It turned out to be a pretty nice day, actually. I was invited to three rapture-themed parties, and we all had a good laugh about the May 21st doomsday prophecy of Harold Camping, the 89 year old charismatic responsible for the apocalyptic prediction. Between the throng of Camping's followers spreading the word around the globe, and the habitual jokesters of social media reveling in the absurdity of the prophecy, it made for quite a phenomenon.
But in the wake of this mirthful saturday, Camping's followers face a brutal reality. Some have alienated their families, others have left their jobs, still others have liquidated their assets to warn the world of their imagined catastrophe. Many of us have wondered what we might do if we knew the world were coming to an end. In Camping's followers, we have some experimental evidence. And the question now is, what's next for these disappointed followers? Will they lose their faith in Camping? Will they lose their faith in God? Or will they delude themselves into thinking that somehow the events of saturday (or more accurately, the non-events of saturday) are some kind of confirmation for their worldview? No doubt reactions will be diverse, but it will be interesting to watch. There have been many religious leaders who have predicted the end of the world, but few have gained so much traction as this one. Where many apocalyptic groups have lived on secluded compounds, Camping has managed to foster a global following.
But how could such a prophecy capture so many minds? Why are people so willing to trust in these sorts of far-fetched scenarios, when the same people are so dubious about scientific findings backed up by massive amounts of evidence? That question may be too large to answer here, but we can tease out some explanations.
The most obvious explanation is fear. The end of the world is a very scary idea, especially when we imagine it to be at the hands of God. There is no escape from God's wrath, and the certitude of the True Believers is enough to give anyone pause. But of course, the doomsday prophecy also offers salvation. If you pray hard enough, do enough good, tell everyone you know to repent, you might be chosen to ascend to Heaven while the rest of the Earth is consumed in unimaginable turmoil. Sounds like a no-brainer. Even if you have some doubts, you might as well take Pascal's Wager, and try your best to be one of the chosen.
Undoubtedly, Camping's followers are somewhat in the dark about the history of doomsday predictions. There have been many over the years, and so far the doomsday soothsayers are batting zero. Camping, as you might imagine, has dismissed all the other attempts to predict the end of the world, deriding their methods as bogus. But his so-called calculations are the ones we should really follow (and never mind his own failed doomsday prediction back in 1994). Perhaps Camping's followers are bamboozled by these supposed "calculations." They may not have believed Camping was actually conversing with God, but if you arbitrarily assign numbers and values to cherry-picked events in the Bible, tie them together with esoteric numerology, all of a sudden that sounds like science. And who can doubt a science-based reading of the Bible? Interestingly, these True Believers are likely skeptical of real science (Camping himself is a young-Earth creationist), but they are perfectly happy to use scientific-sounding arguments to back up their own beliefs about the Bible.
It's difficult to determine just how many people took Camping's prediction seriously, but there must have been several thousand at least. Camping's organization is worth as much as $80 million by some estimates, funded by the contributions of his fervent supporters. We can feel sure that they represent a tiny percentage of the American population, but what sets them apart is not an obsession with the apocalypse, but merely the idea that the date of the apocalypse can be discerned from Biblical numerology. Consider this astonishing statistic: according to a recent Pew Research Poll, 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return to Earth by 2050. You read that right.
A number of questions arise from this astounding figure. What does that say about the percentage of American Christians who have embraced End Times theology? It turns out about 54% of American Christians subscribe to this worldview. What are the political views of this group? How do they feel about nuking Iran? Are they concerned about global warming? Do they think gays are evil? Do they believe in science? And why will Jesus return by 2050? What evidence is there that He will come in this lifetime, versus say, 2075, or 2100? Or 3100?
Many End Times believers will cite a foreboding sense that things are really starting to fall apart now. All the floods, earthquakes, wars, etc. Well, maybe they're on to something. It's strictly anecdotal evidence, but perhaps we really are seeing an uptick in natural meteorological disasters. After all, increasingly violent storms are a predicted result of climate change. But are things really worse than they've ever been? I wasn't around in the 1960s, but I would guess those were some pretty scary times. We faced a real apocalypse during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Let's also not forget the threat of Germany and Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. The fate of the world really did hang in the balance during World War II. So why do people think things are falling apart now? Well, it's a safe bet that we're more scared by the things that actually threaten us than the things that threatened our ancestors. Hitler threatened to take over the world, and succeeded in conquering most of Europe, but he's not too scary to me here on the other end of 66 years.
Even so, we do face significant challenges in the 21st century. Climate change is real, and it has yet to be addressed adequately. Nuclear weapons remain a serious threat to the survival of humanity, and it's clear that the obsession with nuclear weapons as a national status symbol has yet to subside. We are facing energy and food shortages as the population continues to expand. But for those who expect to be magically lifted into Heaven at some date in the not-so-distant future, these problems may not be of much concern. Today the Middle East is a hotbed of violence, and tensions over Israel remain high. But for 41 percent of Americans, that may be good news... according to the prophecy, this is all leading up to the return of Christ. Maybe we should help these developments along.
So, maybe Camping's followers were just a fringe element, and we shouldn't pick on them too much. But End Times theology remains a major force in the United States, and it has some disquieting implications.
In spite of a certain satisfaction that comes with failed prophecies, and the relief of having a regular day on May 21st, I feel badly for Camping's supporters. In blindly following their teacher, they have turned their lives upside down. It seems likely that they have been poorly educated. As for Camping, it's hard to know whether he really believes what he's been preaching, or if he is just the latest in a long line of charismatic con artists. But his followers just longed for salvation, and feared for the lives of their loved ones. They may have been misguided, but their intentions were good. And in 2011, it is not difficult for people to consume bad information. The polarized news channels, the niche media outlets, the proliferation of the internet, and irresponsible programming from seemingly trustworthy sources, all make it very easy. Pseudoscience is everywhere, and it can spread like wildfire.
Anyway, I'm glad we're all still here.