NEAL CONAN, host:
Full-page ads in newspapers and signs on street corners in recent weeks carry a dire warning: Judgment Day arrives this weekend. A Christian group predicts the Second Coming of Christ this Saturday, May 21, when the dead will rise from their graves and a worldwide earthquake will herald five months of torment for the unsaved. That's until the universe finally ends on October 21.
Others believe we have a little longer, that the Mayan calendar predicts the End of Days in December 2012. Most people, of course, don't take either seriously, but many beliefs include an end of some sort.
According to your faith, how does the world end? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Jerry Walls joins us from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, where he's senior research fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion. He's also the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology.
Nice to have you with us again.
Mr. JERRY WALLS (Oxford Handbook of Eschatology): Great to be here.
CONAN: And why this Saturday?
Mr. WALLS: Well, you know, he has a very esoteric numerology, which he's worked out, going back to the flood, which he has dated at 4990. So even though scholars by and large agree that we have no idea when the flood actually occurred, he's got it down to the exact year.
CONAN: And you're saying he. Who's he?
Mr. WALLS: Oh, he - I'm talking about Harold Camping, the man that everybody is talking about, that's got all this second coming talk astir again. He is a radio mogul, head of a radio empire, has lots of followers. He wrote a book originally several years ago called "1994?" question mark - in which he predicted the Second Coming of Christ in 1994.
Now, that did not materialize. Strikingly enough, he still has a lot of followers and has now come up with a new scheme saying that he misread important parts of the Bible that he hadn't really carefully studied. So, of course, that's an interesting question. A guy who admits he hadn't carefully studied with his first prediction, you know, but now he - now apparently he's got all the gaps covered, and he says it's absolutely clear this time.
And again, his starting date is the flood, which he says happened in 4990 B.C. Now, the second crucial number goes back to Genesis 7:4. After Noah has built the ark, God then says to Noah, in seven days the flood is going to occur. So sort of the idea is that seven days you can preach to people, warn them, seven days the flood is going to start.
So he takes the seven days to symbolize a thousand years each because there's a verse in the first - in the New Testament, First Peter or Second Peter, I think it is, 3:8, says that one day with the Lord is as thousand years, a thousand days, or a thousand years is as a day.
So each day represents a thousand years. So you add 7,000 to 4990, that's how gets 2011 as the actual date of the Second Coming.
Now, it's more specific still. He's got an exact day, and again, this is really, really complicated how he arrives at that. I've got this written down in front me. It's rather complicated.
He believes that Jesus was crucified on April the 1st 33 A.D. And again, scholars, you know, reputable scholars do not think we can pinpoint that, but he has. And he says there's 722,500 astronomical days from that date to May 21, 2011.
Now, here's how he arives at that. In the Bible, he says five signifies redemption, 10 signifies completeness, and 17 signifies heaven. So 722,500 is made up of two sets of five times 10 times 17. So you see, it's a rather convoluted numerical kind of a figure, and again, that's part of what's fascinating about these kind of predictions. The more esoteric they are, the better they are. It's kind of like someone, you know, that has special insight that nobody else could have come up with or seen has suddenly hit the, you know, the loadstone, and nailed this thing in that way that everybody else missed before.
Mr. WALLS: So - go ahead.
CONAN: Oh, I was just going to say, and then the sequence that comes after that is - I guess the apocalypse sequence that everybody has become more familiar with as the result of the "Left Behind" series of...
Mr. WALLS: Right.
CONAN: ...terrible time - the rapture...
Mr. WALLS: True Christians will be removed from the world, raptured, after which the rest of the population will undergo enormous judgment. And I heard him say in a clip I watched the other day, millions of people per day would be dying, you know, so apocalyptic disaster of unspeakable proportions follows, until October 21, which is literally the end of everything, the literal end of the world.
Mr. WALLS: So that's the scenario.
CONAN: That's the scenario.
Mr. WALLS: So anything you need to get done, do it now.
CONAN: Drink the good wine now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: So as we look ahead to this - I mean, we make jokes, this group has to know that when they published this date as they did in 1994, they're going to be mocked. This is going to be the punchline of every comedian on the planet.
Mr. WALLS: Right. Already has been and will be even more. But the amazing thing is, despite this track record, people continue to do this. And, again, this kind of thing has been going on for a long time. Back in the 1970s, there was a book, a bestseller called "The Late, Great Planet Earth" by Hal Lindsey, in which he more or less implied that the end of the world would happen probably around 1998, which was a generation after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. So he more or less, you know, predicted what happened sometime within a generation of the founding of the state of Israel. Well, that didn't happen. That book was the bestselling nonfiction book of the 1970s, okay?
