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. tonaaaaay

    this is actually valuable / true and i hope if you're an atheist you'll consider that delusions aren't always grandiose

    May 20, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Sir Craig

      Not so much, no. Signed, an atheist.

      May 22, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  2. Barking Alien

    I think it is more like the end of common sense. What happens when the world does not end? What do you tell your employer or future employer....ahh I have not been working the last 6 months because I thought the world was ending. What do you tell the mortgage company and credit card companies why you were late on your bills not to mention your family and friends that you left your senses.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  3. painurse

    An important point for all to understand here is that this man and his followers DO NOT represent ALL BELIEVERS!!! This man is deceived as is many, but the most important point here is that Jesus loves all; it is not His desire that any should perish but that all should come to repentance; just look at the cross; that explains it all. He is coming back for His church; whether people believe it or not does not change what His word says; what is important is that we have a Saviour that was willing to give HIs very life's blood as payment for mankind to be restored to a holy God; please do not ridicule all believers for the deception of some. May God bless you all and may you all come to a saving faith in Him if you have not.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  4. shamgar50

    It’s staggering to think that ‘ADULTS” believe in this nonsense. Most of the people in charge (politicians, police, CEOs, teachers, etc.) profess a belief in god and all it’s associated foolishness. No wonder we have so many problems. The majority of people base their lives on “Fairy Tales”.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  5. Margie

    Doomsday? Hmm if it happens it happens. What can the human race do about. When the time comes you won't be warned, it will just happen and you won't have a chance.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  6. Reality

    Tick Tock There Go The Major Religions (and S. Prothero's job) Onto the Myth Pile In A Burst of Rational Thinking:

    1. There was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no basis.

    2. There was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    3. There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    4. There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    5. There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    6. Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    7. Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • midogs2

      We didn't start the fire...........hey, they out to write a song.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  7. WSU1wr12

    i like how the media asked what will happen on the 22, May 2011 when they are still here and they wouldnt reply LOLOL...this dude is straight up clown shoes!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • How Stupid Are You

      Jay and Silent Bob wouldn't make a comment this stupid.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  8. Al Lane

    I have no problem when someone says that they think that one date or perhaps another date may be Judgment Day. Because it could, and as Christians Jesus instructs us to be prepared all the time for his return! Mr. Camping did alert us to examine our faith.

    My problem with Mr. Camping is with his judgment on my soul. He clearly states on his programs that if I don’t believe that May 21, 2011 is Judgment Day, I will NOT be saved. On that he is wrong!

    If May 21 turns out to not be the date (and it could, like any date could), it will also shed light on all of his other false teachings, including the sacraments, his theory on hell, the Trinity of God, that the devil is ruling God’s churches, that Jesus appearance during the New Testament was merely a demonstration of something that happened before God created the world, (sort of like a movie rerun), and his theory and definition of “The Elect.”

    Those issues will need to be sorted out beginning next week.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  9. gogogopher

    I think i may believe Jesus killing 42 children with 2 bears IF the end of the world happens on Sat.

    2nd kings, 2nd chapter.... Lord uses bears to kill children.... RIGHT-O, mate...

    May 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  10. kynsie

    If you start seeing earthquakes tonight over in New Zealand and areas, you will know he was correct.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Jared

      I do feel bad for ANY city the happen to have an earthquake tomorrow... Man will those people be crapping themselves or WHAT?!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  11. bobcat2u

    I'll be safely at work by the time the rapture hits at 6:00 PM . At least I won.t have to worry about dodging all those driverless cars going down the road.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Relictus

      Nuts. I will be on the road at 6pm for my lunch break. Maybe I will go late.

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

    So... where's the earth quake? It's the 21st on the other half of the globe... or does god go by U.S. time zones since he seems to be American anyway?

    May 20, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Bruce

      If you are on the east coast of the United States, it starts in New Zealand at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. If you are on the west coast of the US, it starts at 10:00 p.m. tonight.

      Do pay attention...

      May 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • svann

      I think you got west coast time wrong. 11pm is the kickoff not 10.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • ThatGuy

      there other countrys besides america?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Bruce

      svann, you are right...

