Harold Camping, the 89 year-old Christian radio broadcaster, has announced that the “rapture” of Christian believers will throw the world into chaos on May 21, 2011, followed five months later by the total destruction of the universe on Oct. 21. Save the date, people.
Or better yet, pencil in May 22. That’s the day the Internet will explode with people posting photos of Camping’s ubiquitous “May 21, 2011” billboards and bumper stickers. Predictions? I predict the hashtag #prophecyfail will trend on Twitter that day.
I am a Christian. I’m supposed to love everyone. But the people I find hardest to love are those who think they’ve figured out God’s secret end-of-the-world timeline and then announce it to their followers.
We’ve been here before. In 1988, the summer after my 8th grade year, we had another one of these big Jesus-is-coming media blowouts. A former NASA engineer named Edgar Whisenant had written a best-selling pamphlet called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. He read his Bible and did some math and concluded the Rapture would coincide with Rosh Hashana that year, sometime between September 11 and 13.
Whisenant mailed thousands of his pamphlets to pastors across the U.S., including my childhood pastor. He read Whisenant’s 88 reasons and took them seriously. He then preached a handful of sermons about how there was a very strong possibility that Christ would return in September.
I bought it. I didn’t know any better. I spent my summer in a state of dread. Part of it may have been related to my impending entry into the perils of high school, but much of it was Rapture-related. I worried that summer might be my last. I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t yet had a real girlfriend. I hadn’t learned to drive. I had just gotten my braces off. Though I felt terribly guilty admitting it, I didn’t want Jesus to come back. Not yet.
The Summer of Dread ended. Nothing happened on Sept. 11, 1988. Nothing happened on Sept. 12. So as I went to bed the night of Sept. 13, I said goodnight to my parents, fully expecting never to see them again. At least not in this life.
I woke up the next day to a bright, sunny fall morning. After checking to make sure my parents were still around -- worrying they might have been raptured and I’d gotten left behind in a cosmic mistake -- I felt enormous relief. Whisenant was wrong. My pastor was wrong. All those doomsayers who were so absolutely certain they had cracked the biblical code were just wrong.
I wanted my summer back.
Today, it’s easy to write off the date-setters and apocalypse-hounds as misguided quacks (at best) or charlatans grubbing after money (at worse). Camping’s reputation isn’t that stellar to begin with, but he’ll probably survive the arrival of May 22 just like he got past his failed end-of-the-world prediction in 1994: by blaming the math.
But what of his followers? What about the unemployed Colorado Springs woman who sunk part of her savings into a bus bench advertising the date? What about the impressionable children of Camping’s acolytes, kids who don’t know enough to question his teachings? Look, I’m not OK with letting kids go through any amount of time believing their lives are about to end, whether Jesus is involved or not.
We can talk all day long about how such date-setting discredits Christianity among unbelievers, or about how Jesus said we couldn’t know the day or hour of his return, or about how Camping’s reliance on mathematical equations dating back to Noah’s flood is silly to begin with. And those are all valid points, depending on your religious perspective.
But let’s not forget that these kinds of public predictions have very real victims. Camping’s faith will survive the impending disappointment, as will his ministry and radio empire. He’ll make excuses and set another date. I don’t worry about him; I worry about his followers and their families. When Jesus didn’t come back in 1988, I was relieved, but I also lost a piece of my faith. Belief became harder for me. I’m still dealing with its effects. I’ve written books about the apocalypse and about religious doubt, and there’s no question those two things are related in my psyche.
It’s easy to laugh at the failed predictions of date-setters. God knows I’ve had my share of it. They’ve been wrong for two thousand years and they’ll be wrong in the future. But it’s getting harder and harder to laugh at the people who believe them. You might think they are mindless sheep. I think they are victims of hope, and that’s no longer funny.