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May 20th, 2011
09:01 AM ET

My Take: Doomsdayers not so different from the rest of us

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I know a lot of people are eagerly awaiting 6 p.m. this Saturday, either to greet the rapturous return of Jesus with open arms or to snicker at the idiocy of the followers of radio host Harold Camping, the evangelist behind all this holy hoo-hah.

I’m looking forward to 6:01 p.m., and the recalculations and reinterpretations that invariably ensue whenever Bible believers are proud enough to imagine that they know the day and the hour of Jesus' return, and bold enough to announce their imaginations to humanity.

People have been predicting the end of the world ever since they started thinking about the world as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thus far everyone has been wrong. So we have a lot of experience as a species with what the Millerites of the 19th century called the Great Disappointment.

Initially, the Baptist doomsday preacher William Miller predicted the return of Jesus between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the latter date passed his followers did some recalculations (based on a different Jewish calendar) and settled some other dates. When those dates passed they found another date—October 22, 1844—based on a prophesy in the Bible's Daniel 8:14 (“And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed”).

After this Great Disappointment, some Millerites slinked away. Others decided that Jesus actually had returned, just not as they had expected. The notion that October 22, 1844 marked a spiritual rather than a physical return of Jesus became the basis for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

As for Harold Camping, he has been here before, too, predicting the arrival of Judgment Day in September 1994 only to go back to the Bible and his calculator and settle on this coming Saturday.

Predictions–and disappointments–such as these have inspired a cottage industry of social scientists trying to figure out how doomsday believers deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes “when prophecy fails.”

But the bottom line is that religion persists because it is adaptable. And one of its adaptations is that it almost never goes the route of Emily Litella, the hard-of-hearing "Saturday Night Live" news commentator who would come on "Weekend Update" (in the body of Gilda Radner) and complain, for example, about the effort to turn Puerto Rico into a steak, only to be corrected by Jane Curtin. At which point she would say, “I’m sorry.  Nevermind.”

I know my atheist friends are getting ready to party on May 21, and many Christians are already embarrassed by Camping and his followers. But I’m not convinced the rest of us are all that much different.

When confronted with facts that disprove their pet theories, for instance, our politicians almost never say, “Nevermind.” They recalculate and equivocate and go about their business. The rest of us do much the same, often preferring in our relationships, our jobs and our worldviews (religious or otherwise) the comfort of the stories we carry around in our heads to the reality of the facts on the ground.

Religious fanatics aren’t always so different from the rest of us. They are bolder, perhaps–more willing to air their craziness to the world. But the rest of us are crazy in our own way, harboring illusions about the federal budget deficit, or our spouses, or our politicians that are disproved by the facts, and dealing with cognitive dissonance with more of the same.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • End times • Fundamentalism • Obama • United States

soundoff (1,432 Responses)
  1. Norm G

    Post comment. No thanks expect to say another quack, quacks. Camping the quacking opportunist.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  2. Shamrock6

    What would be really funny is if someone did a War of the Worlds broadcast and acted like this was really occurring. It would be awesome to watch people lose their minds as if this idiot was telling the truth. Classic.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • BORNAGAIN

      That would be hilarious!!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  3. Roland

    It's May 21, 2011, 6:16 in New Zealand. They say it's at 3:p.m. All is clear and no incident. We should pray hard even though it will not happen at this date.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Sean

      IT's 6:30am in New Zealand, currently .. From what I understand, Judgement is predicted to begin at 6pm.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • jules

      Good point Roland! Is it supposed to be GMT or EST? I'm guessing since Camping is obviously SO very egotistical to think he and only he was able to "figure out" the Rapture date that he's also SUPER ethnocentric and figures it's gotta be a US time zone, right? He's a fool and an embarrassment to us Americans!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Bruce

      jules, there are plenty of things wrong with Camping's predictions, but ethnocentrism is not one of them. His predictions include 6:00p.m. local, starting in New Zealand and following the sun westward so it hits every single time zone at 6:00p.m. local.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Roland

      Nobody knows the end really. Only God the father knows it. In Matthew 24:3, Jesus was asked about the sign of His coming and the end of this age. He gave prophecies of many events to happen before His return. He said there would be religious deception, wars and rumors of wars, famines, disease epidemics and earthquakes, all leading to a time of Great Tribulation when mankind would be on the verge of destroying all life on the earth if the time wasn't cut short (verses 21 and 22). Then Jesus prophesied there would be heavenly signs, and He would return with power and great glory (verses 29-30)..Jesus gave His disciples signs to watch for that indicated His return, He stated clearly that no one knows the exact date except His Father. In Mark 13:32 we read, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Matthew's account puts it this way, "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (Matthew 25:13).

