The world is about to end. Again.
Oct. 21 is the next in a long line of supposed apocalypses, stretching back thousands of years. This time, the prophet of doom is Harold Camping, a radio preacher who received international media attention in May when he predicted that Judgment Day would fall on May 21, followed by months of torment on Earth and an end to everything in autumn.
Judgment Day didn't bring the promised earthquakes and Rapture, but Camping now says May 21 marked a spiritual Judgment Day and that the world will still end "quietly" on Friday. It may seem odd that Camping's faith remains strong, but apocalypse experts say that doomsday prophets have often built their entire lives around their end-of-the-world views, and that worldview is hard to shake. For an elderly preacher like Camping, who suffered a stroke in June, apocalypse beliefs may also reflect his struggle with his own mortality.
"I would not be surprised to discover that Mr. Camping sees this prediction as his life's work, the culmination of decades of intensive Bible study, filtered through the sieve of faith," said Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal. "If this is correct, then perhaps he sees in the world a reflection of his self."
The appeal of the end
Doomsday predictions, whether secular or religious, often attract those who feel the world is unsalvageable. Sometimes the world-ending catastrophe is nuclear winter; sometimes it’s the Mayan apocalypse. But religious doomsday groups often draw on mainstream faith, said Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta.
"Almost all apocalyptic beliefs show Christian influence," Kent told LiveScience.
That's because a central tenant of the faith is that Jesus will return — although many mainstream Christians point to the Bible verse Matthew 24:36 to condemn doomsday prophets such as Camping. That verse says that no one knows the day or hour of the end, "not even the angels in heaven."
Those who try to predict when doomsday will occur often focus on the world's sin. Camping, for example, has said that God left all churches in 1988, leaving Satan to rule those institutions. Famous 1800s doomsday prophet William Miller, who predicted that the end would come on Oct. 22, 1844, was "disillusioned with humanity," Kent said. [Read: Oops! 11 Failed Doomsday Predictions]
"He read a considerable amount of history and came to see humans as brutes," Kent said.
With this worldview, the end of the world is a welcome way to wipe Earth clean.
"Despite fire, death and destruction, the god of apocalypticism is a god of order, not chaos," DiTommaso told LiveScience in May. "That's the reassurance."
The personal is the prophetic
An individual's psychology and environment may contribute to the apocalyptic worldview. Followers often live and socialize in small groups where outside opinions aren't heard, DiTommaso said. This "social encapsulation" keeps faith-shaking questions at bay.
Camping and his followers are also operating from a worldview that holds that the Bible and its prophecies cannot be wrong, DiTommaso told LiveScience.
"But human ego doesn't easily admit to error, either," he added. That can lead to creative re-interpretations of the prophecies as believers try to explain what went wrong. After Miller's doomsday prophecy failed in 1844, for example, one group of followers concluded that Oct. 22 had actually been the date when Jesus Christ entered a holy sanctuary in heaven in preparation for returning to Earth.
Miller and Camping may share another characteristic: a fear of death. Camping is 90 and is recovering at home from his stroke, according to the Family Radio website. Miller, Kent said, was "deeply troubled" by death. It's possible Camping feels the same way.
"He insists no person can know who God saves and who God damns, but the implication very clearly is that he is among the saved," Kent said. "With that implication, belief in the Rapture means that Mr. Camping would escape the fate that befalls all human beings, which is death."