The big question looming over QAnon: What happens after March 4? Rick Loomis/Getty ImagesThursday could be a big day. On March 4, Donald Trump will be triumphantly returned to power to help save the world from a shadowy syndicate of Satan-worshipping pedophiles – or at least that is what a small fraction of American citizens believe. But before you circle the date and dust off the MAGA hats, a note of caution: We have been here before. Adherents of the same conspiracy theory, QAnon, had previously marked Jan. 20, the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, as the big day. As Biden ascended the steps of the Capitol to take the presidential oath of office, tens of thousands of adherents of QAnon were eagerly awaiting the imminent arrest and execution of Democratic politicians in a “storm” that would upend the social and political order. It didn’t happen. In the aftermath of this disappointment, some disillusioned QAnon followers left the fold. But as evidenced by the new date of March 4 – chosen because it was the day for presidential inaugurations until the 20th Amendment was adopted in 1933 – some hardliners claimed they had simply gotten the date wrong. When – or if – that date too passes without incident, a new date may emerge. It might be thought that enough failed predictions would eventually discredit a prophet. But as a philosopher of religion, I know history suggests a more complicated set of possibilities. Apocalyptic movements rarely simply dissolve when prophecies are seen to fail. Indeed, such crises have in the past presented believers with fertile opportunities to reinterpret prophecies. They have even strengthened movements, giving rise to new theories that attempt to explain the shortcomings of earlier ones. The Millerites This dynamic played out nearly 180 years ago with the Millerites, members of a 19th-century evangelical Christian movement who were part of an earlier “Great Awakening” in U.S. religious history. A Baptist preacher, William Miller drew on biblical texts and numerology to predict the imminent second coming of Christ. Although Miller did not initially claim to know the exact date, he and his followers offered various predictions. As each passed without incident, the Millerites redid the Biblical math to propose new dates, until finally the movement settled on Oct. 22, 1844. As the expected second advent drew near, many Millerites gave away their possessions in anticipation of Christ’s return. A caricature of a Millerite awaiting the end of the world. Library of Congress When Oct. 22 came and went without incident, the Millerites were left to reconstruct a worldview that acknowledged what came to be called the “Great Disappointment.” Miller’s followers concluded not that the Scriptures and numerology on which they had based their predictions were false, but simply that they had misunderstood their meaning. In one view, what the predictions foretold were not earthly events, but heavenly ones. Millerism did not collapse; rather, elements of it were central to the establishment of Seventh Day Adventism, a rapidly growing Protestant denomination that continues to look forward to Christ’s return. Crisis point Looking at how the Millerites dealt with their Great Disappointment gives an insight into how believers navigate what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “epistemological crises.” These are moments when the way someone understands the world is thrown into question by events that don’t fit expectations. Epistemological crises are not unique to religion. Anyone who has experienced heartbreak in a relationship, or felt the rug pulled out from under them when unexpectedly fired by an employer, knows that they are a fact of life. Such a crisis undercuts a person’s ability to tell the kind of story about themselves that gives order and meaning to life….