It's easy to mock Camping. We could perhaps point to his web address, http://judgementday2011.com/. One would hope the 2011 is unnecessary. That date is unfortunate, because as Camping advertises in the first paragraph of the bio on his own site,
Harold Camping is the man behind the May 21 Judgement Day predictions, and has lead the charge in spreading the word that Jesus will soon Return. Camping is a radio personality with Family Radio from the Oakland area, who has studied the bible with great scrutiny for nearly 50 years, and in recent times discovered the code that May 21 2011 will be the day of the Rapture. He previously predicted that the Rapture would come in September of 1994, but his followers are confident that May 21 2011 is the correct date. [emphasis mine]
Perhaps most baffling of all is in the site's merchandising section. There's an "I survived Judgment Day" t-shirt. The only time that it could possibly be true (note the tense) is after you survive the rapture. At which point you will no longer have a body, or if my eschatology is off (this is hardly my forte!) you will be surrounded by other survivors so there will really be no cause to gloat. I suppose if you bought the t-shirt you better wear it to sleep tonight.
In all seriousness, though, this really isn't a laughing matter.
I am a Christian, but I really don't put much faith in end-times prophecies and speculations. I suppose I believe that the universe had a beginning at some point (rather than existing eternally), so it seems like a logical possibility that it will also end. Will I be judged for my sins? Will God allow those who aren't in the club to be tortured? Should I take pleasure in anticipating that misery? I have heard it argued that end-times suffering is necessary to bring as many people to repentance as possible (think of all the people who would never wake up to the reality of God!). But then why is it pushed off so long? Why is God content to allow so many generations to slide away, if it is necessary?
Such questions are in a sense above my pay-grade. They're above anyone's ability to know, and I usually content myself with happy agnosticism on the finer points of these kinds of questions. I try to concern myself with things I can grasp, like the importance of caring for the stranger within your gates, Biblical mandates to justice and mercy, and so on. And I do engage with theology (I'm studying philosophy of religion, after all), but it's more on the philosophical implications of the human side of the question. I have a healthy respect for the idea that there are some things I can't know. That is, I think, the essence of what faith is.
But this particular end-time prophecy caught my imagination, I think because of how I heard of it. There was a news item a Fordham friend posted to FB, about a MTA [NYC public transit] retiree who plunked down $140,000 on signs at bus stops and on buses/subways announcing the date. It is easy to laugh at Camping, but not when you realize that a retired bus driver was conned into flittering away his life-savings - and probably his retirement. Let's hope Social Security holds out. :-S
I find myself moved to pity more than to ridicule. Actually, I've been thinking about Chaim Potok's The Chosen, in particularly where Reuven's father tells Reuven about the birth of Hasidic Jewry. It's a fascinating chapter, and well worth rereading if you have the book on hand (it's the sixth chapter). But here's the paragraph that most caught my interest just this moment:
'Reuven, what could our people say to God during the Chmielnicki uprising? They could not thank Him for the slaughter going on before their eyes, and they would not deny his existence. So many of them began to believe the Messiah was coming. Remember, Reuven, that those Jews who believe in the Messiah believe also that just before the Messiah comes there will be an era of great disaster. At the moment when there seems to be no meaning in life, at that moment a person must try to find new meaning. And so thousands upon thousands of Jews in both eastern and western Europe began to look upon the Chmielnicki disaster as the prelude to the coming of the Messiah. They prayed and fasted and did penance--all in an effort to hasten his coming. And he came. His name was Shabbtai Zvi. He revealed himself about the same time as the massacres began. More than half the Jewish world became his followers. Years later, when it turned out that he was a fraud, you can imagine what the effect was. The Chmielnicki uprising was a physical disaster; the false Messiah was a spiritual disaster.'
Potok goes on to describe the situation that brought this false messiah around. The basic gist is a familiar story: people were suffering, not only materially but existentially. They felt the world they knew or thought they knew was being taken away from them. So in a desperate grab for meaning they prayed for a God (or in this case, an emissary of God) to step in and fight the forces they were incapable of resisting.
I feel bad for people like this. I feel bad in particular for those people who believed Camping and all the other false prophets peddling an apocalypse where "there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things [will] have passed away." I have prayed for obliteration sometimes, an obliteration of memory and of the past if not of my neighbors. It's a powerful lure, and I think it's telling that pretty much every major religion predicts some kind of doomsday. When the world seems FUBAR, it's all too plausible to see why someone would want an escape hatch.
Secularists aren't that much better off, in my opinion, with their utopian hope. They don't expect God to sweep in and make things better, perhaps. But no individual can bring about utopia through his or her own efforts, and so you often end up putting faith in a political structure or movement that is bigger than themselves. I'm not talking so much about the people that are actually trying to make the world better, but people who believe in an ethereal perfect world where there will be enough to go to each according to his need or whatever. Such a perfect world can seem so impossible, it's easy to get disaffected and overwhelmed by it. John Mayer actually nailed this dynamic in his song "Waiting on the World to Change."
As for me, I think I will do the only thing left to do. To my mind, that means giving up on the phantom of perfect in favor of better, and embracing the reality of suffering. Pain of all kinds is awful, and those people who follow Camping are in for a rough ride come May 22. I like to think I'll be there to offer sympathy. Because the world is made of suffering. Made of good stuff, too, but the suffering is undeniable. And sometimes it seems like solidarity is all I have to offer. It may be that someday God will wipe away every tear, but until then, it seems like the least I can do is share my Kleenex.