I had a religious nutter appear on my Twitter feed and his tweet stated “Time is running out for the world. Jesus is coming soon. Today is the day of salvation. Repent while you have a chance”. I do not follow this person’s aphorisms, as that is the way to madness. Someone simply forwarded this to me and others for a laugh.
At base, this belief is a major part of the current teaching of fundamentalist and other evangelical denominations. It predicts that Jesus will return from heaven and all ‘saved’ individuals, both dead and alive, will rise up and join Jesus in the sky1. What constitutes a saved person varies from sect to sect within the Christian religion. Some believe that it is determined by one’s actions while alive, while others consider that it is solely determined by how fervent is one’s belief in Jesus2, while others believe it depends on how much money you donate to your church. There is also some variation in the interpretations as to whether this return will happen before the poo hits the fan, or afterwards.
As I say above, predictions of the end of the world have been around for a long time. In the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying “…there shall be some standing here, which [sic] shall not taste of death, till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28)3. This seems to mean that the second coming will happen while some of those present are still alive. Given that the predicted apocalypse did not eventuate, many Christians have interpreted this as indicating that somewhere on Earth are characters who are over 2000 years old. None of them seem to have revealed themselves.
Paul of Tarsus implied that Jesus would return and usher in the rapture during the lifetime of persons who were living in the middle of the 1st century. About 30 years later, Saint Clement 1 predicted that the world would end at any moment. There was a frenzy about the year 500 as being a nice round number at which to panic, and several churchmen had predicted Armageddon at about this time. A similar thing happened at the year 1000.
Pope Innocent III asserted that the end of the world would occur in 1284. He came to this year by adding 666 to the date Islam was founded. There are dozens of similar calculations and beliefs that things like volcanic eruptions and plague portended the end of the world. However, there are a few funny instances of unsuccessful prophesies. William Miller, the Baptist preacher and leader of the Millerite movement predicted that Jesus would return between March 21st, 1843 and the same date in 1844. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 of his followers sold or gave away their belongings and took to the hills to wait for the end. When the end didn’t come, Miller changed the date to October 22, 18444. When October 23, 1844 rolled around “the great disappointment” ensued and many Millerites were bewildered and disillusioned.5 You cannot help but laugh at the gullibility of some people.
The disillusioned Millerites went on to found the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) sect, and its leader Ellen White, apparently learning little from Miller’s misses, predicted that from June 1850, only a few months remained before the end. Some time later, she had another vague assertion that some of those attending an SDA conference in 1856 would still be alive when Jesus returned. By 1900 all were dead and Jesus had not returned.
Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the Worldwide Church of God, predicted that the world would end in 1936. When that did not happen; he predicted that it would end in 1943. When that failed to occur, he revised his date to 1972, and when that failed to occur, he revised that to 19756. Fortunately, to save further embarrassment, the world did end for Armstrong, when he kicked the bucket in January 1986.
A more recent, similarly incompetent doomsayer was Harold Camping. He predicted the end would come on September 6th, 1994, and when that didn’t happen, he changed it to September 29th, 1994, and when that didn’t happen he predicted it would be on October 2nd, 1994. And when that didn’t happen, he predicted March 31st, 1995. Camping then wisely shut up shop for a while, but in the end could not resist the temptation and predicted the rapture would occur on May 21st, 2011, and that the end of the world would occur exactly 5 months later. When the rapture didn’t take place that May, Camping said that a spiritual judgement had taken place and that the rapture and the end of the world would occur on October 21st, 20116. After all these failed efforts, Camping maintained that nobody could ever predict the end of the world. After his first series of prophesies, the money rolled in to his organisation but by the end, all the failures led to him and his followers being a subject of ridicule7. This is not really surprising given that a considerable number of his followers sold everything, quit their jobs, and some spent all their money advertising the doomsday. Camping kept his empire8, although donations to his empire collapsed7.
The religious have been saying this sort of stuff for almost two thousand years. However, after each failure, they do not seem to learn. A quote often misattributed to Albert Einstein is “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”9 and seems entirely appropriate. The irony is that an apocalypse of sorts may be nearer than we think, if some of the extremely dire predictions of climate change come to pass. This may be in part because of the denialism peddled by so many of the religious and others in the denialism industry. When these dire predictions happen, it will not be the religious who will be saved. They and their children will suffer just like everyone else; but the donations to the religious organisations will probably continue. The gullible are everywhere and it costs a lot of money to run a private jet.