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. Jerri

    The scripture say, "No man knows the day nor the hour" to make the point, be ready whenever he comes. This preacher could be right or he could be wrong, but we should live every day like it is our last. That is the point of this scripture. It is wonderful to know if Jesus does come tomorrow, you are ready to meet him. And he is coming back to get his people. So, stay ready to meet the Lord when he does return.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  2. Kelly

    The sad thing is that alot of people may commit a mass suicide based on the false teachings of this false prophet WHEN THE WORLD DOESN'T END! They are going to be ashamed for following him, disappointed that they put so much faith in something they believed and THEY AREN'T GOING TO WANT TO FACE THOSE THAT SAID "I TOLD YOU SO" People are quitting jobs, selling everything they own and when the end doesn't come, what are they going to have then? Some won't get their jobs back because their boss realized that he had been employeeing a quack job so rehiring is out of the question. Im just saying......

    May 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Yeah

      I was shocked to read a guy dumped 140,000 of his savings into helping with the media campaign. He spent everything he had.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • lumpy

      uhmmm...why is that sad?

      May 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  3. james

    The report that the Seventh-day Adventists believed Jesus came in spirit in 1844 is not correct. We are still waiting His second coming which we know neither the day nor the hour. There were other splinter groups off of the Millerite movement that believed that Jesus came in spirit in 1844, but it was not those that became the Seventh-day Adventists. Adventists believe that in 1844 Christ moved from the holy place in the heavenly sanctuary to the most holy place where the judgement of the living is ongoing until He returns.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • lumpy

      wow! i feel SO much better!

      May 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  4. Derikdeaf

    All christian and I m born again disagree with Harold Camping, he is false teach – christian and i was warning to all dude is not christian, don't listen Harold Camping. he is crazy! What I was believe Mr. Camping is wolf hired who like homeless live in RV and foods for free. homeless work for Mr Camping.

    But of that day and hour knoweth no [man], no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. Matthew 24:36 clear!

    May 20, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • lumpy

      So you don't think that the rapture is going to occur today, but that it may occur sometime in the future, and you're feeling grand about that?

      Isn't that like objecting to having your finger amputated, but agreeing to have your arm chopped off with a buzz saw?

      May 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Derikdeaf

      lumpy – So if not happen tomorrow on May 21st. We Christians feel about atheist will mock and funny of christian. so so camping need know best that. just gospel are good news!

      May 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  5. nice

    i can't wait till Sunday when this is done with so I stop seeing all these reports about these people. But then again next week will be a week of having to hear about it not happening

    May 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  6. Improbable

    'He said it is for The Father to know.' logically interpreted, means that who-ever 'The Father' is, knows. This does not preclude others from knowing as well, unless of course The Bible (choose your re-interpretation) isn't subject to logic...

    May 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  7. TG

    And what about About Daylight Saving Time (DST)? Did he take this in the consideration????

    May 20, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • lumpy

      Great question! I don't think that Daylight Savings Time is mentioned in the Bible. Whoodathunk?

      May 20, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Considering it was a creation of Ben Franklin..I doubt it.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  8. really?

    Who cares what the bible says, it's all man created fiction. Please stop using the bible as proof this won't occur.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  9. Its Me!

    So since judgment day is coming tomorrow and there will be no need for possessions, will everyone please take all your money and car keys and pass them to the middle of the isle 🙂 Thank you and see you on the other side! -Your Preacher


    May 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  10. holycow

    The word 'rapture' does not appear in the Bible. Farbeit from any of us to know the mind of God, should one exist. For me, the essence of faith is the awe and respect for what we cannot know regarding our own existence, and the carrying on with our lives as if there were a purpose and as if it were more meaningful to be good to others rather than screw them over. So these people, who presume not only to know with certainty about the existence of God, his/her plans, and how we should all behave... where is their faith? Faith and certainty are mutually exclusive. Just my opinion. In any case, see y'all next week (I qssume here on this planet... status quo.)

    May 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  11. Sn4ke

    F'n Weirdos

    May 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  12. Cliff Vegas

    The mistake is thinking that ALL Christians believe in Endtimes mythology... we don't. In fact, most of us will let May 21 pass without so much a glance. Why? Because it is not scriptural (without having to over-rationalize an arcane code), it is not based on grace (unless we have totally misread the gospels – which I highly doubt), and it certainly does not enhance our faith (which is of the heart alone). Maybe the reason Doomsdayers are not so different than mainstream is that they are behaving like stampeding sheep... but that's the limit to the comparison.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • David, CA

      "totally misread the gospels" HA good one. The only way TO read them is to MISread them followed quickly by MISquoting them ad nauseum .

      May 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  13. Unknown Dates

    I would like to know where in the Bible does it state the Year of the flood .. and where in the Bible does it state the rapture will happen 7,000 years after that ? Because I have gone through and not seen anything like that. So someone please tell me where they are coming up with these dates ?No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Matthew 24:36 .. If you read his interview it talks about him taking his followers Money for whatever reason he thinks he needs to take it. Most people thinks it is a money scam and he is going to take off with the money. Now for the part he did talk about on the second Month .. in the biblical calendar the second month is May. Now I dont know how he got the 21st day from the 17th day they talk about in the bible (Genesis 7:11) In the six hundredth year of Noah's Life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were open) .

    May 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  14. Yahoo

    I think this all sounds pretty reasonable.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  15. donny

    no one knows when the father is coming..not even his son jesus. god only knows that hour. so i guess that cuts you out...better start reading more. stop trying to worry people...it dont worry me cause i no what the bible says.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  16. CanNorth

    Watch tomorrow, the world will end tomorrow! THE WORLD OF HIGH PRICES! Introducing the new manager Wal-Mart opening in North County, Jesus!

    May 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  17. John Walker

    The Word from Jesus, "The Son of Man and The Son of God" says in Matthew 24:36 – No man knows the day and hour of the end of time, no not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

    It is silly to profess and even try to predict the end of time, but Jesus admonishes us in Matthew 24:44 "Be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man comes." There are countless numbers of people that have died and met this Jesus mentioned in Revelation 1:18 that "has the keys of hell and of death". Jesus is the Light of the World. Often times there is a light that people see in a tunnel when they leave this Earth at death. Jesus is that light that every man will have to give an account for. He has the keys of death and hell, but has given the Keys of "life" to believers of Jesus Christ on this earth. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved.. call on Him. E-mail me with any questions.. be blessed.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  18. Albert

    If people knew their bible it says that "you'll nethier know the date or time of my return" look it up!!

    May 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Bruce

      The very first verse of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) claims that Jesus is the son of David. In chapter 22 of that very same book, Jesus himself says (in bright red letters!) he is not the son of David.

      If people knew their bible they would know it contains contradictions right from the very beginning!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  19. Bruce

    If somebody uses mathematics–say they start with the Fibonacci sequence and do some iterative contortions with those numbers–and derives a series of numbers that they then use to purchase a lottery ticket, we do not say they "knew ahead of time" the winning lottery numbers if they happen to win the lottery.

    Likewise it is with Mr. Camping. Even if the world does start its ending tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. local in every time zone, and even if it is an earthquake that travels the earth laying waste to almost every person on the planet, starting at the international dateline traveling westward at the speed of the earth's rotation, it is not the case that Camping "knew ahead of time" the day and the hour the world was going to end. The methods he used to derive the day and the hour might as well have been a random number generator.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  20. Matt

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

    May 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
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