California radio preacher Harold Camping was wrong when he predicted that the world would end Friday (Oct. 21). But his failed prediction puts him in good company.
Doomsday prophets have been around for thousands of years, according to sociologists, and failed doomsday predictions rarely stop them for long. Camping himself originally claimed the world would end in 1994, later asserting that he'd gotten his Biblical math wrong and the real date would be Oct. 21, 2011.
In fact, Camping had also predicted Judgment Day, complete with devastating earthquakes and a Rapture of the faithful, on May 21 of this year. After that prediction failed, Camping stuck to his guns, claiming that a spiritual, non-physical, rapture had indeed happened on that day.
This has all happened before, and it will all probably happen again. It's extremely rare for a doomsday predictor to recant his or her apocalyptic views after a failed prediction, said University of Alberta sociologist Stephen Kent. Some groups fall apart, while others cling more closely together against the scorn of the outside world. [Read: Oops! 11 Failed Doomsday Predictions]
"There's going to be a crisis within Camping himself, an existential crisis," Kent told LiveScience. "His remaining followers will have their own crises."
A history of the end of the world
It remains to be seen how Camping and his doomsday holdouts will deal with this crisis of faith, Kent said. Most apocalypse believers stick to their beliefs even in the face of failure. In 1844, for example, Baptist preacher William Miller preached that the end of the world would come on Oct. 22. When it didn't, the date got dubbed "The Great Disappointment."
Miller, however, stood firm, admitting that he'd somehow been mistaken on the date, but insisting that the basic tenants of the Bible and his prophetic methods had to be correct.
"What's going on now almost exactly parallels the actions of William Miller in 1844," Kent said.
Like Miller, Camping has likely built his entire worldview around Biblical literalism and infallibility, said Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University. Those sort of foundational beliefs aren't easily shaken.
"The Bible and Biblical prophecy can't be in error, at least according to the mindset that drives these predictions," DiTommaso told LiveScience.
So followers usually resort to alternate explanations for failed prophecies, such as Camping's 1994 "I got the math wrong" mea culpa. The Seventh-Day Adventists, who splintered from Miller's group after the failed apocalypse, re-interpreted the Oct. 22 prophecy to mean that Jesus had moved to a holy room in Heaven to prepare to return to Earth. [Infographic: Who's Waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus?]
A 1954 New Age doomsday group known as The Seekers actually took credit for preventing the end of the world, claiming that their faith and prayers had earned God's mercy. The Seekers eventually fell apart, but their leader, a Chicago woman named Dorothy Martin, changed her name to "Sister Thedra" and continued her prophecies.
Oops, my mistake
As for how Camping will cope with his latest doomsday failure, the jury is out. His organization, Family Radio, is shunning publicity this time around after buying up billboards in May to advertise the coming Judgment Day. Camping also hedged his predictions with words like "probably" as the Oct. 21 date drew near.
Doomsday believers tend to patchwork together different theologies to explain what went wrong after a failed prediction, Kent said.
"My impression from other groups is that when they try to justify prophetic failure, theology gets jumbled," he said. "They weave back and forth through different traditions."
Kent could think of only one failed doomsday prophet who offered anything approaching an apology for a failed prediction: Hon-Ming Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant who moved his followers to Garland, Texas, in 1997, in anticipation of God's materialization in the Dallas suburb on March 31, 1998. This appearance was to be preceded by God's appearance on every television channel at midnight on March 24.
After his predictions failed, Chen offered in a press conference to be stoned or crucified as punishment for his false prophecies. No one took him up on the offer, but two-thirds of Chen's followers returned to their homes. The remaining 30 or so holdouts moved to New York state, where they preached of a coming Armageddon from which followers would be saved by a "Godplane." In 1999, Chen told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he just wanted to return home to a simple life in Taiwan. His whereabouts are not currently known.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.