      May 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Renee

    Only God knows when the human judgement will come. Jesus, at his right hand doesn't even know. If you are sitting and waiting for him, like watching a tea kettle trying to boil, he will not come. We just have to live as we know is right by God and Jesus and when that day comes, if we are still alive on this earth and believe in God, Jesus Christ and that we have received them and repented for our sins and know that our name has been written in the Book of Life, then it will not be a time to fear.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  5. angry spelling troll

    NEVERMIND IS NOT A WORD

    May 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • SK

      Actually, it is a word. Webster's dictionary defines "nevermind" as : attention; heed; notice (usually used in negative constructions): Pay him no nevermind.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Grammar and Spelling Cop

      I need to buy you a drink.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  6. sonofgadfly

    Maybe one of you religious folk on here can explain to me how "The Father" can know something "The Son" doesn't know. They're the same person, right? What does it even mean to be the same person, if you don't have the same thoughts? Please don't tell me that this is another one of those "mysteries". Either Jesus knew the date of Judgment Day, and lied when he said he didn't, or else he didn't know because he's not really divine. Which is it?

    May 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Marcus

      They are not the same person according the Bible. The doctrine of the a triune Godhead came about years after the bible was completed and has its origins not in the bible but in the common practice of many religions of the time to worship triads of Gods. Egypt, Babylon, others. The church adopted the practice of incorporating pagan beliefs into its form of Christianity in order to make it easier to convert pagans. This practice has resulted in many "Christian" doctrine that do not have a basis in the teaching of Christ or in any other part of the bible. The Father(Yahweh or Jehovah) and son (Jesus) are not the same person. According to the bible the son was actually dead for about three days. The father resurrected him.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Jesusgirl

      There is one God which exists in 3 seperate, eternal persons. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They are all fully God but all seperate. This is called the Trinity. Jesus was God who became man to save people from their sins. Have you accepted His free gift. God bless!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Kevin

      They're the different but equal persons. Similar to a married couple. For instance, the Schwarzeneggers are "one person" in marriage, but Maria Shriver didn't know what Arnold was doing behind her back. But you're right; in many Christian faiths, it is known as a mystery.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • belief

      Jesusgirl, if you can prove that from the Bible I will believe it......but the fact is you can't.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  7. LookAndSEE

    Correction: Seventh day Adventist do not believe Jesus returned "spiritually" but rather Jesus entered into the "Most Holy Place" in the Heavenly Sanctuary. This is where Judgement takes place until probation closes. We let the Bible interpret it's self where the disciples watched Jesus go into the sky, an angel appeared and said,"This same Jesus who was taken from you shall return in like manor. Ac 1:11

    May 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  8. Marky

    I have studied history for may years. Is there anyone who could deny that religion has been the main cause of most of the terrible evils of the world. Christians have, burnt people to death, torchered millions of innocent people, started wars and even today hate just about everyone . One would think the Jesus had taught the message of hate not love.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  9. bob

    Matthew 24:36 If you don't know the passages that follow, please read. Nobody knows the end of time except God himself.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Bruce

      Go 2 verses before that where, in v34, he says it will all happen before his generation dies out, which means within about 40 years max from the day he said it.

      So don't stop with the passages that follow that one. Read a few passages before, too...

