Doomsdays: Dubious and Deferred

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For thousands of years, thousands of people (and their followers) have predicted the imminent end of the world. They’ve all been wrong so far, but minister and broadcaster Harold Camping is sure that the world will end tomorrow.

Well, actually, the world will begin to end; the whole process will take about five months while the Rapture occurs, devout Christians ascend to heaven and Jesus appears. Camping and his followers spent much of the last year informing the world about its demise, through radio, billboards, and pamphlets.

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Responses have ranged from ridicule to serious concern. Some enterprising atheists have even offered a pet rescue service assuring Christians who are taken up to heaven that they won’t need to worry about the pets they leave behind.

Religious Doomsday Predictions

Most prophecies of Armageddon, like those of Mr. Camping, are rooted in Bible passages. In the 1830s and 1840s, followers of a man named William Miller believed that the world would end in 1843 or 1844, based on his reading of the Bible. Miller had thousands of followers, many of whom abandoned their houses and personal property in preparation for their meeting with God. The Judgment Day came and went without noticeable global destruction, and some of Miller’s followers formed what would later become the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Author Hal Lindsey was one of the highest-profile Christian doomsday prophets in modern times, with 1970s best-sellers like The Late Great Planet Earth. He is hardly alone; Pat Robertson claimed in 1980 that the End Times would be upon us by 1982.

Secular Doomsday Predictions

Though most doomsday predictions are based in religion, some (especially those that have emerged in the past century) have more to do with the natural world. The infamous Y2K scare, in which computer experts feared that a computer glitch might trigger global mass destruction, came and went without a problem. (Whether the threat was exaggerated in the first place, or the computer programmers averted a serious problem is debatable.) Others suggest that an asteroid impact, or special planetary alignments, will kill us all.

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Those who don’t believe won’t be surprised if nothing happens, but what happens to believers when the promised Armageddon doesn’t materialize?

Psychologist Leon Festinger examined this in the book “When Prophecy Fails,” and found that in some cases the fact that the prophet was wrong has little effect. To understand why, it’s important to realize that the high-profile prophecy that captures the public’s attention is only a small part of that group’s belief system. Anyone can make a mistake, and one mistake or misstatement by a religious authority doesn’t necessarily undermine belief in other religious precepts or prophecies. Religious texts are notoriously open to widely varied interpretation, and faith in a leader’s credibility does not necessarily hinge upon one prediction (even if it’s a big one).

Often the prophet will insist that the general prediction was correct, and that the End Times are imminent, but that the specific day or year was off, and move the day forward.

In fact, Camping has already done that once; he previously claimed that the world would end in September 1994.

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