Disappointment, despair and Harold Camping

Thinking about the despair, fear and trauma of Harold Camping’s devotees leading up to and through and after his supposed Day of Judgment this weekend, I keep thinking back to a man I once knew. He was an old fundamentalist preacher and retired military chaplain with whom I spent several holidays years ago when I was briefly married to his granddaughter.

The old preacher bore more than a little resemblance to the farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” That was a good word for his personality, too. Gothic. If Pat Conroy, Flannery O’Connor, Barbara Kingsolver and Stephen King got together to write their ultimate stern father/religious zealot/ominously dour character, they might have come up with something like the chaplain. He was a sullen and depressive, but volatile man who cast a long, dark shadow over the lives of his two daughters, never forgiving them for not being sons. He drove one into a lifetime of therapy and the other into a lifetime of denial.

He was not a man who invited fondness, but he was family, after all, and so we loved him. If that love tended to be more an expression of duty than of affection, it was also warmed by occasional bursts of pity. It was hard not to feel pity whenever he had one of his bouts of maudlin emotion and uncontrollable weeping. He was a lifelong teetotaler, but when these sudden moods struck him he became a sober version of a mawkish drunk, sobbing and proclaiming his deep love for strangers in the bar. The strangers in this case were his own daughters, grandchildren and family who would exchange nervous looks and do their best to comfort him as, one by one, we would each make and repeat the promise he would beg us to make him.

“Don’t worry,” we would say, “you won’t be cremated. I promise. No, no, it’s OK. We won’t let that happen to you.”

The old preacher, you see, was a “Bible prophecy” enthusiast. He was a devotee of John Hagee, and of TV host Jack Van Impe and of anyone connected with Dallas Theological Seminary and its premillennial dispensationalist obsession with the End Times as interpreted through their crazy-quilt re-editing of Revelation and Daniel. He eagerly devoured all of their books and many other, even stranger works — self-published volumes of cryptic numerology, cramped and fevered tomes identifying the Antichrist as Kruschev or Kissinger or Ted Kennedy.

And somewhere, in one of those fringe-of-the-fringe books, he had encountered and adopted the idea that cremation rendered a body immune to resurrection. When the last trump shall sound and the dead in Christ are raised, when the sea gives up its dead and every grave is opened, he believed, those who have been cremated would remain only ashes.

The idea fit somehow with his stubborn illiteralist approach to the Bible. Those verses that spoke of the graves being opened or of “those that are asleep” being raised from their graves said nothing about those who had no graves but whose ashes had been, instead, scattered to the winds. And the idea was fortified by whatever author or radio preacher promoted it with a diatribe against cremation as a supposedly unholy, “pagan” practice — as though it were some sort of evil anti-sacrament that trumped every means of grace. I think he may have identified cremation, somehow, as the supposed “unforgivable sin,”  a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

And it terrified him. Constantly. He expected the Rapture to occur any day, any moment, but he also knew that he was an old man and that, if the End tarried another year or five or ten, he might well die before Jesus came like a thief in the night. Once he was dead, he would be powerless to prevent the living from having his body cremated and if that happened he would be eternally separated from God. This is what he believed and what he lived in fear of every day.

Witnessing that terror and hopeless fear, seeing the suffering that it brought, I stopped thinking of his “Bible prophecy” obsession as a kooky, but mostly harmless set of beliefs. I began to realize that it was a framework that burdened its followers with the inevitability of disappointment, false hope, denial and an inconsolable fear. Its adherents were its victims. There were other victims, too, but its main damage was wrought in the lives of those who most believed it.

Again, this business about cremation isn’t taught by the “mainstream” Bible prophecy salesmen. This is not something that Tim LaHaye or Hagee or Hal Lindsay believes. But their teachings offer a host of other, similar ideas just as baseless and just as cruelly oppressive.

Talk to anyone who grew up in a Rapture-believing church or family and they will tell you stories about panic-inducing moments when they found themselves suddenly alone and feared that everyone else had been raptured while they had been rejected by God. This guy thinks that’s funny, but it’s actually traumatic. That’s why no one forgets the horror of such moments. Laughing at one’s own trauma can be transformational and healthy. Laughing at someone else’s trauma is just cruel.

That fear and trauma, we were sometimes told, was a good thing. It was a holy terror — a reminder to make certain that we prayed the right prayers and felt the right feelings to ensure that we would not be among those left behind. This is what they thought the scriptures meant when they spoke of “the fear of the Lord” — the powerless terror of the child of an abusive parent.

