Doomsday approaches: Why we choose to believe, or not believe, theories on the Apocalypse

May 17, 2011

By now, you've probably heard about or seen signs about the end of the world coming on May 21. But the question is, do you believe it?

Join Baylor University's Dr. Doug Weaver as he chats about apocalyptic theories - their origins, why they're so popular (bringing movies like "2012" to the box office) and why many people choose to believe them. He will be online Tuesday, May 17 at 2 p.m. ET.

Whether you believe in the rumors or not, join the debate and ask your question now.

Hi, my name is Doug Weaver and I teach the history of Christianity at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  There are lots of questions these days about the "end times", especially this week, since Harold Camping has predicted that the rapture will come May 21st.  We can talk about why people are fascinated with the subject of the end-times and like to set dates.

How similar is this rumor to that of the Millerites in 1844 that led to what some call "The great disappointment?" How much do the current natural disasters play into these theories?

I think you have a good parallel with Miller.  Like Camping he predicted the end once, missed and then picked again.  When the date passed, many were disappointed but others gave the date a "spiritual" interpretation.  During periods of political or economic despair, focus on the end times always increases.  It is a way to avoid the trouble, or at least triumph over it.

...with the actual words of Jesus that "ye know not the day nor the hour" of the Last Judgment?

Camping says others are wrong and then says that special knowledge is given to prophets who should be followed but never questioned.  So, ordinary folks like us won't know the day or the time, but special elites can.  It is a type of "gnostic" elitism in a way.

Do apocalyptics show measurably different behavior in ways that might affect non-believers? Do they not have 401k's? Are they less likely to vote for energy or environmental conservation? One possibility really worries me -- there are a lot of books about how the modern Middle East reflects biblical prophesy, often leading to large scale war. Do apocalyptics support beligerant foreign policy because they think nuclear anihilation would be a good thing?

If you think that Jesus is returning in your lifetime, there is really no need to worry about the environment, is there?

My understanding is only those chosen get to go to heaven (rapture - apparently they will be beamed up) and somehow Jesus also shows up? Does he show up to escort the chosen to heaven? Anyway, and then the rest of us live in some sort of dangerous, chaotic, fire and brimestone sort of hell on earth until we either die, or the world just ends... As you can see, I think I have my story confused, can you clear this up?

If the raptures occurs, the righteous will be "caught up" and will leave the earth (met by Jesus in the sky).  If you are left behind, you will expereince the "great tribulation", suffer etc... and this will end with the great battle of armageddon and God will ultimately triumph.  Pretty confusing to lots of folks!

Why do the people that believe its ending don't sell their house or car or empty their bank account for a last fling in Vegas!?!?!

Well, one last fling in Vegas would defeat the point of being ready for Jesus, correct? :)  If people don't sell their possessions, I expect it just means "I believe" but not quite.

Do you think the current economic situation in our country and predictions inflation will rise this summer have contributed to people's willingness to buy these "end of the world" prophecies? Uncertainity about the future seems to breed a fatalistic view of the future, and no one is forecasting the imminent destruction of the world when everything is going well.

I think history will tell you that end time predictions increase when people are being persecuted or feel persecuted.  And they will go up when despair hits - in terms of how the world is experiencing economic and political turmoil. We need help to survive - that is a good point.  How we reach out for answers is a different question.

Will the 12/21/12 date be another "Y2K"?

Most of us think that, don't we?  

What, exactly, is the appeal of the apocalyptic thinking?

The appeal?  It depends.

I knew an 88 year old devout believer who said, "I don't want to be in that box and be cold."  In other words, I don't want to die.  Being lifted up in this fashion on Saturday is the ultimate way of avoiding physical death.

The appeal?  We like to be CERTAIN that things are going to turn out ok and we will win and NOT suffer.  THe problem here, in my opinion, is that this kind of theology promises something that Jesus never did - a life without suffering.

It seems he came and defined his identity as one who suffered for others - not as one who escaped suffering.

