When Prophecy Fails

Harold Camping’s date with destiny is fast approaching. He and his supporters are absolutely convinced that the Destruction of the World is going to occur on October 21 this year. (For details, see the previous Panic Button entry, A Perfect Storm. ) They have been expending tremendous energy and finances in recent months to get the warning out to others. But Harold doesn’t have until October for the world to know whether he is a false prophet or not. He has also bombastically declared that all true Christians will be raptured to Heaven to be with the Lord on May 21. As he writes on his website, “…these dates are 100% accurate and beyond dispute.” Therefore, if he is still here on May 22, one of two things has happened … he is not a true Christian himself and missed the Rapture, or he is a false prophet. Either way I’m suspicious he will be in trouble with the Lord. The Bible doesn’t speak kindly of false prophets.

But God doesn’t seem to be in the business of striking false prophets with lightning these days. So what will happen to Harold Camping and his current followers when his prophecies fail? Common sense would dictate that Camping will feel humiliated and will slink off into hiding, perhaps dying a broken man. (After all, he’s 89 years old anyway.) Common sense would dictate that all of his followers will be astonished, disappointed, disillusioned … and maybe embarrassed and even angry that someone could so effectively hoodwink them. Common sense would dictate that they will all thus abandon Camping and his theories, and get on with their lives.

Common sense would be wrong.

As a graduate student at Michigan State University in 1974, I took a course in Social Psychology. One of the required reading assignments for the course was a 1956 book titled When Prophecy Fails (WPF). The book was already a classic in the field of Social Psych, and continues to be so to this day. You may have heard of the term “cognitive dissonance.” It was coined by one of the co-authors, Leon Festinger, and introduced in this book.

Dissonance is a word that describes a combination of sounds that is harsh and disagreeable, such as when an orchestra is tuning up. By analogy, situations in which there is conflict or lack of harmony are dissonant. Cognitive (pertaining to mental processes) dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling you have when you find yourself attempting to accept in your mind two conflicting ideas.

The WPF book describes a situation in which a group of people eventually found themselves attempting to hold two very conflicting ideas in their heads, and how they dealt with this dissonance. Festinger and two other Social Psychology researchers had stumbled upon a “flying saucer cult” that was just forming. (These were quite prevalent back in the 1950s—saucer sightings were rampant for a while in that decade.)  A housewife given the pseudonym “Marian Keech” in the book had claimed to be receiving messages via “automatic writing” from space aliens, informing her that the world was soon to be destroyed, and that they were gathering a small group of “True Believers” to take away in a space ship before the catastrophe. She and any followers whom she could convince to accept the warning would be taken away on December 21of that year.

Prior to this, Festinger and his colleagues had developed a theory about what happens to people who are part of groups predicting a specific date or time period for the End of the World when their expectations are shattered by reality—by a “disconfirmation” of their belief in the appointed time.

If you hold a strong belief that an event is going to take place … even if your belief is the result of irrational reasoning… and then are faced with the undeniable fact that your belief was incorrect, you will have cognitive dissonance. If the belief was just an intellectual exercise, when the disconfirming event occurs you can just “change your mind” and admit the error. But if you have invested time and money and energy into the belief, and have made perhaps even irreversible choices based on it (e.g., forgoing marriage or going to college), it will not be so easy to merely give it up. There will be painful cognitive dissonance in your head, but the human mind has other ways to resolve that dissonance—ways that are counter-intuitive to those who are onlookers.

By studying a variety of such groups throughout history, Festinger and his associates had come to the conclusion that when a disconfirming event happens, many True Believers, instead of “giving up” their erroneous ideas, will make elaborate excuses for the failure of the prediction, and rather than crawl away in embarrassment—will enthusiastically pour themselves into even greater efforts to make new converts! This is the way the mind hides the dissonance—”if, through convoluted reasoning and smoke and mirrors I can convince enough people to agree with my crazy, failed idea, it will cease to be crazy.”

Festinger and his associates wanted to test the theory they had developed about this with a contemporary situation, and succeeded in infiltrating Keech’s saucer group. The WPF book takes the reader inside the group through careful records of the interplay of the participants and their activities leading up to and beyond the fateful date. And, as the old phrase goes, they proved to be a “textbook case” confirming the theory. When the group gathered in breathless anticipation on December 21, some of them having given up jobs, possessions, and even family in order to become part of the Inner Circle, they expected to be Out of This World by midnight, December 22. Here, from the Wikipedia summary of the book’s description , are the events as they unfolded leading up to and past that night.

Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated Mrs. Keech’s group and reported the following sequence of events:

  • Prior to December 20. The group shuns publicity. Interviews are given only grudgingly. Access to Keech’s house is only provided to those who can convince the group that they are true believers. The group evolves a belief system—provided by the automatic writing from the planet Clarion—to explain the details of the cataclysm, the reason for its occurrence, and the manner in which the group would be saved from the disaster.
  • December 20. The group expects a visitor from outer space to call upon them at midnight and to escort them to a waiting spacecraft. As instructed, the group goes to great lengths to remove all metallic items from their persons. As midnight approaches, zippers, bra straps, and other objects are discarded. The group waits.
  • 12:05 A.M., December 21. No visitor. Someone in the group notices that another clock in the room shows 11:55. The group agrees that it is not yet midnight.
  • 12:10 A.M. The second clock strikes midnight. Still no visitor. The group sits in stunned silence. The cataclysm itself is no more than seven hours away.
  • 4:00 A.M. The group has been sitting in stunned silence. A few attempts at finding explanations have failed. Keech begins to cry.
  • 4:45 A.M. Another message by automatic writing is sent to Keech. It states, in effect, that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction. The cataclysm has been called off: “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”
  • Afternoon, December 21. Newspapers are called; interviews are sought. In a reversal of its previous distaste for publicity, the group begins an urgent campaign to spread its message to as broad an audience as possible.

What will Harold Camping and his followers do when they are still here on May 22? I’m not a prophet, but I confidently predict that Camping will publicly show neither regret nor embarrassment for misleading so many people. He will very promptly create an “apologetics” for what caused the expected rapture to not materialize on schedule. None of it will include any error or wrong on his part. Perhaps it will include “discovering” a previously hidden bit of math that will affect his calculations, and re-set the target date. Perhaps God will be declared to have “changed His mind” because of Harold’s success, and be giving him more time to spread the Truth even more widely.

I also predict that he will lose a certain percentage of supporters, who will be truly disillusioned that his bombastic, dogmatic statements turned out to be false. Some will just be disappointed in Harold, others will be disappointed in—or maybe even angry at—God for “allowing” them to be hoodwinked even though their enthusiasm was so sincere.

But there will be a core group of True Believers who will forge onward to zealously support whatever new path Harold takes.

I don’t base this just on the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. I base it on the fact that … Harold’s done all of this before. He declared just as dogmatically twenty years ago that the Rapture would be in 1994. He set various dates for that year, and as each one came, he just recalculated and set a new date. And never quit between that day and this. And still keeps many of his long-time followers and gains new ones.

His ministry has been a Textbook Case for many years.

What happens When Prophecy Fails? For over 30 years I’ve been researching groups throughout history that have formed around preachers who dogmatically proclaimed that The End would come in their own generation, and that they were God’s Mouthpiece to warn the world of the details. I’ve found that in almost all cases … the group’s leader proclaims that his prophecy didn’t really fail at all. And he keeps a significant proportion of his supporters … because no one wants to admit they have wasted years of their life supporting a Failure. Or a charlatan. Or a false prophet.

It’s all done with smoke and mirrors.

You can read much more about Harold Camping’s smoke and mirrors in the rest of this blog series, starting with the next entry:

Wouldn’t Ya Like ta Be a Prophet Too?

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6 Responses to When Prophecy Fails

  1. It is true that God can withdraw His hand and make even His prophet a liar. So I guess this excuse works for true prophets and fake prophets alike. I recall one true prophet who did not take this well. 🙂

  2. Linda Gallia says:

    Good article Pam. I see you’ve also decided that the term “cognitive dissonance” aptly fits what goes on in people’s minds regarding all this prophetic “mumbo jumbo”. It aptly fits alot of what goes on in our society both politically and theologically. The really bad thing about all this is, these kinds of groups only serve to make people who are not really familiar with and followers of the Bible and Jesus Christ more skeptical about Christianity.

  3. Santosh says:

    True. No rapture will occur on 21st may 2011. I have done some research about what many religions say about previous catastrophe (“Flood”) etc. and concluded that around year 9792 BC there must have been some catastrophe due to quakes, tsunamis , volcanoes and later possibly continuous rain for many days in many parts of world. Most cultures collectively keep that memory. Note that world did not end that time ( of course 🙂 . World will NOT end in future catastrophe also , it will not end even if Apophis strike Earth in Apr. 2036 or not due to great quakes , tsunamis etc. after few decades due to gravity of planets as the cycle of planets complete ( I will not mention that year ; use NASA data for planets’ orbit period ) ! Earth will end only after few billions of years 🙂

    best regards,

    Santosh Phadnis

  4. Santosh says:

    Sorry for the typo . Previous catastrophe year was 9796 BC .

    – Santosh Phadnis

  5. Pingback: Titanic Denial, Part 2 | Prophecy Panic Button

  6. Pingback: Titanic Denial: Part 3 (Conclusion) | Prophecy Panic Button

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