These days everyone is piling on Harold Camping, the prophet who forecast the world's end on Oct. 21. Even me. As we know, he was wrong. But I, for one, feel a smidgen of admiration for him -- not pity, but actual respect. Comparatively speaking, he is a prophet with honor.
Camping is, first of all, no different from hundreds, even thousands, of earlier apocalypticists. As my colleague Richard Landes has demonstrated, it was speculators like Camping who, in the Middle Ages, out of a desire to pin down the date of Christ's return, created the anno domini, or Common Era, calendar system. Every time you check the date, thank a crazy prophet.
Like these predecessors, Camping convinced himself that he had cracked the millennial code, allowing him to determine, with precision, just when God would smash the world like a cup (borrowing a image from the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh). When his chosen date passed, Camping looked foolish. But it was a respectable, venerable sort of foolishness.
That may not sound like much, but it is a rare deed in the prophecy business. For comparison, consider Hal Lindsey.
Lindsey has been prophesying for a long time. He rose to fame in 1970 with the publication of the "The Late Great Planet Earth." That was just two years after Erich von Danike, published "Chariots of the Gods?" and introduced ancient astronauts into the world. At a time of social revolution -- with America still reeling from presidential assassination and coming to grips with harsh truths about the Vietnam War -- the country was vulnerable to bad ideas.
Particularly to conspiracy theories. That is what interpreters of prophecy specialize in. They examine obscure images from the Bible (a statue with a gold head and feet of clay, a beast with seven heads and 10 horns, wheels within wheels shadowing the movements of four-faced beasts) and offer clarity -- simple one-to-one correlations that cast light on current events during times of uncertainty.
In the prophetic mindset, history does not repeat itself. Properly decoded, history reveals what is going to happen next. Past and present function conspiratorially, and prophets like Harold Camping and Hal Lindsey do not merely reveal the word of God; they unveil the conspiracy He created.
Harold Camping has fallen. Hal Lindsey plods on. Proclaimed "the Jeremiah of his generation," he makes regular media appearances, hosts a television program and maintains a website that situates current events into Old Testament imagery. He made his biggest splash in 2008, arguing that Barack Obama, still only a candidate for President, had "prepped the world for Antichrist." Like an inverse John the Baptist, Obama was introducing an evil Messiah into the world. His method? He gave a well-attended speech in Germany.
Lindsey's style of prophecy differs from Camping's in one crucial respect, though. Camping picked a date for the Second Coming. As most Christians know, the Gospel instructs believers never to do this. Christ specifically warns in Matthew 24:36 that only the Father knows the day.
Unfortunately, in the same chapter, Christ lists a series of signs for the end times. They include wars, earthquakes, famine, meteor showers and religious persecution. These clues, Christ adds, are like leaves sprouting on a fig tree. When you see the leaves, you know that you soon will be eating figs.
Hal Lindsey reads fig leaves. His key insight was that the apocalypse would occur a generation after the state of Israel was founded, in 1948. A "generation," as he decodes it, is about 40 years. That explains that title to one of his more obscure books, "The 1980's: Countdown to Armageddon."
Reading it today is a weird trip through alternative history. In 1982 all of the planets will align, causing earthquakes. This will lead to a catastrophe worse than any in history because of the number of dams built atop fault lines. Scientists say so. The Soviet Union, trusting in its nuclear superiority, will launch a massive invasion of the Middle East. Already, communism was covering most of the globe, overwhelming the last vestiges of capitalism. "The Soviet Union and its satellites have now reached the position of military superiority and strategic world power to fulfill their predicted dreadful role in history" (Countdown to Armageddon, p.94). And the Roman Empire was rising. The seven-headed beast (Rome) had only recently been reborn through its 10 horns, as the 10th and final nation entered into the European Commonwealth. (There are 27 nations today.)
As Lindsey might say, the facts speak for themselves.
Few people in history have been as spectacularly wrong as Hal Lindsey, yet he continues to work. The Soviet Union has disappeared, but the Islamic menace has taken its place. The pope remains a reliable bugaboo. And just this week Lindsey expressed hope that the Euro crisis would lead to the expulsion of 17 member states, making those 10 horns sensible again. That's the thing about figs. They come back every year.
Lindsey's prophecies in this way resemble the First Crusaders', about whom I have written extensively. Many crusaders believed in 1099 that they were installing a Last World Emperor in Jerusalem, there to do battle with Antichrist. Fig-leaf readers managed to hang onto this idea for several decades, before Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, necessitating yet another new entry into the conspiracy theory that is the apocalypse.
So yes, Harold Camping did take advantage of many addled men and women, using their money to pay for billboards that proclaimed imminent rapture. But he didn't start a war. He admitted he was wrong. And whether he retired or has just assumed a lower profile, he has learned humility.
There remain prophets working in the world with far less honor.