I see you've written a book on the pentecostal faith healer out of Indiana named William Branham. If I recall correctly, Branham made a similar end-of-the-world prediction several decades ago. How do these doomsday predictions of decades past compare with the 21st century predictions of Harold Camping that have because of the digital age reached millions and millions?


Great question!  Branham and his followers focused on 1977. He viewed himself as the forerunner of the second coming of Christ like John the Baptist was the forerunner of the first coming.  This view gave him and his followers a special sense of chosenness - there were the rapture bound Bride of Christ - others who didn't follow this message were not.

Camping is similar.  His followers feel they have an infallible truth like others don't.

One difference is that this is the internet age - Most of you haven't heard of Branham.  With facebook, lots of people know about Camping - and they spead it immediately.

All I know about the rapture I learned from reading the very funny review of the movies made from the Left Behind books on Slate.com - so I know very little. But I think if "the rapture" were to occur on Saturday, it wouldn't mean the end of the world, right? Things would just carry on as usual, minus the "true" Christians?

You would be left behind,and the great tribulation would start, and suffering and death would abound. So, it wouldn't be life as normal, if the prediction was correct.  We wouldn't be on the internet, I expect.

Hi Doug....so what really is your opinion of this?

I figure I'll be here next week, preparing for my new class in the fall semester.  If the end time comes like a "thief in the night," it should be a surprise, correct?  I like to think that every prediction is automatically wrong because God wouldn't let one particular person have the pride of saying "I got that one."  God controls the end, not us.

What does Camping gain from promoting judgment day, including the billboards, etc?

Alot of publicity is you are a skeptic.  And 15 minutes of fame, which he has gotten.  If he is really convinced, then he will be pretty disappointed. But he got it wrong before, so I guess he will go back to re-calculating.

According to Pew, the best-known of the apocalytpic cults, Jehovah's Witnesses, have the lowest average educational attainment of any major Christian sect. To the extent education, averaged over a broad population, is a good proxy for their average IQ, just how on average intelligent are apocalypic believers?

Historically you can say that many folks who focus on date setting don't have lots of degrees from universities etc...

But that is not always the case.

some of the readings proposed down through history are pretty detailed and involve some brain work!

Starting presuppositions are pretty different from yours, I expect, and mine, and so we don't do the date game

"I know something you don't know" ?

We all want to know what others don't, don't we?  It is a form of elitism, of being special, correct?
We like certainty!!

Why did Camping choose the May 21st both in 1988 and now? Has he explained this choice?

He gives numerical values to different words in the Bible - and most of us don't apply numbers to words like atonement.  Pretty subjective reasoning.

Does Camping believe in pre- or post-tribulation, and who is the beast?

If you are in the church now, you are under the control of Satan.  A few years ago, Henry Kissenger was called the beast.... Don't think Camping has bothered identifying one person.

Do some people just like being scared? Or do they feel scared of being happy and content so they have to invent something to be scared of?

I am of course NOT defending him.  But people find lots out there in the world (this year and in centuries before) to be scared of.  It's the nature of humanity.

I see in the article that Harold Camping believes it will begin at 6pm, local time. Is this right? So then we'll (east coast USA) first hear of the bad stuff happeningi at 2am Saturday morning, when it's 6pm May 21 in New Zealand?

That is how I read it.

Someone asked one of the people who were holding Rapture signs if they would give most of their money to help the homeless, and they refused. It seems that if jesus were really coming on Saturday, they wouldn't need more than pocket change before they would be swept up. So why not give the nice homeless lady a few thousand dollars, right? I think that they really want this stuff to be true, but in their hearts they know he's not coming for them. Comments?

I think you are correct.  Most people have elements of doubt mixed in with trust.  That is why traditional Christianity talks about grace - what God does - and now what we must always do.

Does Dr. Weaver believe in a literal, physical return of Christ to earth to end human history as we know it? What is his evidence (biblical, historical, theological) for or against this view? If not literal, then how do Christians think the world wil end?