Now, in 1988 there was another - another guy wrote a book called "88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988." And again, this is fascinating to me. The guy who wrote this was a NASA engineer. Camping is also an engineer, a civil engineer. So it's something about a fascination with numbers.
CONAN: It's a little unusual to come up with a sequel, though, after the first one doesn't come up right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WALLS: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. Yes, it is. But again, everybody thinks they have hit on the formula that other people have missed, all right? So he wrote his book. And, again, this book sold like 4.5 million copies, okay? Okay. And a lot of people, again, were astir. You know, he didn't predict an exact date, but he gave up like a three-day window. But it was going to be in 1988, within a three-day window. That didn't happen, so he again predicted it in 1989, 1993 and 1994. Now, you know, he lost a lot of his following after the first time it didn't happen. But Camping has maintained a rather large following despite his previous failed prediction.
CONAN: Well, we do know that many faiths do. Just as they have creation myths, they talk about the end of days.
Mr. WALLS: Yes. I mean, I mean virtually everybody thinks there's some kind of an end of the world, at least in the theistic religions. Now, in some of the non-theistic religions, they don't believe there will be an end of the world. They, in fact, think the world is eternal, has been around forever and always will be. And so history is not aiming to a target in the way that it is in the great theistic religions.
But even for the naturalists, people who don't believe in God, there's an end of things, and it's a rather dismal, bleak kind of an end of time billions of years into the future, when the sun burns out, and not only our sun but all the other suns burn out. And the universe just keeps expanding and disintegrating into oblivion. So you got...
CONAN: Entropy, I think, that's called.
Mr. WALLS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you got the end of the world either way. And so the question is, is the end of the world the end of hope or is the end of the world something to be hoped for? So people who see the end of the world as something hopeful, see it going somewhere that will end up - end up in a positive way.
CONAN: We're talking with Jerry Walls at the University of Notre Dame, where he's a scholar in the Center for Philosophy of Religion, about the end of the days.
And according to you faith, how does the world end? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
Lyle is on the line from Eagle in Michigan.
LYLE (Caller): Hi. I'm a God-fearing Christian and I'm just a little embarrassed with all this end times and negative thinking. I follow what Helen Keller and Emerson followed, a lot of the perspective of a guy named Emanuel Swedenborg, a 17th century scientist-theologian, who pointed out the symbolic nature much of the ancient writing, including the sacred scriptures. And quite frankly, I'm very positive about the future.
And I disagree with your guest there, that you can believe in Jesus Christ and know that we have an amazing future and that the world is not going to end at some preordained date. We might destroy it through climate change and nuclear explosions, but I don't think it will come from the hand of God. And I'm not looking for that. I just look around at all the amazing advances that the human race has seen in the last 200 years. It's remarkable, isn't it?
CONAN: I'm not sure that Jerry Walls was endorsing a certain vision of the end of the world. He was saying many Christians would be familiar with the outline that this group is putting forward. But Jerry Walls, are you familiar with the philosopher that Lyle is talking about?
Mr. WALLS: Yes, yes. Swedenborg is a famous figure that I have, of course, heard of. But again, yeah, I was not endorsing Camping's picture, to be sure. Now, I do believe in the second coming of Christ. I do believe that history is going somewhere. So that's where I think that Camping, you know, and his crowd have tapped into something true. And every heresy, you know, typically is a biblical truth pushed to unbiblical extremes. And so Camping...
LYLE: Can I leave you with one point?
Mr. WALLS: Sure.
LYLE: And people can look for themselves, but whenever they talk about the second coming of Christ, if you look at Christ's own words, he always refers to himself as the son of man. So in order to gain a better understanding of the second coming, one really should study the scriptures and make a determination, what he's talking about where he refers to himself as the son of man, and that question was answered on Palm Sunday. You can look it up in John. But I'm going to let you go and let you talk.
CONAN: All right, Lyle. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
LYLE: Thanks a lot.
CONAN: We're talking with Jerry Walls about the prediction, by one group at least, that the apocalypse begins on Saturday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an email from Paul in Grand Rapids: As a mainstream Christian, I tend to follow biblical texts that says no one, not even Christ, knows when the world will end. I can't take anyone seriously who compiles obscure dates and nebulous texts that point to a conveniently close apocalyptic rendezvous.
