Any informed observer of religious folly knows that setting dates for the apocalypse ranks among the major pastimes of fundamentalists and fanatics the world over. (The next most-popular pastime is explaining why those dates failed to pan out.) In fact, throughout human history, the years in which the end of the world has not been predicted to occur are probably far outnumbered by the ones in which it has. But what’s most astonishing is the way these prophecies, after they have failed, are often taken up and recycled by the next generation of apocalyptic believers without a trace of shame, usually with little beside the date changed.
For example, take the Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Despite the authors’ claims that theirs is the “first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy”, the truth is that the idea of novelizing the Rapture has been done not just once, but multiple times before. As Catholic critic Carl Olson points out, Salem Kirban’s 1973 novel 666 – published by Tyndale House, LaHaye and Jenkins’ publisher – has the same plot, right down to many small details, including the opening, where a main character who is a nonbelieving reporter witnesses the Rapture while on an airplane flight.
And before Kirban, Sydney Watson also fictionalized the Rapture in a trilogy – the last novel of which, In the Twinkling of an Eye, was published in 1916. Again, as Slacktivist points out, this series too employed several tropes and stock characters that would later show up in Left Behind.
Still more works of Christian apocalyptic literature – some intended as works of fiction, others not – flourished in the 20th century. Herbert Armstrong’s 1975 in Prophecy! forecast the end of the world in the titular year, due to a nuclear world war waged by a Europe united under the Nazi banner. More famous still was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a blockbuster 1970 book which argued that the end was imminent. A slightly revised sequel, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, was published thereafter and boldly proclaimed, “The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.”
Lindsey was not the only one swept up by prophecy mania in the 1980s. A previously obscure Bible student named Edgar Whisenant rose to prominence in that decade after publishing a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 – specifically, on Rosh Hashanah of that year. Whisenant was taken so seriously by Paul and Jan Crouch, founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, that they altered their programming on that date to show prerecorded tapes giving advice to those who had been left behind. Shockingly, despite Whisenant’s many reasons, the Rapture somehow failed to occur on schedule.
The 1990s, too, saw their false prophets – such as radio evangelist Harold Camping’s book 1994?, which opened thusly: “No book ever written is as audacious or bold as one that claims to predict the timing of the end of the world, and that is precisely what this book presumes to do” (source). (For reference, Camping’s Family Stations radio network broadcasts worldwide, with more than 150 outlets in the U.S. alone.) Undaunted, Camping has since published a sequel, Time Has An End, which forecasts the end of the world in 2011.
Christian fundamentalists are not the only ones who’ve made a career out of erroneously predicting the apocalypse. New Agers have also gotten in on the act, via beliefs like the “Photon Belt“:
Nevertheless it appears that for mankind on this planet the photon belt encounter will be essentially a spiritual experience–but this really depends on man. If we are sufficiently evolved at the time, great advancements will occur in our consciousness as we attune to the high-frequency photon rays. If we are negative, that is, possess too many lower vibrations, the result of selfish actions, we are not expected to survive the radiation. In other words, there will be a natural spiritual selection.
How photons, which according to the laws of physics are constantly in motion at 186,000 miles per second, are supposed to sit in place to form a “belt” is not explained – but no matter. When are we going to encounter this marvelous celestial phenomenon?
Scientists around the globe in 1992 predicted that the encounter would occur within months to a year; with significant disagreements.
Not to worry, however – the date of Earth’s encounter with the “photon belt” has been revised to 2012. Like every other false prophet, these ones rarely experience anything more than a temporary setback as a result of their errors. Though some believers become disillusioned, many more who’ve invested their entire lives in the cult and are unwilling to walk away will eagerly accept whatever flimsy rationalization the founder offers to excuse their failure.
All these false prophets made the same mistake, the only truly fatal mistake in religion: they made a claim sufficiently specific that it could be conclusively disproved by evidence. LaHaye and Jenkins seem to have learned from their predecessors in this regard, refusing to commit to any specific date or time frame, despite their repeated coy hints that the Rapture will be soon, probably within their lifetimes. (Fred Clark of Slacktivist suggests looking at their estate planning to see if they really believe that themselves.) But in either case, they are deluding themselves. Once several more decades have passed and the Rapture still has not happened, today’s Left Behind books will look as silly as the earlier Rapture novels, whose authors likewise foolishly believed they were living just before the end.