BEYOND BELIEF: Doomsday just around the corner

In the book of Matthew, Jesus said, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”

Despite this statement from the son of God that no man can know when the end is coming, doomsayers the world over have made precise predictions about Christ’s return for centuries.

It is now May 2011, and according to radio preacher Harold Camping, the apocalypse is only days away.

Camping is a preacher, author and radio host with his company Family Stations Inc., a self-described “Christian educational network.” He holds a bachelor of arts from the University of California, Berkeley and has written over 30 books, almost exclusively on biblical topics.

Camping claims to have developed a mathematical method for interpreting hidden prophecies, leaving no doubt in his mind, or the minds of his followers, that May 21 marks the end of days.

When I heard this story, I took special interest, not only because Camping’s apocalypse happens to fall on my birthday, but because it got me thinking about failed prophecy.

Friends asked me if I thought Camping will lose credibility if his prophecy fails. My answer was “probably not.”

Camping has already proved that one false prophecy is not enough to discredit a would-be prophet. In 1994 he gathered his followers together to witness Christ’s return, something he had been predicting for years. When Christ failed to materialize, Camping admitted he made a miscalculation.

His followers thought little of the mistake. One was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying, “Evidently, he was wrong, but this time it is going to happen.”

Failed prophecy is nothing new and, throughout history, discredited prophets seem to only gain followers over the years.

In 1876, Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Bible Student movement, predicted that by 1918 “Gentile Governments shall have been dashed to pieces” and the kingdom of God would be established on Earth.

The next president of the Bible Student movement, Joseph Franklin Rutherford, made similar predictions. In his essay Millions Now Living Will Never Die, he wrote “We may confidently expect that 1925 will mark the return of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the faithful prophets of old.”

These predictions did not come true. Yet, the Bible Student movement continued to grow. Today they are called Jehovah’s Witnesses and there are more than 7 million worldwide.

The spurious predictions of the Jehovah’s Witness faith are a few in a long Christian tradition of bogus apocalyptic prophecy, beginning with Jesus.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus made an end-times prediction of his own, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

Jesus said this to disciples who died years later without aid of the apocalypse. This didn’t hinder the growth of his posthumous following in the least.

So whether you’re welcoming this year’s apocalypse with open arms, making a last minute conversion, or stacking up cans in your bunker, remember: if this one doesn’t work out, there’s always 2012.

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BEYOND BELIEF: Doomsday just around the corner