Evangelist Harold Camping believes he has calculated the exact date of the Rapture: May 21, 2011. Today. How does end-times theology affect real world behavior?
WashingtonPost.com asked that question of figures in the world of faith. Here's what they had to say.
Jason Boyett, author of Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse and Beliefnet.com blogger: "Harold Camping, the 89-year-old Christian radio broadcaster, has announced that the 'rapture' of Christian believers will throw the world into chaos on May 21, followed five months later by the total destruction of the universe on Oct. 21. Save the date, people.
"Or better yet, pencil in May 22. That's the day the Internet will explode with people posting photos of Camping's ubiquitous 'May 21, 2011' billboards and bumper stickers. Predictions? I predict the hashtag #prophecyfail will trend on Twitter that day.
"I am a Christian. I'm supposed to love everyone. But the people I find hardest to love are those who think they've figured out God's secret end-of-the-world time line and then announce it to their followers. ...
"It's easy to laugh at the failed predictions of date setters. God knows I've had my share of it. They've been wrong for 2,000 years, and they'll be wrong in the future. But it's getting harder and harder to laugh at the people who believe them. You might think they are mindless sheep. I think they are victims of hope, and that's no longer funny."
Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene: "Why are there so many well-heeled, gullible idiots out there? Why is it that an idea can be as nuts as you like and still con enough backers to finance its advertising to acquire yet more backers ... until eventually a national newspaper notices and makes it into a silly season filler? ...
"Extinction is likely to be self-inflicted. Destructive technology becomes more powerful by the decade, and there is an ever-increasing danger that it will fall into the hands of some holy fool (Ian McEwan's memorable phrase) whose 'tradition' glorifies death and longs for the hereafter: a 'tradition' which, not content with forecasting the end of the world, actively seeks to bring it about.
"However it happens, the end of the world will be a parochial little affair, unnoticed in the universe at large. The end of the universe itself is a matter of current debate among physicists, a debate that I recommend as providing a salutary, long-term, humbling perspective on human preoccupations and follies."
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Los Angeles: "Since the beginning of time people have predicted the end of time. Our imaginations are apocalyptic. The critic Frank Kermode pointed out that we assume clocks go 'tick-tock,' but they do not. They go 'tick-tick,' but we supply the 'tock' in our minds because we feel the need to have an ending. Every song, every story, every life, has an ending — so must the world.
"The end will of course one day arrive, bang or whimper. It captures our imagination, but it should not divert our efforts. For now we are, each of us, children of the wilderness, traveling to a destination we cannot know. Do not miss the wonder of the journey worrying about the presumed imminence of arrival. It could be a long time yet, and there is much still to do."
The Rev. Frank Pavone, Catholic priest and activist: "While there are clear signs that the Lord indicated about his coming, such as a final assault of evil upon good, those signs are not described in such a way that lends itself to precise calculation of years and dates. ...
"Until that day does come, Christians live in this world and await the world to come. St. Paul writes to the Philippians, 'We have our citizenship in heaven' (Philippians 3:20). On the night before he died, Jesus prayed, 'I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to guard them from the evil one' (John 17:15). Faith calls us to be, at the same time, citizens of heaven and citizens of earth."
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership: "The real problem is not offering a date for when the Messiah will show, it's what to do when he or she fails to show up? ... Either the believers become deeply disillusioned and embittered, or, they find it impossible to admit that they were wrong, and the entire focus of their spiritual lives becomes proving that in fact that were not wrong."