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. laughing hard

    oh yay more non-sense. i shall bring some devil's food cake, plates, drinks of beer, and lawn chairs and watch this bullcrap hit the fan to watch these pathetic people's faces to the reaction of a falsified prophet Camping. i'm laughing at these retards who believe in this BS hahahaha. get a life guys seriousilly. talking about some good entertainment every since yesterday of the past comments from cnn's last entry on this. hahaha

    May 20, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  2. Ed

    All of this is supposed to start at 6PM in New Zealand where a massive earthquake will start its way around the world. That time is 2AM Eastern Standard TIme for those that want to stay up and see what is going on.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  3. jay

    Jesus is already here.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  4. Joshua Collett

    I live in Kentucky and have been a Christian for almost all my life, I respect this individual for trying to get everyone in the world ready for the Rapture but I also believe that God is going to surprise us when we least expect it. I also believe that everyone should prepare themselves regardless if Christ dose or dose not come. God Bless America

    May 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  5. claudia michael-george

    the world is not goin 2 end on saturday cause it is saturday in china

    May 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Siyajkak

      its supposed to be at 6 PM, so we'll know at 12 in the morning

      May 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • This IS AMURIKA!!!!

      Really...China doesnt count, God doesnt care about China. Obviously this is only going to apply to the U.S.A. GOD BLESS AMERICA

      May 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  6. Myself

    Honestly these people just want to give Christians a bad name. There is no where in the Bible that tells you when Jesus will return. The Bible however says no one knows the day or the hour. Please stop giving Christians a bad name. If you want the world to end, please say so, but don't say its in the Bible.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Concerned_Care


      May 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Philip

      thats true...and people started reacting without knowing what is there in bible...

      May 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  7. ReallyImportantPerson

    Is the rapture at 6:00pm Eastern Standard Time? Just trying to get my schedule organized, and will be really upset if I don't get my mani/pedi in.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Siyajkak

      they think it'll start on the International date line and move from there...

      May 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Meeeeee

      Your local time

      May 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  8. Jared

    Isn't it already May 21st in some parts of the world? Is this May 21st at midnight eastern time? I want to be drunk by the time the world ends, so I just need to know what time.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Meeeeee

      You have until 6PM tomorrow to get sufficiently drunk. I suggest you start at noon.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  9. Joe

    "prophesy in the Bibel's Daniel 8:14"

    Not sure what the "Bibel" is...is that like a bible? Maybe the issue is that their doomsday forecast is based on the Bibel and not the bible.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Philip

      well said 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  10. Concerned_Care

    I think it's funny that all of these Evangelical Christians proclaim they know the date and time when Christ will rapture everyone. But in all reality, Jesus told his followers "not even he knows the date of the rapture, only the father". So how do these people know the date? Hmmmm... Well I'm a Christian (maybe not the most devoted), but I don't believe that anyone knows the date that Christ will come. These type of Christians make Christianity seem cultish, weird, and all out crazy. But not all Christians are like that. I just think these type of Christians are throwing people away from religion. I don't blame most of you, this kind of stuff weirds me out too. Most of them seem delusional, but i think they're just trying to raise attention and gain financial profits if you ask me. God bless you all!

    May 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Mama67

      I agree with your stance!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • love/me/hate/me

      Touche' touche'. I'm atheist, but Christians like you are tolerable. Maybe if more we're like you, Christianity wouldn't be so off the wall!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Iphantom

      I just have to say, to us athiests all Christians seem weird, cultish and crazy. For me personally, it's not the fact that these peole believe they know the date of the rapture that is insane. It's the the fact that they believe in the rapture at all that's crazy. They are no more crazy than any other christain who believes that some mystical being is going to return to the earth and magic all the true believers to heaven. THAT'S what is crazy.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  11. yeah

    Macho man did not make it to see the end 🙁 I hope he has plenty of slim jims where he's going

    May 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • HamsterDancer

      Thanks for the props to Macho Man!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  12. Chris

    We're like anyone else.....who is crazy and cannot think for themselves.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  13. Idiots

    is that 6 p.m. eastern or mountain time? and hey its already May 21st in parts of the world. I going to go the the nearest church and put some old clothes and shoes out the freak someone out ROFL!

    May 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • weacro

      It's supposed to be when the clock strikes 6pm in the east then start rolling west...... and people will cry and scream as the earthquake hit every city, i say just leave the city..... crisis averted.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • weacro

      It's supposed to be when the clock strikes 6pm in the east then start rolling west...... and people will cry and scream as the earthquake hit every city, i say just leave the city..... crisis averted.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  14. me

    Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we'll die.....................

    May 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Gaurav

      Hey, if you have some property like house or cars you want to get rid off, please give me. I want to enjoy all that for one day and in future if we all survive.

      Thank you in advance for being kind enough

      May 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  15. Daniel

    "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." -Matthew 24:36

    "My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will not belong to the council of my people or be listed in the records of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign LORD." -Ezekiel 13:9

    Enough said 🙂

    May 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Rob

      Nice, you just found another way to use something from the bible to condemn someone to hell in your mind. Bravo, wonderful relationship you have with Jesus.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Daniel

      It is not my judgement, but the Lord's. They made their decision.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Amarius


      May 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  16. Douglas Babb

    Is the kingdom of God within you? Within us? Within everyone? Within anyone?

