The End Is Nigh

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In an article in the December 2010 issue of Liberty, I alerted readers to the fact that a leading network of Christian radio stations was predicting that the end of the world was absolutely, positively going to happen in 2011. According to Family Radio, which broadcasts in many countries, and which probably has a station near you, Judgment Day will begin on May 21 with the Rapture of the true believers and will conclude on October 21 with the total destruction of the physical universe. In the process, almost all the inhabitants of the earth will perish.

This is the message of Family Radio’s “Bible teacher,” a retired businessman named Harold Camping. His interpretations of Scripture are explained — as well as I, or probably anyone else, could explain them — in the article just mentioned, “An Experiment in Apocalypse.” You can download it here. For a less critical perspective, see Family Radio’s own website, which offers a list of stations where you can hear the apocalyptic message for yourself.

For students of human nature, especially American human nature, this particular religious prediction is a matter of great importance, interest, and (let’s face it) fun. It is, for them, what a transit of Venus is to astronomers, what the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker is to ornithologists, what an eruption on the scale of Mt. Saint Helens is to volcanologists. It’s the kind of thing that happens much less than once in a generation.

Of course, experts, religious and secular, make predictions all the time, and other people believe them. Generals predict that if they are given appropriate resources, they will be able to accomplish their mission. Scientists predict that if their policy advice goes unheeded, the environment will be subject to further degradation. Politicians predict that if you vote for them, they will initiate a new age of prosperity for the American people, and if you don’t, you will be visited by spiraling unemployment and a continuing decline in the American standard of living. Preachers say they are confident that the signs of the times point to an early return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Economists assure us that if trends continue, we can expect to see whatever they themselves have been trained to expect.

According to Family Radio, Judgment Day will begin on May 21 with the Rapture of the true believers and will conclude on October 21 with the total destruction of the physical universe.

All these modes of prophecy are potent. They have effects. They get people’s attention. They lead some people to do things that otherwise they would not do — vote, go to war, buy a house, pledge more money to the church. But they are all escapable and forgettable. They never include a date on which something definitewill happen. What you see, when you look at the words and figure out what they really mean, is just a suggestion that something that is capable of almost any definition (“prosperity,” “job creation,” “depression,” “desertification,” “a world in which our children will have more (or less) opportunity than we do,” “the fulfillment of God’s plan”) will manifest itself at some time that is really not a time: “very soon,” “in our generation,” “by the end of the century,” “earlier than predicted,” “much earlier than anyone would have thought,” “with a speed that is startling even the experts,” “at the end of the day,” “eventually”).

Of course, the less definite a prediction is, the less meaning it has; but the more definite it is, the less likely it is to come true. Real economists and real theologians can tell you why. A real economist will show you that human events result from individual human choices, their motives unresolvable into quantifiable data, their possible sequences multiplying from the original motives in fantastic variety. Real theologians will tell you, in the words of the old hymn, that the Deity is not a writer of op-ed forecasts: “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; / He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”

Nevertheless, it is impossible that someone’s announcement that “California is more vulnerable than ever to a catastrophic earthquake,” or that “this administration will meet the problem of the deficit, and solve it” could ever be completely disconfirmed. If the big one doesn’t destroy San Francisco during your lifetime, as you thought had been predicted, don’t use your dying breath to complain. You’ll just be told that California is even more vulnerable “today” than it was “before,” because more years have passed since the last prediction. If the politician you helped elect disappoints you by not having “solved the problem,” whatever the problem is, you’ll be told that “our plan for the new America ensures that appropriate solutions will be implemented, as soon as Congress enacts them into law.”

How can you disconfirm the ineffably smarmy language of the exhibits in the California Academy of Sciences? Once an intellectually respectable museum, it now adorns its walls with oracles like this: “If we don’t change our actions, we could condemn half of all species of life on earth to extinction in a hundred years. That adds up to almost a million types of plants and animals that could disappear.” Should you decide to argue, you can’t say much more than, “If you don’t stop purveying nonsense like that, your museum has seen the last of me, and my $29.95 admission fees, too.”

Thirty years ago there was a considerable emphasis among mainstream evangelical Christians on the prospect of Christ’s imminent return. There was a popular religious song, urging people to keep their “eyes upon the eastern skies.” Less mainstream religionists said that all indications point to the probability that the present system of things will end in 1975. Meanwhile, a very popular book, Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? (1967), predicted that the world would soon run out of food; and scientists worried the world with predictions that “global cooling” would soon be upon us.

