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No End in Sight

For all the uncertainties of faith, this much I’m sure of: Doomsday evangelists are nutjobs.

This past spring, a radio evangelist named Harold Camping proclaimed that the world would end on May 21, 2011. No one got too worked up about it except for a handful of his followers who, as the date neared, quit their jobs, sold all of their earthly belongings, and waited for God to carry them to Heaven, which God didn’t do. There were many reasons to be skeptical of Harold Camping’s prognostication, chief among them the unlikelihood that God would use a radio evangelist to send the message. It didn’t help that Harold Camping had erroneously predicted the Rapture on two previous occasions.

I was on an airplane the exact moment the world was to end, on my way to Denver to give a speech. Had the pilot been transported up to heaven, we likely would have crashed into the Rockies. Though I consider myself a Christian, I’m not the kind who thinks Jesus is coming back next Monday, so I probably wouldn’t have been raptured and would have died with the other pagans in the mountains. Say what you will about plane crashes, the Rockies would be a beautiful place to slip the surly bonds of Earth.

When I boarded the plane, I asked the pilot if he was aware that the world was supposed to end. He had heard, but he told me not to worry—he was Episcopalian and probably wouldn’t be raptured since his denomination had gay priests. He was joking. I think. I like Episcopalians, and if given the choice would prefer living in Hell with them than in Heaven with people like Harold Camping.

When the world didn’t end, Harold Camping, ever flexible, admitted to a slight miscalculation and announced the Rapture would occur this month, on October 21, when God would also destroy the universe. In June, Harold Camping suffered a stroke, affecting his speech. Since Camping believes God causes everything to happen, this should have raised all kinds of misgivings in his mind, but apparently it hasn’t. He is, like many religionists I know, often wrong, but never at all in doubt.

In the unlikely event Harold Camping is right, I will apologize for all my snarky remarks about him and ask God to forgive me. I will also ask God to pardon me for calling Oral Roberts a wingnut in 1987 when he said God would “call him home” if he didn’t raise $8 million. To be honest, I’ve been generally dismissive of televangelists, and if the world ends on October 21, I’m really, really sorry about that. If the world continues, I’ll stand by my original claim that most of them are whackjobs.

It turns out Harold Camping raised a considerable amount of money prophesying that the world would end on May 21. On May 23 he was asked whether he would return the money to the people who gave it. Surprisingly, he kept the money. In his defense, he maintained that May 21 was just a “spiritual” judgment day. That is to say, it actually happened—it was just hidden from us. This follows the customary pattern of radio and television evangelists having “spiritual” vacation homes, “spiritual” luxury cars, and “spiritual” bank accounts.

"Our longing for a world in which God magically sets matters right doesn't make it more likely to happen."

There is one real loser in all of this: God. Let us pretend God had wanted the world to end on May 22 and asked someone credible—let’s say me—to tell everyone. Naturally, I would begin with my wife.

“I suppose this means you’re not going to mow the lawn,” she’d say.

Next, I would probably phone Betty Bartley, our town’s assistant newspaper editor who also attends the Unitarian church, to see if she might help me get the word out. “I thought the world was supposed to end on the 21st,” she’d inevitably reply.

“Nope, God told me the 22nd. Harold Camping has it wrong.”

Later that day, I would have to hang my head and explain to God that, thanks to Harold Camping, no one believed me, not even the Unitarians, who I can usually convince to believe anything.

To be fair to Harold Camping, which pains me more than you can imagine, we Christians have been predicting the end of the world for nearly 2,000 years. Every Sunday around the globe, millions of Christians repeat the Nicene Creed, which contains that enigmatic little phrase about Jesus, “he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” Never has one phrase been so often repeated, but so seldom believed. The editor in me wants to take a red pen to that line, if only to keep people like Harold Camping from fleecing the flock.

This isn’t to say I haven’t, on occasion, hoped for the end of the world and its accompanying final judgment. When I was in the sixth grade, Wally Porter told Ramona Spaulding that I loved her. After that, I wanted nothing more than for God to smite Wally’s big, fat butt. Alas, it was not to be.

Our longing for a world in which God magically sets matters right, dispensing to each their proper rewards and punishments, doesn’t make it more likely to happen. If Jesus didn’t come during the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges or China’s Cultural Revolution, he isn’t likely to descend just because Elvis shook his pelvis or America elected a black Democrat for president or LeBron James left Cleveland. Just because you think it’s the end of the world, doesn’t mean it is.

October 21 will dawn bright and beautiful in some places. In other places, it will be cloudy and raining. Children will be born, a number of people will die, others will marry, some will divorce. Fortunes will be made and lost. Some corners of the world will know peace, others will be wracked by violence. Some people will be healed, others will fall sick. Bright, capable leaders will assume political office, as will a number of imbeciles. Harold Camping will awaken considerably richer, having convinced a small number of naive people that he knows the mind of God. What won’t happen is the destruction of the universe and the end of the world. Instead, Harold Camping will emerge from his home and see his shadow, which can only mean the dark, chill winds of ignorance will be prolonged.

Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.