Monday, August 23, 2010
The end is never as nigh as you think it is
A while back my blogging buddy Gumby brought up Harold Camping. For those who do not know, Harold is a Christian preacher (and I'm using the term extremely loosely here) currently famous for 2 things:
1 - Telling Christians they need to get out of church (personal Bible study and his radio show is all you need)
2 - That The Rapture is going down on 21 May 2011 (with the whole world ending later that year)
He knows this the same way every wannabe prophet throughout history has known it - Biblical numerology. Sure, that very same method failed when he made the exact same prediction for 6 September 1994, but I don't think any Rapture predictor in the history of forever has ever let silly things like being proven completely and utterly wrong slow them down. It certainly never seems to give their loyal followers any pause. They all just stick around for the next prediction like the previous fiasco never happened.
Now I guess I could blog about why using a pseudo-method to calculate a non-existent event is stupid, but honestly what is the point? It would be like trying to explain why using a drowsing rod to find the Loch Ness Monster won't work. Even attempting to debunk it is giving it more credit than it deserves. So instead I decided to blog about how pointless it is to even try to argue with such people.
If history has taught us anything it's that ideology can be incredibly resilient in the face of disappointment and reality. When someone believes in something deeply enough it doesn't help one bit to prove them wrong time and time again. It doesn't matter if the idea they cling to is obviously and demonstrably wrong in a lets-dry-the-puppy-in-the-microwave kind of way, some people will just stubbornly refuse to let go of it. Somehow, when it comes to the end of the world and the rapture, otherwise intelligent people can act pants-on-head retarded. Case in point, The Millerites:
William Miller (1782 - 1849) was one of the pioneers in the field of being wrong about the date for Christ's return. Like most in the field he was fascinated by the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation. He (like so many since) believed that if he fitted all the verses together in the right way and interpreted/decoded them correctly, it would reveal God's planned timeline for the world - including of course the Second Coming of Jesus. To wit he had charts, illustrations and timelines that laid it all out. He was a charismatic speaker and soon his movement grew out of obscurity and gained thousands of followers - as these messages are wont to do for some reason.
Now to his credit I must add that Mr Miller never gave an exact date for the return of Jesus (or the Advent as he called it) but he did teach that it would occur sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When those dates came and went with no Jesus in sight the date was revised to April 3 and then again to April 18. Again no Jesus, just thousands of disappointed faithful. Now you may think that this would be enough disappointment for the Millerites but you would be wrong.
See while William Miller refused to set an exact date, one of the more ambitious members of his movement had no such qualms. Samuel S Snow taught at a Millerite meeting that the true date for Christ's return would be October 22, 1844. For reasons I can't grasp the Millerites grabbed hold of this date despite all the previous disappointments. In fact, if anything they seemed even more convinced of this date than the previous ones! When the date came near "fields were left unharvested, shops were closed, people quit their jobs, paid their debts, and freely gave away their possessions with no thought of repayment". Thousands of Millerites gathered across the United States in churches or on hilltops, fully expecting Jesus to arrive before their eyes. You can guess what happened next right? Yep, nothing. This time their despair and dissillusionment matched their previous levels of excited expectation - there were reports of uncontrolled weeping and deep depression and despair. This final, crushing blow became known as the "Great Disappointment". The Millerites became a joke amongst the rest of the populace and members were roundly mocked and even assaulted. Several members gave up on the Christian faith completely as a result. William Miller however continued to expect the immanent return of Jesus right up to his death.
I bet you think that is where the story ends, right? After all, who would use such a definitively debunked doctrine as a foundational belief? Turns out people will never fail to surprise you. See, while a fair number of Millerites realised that they were obviously mistaken, some decided that they were in fact right all along. A number of strange theories started cropping up to make sense of what happened, the most popular of which taught that instead of the expected physical return the day actually marked a spiritual event. Jesus didn't return to Earth that day, He instead entered the "heavenly sanctuary". 1844 therefore was the beginning of a still-ongoing process of "investigative judgment" of the souls of believers with the physical return due any day now. A couple of fragmented Millerite groups reformed under this teaching. You may have heard of the most successful of these - The Seventh Day Adventists. They have - rather prudently - decided to not dabble in date setting again however.
Interestingly enough, two other infamous groups with a strong apocalyptic focus can also trace their linage to William Miller. One former Adventist - Charles Taze Russel - founded the Watchtower Society, better known today as the Jehovah's Witnesses. Another Adventist splinter group in Waco, Texas would later rename themselves "Branch Davidian" in 1934 and would later become world famous (for all the wrong reasons) thanks to a charismatic leader by the name of David Koresh.
And that, cats and kittens, is why I don't see any point in addressing the claims of self appointed prophets claiming to have the inside scoop on Christ's return and the end of the world. These guys have been with us for centuries and I'm willing to wager that they will continue to be with us for centuries more. Their predictions will consistently come to nothing as they always have and yet their followers will never stop supporting them. It's just one of those things.