Rapture of Harold Camping’s claims?

So it’s after 6 p.m. and as far as I can tell, most of us are still here. [Insert joke about how funny that is.]

That’s what you are most likely going to hear from reporters across the country tonight and tomorrow as they (hopefully) wrap up their coverage on Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture was supposed to occur today. Then again, there’s still supposedly the end of the world on October 21. I hope that time around, reporters can ignore round two, but we’ll see.

Then again, it was a story that was really hard to ignore for most religion reporters. A quick scan of CNN, USA Today, the New York Times and other news sites suggest that the judgment day stories have landed on the most-read, most-e-mailed and most-blogged lists. I was initially confused why it was getting so much attention, since Camping has predicted wrong before, his following isn’t terribly significant and most people (including other Christians) dismiss his ideas.

But it’s easy to see how seductive the topic is as people have been searching and commenting on it all week long. People are apparently searching for more information about it because keywords like Harold Camping, rapture and May 21 have been on Google trends all week long. I thought Wisconsin was out of the loop, but on our 45-minute drive back from a disc golfing trip yesterday, we drove past two judgment day billboards.

It will be interesting to see how Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism breaks down this week’s coverage because it’s been such a hot item. If Osama bin Laden had been killed this week, media outlets would likely spend much less time on it and most people would not be searching for more info. But the media and people’s attention spans work in mysterious ways. Maybe there is a little bit of chicken vs. egg going on here. Did the media create the interest in the May 21 buzz or is the media trying to jump on what people are already interested in?

It’s hard not get caught up in the cutesy stories, the little parties going on, the end of the world playlists, atheists who will take care of your pets, and how the town of Rapture, Indiana is handling it (as a Hoosier I couldn’t resist that one).

Over at USC, J. Terry Todd laments the coverage lacking historical context and analysis.

Almost all of it, of course, was marked by a whiff of superiority and a tone of condescension, intended to put distance between “us” (the rational public) and “them” (the purveyors of prophecy belief and their gullible consumers).

…True, Camping is ripe for ridicule: His low-hanging jowls, wrinkled face, muddled voice and (worse?) badly-designed website embody an elderly, outmoded expression of Christian faith, out of place in our sleekly sophisticated digital world.

Some reporters are just getting sloppy as they don’t recognize the difference between the rapture and the end of the world prediction. You can tell that they are not actually reading what was said, glossing over the basics. Take this comment from Joel from Mollie’s thread yesterday.

I know it’s tangential to the “branding” discussion, but I did a double-take at this AFP story yesterday:

The tongue-in-cheek post makes no reference to fervent allegations by some preachers that the world will end on Saturday May 21.

Some preachers? Has anyone other than Camping alleged that the Rapture is tomorrow? (And let’s not even get into the difference between the Rapture and the actual end of the world.)

Underneath all the snark and sarcasm, maybe some people do want to talk about ideas of the afterlife, heaven, hell, judgment day, etc. These are not new ideas, by any means, but they remain hot. I’ll be curious to see if reporters do follow-up stories with the families that put their faith in Camping’s teachings.

It would be interesting to hear from some religion reporters about dealing with the rapture coverage. Did you feel pressure to cover the story? Did you struggle to find local angles?

And from our observers, did you think the coverage was overblown or fair? Are there elements each story should contain? Anyone looking forward to 2012 for the Mayan predictions?

Do let us know if you find particularly interesting coverage.

Print Friendly

  • aztook

    I still want to know where that con man Camping is, and how will the family’s who gave everything to camping to spread the words, and then again lets not forget the children that were forced to fallow there parents around, even when most of the time they were either probably scared, unsure what was happening, or there parents flat out told them they were not going to heaven (I remember seeing a post yesterday about that)
    all in all, I feel pity for those who got suckered by Camping.

  • rachel smith

    did he say what time zone by any chance. im on EST and its 7:20. so0o… just curious lol

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey
  • http://www.facebook.com/libby.swanner Libby

    I can’t express how grateful I am to finally find an article that isn’t disrespecting Christianity as whole.
    Everyone should know that we would never predict a rapture.
    That is resulting of Mr. Camping’s lovely personal ideas.

  • Bob


  • Dave

    The Treasury Secretary says he can cook the debt-limit books until early August.

