As you will have noticed, the world did not come to an end—or, to be precise, begin to come to an end—on Saturday evening at 6:00 local time, wherever you happened to be. The latest false prophet to be picked up by the media for the comic possibilities he provided proved to be wrong, as everyone but the gullible and deceived knew he would.
Christians may cringe or shrug or roll our eyes, or may even laugh along with everyone else, but such speculations do not merely amuse the secular and embarrass the religious. They hurt people. There is a reason Scripture is so hard on false prophets, no matter how sincere they seem to be.
“Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending” tells of the Haddad family’s trip to New York, after Mrs. Haddad gave up her job, to warn people that human history was almost over. (Mr. Haddad kept his.) It was not a happy time for their children, reports the New York Times.
“People look at my family and think I’m like that,” said Joseph, their 14-year-old, as his parents walked through the street fair on Ninth Avenue, giving out Bibles. “I keep my friends as far away from them as possible.”
“I don’t really have any motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore,” he said, “because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.”
His mother said she accepted that believers “lose friends and you lose family members in the process.”
His poor sister reported that “My mom has told me directly that I’m not going to get into heaven.”
This is what happens when false prophets prophesy falsely. It’s all very amusing—Those whacky fundamentalists and their end times! Next at 11!—till people act on the prophecy and bad things naturally happen, like children being alienated from their parents. And perhaps even their parents’ faith in Christ, because many children cannot separate that faith from the bizarre theories that led them to Ninth Avenue. Especially when, on Saturday evening a little after six, the children see that it was all a crock.
St. Paul twice, in his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians, warns fathers not to provoke their children to wrath, and reasonable resentment is a form of wrath to which parents can provoke their children. We may want to say that the children should be able to ignore the embarrassments their religious parents inflict upon them, but that would require of them an adult level of maturity or a level of sanctity most of us haven’t managed.
The child’s faith can be fragile. Children should not be pushed too far without reason. As the twig is bent, and all that. I think that’s why St. Paul brings this up.
Harold Camping may have meant well. He may have believed it all, though I’d be interested to know if he emptied his bank account and gave away his house and car on Friday—the Christian ought to be kind even to the damned and some of the people left behind will be cold and hungry. He may have been caught up in the pleasures of arcane speculations and the intoxicating feeling he’s discovered the secret key and found something no one else has ever seen.
He may have, though why he ignored Our Lord’s instructions not to speculate on such things escapes me. That does not speak well of him. Even if he were sincere, he was very wrong, and untruths like his damage other people. He bears some blame for that damage. He bears some blame for Joseph Haddad feeling his parents don’t care. That’s the responsibility you take when you set yourself up as a teacher.
I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as odd as the Haddads. I’d like to think I haven’t done so because I am exceptionally sensible, but I suspect I haven’t in part because I lack whatever virtue it is that makes one give up one’s job and take to the streets of New York in the hope of saving souls. And I have the great blessing of being part of a tradition that protects its members from such things, and faithful Christian friends and colleagues whose good opinion I would not want to forfeit.
You don’t want to feel smug after reading a story like this, thinking that you’d never do this kind of thing to your children. You’ve undoubtedly failed them in other ways, and you may in some way have provoked them to wrath, and to the form of it that can be called reasonable resentment. Even if you happen to be St. Francis or St. Clare, you have not been the perfect parent, and that imperfection may well be written upon your child.
In any case, the Haddad’s story is unsettling, and not just because it reveals the pains eccentric forms of Christianity cause unnecessarily. It reminds all of us parents that our children live in a world that makes our, and their, beliefs eccentric if not laughable. Even the plain, traditional belief many Christians declare when they recite the Nicene Creed on Sunday feels, to the world, nearly as nutty as Camping’s predictions that the world would end last Saturday.
It is not easy for children to be Christians and to have dogmatically and morally rigorous parents, even when their parents are perfectly normal mainstream Christians, because that normal expression of the Faith no longer looks normal to the wider society. At best it looks odd, at worst delusional and oppressive, especially when Christians insist on it as a public truth. The world is always with us, and the worldlings will happily smear the competition by trying to make it seem as weird and uncool as possible.
The poor kids are marked out at the age at which children simply don’t want to be marked out. We should not increase the pressures upon them when we don’t have to, since there will be times that we will have to. That is one very good reason to shun false prophets.
Fortunately, the Christian tradition provides a vision of the end of history we can easily commend to our children, and to everyone else, as a wisdom and a hope that cannot be weird and uncool. A man might not believe it, but he would be a fool to think it comical or crazy.
In being directed to reflect on the end of history, we are being directed to reflect on the men and women we ought to be. The orthodox Christian belief in the Lord who will “come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead,” as the Apostles Creed declares, should make us more attentive to the end to which our lives should be directed, and to the inevitability of death and the possibility that it is closer to us than we realize, even if we are still young. (One of my closest friends growing up survived two years battling a vicious cancer, only to die of another, entirely unrelated cancer at 22.)
It should make us live so that we earn the lines we’d like written on our gravestones. It should make us strive to be men and women of virtue. It should drive us closer to the Lord who will make us what we want to be. It should produce in us a greater love for the Lord who (to adapt a prayer from the Mass) we pray will “grant us his peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those he has chosen.”
That can easily be commended, with no risk that at 6:05 one night you will know you’d been fooled. The world will still try to make such reflections look weird and uncool, but how weird and uncool can it possibly be to be a saint?
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
The New York Times’ Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending.
Meghan Duke’s Save the Date, her reflection on Camping and the end of the world.