Prophet of doom shows poor judgment

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If the world is still here as we know it a week from Saturday, religious broadcaster Harold Egbert Camping will have some 'splaining to do.

Last year the self-styled biblical scholar announced that Judgment Day would arrive on May 21, 2011, officially making the weekend after this the worst in history.

Without hedging his bets, the 89-year-old founder of Family Radio, a $100 million global ministry centered on biblical prophecy, predicts that other than a series of killer earthquakes that same day, the big news will be "the Rapture," a supernatural event featuring the mother of all heavenly jet streams catapulting Christians by the millions into the stratosphere to meet Jesus.

Those left behind on Earth after May 21 will experience 153 days of torment, harassment by the Antichrist, unbelievably high taxes, plagues, boils, the melting of the elements and trillions of stink bugs. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, but no Republicans, televangelists or talk radio hosts will be left to save us from the doom that awaits all demons and Democrats sometime in October.

Mr. Camping, a civil engineer before he was called into end-times ministry, has developed what he considers an infallible system for calculating the mysteries of biblical numerology.

Sure, he understands the folly of predicting the end of the world with specifics that include a date for Christ's return -- an exercise in cosmic chutzpah that Christ himself discouraged his disciples from engaging in -- but Harold Camping never backs down.

Of course, the broadcaster takes full responsibility for blowing his last big prediction regarding Christ's return. On Sept. 6, 1994, the radio prophet and dozens of his most fervent followers camped inside the Alameda Veterans Memorial Building in Piedmont, Calif., awaiting the Second Coming predicted for that day.

When Sept. 7 dawned without the promised heavenly pyrotechnics, Mr. Camping realized that he hadn't included numbers derived from the book of Jeremiah in his final prophetic tally, an oversight that threw his predictions way off.

The broadcaster was red-faced about it, but his followers were willing to forgive an impetuous young prophet of 72. After all, he had only wasted two years of their lives. His radio ministry nonetheless grew dramatically in the last 17 years despite a snafu that would have gotten him stoned as a false prophet in ancient Israel.

There's no way of knowing how many of his listeners have quit their jobs, left families, liquidated bank accounts or cashed out insurance policies in response to Mr. Camping's prophecy, but it is inevitable that more than a few sad tales of spiritual gullibility will surface in the coming weeks.

Asked by NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty what he'll tell his disappointed followers if Christ fails to return to Earth in a timely manner on May 21, Mr. Camping didn't leave himself much wiggle room.

"It is going to happen," he told NPR. "There is no Plan B."

Unless he comes up with some nonsense about "failing to subtract the purely ceremonial numbers of Leviticus from the book of Revelation," Harold Camping will have to eat a second serving of prophetic crow. Even so, he will merely be joining a distinguished line of American scoundrels, con men, crooks and liars who have added their own visions of religious lunacy to the American scene.

If you Google "failed predictions about the end of the world," an impressive list of national and international prophecies fill the screen.

Pimping Armageddon has been a profitable cottage industry for religious hucksters since the 19th century. American myth-makers like John Nelson Darby, the creator of the "Rapture" doctrine that millions of American Christians subscribe to, is an obvious case in point.

Before Darby in 1830 concocted the prophetic calendar that folks like Mr. Camping, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey and whole denominations shamelessly crib from, the majority of Christians considered the end of the world God's business, not ours. It was unseemly to even speak of the end of God's creation because of the fatalism and irresponsibility that such apocalyptic thinking produces.

Today, we're fascinated by visions of the end of history in which our group goes out on top. We love eschatological schemes that explain how we can avoid the much-deserved damnation that awaits our neighbors.

I suppose I wouldn't believe anything if not for the Mayan calendar that predicts the end of the world in 2012. Now there's something we can all put our trust in.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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