On Sunday I made light of the World That Didn’t End, and the people whom the non-event flummoxed. But, truth be told, I’ve been thinking a lot more about those folks than my short, flippant blog-post my suggest. On one hand, I feel very sorry for these folks. These people really believed that they were going to be taken up into heaven on Saturday, and that the the earth would suffer the ravages of earthquakes and various other disasters, killing most of the rest of us left behind. I mean, they really believed. Like, spent-their-life-savings-to-buy-billboards-warning-non-believers believed. These people had no “Plan B“.
I feel for them. I really do. It must be difficult to devote yourself so fully to a belief, to an idea, only to have the rug pulled out from under you. I understand, in some way, the pain they must be going through. I’ve had my crises of faith, those moments when I questioned what I believed in. But this is more than just an emotional let-down for them. They have no pieces to pick up, no life to go back to, because many of them sold everything, gave up everything, cut bonds, quit jobs to pursue this eschatological fantasy. They are victims. Willful, self-deluded victims. But nonetheless victims of a fraudster prophet, in much the same way of the victims of Bernie Madoff‘s fraud. (The difference being, of course, that Madoff benefited directly and financially from the perpetuation of his fraud, whereas the benefits accrued to Camping by his fraud were indirect and of a less directly-financial nature. That, and Camping, by all accounts, drank his own kool-aid.) What’s more, sometimes, this kind of fraud ends far more tragically. So, my heart goes out to these people.
But another part of my turns to the question: what next. For the majority of us, of course, the answer is simple: life continues as before. But for those who were left behind by their own prophecy, what happens to them? I must admit to some fascination with the plight of the prophetically-spurned. The condition of what happens when your world-view is presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary is something I’m interested in understanding and exploring. And putting it in the setting of a doomsday prophecy gone wrong only makes it all the more intriguing. In fact… I realized, the more I thought about this, that there was a story seed in all of these, an idea that, I imagine, must inevitably form the framework of a novel, someday. A novel I will undoubtedly someday write.
What’s interesting about this whole thing is that scientific studies have shown that when presented with this proof of the failings of their beliefs, a significant percentage of those believers will not give up their beliefs. They’ll double-down. They’ll dig in deeper. And so it most likely will be with this event. Camping and his followers will explain it, rationalize it. But they’ll persist. That’s an curious dynamic. It doesn’t make sense – it doesn’t fit with the rational view we have the world – but human beings are rarely rational creatures (a fact that consterns many an economics professor). That, in itself, is a useful revelation about the nature of human character – and the nature of the characters we write. It’s something I need to remember to keep in the back of my mind as I write.
I guess this was a long way of saying: I really feel sorry for the people who truly believed the world was going to end at this prescribed time, but out of that, I feel the seeds of new story ideas have been planted in me. And I look forward to exploring those ideas, someday, in fiction.
Author’s Note: I don’t want to go too much into detail about what I believe. My own religious faith is my own business, and generally I don’t believe it’s proper for me to force my personal beliefs on other people. But I will say this about my beliefs about end-times and eschatology: I don’t believe in a petty, vindictive God. I know that’s not entirely consistent with the biblical portrayal of God (where he is often shown to be petty and vindictive and, frequently, cruel – and where he is also often depicted as loving, protective, caring, merciful and just, if we’re being fair to the biblical portrayal). But then, I don’t hold to a wholly literal interpretation of the Bible.
I do believe in a God of positive attributes: caring, loving, merciful, and just. And such a God is not the sort who selectively “saves” some number of people who happen to be in the right place and the right time to be knowledgable of and believe in a relatively obscure collection of dogmas and principles. Such a God is not the sort who condemns the remainder of his own children to suffer a horrific fate for the crime of not having been born Christian. These are not the actions of a just and righteous being – they are the actions of a sadist. Accordingly, I have differing views on what the “end times” will be like, and a different understanding of the source and nature of any eschatalogical suffering, which is this: Mankind is sometimes given to some pretty base impulses at times. We’re imperfect. And that imperfection has a way of getting around. Earthly suffering isn’t some sort of punishment sent from above – it never has been and never will be. It’s the result of we earth-bound folks dealing unjustly with one another.
And, to a greater or lesser degree, I think that whipping folks up into an eschatological frenzy is just one more form of the injustice we do to one another.
If there is to be a millennial reign of peace and tranquility, it will only ever come when we, collectively, decide to abandon the many forms of injustice we are so frequently wont to commit against our fellow mankind, and when we collectively decide to do right by all of the human family. Which means being kind and good to one another and not petty or vindictive as some of us imagine our deities to be. And that’s a pretty all order. I imagine it will take something pretty drastic to get humanity to collectively wake up to our own inhumanity. Which, I suppose, is why there’s going to be a lot of “tribulation” between now and that time.