    NATO says Gaddafi is on his way out of power.

    A Christian scholar says the world is coming to an end in October.

    What these statements all have in common is that they are about the future, and made by informed people. So there is no a priori reason any of them should be ignored by the media. A choice to ignore the third one because of its religious origins is exactly the sort of bias GetReligion opposes.

    So this…

    there’s still supposedly the end of the world on October 21. I hope that time around, reporters can ignore round two

    …makes little sense.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Trashing comments left and right that have nothing to do with journalism.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Dave, so assuming May 21 rapture claims are wrong, why would journalists continue to report on October 21? Let me know if you think differently. Maybe I’m missing something.

  • Bram

    Today’s rapture was only slightly less kitschy than the posh, “secular” rapture on President Obama’s inauguration day. A comparison between the two events might have had some journalistic trenchancy.

  • carl

    Harold Camping isn’t being covered because his Rapture prophesy is intrinsically newsworthy. He is being covered because his failed prophesy can be used as a generic surrogate for all Christian truth claims. People will say “See, now we have proof. They are all like Harold Camping. Everything they say is false.” If the whole of the story was only Camping, there would be no audience. Who is he anyways? How many people at the Rapture parties had even heard of him before this? It is rather the extrapolation from the specific to the general that makes it interesting and appealing to the general reader.


  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin

    I don’t know if you’d call it coverage, but NPR’s weekly “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” Quiz show (which does tout some actual journalists and writers) opened their show claiming that Camping is a “Prominent” religious teacher.

    Prominent? Before this hoopla, I doubt anyone had an idea who he was outside of his current and former followers, plus those who pay attention to lesser-known media preachers.

  • Jerry

    Answering Justin, “Wait, Wait…” is a humor show not a news show. So I don’t understand you taking jokes as a serious report. But even then Camping’s media reach is into 150 outlets which makes him at least somewhat prominent.

    So far the media appears to be playing it straight, allowing those who believed to speak for themselves. One example:


  • Dave

    Sarah @#8, I can offer no journalistic reason why either the May 21 or the October 21 predictions should get coverage. But there is no logical reason to cover the one and ignore the other, that doesn’t disparage religion.

    Suppose a bunch of astronomers said an asteroid might whack the Earth on May 21 but, if it misses, it will swing around the Sun for another crack at Earth (or close call) on October 21. If we dodged the bullet on 5/21 journalists would not ignore the 10/21 prediction because they respect science. Ignoring the latter would disparage science.

    Don’t worry too much about it. Logic puzzles about the future are generally strange. ;-)

  • BuckyW

    Aw, give Camping a break. He made a mistake. I mean, Jeez… it’s not the end of the world.

  • Jerry

    I’m not surprised by this story but it is extremely sad. Fortunately she was not successful.


    Cops: Woman Tries to Kill Children, Self to Avoid ‘the Tribulation’

  • Daniel

    My question is whether Jack Van Empe’s 2012 prediction has anything at all to do with the Mayan speculations. Also wonder whether a May 21 2011 rapture could be confirmed by on the ground in-field statistics. How many of Camping’s followers are now missing? If we report that the bulk of his followers are still present and accounted for, will we then be accused of obfuscation and covering up the truth? Proving the negative is more difficult than proving a positive affirmation. How are the media journalists going to handle these questions?

  • aztook

    Daniel…that is the most stupid thing to ask…most of them on the street preaching ARE STILL THERE, check the news check online, there are many storys of people who fallowed Camping and still left behind, the only way they would be off this earth right now, is by killing themselves.

  • Daniel

    By the way, blasphemous Harold Camping is neither a scholar nor Christian. Quote from Camping: Christ Jesus the thief is coming to steal kill and destroy. John 10. Christians are not normally in the habit of demeaning and belittling their Lord and Savior. Camping’s only field of scholarship is in engineering.

  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin

    Jerry, the “Prominent” wasn’t in the joke part, it was in the lead-up — explaining the setup for those not in the know. The show covers news in a quiz-show form. It just seems like a weird way to convey information – like if Jon Stewart called Lyndon LaRouche a prominent Democrat in a run-up to a joke due to his persistence.

