Okay, everybody good? Whew. Dodged that one.
Well, in fairness, it wasn’t supposed to be the End of the World per se. According to Harold Camping and his followers, about 200 million people were supposed to have been saved, and the rest of us left to await the actual end of the world, which will occur in October. But there was supposed to have been a monumental earthquake. And 200 million people disappearing. And all manner of apocalyptic whatnot.
Okay. Avoid cliches, students. But sometimes they’re inevitable. This is shooting fish in a barrel. But there is a larger point that this minor, media-inflated incident raises. Predictions of apocalypse come and go. Many authorities in the field of Biblical Exegesis agree that Jesus himself was (historically) an apocalyptic preacher who (scripturally) predicted that the End would occur within the lifetime of his own followers. We could go on and on, covering a truly staggering number of failed predictions, from those made by some very noble Roman Christians trying to understand the catastrophes of the world around them in a pre-scientific age, to the seediest of money-grubbing American evangelicals such as the late Jerry Falwell, who in 1999 predicted that the Big Wrap Party would occur “within a decade” based upon his “reading” of recent events in the Middle East.
I’m an historian. Reflecting upon the past and attempting to rescue wisdom from it is the essence of what I do. Just yesterday, I bought new translations of Herodotus and Thucydides in preparation for an academic suicide mission I'm embarking on this fall, and last week I turned the last page on Karen Armstrong’s engaging The Bible: A Biography, part of the excellent “Books That Shook the World” series. But it’s one thing to search for meaning, guidance, and wisdom in old books (or very old bronze-age books). It’s another to thing to organize one’s life around one particular reading of them. Camping, his followers, and people of their ilk live in a small, shriveled, self-centered, mean, miserly, intellectually constipated world. In a world full of causes worthy of pursuing, they decided to devote their lives to preparing for an apocalypse that didn’t even happen.
It is now 12:02 AM in Apia, Samoa, which means it’s May 22nd everywhere, and not everybody is good. Yesterday, about 20,000 people starved to death. Some people console themselves by believing that they are in a “better place” now. Harold Camping and people like him believe they are in Hell, eternally to be punished unless they died in a (proper) state of grace. Am I mocking Camping and his ilk for their religious beliefs? To quote one of the great figures of American politics of the modern era, you betcha. Me, I’m always willing to listen, at least for a while, to what people have to say. But there must be fairness in any such relationship. Proselytize, and I should be permitted to argue without fear. Threaten, and I will defend myself. And if you tell me that I’m going to Hell, I get to tell you to precede me there.
Update: May 24th: Harold Camping has emerged unraptured. To his thousands of followers who quit their jobs and spent their life savings spreading his message, he offered the following: God has decided to do the rapture and the end-of-the-world thing in one fell swoop, October 21st. The remarkable thing is how many of his followers are standing by him. As always, the problem isn't the ability to absorb information. It's the ability to think.