Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then

Why prophets of doom will eternally return

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Today, the world will end -- again.

According to Harold Camping, a 90-year-old California radio evangelist, today is Judgment Day. 

Camping originally predicted that the world would end on May 23, and he gained attention for his national advertising campaign -- complete with a fleet of buses and hundreds of billboards -- to alert people to the coming doom. That date, a warm and overcast day on the East Coast, came and went like any other, but Camping didn't retreat. Having missed his initial deadline, he said the End was beginning as a more subtle, spiritual judgment, and the world would surely meet its demise on October 21, 2011.

Over his many decades on the air, Camping gained a sizable following and a lot money -- Family Radio, Camping's broadcast organization, raised approximately $80 million in contributions between 2005 and 2009. It was reported that at least one of his followers donated his entire life savings, $140,000, to help fund the effort. The prediction also inspired a cottage industry of sorts. Earth-bound pets, a pet sitting service for the faithful, pledges, for $135, to take care of Christians' pets after the rapture. * 

Camping may or may not be a prophet, but I'm going to make a metaphysical assertion of my own: Harold Camping is the reincarnation of the 19th century evangelist William Miller.

William Miller was a preacher and War of 1812 veteran, who, through intense study of the Bible, surmised that the world would end in the year between March 21, 1843 and March 21,1844. Through word-of-mouth, newspapers, and traveling the country, he developed a following of tens-of-thousands, called the Millerites, some of whom also sold off their belongings in anticipation of the end. March 21, 1844 passed with no revelation, leaving Miller to recalculate his prediction. Sound familiar? Going back to the Bible, he devised a new date, October 24, 1844 -- 167 years ago this coming Monday. Once again, the October 24 passed without any destruction, and Miller's followers called the day "the great disappointment" (a strange name for the day the world was supposed to end but didn't).

Camping's and Miller's stories are uncannily similar. Both set doomsday in the spring time, and when the apocalypse failed to engulf the world, made a raindate in the fall. Also, both spent enormous sums of cash and human resources to alert the nation to their misguided predictions.

But it is not just Camping and Miller. Every decade seems to have its own prophet of doom. Search through "A Brief History of the Apocalypse"; there are too many examples to mention.

Why do some in every generation believe the world is about to end? 

Perhaps it's hardwired into our psyches, Jonathan Kirsch, author of A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, suggests.

"There is a kind of universal answer to the question," Kirsch tells me in a phone interview. "End of the world prophecies do appear in all cultures; we experience the world and life forms in the world as having a beginning and an end. People are born, they grow old and they die." And it's not just living things, more abstract concepts such as cities and civilizations go through this process of birth and death, Kirsch continues, "So we are imprinted by our own experience with the expectation that the world in which we live might come to an end too. That's just a common sense approach to looking on the world."

Every human can understand this sense of finality, but there is something particular about Western culture that make propagates prophecy. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, The Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel foretell definitive, yet abstract signs that the end is near.

"Anyone who goes to church, anyone who listens to sermons, anyone who reads the popular literature of the apocalypse -- they are hammered constantly that is foreordained by God, it is a part of God's master plan, that the world will end, that the old earth will be destroyed, anyone who isn't a believer will be cast into the abyss along with the devil, and only a select few will be granted an eternal life," Kirsch says. "That's what feeds these repetitive predictions. People who take this seriously are primed, provoked by the religious tradition to be watchful, to be alert, and to try to extract meaning to the things that happened to them, and the more horrible the thing is, the more likely they are to conclude that this is a sign of the end."

In 1982, Atlantic author William Martin wrote about the "growing interest in apocalyptic prophecy," arguing that as our world grows increasingly complicated, potential signs of doom multiply accordingly:
Almost any scrap of truly bad news is hailed as another sign that we are in the homestretch of history, so that earthquakes, volcanoes, and famine, Russian aggression in Afghanistan, China's emergence as a world power, the rise of OPEC, the revolution in Iran, threats against Israel, unrest in Latin America, weakness of the dollar, increases in abortion, explicit sex on cable television, gay-rights parades, and any other perceived threats to the political, economic, or moral health of America and the world are greeted with an odd sort of self-conscious optimism.

Every era, every generation, deals with its own seemingly insurmountable problems. Perhaps the many that prophesize doom and the many more who follow them, believe the only answer to the world's problems is divine destruction. But given that humanity's problems are only likely to multiply and become more complex in the coming years, we should expect not to have seen the last of prophetic spirits like Miller and Camping.
*Here's their promise, it sounds a pitch from a phony Saturday Night Live commercial: "You've committed your life to Jesus. You know you're saved. But when the Rapture comes what's to become of your loving pets who are left behind? Eternal Earth-Bound Pets takes that burden off your mind." 

"We are a group of dedicated animal lovers, and atheists. Each Eternal Earth-Bound Pet representative is a confirmed atheist, and as such will still be here on Earth after you've received your reward. Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus."