Fundamentalist Numerology (At Least I Didn’t Quote R.E.M. Lyrics)

As probably most of you have heard by now, the world is going to end next Saturday, May 21. Or rather, to be more accurate, God is going to rapture the faithful Christians and leave the rest of the world to suffer horrendously until October 21. Or rather, to be even more accurate, this is the prediction made by a particular group in California known as the Family Radio Ministry. I’ll leave others with background in psychology to talk about the obvious cruelty implicit in that — 97% of the world’s people will suffer agonies without any hope of redemption, then suffer for eternity in hell after their miserable deaths — but one thing I noticed (having an interest in pseudoscience) is the numerology this particular group uses.

Harold Camping, the leader of the group, calculated everything out. First, according to Camping, the Noachic flood (the worldwide deluge that wiped out all animals and people except for the few Noah carried on the Ark) occurred 7000 years ago. The other part of the calculation involves combinations of numbers based on Jesus’ crucifixion happening on April 1, AD 33. (I note that implicitly assumes Jesus was born in AD 1, which most scholars reject.) In other words, Camping’s prediction is all numerology, a type of divination using arithmetic calculations.

Of course most Christians (fundamentalist or otherwise) aren’t going to accept the May 21 date for the beginning of the end. Numerology has always had kind of an uneasy relationship with Christianity; there’s plenty of numbers used symbolically in the Bible: just think of how many times the numbers 7 or 40 get used, not to mention the Number of the Beast (either “six hundred sixty-six” or “six hundred sixteen”, depending on the source you trust more).

This isn’t even the first time a specific date has been attached to the end of the world. The founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists did that back in the 19th century, and of course Hal Lindsey made a killing with his 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth which predicted the end of the world no later than 1988. (He did avoid picking a specific date for Armageddon; you can decide for yourself if that’s a credit to him or not.) I have kept a clipping from the Des Moines Register from the early ’90s declaring definitively that on October 22, 1992 “Jesus is coming in the air!” and that human history would end on October 22, 1999. (I guess my reference to this clipping 20 years after cutting it out justifies my schlepping it with me from place to place. Insert your own joke about my packrat character.) Again, the prediction was based on a type of numerology.

Of course, science uses numbers and calculations — math is the major way a prediction changes from being general and difficult to test to being specific and comparable to physical evidence. On the surface, numerology and science seem to have the aspect of prediction in common, and it’s not surprising that some prominent scientists and mathematicians have been fond of numerology: Isaac Newton (for whom numerology was just one of several branches of pseudoscience he dabbled in) and most famously Pythagoras thought the deep connection between math and the physical world had spiritual significance as well. But divorced from experiment and observation, numbers aren’t a very good guide to the universe: you can practically predict anything with enough practice.

I think we’ll find the world pretty much the same on May 22 as it is today: nobody raptured, but with plenty of problems around that still need our full attention as a human community. You don’t need numerology for that prediction to be pretty accurate.

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