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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. The Bible

    THE BIBLE TELLS US THAT NO ONE KNOWS THE DAY NOR THE HOUR OF THE RAPTURE NOT EVEN THE ANGELS IN HEAVEN KNOW AND ITS ALSO WARNS US ABOUT FALSE PROPHETS AND ALL OF THIS WIT THEM BELIEVING IN THIS DOOMSDAY ON SATURDAY JUST SHOWS US HOW THE BIBLE IS REVELING ITS SELF " SHOW OF THE TIMES" THESE THINGS THAT ARE GOING ON IS SHOWING US THAT WE ARE LIVING IN THE LAST DAYS BUT WHEN THE LAST DAY WILL BE NO ONE I REPEAT NO ONE BUT GOD KNOWS AND WHENEVER GOD COMES BACK ME AND MY FAMILY WILL BE READY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! GOD BLESS................

    May 20, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Bruce

      The Bible tells us very clearly that those who abuse the Caps Lock key will go straight to the deepest pits of hell.

      You have been warned.

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

      Amen to that. I'm reading these posts and thinking how sad it is. I do not believe the world will end tomorrow. I believe what the Bible tells me... and you nailed it with your comment! 🙂 The saddest part is, these Christians that for some reason have chosen to dismiss all that they had learned in their faith to believe in a day that the Bible clearly says nobody will know will happen. The comments on this message board are to be exepected... All I can say is, at least they believe in God and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior... because when that day comes (or simply just their natural earthly demise comes about) they will be on their way to "life" in eternity.... the saddest part for us Christians is how this Harold Camping fellow is making it much much more difficult to help save souls when he is taking the Bible and using scare tacticts to get people to come to the Lord. I'd much rather bring someone to God by showing how happy and blessed I am to know Jesus, rather than give them the scaring of their life about a day that without a doubt WILL HAPPEN but not when a man predicts it.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  2. Tripp

    "Not so different"? I would have to disagree with you. People like this have weak minds that cant comprehend anything without an invisible sky jockey that over-see's every humans existance. How stupid is that? Why not say green fairies riding atop unicorns made everything? Both are just as rediculous.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Relictus

      *pssst* It's blue fairies. Blue.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  3. in West Seattle

    I firmly believe the Holy Bible is God's inspired words. Accordingly, through study and faith, I do believe we are in the END of the END OF DAYS. However, no one knows when exactly or the hour exactly – not even the son. But, we do believe, it is the Son who will come. Do not fret. REJOICE! because the end of this wicked system is upon us. So, we ask ourselves, "IS MY HOUSE IN ORDER, WHEN HE COMES?" Those who call upon the name of God will be saved.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • SavedGuy

      YES!!!!!!!!!!!!! this is how one spreads the word of God. Thank you for putting this out there. TO THOSE WHO ARE READING: some of you are on this blog not just to "poke fun" but are on here because in many ways they have been on the fence about God and do believe in some ways we are living in the last days because of an overwhelming list of events that are taking place (including this "doomsday" message)...... yes, the Bible does tell us Jesus will return for his believers....THE SAVED. so if you are wanting to be saved and don't know how, it is very simple.... it does not take riches, it does not take a lifetime of Sunday church services... ALL IT TAKES IS THIS: Believe in GOD... believe that you are a sinner, believe that Jesus Christ is the son of GOD who came to this earth to take ALL OF THE BURDEN OF YOUR SINS FROM YOUR SOUL, believe that the day he was nailed to the cross and shed is blood it was for ALL OF US.... EVERYONE ON THIS MESSAGE BOARD!!!! all the bad stuff we do, all the bad thoughts we have, all the bad things we have done.... WIPED AWAY simply by BELIEVING... Ask Jesus to personally come into your heart and be your SAVIOR... and guess what happens after that? YOU ARE REBORN!!!!! YOU ARE SAVED!!!! YOU ARE THEN PROMISED ETERNITY OF LIFE!!! HEAVEN!!!! so whether you believe the world will end in 15 minutes, tomorrow, the next day, in 10 years, or not even in your lifetime, WHEN YOU LEAVE THIS BODY YOU WILL BE A SAVED SOUL AND GO TO HEAVEN! It's GOD'S PROMISE! and he DOES NOT LIE! So for all of you that have been on the fence, are a bit scared about tomorrow (which quite honestly if you read the Bible it will say that NO MAN KNOWS WHEN THE RAPTURE WILL TAKE PLACE so probably won't happen)...BUT... if you do have that to be one of the raptured, Just ask Jesus into your heart right now,,,, believe it when you do.... AND YOU ARE SAVED!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • RHarris

      Kooky!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Relictus

      I have an advance ticket ... for eternal damnation in Hell!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  4. employmentvoice

    If the world is going to end.....This little warning is not at all a bad thing.....Its not going to hurt me to fill up my ice trays Saturday night...

