Growing up in London, I remember an old man with a sandwich board used to traipse up and down Piccadilly and Oxford Street. His message was simple, consistent, and daily updated: "The end is nigh." People would shrug, bemused, and walk by. Year in, year out, he spent his days tirelessly proclaiming that things were about to end. He was a fixture in the West End; tourists snapped endless photos of his messages.
I don't know the man's exact fate, but I'm guessing—since humankind is still alive and kicking—that he died of natural causes. He came to mind when news broke that yet another North American preacher was declaring the world's imminent demise. A week from Saturday, apparently. Around 6 pm, though I can't tell if that's Central or Pacific (where the preacher is based) and that type of detail bothers me. I'm loath to mention his name or organization, because publicity is clearly what he's seeking. He's spent a fortune promoting his message on billboards and the radio.
But precisely because so many Americans believe in the End Times (30-40% of the population, according to Chip Berlet of non-partisan Political Research Associates), I thought it worth establishing how the preacher had alighted on May 21st. After all, if you're going to date the End Times, almost to the hour, then accuracy should count for something.
The Independent in Britain satisfied my curiosity by trying to explain the preacher's math. "After 70 years of studying the Bible," the newspaper reports, "he claims to have developed a system that uses mathematics to interpret prophecies hidden in it. He says the world will end on 21 May, because that will be 722,500 days from 1 April AD33, which he believes was the day of the Crucifixion. The figure of 722,500 is important because you get it by multiplying three holy numbers (five, 10 and 17) together twice. ‘When I found this out, I tell you, it blew my mind,' he said."
This would all matter a lot less if the preacher didn't "make programs in 48 languages, boast tens of thousands of followers across the globe, with radio stations in South Africa, Russia, and Turkey."
In their 2004 book The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times, Christian evangelist authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins go so far as to proclaim that a "divine prophetic clock" began ticking on March 5, 444 BC. They really do say they can date the world's end from that long ago. Again, my nitpicking habit is to ask whether that would be in Californian time or, say, Moscow's.
North American doomsters are getting all the press these days, but as the example of London's sandwich-board man makes clear, prophecies are anything but new. Back in the 1740s, as I convey in a new book about these controversies, The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty, David Hume wrote of such men: "What greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, and ambassador from heaven?" These days, they tweet, text, and take to the radio. They're louder and their words carry farther and more rapidly. They add to the general stress and stoke the anger and dismay of people both here and continents away. They also frighten children, sap the nation's spirit, and agitate the nation's mood.
Back in 1849, the Reverend John Cumming, a popular Scottish Presbyterian, was also convinced the world was about to end. In his Apocalyptic Sketches, the Calvinist preacher explained that he found evidence for the End Times in the Irish potato famine, the invention of the steamship, and the growing popularity of the telegraph. He thought the divine dispensation would come around 1867.
The reverend's "sincere prayer," offered early in his book's preface, was "that the reader enjoy a portion at least of the pleasure felt by the writer in studying and expounding these parts of the Apocalypse." The author's "only regret," he couldn't help adding (perhaps worried that his reader might dally), was that "time was so short, and that the Apocalypse has an end."
Before Cumming died of natural causes in 1881, as I relay in the book, he managed to complete several dozen more books of his own, including The Destiny of Nations as Indicated in Prophecy, to add to the 180 or so that he published at a dizzying rate. Fiercely anti-Catholic, he was also almost single-handedly responsible for the spectacular growth of the National Scottish Church in Covent Garden, central London—not far from where the sandwich-board man used to proclaim "the end is nigh." Every Sunday the firebrand evangelical would preach to congregations numbering up to 600.
Are we more or less credulous today? Hopefully, a good deal less so. Regarding the latest prediction of the second coming, the Independent has some pertinent facts: "Critics point out that this isn't the first time [the preacher in California] has predicted the second coming. On 6 September 1994, hundreds of his listeners gathered at an auditorium in Alameda looking forward to Christ's return."
"At that time," the newspaper reports the preacher saying, "there was a lot of the Bible I had not really researched very carefully. But now," he insists, meaning today, "we've had the chance to do just an enormous amount of additional study and God has given us outstanding proofs that it really is going to happen."
The preacher's argument apparently has convinced Adam Larsen, 32, from Kansas. According to the Independent, "he is among scores of ‘ambassadors' who have quit their jobs to drive around America in Family Radio vehicles warning of the impending apocalypse. "My favorite pastime is raccoon hunting," Mr Larsen told CNN. "I've had to give that up. But this task is far more important."
Such claims at prophecy are as dated as the fear and anxiety they try to stoke in others. But when people are already anxious, getting a rise out of them is not hard. We'd do well to remember we've been here before many, many times. Still, the temptation to call oneself an "ambassador" from heaven seems, for some, just too irresistible to pass up.