The end is very precisely nigh

Harold Camping, a radio preacher in California, has scrutinized the Bible and confidently predicts the end of the world will begin tonight, at 6pm–“wherever it’s 6 pm.” First will be the rapture, in which the chosen will vanish. Then there will be few months of great unpleasantness and then god will say the hell with it, literally I suppose, on Oct. 15.

So it’ll start out in the Pacific, at the international date line, and work its way west.

From a historical perspective, what’s interesting isn’t just that we’ve seen these kind of very specific predictions before–the Millerites are the most famous American example–but the way Mr Camping imagines time.

It’s fair to say the Ancient Hebrews did not use the phrase “6 pm.” They didn’t have clocks–the mechanical clock wasn’t invented till around the 13th century. They may have had sundials, or more likely some kind of solar clock, which at its simplest would consist of a stick in the ground. The Bible talks broadly of sunrises and sunsets, noon and afternoon and evening, but not about terms like “6 pm” or “8:43: am.” That level of precision was useless in ad. 33. People reckoned time by natural cues like sunsets and sunrises or by the behavior of animals, like the cows coming home.

They also didn’t have the same calendar we use. They had months of an even 30 days each, and the Julian Calendar, which was replaced in our usage by the Gregorian Calendar more or less in 1582. But they didn’t use terms like 6 pm, as in “and then at 8:30 tomorrow I’ll be turning water into wine.” That level of precision was impossible to accomplish.

Early mechanical clocks, in Europe, frequently had only an hour hand—”roughly 2 o’clock” was more than good enough. As late as the 1840s, theater ads in American newspaper would simple announce “tonight! Booth in Hamlet and the Beacon theater” and not give a starting time

And when you do find timetables, as in the famous timetable of the Lowell Mills from the 1850s–they usually change with the seasons, to reflect changes in the amount of available daylight.

“6 pm” meant “6 pm wherever” you are, which meant it was different in every city, village, hamlet and farmhouse in America.

Regional standardized times begin to form around cities around the time of the Civil War, and by 1883 the US had been divided into four time zones more or less like the ones we use today, with boundaries between zone fixed to suit the managers of the railroads who established the zones. By 1883, “6 pm” meant the same thing from Maine to Florida.

Daylight saving was first introduced in the US in WWI, sold as a measure to save daylight but in fact passed by a consortium of businessmen, including A. Lincoln Filene of Filene’s Department stores, who realized they could sell more goods if people though they had more daylight.

Many Americans found daylight saving puzzling, a bit like cutting one end off a blanket and sewing it on the other. An Arkansas congressman proposed changing thermometers in the winter, so they would read 70 when it was actually 60, and we’d save fuel by thinking we were warm. My favorite comment came from Ezekiel Candler of Mississippi, who angrily insisted that “the rising of the sun and the going down thereof fixes the time.” “God’s time is true,” Candler rang out; “man made time is false.” “Let us repeal this law and have the clocks proclaim God’s time and tell the truth,” he thundered to his colleagues’ applause. “Truth is always best. It is mighty and should always prevail.”

Indeed it should. And the truth is that telling time the way we do, by means of clocks and watches and “coordinated universal time,” is neither natural nor “biblical.” The entire enterprise of predicting the end of the world seems massively ridiculous to me, but it’s particularly ridiculous to imagine that an all-powerful god would bother to wait for the earth to slowly rotate around before rapturing up the chosen, or that this god would consult a watch, corrected to daylight saving time, before beginning the airlift. It’s doubly preposterous to have a claim of  “6 pm.” based on a literal reading of the Bible, a document which predates the idea of their really being a measurable “6 pm.”

Mr. Camping’s prediction reflects the power of representation to shape reality. Clocks were invented to symbolize or represent time–they were machies designed to imitate time, which was something belonging to god and revealing itself in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. Time in that sense was “natural.” By 1900, clocks had become not just symbols of time, but time itself. Hence we would rather change the clocks twice a year then get up and hour earlier, and leave work an hour earlier.

So tonight check it out–if nothing happens at 6, wait till seven. If nothing happens at six or seven, it could be that god is ignoring standard time zones completely, and waiting till you pass directly beneath him or her. I’ll post an update later, if I’m still around and if civilization hasn’t collapsed.


UPDATE, 7:50 AM EST, May 21 2011: Well I’m still here and as far as I can tell so are all my neighbors. Reports from new Zealand  and Australia, where it’s  well past 6 pm on the 21st, indicate no sign of rapturing.

This sort of thing is easy to mock. As a lapsed Catholic, I find the whole end times obsession bizarre—the end of the world was simply not stressed in the Catholicism of my youth: it was out of our knowledge, why sweat it?

Which leaves me puzzled at how powerful end of the world thinking is in other realms. I suppose that if your religious theology emphasizes a duty to scrutinize the Bible, then you have a duty to fret about the end of the world. But I already posted on how Christian fundamentalism is like libertarianism and Marxism, in that they all depend on an imagined collapse which will vindicate their faith. And then there are plenty of other non-religious, non political apocalypse mongers, who wanted the millennium bug to wipe out all computers or who want the Mayan calendar to have accurate predictive power. What’s the deeper root of this desire?

I suspect it’s our knowledge of how much of the world is constructed of ambiguous representational systems–words, symbolic actions, metaphors, artistic and creative acts that are themselves restatements of other artistic and creative acts, like songs that sound like other songs. We lack a bottom line in most things we do: our actions are composed of equals parts angel and devil, morally compromised. We want to imagine a world where the symbols–words, for example–have a solid and fixed “real” meaning. Many people want biology to be that bottom line, or the Bible; I think the yearning for end times is a yearning for the collapse of ambiguous sign systems.





  • The joke’s on you, you unreconstructed papist. It’s already 6:18 PM in France, from whence I’ve just levitated to the pearly gates.

  • John t' baptista wrote:

    I thought civilization had already collapsed…dang I missed that too..on to the eternal lake of damnation, where Kenny G’s xmas album is played non stop.

  • I was already annoyed at the 2012 prediction, since I would have to get my license renewed 3 weeks before the Rapture. To think, with 3 weeks to go, I’d have to blow a whole day at the DMV, to avoid blowing another whole day at court for driving with an expired license. Well, at least if the world ends tomorrow, or in October, I don’t ever have to go to the DMV again.

    I’m still planning on graduating in 2015, though. Hopeless optimist, that’s me.

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