For students of human nature, especially American human nature, this particular religious prediction is a matter of great importance, interest, and (let’s face it) fun.

Among these predictions were a few that, wonder of wonders, actually could be disconfirmed, and were. Though no one said that the Egyptians (often thought to be especially “vulnerable”) would begin starving to death precisely on May 21, 1975, some people came close enough to saying that; and events showed they were wrong. Yet there are escape routes available for all predictors, even those proven to be wrong. Two escape routes, really: memory and interest.

Jesus knew about this. He told his followers that no man knows the day or the hour of his Return, but that people would always be running around predicting it (Mark 13:32, Luke 21:8–9). The failed predictions, which seemed so snazzy before they failed, wouldn’t really be perceived as failures, because the failures wouldn’t be remembered, or considered interesting enough to be remembered. Watch out for predictions, he said.

There are two things going on here. One is that people die, and their enthusiasms die with them — often to be revived by the next generation, before being forgotten again. Quack medical treatments, as someone has pointed out, have a generational life, and so do quack economic and religious treatments. The Bates Eye Method, a way of using exercise to improve your eyesight, doesn’t work, and when people find that it doesn’t, they abandon it. They eventually die, and another group of people “discovers” the great idea, wants to believe it, and makes a big deal out of it, temporarily. The phony (and I mean “phony” not in the sense of “mistaken” but in the sense of “created to make money and impress people”) religious ideas of the I Am Movement have had a similar life cycle among New Age types. And when it comes to economics, where would we be without such recurrent notions as the idea that unions are responsible for “the prosperity of the middle class,” the idea that the minimum wage lifts people out of poverty, and the idea that general wellbeing can be created by forcing the price of commodities up by means of tariff regulations?

The gullible people who endorse such ideas often die with their convictions intact, although they may not succeed in passing them along to others, at least right away. In April we witnessed the death of the oldest man in the world, a gentleman named Walter Breuning. Before his death at the age of 114, Mr. Breuning gave the nation the benefit of his more than a century of experience and learning — his belief that America’s greatest achievement was . . . Social Security! Yes, if you retire at 66, as Mr. Breuning did, and collect benefits for the next 48 years, I suppose you might say that. But it’s an idea that’s likely to be ignored by people who are 30 years old and actually understand what Social Security is.

And that’s the additional factor: lack of interest. Failed ideas, and failed predictions, aren’t always forgotten — many of them have a second, third, or fourth advent. But they may be ignored. They may not be interesting, even as objects of ridicule. I suspect that most young people would say that Social Security is “good,” but it’s not as important to them as it was to Mr. Breuning. The same can be said of mainstream Christians, who agree that Christ will return, but pay little or no attention to any current predictions.

Right or wrong, as soon as an idea reveals even a vulnerability to disconfirmation, it often starts to dwindle in the public’s mind. Global cooling is a perfect example. Once, cooling was fairly big in the nation’s consciousness; then it didn’t seem to be happening, right now anyway; then it began to seem unimportant; then it disappeared, without anyone really noticing its absence.

This is what tends to happen with political and economic predictions. The smart people, and the political fanatics (such as me), go back to what Roosevelt said or Kennedy said or Obama said, and notice how wildly their promises and predictions varied from the accomplished facts; but the people in the street go their way, unshocked and unaffected. They may not have expected specific accuracy from their leaders’ forecasts, but if they did, they forgot about it. Initially, they were foolish enough to be inspired, or frightened, but they were canny enough to realize that other forecasts — equally inspiring, frightening, and vulnerable to failure — would succeed the present ones.

The subject changes; the language does not. It’s always apocalypse on the installment plan.

It’s like Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs seem certain to devour the heroes, and almost manage to do so — about 1100 times. After the first few hundred near-death experiences, you realize that the only logical reason this won’t go on forever is that the theater has to be cleared for another showing of Jurassic Park. Expectation diminishes, long before the show is over — although you may be willing to see it again, in a few years, once the specific memory wears off. That’s the way the language of prediction often works, or fails to work.

As long as the idea of socialism has existed, its priests have predicted the downfall of the capitalist system. When each seemingly fatal contingency proved not to be fatal, another contingency was identified; when that failed to produce the climax, a third came into view . . . and so on. Some people were willing to return for Downfall of Capitalism 2, 3, and4; but others sensed that the plot had no logical ending, after all, and sought something different.

