Mayan calendar aside, end times theology has meaning for many Americans

Few in the U.S. are buying all the hype about an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. But other religious beliefs about the end of the world still have influence among millions of Americans.

A recent poll showed just 2 percent of Americans believe the myth that the world will end when the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar hits a symbolic turning point.

Anthropologists and NASA scientists have debunked the prediction as a misreading of the ancient Mayan calendar. Faith leaders have called it "unbiblical" because it sets a date.

But Americans haven't entirely dismissed the idea that the world will come to end someday — possibly someday soon. A survey by Public Religion Research Institute showed 36 percent believe that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence that we are in the biblically prophesied end times. That's down from 44 percent when PRRI asked the same question in March 2011.

“It's hardly a fringe belief. It’s nearly four in 10 Americans who are embracing this,” Daniel Cox, research director at PRRI, told Religion News Service, which was a partner in the poll of more than 1,000 people in early December.

Experts in eschatology, or end-times theology, agree it is only human to focus on the future and the end, whether it be our own death or the demise of the earth. And all major faith traditions have a theology that spells out what will happen when the end comes — teachings that can influence both personal and political views. But what experts say distinguishes the fringe groups from the mainstream is an underlying message of fear, along with the setting of a concrete date for the end of the world.

"All groups construct some type of history and make projections into the future," said Frederick Ware, a theology professor at Howard University School of Divinity. "Where some groups put forward a hopeful vision, others put forth a horrible nightmare."

'Called to contribute'

The most fervent believers in end-times theology are white evangelical Protestants, the PRRI survey indicated. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) believe recent natural disasters are a sign of the end times, compared with 21 percent of Catholics and 15 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

Just under 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants and minority Christians believe that the end of the world, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, will occur in their lifetime. That compares with no more than 10 percent of Catholics, 8 percent of white mainline Protestants and 7 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Overall, 15 percent of Americans believe the world will end in their lifetime.

Since Protestantism has been the dominant faith tradition in the United States, it's no coincidence that end-times theology runs through the patriotic narrative of America, said Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing attorney and author who penned the cleverly titled "A History of the End of the World."

He said the early settlers "saw themselves as literally in the new world predicted in Revelation. 'Terra nova' is a phrase from Revelation where the old passes away and a new world is provided."

That thinking has continued to modern times. Kirsch wrote that former President Ronald Reagan was a big believer in end-times theology, and he surrounded himself with like-minded believers. Among them was former Interior Secretary James Watt, who "demurred to a question about his plans for protecting the environment for the benefit of future generations by invoking the Second Coming. 'I don't how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.'"

Not surprisingly, that type of thinking frustrates the environmental and scientific community, particularly on the issue of global warming.

“It’s theologically incoherent, scientifically wrong and weakens efforts to get public policy changed,” Peter Hess, the director of outreach to the religious community at the National Center for Science Education, told RNS. “If you simply say, ‘It’s God’s will,’ it absolves people of taking serious responsibility for their actions.”

But Darrell Bock, senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, called that view a "caricature" that doesn't represent mainstream Christianity.

"What most people believe is that it makes a great deal of difference what you do because you’ve been called to contribute to the world God has created," Bock said. "You might not go into it with the idea that you are going to fix everything. But you do go in with the idea that you contribute what you can."

Setting a date

When Rev. Jerry Shirley preaches about the last days, he doesn't sugarcoat his message. He wants congregants of Grace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ill., to believe that crime and natural disasters in the news are signs the end is near.

"Yes, it could be this very day," Shirley said recently in a sermon titled "2012." "It could be years away. But it will happen, and the Bible indicates simply 'soon.'"

What Shirley doesn't want his parishioners to believe is that the end will happen Friday — or any other precise date. Christian leaders cite New Testament scripture, which clearly states only God knows when the end will happen, stressing that setting a date is an automatic red flag that what is being taught is false.

"The person who predicts a date has already crossed the biblical line," Bock said.

But some faith leaders seem to find it irresistible to try to nail down a precise time for the end-time events foretold in the New Testament gospels and Book of Revelation. History is full of their failed predictions. The most infamous was in 1844, when Baptist minister William Miller's faulty number-crunching incorrectly predicted the time Jesus would return to earth for a second time. The event was dubbed the "Great Disappointment."

The episode spawned the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, whose founders held that the reason Miller's prediction didn't come to pass was that people were not observing the Hebrew sabbath. An offshoot of the church, the Branch Davidians, believed the end times had come in 1993 when they engaged in a deadly standoff with federal authorities in Waco, Texas.

The latest failed prediction to generate media buzz was from radio evangelist Harold Camping, who twice forecast the end would come in 2011.

Mainstream Christian leaders today react to such teachings by emphasizing hope over fear when discussing end times.

"The main thing is to remind (the congregation) about what the biblical emphasis is," said Bock. "It’s an emphasis on hope and that God has promised to take care of his people and eventually redeem them, so ultimately there is nothing to fear."

Shirley doesn't want to downplay the tribulations that will precede the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, but he said he doesn't want the congregation to be paralyzed by fear.

"It's better to be aware. But God’s not given us a spirit of fear, and these things should motivate us to work for good today," he said. "It is possible to be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good."