Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The end of the equation as we know it

Happy New Frickin Year. If you’re reading this, you made it. With ’09 in the rear-view, there’s all at once something to look forward to. The first day of the year had the almost-magical ring of a binary sequence — 01.01.10 — but that didn’t last long. That day, in fact, in a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, we found out just how short-lived New Year’s good vibes might be. Anno Domini 2010 has barely begun and one man’s gloomy forecast would call a halt to, well, pretty much everything. There’s nothing like beginning a year with the prospect of an ending.

If you’ve been looking sideways at the year 2012 (in light of the doomsday events the Mayan calendar says we have in store), you may want to revise your plans. The year 2012 is soon enough. But according to biblical scholar and evangelical radio personality Harold Camping, the walls of the world can be expected to come tumbling down the year before that.

Unlike others in recent years who’ve prophesied the end days, Camping, a civil engineer and a student of the Bible for 70 years, has taken a seemingly novel approach: pegging the demise of our world to a purportedly tested, rigorously analyzed mathematical formula. His bottom line: Don’t make plans for doing anything on this plane of reality beyond May 21, 2011.

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Camping runs Family Radio, an evangelical station based in Oakland, Calif., and one with millions of listeners around the world. In a position of some influence in Bay Area media, Camping has a radio talk show, “Open Forum.” Camping told the Chronicle his company owns more than 50 stations in the United States alone.

Camping’s entrepreneurial bent extends to predicting the end of our fair blue planet. The Chronicle explains:
This is not the first time Camping has made a bold prediction about Judgment Day.

On Sept. 6, 1994, dozens of Camping's believers gathered inside Alameda's Veterans Memorial Building to await the return of Christ, an event Camping had promised for two years. Followers dressed children in their Sunday best and held Bibles open-faced toward heaven.

But the world did not end. Camping allowed that he may have made a mathematical error. He spent the next decade running new calculations ...

By Camping's understanding, the Bible was dictated by God and every word and number carries a spiritual significance. He noticed that particular numbers appeared in the Bible at the same time particular themes are discussed.

The number 5, Camping concluded, equals “atonement.” Ten is “completeness.” Seventeen means “heaven.” Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011.

“Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.,” he began. “Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that's 1,978 years.”

Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days — the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year.

Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500.

Camping realized that (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500.

Or put into words: (Atonement x Completeness x Heaven), squared.

“Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said. “It's the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you're completely saved.”
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Got all that? If, like most people, you’re dutifully challenged by math no more complicated than keeping the checkbook in positive numbers, Camping’s formula may remind you of the algebra you dozed through in high school and skipped altogether in college.

It could be unsettling if you let it be: Instead of being some halfwit quasi-Nostradamus howling in the public square at the top of his lungs; instead of being the Luddite jeremiah from central casting carrying a sandwich board that tells us THE END IS NEAR, Camping is a scholar who brings both impersonal math and utterly immovable religious conviction to what he’s saying. And like any good scholar when confronted with a failure of a theory, Camping went back to the drawing board — or the whiteboard — and (presumably) found out what he did wrong the first time.

The flaw with any doomsday forecasts is, paradoxically, their eventual accuracy. The proof of such forecasts is an eventual certainty, but that doesn’t endow the forecaster with having insights beyond a grasp of the law of averages. If you say “the end is near” long enough, eventually you’ll be right — when you die, long before the world does.

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We just got through the end of the year; most people aren’t ready for the end of the brilliant, glittering equation that is our world. For them — for us — maybe Camping’s just another version of the guy with the sandwich board. That kind of prognostication’s been a fact of life for generations. It’s based more on a personal interpretation of cosmic events — and one’s personal exhaustion with the state of the world — than on anything to be empirically proven to be true.

The first mossback to carry that THE END IS NEAR sign was just as certain he was right as Camping is today; he just didn’t have a calculator handy.

While Camping’s argument for the imminent arrival of the rapture may have earnest underpinnings in biblical scholarship, and even embrace the irrefutability of mathematics … it’s not science.

And thank God for that.

Image credits: Harold Camping in 2008: tk.

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