When Prophecy Fails… Again!

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Lecture date: Sun, 12th Jan, 2014
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On 21 December 2012, the Mayans had prophesied that the End of the World would occur – at least, according to a number of New Age pundits and the authors of a surprisingly large number of books. In fact the Mayans had prophesied no such thing. In the exceedingly complex Mayan calendar there is only one reference to the date, possibly equivalent to 21 December 2012 and (contra the apocalypticists) no clear indication of what was supposed to happen on that day. But the clincher is that there are many hundreds of Mayan inscriptions referring to other dates – and a fair number of them look forward to dates well after 2012.

The media enjoyed it as an offbeat story – though apart from articles by myself and others in Fortean Times magazine, few of the media bothered to follow it up when, as always, nothing happened. Much the same had happened the year before, with American evangelist Harold Camping’s prophecy that Christ would return, first on 21 May; then when he didn’t, on 21 October. Few knew that Camping had previously prophesied 6 September 1994, and before that 21 May 1988. After October 2011 he went quiet for a while, then let it be known that he was retiring from the prediction game.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been wheeled out on Radio 4 or TV News programmes to talk about Nostradamus (July 1999), Pre-Millennial Tension (1999), assorted Christian prophets over the years and the supposed Mayan prophecy. Each time, nothing happened. Every prophet who has set a date for the end of the world or Christ’s return or the arrival of Our Brothers from space has one thing in common: he (or more rarely she) was wrong.

The classic study on this was When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World by Leon Festinger et al (1956) which studied a small group that believed a UFO was about to save them from the devastation of the world; Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, which stems from this, looks at the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations.

Apocalyptic Beliefs in Judaeo-christianity
The idea that this world will come to a cataclysmic or transforming end can be traced back to Zoroaster, founder of the first monotheistic religion of the Middle East. Zoroaster taught that there would be a final conflict when Ahura Mazda (God) would defeat Angra Mainyu (the Evil One), leading to the Frashegird, an eternity of bliss for true believers. Zoroastrianism had a huge influence on the beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the idea of the apocalypse (‘uncovering, disclosure, revelation’) in all its gloriously colourful imagery.

In the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus the Jewish world was awash with apocalyptic frenzy as they eagerly awaited the arrival of their Messiah – a human priest-king, and a very different figure from the Christian Christ – to save them from their oppressors. The book of Revelation, which very nearly didn’t make it into the New Testament, was just one of many weird and wonderful apocalyptic works of its day; prophecies of Jesus’ impending return today would be a lot less colourful without it.

The early Church Fathers – Hippolytus, Origen, Jerome, even the authoritative 4th-century Augustine of Hippo – said the Second Coming should be read allegorically, not literally – but they have been comprehensively ignored by preachers and prophets ever since, each of whom clearly knows better than Jesus, who said, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

From the earliest centuries people have prophesied the imminence of the End Times. Bishop Hilarion wrote in 397 CE that the last battle would be 101 years ahead, while the 6th-century Bishop Gregory of Tours set the date between 799 and 806 CE – both of them sensibly long after their own deaths.

Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) preached that there were three Ages, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Third Age would begin around 1260, again sensibly after his death, with a brief reign of the Antichrist followed by the coming of a new Adam or a new Christ. He was hugely influential, including on Dante and Francis of Assisi – but again, he was wrong.

Isaac Newton’s Prediction
In the 16th century there were prophecies of the Day of Judgement happening in 1524, 1525, 1528, 1533, 1534, 1535, 1544, 1555, 1556, 1588 (believed by John Dee and Queen Elizabeth I) and 1593. In the same century Martin Luther predicted Jesus would return 300 years from his time, so around 1830-1850. In the late 1700s John Wesley predicted 1836. It wasn’t just preachers. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) believed it would happen in 1656. John Napier (1550- 1617), creator of logarithms and an early slide rule, decided the Last Judgement would be 1688 (going from Revelation) or 1700 (going by Daniel). Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) said 1948 – or possibly 2060.

