Harold Camping, the 89-year-old leader whose study of the Bible convinced him and his followers that the world would end, has been described by his wife as "flabbergasted" that the apocalypse didn’t start over the weekend. There are some red faces out there. And if that's all it had been, then one could argue no great harm had been done.
But while Camping and his followers try to figure out what went wrong (or right) — with news Monday night that he now says Judgment Day will come on Oct. 21 — the failed prophecy did more than just damage Camping's credibility: It also appears to have caused death and serious injury to true believers.
A California woman named Lyn Benedetto was one of millions who heard Camping's message, and became concerned that her daughters would suffer terribly in the coming apocalypse. She allegedly forced her daughters, 11 and 14, to lie on a bed and then cut their throats with a box cutter. She then tried to kill herself, though police arrested Benedetto and all three survived.
Others were not so lucky. An elderly man in Taiwan reportedly killed himself on May 5 ahead of the Rapture by jumping out of a building. He had heard that doomsday was imminent, and had taken recent earthquakes and tsunamis as early warning signs.
There were other unconfirmed reports of doomsday-related suicides around the world as well.
This is of course not the first time that failed doomsday predictions have led to tragedy. The most famous pre-apocalypse suicides in recent times occurred in 1997 when the Heaven’s Gate Christian UFO group came to believe that the comet Hale-Bopp was a sign that Jesus was returning, and the world would end soon. Prompted in part by scripture, rumors, and late-night radio talk shows, the group's fanaticism led to nearly 40 deaths.
Camping's failure holds an important cautionary lesson, because doomsday predictions are not going away. Many people, especially those in the New Age community, believe that 2012 will bring global cataclysm. It's easy to dismiss and ridicule failed prophets as modern-day harmless Chicken Littles misleading the gullible, but apocalyptic visions can have deadly consequences —even when they are wrong.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirerscience magazine and author of "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His Web site is RadfordBooks.com.