Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The World is Safe For Now: 2012, Harold Camping, and Why the Biblical End of the World Won’t Happen

The Death Star's superlaser about to hit Alderaan.
How worlds ended in Star Wars.
Doomsday. It’s a frightening and captivating idea which has held firm in the imaginations of humans for as long as we’ve been telling each other stories. Indeed, one only needs to look to the big summer movies which routinely threaten humanity/the earth/the universe with every imaginable form of destruction.

Talk of the real end of the world has heightened in the last few years, first with the idea that the Maya supposedly predicted 2012 as the end, and most recently with Harold Camping’s extraordinarily well-publicized biblical ‘calculation’ that the rapture would occur this year. Both of these ideas were ludicrous, and I’ll briefly explain before discussing the biblical end of the world in general.

Maya and ~December 21, 2012

Stone tablet engraved with an artistic depiction of the Mayan calendar
Aztec (not Mayan) calendar (From ABC4)
The basis for this date is the Mayan (or more generally, Mesoamerican) “Long Count” calendar. This calendar is based on counting days using a 5-digit base-20/base-18 system. In modern notation, the dates would start at, the next day would be, and the system would count up to—the end of the Long Count period. These dates correspond to August 11, 3114 BCE and October 12, 4772 CE (BCE and CE are the secular terms for BC and AD).

But wait, wouldn’t that mean the Mayan end of the world would be over 2000 years away? To understand where the 2012 date comes from, we need to learn a bit about the Mayan creation myth.

The Maya believed that there were three failed attempts at creation prior to this one, which was perfect. The start of their long count calendar marks the date of this creation. The third creation was thought to have ended on of the previous cycle, the last day of the 13th period and it just so happens that of the current cycle falls on, you guessed it, approximately December 21, 2012. But as the reference-backed Wikipedia article on the subject discusses, there are Mayan notations of things that would happen after this date, suggesting that they did not think that the world would end then. Besides, if the current creation was perfect, why would it be brought to an end?

Of course, it would still be ridiculous even if the Maya did think the world would end next year, because it is based on their creation myth which is demonstrably false.

There’s no substance there, but that hasn’t stopped people from coming up with a whole host of possible 2012 doomsday scenarios that have absolutely nothing to do with the Maya. And you can be sure that there will be plenty of stories with titles like “2012: Were the Maya right?” leading up to December 21, 2012.

J2: Judgment Day 2011

Billboard for WeCanKnow saying "Save the date! Return of Christ May 21, 2011"
Judgment Day billboard (From
Thanks to the prolific advertising and media coverage, we all know about Rev. Harold Camping who calculated the date of the rapture and the end of the world. Here’s how he did it (thanks to the Washington Post):

  1. Find numbers that are symbolic in the Bible: 5 = atonement, 10 = completeness, 17 = heaven
  2. Massage these numbers to get you something sort of meaningful: (5 * 10 * 17)2 = 722,500
  3. It turns out that there are 722,500 days from the date of Jesus’s death (April 1, 33 CE) and May 21, 2011.
  4. Not sure where 6 pm came from.
Because the Bible is ultimately a story, it made sense to Camping for the time between Jesus’s death and the rapture to be a story too—a nice, neat little story told in numbers, coded so that only someone who paid very close attention to the Bible would notice it. How amazing would it be if our existence was a grand story we were all participating in? And after 5 months of tribulations, the world would end on October 21.

As we can all verify, he was utterly wrong: Jesus did not descend to Earth, earthquakes did not roil the planet, and no one was raptured up to heaven.

But now Harold Camping has rationalized it so that he still gets to be right: he has decided that it was an “invisible judgment”—which may as well mean imaginary—and he is still predicting that the world will actually end on October 21, 2011. The ability of people to twist their minds into a 4-dimensional pretzel in order to maintain their strongly-held beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence is simply astounding, isn’t it?

Update 10/22/2011: The world is still here.

What’s the harm? Only loons would believe him, right?

It is easy to dismiss Camping and fellow doomsday believers—whether it is this one, 2012, or any number of doomsdays that came before—as insane, to be ridiculed and dismissed. But doomsday prophesizing can do real harm. When it’s just some person on the street who clearly isn’t all there, no one is going to believe them. But doomsday messages from a charismatic person perceived as an expert can be harder for some people to ignore. Some of them abandoned jobs, school, families, and life savings—in many ways, life post-‘rapture’ for these people will be even worse than pre-‘rapture’, compounding the complete devastation of finding out that one of their core beliefs was wrong. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, there is one report (that I've seen) of a woman who attempted to murder herself and her two daughters to avoid the coming tribulation.

These are real people who are victims, and now that they know they are wrong they deserve our sympathy and support—assuming they realize that they were wrong.