And that terror is what Harold Camping and his followers are feeling now. And it is what they will be feeling again Saturday evening, after that terror and despair first abates, then metastasizes in the realization that the world has not ended and that they are not the righteous remnant they staked their identities on being.

Fortunately, Camping is not as widely influential as LaHaye, so we’re talking about only thousands of followers, not millions. But that’s thousands of people, thousands of families experiencing one kind of trauma now and due for another, existential, shaken-to-the-core trauma come Saturday. That some of this trauma is self-inflicted or that, like most victims of con-artists, they are partially complicit in their own undoing doesn’t change the fact that we’re still talking about thousands of people in pain, fear and despair.

It may take a while to help them pick up all the pieces after the great earthquake that never happens, and I’m not even sure how to help them. But I want to try — partly out of pity, partly out of duty, but ultimately out of love because, after all, they’re family.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Forgive me if someone else already posted this in another thread, but “How God is Managing the 2011 Rapture“.

    As for the reality shows, I am unsurprised.  Any time there is some popular media or genre which tempts people to watch, listen, or read, someone in a cultural authority will see it as a threat to cultural dominance and make a substitute.  In the case of religious authorities, they will try to give that substitute a religious spin, no matter how shoe-horned in the religious message would be.  Heck, even the Left Behind series is arguably a religious substitute for other “airport fiction” like Dan Brown and Tom Clancy.  TvTropes has a good page on it.

    I am uncertain if it is possible to make potash from creamating human remains, but if it were, I would certainly like my husk to be disposed of in that manner.  What better way to celebrate my death than by using it as a catalyst for sustaining the growth of life? 

  • David H-T

     http://www.body-mindandspirit.com/2011/05/rapture-wizard-of-oz-and-our-eternal.html  Here’s my take on all this stuff:  ”The Rapture, the Wizard of Oz, and Our Eternal Home.”  Enjoy!

  • hf

    Hapax, if you see this and you don’t mind clarifying one point related
    to my last comment: you use a personalized form of the linked post’s Alternative Two in
    deciding you shouldn’t reject theism, yes?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    Disagree politely with Camping!

    Well, some sins are just beyond the pale.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    Oops. I wasn’t following the conversation closely enough. Sorry. And I don’t have an answer for that one.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Leave aside issues of whether or not Camping should want to spend money to get the word out: If you know that you have no future financial needs, nor will you be in a position to take care of others’ needs from Sunday onwards, what possible excuse do you have for not selling all you have and giving the proceeds to the poor?

    I mean, I haven’t done it because I’m not sufficienty trusting in God to provide for my and my family’s future needs except through my own stewardship. But I have enough food in the cupboards to last a few days, and the electricity is connected for the rest of the month regardless of what I do, and the car is full of patrol. If I knew that there was nothing for me beyond this week, giving away all my savings and possessions would be a pice of cake. Unless I was an arsehole…

    ——————————

    I’m still confused about when exactly this is happening. Rolling raptures at 6pm local time–in which case I have 326 minutes to go–or is the big show at 6pm in one particular location, probably in the US, being the centre of the universe. That would work better for me, cos it would come tomorrow morning when I’m at mass or hanging out with my friends. Also, I’m near the end of The Half Blood Prince and I’d like to finish it tonight.

    ——————————

    I heard a radio show a while ago where a guy was talking about a burial method he uses for pets, and is trying to get gov’t approval for humans. The body is submerged in liquid nitrogen, frozen right through, then broken into dust with sound waves. Less polluting than cremation, and you end up with something equivalent to ashes to scatter. I’d like that.

  • Tonio

    About all those billboards that Family Radio rented…if I owned the billboard companies, I would have asked the group to pay the full cost of the rental period upfront, just to see their reaction. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jess-Goodwin/28602067 Jess Goodwin

    Hang out anyway. :-)

    Even if the world ends tomorrow, I’m still going to the beach. 

  • Shadsie

    Ah, back from work, just saw this.

    I recognize that community – from when I used to be on LiveJournal. I deleted my personal LiveJournal long ago, though, because I was sick of being stalked by fandom wankers and their ilk over stupid things I once did. My opinions on homosexuality changed, but my opinions on yaoi and its uber-fangirls are largely the same -_-  I am now involved in fandoms where I am allowed to gen and het in peace… er… 

    Oh, bones. Yeah, I just quit LJ cold turkey, but non-fandom coms like that I miss a bit.  ”Magnficient” is a piece I sold back in 2009 to help pay for an emergency-getting-evicted-due-to-job-woes move. Things are better for me at the moment (which is one reason for me to be annoyed if the End comes as scheduled tommorow).

