Why Failed Predictions Don't Stop Apocalypse Forecasters

If a group of fundamentalist Christians is right, you won't live more than another nine months.

Harold Camping, leader of the ministry Family Radio Worldwide, has concluded after careful study of the Bible that the world will begin to end on May 21, 2011. It will actually take several months for the process to be complete, but Camping is certain that by October it will all be over, and his group is doing their best to warn everyone.

The sect members are spreading their doomsday message using billboards, travelling caravans of RVs holding volunteers who pass out relevant pamphlets, and bus-stop benches, according to the Associated Press. "Cities from Bridgeport, Conn., to Little Rock, Ark., now have billboards with the ominous message, and mission groups are traveling through Latin America and Africa to spread the news outside the U.S," the AP reported.

Fundamentalist Christians have a long and colorful history of searching for — and mistakenly believing they have found — clues about when Jesus would return to earth and bring about the final judgment. In the early 1800s farmer William Miller concluded from a Bible study that the world would end April 23, 1843. It did not. [10 Failed Doomsday Predictions]

One of the great popularizers of Christian end-times is Hal Lindsey, author of the wildly popular best seller "The Late Great Planet Earth" (Zondervan, 1970). After his prophecies failed to materialize, he wrote a follow-up called "Apocalypse Code" (Western Front Ltd., 1997).

According to authors Jim and Barbara Willis in their book "Armageddon Now: The End of the World A to Z" (Visible Ink Press, 2005), Lindsey's themes were repackaged and (further) fictionalized a few decades later by Evangelical writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in their "Left Behind" series, which sold over 65 million copies and remains one of the best-selling fiction series in print.

Then there's "Bible Code" series author Michael Drosnin, who recently took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times warning President Obama that according to the Bible Osama bin Laden has nuclear weapons and may use them against America.

These are only among the best-known spokesmen. For every Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye there are hundreds of lesser-known self-styled end-times prophets just like Harold Camping. There's also God's Church minister Ronald Weinland, who concluded from reading the Bible that hundreds of millions of people would die in 2006, and "By the fall of 2008, the United States will have collapsed as a world power, and no longer exist as an independent nation," he wrote in his book "2008: God's Final Witness" (The-End.Com, 2006).

While everyone is free to believe whatever they like about when the world might end, such a conviction in powerful world leaders raises concerns about world peace. If the leader of a country with nuclear arms is convinced that the world will end soon (and that only a predetermined, selected few will be saved regardless of human actions), millions of people might be killed with the thinking that nothing will matter after a certain date.

If history is any guide, the Bible is not a reliable guide to determining when or if the world's going to end. Even if Camping and his followers are correct, it's not clear what, exactly, we are supposed to do about it, except maybe use our vacation time in April.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.