Save the date. On May 21, 2011, my brother is getting married. Or Christ will return to the earth to pronounce final judgment. It depends on whom you ask. According to my brother and his lovely bride-to-be, it will be the former, according to radio evangelist Harold Camping, the latter. On May 21, Camping predicts, God will take up his elect into heaven and the dead will be raised, with those saved being resurrected and those damned, scattered about the face of earth. Then, on October 21, the world will end.
Camping’s very existence is itself a witness to the myriad of disappointed “date setters” who have preceded him. Among them, William Miller, who was disappointed not once, but twice.
“I am fully convinced that sometime between March 21st, 1843, and March 21st, 1844, according to the Jewish mode of computation of time, Christ will come, and bring all His saints with Him; and that then He will reward every man as his work shall be.” So wrote William Miller in January 1843. When March 21, 1844 came and went without incident, Miller was not deterred; admitting that he must have made some error in his calculations, he still believed the “day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”
The Millerites now set their eyes on October 22, “the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish sacred year, as the day of the Lord’s advent.” As the day approached Millerites adopted simple diets in imitation of Adam in Paradise, some did not plow their fields anticipating the world would end before another winter, others closed their shop in honor of the King of Kings return and to dedicate more time to prayer and preparation. October 22 became known as the “Great Disappointment.”
Miller’s predictions were based on his reading of Daniel 8:14: “And he said unto me, ‘Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.’” If by days, we understand years and by sanctuary, the church, than cleansed, Miller thought, “we may reasonably suppose means that complete redemption from sin, both soul and body, after the resurrection when Christ comes the second time ‘without sin unto salvation.’” Again, if we suppose that the time of prophecy began about 457 B.C., Christ should come for the second time about 1843.
It’s a theory full of many “ifs” and “supposes,” based on literal interpretation of Scripture—“except in those instances where the writer used figurative language.” Miller marshaled an impressive array of biblical citations to support his claim and could apparently argue his point persuasively.
As one of his followers explained, he came to hear Millers lecture with a “determination to not believe, and to expose him and his folly to the people who should be present,” but he left “convicted, confounded and converted.” But Miller’s interpretation—and its appeal to others—might best be understood in light of his own description of his study of Scripture: “I found everything revealed that my heart could desire.”
Hoping for the end of the world is not such a strange desire of the heart and it’s by no means an exclusively religious one. Paul Erlich’s predictions of mass starvation by the 1970s in The Population Bomb were certainly apocalyptic. There was a twinge of the apocalyptic to the Y2Kers who seemed almost gleeful as they stockpiled food and water in preparation for the impending worldwide computer glitch that would return us to pre-computer life. Today, the dire forecasts of some global warming proponents sound almost biblical: pestilence and mourning and famine.
It’s pretty clear why we’d like to know when and how the world will end. Knowledge is power; it empowers us to act. The imminent eschaton provided a tremendous clarity for the Millerites. It informed entirely practical concerns as for example, the decision to take out only a one year insurance policy on a Millerite tabernacle constructed in 1843.
It set straight priorities: After hearing of Miller’s prediction in 1840, a young man went quickly to find his friends at a rum shop. “Friends,” he said “there is a man in the city preaching at the Casco Street church that the Lord is coming in 1843. I think you better leave your gambling and go and hear him.’ They at once stopped their gambling, gathered up their cards and money, and accompanied the young man to the meeting. The result was that the entire company was converted.” Churches that accepted the “advent near” teaching uniformly experienced a revival of religion.
When Christ did not come on October 22, 1844, many were disappointed not simply because Christ did not come, but because they could no longer live in heightened anticipation of his coming. As one believer explained, “To turn again to the cares, perplexities, and dangers of life, in full view of jeering and reviling unbelievers who scoffed as never before, was a terrible trial of faith and patience. When Elder Himes visited . . . and stated that the brethren should prepare for another cold winter, my feelings were almost uncontrollable. I left the place of meeting and wept like a child.”
The cares and dangers of life were no longer minimized by the second coming looming large on the horizon and the perplexities that had been simplified by their clear and immediate end came crowding back in. The frustrations of existing in time drifted in with the appalling snow.
At the last judgment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, Christ “will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end.”
Without this knowledge now, however, we can feel powerless to act or to act as freely as we would like. How can I fully exercise my freedom to choose the good for myself without this information, without knowing all future circumstances and possible consequences of my choice? How could anyone, for example, choose the indissoluble bond of life long fidelity to one person when he has no assurances about the future? Or vow to joyfully accept children when he cannot know with certainty the effects of global warming his children and grandchildren will have to endure?
For Christians, the answer is clear if not entirely satisfying: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” We want to know what God has planned, we may think it will improve our judgments. But Christ was firm: It’s not for us to ask after the time or seasons the Father has fixed, because that is not the behavior of children who place complete trust in their Father.
“A sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future,” the Catechism says. In marriage you go one step further, placing not only yourself, but your spouse, your children, and all future generations of your family in the hands of Providence.
So for very different reasons both Mr. Camping and I will look forward to May 21, 2011, with joyful anticipation that the bridegroom is coming.
Meghan Duke is an assistant editor at First Things .