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What happens when your end-of-the-world prediction is wrong

The moon glows a red hue during a total lunar eclipse Tuesday, April 15, 2014, as seen from the Milwaukee area. Tuesday’s eclipse is the first of four total lunar eclipses that will take place between 2014 to 2015. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mike De Sisti)

On Oct. 7, eBible Fellowship recommended that everybody listen to its last-ever question-and-answer podcast with Chris McCann, because McCann believed that Oct. 7 would also Earth’s last day. On Oct. 8, the world was still here, and McCann had the unenviable task of explaining what had happened.

“Since it is now October 8th it is now obvious that we were incorrect regarding the world’s ending on the 7th,” he wrote in a statement sent to the many reporters who had reached out to him about his prediction. The statement was also posted on his Web site.

“There was much biblical information pointing to this date and we freely shared it with all. Yet, consistently stressing throughout the entire time period that the world ending on that date was a ‘strong likelihood,’ ” he wrote.

[Why the group eBible Fellowship believes the world will be annihilated today]

Oct. 8 was not McCann’s first trip back into the world after it was supposed to end: In 2011, he promoted “Family Radio” host Harold Camping’s prediction that judgement day would come May 21 of that year. Camping then said he was wrong about May, but continued to believe that God’s judgement would likely come in October of that year.

It’s too early to say what is in store for McCann’s small, Pennsylvania-based ministry now that the world is still here.  Although such predictions are fun to make fun of for many, the stories of past predictions, and their followers, are often filled with palpable regret and heartbreak.

Camping died in 2013 after giving up the prediction business altogether. His last public statements were often laced with regret. He apologized for saying that God was no longer saving souls after May 21, 2011. His previous predictions disappeared from the Family Radio Web site.

He left a number of followers behind, some of whom had sold their possessions in anticipation of his widely discussed May prediction, using their savings to buy ads on billboards to publicize the date.

Religion Dispatches followed some of those who believed May 21, 2011, would be the day a series of earthquakes would herald God’s judgement. Those who had eagerly anticipated the day constantly revised their theories with each other, including on a now-defunct message board.

Religion Dispatches writes:

When the sun rose on May 21, they were taken aback. Maybe it would happen at noon. When noon passed, they settled on 6 p.m. When that came and went, some thought it might happen at midnight. Or perhaps it wouldn’t happen until May 21 was over everywhere on the planet. “It will still be May 21st in American Samoa (last time zone before the International Date Line),” someone posted on Latter Rain, an online forum for believers.
By Sunday morning, new theories were floated. “It was God’s plan to warn people. It was His purpose to hide the true meaning behind May 21. It’s about us suffering what He went through,” a believer commented.

A year after the prophecy passed, the article found, Camping’s followers were left with real emotional and financial distress.

The Camping saga has reminded many of the most famous case of a failed end-of-world prediction in American history, that of the Millerites.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “the great disappointment,” then you know at least a little bit about this group. William Miller is largely credited for four end-of-the-world predictions in 1843 and 1844, the last and most popular being on or around Oct. 22 of the latter year (Miller was somewhat careful not to explicitly claim certainty on exact dates when the world would end, but his teachings encouraged his followers to do so).

Although the pastor did not get it right when it came to the world’s end, he was aware of the consequences of getting it wrong. According to a newspaper report from an 1843 edition of the Vermont Telegraph, Miller’s response to a question about what would happen to him if the world was still around after his predictions passed was this:  “I shall be a poor, miserable, despised creature, and ought to be.”

After his  Oct. 22, 1844, prediction failed, the “great disappointment” began, as many of Miller’s followers finally gave up. One newspaper claimed that 14 of Miller’s followers had ended up in the Maryland state insane asylum afterward.

Even so, Miller’s teachings didn’t disappear after his last failed prediction — they went on to be a basis for the Seventh-day Adventists, which formed a couple decades later.

For his part, McCann has cautioned against throwing out his findings along with his incorrect prediction that the world should be gone by now. “THE WORLD’S CONTINUATION IS NOT A JUSTIFICATION OF THE WORLD,” he wrote Thursday.  “E Bible Fellowship was incorrect regarding the specific day of its end, but we were not incorrect concerning the fact that it will one day soon come to an end.”