    Always glad to meet another who works in the medium of bones!   

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

      

    I’m still confused about when exactly this is happening. Rolling raptures at 6pm local time–in which case I have 326 minutes to go–or is the big show at 6pm in one particular location, probably in the US, being the centre of the universe. That would work better for me, cos it would come tomorrow morning when I’m at mass or hanging out with my friends. Also, I’m near the end of The Half Blood Prince and I’d like to finish it tonight.

    Supposedly, the earthquake will be at 6pm local time. That gives about an hour and a half until it would start in the middle of the Pacific ocean.

    We don’t even have to wait for tomorrow. I am trying to suppress my schadenfreude regarding the distress the believers will no doubt be feeling as the ‘curtain’ of 6pm sweeps over the globe and no earthquakes or unexplained disappearances occur anywhere.

  • Lori

     

    Leave aside issues of whether or not Camping should want to spend money
    to get the word out: If you know that you have no future financial
    needs, nor will you be in a position to take care of others’ needs from
    Sunday onwards, what possible excuse do you have for not selling all you
    have and giving the proceeds to the poor?

    Well, if Camping is correct then anyone who is still poor on Sunday is, by virtue of still being on earth, eternally damned and therefore persumably unworthy of help.

  • hapax

    hf, I’m not sure I’m following the logic of the linked post (it’s Friday after a lo-o-ong week, and I am already Experimenting With Cocktails), but I *think* I’d endorse more of a combinaton of  Two and Three.

    That is, if I’m understanding the argument correctly, there is a “Platonic algorithm” (although I’d call it the Logos or Divine Plan) that would determine the “innards” of me, the putative atheist, and every other variety of world-view; and the Omega that was doling out payoffs based on its scan of our innards and the extant to which they conform / deviate from the appropriate algorithmic output for that individual.

    Does that make sense?

  • Shadsie

    I thought of the perfect geeky thing for me to do tommorow:

    The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

    I have a save file with the Fierce Diety mask and everything, so instead of just waiting for the End, I can kick it’s butt!  

  • hf

    hapax: yes, I think, but I meant to ask how you interpret the question of what would happen if you did X, rather than the question of what should happen.

  • hf

    This seems like a better link for learning about Newcomb’s Problem itself, by the way. But it may not help for my question.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

     

    Well, if Camping is correct then anyone who is still poor on Sunday is, by virtue of still being on earth, eternally damned and therefore persumably unworthy of help.

    ‘Cept that Jesus didn’t tell the rich guy to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the derserving poor…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

     

    Supposedly, the earthquake will be at 6pm local time. That gives about an hour and a half until it would start in the middle of the Pacific ocean.

    That’s fascinating from a geological point of view. So the techtonic plates stop moving at exactly the point where one time zone is separated from another? Or they stop moving however far back from the boundary it takes for the shock waves to reach the boundary, but no more. Wow.

    6pm local time really sucks, because I have a whole lot of housework to do this afternoon. I’d really hate for the most monumental event in history to find me cleaning the toilet :(

  • http://www.kmellis.com Keith M Ellis

    I think the assumption that the believers will be distressed, traumatized, even “shaken-to-the-core” is, well, uninformed.  There’s a lot of literature on this sort of thing and pretty much the one thing that never happens is that the believers are traumatized and forced to reevaluate everything they’ve believed and all that implies.  Generally, they rationalize the disconfirmation away somehow.

    And I don’t really understand why anyone would find this surprising.  Most people have very strong beliefs that are disconfirmed by experience/evidence at numerous times in their lives and their (our) own experience of it is of a minor adjustment.  Others around them see it as a frustrating selective blindness.  And we all recognize this is how people are and how they behave.

    Camping and his followers will be no different.  Expect no tormented soul-searching tomorrow–if you do, you’ll almost certainly be disappointed.  (Though, to be sure, the non-believing friends and family will find themselves at a loss as to how to deal with this.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    Well if you read between the lines you’ll realize that that’s what it actually means, otherwise Jesus would be a socialist and that’s unpossible!

  • Anonymous

    Except that we know there are indeed people who are occasionally traumatized simply by finding themselves alone in a room.  Imagine a gay follower of Camping who’s been feverishly trying to “pray the gay away” for the last week.  Imagine where this person will be at 6:01 P.M. local time.

