Get Ready For The Rapture

In 1994, Christian talk radio host Harold Camping first predicted that the beginning of the end comes on Saturday, May 21st, 2011. Host Michel Martin talks about apocalypse predictions and movements they inspire with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we head to the Barbershop to get the guys' take on the news of the week. But first, the end is near. That's what the Christian talk radio network Family Radio says. Its president, talk show host Harold Camping, says he devised a formula that marks May 21st, 2011 - that's tomorrow - as the beginning of the end.

Now, you might have seen the advertisements on billboards and buses and trains across the country. Many of the ads say, quote, "the Bible guarantees it." That message has also gone out across the world, warning of this day of reckoning based on Camping's calculation. But this isn't the first time that the end of days has been predicted, even from Camping himself. Camping first predicted that Armageddon would come in 1994, and despite the fact that that prediction also proved false, it seems that people across the globe continue to believe this prophecy.

And with us now to talk about the history of these predictions and why they continue to attract followers is Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL, National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. He also has some personal experiences with these messianic movements. He's with us on the line from our NPR bureau in New York.

Also with us, Harvey Cox. He is Hollis Research Professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He's the author of many, many books and a well-known commentator on religious matters. And he joins us from his home office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I thank you both so much for joining us.

HARVEY COX: Good to be here. Thank you, Michel.

Rabbi BRAD HIRSCHFIELD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Professor Cox, if we could start with you: What exactly is Harold Camping predicting will happen tomorrow?

COX: That's not entirely clear, because he calls it the Judgment Day sometimes. Sometimes he does refer to sort of the beginning of the end. He uses some of the language from the Protestant fundamentalist end-time theology that we read about in those "Left Behind" novels that some people - I think he says a couple hundred thousand - will be raptured, taken up directly to heaven, and all the rest of us - I say us, here, thoughtfully - will be left behind in what will be an increasingly troubled time, until the real final judgment. So, this is sort of the beginning, from his point of view: the beginning of the end.

MARTIN: And is the idea that the physical bodies of those who are to be saved will no longer be here, that you - you sort of - you look around, and some people will be missing?

COX: They're gone. Yes. Gone.

MARTIN: And the rest of us will suffer. Okay. Now, you know, Harold Camping is actually a civil engineer by training, so perhaps it's not surprising that he uses math calculations to come to this conclusion. I'll just play a short clip from his radio program, "Open Forum," discussing how he came up with May 21st as Judgment Day. And here it is.

HAROLD CAMPING: Seven thousand years after 4990 B.C., the year of the flood, is the year 2011 A.D. The math involved is 4990, plus 2011, minus one equals 7,000. The Bible has given us absolute proof that the year 2011 is the end of the world, during the Day of Judgment.

MARTIN: So, obviously, Professor Cox, you know, it is easy to make fun of this. But the concept of an end of days is one that has existed for, how long? What - can you just tell us a little bit more about that?

COX: Well, it goes very far back into history, and the history both of the Jewish and Christian religions. And also, it's there in other forms in other faiths as well. It comes very much to the fore in the period just before the emergence of Christianity, when there were many Apocalyptic movements in Judaism. And Christianity, in some of its expressions, picked up on them, as well. And there was an expectation, a general expectation that things were not going to last much longer.

Now, some people think they were talking about the whole world when they said we're approaching the end. Others thought they were just talking about the end of the Roman Empire, which was the empire that was tyrannizing both the Christians and the Jews in those days, and that it would be coming to an end. But still, the idea that the end is near, or is coming soon, keeps appearing time after time, throughout history. It keeps attracting people. People seem to believe it's going to happen. And when it doesn't happen, interestingly, they often don't lose interest. They even continue to belong to the same movement.

For example, the - what we call the Mormons' full name is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. They started as an apocalyptic, end-time movement, the latter days. And, of course, that didn't happen. And now, they're very much adjusted to this world.

MARTIN: Rabbi Hirschfield, you were attracted to - you belonged to a messianic movement at some point. Could you just tell us a little bit more about what you believed would happen, and what was the appeal?

HIRSCHFIELD: Sure. The messianic movement that I was a part of was the settlement movement, the religious settlement movement in Israel. And it really didn't focus on the next life as much as it focused on the ability to transform radically this life.

And I think that's where all of these messianic or apocalyptic movements share something, that, as you said, is easy to mock, but is actually quite compelling, and I think helps account for why - even when people's calculations go awry, as they always have, and personally I'm not canceling my dinner reservations for this coming Sunday - there is something deeply attractive about this approach, and one from which I think we can learn.