    Luke 17 (KJV)
    And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observatio­n: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

    Luke 17:34 (KJV)
    I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”

    “(113) His disciples said to him, "When will the kingdom come?"
    Jesus said, "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'here it is' or 'there it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."
    The Gospel According to Thomas

    (114) Simon Peter said to him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."
    Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." The Gospel According to Thomas”

    Douglas Babb

    May 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Is putting the kingdom of Christ in someone what your preachers call it when they bugger little boys?

      May 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Rob

      And now I can see why the Gospel of Thomas is not in the Bible. Requiring women to become men in order to enter heaven, how absurd.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  17. Rose

    Bottom line – religion is therapy for loosers who can not take responsibility for their lifes and blame all that happens to them (bad or good) on god's-will-crap, those who don't know how to live life to the foolest waiting for some heavenly-rewards-after-death instead, parents who are loosers and raise their kids with be-affraid-of-god-or-you-will-go-to-heal instead of common sence, ec. Believing in hell and heaven is the same nonsense as martyr in middleeast believing that they will get 17 (or what ever the number) virgins if they blew up themselves. I am too tired to be nice to those who can not grow out of their childhood-fairy-tale-life-with-rewards-waiting-for-them-after-death. Grow up! Regarding end of world bs – the only good positive side – some good laughs while reading comments. Now that's a good stuf! See you all monday 🙂

    May 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Guest

      Thanks Rose, it won't be the end of the world either on May 21st. While you are at it, please learn how to spell. Thanks

      May 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Mark

      Looser than what exactly?

      May 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • James Chamberlain

      If you are so smart and not a loser, please learn to spell.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Intolerant much?

      I am too tired to be nice to those who can not grow out of their childhood-I'm smarter than you-your beliefs are stupid-bullying. Grow up and learn to be tolerant of other peoples beliefs!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  18. Bruce

    FYI people, just because Mr. Camping predicts the beginning of the end of the world tomorrow at 6:00p.m. doesn't mean he (or anyone else) knows the day or the hour. Even if he turns out to be right, it may be that he doesn't really know.

    Camping tomorrow: "Holy cr@p, I was right? I was just bluffing–I never expected this to actually happen!"

    With 6 billion people out there, only a small percentage need to have an opinion of a certain day or time for it to be highly likely that one of them gets it right. With only 24 hours in a day and only 365 or 366 days in the year every one of us has a 1 in 8784 chance of guessing the day and the hour completely at random.

    At the end of the day, guessing a day completely at random is basically the same thing as saying 5 x 5 x 10 x 10 x 17 x 17 = 722,500 and therefore May 21, 2011. Even if Camping is right, he doesn't really know he's right. He's done the theological equivalent of guessing at random.

    His chances of being right are better than playing the lottery, and we all know that way too many people are willing to risk a dollar or more on those odds...

    May 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Beating Jesus Freaks with math!

      One of my favorite pastimes!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  19. Roland

    False prediction is a sin. Please don't do it if it did not come from God.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • LinCA

      But what they are saying is coming from their god (and yours, I presume). It all comes from the same bible, or some version of it. Live with it. These lunatics are no different from any other christian, with the exception that they had the balls to pick a date.

      Just because they added 2 and 2 together and came up with "Wednesday" doesn't mean that they are less deluded than those that come up with "Banana". Same delusion, different math.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Bruce

      Yeah, false prediction is just fine if it comes from God...

      May 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Rob

      Ever wonder how you know a message came from God? (ie... Are these thoughts mine? Or are they God's? I did just pray about this, hmmm... He must want me to do...)

      May 20, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • midogs2

      @LinCA, Your math is so much simpler than my equation of 1 x Camping x the sqaure root of Christianity squared = May 21, 2011. I bow to your expertice

      May 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  20. ThatOTHERdrunk

    I like how both sides of this argument on here use the same argument..Both will scream and scream to a make point that neither listens to because they are both arrogant enough to THINK they know everything. Oh well I here ol'charlie sheen callin Have a good weekend ... or not

    May 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Actually no...I don't think I know everything. I think I can recognize when an idea or concept or thing is unprovable and if so then it is suspect and requires evidentiary support. Religious belief by all accounts is faith based. By definition having faith means we must accept as actual and true something that cannot be verified. Supernatural concepts of any description are all faith based. God, the soul, ghosts, tarot, astrology whatever can never predictably manifest to the satisfaction of criteria laid out by scientific method. If something cannot be demonstrated to be actual and true then I withhold or suspend belief and simply state I don't know. To accept the Bible for instance, as the Word of God is an incredible leap. The 40 authors of the books spanning centuries were entirely biased in their agenda to further the aims of their flegling religion. The veracity of the texts is no more relevant than the Watchtower articles that use junk science to further theirs. Because so and so said such and such isn't evidence of anything. Neither God himself or Jesus ever wrote a word. The earliest canonical gospel is quoting Jesus at least 2 decades after his death. That alone stretches credibility beyond the pale.
      I can't state for certain that there isn't a god/creator but I see no evidence for one. But the specific god proposed in the Abrahamic religions is so illogical that belief is pretty much impossible.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:27 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.