The 19th century was a hothouse of millennial expectation. The best known movement still around today is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have made many predictions of the End. Founder Charles Taze Russell said ‘1874’; later JWs said 1914, then 1925, 1941 and 1975. In 1920 Russell’s successor ‘Judge’ Joseph Rutherford, who gave the movement their name, coined the brilliant slogan “Millions now living will never die!” Although some people living in 1920 are still around today, it’s probably safe to say that his prophecy too has failed.

The Catholic Apostolic Church, founded by Edward Irving in the early 1830s, believed that Christ would return between 1838 and 1855. It died out because it had made no provision for appointing new clergy after Christ’s return – which didn’t happen.

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, said in 1832 that Jesus would return in 1890. Dr John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, said in 1866, “It is pretty certain that Jesus will return within the lifetime of the present generation.”

American preacher William Miller said that Christ would return “sometime between 21 March 1843 and 21 March 1844”. When he didn’t, Miller was reluctant to set further dates; it was his followers who settled on 22 October 1844, which became known as the Great Disappointment. But out of this came the Seventh-day Adventist Church, founded in 1860. From the same movement came the Branch Davidians, who met their own awful day of judgement in 1993, and the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), founded by Herbert W Armstrong in 1934.

In 1958, Armstrong published a booklet, 1975 in Prophecy, which made it quite clear that Christ would return by then. The booklet became strangely difficult to get hold of from the mid-Seventies. WCG lost quite a few members – but Armstrong’s response was simply to say that he’d been misinterpreted, and that he’d never said Christ was going to return by 1975.

Following radical changes to WCG’s beliefs after Armstrong’s death, hundreds of ministers and thousands of members left to set up new Churches, all continuing to proclaim the imminent return of Christ. One of these was Ronald Weinland who led the Church of God – Preparing for the Kingdom of God. In his 2006 book 2008 – God’s Final Witness he wrote: “If the things written in the book do not shortly come to pass, then what is written here is false, and I am false.”

The failure of any of his specific prophecies for 2008 to occur did not appear to have fazed him. Instead he castigated those who criticised him: “Foolishly there are those who are quick to find fault by saying we are wrong or that I am a false prophet since physical destruction did not come at a time I had previously stated.” He explained Christ’s non-appearance with a common coping strategy: “God is being merciful by temporarily holding back the day when the Second Trumpet sounds and massive physical destruction begins… This ‘holding back’ is in large part due to the result of God answering the prayers of His people who set aside a time of fasting.”

He then prophesied that Christ would return on 27 May 2012. In his online final sermon for the Saturday Sabbath service on 26 May, the day before the Big Day, he said: “We are hours away from Christ’s returning in the atmosphere of this earth.”

Three days later he wrote: “27 May has come and gone, so how can I say this is still the day of Christ’s return?” The answer was that “I viewed it in a physical manner until God revealed that it was spiritual.” A few weeks later he was able to be more explicit, using two further common coping strategies: redefining terms (moving the goalposts) and shifting the date. “Yes, the ‘Day of the Lord’ is a year in actual length. 27 May 2012 was the beginning of the ‘Day of the Lord’ when Jesus Christ will return on the final day of Pentecost 2013” – i.e. 19 May 2013. Wrong again.

Other religions
It’s not just Christians who make predictions of the End of the World – other prophets of doom are just as bad at it. 1999 was a favourite year. Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinrikyo, which launched a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, said Armageddon would happen on 2 or 3 September 1999. Philip Berg, head of the Kabbalah Centre, said a great ball of fire would hit Earth on 11 September 1999 – unless they raised enough money to open a number of new Kabbalah Centres…

Let’s politely draw a veil over the many very convoluted interpretations of Nostradamus, including a 1991 book by VJ Hewitt and Peter Lorie which said (amongst much else) that 2 May 1993 would see the coronation of King Charles III with his wife, Queen Diana, that there would be a great earthquake in California in 1993, that Margaret Thatcher would become Conservative leader again in 1996, and that there would be a manned space flight to Mars in 2000.