    The “150 outlets” bit said by both Family Radio and the press is using is misleading at best — dishonest (on FR’s part) at worst. Most of their stations are not full power, but rather tiny repeaters that cover only a portion of a metro area with a listenable signal. Few, if any, outside of their main HQ have staff beyond an engineer.

    And then there’s the issue that Family Radio has admitted they honestly have no idea how many listeners they have. Those higher-powered stations in New York or Baltimore/DC may have tens of thousands of listeners or a few dozen. We don’t know.

  • M.

    Camping is interesting because he made a testable claim. People knew it wouldn’t come true, and wondered what the reaction would be – since most people didn’t read the classic “When Prophecy Fails,” the book that established cognitive dissonance. Those who did realize that most of Camping’s followers will keep the faith and rationalize away the failure; nothing will ever convince them that they were wrong to believe.

    The second reason Camping’s claim was interesting is that it was prominently testable. Most religious ideas aren’t really – how can you really prove if Christ truly rose from the grave, or whether the story was made up? And for those that are testable (e.g. “prayer works”), believers will go to great lengths to avoid reading and accepting the results of the performed tests (no, in every way we can measure, prayer does not work).

    Therefore, when people see a person claiming something completely insane (“the world is being punished because a talking snake convinced a woman to eat a fruit”), they can’t do much, a deeply frustrating position. Some of the frustration comes out in form of laughter at Camping, in a case where an example of failure even believers can’t deny can be pointed out. But again, what is forgotten is that the believers will rationalize even this – the process has already started, as we can see in the first “reaction” articles…

  • carl

    [20] M

    The extent of the story cannot be explained simply by the fact that it is a testable religious claim. If (say) the Cult of Osiris had made prominent prophesies about the end of the world, the news story would be “Cool! There is still a Cult of Osiris?” If (say) the prophesy came out of Islam, the story would be “Uh-Oh. Now what’s going to blow up?” In either case, there would be no end-of-the-world parties to mock the event. But this was a testable Christian prophesy. Christianity is the dominant religion in the West; the worldview that must be marginalized. Camping’s prophesy could thus be made to serve a much broader agenda.

    The second reason Camping’s claim was interesting is that it was prominently testable. Most religious ideas aren’t really – how can you really prove if Christ truly rose from the grave, or whether the story was made up

    ? In other words, as I said above, it can be forced into the role of surrogate test for other Christian truth claims.

    The coverage this story has received is driven by two perceived motivations on the part of the readership.

    1. It confirms the superiority of the skeptic’s worldview.

    2. It allows the skeptic to indulge his desire for schadenfreude. He wants to see the opposing world view proved wrong, and he wants to see the adherents of that worldview realize their worldview is wrong.

    It matters not at all to the skeptic that Harold Camping is a non-entity in the Christian community whose prophesy has been precluded for 2000 years. We say “He is to us the equivalent of Lysenko” and the protest falls on deaf ears. It matters only that Camping identifies himself as a Christian. By virtue his failure, all the “insane ideas” of the Christian faith can be discarded.

    As opposed to the ‘insane ideas’ of secularism. Say for example, that a bunch of atoms randomly collected themselves into a very sophisticated, sentient, self-aware chemical reaction that we call ‘life.’ Or that killing one of those very sophisticated chemical reactions has greater moral significance than ripping hydrogen atoms off a ring of benzene.


  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I liked this “second thoughts” kind of post by The New Republic‘s Tiffany Stanley.

  • DaveC

    AFAIK Harold Camping has been prophesying that May 21,2011 was the rapture date for years, if not decades. So the prophesy itself shouldn’t be news, but as you said, it’s hard to ignore, family radio has been spending a lot on advertising campaigns etc. For me the question is how much background information should be included in the story, e.g.
    who/what group is making the prophesy? what are their religious beliefs, are they associated with any denomination? What is the basis of the claim? What theology training did the person have? How many followers are there? What did they do last time the prophesy was wrong? What do other religious leaders have to say about this? Is family radio the main channel for spreading the prophesy (anyone listened to family radio and tell me how much air time is devoted to end times prophesy?)

    +1 like on The New Republic’s article.

  • Julia

    The New Republic’s article was very thoughtful – describing how a reporter decided not to cover the believers on their “last” day and then write about how they reacted.

