When I fell for a doomsday prophecy

At 13, I was blinkered by Harold Camping's first predicted Rapture -- and the fear of it nearly consumed me

Published May 20, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

A photo of the author as a boy
A photo of the author as a boy

To most people, Harold Camping -- the 89-year-old doomsday prophet who insists the Rapture will occur this Saturday -- exists mainly as a source of comic relief. But for me, his name is an involuntary portal to a particularly traumatic episode from my youth: the last time Harold Camping predicted Armageddon -- the time I believed him.

OK, that's overstating it a bit. I was not absolutely, positively convinced that the world was going to end on Sept. 6, 1994. But for nearly two years, I was absolutely, positively convinced that it might. It was a fear I kept buried inside, aware of how nutty it would sound to everyone else in my life, even as it exacted a punishing emotional toll. There were many signs in my youth of the chronically anxious adult I would become, but this 22-month saga was by far the most dramatic.

I was 13 years old when I happened on a Prodigy bulletin board message one rainy evening in November 1992. It was from a religious broadcaster from Oakland, Calif., who had just published a book arguing that the end times were two years away. I'd never heard of Harold Camping, but his credentials -- a background in engineering, a Berkeley degree -- seemed at odds with the caricature of a quack I'd been trained to associate with this kind of claim. I'd also never actually seen or heard someone present a detailed case for the Apocalypse. My parents had raised me Catholic, but that was mostly to make their parents happy and to meet other people. Groton, Mass., was hardly a nest of religious fanaticism. I'd assumed that the arguments of doomsday believers were akin to the unkempt "End is near!" sign holders we'd occasionally encounter on trips to Boston.

But this bulletin board message was almost reasonable. It opened with a concession about how crazy the idea seemed and an acknowledgment that many previous Armageddon forecasts hadn't panned out. Then it explained -- in clear, calm and perfectly punctuated sentences -- why Camping's theory was so different. There were calculations, references to major historical events that matched up to scripture passages, and statistics about recent increases in natural disasters that portended the Second Coming. It ended with a warning as simple as it was chilling: You have until Sept. 6, 1994, to save yourself -- and everyone you care for.

Sure, it sounded crazy. But then I wondered: What if it was right?

This kind of doubt had long been my Achilles' heel. The rule of my childhood was pretty simple: Once even the faintest possibility of an imminent disaster invaded my mind, I would cease to function normally until I could establish -- with absolute confidence -- that the threat had been neutralized.

When I was 7 years old, an episode of the sitcom "Webster" helpfully alerted me to the dangers of home invasion. In response, I developed a habit of checking for intruders in every closet, under every bed, and in both showers whenever my family returned to an empty house. My parents seemed to find this funny. They also weren't too upset by my insistence on sleeping with the window in my room open -- even on the coldest winter night -- after a firefighter visiting my sixth grade class told us about the dangers of carbon monoxide, an invisible, odorless gas that would slowly make an unsuspecting victim sleepy before finally plunging him into an eternal slumber.

But my anxieties were also a source of profound frustration for those around me. I feared few things more than air travel, a phobia that grew out of the bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. I was 8 years old at the time and found the story both riveting and traumatizing. I couldn't stop imagining what the final seconds had been like: A bunch of normal passengers sitting in their seats, some talking, some reading, some sleeping, all contentedly passing the time on what they figured was a routine flight. And then: instant death. Just a quick, massive explosion that ended all of their lives on the spot. They probably didn't hear or see anything -- no chance to say goodbye to anyone, no last-minute prayers for salvation, no last words. Alive and oblivious one second, dead for all eternity the next.

When my parents planned a trip to England, I mounted a furious months-long campaign to convince them to leave me at home. I begged relatives to let me stay. I even rolled around in what I desperately hoped was poison ivy. (Sadly, it was just ivy.) My parents weren't laughing anymore. Ultimately, they insisted I go, and I spent the entire flight demanding our precise location from the stewardess, on the (incorrect, I'd learn in physics class years later) theory that we'd have a fighting chance if we crashed into water instead of land.

So if a plane flight unnerved me, you can imagine what learning about Harold Camping's predicted Apocalypse did. You have to remember how primitive the online world was back then. There was no Google, no Yahoo, no Wikipedia. Newspapers still existed only on actual paper, delivered to our home once a day. So when it came to interpreting Camping's prophecy, I was completely on my own. All I had was the bulletin board message in front of me and the few incoherent responses it had attracted. I sat there reading and rereading it, increasingly frustrated -- and panicked -- by my inability to identify even one glaring and obvious logical flaw that would let me laugh the whole thing off and forget it. I knew it could be baseless, that it probably was baseless -- but what if the joke was on me? What if the end really was approaching?