      May 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  10. atomsmasher

    JESUS LOL

    May 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  11. belief

    shouldn't we all just live our life as if the world were ending the next day. It would be a better place for sure.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • K

      No, because tons of people would waste their lives away in ignorance. "Live today like your last" is already a phrase used by many as an excuse to drink to excess and express utter disregard about the future. Live in the present, but never forget the past or the future.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • belief

      wrong.....I was coming from the perspective that we would be kinder to one another....no time for war.....no killing, no hate. etc. Those ones that live to drink excessively or hate, etc would probably ruin it for the rest of us.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  12. Observer

    These are busy times for some right-wingers. First the complete ignorance of the birthers was exposed. Then it was the after-birther ignoramuses. Then along came the deathers. And now to top it all off, we have the end-of-the-world bozos. You would think these dimwits would catch on.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • bob

      WOW. Pretty harsh bro. You can do nothing to keep this "Right Winger" from praying for you. The difference is that we want all of God's people in heaven.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Reid

      Lol of course the doomsday people seem like normal. PEOPLE ARE CRAZY! your crazy, im crazy, the doomsday people are crazy. the whole freakin world is crazy.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  13. Matthew

    Lord is coming. I heard Him. I am coming. I am coming. I am coming. I heard Him. But not on the May 21st. Sorry Camping. No one knows the day or the hour. Everybody who is laughing at Camping's followers.

    Have some pity. These are good people who have been misled because they failed to read Revelation 13. You see, the end cannot come until Rome aka Vatican falls. No, I am not anti-Catholic. I am a person of Catholic faith & I am telling everyone that the 1st beast of Revelation 13 is the Roman Catholic Church. Care to guess who is the second beast? US. Us.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • LinCA

      ... and with his ramblings, Matthew secures his spot among the deluded

      May 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Bruce

      The beast is a dragon with 7 heads. Are you asking about the 2nd head of the beast? Is the RCC the head with the wound?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Matthew

      Bruce, you must read Daniel 7 to understand Revelation 13. 10 heads = 10 kingdoms of the Roman Empire. Three kingdom in N. Africa opposed (one was Vandal) the Vatican & fell away from the Roman Catholic church. Thus 7 horns left & one small one that started talking blasphemy. I am God. Who says this blasphemy? The Pope in Vatican. How long the 1st beast had authority over the people? 42 months = 1260 yrs.

      Don't take my word for it.

      Study history & you will see.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Bruce

      Well, the 2nd beast is obviously Solomon, because 666 refers to the tribute he received every year (1Kings10:14).

      Duh...

      May 20, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Killerbeebop

      Good but dumb!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  14. cobbius

    How much money has Camping given away, since he won't need it after tomorrow? NONE. He's a millionaire, and will be on Sunday morning. If he truly believed in this, he would be penniless right now. If he truly believed in any of the scriptures, he would have donated all of it to save as many lost souls as he could. He's an opportunist preying on his desperate followers. His world should end tomorrow...

    May 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Matthew

      Last time I checked, he spent every penny he has. I feel so sorry for Camping's followers. They gave up their jobs, house, everything!!!

      This should be a lesson to everyone why we need to read the Bible ourselves & not rely on a senile engineer to tell us what the Bible says.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Bruce

      Matthew: Camping read the bible for himself. He encouraged everyone who follows him to read it for themselves in order to see what he was saying was true.

      Reading the bible for yourself is no guarantee that you will not end up like Camping and his followers.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • squealy

      Nope, it was on the news last night that he has kept his money. He is a very rich man!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  15. Clock

    World definitely will end tomorrow. I am prepared.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  16. Lar

    I have a fabulous weekend planned , includes friends, excessive drinking (no driving 🙂 ) and plenty of music. should it happen then I'll be as ready as I was 28 years ago. please keep it up folks I truly enjoy my end of days weekends

    May 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Chris

      Your life must've been pretty sad if it takes imminent doom for you to plan a fun weekend. What you just described sounds like every one of my weekends for the past decade.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  17. YouLeaving?

    Can I haz your stuff?

    May 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  18. Bruce

    This just in–huge earthquakes just leveled New Zealand (6am local time, Saturday morning 5/21/2011).

    LOL! Camping was totally wrong! He predicted 6 PM not 6 AM! Friggin' quack...

    May 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  19. rockfish

    So should I hold off on my Saturday Morning Run?

    May 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  20. Joe

    Of course they're not weird... they're just brainwashed.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.