Doomsday prophets are often depicted in cartoons as bearded, robed men standing on street corners with signs reading, "The End is Now" or "Repent!" It's a cute caricature, but very dated. These days harbingers of the apocalypse — especially Christian fundamentalists — are getting their message out via Twitter, Facebook, pamphlets, radio shows and billboards.
It's not clear what, exactly, the public is supposed to do with this information. Most people perhaps respond with a shrug, assuming that it's another failed religious doomsday prediction. Others may assume that that if the world really is going to end soon, there's not much point in worrying about it.
Though mainstream churches have typically shied away from predicting that Armageddon is imminent (or its date even knowable), plenty of self-styled prophets believe they know the real truth. One of them is Harold Camping, the 89-year-old leader of the ministry Family Radio Worldwide, whose study of the Bible has convinced him and his followers that the world will end on May 21, 2011. Actually, the complete destruction may take up to six months, but certainly no one should make plans for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
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. [Infographic: A Brief History of Doomsday]
The public is clearly fascinated by the concept, from disaster movies to science fiction. According to authors Jim and Barbara Willis in their book "Armageddon Now: The End of the World A to Z" (Visible Ink Press, 2005), Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Armageddon-themed "Left Behind" books have sold over 65 million copies and remain one of the best-selling fiction series in print.
Part of the confusion stems from contradictory Bible passages about when Jesus will return. Matthew 24:36 states explicitly that "Of that day and hour knoweth no one, not even the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only," while Matthew 16:28 clearly suggests that Jesus would return during this disciple's lifetime: "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."The Bible also gives mixed messages about whether the Earth will be destroyed; 2 Peter 3:10 states that "The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up," while Ecclesiastes1:4 states that "The earth shall abideth forever."
It should be noted that Camping's track record of apocalypse predictions is somewhat spotty. He was previously certain that the world would end in September of 1994, and prepared himself for the event. The notable lack of Rapture did not deter Camping, who went back to the Bible, did some numerological legerdemain, and recalculated the real Doomsday as May 21. Time will tell if he's right, but either way it's not a bad idea to tell friends and family how much they mean to you.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.