The good news was that I had time. Two years feels like the blink of an eye now, but it didn't when I was 13. So I was able to go about my daily life without being too outwardly affected by the anxiety that now stalked me. On good days, I'd barely think about September 1994 -- or I'd think about it but assure myself, "Everything will probably be fine" -- always making sure to include the word "probably," lest God think I was being cocky. On bad days, the fear of eternal torment was consuming. And telling anyone in my life was out of the question. At best, they'd just say I was being silly. At worst, they'd conclude I was mentally unstable. Either way, they wouldn't be much help. I was going to have to face the end of the world on my own.

My first refuge was religion. If I could equip myself with spiritual confidence, there'd be no reason to fear 9/6/94. My parents were fast becoming lapsed Catholics, and trips to Sunday Mass were growing more and more infrequent. I told them we should start going again. But we stopped because you hated it so much, they reminded me. So we compromised: They could skip church, but they'd give me a ride to an after-school religious class. I also sampled some other faiths, mainly by accompanying friends to various church youth group events. All of this felt like going through the motions, though. I was still the same doubter and sinner I'd always been.

So I tried something dramatic: basic cable. For a few weeks in the summer of 1993, I became a regular viewer of "The 700 Club," absorbing the emotional testimonies of the saved and praying along with Pat Robertson for my own salvation -- all while learning about the abortion-breast cancer link and the threat of "homosexuals in the military." But even in my frantic condition, I couldn’t quite buy it -- especially when they’d go to a break and I'd watch an ad showing Thomas Jefferson getting arrested for praying in public.

On my own, I tried reading the Bible but couldn't get through a single page without growing hopelessly confused -- and bored. And I forced myself to pray every night, but this ritual quickly took on an OCD quality -- with my mind issuing increasingly elaborate requests ("Please protect my aunt's neighbor who I met that one time") for fear that leaving anyone out just once would lead God to give them cancer. The more I tried to force it, the more my mind was invaded by all of those pesky skeptical questions. I began to realize that this was a dead end, and while I didn't reject God, I did admit to myself that the certainty I craved was out of reach. I would have to settle for a vague sense of hope -- that he existed and that, if he did and if he decided to end the world, he'd have mercy on me.

As the calendar turned to 1994, I became especially sensitive to news of natural disasters. Camping's theory held that the Second Coming would be preceded by several years of turbulence on earth. So when a major earthquake hit Southern California in January ‘94, I was saddened to hear that dozens of people were killed. But I mainly wondered: Was this a sign? I felt the same thing a few months later, when nearly 50 people were killed -- and whole towns were destroyed -- by a freak string of tornadoes in the Southeast. Was God warning us of what was to come in September?

That summer, I took a road trip to the Midwest with my father. We saw a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, and I smiled and sang along when Harry Caray led the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." But I couldn't shake the fear: Imagine how much I'd be enjoying this if I could just be sure the world wasn't about to end, I kept thinking. Later in the trip, we checked into our hotel room and I thumbed through a local magazine that had been left on the table. There was an interview with Glen Campbell, who was apparently promoting an upcoming concert. My eyes were immediately drawn to one of the questions: As a deeply religious man, did he think the Lord would return in his lifetime? Campbell replied that he thought it would happen relatively soon. Was God now speaking to me through Glen Campbell?

Sept. 5 -- the day before that particular end of the world -- was a Monday, Labor Day. I was due to start my sophomore year of high school later that week,. On the outside, I seemed calm enough. On the inside, I was petrified. I had long ago perfected this balancing act. That night, as I watched the clock down to midnight with mounting anxiety, I sat down in the living room and turned on Monday Night Football, the 49ers and the Raiders. Somehow, the noise from the crowd gave me comfort. I thought of telling my mother everything -- that I was worried, that I'd been worried for two years -- and that I just wanted to say goodbye to her in case. Instead, I stayed put.

But then, somewhere around halftime, I realized something I'd never actually considered about the Rapture: Logistics. Here it was almost 11 p.m. on Sept. 5 -- but weren't there 24 time zones in the world? Didn't that mean that it was Sept. 6 already in a lot of other places? I'd been counting down to Sept. 6 on Eastern Standard Time, but why would God automatically be doing the same? If there really were something magical about the date Sept. 6, wouldn't there be breaking news reports of doom and gloom elsewhere in the world by now? It had to be getting close to Sept. 7 somewhere. Almost miraculously, I began feeling the relief that had eluded me for nearly two years: The Rapture was here -- and the world wasn't ending.

I'd love to report that this experience marked a fundamental turning point in my life -- that it taught me to trust my rational instincts and never to let my darkest fears consume me again. But that really wouldn't be true. Since dodging Armageddon in 1994, I've diagnosed myself with one terrifying disease after another (always incorrectly, so far). I also haven't been on an airplane in more than 15 years. But I can say this: When I heard recently that Harold Camping had revised his calculations and discovered that the world would be ending on May 21, I knew better than to panic. This time, I can emphatically and confidently state that there's absolutely nothing to worry about and that Saturday will come and go without anything happening. Probably.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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