I have never had a problem believing that one day the world will end, and that Jesus will return.  However, they are so many views of this (dispensational, premillennial, post-millennial etc..) that I find attempts to figure things out to distract us away from living the Christian life.  And I find focusing on predictions not to be the heart of Jesus's teachings.  I am not trying to be flippant, but I prefer the old phrase "pan millennialist."  All will pan out in the end.

and authoritarian. I was raised southern baptist (which was founded out of a core belief in the biblical rightness of slavery). The more educated & enlightened I became about history, culture, human beings, the more I realized there's a big difference between religion and spirituality, thoughtful faith vs. obedience to authority, practicing what Jesus is purported to have said vs. cherry-picking scripture to reinforce a punitive, fear-based, hate-filled and bigoted belief system. Why are so many 'christians' so easily led by such beliefs, which include the doomsday prophecies?

People like certainty.  And infallble words give some people that.  Not sure this is just a Christian religion issue.  People who are not religious can also desire certaintly in many ways.

Because they're idiots. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be a jerk, but I'm old enough now to have concluded that that's usually the right answer to any question asking why large groups of people do things against their self interest. It's a group thing -- they get to participate in something, there's the mutual reinforcement of being with friends, and while odds are it's all a false alarm the worst that happens is you're better prepared for the end of the world.

There is some comfort in being a a group - counselors would tell us that!  I think Camping is misguided, but one person's idiot is another persons jewell.  The world is like that...

How is Harold Camping's use of the Bible to predict the end time any different from fundamentalists who use the Bible in a similar fashion to prove that that the earth is young and only 6,000 years old (Young Earth Creationism). Both use the Bible as a sort of science textbook, do they not?

Yes, they do.  Folks who use numbers for creation would say that they are not giving subjective coded numbers to future events.  But that they are reading literally historical numbers of the past.

could you explain the differences between pre- , post-and pan-millenialism and how those views are derived from the book of Revelation? Which view does Camping hold?

Pre- the world gets worse and worse and Jesus returns BEFORE (pre) the 1000 year reign called the millennium.  Post - the world, through the gospel, gets better and better, a golden age of 1000 years appears and Jesus returns AFTER (post).  Pan is "don't try to figure all this out.  The Scriptures shouldn't be used to predict dates but to give a mesage of hope in Christ.

If Camping wakes up in his bed on May 22, will he think that he was wrong, or will he think he wasn't worthy of Rapture? Seriously, I hope someone interviews these people on the 22nd!

I suppose he will go back and re-calcuate.  He has done that before.

I have a relative who has, literally, bought into this fraud. Jobless and sliding toward bankruptcy, he has alienated his family and friends, paid for trips to foreign nations to stand on street corners and hand out literature, and wasted now years of his life. At the same time, he's taking actions that would indicate a hedging of sorts...job interviews, improvements, etc. The human mind is far from understood...

Great example (sorry for the situation).

Do you know how widespread Camping's appeal is? I mean, are the people getting behind him lower socio-economic scales or is he cutting across all walks of life?

I think the "interest" cuts across all walks of life.  As for really committed followers, I doubt it includes many who are doing well financially.  But it is impossible to know how many followers of things like this - who to trust about "members"?

What would Jack van Impe do?

He wouldnot like my answers.

Dr. Weaver wrote: "one person's idiot is another persons jewel" come on, Dr. Weaver, take a stand! surely not everything boils down to 'well that's what he believes, so who am i to question him!'

I said I thought he was incorrect.  I'll be in my office next Monday.  Email me; I'll answer.  I said I thought anyone who predicted a date was incorrect.

Do you think there is something particular in US history and culture that inclines Americans to be receptive to these sorts of predictions? I'm thinking specifically about American evangelicals, who usually claim to be 'Biblically founded' but who seem very accepting of the term 'rapture', a word that never occurs in the Bible, but is prevelant in American cultural views of religion.