What’s more, the extremely high publicity surrounding his prediction roped in people who might not otherwise have believed. I know of at least a few people who were legitimately worried that he might be right (and this guy says he’s seen it too)—though it certainly didn’t help that the news media was largely straining to still appear unbiased and credulous prior to the passing of May 21st. (For the record, the headline of the ABC News story previously read “Apocalypse Now?: Is Rapture 2011 the End of the World?”)

Can Harold Camping be blamed for ruined lives?

There are some people claiming that Camping was doing this as a fundraising scam. It certainly isn’t without precedent: taking advantage of another’s beliefs for personal gain has been done before. However, it seems much more likely that he is a victim of his own belief and the highly malleable nature of Bible interpretation. The line between a correct interpretation and an incorrect one is very hard to draw without imposing highly subjective assumptions about God and the Bible, and there usually isn’t any real way to verify one over the other.

Even if he wasn’t intentionally deceiving people, can we place any blame on him? I think so. If not for his teachings, people’s lives would not have been ruined, or their funds transferred to his Family Radio station to help spread the word. They deserve restitution, though it remains to be seen whether the station has any funds left over after its promotional campaign. It is fortunate, at least, to see other churches reaching out to help.

The sin of calling God’s shot

Harold Camping’s prediction is only the latest in a long line of predictions of a definite judgment day, from “before the year 400 CE” to… well, it’s really tough to pick another one. I recommend you take a look, especially the ones involving alien invasion, or the hen whose eggs had a prophetic message inscribed on them.

Aside from the more imaginative predictions, a good portion of them are about the return of Jesus to Earth. I don’t know how extensively previous predictions were believed, but church leaders and other believers roundly criticized Camping’s predictions. Of course, all they are really objecting to is that he set a date—the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world/Final Judgment is a key tenet of Christianity.

In fact, a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that 41% of Americans believe that Jesus will probably or definitely return to Earth by 2050, and this figure rises to nearly 60% for white evangelicals and people with an education of high school or less. It is possible that this is something the respondents did not think much about prior to being asked, but that’s a whole lot of people who think that the world will end within our lifetimes. (No wonder we have a hard time getting people to plan for the long-term future of our country/world!)

Is Harold Camping’s definite prediction really any more crazy than this much more vague, and thus unverifiable, belief?

A divine end of the world does not make sense

Before I get into any of this, I should note that I’m an atheist who grew up Catholic. How I became an atheist is a topic for another day. For the sake of this discussion though, I will assume that everything about Christianity is true aside from the end of the world.

One of the major assumptions about God is that he is outside of time: there is no difference between a second, a year, or a thousand years. If that’s really the case, what’s he waiting for? If he was going to send Jesus back and end the world, why hasn’t he done it yet?

I haven’t yet come across an answer to this that doesn’t contradict something else. For example, the idea that we’re all part of some plan being executed that is beyond our comprehension. This is contradictory to the idea that human wills are free from God’s will. Freedom of will is required by the ideas that we have a choice to believe in God or not and to do bad things or good things, which is an even more important tenet of Christianity. That aside, why would any particular set of events have to happen inside God’s creation in order to trigger/allow the end of the world? I guess it could be just a specific length of time, but that isn’t without its troubles either.

Now let’s say it is a specific time. Assuming that Homo sapiens appeared around 50,000 BCE, 106.5 billion people have ever lived as of 2002 (side note: man, the afterlife must be crowded!). The current world population is 6.9 billion people. This means that if the world ended tomorrow, only 6.5% of the people who have ever lived would have to experience the end of time and destruction of the world. What purpose would there be to this? Why the distinction between the judgment you receive at death and the Final Judgment? There’s so much more to question if you look into the details of any particular version of the end of days, but I’ll let you explore that on your own.

You may be tempted to reply along the lines of “God’s ways are mysterious.” Think carefully about that. God may be omnipotent and omniscient, but God must still behave rationally. The world behaves in a understandable and non-arbitrary way, so it stands to reason that its creator would also behave in a non-arbitrary, rational manner. Even if the specifics couldn’t be known (since we are not omniscient), the broad strokes should be accessible to, and understandable by, any rational mind.

So relax, Judgment Day is not coming

If a divinely-triggered end of the world doesn’t make sense, then we can be reasonably confident that it will not happen.

To be sure, the world will end, someday. Any number of geological, astronomical, or anthropological events could lead to the demise of human life, from supervolcanoes, to asteroid impacts, to nuclear war. In 1 billion years, the sun will have brightened to the point where the oceans evaporate, and in another 4 billion years the sun will expand to engulf the Earth as it switches from hydrogen fusion to helium fusion, becoming a red giant. And if current models are correct, over 25 billion years after the sun becomes a red giant, dark energy will overwhelm gravity and rip all matter apart.

The world will end, someday; it just won’t be by divine fiat, and it won’t happen anytime soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment