You know how it is when you tell people a riveting story about a good movie or book or sporting event? They want to know how it turned out. So I waited to be sure it hadn’t really happened before I wrote about the most recent End of the World.
By now you have probably heard that Christian preacher Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer and self-taught biblical scholar whose broadcasts on more than 200 U.S. radio stations and two TV stations have brought him a devoted following and lots of money, prophesied God’s judgment day for Saturday, May 21st. It was to start in New Zealand and, by 6 p.m. EDT, reach us here in Washington.
Details were a bit fuzzy. Sometimes Camping spoke of a more gradual destruction of the Earth that would just start on the 21st. But some catastrophe was sure to get the (fire)ball rolling toward the world’s demise on that date.
Camping’s Family Radio Network bought space on billboards from coast to coast and printed millions of pamphlets about his doomsday prediction.
Camping told his flock, and anyone else who would listen, that he picked the date after somehow calculating that it fell exactly 7,000 years to the day after the first of 40 days and 40 nights of rain that, the Bible says, created a great flood that killed all of naughty mankind. The virtuous prophet Noah and his family, however, were spared. As told in Genesis, the Bible’s very first book, Noah, expecting the worst when the skies grew threatening, built a huge boat called an “ark,” on which he, his wife, his sons, and their wives — along with two of every other kind of animal that Noah herded aboard — rode out the terrible storm.
While some devout followers took Reverend Camping’s End of Time prediction quite seriously and made whatever preparations they could, most Americans made light of the idea. Some even threw raucous “Doomsday parties” raising toasts and cheering as the hour of reckoning passed uneventfully.
Others, including me, marked the occasion by informing our spouses that we wouldn’t be available for any household chores that day. Why cut the lawn if it and everything else would be swept away or incinerated by day’s end?
All the Doomsday angst recalled the days before the change of the calendar from 1999 to 2000, which a lot of people treated — apparently incorrectly — as a change of millennia. This set the world to buzzing with apocalyptic predictions and preparations. And for some time there have been other nonreligious visions of the End of the World, such as astronomer Carl Sagan’s prediction of a nuclear winter, in which life above the microbe level is destroyed when an atomic cloud halts photosynthesis.
Ted Daniels, a former psychotherapist who turned to the study of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, chronicled all this and more. Over seven years, he collected more than 1,200 examples of prophesies and predictions of apocalypse and salvation, many pegged to the turn of the millennium. He edited them down into chapters for a book, A Doomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors, and Hucksters of Salvation.
All doomsday prophesies say pretty much the same thing, Daniels told me, back around change-of-millennia time: “Clean up your act, change your behavior, or this awful thing will happen.”
Of course every doomsayer has been wrong so far. This includes the scruffy guy on the streetcorner with the “The End is Near” sign, and probably including Nostradamus, who is said to have predicted just about everything, including who will win the World Cup each year.
So Reverend Camping and those who believe every word of his doomsday scenario are the latest to have a credibility problem.
“They say, ‘Yeah, but this time is different,’” Daniels told me about End of Worlders generally. “‘This time it’s gonna happen. Look at the signs: the wars, the disasters, the earthquakes, the volcanoes, the huge storms.’”
Well, about the time of THIS end of time, volcanoes DID erupt again in Iceland. Terrible killer tornadoes DID sweep through the American heartland. No wonder even rationalists may be wondering, ever so quietly, if something apocalyptic might be up.
Al Allen, for instance, strikes me as the kind of guy who would want logical explanations, if not hard scientific proof, before he believed doomsday projections. He’s a retired chemist, after all. But Allen, who lives in Winter Haven, Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel that he’s a Harold Camping follower and was sure the preacher was right.
“This thing is a certainty,” he said. That was BEFORE last Saturday.
Whether he knows it or not, Allen — and Reverend Camping — may be flouting the New Testament with their End is Near talk, however. According to Mark Kolto-Rivera, a religious scholar whom the Sentinel interviewed, that book says “in black and white that no man and no angel in Heaven — only God — knows when [the End of the World] is going to happen.”
Broadcaster Camping shrugs off what he calls a “miscalculation” about Earth’s final day last Saturday. He told a crowd of journalists that he now views May 21st as an “invisible day of judgment” and that he was off by exactly six months in his prediction.
His recalibration pegs doomsday for October 21st.
Now that we have more time to prepare, here’s a clarification or two, provided by Ted Daniels.
Contrary to the popular notion, he says, “apocalypse” does not mean the End of the World. Rather, it’s a more drawn-out time called the “End Days.” “Apocalypse,” from the Greek, translates in English as “revelation.” That’s the title of the last book of the Christian Bible, whose near-to-final words are, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’/Amen. Come Lord, Jesus.”