    Similar to how reporters are told to stick microphones in the faces of people who have just been devastated one way or the other.

    One commenter had an interesting take on why people are laughing – we’re ALL very nervous about the scary state of the world right now, and laughing at a fantasy end of the world eases our worry about a real tragedy looming out there:

    I agree there’s something lurid about gawking at these people, particularly at their unfortunate children. But I think the fascination is not just cruelty but testifies to our own uncertainty about the future. Things are changing very rapidly around the world at the moment, and no one has any idea where it’s all going. One thing we can be reasonably sure of, though, is that world won’t end today. So my reaction to these folk (if I try to step back and analyze it) is something like – things certainly do look apocalyptic these days; here’s a doomsday cult that externalizes and embodies these inchoate anxieties; hey, when I see it outside myself, it looks comfortingly absurd; let me now laugh at my own fears in the form of these deluded people.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    On familyradio.com, which most reporters and blogsphere commentariat obviously did NOT read, is posted the following:

    What will take place on May 21?

    On May 21, 2011 two events will occur. These events could not be more opposite in nature, the one more wonderful than can be imagined; the other more horrific than can be imagined.

    A great earthquake will occur the Bible describes it as “such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.” This earthquake will be so powerful it will throw open all graves. The remains of the all the believers who have ever lived will be instantly transformed into glorified spiritual bodies to be forever with God.

    On the other hand the bodies of all unsaved people will be thrown out upon the ground to be shamed.

    The inhabitants who survive this terrible earthquake will exist in a world of horror and chaos beyond description. Each day people will die until October 21, 2011 when God will completely destroy this earth and its surviving inhabitants.

    Neither of these happened. ‘Nuf said. But note that, contrary to 99.99% of reportage, “the end of the world” is announced for October, and no mention is made “the Rapture”, pre- or post-tribulation.

    More than ever, Lazarus Long’s Klein bottle trap seems appropriate for reporters.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    … which all reminds me of the “Y2K disaster”. Coverage and comments were full of sneers at “doomsayers who say planes will fall out of the sky.”

    Can anyone point me to verifiable instances of anyone who actually said “Planes will fall out the sky”? People saying that people were saying that someone said do not count.

  • Dave

    Will, I was trained as a physicist and for a long time had a job covering, among other stuff, technical journals. I followed Y2K closely, in part because I had seen concerns about it years in advance in military journals. The basic message was, “Anything running off a computer will be thrown into abnormal behavior or just quit, unless basic software corrections are made that reflect correctly what year it is,” ie so that 1999 is followed by 2000 (the following year) in the computer’s innards rather than “99″ being followed by “00″ (ninety-nine years earlier).

    One concern to the military was that computers associated with our ICBMs would have switched from a default “Don’t launch” to a default “Launch” if a new day appeared to be previous to the day before.

    A lot of money was made selling people stuff like generators (in case the grid dropped dead) but I don’t recall any really off-the-wall predictions. Obviously a plane in flight at the moment of 99->00 could be in trouble but that could be prevented by either upgrading all onboard computers or keeping the plane on the ground that day.

    Billions were spend making the upgrade, but that represented investments that should have been made in the 40 years since the convention of trimming the “19″ had been adopted to save core space in the small computers of the Sixties. The meme, “We spent billions and nothing happened!” is just stupid; nothing happened because we spent billions.

  • Jerry

    I appreciate the New Republic piece also.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Why Covering the Oakland Apocalypse Prophecy Was No Joke


  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I half-heartedly argued against covering him on the grounds that I had already done the story in 1994 — and because he’s got virtually no presence in the heart of our coverage area. (His stations do have some coverage on the fringes).
    Editors wanted the story, however, so I tried to place him in some theological context. Since he was originally from a a conservative branch of Reformed theology, I spoke with the president of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. And since his views of End Times events most closely resemble (but are different from) those of dispensationalism, I interviewed a prominent dispensational New Testament scholar. Also spoke with some local people who work in Christian media to see if they were getting much buzz about him. They had heard nada.
    Here’s the link http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11136/1146913-82-0.stm

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Ann, thanks for this perspective. I was curious how religion reporters were handling it – whether they were reluctant or thrilled or something else. Thanks for the link.