It is easy to say yes to this. Some evangelicals clearly focus on predictive elements of religion more than other people.  However, there are examples of focus on end time before America was even "discovered."

You ignored the second half of my question, Dr. Weaver, are these views based on Revelation? Which view does Camping hold?

Typing fast -not trying to ignore.  He uses Daniel and Revelation, and other verses.  He gives the death of Christ as AD 33 which is not in the Bible (and most would say was earlier, four years or so.

Even if Camping is wrong, do you see any benefit from his prediction, i.e., that it reminds us to be watchful for Christ's return? There is ample writing that we are called to be watchful in the parabables such as the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25); the Great Banquet (Luke 14), right?

You are correct that the Scriptures say to be ready, to be watchful, to be prepared.  Sermons and books etc... on that should be welcomed.  However, I think date setting misses the point so badly that it confuses and distracts people away from the message of Jesus Christ.

99% of the time, I laugh at the Doomsday stuff. It's silly, right? It's not even remotely likely that the world is going to end on whatever day is the flavor of the month. As an agnostic, I also don't believe in the rapture. But once in a while--a few weeks ago when the tornadoes were rampant and even here in D.C. the weather had just a generally ominous feel to it (plus Japan in the back of my head!) I feel like something bad IS going to happen. Everything feels so chaotic sometimes, and nature feels far too powerful, and things feel like they're happening closer together and with greater impact. I guess my point is that there can sometimes be fear around all of the doomsday stuff that isn't actually linked to a belief in Doomsday--more that all of the talk of doomsday makes you hyper-aware and hyper-sensitive and hyper-not completely sane.

You are correct that world affairs, nature etc... can be unsettling.  But to connect it to date setting is where I think it is very unhelpful.  Date setting doesn't help the people who have lost possessions and home and loved ones in the tornadoes.

Then how could this idiot be anybody's jewell? You seem to be talking out of both sides of your mouth, Dr. Doug

For someone to be somebody's jewell, does not mean that that person is seen to be correct or orthodox by anyone else.  I was speaking to the power of attraction.  That is all. 

If for some odd situation May 21 judgement day is for real, could it be that aliens from outer space will land on Earth, or make themselves available?

I guess the next question is whether you think you will be here to meet the aliens?

There was a lot of "the end is near" talk in the 60s, but it seems to have slowed a lot since then. What is it about our society that this is such a big deal NOW, in 2011 again? Do we know more about global turmoil with 24/7 news so we associate it with end times? Is it that evangelicals feel this way more when a democrat is president? What is it about our current time period that makes the apocalypse seem right around the corner to some?

I think this one is publicized more because we continue to be more and more of an internet world.  There were actually date settings in the seventies (1977) and several in the eighties (Hal Lindsay, The Late Great Planet Earth).  With 9/11 buried in our memory, it probably won't die down.

I find most of that theology repugnant, merely an exercise in narcissistic self-righteousness. Some of its adherents seem to want to be simply proven right, to have the ultimate last laugh, while others seem to genuinely long for divine retribution against anyone who questions their beliefs. I've long been grateful for the Slacktivist blog (www.patheos.com/community/slacktivist/) where an evangelical Christian dissects the horrid attitudes behind the Left Behind novel series. Any thoughts as to why those books remain popular? (I have a theory that many of the purchases are actually by dispensationalist groups who then give them out for free.)

Someone said people just liked a story where good won over evil and that is why the books sold.  Not sure about that.  There has always been a desire to know the future (does cloning do that?) by all kinds of folks?

Are dictators abusing citizens going to be judged? What about sex offenders and adulterous humans would they be judged?

Christianity would say all unrepentant sinners are going to be judged. 

Hey, thanks for the questions.  I enjoyed it.  Have a great Saturday!!!  and I'll be in church on Sunday!!

In This Chat
Dr. Doug Weaver
Doug Weaver is the Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Religion at Baylor University.
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