If you are reading this column, then either you have been left behind while others judged more worthy have been “raptured” into heaven, and you are awaiting the annihilation of the universe on October 21, or there are some very disappointed post-Millerites trying to understand why they are still here with us. Let me explain: According to evangelist Harold Camping, 89-year old founder of Family Radio, a Christian network worth more than $100 million, there was to have been an apocalyptic earthquake heralding the Second Coming of Jesus on May 21. Like William Miller (1782-1849), founder of the Adventist church who predicted October 22, 1844 as Judgment Day, Camping practices a branch of theology called eschatology, a study of “End Times” that relies upon interpreting codes hidden in the Bible.
Camping has gone down this road before, having also predicted September 6, 1994 as Judgment Day, but his 2011 recalculation was trusted by innumerable people across the country, including Adrienne and Joel Martinez, a young couple with a 2-year old daughter and another child due this month. “Knowing the date of the end of the world changes all your future plans,” said Adrienne, who planned on going to medical school until she began tuning in to Family Radio. She and her family moved from New York City to Orlando, FL a year ago, rented a house and passed out tracts about Judgment Day. “Why are we going to work for more money? It just seemed kind of greedy to me. And unnecessary.” They budgeted their savings so that on May 21 they would have nothing left.
The Millerites of the 19th century also attracted many thousands of people, transforming what was an obscure movement in upstate NY into a national campaign by pioneering mass journalism and rallies to disseminate their message. When October 22, 1844 ended like any other day, the “Great Disappointment” left them bewildered and disillusioned. The majority simply gave up their beliefs; others rejoined their previous denominations. They learned an important lesson about the dangers of date setting and returned to scripture to read this warning from Jesus to his disciples: “No man knoweth the day nor the hour of my coming.”
I often wonder what kind of faith motivates people like Camping – not just the date setting, but the doctrine of the Rapture that keeps believers in a state of constant readiness, convinced that they can be snatched from the earth at any moment. Does it encourage ethical behavior or judgment of others who do not share their beliefs? The man who handed me a pamphlet in Grand Central Station warned me to put my life in order before it was too late. I told him that every day offers us opportunities to act ethically. When he said that Jesus was coming to judge me, “end of story,” I rushed to catch my train.
Judgment seems to be an expression of many faiths. On what basis are we judged – beliefs or behavior? What is the purpose of judgment – to win a place in heaven or to learn better ways of living on earth? Who judges and by what authority? Does this judgment lead to punishment or reconciliation? There are so many questions and so many people who think they have the answers.
Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler observed, “Theologians often say that faith must come first, and that morality must be deduced from faith. We say that morality must come first, and faith, to those whose nature fits them to entertain it, will come out of the experience of a deepened moral life as its richest, choicest fruit.”
My faith is in the capacity and desire of people to act out of goodness. I believe that the reality of human mortality, not the hope of an afterlife, calls us to give meaning to our lives by appreciating the wonder of our existence, by learning all that we can about the world around us, and by working with others – no matter what their beliefs – to make life worth living for everyone. We are sorely challenged by environmental and social catastrophes. We can choose to read these as signs of divine judgment and close up shop or we can take responsibility for our lives and roll up our sleeves. I choose to believe in people and look forward to the day when we all do.
And here’s my judgment of Harold Camping: On the morning of May 22, he should have distributed Family Radio’s $100 million dollars among his followers with an abject apology and a sincere promise to never mislead them again. Of course, human nature being what it is, they might readily follow the next Millerite.