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A Year After the Non-Apocalypse

May 23, 2012

Religion Dispatches has an interesting article about a reporter that tracks down the remnants of Harold Camping’s apocalyptic movement.

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By Tom Bartlett

For a while, their message was everywhere. They paid for billboards, took out full-page ads in newspapers, distributed thousands of tracts. They drove across the county in RVs emblazoned with verses from the books of Revelation and Daniel. They marched around Manhattan holding signs. They broadcasted day and night on their network of radio stations. They warned the world.

That warning turned out to be a false alarm. No giant earthquake rippled across the surface of the earth, nor were any believers caught up in the clouds. Harold Camping, the octogenarian whose nightly Bible call-in show fomented doomsday mania, suffered a stroke soon afterward and mostly disappeared from sight. The press coverage, which had been intense in the weeks leading up to May 21, 2011, dwindled to nothing. The story, as far as most people were concerned, was over.

But I wanted to know what happens next. If you’re absolutely sure the world is going to end on a specific day, and it doesn’t, what do you do? How do you explain it to yourself? What happens to your faith in God? Can you just scrape the bumper stickers off your car, throw away the t-shirts, and move on?

In order to find out, I got to know a dozen or so believers prior to the scheduled apocalypse. I sat at their kitchen tables, attended their meetings, tagged along on trips to Wal-Mart, ate pizza in their hotel rooms, spent hours with them on the phone. Then, after Jesus was a no-show, I stayed in contact with them—the ones who would talk to me, anyway—over the following days and months, checking back in to see how or if their thinking had changed.

I learned a lot about the seductive power of radical belief, the inscrutable vagaries of biblical interpretation, and how our minds can shape reality to fit a narrative. I also learned that you don’t have to be nuts to believe something crazy.

 

“I Was Part of a Cult”

What happened after May 21 matches up fairly closely with what scholars of apocalyptic groups would expect. The so-called disconfirmation was not enough to undermine the faith of many believers. From what I can tell, those who had less invested in the prophecy were more likely to simply give up and return to normal life. Meanwhile, those who had risked almost everything seemed determined to reframe the prophecy, to search the scriptures, to hang on to the hope that the end might be nigh.

I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.

Other believers had no trouble recalling what they now viewed as an enormous embarrassment. Once October came and went without incident, the father of three was finished. “After October 22, I said ‘You know what? I think I was part of a cult,’” he told me. His main concern was how his sons, who were old enough to understand what was going on, would deal with everything: “My wife and I joke that when my kids get older they’re going to say that we’re the crazy parents who believed the world was going to end.”

In the beginning, I was curious how believers would react, as if they were mice in a maze. But as time went on I grew to like and sympathize with many of them. This failed prophecy caused real harm, financially and emotionally. What was a curiosity for the rest of us was, for them, traumatic. And it’s important to remember that mainstream Christians also believe that God’s son will play a return engagement, beam up his bona fide followers, and leave the wretched remainder to suffer unspeakable torment. They’re just not sure when.

Among those I came to know and like was a gifted young musician. Because he was convinced the world was ending, he had abandoned music, quit his job, and essentially put his life on hold for four years. It had cost him friends and created a rift between some members of his family. He couldn’t have been more committed.

In a recent email, he wrote that he had “definitely lost an incredible amount of faith” and hadn’t touched his Bible in months. These days he’s not sure what or whether to believe. “It makes me wonder just how malleable our minds can be. It all seemed so real, like it made so much sense, but it wasn’t right,” he wrote. “It leaves a lot to think about.”

Read the entire article here as it also contains some fascinating stories about these people. You don’t have to be crazy to believe something nuts!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    May 23, 2012 10:25 am

    We have these even weirder wing nuts up here in the great frozen north. From Canada’s National Post

  2. May 23, 2012 2:33 pm

    I take issue with the comment that all Christians have shitty TIm LaHaye-esque eschatology, but otherwise great read.

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