The Prophets of Doom

This isn’t the first time the demise of our world has been forecast

By Gabe Pressman
|  Friday, May 20, 2011  |  Updated 6:41 PM EDT
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From coast to coast, billboards predict "Judgment Day" on May 21, 2011.

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The prediction was that the world would end on Saturday,  May 21, 2011 at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

If it happened you might not be reading this. But, as I write this, on the eve of this predicted calamity, I can tell you that this isn’t the first time the demise of our world has been forecast. The prophets of doom have been predicting our imminent end for centuries. And so far it hasn’t happened.

Once, back in the late 70s, while Israel and its enemies were exchanging nasty charges, my boss got it into his head that we should find Armageddon, the place where, the Bible says, the final battle will be fought between the forces of good and evil. He wanted me to start a paragraph at the end of the story saying: “I’m standing here at Armageddon, the place where the world is supposed to come to an end…”

Well, it took us a while to find the place -- it turned out to be in a valley of fruit and palm trees and few in Israel, including Arabs and Jews, had the foggiest notion of its significance. But I did as I was asked to do -- and the world didn’t come to an end. Not that year.

A civil engineer named Harold Camping predicts now that, by his calculations -- based on the belief that it will be exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s flood -- there will be a worldwide earthquake Saturday and believers will be taken up to heaven while non-believers will face five months of plagues, quakes, wars and famine. And Earth will be totally destroyed in this October.

Such dire forebodings have happened before, many times. Back in 1844 a preacher named Samuel Snow, based on a prophecy in the Book of Daniel, predicted the world would end on October 22. Thousands of people gave away their possessions. They were shocked when the world did not end and the day became known as “The Great Disappointment.”

In 1806, a fowl called The Prophet Hen of Leeds, England,  began laying eggs imprinted with the words: “Christ is Coming.” It turned out to be a fraud. Someone had inscribed the eggs and forced them back into the poor hen’s body to make it appear to be an egg she actually laid.

In Chicago, a housewife named Dorothy Martin, said she came in contact with beings from the planet Clarion who told her the world would be destroyed on Dec. 21, 1954 by flood and that the faithful would be rescued at midnight by flying saucers.  But there was no flood. No saucers.

Since 1970, Hal Lindsay, the Christian Science Monitor reports,  has been predicting the end of the world. His book that year was titled “The Late, Great Planet Earth.”  He wrote another book 26 years later titled “Planet Earth 2000 A.D.: Will Mankind Survive? ” He said Christians should not make any plans after 2000.

Pat Robertson, the famed evangelist, said in 1980: “I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world.”  He apparently was rushing things a bit.

Why are so many people so obsessed with this question of when the world will end? It’s hard to say what drives them. But it’s an old, old story.

Prophecy goes back at least to Joseph, the Jewish prophet who warned the Pharoah that famine was coming. And he was right. He got promoted from slave to the boss’s righthand man .

One MTA retiree from Staten Island, spent his life savings to put 3,000 posters in this city’s subway and bus system warning that the End of Days was imminent. He believes Camping’s prophecy and took on a mission to inform others.

Gary Laderman, at Emory University says: “It’s a scenario where you can pinpoint the heroes from the villains, good from evil. It’s a powerful story that people identify with.”

At the University of Southern California, Stephen O’Leary says: “The people following his [Camping’s} predictions are apocalyptic enthusiasts already looking for signs of the end times. They want to reinforce their idea that these are the last days.”   

At Northwestern University, Christopher Lane, author of “The Age  of Doubts: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty”, told me that Camping represented ” the teaching of a fanatic…also, an element of grandiosity mixed with an unhealthy dose of superstition and a desperate craving for attention.”

Back in the Middle Ages, a man named Nostradamus made a lot of predictions. There have been a lot of interpretations and misinterpretations of his words since then. But no one has ever offered any specific evidence that his predictions have come true. Most of his words have come to us in a fog of uncertainty as to what the man was saying.

His ambiguity has inspired a whole school of Nostradamus enthusiasts who have assumed that he knew all along what was going to happen. Nostradamus fans have credited him with predicting everything from the French Revolution and Napoleon to Adolph Hitler and both world wars, including the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s no sign that he predicted in advance anything that’s going to happen now.

If the world is still here on Monday, you can congratulate me for being a skeptic. If I’m wrong,  you’ll have the last laugh.

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