    May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  5. AdvancedWarningSystem-FutureTravler

    We will actually know TODAY starting at 6pm if the nutcase world ending plan is actually coming true TOMORROW at 6pm!!! How will be be able to "see" into the future you ask? Thanks to the U.S. Federal Government, we have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey. These agecies that republicans have been trying to kill have earthquake and tsunami sensors all around the globe. We also have world-wide comminucations media to broadcast these horrific predicted events... So sit back tonight and watch your local 6pm newcast. If tomorrow is rapture day, and the rapture will be starting at the international date line, bringing rapturous disaster at 6pm in every time zone as these nutjobs claim, your local broadcaster will be cutting into the weather segment TONITE with "BREAKING NEWS!" Happy rapture watching.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  6. ENDOFTHEWORLD

    Craig Barbour SAYS. God gave Noah a 7-day warning before He caused it to rain (Genesis 7:4). Craig, explain how the world was repopulated if it was flooded and everyone died a few thousand years ago. Noah and his wife must have been very busy.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Relictus

      Perhaps there's a video of them "getting busy"?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  7. Lindsay

    I am a Christian. Not all Christians are like him. In fact, most of us are not. If they would just read their Bible's they would realize that Jesus said NO MAN WILL KNOW THE DAY OR THE HOUR! How they get around this is beyond me. We are NOT all crazy!!! It is unfortunate that people like Camping make us sound that way!!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Tripp

      If you take that fairytale called the bible literaly, you ARE crazy.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Bruce

      Two verses earlier Jesus said it would happen before the generation he was a part of had passed. How is it that people ignore that prediction?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  8. M

    Wait, so some people ACTUALLY think the world is ending? Take this as you will, but religion seems to be the source of all modern conflict. Yikes.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  9. UCFknightman

    The guy leading this bogus movement should be arraigned on Fraud and Tax evasion.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  10. Audrey

    Isn't it a fact that these "revelations" happen to different people at different times throughout history? I believe it is a deceiving spirit who has taken hold of them. Sometimes even Christians are vulnerable to deceiving spirits – it doesn't mean their not Christians or that they are irrational – it just may mean that we're dealing with supernatural forces greater than human capacity. Why does it reccur- and why is it so convincing? Why is the person deluded so unable to comprehend the supernatural forces at work and how seperate they've become from not only members of their family and community, but also from other Christians? These people do not need to be ridiculed, they need prayer and casting out of evil spirits.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Emma Cross

      It may happen just like he said and it may not; but one thing certain it will happen. If Jesus wants to give us a warning to get right with Him then so be it. The Holy Spirit woke me up at 2:30 in the morning in 2008 and told me who our President would be before hand and also said, But the church will be going. So for all your athesist out there I feel sorry for you. Jesus paid the utimate cost with His life and all He ask is for all people to accept His scarifice and live. He promised us that He will return again and will will regin with Him forever. I believe that with all my heart and it is my desire that every person on this earth would accept Him and believe also. If they did, the earth would be a better place.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Audrey
      Yes, let's drill some holes into their skulls to let out the evil spirits and maybe sacrifice a goat or two.
      There are very specific instructions on how to properly sacrifice animals to God in the Bible.
      7 drops of blood, no more – no less.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  11. Tyler

    I dare say that Mr. Harold Camping skipped over a few parts in the bible. For example: Mark (13:32), The other five seals on the Scroll in Revelations. The part that really throughs off his theory of a earthquake hitting at 6pm, is the fourth seal Revelations (6:8): "I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth." Not too sure on this, but i don't think over a billion people died recently. But a lot could happen in less then 48 hours.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  12. PiersMorgan

    6PM? What timezone?

    May 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  13. me

    I love love love how people base their own beliefs around Stephen Hawking. "He's in a wheel chair and is really smart, so if ANYBODY knows it's him". I have two questions 1. Really? 2. Why?????????

    May 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • SeanNJ

      1) He's not saying he knows.
      2) He's saying you don't.

      3) He's right. You don't know either.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Stevie7

      I don't base any 'beliefs' about anything on what any scientist says. I do shape my outlook of the world, life, and the universe based upon the study, observations, and analysis provided by scientists such as Hawking.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  14. 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,"
    ~ Matthew

    May 20, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • PiersMorgan

      Matthew? Matthew McConaughey?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Maharishi Swami Poobah

      Mathew Broderick (sheesh...don't you know anything?!?)

      May 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  15. xray

    theyre just like us, if by us you mean delusional psychotics

    May 20, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  16. Richard

    Yes, they are weird. No evidence has ever been uncovered that any of the predictions by the morons of the world are true. NEVER!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  17. Daemonaquila

    Not so different than the rest of us? Nonsense. People delude themselves in all sorts of ways, but it takes a special kind of nuts to not only believe in the apocalypse, but to waste time trying to predict the date, celebrate it, and preach about it to others. They can't even pick good fiction to delude themselves about.

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

      But we know exactly when the ice caps will melt, and the exact sea level increases that will result. Or the exact onset of the next ice age.

      As long as you call it climate change, you can't be wrong.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  18. Stuart

    Well I have U2 tickets for Tuesday night, so I hope he's at least 3 days off.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  19. Joey

    This guy has made 100 million dollars in donations for this so clled "prediction" Just sayin.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  20. T

    what this group has done is remind us that someday the end will come, just not on our timetable

    May 20, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • SeanNJ

      I didn't forget that I'm mortal. So, of course, the end is coming. And not on my timetable. And I didn't even need to be reminded of that.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Peace2All

      @T

      I'm in agreement here with -SeanNJ. I don't think we need reminders that the world and all life as we know it, 'will' one day come to an end.

      I think, and I could be wrong here is that the 'inference' you are suggesting is that only God knows the end of the world date, etc...

      If I'm wrong in my assumption from your short post, my apologies. If I'm right in my take on what you wrote, you may want to give it some thought.

      Respectfully,

      Peace...

      May 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
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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.