Thursday, June 2, 2011

Crying “Wolf!”

Scaring the public with cynical warnings comes at a high cost

By Joel Belz

So how were things at your place on May 21? Were they as catastrophic as Harold Camping had predicted—or merely cataclysmic? (I’m still trying to distinguish accurately between those two terribly grim adjectives.)

I have the advantage, of course. If Camping’s predictions had been right, and world history had in fact come to an end last Saturday, this column would be getting a pretty scant reading. My mistake would go unnoticed. But if he was wrong, as everyone now knows he was, maybe I’ll be forgiven for a condescending tone.

Yet the fact that the world didn’t end May 21, and that God’s final and catastrophic judgment didn’t fall that day, should hardly mislead us. The malarkey preached by such as Harold Camping ends up prompting unbelievers to be hardened in their skepticism—and doubting whether anything bad will ever really happen. And that itself is too bad.

So now I’m wondering: Will such blatant theological error, monstrously advertised and propagated, have a spillover effect on how folks see the rest of life? Cry “wolf!” a little too often about the world’s ending on a specific date, and people will decide that a judgment day of any kind is imaginary. Cry “wolf!” about the end of Social Security, Medicare, and the whole U.S. economy—and even if the warnings are legitimate, citizens will conclude that it’s only scaremongers at work.

In other words, when cynicism is promoted in one facet of life, it shouldn’t be surprising when people get cynical about almost every kind of warning. And it’s not hard to produce a pretty long list of scary stories that either weren’t true at all or at least weren’t nearly as bad as they were portrayed:

• Y2K. Probably the biggie in my lifetime, and made a good bit worse because of the willingness of too many evangelical Christians to join the chorus.

• Global cooling. Seems strange these days, but in the mid-’70s, Newsweek didn’t think it was strange to sound a major warning concerning the phenomenon. The glaciation of the whole planet was considered by many to be a strong and even “imminent” likelihood.

• Overpopulation. This scare-story dies hard—even while half the nations of the world are seriously worried about shrinking populations.

• Exhaustion of oil. But the faster we use it, the more we find of it. Well, maybe not oil, exactly. But each passing day seems to bring word of bigger reserves of natural gas right here within our own borders. It burns cleaner and longer. The availability of various existing fuels is almost certainly big enough to carry the world into the time when advanced technologies will lead us to other sources. Which is why people keep filling the tanks of their SUVs with gas that costs $4 and more a gallon. They’re not really scared.

Got the point? Scare people often enough with threats that simply don’t come true, and those same people will quit believing any and all warnings still to be sounded.

Christians, especially, as people supposedly grounded in the truth, should take care not to be purveyors of scare stories of any kind. For us—especially in this day of easy transmission via the internet—to be party to passing around accounts that aren’t vigorously rooted in demonstrable facts is an embarrassment to the name of the One who said, “I am the truth.” Such fables not only break God’s command, but in doing so they rip up the whole fabric of what a culture needs to be able to think of as believable.

The apostle Peter points to such a mindset when he reminds us how scoffers in what he calls “the last days” will ask, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning.”

What’s really sad is the possibility that we may have contributed to such skepticism.

Joel Belz is the founder of WORLD Magazine.

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