan studies, who says the date is calculated from one stone slab, at one set of ruins in Guatemala.
The calender stops at the end of a 740,000 year cycle, the Mayan's called Baktun 13.
Baktun 13 "represents a new cycle started. It doesn't represent the end. It represents the beginning of the new cycle and the end of the old one. We'll all be standing around wondering why the world didn't end because of these tremendous hoaxes," assures Messenger.
Astronomer Parke Kunkle says it's not just skepticism, its science. That the Mayan prediction the earth will be struck by a rogue planet, or will line up with the sun and center of the milky way, just isn't lining up.
"Me, looking at the coffee cup on the moon, is like looking at the black hole at the center of galaxy to say that we're lining up with that is just so ludicrous," said Kunkle.
But what about all those natural disasters, from Haiti, to Pakistan, Indonesia to Japan?
Are we actually seeing more natural disasters now? "I think the big question is: Since when?," said Kunkel, "Since when are we counting?"
historian Jamie Bluestone-Stephenson says nature hasn't changed, but we have. Exponential population growth means in the 21st century far more people are killed or displaced from natural disasters than ever before. And for the 24-7 media, the body count is how we measure disaster.
"If you're looking at history of the earth geologic time, the things we are watching are very normal and very much part of nature," she said.
Is it unusual for us to look for broader meanings in earthquakes? "Absolutely not. People have been looking for broader meanings in earthquakes tsunamis, fire and floods for millennia," Bluestone-Stephenson said.
Since the crucifixion of Christ, Christians have been waiting for the rapture. For others, it's a Mayan Timex. There
is now even an iPhone app, counting down to the apocalypse.
If you get a date in people's heads, people will be interested and looking on. Some people might be holding breath but everyone will be paying attention.
Because in so many ways, it really is humanity's existential question: "How will this all end?" Perhaps the better question, at least a more useful one, is "Why are we all here to begin with?"
Scientists are studying several cataclysm's that really could end or disrupt life on earth, as we know it. Topping the list is a killer asteroid, like the one that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Good news is, scientists have cataloged most of the near-earth asteroids big enough to wipe us out. Chances of this happening in the 21st century are literally one-in-a-million.
When you have a star explosion in our galaxy, that could send a gamma-ray burst towards earth that would wipe out our atmosphere. That's believed to have caused a mass plant and algae extinction on earth 450 million years ago.
Finally, a killer volcano is possible. Look no further than Yellowstone National Park. It's last super eruption there, 640,000 years ago, covered most of North America with ash. So another is due in just 60,000 years.