  • Anonymous

    I think there will be a variety of different reactions to this, but you have a point that many people will not have a crisis of faith because of it.  Ironically, the people who have become the most invested in this will be the least likely ones to stop believing.   The people who gave up their life savings, dropped out of college, or quit their jobs will desperately want to believe that Camping wasn’t wrong, so they’ll latch on to any excuse, no matter how weak it may be.

  • hagsrus

    Well, it’s past 6pm on Christmas Island and they haven’t noticed any earthquakes.

  • Matri

     

    …so they’ll latch on to any excuse, no matter how weak it may be.

    I suspect this excuse will also include blaming all non-RTCs. Which becomes hilarious when you realize they are implying that their omnipotent god can be rendered powerless because of a non-zero amount of unbelievers.

  • ako

    No earthquakes in Fiji, and the 180-degree meridian runs straight through the country!

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    No action here in eastern Aus, either. There was a bit of a bang around 6pm, but that’s cos someone dropped their wheely bin on the curb when they were bringing it in.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    What concerns me is the cognitive dissonence that is sure to hit the believers if the rapture does not happen at the expected time.  While it would be nice if they would use that oppertunity to critically re-evaluate their world view, the more likely outcome is that they will throw themselves onto yet greater heights of fanaticism, just because confronting the idea that their close held beliefs were wrong is more painful an option than embracing the disproven belief. 

  • Anonymous

     I sincerely hope that the funeral industry has unbent enough to allow me to do this when I kick the bucket.

    I once lived near a Parsi tower of silence, and there were all these little fragments of bone in the street that you didn’t think about too much. I suspect you’d get a lot of Nimbyism if you tried to introduce the practice into a place where it isn’t already common.

  • Tempus Vernum

    Certainly nothing happening in Kiwiland, although I think someone was having some fun in town by setting off some very loud fireworks to spook people.

  • J.

    Pffft.

  • Lori

     

    ‘Cept that Jesus didn’t tell the rich guy to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the deserving poor… 

    While this is certianly true, I suspect Camping doesn’t see it that was. I don;t know exactly what Camping believes, I’ve heard more than one person say that the story of the rich young ruler was (all and only) about the rich young ruler. That the point wasn’t helping the poor, it was for him to show is devotion to Jesus by giving up what mattered most to him.  (IOW, what Andrew said.)

    Anyone being Raptured would by definition have to have already have done a suffieciently good job proving their devotion to Christ, so sacrificial charity would no longer be required or have nay point.

    One could also say that the poor who would have been helped by the rich young ruler’s money still had an opportunity to repent and become deserving. According to Camping there’s no opportunity for repentance and salvation once the Rapture has taken place. Anyone not Raptured will simply suffer here on earth until the world ends and then they’ll suffer for all eternity. The period from the Rapture until the End (which he said we would be in now) is just a sort of torture amuse-bouche before the full torture feast that is hell.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of the live of Jezus: did he became king of the jews and kicked the romans out of the proised land before he conquered the world?

    Almost good people: he got falsely accused, whiped, humiliated, betrayed by his followers and last but not least: crucified.

    So for the people who were waiting at the rapture, sorry but Jezus didn’t do what people expected him to do while he was on Earth.
    And I don’t think he will do what people want him to do when he comes back.

    And I think that that is a VERY good thing, because now you can live your own live without looking the whole time over your shoulder looking for a sign of God.

    You want to have God in your lives?
    I suggest you start living your own live.
    I can’t do it for you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kozma.sean Sean Kozma

    I’ve watched that video twice now, and I’m convinced it’s a fake prank. The “prankee” is a pretty crappy actress, and not very convincing in her freak out. Or her instant recovery once the prank is revealed.

  • Shadsie

    Update: I played and it was good. It’s been a long time since I got to see the last credits on that game.  And now… to work!

  • muteKi

     Unrelated to anything but my sister graduated 8th grade recently and at the mass for that they had the bishop for the diocese come over.

    He gave a speech about how people in the real world will hate you for being Catholic, and about “anti-Catholic” elements out there (in context it seemed to imply that those who aren’t Catholic are just “elements”). 

    Naturally it didn’t go over particularly well with us (my mother’s Lutheran, incidentally).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-White/1605859612 Sue White

    6:01 PM and no catastrophe here.  Just an amazingly gorgeous day. 

