End of the World

It is July 2011 and it’s a fantastic time for the world to end. It is going to end next year, according to people that like to interpret ancient Mayan calendars. Or it will happen this year in October, because it didn’t happen two months ago. That is, the Rapture was scheduled for May 21, 2011 according to 89-year-old Christian radio host Harold Camping. His prediction wasn’t the first doomsday prediction and it’s not the last, but it was certainly one of the best publicized. There was an ad campaign estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, including 3000 billboards worldwide.

Since Camping was able to raise that sort of cash, you would think that he must have had some fabulous reasons for knowing the date of God’s judgment, especially since he was famously wrong for predicting the same thing in 1994. Of course he had good evidence! Take a look at this 80-page PDF file that explains everything. Assuming that you are not going to read that, the short version is that he combined a bible verse of God saying that Noah’s flood would happen in seven days with another verse saying that a day for God is like a thousand years. Then he calculated that May 21, 2011 was 7000 years (7 days x 1000 years/day) after God’s proclamation. Another “significant” fact was that May 21 was 722,500 days after Jesus was crucified. This is significant because 722,500 =(5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) and for whatever reason, 5 means atonement, 10 means completeness, and 17 means heaven.

Okay, so one false prophet convinced a few thousand people that the world would end. Big deal, right? There are a billion Christians in the world that rejected his claims. So they know better! Well, that depends on your definition of “knowing”. Why did they reject Camping’s prediction? Here are four good reasons that they could have used:

·         The bible says that Noah’s flood happened 7 days after God said that it would happen in 7 days, so he was just talking about regular human days.

·         Nobody knows the dates of the flood or crucifixion to the precision that Camping claims.

·         There are infinite ways to add, subtract, multiply, and factor numbers until they appear to be meaningful. There is nothing special about May 21, 2011.

·         The all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good ruler of the universe would not resort to having important messages be derived by arbitrary calculations.

The problem is that I never saw anyone make these arguments. Forgive the anecdotal evidence, but I only saw one counter-argument. It was all over Facebook and on church signs. Matthew 24:36: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” Basically, they knew that Harold Camping was wrong because Jesus said that nobody will know when the world will end. Okay, that’s fair. Jesus trumps everybody in Christianity. The problem is that nobody even decided to think about it. When you don’t think, you can accept a bad interpretation just as easily as a good one. Camping did have another interpretation, of course. It was something about that verse no longer being applicable because the “church age” is over. Also, First Thessalonians 5:2 says “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” More biblical proof that Camping is right!

In the end, the rationale doesn’t even matter. With religion, you don’t convince people with reason, you convince them with authority. Nobody would listen to a preacher that said “I ran some numbers to predict the end of the world and I am confident that they are correct.” Harold Camping had to turn up the authority! He had to put “LORD” in all caps and capitalize “His” when referring to God or Jesus, so that we can differentiate them from regular people who get regular pronouns, whose words we are permitted to judge. That is why it took 80 pages to say what I summarized in one paragraph. In the spirit of Camping’s love of numbers, let us count the words in his document. The word “perfect” appears 12 times. “Infallible” appears 10 times. “Know” and “true” appear 70 times each. “Believe” appears 80 times. Do you see the issue? The part about the world ending is secondary. The main message of the document is “Believe me. I can’t be wrong.”

For most religious topics, it is maddening how prophets cannot be proven wrong. They declare what God wants, what is immoral, what happens when you die, etc. No matter how absurd they are, you can’t prove them wrong. But the end of the world is completely true or false! If you pick a date for worldwide natural disasters and for millions of people to rise up to Heaven and nothing happens, you were WRONG. That is how it works in my mind anyway. Unfortunately, faith does not accept being wrong. Faith only makes excuses. Harold Camping was flabbergasted that the world did not end and he wanted his beliefs to be right again. How could he do that? He could not think that his calculations were wrong. He could not think that the Bible is wrong. It made no sense to think that God changed his mind because the people of the world did not repent. The eventual solution was actually quite brilliant. Camping said that May 21 was a “silent judgment.” Everyone has been judged but the physical destruction of the universe won’t happen until October 21. This is a stunning example of how faith works. In Camping’s mind, he was no longer 100% wrong. He was basically right and only misinterpreted a minor detail. Anyway, that bought him another five months. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next time.