So new performances began in the Theater of Prognostication. Followers of Malthus demonstrated that civilization would perish through “over-breeding.” Eugenicists showed that it would end by the over-breeding of the “unfit.” For many generations, journalists computed the size of “the world’s proven fuel resources” and demonstrated that unless alternative sources of energy were found, the engines of the world would stop. In 1918, the world was assured that it was about to be made safe for “democracy.” Then it was assured that it was on the brink of unimaginable prosperity, to be produced by “technocracy.” After that, it learned it was about to be completely destroyed by a new world war. When the war came, but did not succeed in destroying the world, optimists prophesied an imminent “era of the common man,” while pessimists prophesied annihilation by the atom bomb. For generations, the “doomsday clock” of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stood at a few minutes till midnight. It still does — because now it registers not only the purported danger of atomic war, but also the purported likelihood of destruction by “climate change.” In other words, another movie has hit the theater.

The subject changes; the language does not. It’s always apocalypse on the installment plan. You buy it in little doses. First, “evidence seems to show”; then, “all the evidence shows”; after that, “experts are all agreed.” The only thing lacking is clear language about exactly how and exactly when the event will happen.

In the early 20th century, many millions of words were spilled about (A) the world’s inevitable political and social progress; (B) the world’s inevitable destruction in a great war. But when the first great war began, there was nothing of inevitability about it. If Russia, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary had decided, as they might easily have decided, not to bluff one another, or to call one another’s bluffs, about the insignificant matter of Serbian nationalism, there would have been no World War I. In the 1930s, world war was regarded as inevitable by people terrorized by new types of weapons and by the traditional bogeys of “monopoly capitalism” and “western imperialism.” When war came, it wasn’t ignited by any of those things, but by the least predictable of world historical factors: the paranoid nationalism of the Shinto empire, and the weird appeal of Nazism, embodied in the unlikely figure of Adolf Hitler.

If you refuse to be gulled by apocalyptic lingo, what will happen to you? Here’s what. You’ll be told that you are “in denial.”

There’s nothing much to the predictive power of human intelligence. But if you refuse to be gulled by apocalyptic lingo, what will happen to you? Here’s what. You’ll be told that you are “in denial.” Even more repulsively, you will be told that “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” (Isn’t that clever?) You will be accused of not believing in Science, not respecting the Environment, not caring about History, and so forth. You will be accused of all the characteristics exemplified by the prophets of doom themselves: ignorance, arrogance, and not-listening-to-others.

But let’s see how Harold Camping, Family Radio’s leader and prophet, compares with the other leaders and prophets we’ve considered. In one way he is exactly similar — his use of what Freud called “projection.” In every broadcast Camping warns his audience against arrogance, unloving attitudes toward other people, impulsive and subjective interpretations of the Bible, and submission to the mere authority of so-called Bible teachers. And in every broadcast he denounces members of ordinary churches for failing to heed his prophecies; rejoices in the pain they will suffer on May 21, when they realize that he was right and they were wrong; and suggests that anyone who disagrees with him is denying the authority of the Bible itself. On April 28, his radio Bible talk concerned the dear people in the churches, whom he reluctantly compared with the 450 priests of Baal who were slaughtered by Elijah because they trusted in their own ideas and wouldn’t listen to the true prophet — a prophet who, like Camping, was favored by God because he was absolutely certain that what he said was true.

But — and this is the most important thing — Camping has a dignity and intellectual integrity denied to most other predictors, including those most esteemed in our society. He doesn’t speak in generalities. He predicts that Judgment Day will come, without any doubt or question or problem of definition, on a particular day: May 21, 2011. In all likelihood it will begin with a great earthquake, which will devastate New Zealand and the Fiji Islands, at sundown, local time. After that, the wave of destruction will circle the globe, with the setting sun. By May 22, the Rapture will have been concluded; “it will all be over!”, and everyone will know that it is; the whole thing is “completely locked in.” In making his prophecies, Camping is actually risking something. He is actually saying something, not just uttering fortune cookie oracles.

I use that phrase advisedly. The other night, Mehmet Karayel and I dined at the Mandarin, and as always we were interested in seeing what our fortune cookies had to say. Mehmet’s fortune was a typically New Age, ostensibly precise manipulation of words. It said, “You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.” Yeah, right. Or he may not attend such a party, or the customs may be “strange” only to ignorant people, or the customs may be present but not prevail, etc.