      Wait, I meant that if you were SURFING way out in the Pacific Ocean west of the coast... Nah, you are correct. 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • JudgewhatDay?

      @Bruce – It's 4am in NZ right now. God's late.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Bruce

      JudgewhatDay: Doesn't start until 6:00p.m in New Zealand time. Do pay attention...

      May 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  13. Jared

    I believe in God, but I believe that anyone who thinks Judgement Day is tomorrow is crazy. The bible does NOT "guarentee" it. This guy used a bunch of numbers that he pulled out of his BUTT to decide when Judgement day was... But guess what, everyone preaching this WILL be going to hell according to the Bible. That is a guarentee. It's a bunch of false prophets.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  14. Renee

    Mr. Camping's predictions do NOT line up with the Word of God. The Bible is quite clear on the subject of the end of the world. If you will read the scripture references below (noting the verse Mark 13:32) it tells us that no one knows the day or the hour of our Lord's return. Jesus will return one day (and I do believe that it will be soon!) The signs of the times are pointing toward His coming. If you read the Bible (especially Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation) you can see how everything is lining up according to God's Word. For those of you who do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, I pray that you read the Bible and consider accepting Him as your Savior. I tell you, we as Christians are NOT perfect. We sin and make mistakes. The only difference is that we are FORGIVEN by Father God when we SINCERELY ask forgiveness for our sins and turn away from them. Jesus died to pay the debt for our sins, because He knew we could never pay that high a price. I do not judge people who say they do not believe, I pray for God to open their eyes. I also pray for Mr. Camping and the people that he is leading astray. I pray that God will open his followers eyes to the truth. Jesus WILL return one day. And I know for a fact that I will not be left behind! Will you? Are you ready? If I am wrong (and I know for a fact that I am not) what have I lost? But for those of you who don't believe...just imagine for a moment...what if you are wrong?

    Mark 13:24 "But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;
    Mark 13:25 "the stars of heaven will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
    Mark 13:26 "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
    Mark 13:27 "And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.
    Mark 13:28 "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.
    Mark 13:29 "So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it [fn] is near–at the doors!
    Mark 13:30 "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
    Mark 13:31 "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
    Mark 13:32 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
    (Scripture taken from the New King James Version of the Bible)

    May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • JohnRJ08

      You could have just written that Camping is insane.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Shelley

      Amen, sister!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Bruce

      Mark 13:30–that generation (the one Jesus was in) has passed. So, whatever was going to happen before that generation has passed has already happened, or Jesus was wrong.

      That the gospels were written more than 40 years after Jesus allegedly said those words means they were written after the fact. The events he was allegedly predicting involved the Romans sacking Jerusalem.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • in West Seattle


      May 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • painurse

      Thank you for the word: and one final word from the Lord: " Wherefore also God highly exalted Him, and gave unto Him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE should bow, of things in heaven and THINGS ON EARTH and things under the earth, and that EVERY TONGUE should confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father. " Phillippians 2: 9-11 Just remember: EVERY PERSON will stand before Him: are you ready??????

      May 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  15. uncertainstance

    I hope the world does end tomorrow, because if it doesn't we're gonna have to wait a whole year for the next doomsday.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  16. Brad

    You know what I have to say about this? See you May 22nd...

    May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  17. Ron

    "Predictions–and disappointments".

    Disappointed in the world not ending? You guys are nuts. All of you religious people. Silly fantasies, with dangerous disappointment when the world does not end.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  18. LOL

    I keep hearing people quote scriptures from Bible "versions". You do realize that if its a version its more than likely bias to that Religon itself, I think in order to make it more fair we would have to use a direct translation, for all we know it could be completely different from what the original says... BTW no I"m not an atheist, just say'n.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  19. shonuff415

    Either we are all descended from monkeys or we are meant to be like this. Either way I am not happy.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Free

      Only (some) Christians think that evolution means we were descended from monkeys. Really, it's like saying that your cousin is actually your ancient ancestor. Silly straw man argument.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  20. FreeBee

    Hey Camping, have you donated everything like your followers yet? If not, wire me some benjamins. I'm in need of a new arc for fishing. Sorry I ment for dooms day.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • FreeBee

      Sorry, I meant ARK. Brain is fried from too much fishing.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:02 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.