Harold Camping is 89-years-old, and he (allegedly) believes in earnest that the world will end on Saturday, May 21, 2011 — only eight days from today. The problem is that far too many people believe him.
In an interview with New York Magazine two days ago, Bloom spoke with apodictic certainty that, “God has given sooo much information in the Bible about this, and so many proofs, and so many signs, that we know it is absolutely going to happen without any question at all…. it is absolutely going to happen without any question.” According to The Washington Post,
Camping, an engineer by training, says he came up with the very precise date of May 21 through a mathematical calculation that would probably crash Google’s computers. It involves, among other things, the dates of floods, the signals of numbers in the Bible, multiplication, addition and subtraction thereof. Camping describes his equations with absolute conviction.“He seems to be the only one who understands the equation,” said Paul Boyer, a University of Wisconsin historian who studies apocalyptic beliefs. “But he has a very persuasive radio voice, and he preaches with absolute confidence, and there seems to be enough people that believe it all.”
However, despite Camping’s doubtless familiarity with the Bible, he stunningly ignores passages that contradict his opinion such as Mark 13:32, which says that not even Jesus knew when the end of the world would come: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The Greeks had a proper word for Camping’s worldview: hubris.
In classical Greek tragedy, the protagonist — in this case Camping — would face a ruinous downfall for his prideful pretensions. But the perversity of Camping’s idiocy, as NPR reported recently, is that the more likely result is that Camping’s naive followers will be hardest hit for his irresponsibility. Of the many heart-rending accounts in the NPR story, the one I found most grievous was that of 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez, her husband Joel, and their two-year-old daughter. Adrienne is also eight-months pregnant with their second child. After converting to Camping’s lunatic worldview, they “budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.” In contrast, Camping has not divested his own savings.
Peculiarly, Camping’s prediction is not for one specific time of day on May 21. Instead, he says that
when we get to May 21 on the calendar in any city or country in the world, and…when the clock says about 6 p.m., there’s going to be this tremendous earthquake that’s going to make the last earthquake in Japan seem like nothing in comparison. And the whole world will be alerted that Judgment Day has begun. And then it will follow the sun around for 24 hours. As each area of the world gets to that point of 6 p.m. on May 21, then it will happen there, and until it happens, the rest of the world will be standing far off and witnessing the horrible thing that is happening.
Thus, his understanding of the Bible is, among other misnomers, conflated with modern time zones.
The more foundational problem, as my blog’s title indicates, is that Camping and so many others try to make the Bible into something it isn’t. Camping says that, “the Bible has every word in the original language — it was written by God. Incidentally, no churches believe that at all, they don’t hold the Bible in the high respect that it ought to be. But every word was written right from the lips of God.” To be clear, I love the Bible. It is both sacred scripture and a classic of world literature. But the Bible is an anthology of human theological writing, containing some of the best reflections from the Jewish and Christian spiritual traditions, as well as some tremendously disturbing sections. It is a book of immense wisdom, and a book through which many people, including myself, have experienced both challenge and grace. But the Bible is not a secret code. And many people who approach the Bible as a code seem to forget that Christianity is foremost about living in the way of love that Jesus showed was possible and helping build the kingdom of God — what Martin Luther King, Jr’ called the “Beloved Community.” What Christians call the New Testament began to be written only decades after Jesus’ death as testimony and theology about his life. Camping and his ilk in their fetishism of the biblical text enact some of the worst forms of idolatry: making the Bible more important than God or following Jesus.
In the spirit of schadenfreude, I will confess that part of me looks forward to 7 p.m. on May 21, when the media can start doing follow-up interviews with all the folks who have swallowed Camping’s lies. Nevertheless, I also sad that his deluded followers will have to begin the long, slow process of rebuilding their lives. I am also grateful that, although Camping is clearly out of touch with reality, those who are ‘drinking his Kool-aid ‘ are at least not being slipped cyanide as in the 1978 Jonestown Massacre with Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Nor are Camping’s followers being asked to commit suicide as in the 1997 Heaven’s Gate UFO cult, headed by Marshall Applewhite.
For the scientific minded, the key word should be falsifiability, also known as “refutability.” In other words, can a hypothesis be proven false or be refuted? Camping’s method of biblical interpretation has already been falsified once when he incorrectly predicted in a book that the end of the world would happen in 1994. After his prophecy was proven false, he changed the date to 2011. Now his comeuppance is again rapidly approaching, and the media — for better or worse — seems to be tuned in for the impending train wreck of misguided hopes and soon-to-broken dreams. The beauty of the scientific method, if used, is to empirically show when predications are wrong. See you on May 22, when Camping’s predictions will be again refuted.