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. Jeff

    I wonder if this guy has any credit card debts. The lenders should require full payment before tomorrow.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  2. Erv

    Really compelling argument, seriously. Oh wait, I mean thin and incomplete. You're really not selling the idea of why we are the same. Are you saying that everyone lives from their political beliefs to trust in their spouse are a lie? Are you trying to say that simply to exist and take part in life is essentially a fools errand? That any idea or belief is laughable and makes us like the nut job on the corner screaming religious nonsense and wearing a sandwich board? Are you saying that we are all brain dead automatons being molded just like members of a cult? I feel like you are trying to be edgy or take this in a new direction, but saying we are all like the doomsdayers is frankly laughable.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  3. Sam

    If the world is ending tomorrow it sounds like it is TIME TO PARTY! 🙂

    May 20, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  4. Paulo

    Since the monk who invented the modern calendar messed it up by several years we should already be gone by this crackpot calculation as well as the Mayan calendar b.s. The sad part of this guy's cult is that he makes all Christians look like a bunch of loonys and gives radical athesists so much ammo to ridicule anyone who believes in a higher power. I'm not sure why they really care what we b elieve anyway. Kinda funny, tho, how the fundamentalist leaders are lining up to trash this guy. They've been trying to scare people to come to Jesus for centuries. Lahaye and Jenkins have made a fortune with their Left Behind nonsense series of novels. The endtimer fundamentalists have been using the Bible for years to gain support for Israel, the primary cause of world tension

    May 20, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  5. Angel

    I personally doubt the world will end tommorro but we'll have to wait n see.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • pam

      Ya I'm sad at how this could be affecting all the children reading this stuff. If I was 8 years old I'd be a bit scared.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  6. JSR

    Prothero- go blow your farts in another direction- Fanatics are "perhaps–more willing to air their craziness to the world"? What the hell does that mean- when you air your crazy thoughts– – – that is what makes you crazy. The homeless people on the streets of new york are never saying anything quite strange– but they are saying it outloud all the time- and that is what makes them "crazy" - duh we are all crazy if we use your stoopid definition of crazy.

    Go pray for a good point.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  7. BL

    Jesus wasn't talking about a physical return at all. The meaning of this teaching like most, were lost long ago, when layers of ritual, dogma, and mythology were added to someone who was just a simple teacher of unity with God. BTW, it's a return of higher consciousness he was referring to, when people were completely transformed by his teachings, into a state of oneness with God. Of course, Christianity beat that out of people thousands of years ago.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Donald Clodfelter

      The Bible declares, "No man knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man shall return." Paul said to the Thessalonian church that Jesus will come like a theif in the night." my point is NO ONE can pin point the end of time.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  8. Cynic

    is it 6pm EST/PST?

    May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Rob

      Its 6:00pm local time – whereever you are....so actually we will know its bunk on FRIDAY in the USA. Since the date line will have passed...

      May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  9. Mark

    Brett, nice Billy Madison reference, lol.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  10. Ugh

    Camping might have a better argument if he could read Hebrew, Aramaic and ancient Greek, the three languages in which the books that are currently contained in protestant Bibles (gasp! yes, there are bunch that were left out) were originally written. So he claims to have deduced from translations of translations of translations the exact date and time of Jesus return. This is only possible because he believes that God would not allow things to be translated incorrectly (that divine inspiration thing). Camping is making crazy people look bad because if his continued assertion that he is completely sane.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  11. mike

    may 22 2011 ...pleeese can i have my job back...lol

    May 20, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  12. jon

    I've made golf reservations for Sunday.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  13. Rob

    We won't have to wait till 6:00pm local time. Its supposed to "start" at 6:00pm at the International Date Line... soooo, we should know before the end of today! I am guessing he already has his calculator going to re-calc...

    May 20, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Eternal Infidel

      You are absolutely correct. At 6 pm on the IDL it will be 1:00 am EST. So after I catch Jimmy Kimmel Live tonight, the news should interrupt with reports of massive earthquakes spreading around the globe, leaving the planet in ruin and chaos.

      That, or a huge OOPS will be heard from a very silly group of idiots.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  14. Craig Barbour

