In 1994 I was teaching an evening math class at my college in addition to my usual day schedule. By some divinely inspired coincidence, this put me on the road at just the right time to catch Harold Camping holding forth on the radio with his Open Forum question-and-answer program. Camping's dry-as-dust mode of declamation is probably dangerous to listen to while driving, for fear of falling asleep and causing a traffic accident.
Nevertheless, I faithfully tuned in for several days in a row because of Camping's fascinating topic. He had, you see, figured out the day the world would end. As a clever Bible scholar, he had apparently figured out a way around Matthew 24:36 (“But of that day and hour knoweth no man”) and had computed that Jesus was getting ready to return on September 6, 1994.
Camping was giddy during the September 6 broadcast, knowing, as he did, that he might not even manage to finish the program. The blast of God's last trumpet could preempt him at any moment. But finish it he did. September 6 passed without a redeeming revisit.
Camping refused to be crushed by his experience of rapture interruptus. He did some more mystical math and announced he had found an error in his calculations. The second coming of Christ would actually occur between September 15 and 17.
Again, Jesus was a no-show.
It was only fair, of course, that Harold Camping suffered the fate of all false prophets. In brief, he just kept plugging along in his ministry, still leading his flock of credulous sheep.
It's a tradition! History gives us the example of Charles Taze Russell, who promoted the idea that the end of the world would occur in April 1878. When the great disappointment occurred instead, despite some defections, the Russellites soldiered on. The loony door-knockers known today as the Jehovah's Witnesses are their direct descendants.
They never learn. Their failures merely demonstrate the need for stronger faith.
In token of their invincible ignorance, believers are now being presented with Harold Camping's brand-new prognostication of the end of the world. This time it's going to be May 21, 2011. (Perhaps I should hold off on grading the final exams for the spring 2011 semester, just in case.)
Camping's new prediction was featured in an article by Justin Berton in today's San Francisco Chronicle. It appeared on the front page of the newspaper's C section (“Bay Area”).
Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011.And I just about fell of my chair when I read that in the morning paper. Camping thinks this is some kind of proof. It's both amusing and sad.
“Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.,” he began. “Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that's 1,978 years.”
Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days—the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year.
Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500.
Camping realized that (5 × 10 × 17) × (5 × 10 × 17) = 722,500.
Or put into words: (Atonement × Completeness × Heaven), squared.
“Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said. “It's the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you're completely saved.
“I tell ya, I just about fell off my chair when I realized that,” Camping said.
Berton does a good job in his article in conveying the pseudoscientific environment in which Camping's mumbo jumbo flourishes. Unfortunately, the journalist makes one significant mistake in his reflexive application of the balanced treatment approach to reporting:
Camping is not the only man to see truths in the Bible hidden in the numbers. In the late 1990s, a code-breaking phenomenon took off, led by The Bible Code, written by former Washington Post journalist Michael Drosnin.Hold on just a second there, Justin. Did you really mean to equate the detractors of the Bible code with the “handful of biblical scholars” who accept it? It's demonstrably false to say “just as many scholars” denounce it. Very few embrace it. Many disbelieve it. There is no parity. (Only parody.)
Drosnin developed a technique that revealed prophecies within the Bible's text. A handful of biblical scholars have supported Drosnin's theory, lending it an air of legitimacy, and just as many scholars have decried it as farce.
Apart from that one faux pas, however, the Chronicle's report on Camping's apocalyptic prediction gives us a clear perspective on religion's ability to erode a man's thinking processes. Until a stupid pill is developed, religion can serve that purpose.
Those of us who are not befuddled by a religion can make plans to get together to celebrate the post-apocalypse on May 22, 2011. See you there!