Mr. WALLS: Fair enough and true enough. And I would absolutely agree with that. But again, I would simply say and reiterate that while they have taken a biblical truth and pushed it to an unbiblical extreme, they are taking something seriously that a lot of Christians actually fail to do so. And perhaps part of what creates the climate and makes guys like this able to flourish is because mainline churches do not preach the Second Coming of Christ in a more responsible fashion and keep this at the forefront of their faith.
I mean, the Christian faith can be summed up in three phrases: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. And just a few weeks ago, we celebrated Easter. And anyone who takes seriously that Christ was raised from the dead cannot but take seriously the second coming. So a lot of churches have failed their parishioners and made their parishioners and other people vulnerable to the kind of excesses that Harold Camping is capitalizing on.
CONAN: We're talking about the apocalypse and beliefs about the end of the world. It's a topic well covered in books. Author Rhoda Janzen wrote an essay detailing her three favorite novels on the second coming. It's for NPR's series Three Books, where authors write about books on a theme. And you can read her choices at our website, if you go to npr.org, click on Books. And we should also mention Jerry Walls is the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. Eschatology is the study of - I'll refer to you to get it precisely.
Mr. WALLS: The last things, yes. So it's the study of the last things, final judgment, heaven, hell, purgatory, things of that nature.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tyler, Tyler with us from Kalamazoo.
TYLER (Caller): Hi, hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TYLER: Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.
TYLER: Good. You know, I think it all comes down to philosophy. Christianity is a funny thing to inject into Western culture. You know, it is an Eastern faith. And I think that's where a lot of the problems come - you have people trying to take a mathematical stance on something that's very figurative. It's, you know, it's very symbolic. And to try and take - make finite, you know, things that were mentioned in the Bible, like being with a day with God is, like, you know, is like a thousand years - the important word there is like. I mean...
Mr. WALLS: It's simply a metaphor.
TYLER: Yeah. Judeo, you know a rabbinical practice was to say, is like, you know, or is greater than, you know? You know, and so to do that and to try and pull the math out of the Bible - the Jewish, you know, if you looked at - if you ask, you know, the Eastern people how they study something, they go out into, you know, into a pond and they study the frog, how it lives, how it breathes, all these kind of things, where in the Western culture we grab the frog out of the pond, we dissect it, you know, and we just - we, like, we'll get (unintelligible) we don't know anything about its life when you do that. And, you know, so it's just a difficult thing, end-times and chaos.
CONAN: I think we can all stipulate it's a difficult thing, Tyler.
TYLER: Yeah. I mean, you know, and when you go to the end-times, it's more about what's happening than when it's happening.
CONAN: All right, Tyler.
TYLER: (Unintelligible) yeah.
CONAN: Thanks very - I just wanted to get - we're running out of time. I wanted to get to another email.
TYLER: Oh, no problem. Go ahead.
CONAN: This is from Julie in Denver: As a practicing wiccan, I don't know of any believe in Wicca or paganism in general that advocates an end of the world scenario. However, many pagans believe we are in changing times, and changes can be challenging. It's our responsibility as members of the entire human race to be the best we can be, to take care of our planet. Change is natural, not necessarily a bad thing, even though it may be difficult to experience. But wiccans accept the dark quote-unquote times as a process of growth. And it's important to emphasize there are a lot of other faiths other than the Judeo-Christian variety.
Mr. WALLS: Well, again, I would simply say orthodox Christians also accept change and also insist that it's our responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth. Orthodox Christians who look forward to the coming of Christ, now, some of them take that as an excuse to ignore things and kind of celebrate the world going to hell in a handbasket. But what Christians should do and what most orthodox Christians do is in fact say, hey, we're part of building the kingdom of God. We're working with him, and he will complete the process that we are trying to begin. And so we should also be good stewards and take change seriously and make the best of this world that we can with his help. So I wouldn't take that as an exclusive value of wiccans, by any means.
CONAN: OK. Any plans for Saturday?
Mr. WALLS: Yeah. I'll probably be watching basketball, out partying with my friends. Some of my friends are graduating here at Notre Dame, celebrating their graduation and looking forward to commencement, which is a word for beginning. So I'm continuing to commence and look forward.
CONAN: All right. Jerry, thanks very much for your time, as usual.
Mr. WALLS: Thank you.
CONAN: Jerry Walls, senior research fellow in the Center for Philosophy and Religion at the University of Notre Dame. His forthcoming book is "Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation." And he joined us from a studio on the campus there at Notre Dame.