Mehmet is a real intellectual, not a person who plays one on TV, so he was not taken in by this exciting forecast. Then came the unveiling of my fortune. It was, believe it or not, “Your future looks bright.” Can you imagine a feebler thing to bake into a cookie? But Mehmet is aware of Mr. Camping’s prophecies, so he knew how to strengthen the message: “It should say, ‘YourMay 22 looks bright.’”

So Mehmet and Harold Camping, though disagreeing firmly on specifics, stand together in demanding that they be produced. Mehmet is certain that my May 22 can be bright; Camping is certain that it can’t. But they both know that only one of them can be right about a proposition like this, and that we’ll soon find out which one it is. How refreshing.

I must admit that not everybody in Camping’s outfit is up to his high intellectual standard. On April 26 I received a plea for contributions to Family Radio (which, by the way, has a good deal of wealth and doesn’t really need many contributions — but why not ask?). The plea came in two parts. One was a brief letter from Camping, requesting my “continued involvement” in FR’s ministry, because “Time is running out! The end is so very near, with May 21, 2011, rapidly approaching.” The second was a pledge card, where I could check the amount of money I planned to give “each month.” As I said in my December article, there is evidence that some people at FR are biding their time, trying to keep the organization together so it can continue — under their leadership — after the failure of May 21. My speculation is that the pledge card is their product, and they don’t mind contradicting Camping’s message in the letter. They may even be alerting “supporters” like me to keep the faith: my May 22 does indeed look bright.

But that’s a digression. Harold Camping is not a politician or a professor of environmentalism, whose prophecies can never be proven wrong because they’re ridiculously non-specific. No, he has said exactly what he means by the end of the world, and he has said exactly when the end of the world will happen. You can check it. I hope you do. Go to Family Radio’s website, find out where its nearest radio station is, and tune in during the evening of May 20 (US time), when, Camping believes, Judgment Day will begin in the Fiji Islands. Then listen through the next few days, as Family Radio responds to the disconfirmation of its prophecies. Or does not respond — until it figures out how to do so (and that should be interesting also).

As I’ve said before, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It will be much more interesting than listening to the constant din of the secular prophets — politicians, historians, economists, and environmentalists — whose intellectual stature, compared to that of Harold Camping, addlepated prophet of the End Time, is as nothing, a drop in a bucket, and the small dust that is wiped from the balance.




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Comments

Frank Ricciardone

When they are all done laughing, Mr. Camping, I want to say you were right. I have checked your figures and they are accurate. The trouble, Mr. Camping, is that God wants Judgement Day to be a surprise, and you spilled the beans, necessitating a change in plan.

Robert K. Stock

As a former Jehovah's Witness I understand the excitement of the listners of Family Radio. I held my breath all through October 1975. Waiting for Armageddon- the destruction of all non-Jehovah's Witnesses and the ushering in of the "New World".

Even though I was disappointed I persevered in my faith for another 15 years before realizing I had been duped by the Watchtower Society. Now most Witnesses refuse to admit they ever thought the end would come in 1975.

A few of Family Radio's listeners will most likely fall away from their faith, but I will bet that most will remain true believers. And in time they will probably say as Jehovah's Witnesses now say regarding another failed end time prediction, October 1914, "Jesus did come in 1914, but it was invisible to human eyes!".

It is a little weird to see another group make the same silly mistake as my former religion.

Guest

And speaking of religious claims, this is disappointing:
"Jesus knew about this. He told his followers that no man knows the day or the hour of his Return, but that people would always be running around predicting it (Mark 13:32, Luke 21:8–9)."
There is not a shred of evidence that the biblical Jesus ever existed, nor is the bible considered to be anything like an historical record by anyone who has read how it came about.
Please, Mr. Cox, don't offer the bible as anything other than a collection of mythical tales.

Stephen Cox

Not only have I read "how it came about," I've published a book about it and related topics: "The New Testament and Literature" (Open Court, 2006).

Best regards,
Stephen

Guest

For those interested, here's where to get a copy:
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=%22The+New+Testament+and+Literature%22&x=11&y=19
Mine is now on order and I look forward to reading it. But you didn't address the question: Do you regard the bible as an historical source?
I use as my primary source Ehrman's "Lost Christianities" for these statements:
1) There is no verifiable evidence of a biblical Jesus.
2) The accounts included in the new testament were written by second- to tenth-hand sources at best hundreds of years after the supposed events.

Jon Harrison

"Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). Jesus himself began the all-too-human folly of predicting the end time. He avoided naming an exact date, but made the mistake of claiming that some of his auditors would live to see his return. Or should we believe that some members of his audience still walk among us, almost 2,000 years later?