    Historically, May 21 is the eve of Pentecost when the churches began. The Jewish calendar and our calendar rarely align. They align this year. They last aligned in 1994. I was a doubter until I did my homework. People say familyradio missed the prediction in 1994?, the book, but it is stated on pages 494 and 495 that the more likely date of the return would be 2011. Reporters miss this fact. I researched their website at familyradio.com and reviewed the following 9 proofs. These combined point to May 21, 2011. They can’t all be a coincidence.
    1. The discovery of the exact year of Noah’s flood in 4990BC by subtracting backwards from King Solomon’s death in 931BC using information from the Bible (see Timeline).
    2. The discovery of the month and day of Noah’s flood (Genesis 7:11) – When translated, May 21 is the 2nd month and 17 day of that year (Iyar 17).
    3. Apostle Peter warns the true believers regarding Judgment Day, “a day to the Lord is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3:8).”
    4. God gave Noah a 7-day warning before He caused it to rain (Genesis 7:4).
    5. Combining Peter’s warning in proof #3 and God’s warning in proof #4, we have a total of 7,000 years. May 21, 2011 is exactly 7,000 years after proof #1, Noah’s flood.
    6. The verbal description of a single event in two different ways is a style of speech described by Joseph, Jacob's son, as "doubling." Apostle Peter used this style unknowingly when describing Christ's return. Joseph defined the usage as he interpreted the Pharaoh's dream. The discovery of this comparison and its meaning reinforces that “God will shortly bring it to pass (Gen 41:32).”
    7. Finding God’s Jubilee year in view to find the tribulation period – Sept 7, 1994.
    8. How to find the beginning of the tribulation period, as described in Daniel’s first vision consisting of 2,300 days.
    9. From May 21, 1988 going forward 23 years, we land exactly on May21, 2011. The significance of the number 23.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Paula

      My you sure have a lot of time on your hands!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • yeah

      so you believe Camping over Jesus?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • conradshull

      All this stuff was written by people who had no idea how anything in the universe worked.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Maharishi Swami Poobah

      "No one knows when that day or hour will come-not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father,"

      May 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Bob

      23 might also be some people's IQs...

      May 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Robert


      1) You are assuming the bible is more than a work of fiction.
      2) You are a lunatic.
      3) You should really take your medications on a more timely basis (or get one of those Sunday to Saturday weekly pill organizing boxes)

      May 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Joe

      You really believe doomsday is at the door and you're sitting at your computer posting on CNN?!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Gene

      Yes, Craig, it IS all a coincidence, hammered into a pattern by some very creative numerology.

      Fasten your seat belt, because you're very soon to undergo a wrenching emotional earthquake.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Dave

      Amazing how convincingly self-reinforcing your delusion is. Yet, it is still all cr@p.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Eileen

      Oh, excuse me. You missed one:
      "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only." Mt. 24:36

      May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Faith


      May 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  15. Christian

    Unless you die another way...we will all be here on Sunday morning.
    My concern is for those who blindly judge others. (period) Like those that do don't have anything negative in their own background themselves. No one is perfect. Hopefully some of us learn from our mistakes and become better for it.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  16. NYCMovieFan

    Well, if the author really is a religion scholar, then he should know that any one predicting the end of the world is acting against the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus stated that "ye know not the day nor the hour" of death, and also that the best of people have innocent hearts and do not run arround seeking attention for themselves – "the meek inherit the earth", which is the opposite of the doomsayers message. Anyone who predicts the end of the world is not acting on God's behalf, but has fallen under the influence of the dark forces, and needs forgiveness and prayers.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  17. jubes

    in the bible it states that we will not no when he comes for judgement day, only when the world is filled with evil and he comes and saves us again the world to me looks good right now. =D

    May 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Jason

      the world looks good to you right now? are you serious? or sarcastic?

      If your serious you are extremely diluted

      May 20, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  18. yeah

    has anyone checked this camping guys bank account. Has he given up all of his belongings like his followers have? And who did his followers give their stuff too? I like how every sign also says family radio . com and I am sure every click he gets goes into his bank account. I just hope he is not really some super nut that will kill these people tomorrow. You know like have them drink kool aid or something

    May 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • No

      Per the SF Chronicle, he has not given up any "worldly" possessions.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • yeah

      BIG surprise....

      May 20, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  19. yukonmukon

    American public discourse in a nutshell: These doomsayers have become the target of ridicule, not because of their belief that an undead Jewish carpenter will arrive to end the world, but because they claim to know WHEN this will happen. Splitters! I thought we were the Judean Popular People's Front!

    Wake me when we all grow up.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • NYCMovieFan

      I thought we were an autonomous collective! May be Brian will turn up tomorrow, always look on the bright side of life!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  20. SaraTonin

    This guy and his followers really believe that the world is going to end on Saturday. It's no less of a belief than many others who believe that there really is a God! None of it tracks. People are stupid and can be led by the noses by anyone who comes up with a theory. No proof or logic is necessary, just a bunch of gullible people willing to swallow the hook and what a terrible person you are if you don't swallow it. Garbage!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Bruce

      Sara, at least their claims are falsifiable. That's more than can be said about most religious claims...

      May 20, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • John

      Wow! So man kinds search for God since mans birth has been in vain because all along you have the answer. You know something no one in the entire world knows for sure. Cool!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • N. Doorfin

      Actually, Bruce, that's an astute observation. Karl Popper would be pleased.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • SaraTonin

      John .. this is but one example of man making an absolute fool of himself about religion. Others aren't as lucky ,, sans the Crusades, the Branch Davidians, Jim Jones, Osama BinLaden, the list is exhaustive, especially if we go back to "man's birth". Do I have the answer, no but I sure as heck am not going to fall for "the world is ending tomorrow" Neither should you ... unless you are a fool!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:28 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.