And lo, there was great tittering among the people when the Rapture shone and the final day came and the world … did not end.
According to Harold Camping, the now internationally ridiculed 89-year-old leader of the Family Radio network, it was supposed to - last Saturday to be precise, around suppertime.
This did not happen. The still happy Mr. Camping, who preaches to millions of followers over 66 radio stations in 48 countries, now refuses to talk about Judgment Day. He claims he got the biblical math wrong (again: he also miscalled the end of days in 1994), and that the end of the world will now arrive five months hence.
What did arrive last Sunday, shortly after dinner, was a tornado - a twister with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour that levelled the town of Joplin, Mo., and killed 132 people, making it the deadliest tornado in history.
It brought the number of tornado deaths to 514 so far this year - the worst since 1953. The spinners join a gathering string of weather-related disasters: floods from Manitoba to Mississippi, fires on the Pacific coast and in Texas, the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in New Zealand. The effect of global warming on tornados is disputed, but the connection between a warmer, moister world and more unstable weather is now statistically observable.
No matter. The calamities were signs to Mr. Camping. "We're not talking about a ball game," the Baptist-raised churchman told a British reporter shortly before things didn't turn out the way he had predicted. "We're talking about the end of the world."
I read that, and decided to do something precipitous: I called Colin Johnson, the Archbishop of Toronto, and asked him about Mr. Camping.
"He's crazy," Archbishop Johnson said. Of course, the archbishop is an Anglican. Anglicans tend not to take the Bible literally. Mr. Camping does, which is why he sees portents galore. The Bible is an endless bad-weather forecast.
The dark green clouds form early in Genesis, when God, unhappy with man, decides to destroy him by bringing "a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh." Charming! And so in the 600th year of Noah's life, "were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights." I imagine it felt a bit like spring in Toronto in 2011, or any November in Vancouver.
And biblical weather seldom clears. When the Egyptians enslave Abraham's descendants in the Book of Exodus, God drops 10 separate plagues of dreck on the heads of the pharaohs: rivers of blood, hail, fire, hail mixed with fire (biblical hail can weigh up to a talent, or between 57 and 130 pounds), waves of frogs and lice and locusts, and even three days of darkness. The Book of Job is packed with winds that steal people away in the night and storms that flatten houses - to name the least of the poor man's climatic problems. The first time the Apostles hear about the end of the world, as recounted in the Book of Luke, they're understandably upset: They want to know what signs there will be. God tells them (Luke 21:11): "… great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven." In I Kings 19:11, when the prophet Elijah finally meets God, he might as well be trapped inside a geothermal Dyson vacuum cleaner: A "great and strong wind" smashes the mountains to pieces, an earthquake and a fire ensue, whereupon the Lord turns up as a still small voice. Talk about your dramatic entrance.
And don't even ask about the Book of Revelation, the Bible's dream of what will happen when God finally winds up this earthly experiment. By the time the last trumpet has sounded, the world will suffer (in addition to famine and plague and war) hail, fire, a mountain of flame, tidal waves, darkness, monstrous demonic locusts the size of horses, volcanoes, falling asteroids, scorching heat, parched rivers, earthquakes, lightning and more hail - with a plague of skin boils thrown in to boot. "The third part of trees was burnt up, and all the green grass was burnt up," the Bible insists. "A great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea." A third of the fish die because of water pollution, and a third of mankind is wiped out by fire, smoke and brimstone. Nuclear disaster, anyone?
It's the imagery that grabs us and makes us wonder what might be possible. Are those ancient details any stranger than steaming ponds of melting radioactive fuel bars in Japan? More striking than this summer's upcoming plague of locusts (the cicadas emerge from beneath the ground like clockwork every 13 years, apparently to keep their predators off guard)? More vivid than the young man sucked into the Joplin tornado through the sunroof of the cab of his SUV? The weather is cosmic and arrives from above, and so we look up and tremble.
Frank Batten, the man who invented the Weather Channel in 1982 - to great derision at first - noticed right away that good weather depressed ratings, while bad weather boosted them. He immediately ramped up coverage of hurricanes and blizzards and avalanches and tornadoes. Today, it is one of the most consistently watched channels in history. It's elemental. When Mark Burnett, the producer who invented TV's Survivor and Apprentice franchises, unveils his new series based on the Bible's best stories, the weather will be one of the main stars.
Of course, the stories in the Bible were written by multiple-god-worshipping agrarian nomads desperate to explain terrifying meteorological calamities - to suggest that someone, at least, was in charge. But you don't have to be a semi-clad hooligan roaming the deserts of Hebron with a gang of jumpy cronies three millennia before amateur meteorologist Luke Howard came up with names for all the different cloud types to wonder if the weather has intent. Even in our secular age, we stare for hours at pictures of the weather on CNN, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Why? Because we can't control it. The weather's random injustice reminds us how amoral chance can be in human life.
"I think it's because we are technological people," Archbishop Johnson said. He was in South Carolina, on a beautiful day in the Blue Ridge Mountains, talking into a pay-as-you-go cellphone. "The purpose of technology is to order and control all things. But with catastrophic weather, we are suddenly faced with power and chaos and mystery and forces we have no way of controlling. And so we realize how puny we are." Which would be why, he continues, "everybody has a need to believe in something much bigger and more powerful than themselves."
On the other hand, the persuasive power of weather may be no bigger than the limbic patches in our brains that can't face randomness, and insist on creating explanations. Either way, there seems to be only a small role left for God and revelation where the weather is concerned.
"That's what Revelation's really about," Archbishop Johnson said before he ran out of minutes. "It's about a community caught up in powers beyond their control, but also about not being afraid in the face of all these calamities. About facing all these fears and anxieties. Judgment Day, in mature Christianity, is about accountability, about the need to complete all things, rather than to punish."
The next time Mr. Camping and his band of religious conservatives see a burning mountain, instead of hiding in the basement and waiting for the end, they might want to lend a hand in putting out the fire.
Ian Brown is a Globe and Mail feature writer.
With files from Rick Cash.