I have no wish to associate myself with the California Academy of Sciences, which I have never visited, or with the specifics of the line quoted by Cox, but the fact is that we are living through a period of mass extinction, as human beings crowd out other species through habitat destruction and other forms of environmental degradation. There really is no doubt about this, no matter how inconvenient some people may find the fact. At the very least we should admit that the pointy-headed academics at CAS are better bearers of truth and light than the followers of good ol' JC.

Guest

"I have no wish to associate myself with the California Academy of Sciences, which I have never visited, or with the specifics of the line quoted by Cox, but the fact is that we are living through a period of mass extinction, as human beings crowd out other species through habitat destruction and other forms of environmental degradation."

Bull.............shit.
First, you have zero evidence of "mass extinction"; the term "mass" is exactly the sort of general claim that Cox referred to and debunked.
Secondly, even if it were true, so what? Is it written somewhere that the number of individuals of a certain species is ordained to be the proper amount? Do you have some knowledge that the world should have X members of Y species? Or are you simply repeating some religious claims?
If not, let's see the data. What evidence do you have?

Stephen Cox

Thanks for your comment. Fortunately, there are no mass extinctions. I commented about this in Liberty's April 2003 issue, in an essay starting on page 11. See http://www.libertyunbound.com/node/90

During the intervening eight years, I haven't seen any mass extinctions--has anyone? If so, what are the life forms that have become extinct? If there are mass extinctions, it should be easy to provide a list of them--those that took place during the last eight years, not since the pleistocene. If mass extinction were happening, extinctions should be happening every day--and if they were, you can be certain that environmentalists would occupy the top of the news every day, with information about the death of the last snail darter. What you see, on the contrary, is occasional information about the rediscovery of species formerly thought to be
extinct, and grudging coverage of the recrudescence of bears in New Jersey and big cats in California.

Anyway, here's some of what I wrote in 2003:

Assiduous searches and comparisons of purportedly authoritative sites indicate that environmentalists believe that since 1492, 25 species, quasi-species, or pseudo-species of mammals have gone into extinction in the continental United States. And during the
past 25 years, it seems that there have been only two real or supposed extinctions: the extinctions of the hot springs cotton rat and the Penasco chipmunk.

The cotton rat is listed as having gone extinct in 1996, but the last specimen was collected in 1909, so who knows when it happened? The chipmunk is said to have died out in 1980, but there's a problem with that, too. The New Mexico
Department of Game and Fish - which, by the way, considers the Penasco chipmunk "a subspecies of the least chipmunk" - appears to be of two minds on the question of whether the little guys are gone. It talks about them as if they were still alive, but notes that the last, unconfirmed, sighting happened in 1993.

Speaking of confirmation, I have so far failed to confirm the extinction of the big thicket hog-nosed skunk, which according to some lists became extinct in the mid-1990s. I hope that it didn't. Anything with a name like that should live forever. Other sources proclaim the end of the Mexican gray wolf and the black-footed ferret, two mammals that are not only alive but the object of programs designed to repopulate the wild with them.
Environmentalists helped to save those critters. If that's what environmentalists do, it's fine with me. But I've stopped worrying about their comments on the dizzy pace of animal extinction.

Best regards,
Stephen

Jon Harrison

Steve, the term mass extinction has been defined by biologists and paleontolgists. What you write above has nothing to do with the phenomenon as recognized by science. As I told the anonymous poster, the evidence is available and easily accessed. You might begin by consulting Jablonski's paper published in the Proceddings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 8, 2001. There was also an important article in "Nature" (a refereed journal, of course) back in, I think, March. You could make a start with these. The literature concerning mass extinctions, including the one now underway, is voluminous, and includes books and articles by people such as E.O. Wilson, Richard Leakey, S.J. Gould, and many, many other highly respected scientists. I'm not talking about "environmentalists," but scientists with training in the relevant fields, i.e., biology, zoology, and paleontology.

My own comments merely reflect the conclusions of these highly-trained people. I have as much technical training in this area as you do -- that is to say, none. And while I have great respect for your intellect, on the matter of mass extinctions I rather lean toward consulting the experts rather than you, my dear Stephen.

Jon Harrison

The evidence is available, and easily accessed. I see no reason to do the work for you, especially since you don't even tell us who you are. Try educating yourself on the issue.

"Even if it were true, so what?" I wasn't writing to convince you or any other individual of the importance of mass extinctions. Whether you care about the issue is a matter of complete indifference to me.

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