In 1982, Scottish-born artist Benjamin Creme (b. 1922) announced that Maitreya, the long-prophesied fifth Buddha, the living incarnation of a Master and the new World Teacher, was living anonymously in the Asian community in East London, and would reveal himself to the world shortly; the media must be ready. In 1985, 22 journalists met in an Indian restaurant in the East End, hoping that Maitreya would join them; they were disappointed. Creme’s explanation for the Maitreya not turning up when he said he would was the insincerity and lack of belief of the journalists assembled to greet him (or not). {Creme hired Conway Hall for his meetings! [Ed]}

Finally, let’s look briefly at two UFO religions. Ruth Norman, or Uriel (1900- 93), one of the founders of the San Diego-based movement Unarius, told her followers that aliens would come openly to Earth in 1974, then 1975, then 1976, and then 2001 – by which time she could no longer be embarrassed by her failed prophecy. Unarius’s justification of the alien non-arrival is that our Space Brothers have now decided not to appear visibly “until people stop their warlike attitudes and practices”. They may be waiting some time.

In 1973 a young French sports journalist, Claude Vorilhon (now known as Ra.l), was contacted by a being from another planet and given a message for mankind: that we were created by an extra-terrestrial race, referred to as the Elohim in Genesis. They are not God or gods, but humans much like us. Two years later he visited their planet. Ra.l, it turns out, is Jesus’ half-brother; they shared the same biological father. Having appeared to Ra.l, the prophet for our age, and explained themselves in scientific terminology we can understand, the Elohim will shortly be returning physically to Earth to greet all of us, and instructed Ra.l to build an embassy where they can meet world leaders. The Raelians expect the Elohim to visit the Earth before 2030 – but they have already said that the space visitors will not come if they feel they are not welcome by the majority of mankind, which seems a safe advance get-out clause.

A Model of Excuses
The sensible thing is to prophesy Christ’s return or the arrival of the spaceships for at least a few years after you expect to have departed this Earth yourself – it avoids embarrassment. But if you do insist on setting imminent dates you need some sort of rationalisation when movements, to quote a late-Victorian writer on the Catholic Apostolic Church, “are forced by the stern logic of life to turn their backs upon their past history, and to make their doctrines square with facts when facts absolutely refuse to square with doctrines” – a brilliant 19th-century rendering of cognitive dissonance. I have designed a typology, a model of ideal types, to categorise the most common coping strategies of failed prophets.

Explanations for failure of Prophecy
Examples of the two aspects of human failure are the Jehovah’s Witnesses and (eventually) Harold Camping on the one hand, and Herbert W Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God on the other. The two spiritual explanations are useful for any prophet. Saying “I asked God to be merciful and he listened to me” makes the prophet look good; saying that people’s faith wasn’t strong enough shifts the blame away from the prophet. Ronald Weinland is one of many examples of the first, and Benjamin Creme and the Raelians of the second.

As for redefining the situation, it’s very common for prophets to keep changing the date: William Miller, Harold Camping, Ronald Weinland, Unarius and many others have done this. A more subtle, evasive redefining is to change the meanings of words, as Weinland did, or to say, as the Seventh-day Adventist Church do, that Christ actually did return when they said – but he did it invisibly, on a spiritual plane. This has two great advantages: they can still claim they’re right, and no one can prove them wrong.

I’m reminded of the 1961 revue that launched the golden age of satire, Beyond The Fringe, with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. They are seated, huddled, on the top of a mountain, awaiting the Second Coming. After some typically Cook-style dialogue they begin to chant “Now is the end – Perish the world!” The chanting fizzles out, and Cook says, “Never mind, lads, same time tomorrow… we must get a winner one day.”

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Atheism & Secularism, Humanism

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A former teacher, intelligence officer and journalist, Dr David V Barrett has been a freelance writer specialising in new religious movements and secret societies for 20 years. He gained his PhD in Sociology of Religion from the London School of Economics in 2009. His book, The Fragmentation of a Sect, based on his…