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Apocalypse Soon: Why Are Christians So Obsessed With the End Times?

How can Americans make major life decisions on the basis of faith that the world will end in the very near future?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Bruce Rolff

 
 
 
 

In the summer of 2010, I saw him several times a week: a portly gentleman, leaning against a pillar in Penn Station and holding out two fistfuls of pamphlets to the disinterested commuters. He wore glasses and earbuds connected to an MP3 player in his coat pocket, and always had a serene, almost bored expression that was in sharp contrast to the urgency of his message:

He was one of the devotees of Harold Camping, a formerly obscure Christian preacher who started making headlines in 2009, when he announced his discovery of a numerological code hidden in the Bible that foretold the exact date of the end of the world. As the appointed date grew nearer, Camping's devotees became increasingly zealous in their race to get the message out. In addition to their leafletting volunteers, I saw billboards and subway ads. Their Web site had a form you could fill out to request free literature, bumperstickers and desk calendars for 2011 that ended the third week of May.

One day, I stopped for a brief chat with the fellow.

"May 2011," I observed. "That's soon."

"Uh-huh," he said, uncertain whether I was making fun of him.

"What happens on that day?" I asked.

"The universe will cease to exist," he explained, as calm as if he were delivering a weather forecast. (I have to admit, I was hoping for something more dramatic: boiling oceans, rains of fire, rivers turned to blood, that sort of thing.)

"What happens if that date comes and you're still here?" I persisted.

"I'll be in big trouble," he said calmly.

I wanted to correspond with him, but when I asked him for his e-mail address, he refused. "This is just the way I live now," he said. I don't know if that meant he had divested himself of worldly possessions like computers to prepare for the Rapture, or if his literature-distributing schedule was so hectic it left no time for e-mail.

Obviously, May 21, 2011 came and went without incident. Camping was at first unfazed, announcing that it was a "spiritual" judgment day, and that the real, visible apocalypse would actually happen on October 21. But when that date too passed with nothing out of the ordinary transpiring, a " flabbergasted" Camping was finally forced to confess that he had blundered. Soon afterward he retired from ministry, though he never offered to reimburse the volunteers who wasted their time and money spreading his phony predictions.

So ends the tale of Harold Camping. But he wasn't just a lone kook crying in the wilderness. On the contrary, he was just one of the latest in a long line of Christian preachers who've made a profitable career out of erroneously predicting the end of the world. Some, like Camping, made one of the few fatal errors in religion: they tied their faith to a definitive test by predicting an exact date. Others, more cynical, are content to constantly hint that Armageddon is right around the corner, but without ever committing to a date.

As an example of the latter, the evangelical megachurch pastor David Jeremiah, in his book What In the World Is Going On? speaks of the imminent Armageddon as " a belief I have taught consistently for more than thirty years," and doesn't seem to find anything incongruous about this. The Christian author John Walvoord wrote apocalypse books throughout the 20th century, periodically reissuing them with updates as needed to accommodate current world events. Then there's Hal Lindsay, who in the 1970s made a sensation with books like The Late Great Planet Earth and The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon ("The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it," he announces).

 
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