A leading religious scholar believes that Harold Camping's Doomsday prediction has more to do with his own mortality than the fate of the human race at large. Amy Frykholm, the author of Rapture Culture and staff writer for The Christian Century, has closely interviewed dozens of rapture believers, and found a clear pattern among them of estimating the rapture to coincide with the end of their own expected lifespan.
If the person was in his or her thirties, he might say, 'Oh, the rapture will happen in the next forty years', Frykholm told International Business Times. If the person was older, say in her seventies, she would say, 'Within the next five to ten years, for sure.' Camping is 89, so I can't help but connect his timeline to his own impending death.
In response to speculation that Camping's campaign - which warns of Judgment Day on May 21, 2011 - is financially motivated, Frykholm says she hasn't seen any evidence of that. Certainly he has a life-long desire for attention, but that doesn't make him unique in American religion.
One aspect of American evangelical apocalyptic culture that is often overlooked is how much self-doubt it involves, she went on. One never knows if one is truly saved until a decisive moment like death or the rapture. It is incredibly common that whenever there is talk of the apocalypse or some kind of impending doom, rapture-believing evangelicals go through the motions of confirming, for the thousandth time, that they have done, said and thought the right things. A lot of anxiety exists around the question, What if I am left behind? So it wouldn't surprise me if the Camping adventure isn't itself a kind of self-confirming process. Perhaps this is part of a very personal struggle to reckon with issues of life and death. And Camping has just taken us along for the ride.
Although Camping made a similar prediction in 1994, his 2011 prophesy has been remarkably more efficacious in getting attention - earning him a wide audience of curious nonbelievers. Granted, Camping was slightly less insistent about 1994 than he has been about May 21, 2011. And of course, advances in technology in the last two decades have significantly affected how quickly and widely messages like these can travel.
Still, Frykholm points to developments more organic in nature - like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan - to help explain why Camping's bulletin has received so much attention. So many people have just a partial understanding of the Bible's apocalypticism, she said. They know it has something to do with natural disasters, so whenever natural disasters occur one right after the other, a sense of doom builds that filters into the popular imagination.
And what if Camping is wrong? How will he and his followers explain away the miscalculation? Leon Festinger [social scientist and author of When Prophecy Fails] would probably say that we can anticipate a media-hungry set of believers next week. They will want more than ever to convince people of the need to be prepared, and the previous failing will not register as an issue of major concern. The point will be that Jesus is coming soon... Festinger would say that in this situation people seek social support in their new reality, and don't make much of their failing or give much in the way of explanation.
Although Camping has seen an extraordinary amount of mainstream media coverage on top of the Family Radio campaign, his influence may not penetrate as deeply into evangelical apocalyptic culture as his larger-than-life profile might suggest. My guess is that most evangelicals or most 'rapture-believing Christians' would say that they have no idea if Camping's calculations are correct, that they are aware that a lot of people have tried and failed to be in the prediction business, Frykholm said.
But the important thing is to be ready, to prepare your heart and mind... Whether he is right or wrong won't make their faith in the rapture any less.
Amy Frykholm is a staff writer for The Christian Century. In addition to Rapture Culture, she recently published a biography of Julian of Norwich called Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography and has a forthcoming book titled See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon).