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Spin Doctoring the End of the World

July 1999

Once again the end of the world has come and gone, with neither a wimper nor a bang. This time around it was the prophecy of one Heng-ming Chen, leader of God’s Salvation Church presently based in Garland, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), but originating from Taiwan (with a stopover in San Dimas, California). Chen’s original prophecy, published in his guidebook entitled God’s Descending in Clouds (Flying Saucers) on Earth to Save People, stated: “At 10 a.m. on March 31, 1998, God shall make His appearance in the Holy Land of the Kingdom of God: 3513 Ridgedale Dr., Garland, TX 75041 U.S.A. I guarantee this on my life.”

What would God look like? Not surprisingly, he would look like Chen, only he would be able to walk through walls, speak numerous languages, and clone himself into as many copies as necessary to greet anyone who comes into the home that day.

Exactly one year later — March 31, 1999 — the chosen few will travel to a rendezvous point on the shores of Lake Michigan, from where they will board flying saucers that will take them to heaven, with a brief stop at Mars. Sound familiar?

Like so many other New Age religions, God’s Salvation Church grew out of a cultural milieu fascinated by UFOs. In fact, the Chinese characters for the group are best translated as “God Saves the Earth Flying Saucer Association.” Chen’s additional claims that he fathered Christ and that his own two sons, Chi-Jen Lo and Che-Yu Chiang, are reincarnations of Jesus and Buddha, have made more than a few observers skeptical, but not his followers.

As doomsday grew closer Chen predicted that God would appear in the ultimate channeling experience on television — Channel 18 to be exact — at 12:01am on Wednesday, March 25. But when God failed to show, Chen recanted his prophecy and said that his prediction that God would appear in Garland on the 31st was “nonsense.” This time Chen was right. But will members of this group recant their beliefs, admit they were wrong, and go home? Well, they may go home (their tourist visas are about to expire), but we can rest assured they will not retract their beliefs. Why?

In his marvelous new book, Questioning the Millennium, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould shows how we not only classify our world into dichotomous twos — good and evil, light and dark, gradual and cataclysmic change — we put a positive spin on whatever the outcome: “gradual alteration to sustain hope that what we have built through struggle might persist” versus “the possibility of cataclysm, so that, when situations seem hopeless, and beyond the power of any natural force to amend, we may still anticipate salvation from a messiah.” Humans are not only story-telling animals, we have a remarkable ability to make the story come out hopeful.

But what happens when prophecy fails, as it just did for the Garland group? Believers spin doctor the nonevent into a successful prophecy with such rationalizations as (all actually used by groups in the past): (1) miscalculation of the date; (2) the date was a loose prediction, not a specific prophecy; (3) the date was a warning, not a prophecy; (4) God changed his mind; (5) predictions were just a test of members’ faith; (6) the prophecy was fulfilled physically, but not as expected; and (7) the prophecy was fulfilled — spiritually. It would appear God’s Salvation Church has chosen the latter. One follower, Chin-Hung Chiang, when God did not appear, explained: “The world of the spiritual is invisible. It’s very difficult to explain what is going on.”

We can expect more apocalyptic gatherings between now and the year 2000, because for most believers the millennium is not The End, but The Beginning. It is a transition to a better life to come, either here or elsewhere. The Heaven’s Gate folks couldn’t wait to get the next level. Most Christians look forward to the Second Coming. We all celebrate the new year and many of us will trumpet in the new millennium with great anticipation. Hope springs eternal.

This article was first published here.

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