The End Is Nigh
by Stephen Cox | Posted May 03, 2011
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.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution.
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