If you believe the 89-year-old California radio preacher Harold Camping, the world will end on May 21 with a rolling series of worldwide earthquakes, followed by the Rapture, when all true Christians will join Christ in the air; the Tribulation, when a demonic figure, the Antichrist, will impose his bloody global dictatorship; and the Battle of Armageddon, when Christ and the raptured saints will destroy the Antichrist and his deluded followers.
Camping bases his prediction on complex mathematical calculations comprehensible only to himself. Nevertheless, many Americans are said to be anxiously awaiting the End. Thanks to our wired world, reports of his prophecy have spread far and wide. As it happens, Camping made an earlier calculation that the End would come in September 1994. That didn’t pan out, but he’s convinced he’s got it right this time.
These date-setters are the boldest of the Bible prophecy interpreters who seem to arise in each generation. In the 1980s, Edgar Whisenant, a retired NASA engineer, sold several million copies of a book called Eighty Eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988. When that prophecy failed, Whisenant, like Camping, went back to the drawing board and proposed several successive Rapture dates, but with ever-diminishing public attention.
The best-known end-time hysteria in American history was in the 1830s and early 1840s, when William Miller, a self-taught Bible student and part-time Baptist preacher in upstate New York, began to preach that on the basis of time sequences mentioned in the Book of Daniel, Christ would return around 1843 or 1844. Some of his followers tried to pin the date down more precisely, eventually settling on October 22, 1844. Thousands were caught up in the “Millerite” movement, leading to the so-called “Great Disappointment” when the predicted date came and went. However, from the ashes of the movement arose the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose followers still avidly study the prophecies, though carefully avoiding date-setting.
In fact, date-setting is rare among prophecy believers. After all, Jesus himself warned: “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 25:13). Most prophecy popularizers, such as Tim LaHaye, co-author of the popular “Left Behind” series of prophecy novels, avoid date-setting, but rather list the “Signs of the Times” foretelling that the End is near. These include wars, increasing wickedness (wickedness always seems to be increasing), natural catastrophes like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, long-term environmental hazards like global warming, unfolding events in Israel and the Middle East, and the emergence of global political and economic systems laying the groundwork for the Antichrist’s dictatorship. (Especially since 9/11, many prophecy popularizers have linked Islam with the Antichrist.)
Public-opinion polls consistently find that 30-40 percent of Americans believe that Bible prophecies offer a specific timetable of End Time events, including the Battle of Armageddon between the forces of righteousness and evil. America’s free-market of religious movements and high level of literalist biblical belief, coupled with our modern mass communications systems, provide fertile soil for such beliefs. Further, prophecy belief offers a satisfying sense of access to secret knowledge, infuses human history with ultimate meaning and an exciting dramatic aura, and holds out hope that after the terrors of the Tribulation will come the Millennium (Revelation, chapters 20-21), Christ’s thousand-year reign of justice and peace, so different from the present age.
Given these powerful incentives to belief, here’s my own modest prophecy: even if Harold Camping has got it wrong again, and May 21 proves to be just another day, Bible prophecy belief is likely to remain a powerful strand in American religious culture. Courtesy WJS