  • Lori

    It’s raining here, but it’s a fairly gentle shower. This is a major problem for the local farmers because it’s been too wet to plant, but I don’t think it counts as a Rapture-worthy horror. Either Eastern Standard isn’t one of the God-created time zones or Camping was wrong again. Either way, no car for me. Sigh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-White/1605859612 Sue White

    The world should have ended today.  Did I mention how gorgeous it was here?  I had the day off, so I spent the morning shopping yard sales.  I spent most of the afternoon riding a bike in the Dogwood Parade to promote the bikeshare program.  Then I hung out with friends for a while, then did yard work.  If the world had ended around 6:30, while I sat on my back porch with my cat on my lap, I could have gone out happy.  But I would have missed Doctor Who, so it’s all for the best.

  • Michelle

    Growing up with the constant fear of a world-wide calamity can cause life-long depression. It’s a horrible belief system to inflict on a child. And having it pounded into you daily makes it even harder to simply give it up. It haunts your dreams. It follows you. It makes it seem that nothing you do in life is worthwhile, because it will all be gone. It causes irrational decision-making.  It’s  one thing for adults to chose this, it’s another to be a child brainwashed by it.

  • Anonymous

    Either Eastern Standard isn’t one of the God-created time zones or Camping was wrong again.

    Eastern Standard? I think the good Lord meant us all to be on Daylight Savings time this time of year.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Why would He want me to be on Daylight Savings time in winter? 

  • Lori

    Heretic! The Good Lord never meant for us to be on Daylight Savings at all. We talked about this a few pages back right? That Daylight Savings is “government time”. Clearly ungodly.

  • Rikalous

    So the time isn’t one of the things we should render unto Caesar? It’s so hard to keep track.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     

    Have there been good, clear-eyed but compassionate narratives about previous cases of Apocalypse Fever?  Maybe those could be recommended reading.  It may be easier to read about other peoples’ mistakes and see the similarity yourself, rather than having an outsider talk to you about your own mistakes.

    There’s an old book (from the 1950s, I think) named “When Prophecy Fails”, about a UFO cult whose predictions didn’t pan out.  That’s the only serious one I can think of.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     “Guess what?  The billboard was no longer there yesterday.”

    Obviously, there’s been some terrible theological error, and it was actually the BILLBOARDS that got Raptured, not the PEOPLE.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jess-Goodwin/28602067 Jess Goodwin

    Spent the day at Coney Island. Sun, sand, salt water, hot dogs, roller coasters. The only thing I saw being raptured was the occasional balloon.

    We should have more Judgment Days like this.

  • http://twitter.com/SatyrOnline The Satyr

    Fred, my name’s Tony. I’ve come across your writings through an atheist friend of mine who admires you very much. I’m a Roman Catholic, and I admire you very much. I just started an online magazine primarily devoted to arts crit called “The Satyr.” (satyronline.com). The first full article discusses the storytelling tradition in Catholicism and Judaism vs. Protestantism, and I’m posting one tomorrow (I’ve been saving it for a Sunday) entitled “What Would Jesus Say to an Atheist?” about the Gospel According to John, Chapter 9-10, which I think is also a heavy refutation of the whole “salvation through faith alone” thing that’s so much a key point of both John Calvin’s and Martin Luther’s re-imagining of Christian philosophy. I think you and I and maybe Sean could have some very interesting conversations on any number of topics, and I think people would be interested in reading those conversations. Would you please drop me a line at tcaroselli@satyronline.com if you’re interested in having those conversations? Thanks.

  • tiredofit

    I disagree.  These people are little different than the “Christians” who claim that we need to do whatever Likud says to bring on the Apocalypse, that global warming is a plot, that God gave dominion over the Earth to people so we shouldn’t have environmental protection, that Muslims are with the Devil, etc., etc., etc.  They poison our government, our culture, and our political conversations so badly that it does damage to real people all the time. 

    Just because these ones are pathetic in their pathology doesn’t mean that people like them are not doing real damage and we should just be nice.

  • Metallicaman5150

    If they dumb enough to follow him when he was wrong once before. They deserve everything get!!!

  • Ptolrud

    Style I am sorry for you going through this.  I think you have to get some help and support before you go through with coming out.  Then if your family doesn’t deal well with it, you’ll have somewhere to go with people who care about you.
    Don’t let your family try to change who you are or use religion to batter you for what you are.  Tell them God was the one who decided you were gay if that will convince them.  And good luck! 

  • atheist1

    When this happend in 1844, the day after became known as The Great Disappointment.

     ”… A more specific date, that of October 22, 1844, was preached by Samuel S. Snow.
    Thousands of followers, some of whom had given away all of their
    possessions, waited expectantly. When Jesus did not appear, October 22,
    1844 became known as the Great Disappointment.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Disappointment


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