May 21, 2011 at 9:24 PM ET
As the talk of a world-ending Rapture turns to ridicule, a new set of worries is coming to the fore: How will the followers of Family Radio preacher Harold Camping react to their failure to ascend to heaven? What about all those millions of dollars that were contributed to Camping's cause, including the life savings that were exhausted in the effort? And what does this portend for next year, when an even more highly publicized date with doomsday is due?
First, about the failed prophecy: With just a few hours before Rapture Saturday goes into the history books, this day turned out to be pretty normal, all in all. No cataclysmic earthquakes (although there was an Icelandic eruption and a couple of significant shakers in Japan and a New Zealand island chain). No global strife (except for the usual mayhem in the usual places). And no snatching up of millions of believers into heaven (although a good number of pranksters made it look as if clothes and shoes were "left behind").
Also, no sign of Camping himself. The minister's California-based broadcasting concern has collected and spent millions of dollars over the past few years to promote his prophecy that Judgment Day would come on May 21, 2011, based on his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Bible numerology. He and other church leaders are likely to avoid making a public appearance until Sunday at the earliest. (The Family Radio website has been offline for most of the day today.)
Some of Camping's are already returning to their daily lives. The Associated Press highlighted the case of Keith Bauer, a tractor-trailer driver who hung around Family Radio's Oakland headquarters today waiting for the end. "I had some skepticism, but I was trying to push the skepticism away because I believe in God," Bauer told AP. "I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth."
Then he added, "It's God who leads you, not Harold Camping."
Bauer and his family took a week off to make the cross-country drive from their home in Maryland, and they'll start the drive back home on Sunday.
Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told NBC News that the ordeal is far from over for Camping's followers. For some of them, who have spent their life savings to spread the word of the Rapture, the worst days could well lie ahead.
"I think it's important to watch out for people who were in the midst of this group, to make sure that they don't harm themselves, or that they don't harm others," she said.
When prophecy fails
The Oakland connection brought to mind the case of Rev. Jim Jones, who got his start as a charismatic religious leader in that city, brought his followers to a People's Temple religious community set up in the jungles of Guyana ... and touched off a mass suicide there in 1978. The 1997 mass suicide of Heaven's Gate UFO cultists in the San Diego area serves as yet another cautionary tale from California.
But unlike People's Temple and Heaven's Gate, Family Radio did not isolate its supporters under cultlike conditions. Rather, these are regular Christians who sent in millions of dollars in contributions but continued to be engaged in their communities. A better analogy might be found in the case of the "Planet Clarion" UFO cult, which was the subject of the 1956 book "When Prophecy Fails."
In the early 1950s, a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin attracted followers who believed her claim that a great flood would destroy the earth on Dec. 21, 1954. Only Martin's followers would be saved, supposedly by the alien beings that had alerted her to the threat via automatic writing. The authors of the book infiltrated the group and saw firsthand how the group reacted when the promised rescue (and flood) did not come.
The group waited until past the bitter end for the aliens' arrival, experiencing deep disappointment at the prophecy's failure. But a few hours after the deadline, Martin transmitted the message that the cataclysm had actually been called off due to divine intervention. This re-energized the group to reach out and spread the word once more. The episode helped lay the foundation for the concept of cognitive dissonance, pioneered by social psychologist Leon Festinger, one of the co-authors of "When Prophecy Fails."
A great disappointment
In the case of Family Radio, there are additional factors in play: One has to do with the huge amounts of money collected and spent by the non-profit organization. Although verifiable figures on Family Radio's current finances are not available, the organization had $72 million in net assets at the end of 2009. How much of that remains, especially considering that Camping apparently expected to have shuffled off this mortal coil by now? Could contributors make legal claims on those funds?
The highly publicized failure of the prophecy could generate a backlash among the wider public as well. It's strange to think that the non-end of the world would spark an angry response, but there is a precedent: When Baptist preacher William Miller's prediction of a Second Advent on Oct. 22, 1844, failed to pay off, the "Great Disappointment" led to violence against Miller's followers in some quarters.
I can guarantee that there won't be any tarring-and-feathering of Camping or his supporters, as there was in the case of the Millerites. Nevertheless, there is some understandable resentment over this episode, as expressed in some of the postings to the Cosmic Log Facebook page.
At least one good thing may come out of today's non-Rapture: More folks are likely to realize that there's nothing to numerological mumbo-jumbo, whether it comes from the Bible or the Maya calendar. If fewer people are freaked out about the supposed predictions that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, that's a very good thing. The end will come, whether it's tomorrow or several billion years from now. But as a famous man once said, we do not know the day or the hour. Until then, make the most of every day, have your disaster kit ready ... and for heaven's sake, DON'T PANIC!
Update for 9:15 a.m. ET May 22: Rapture Saturday is now history all over the world, and Camping's prophecy is now a total fail. Journalists caught up with Staten Island retiree Robert Fitzpatrick, who spent $140,000 of his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world and wrote a book about "The Doomsday Code." The Associated Press quoted him as saying, "I can't tell you what I feel right now. ... Obviously, I haven't understood it correctly because we're still here."
After spending five years preparing for a Rapture that didn't come, Fitzpatrick said he didn't know what his next move would be. "I'm tired," the Staten Island Advance quoted him as saying. "I was working hard trying to get the word out. I'm very surprised. I fully expected that something would happen."
There's still no word from Camping himself, but things are getting ugly on his Facebook page.
More about the Rapture rumblings:
Review all the Rapture weekend updates by checking CosmicLog.com/Rapture. You can also connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. And for something completely different, check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.