Over the weekend while Harold Camping was hiding out after his failed prediction that the Rapture would occur on Saturday, May 21st, I was talking to a friend about what Camping was likely to do next.
I expressed the hope that Camping would make a public statement acknowledging his error and cease making end time predictions. I also expressed the fervent hope that Camping and his followers would not bring on their own personal end of the world through a suicide pact (a la Heaven’s Gate, the Order of the Solar Temple, and Jim Jones’ People’s Temple). I didn’t think that the probable outcome in this situation, though. Instead, I said that the most likely thing would be a modification of previous predictions.
My prediction was right!
On Monday Camping gave a press conference in which he said that he had been right about a major supernatural event occurring on Saturday, only it was of a different nature. Instead of a supernatural set of earthquakes and a rapture, it was an invisible, “spiritual” visitation of divine judgment on the earth—something undetectable by the senses and thus unfalsifiable. His remaining prediction—that the world itself would end on October 21st, he reaffirmed.
See for yourself!
Steven Greydanus—the friend to whom I was talking—has an excellent treatment of Camping’s new position and its problems, so be sure to check it out.
I must note that the prediction I made about what Camping was likely to do wasn’t due to any supernatural information. In fact, it was a safe prediction based on lots of prior experience.
Groups that have made false apocalyptic predictions have a long history of maintaining-with-variation when their predictions fail.
A famous example was the William Miller, who predicted the end of the world between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the latter date passed, an adjustment was made based on the use of a different Jewish calendar (that of the Karaite Jews), suggesting April 18, 1844. That, too, passed, and Miller wrote a letter in which he told his followers (now known as Millerites) in words eerily parallel to Harold Camping’s:
“I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”
Later that year, one Millerite preacher—Samuel Snow—predicted another specific date for Christ’s return: October 22nd.
The Millerite sect was a notable one in 19th Century America, and thousands of people made preparations, including giving up their possessions.
When October 23rd came with no return of Christ, the event became labelled “the Great Disappointment.”
In the wake the the Great Disappointment, many continued to maintain some form of faith in the Millerite system, but with modifications.
Nineteenth-century America was a more rambunctious place, and the reaction to the Great Disappointment was startling by modern standards. Wikipedia notes:
There were also the instances of violence — a Millerite church burned in Ithaca and two vandalized in Dansville and Scottsville. In Loraine, a mob attacked the Millerite congregation with clubs and knives, while a group in Toronto was tarred and feathered. Shots were fired at another Canadian group meeting in a private house.
Many Millerites maintained their faith, however:
Both Millerite leaders and followers were left generally bewildered and disillusioned. Responses varied: some continued to look daily for Christ’s return, others predicted different dates—among them April, July, and October 1845. Some theorized that the world had entered the seventh millennium — the “Great Sabbath,” and that therefore, the saved should not work. Others acted as children, basing their belief on Jesus’ words in Mark 10:15 “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Millerite O. J. D. Pickands used Revelation to teach that Christ was now sitting on a white cloud, and must be prayed down.
Others offered other interpretations, such as the idea that the offer of salvation to mankind had ended (a view already reported among Campingites), that Jesus had returned invisibly, and that Jesus had begun the judgment by cleansing the heavenly sanctuary.
The latter view led, in particular, to the formation of the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination.
Miller’s teachings also had an influence on the formation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who famously predicted (among other things) the return of Christ in 1914 and then, when this didn’t happen, reinterpreted it as a spiritual enthronement of Christ.
And there is a lamentable history of such prophecies and reinterpretations among them since.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to the Millerites, the Adventists, the JWs, and the Campingites, though. It’s broader than that. Non-Christians are subject to it, as well.
A famous case is recorded in the book When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger. Back in the 1950s, he and two other social scientists infiltrated a UFO sect that had doomsday beliefs and then watched what happened as the predicted doomsday failed to appear. Similar things happened.
(Incidentally, Festinger termed the clash of existing beliefs with new evidence against them “cognitive dissonance”—a now-popular term.)
The phenomenon appears concerning non-doomsdays, too. In his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn points out that scientific change does not happen in the orderly, step-by-step, incremental way that they are often depicted. Instead, it tends to have violent revolutions, in which one model resists change with only minor modifications for a long time and then suddenly collapses when the weight of evidence against it becomes too great. Until that point, scientists only tweak their their preferred theories enough to account for new, incoming data.
So strong is the tendency to cling to old theories that it often requires one generation of scientists to die off to allow a new theory to take its place.
(Incidentally, Kuhn referred to this shift of beliefs as moving from one “paradigm” to another or as a “paradigm shift”—another now-popular term.)
But the phenomenon is even broader than science and religion. It’s part of basic human nature, and it applies everywhere, to every form of belief, opinion, or theory.
C. S. Lewis wrote an essay entitled On Obstinacy in Belief, in which he pointed out we have a form of mental inertia that tends to preserve us in our beliefs, that we tend to only tweak them when minor amounts of contrary evidence is presented, and that major shifts occur only when the amount of evidence becomes overwhelming.
He also points out that this is entirely natural and that we would be ill served if we were configured so that each new bit of data required us to call into question the entirety of our beliefs. It’s on-balance good that we’re obstinate in our beliefs, because the majority of them are correct and suspending our beliefs at the slightest provocation would cause us not only to squander an enormous amount of time and cognitive resources but would result in a literally fatal form of paralysis.
The trick is to make sure that we’re forming our beliefs in a reliable way, which Harold Camping definitely was not. Not only was he disconnected from the magisterium Christ established and operating all by his lonesome, he also was using demonstrably crazy methodology that was anything but sure to lead to a reliable conclusion.
But let’s not be too hard on Harold Camping.
Yes, he’s beclowned himself. In public. All over again. By predicting the end of the world on October 21st of this year. That has almost no chance of happening. But given the cognitive dissonance he’s been presented with, and the alternative interpretations available to him, it’s not surprising that he displayed obstinacy in belief and avoided a major paradigm shift.
And so my prediction came true.
It’ll be interesting to see what he does come October 22nd.
Anyone care to wager with me?
What do you think?