Because what all of these systems have in common is not only a sense that the current circumstances are unacceptable or even intolerable, but the expectation that in very short order, they will be radically transformed and improved. And I think that's what makes these movements incredibly compelling, if entirely inaccurate.

There is something quite beautiful about the notion that whatever is going on in the world, people can nurture a faith, an expectation which says regardless of what's going on, on a dime, things could turn and be so much better than they currently are. So that piece of it, I think, is actually something from which we can learn, even though, as I said, I expect that Reverend Camping's predictions - like all of these predictions from every faith that has ever generated them - is going to prove incorrect.

MARTIN: What changed your mind about this, if you don't mind my asking?

HIRSCHFIELD: Sure. What changed my mind about it was holding onto that expectation remained beautiful, but trying to actualize it became dangerous. When I began to see that in the intoxication with the possibility of radical transformation, people began to live not only as if it was possible, but as if it was already happening. You end up being able to justify doing anything to anyone who doesn't share your beliefs. And I think that's one of the real dangers.

While it's true that Professor Cox is certainly correct, we have sterling examples of successful people and movements that have managed to deal with unfulfilled expectation in the Mormon Church. History is filled with examples of communities with unfulfilled messianic expectation, in which one of two things happened. The followers became embittered and despondent, and when the calculations proved to be incorrect, as they always do, they ended up with crushed lives.

And that's kind of a tragedy. But even worse are those communities, when their expectations were unfulfilled, began to force and coerce those around them - because it was intolerable to accept that they were wrong - and began to force others to fit in to their paradigm to try and make it correct.

And so I think while it's clearly - it doesn't seem to be the case with Reverend Camping's followers. There is always that edge with any of these kind of apocalyptic, messianic movements, that when the dream is not fulfilled, you begin to force others to live in accordance with your vision so you don't have to admit the dream is, in fact, unfulfilled.

MARTIN: We're talking about the prediction which is being most visibly promoted by the president of the Christian talk radio network Family Radio, Harold Camping, that the end of the world will begin tomorrow, May 21st, 2011. He says that's according to his calculations.

We're speaking with the rabbi Brad Hirschfield and Professor Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School.

So, let me just play a short clip from our NPR's religion correspondent. Barbara Bradley Hagerty has been covering this Family Radio prediction. In her reporting she's spoken with many of Harold Camping's followers, including David Lacory(ph) . He's a believer on Long Island. I'll just play a short clip of what he said. Here it is.

DAVID LACORY: I'm separated as a result of a difference of perhaps belief. I owned a home, I had property, I have sold everything off. I have no more personal ambitions but to get the gospel out, to warn the world.

MARTIN: Professor Cox, what about what Rabbi Hirschfield was telling us, that sometimes when the prediction does not come through, as I think it's fair to say that most of us believe that it will not, that sometimes ugly things happen as a consequence of that? Do you think that that's true? Do you think that that's possible here as well?

COX: Yeah, well, I think the rabbi was exactly right when he says that when conditions become unbearable, there is this temptation to think that things have got to change and they've got to change radically, and then maybe they will and certainly they are. And when they don't, when the end of the world doesn't come, what happens? How do people respond to that? I think it's right. I think the rabbi's right. Some people will become very embittered and angry. Other people, given the fact that we hate to change our opinions, even when they're proved wrong, at least that's my case, will find ways to rationalize staying with it.

They'll make a different prediction. They'll say we got one number wrong in that elaborate formula and they'll set another date. And believe me, there will people who will be expecting that date, as well.

MARTIN: Rabbi Hirschfield, I have a final question for you, and that is, how should we talk about this in the days ahead? I think maybe I'm asking from a sort of - maybe it's more of a pastoral, you know, question. Because as I said, it's very easy to say, well, that was dumb. But is there a more productive way you think we could talk about this? Given, as we've discussed, that people continue to be attracted to this idea?

HIRSCHFIELD: Right. I think it's a great question, Michel. And I guess what it comes down to is what can we learn from Camping and his followers, even though we completely disagree with them? And I think what it comes down to is, really, that we as humans are creatures of hope. And as erroneous as this calculation, I'm really sure is, as they all have been, we ought not confuse mistaken calculations with authentic aspirations.

So, really, it's a moment when if you tend to believe these calculations, you might want to check in with others who have a somewhat more rational approach to things because they are probably going to be more rooted in this world and in actually fixing the circumstances which you may experience as intolerable.

MARTIN: Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of the CLAL National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. His latest book is "You Don't Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Professor Harvey Cox was also with us. He is the Hollis research professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. His latest book is "The Future of Faith." And he joined us from his home office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I thank you both so much for joining us.

COX: Thank you.

HIRSCHFIELD: You're welcome.

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