Harold Camping, who--the media must point out in every article about him--was once a civil engineer, predicted that on May 21st at 6:00 PM the world would be inundated by earthquakes, floods and all manner of calamities, and that all the faithful would be assumed bodily into heaven by the Rapture.
The Rapture apparently didn't happen. A couple days after the appointed date, Camping explained that May 21st was actually an "invisible judgment day" to separate the faithful from the non-faithful, and that God had given us more time to prepare for the actual physical apocalypse that will really-really-really-no-doubt-about-it take place on October 21st.
All in all, a pretty lame explanation. Did Camping suddenly find a footnote in Revelations about invisible apocalypses that he missed the first thousand times he read the bible?
A better and more honest explanation would have been that the Rapture did take place, and that Camping and all his followers were left behind because of their hubris. But alas, that was one Revelation not forthcoming.
People like Camping have been around forever. And suckers have flocked to them. This time thousands of people spent their hard-earned dollars paying for billboards around the world announcing the apocalypse. Camping's radio ministry has taken in millions of dollars of donations in the run up to the non-apocalypse. When asked whether he would give back those donations Camping said he didn't see any reason why he should. I guess incorrect apocalypse predictions are non-refundable.
Camping expressed the same level of confidence in his October 21st prediction as he did in his May 21st prediction, and no doubt in his 1994 prediction. The question is, why do people fall for guys like this? And continue to fall for his nonsense even after he's been proved wrong multiple times?
How is Camping any different than Jim Jones, David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite? (Applewhite was the founder of the Heaven's Gate cult, and one of the 39 of who committed suicide in 1997 so that they could be assumed into heaven by the spaceship trailing after comet Hale-Bopp.) Sure, Camping doesn't advocate suicide. But many of his followers are despondent and out a lot of money. Camping has ruined many lives.
Camping's not the only prophet to outlive Judgment Day. The Jehovah's Witnesses have prophesied Armageddon numerous times. When Doomsday failed to arrive in 1914 the Witnesses said that they had screwed up, and what had really happened was that Christ had just become King of Heaven. I guess God wanted to retire and take it easy once WWI started?
We can be sure that come October 22nd Camping will have yet another lame excuse for why the world didn't end. Maybe he'll kick the can down the road 40 days, or five months, or another year and give us another solid date. But more likely, he will say that his calculations were flawed. That you can't accurately sync the ancient Hebrew lunar calendar and modern Gregorian solar calendar. That his leap months and leap days got messed up. That it's impossible to affix an actual date to Noah's flood. In the end, he will say that he doesn't know exactly when Armageddon will come, only that it'll be "soon" and only God can know the true date.
If it was just Camping and his brand of nuttiness, that would be one thing. But it's not. A large segment of the American population believes that the End Times are near. Many Republicans believe the founding of the modern Jewish state heralds the second coming of Christ and the destruction of the world as we know it. That's not just an odd quirk of faith.
These beliefs cause us to make foreign policy decisions in the Middle East that are not in the best interests of the United States, but instead further a misguided religious agenda. Believing that the world will end soon lets you ignore serious problems like global warming, environmental degradation, overpopulation, and declining natural resources. Because if God will kill all the non-believers and repopulate the cleansed earth with the newly resurrected Chosen Few, you don't need to worry about running out of oil, or poisoning our water supplies with toxic fracking compounds.
The thing is, people have always thought the world would end any day now. In some Christian teachings the world was originally supposed to end at the millennium. The first millennium, 1011 years ago. And you can be damned sure they thought the world was ending when the Black Death killed half the population of Europe in the 14th century. But, inexplicably, here we are, centuries later, still kicking.
Really, what's the difference between modern-day prophets like Camping and L. Ron Hubbard and relatively recent -- and still controversial -- religious figures like the Jehovah's Witnesses' Charles Taze Russell and the Mormons' Joseph Smith? And what's the difference between guys like Russell and Smith and venerated figures such as Mohammed, the writer of Revelations, Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama and Moses?
Between 1400 and 3000 years, give or take a few centuries.