Literally [“apocalypse’] means “an unveiling,” Daniels says.
And that’s crucial, I think, to almost all prophesies. The prophet comes back from what he takes to be contact with God or some superhuman source with a unique vision, a unique knowledge about what’s going to happen to the world and what people must do in order to get through that process.
The Book of Apocalypse [Revelations] is vivid in its description of the horrors, of the tribulation and the torments that the unbelievers, the unjust, are going to suffer at that time. Some of the believers, too, but they at least have the hope of martyrdom ahead of them. The rest of us, we’re in deep trouble.
As I mentioned, back around the turn of the millennium a decade or so ago, even more people than today got worked up about this sort of thing. Admittedly, the MOST excited seemed to be media folks looking for something offbeat, as well as comedians and street vendors who sold T-shirts.
Then as now, lots of folks associate apocalyptic events with nut-case fringe groups or far-out radicals living in yurts in the remote American West. But I came across a Newsweek poll that reported four in ten — 40 percent — of Americans, and 45 percent of Christians, surveyed believing the world would end in their lifetimes.
So a lot more than the far-out radical fringe gets stirred up when doomsday stories get beyond the sensationalist tabloids. No wonder Reverend Camping got so much attention. (Of course he bought some of it as well.)
“Ideas of an apocalypse are absolutely central to monotheism in general, Christianity in particular, and Americans above all,” Ted Daniels told me. “You cannot completely discard the idea of the Second Coming [of Jesus, to judge us, no doubt harshly in most cases, for our Earthly behavior] and still be a Christian. It’s pretty central. If you’re a Jew, according to [medieval Jewish scholar] Maimonides, you must accept that the messiah will come. Islam has essentially the same idea.” But, Daniels adds:
You will also find the Earth kind of running down and collapsing into general chaos and then starting over in a new golden age in both Hinduism and Buddhism. There’s no apocalyptic part there, because they don’t have the concept of sin. Therefore there’s no need for the battle [of Armageddon] between good and evil. It’s the process of the law of karma working itself through as far as they’re concerned.
While doomsday prophets seem like lunatics to nonbelievers, a lot of them — not to mention their followers — give every appearance of genuine belief.
According to the New York Times on the day before Harold Camping’s incorrectly predicted day of reckoning, “Thousands of people around the country have spent the last few days taking to the streets and saying their final goodbyes. They expect to be absorbed into heaven in a process known as the rapture.” Their convictions, the paper continued, “have frequently created the most tension within their own families, particularly with relatives whose main concern about the weekend is whether it will rain.”
In a separate story, the Times quoted pastor Dave Nederhood of the Christian Reformed Church of Alameda, California, not far from Camping’s broadcast headquarters in Oakland. “My concern is for the people who have bought into his lie and have sold their belongings, quit their jobs, left their churches and their families and now are sitting at home listening to Family Radio and waiting for the end,” Nederhood said.
Fortunately nothing worse, akin to the suicides of 39 members of a California religious cult called “Heaven’s Gate.”
In 1997, 21 women and 18 men were found lying peacefully, wearing tennis shoes and matching dark clothes, with no noticeable signs of injury. The cult had become obsessed with the comet Hale-Bopp, which was expected to pass near the Earth at the time. Heaven’s Gate members believed that an alien spacecraft was on its way, hidden behind the comet. In late March 1997, as the comet reached its closest distance to Earth, Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite and 38 of his followers drank a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and vodka and settled down to die over several days. They had been hoping to leave what they called their bodily “containers,” enter the spacecraft, and pass through Heaven’s Gate into a higher existence.
Four years earlier David Koresh, the leader of another sect, the “Branch Dividians,” died in a Waco, Texas, compound along with 54 other adults and 21 children during a fiery standoff with the FBI. “He had several opportunities to surrender during that standoff and never took it,” Ted Daniels told me. “He clearly convinced his followers that just about anything he said was as good as the word of God. That’s a pretty heavy talent.”
Asked by reporters if he feared that followers might harm themselves rather than face the terrible end that he has now thrice predicted — we didn’t mention another false alarm back in 1994 — Harold Camping responded, “I am not the authority.”
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Flout. To disregard, show contempt for, or even mock accepted rules or custom. The word is often confused with “flaunt,” which refers to showing off, as in the famous expression, “If you got it, flaunt it.”
Raucous. Loud, boisterous, disorderly.
Yurt. A circular, portable, tent-like structure favored for centuries by Central Asian nomads.