From the small anteroom outside his office, you can hear Harold Camping’s voice rumble. At a little before 5 p.m. on Good Friday, he’s discussing ways of maximizing web traffic with Guy von Harringa, his head programmer. While von Harringa’s voice changes as he talks – speeding up and slowing down, rising and falling subtly with the conversation – Camping’s speech is even and commanding.
It’s the kind of voice that sounds familiar, even if you’ve never heard it before; despite the fact that Camping is 89 years old, he sounds like he could talk forever.
Of course, if what Camping believes is true, he won’t need to say anything – not after this May 21, anyway. That’s when Camping, a former civil engineer and UC Berkeley graduate, says the world will end.
Camping is the founder and president of Family Stations, Inc. (or Family Radio), a global media conglomerate of sorts, which has its headquarters in an unremarkable-looking office complex just across Hegenberger Road from the Oakland International Airport, where the décor seems unchanged since the 1970s. The corridors are narrow, and cubicle partitions are made of pressboard printed with fake wood grain. The color scheme is drab brown and gray, accented by the occasional cross-stitch of a Bible quotation in colored thread.
It’s from this cluttered, labyrinthine building that Camping broadcasts his “Open Forum” radio program every weekday from 5:30 p.m. until 7 p.m on more than 140 radio stations owned by Family Radio in the United States. The first of these was Family Radio’s flagship station, KEAR 610 AM in San Francisco. Some of the programs are also available online and in translation at FamilyRadio.com.
During his “Open Forum,” which Camping has hosted since 1961, he answers Bible-related questions from listeners. Camping claims that, because the Bible is the direct word of God, it is Family Radio’s sole authority. In founding Family Radio, Camping says, “We didn’t trust any churches,” and the network is supported by what its website calls “individual believers.” During Camping’s show, some call in to earnestly ask Camping to parse specific scriptural passages, and some call in to challenge his ideas.
But throughout his broadcasts, Camping’s voice is constant and unflappable, although what he’s actually saying is almost impossible to follow without a digitally searchable e-text of the Bible in front of you. And even then, maybe not.
According to Camping’s interpretation of God’s word, an enormous earthquake will ripple around the entire world on May 21, 2011. Michael Garcia, one of Camping’s employees, said the quake “will make Japan look like a Sunday School Brunch.”
Garcia handles much of Family Radio’s outdoor advertising, which includes an estimated 1,200 billboards throughout the United States proclaiming “Judgment Day May 21, 2011.” The design also includes a gold sticker emblem adding, “The Bible guarantees it!”
Garcia compares Family Radio’s task to the sirens that warn communities about approaching tornadoes. He said that when he recently visited Texas and heard the sirens, he noted the parallel. “When you hear them, you’re not upset at the sirens. You’re grateful,” he said. “[Camping is] sounding the warning of Judgment Day.”
What the billboards don’t say is that Camping believes the dead will be turned from their graves, while, as Family Radio’s website puts it, “the remains of the all the believers who have ever lived will be instantly transformed into glorified spiritual bodies to be forever with God.” Then, all the non-believers will suffer and die off for five more months, until the world really ends on October 21, 2011. For that kind of information, the signs, which also adorn buses and cover a fleet of RVs traveling around the country, direct viewers to Family Radio’s website.
What people are supposed to do once they hear “the awesome news,” as it’s called on T-shirts and sweatshirts displayed in the halls of Family Radio headquarters, is less clear. Neither von Harringa, nor Garcia, nor Camping himself have very specific instructions for the people they’re hoping to convince, beyond crying “humbly for mercy,” as Camping put it in his original tract claiming May 21 as Judgment Day.
Camping and Family Radio are hardly the first promoters of end time prophecies. Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple in San Francisco and instigator of the group’s mass suicide, famously predicted that a nuclear holocaust would wipe out most of the world’s population on July 15, 1967. William Miller, founder of the Millerite movement based in New England, predicted that Christ would return in 1843. When this didn’t occur on the initial date set by Miller, his followers revised his prediction to a date in 1844. In more recent years, the Y2K movement and the Mayan calendar’s December 21, 2012 endpoint have been widely publicized as end time prophecies.
According to Paul Boyer, Merle Curti professor of history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an expert in prophecy beliefs in modern American culture, while most would-be prophets avoid setting specific dates for the end of the world, “There have always been a few people that boldly claim that they’ve interpreted the scriptures and they’ve determined the correct day.”
Boyer also said that today’s mass media and the Internet are uniquely suited to spreading prophetic beliefs. “It makes popularizers a sort of audience they haven’t been able to have in the past, and Harold Camping is certainly benefiting from that,” Boyer said.
For von Harringa, using the Internet to warn as many of the world’s 7 billion people as he can before May 21 is a full-time job. “We’re trying to use every medium,” he says, sitting in his cubicle, which is covered with stacks of computer hardware and whiteboards charting web statistics. “We’re trying to squeeze every ounce out of every dollar that is given, and also trying to make the most of our time that we’re given to try and reach people.”
Von Harringa left a job doing database programming in a neuroscience lab at UC San Diego to work at Family Radio about a year ago. Now, when he talks about his “commission” – his spiritual task – von Harringa’s logical, reasoning tone is oddly similar whether he is quoting scripture or detailing how he uses Google Ad Words.
Von Harringa explains that he was raised by Christian parents who listened to Family Radio in Ohio, but when he was about 16, he lost track of his faith. “I came to realize I had a couple nagging questions, as I’m sure a lot of people at that age do,” he said.
At 19, von Harringa moved to California, where he spent a few years attempting without success to gain admission into UC Berkeley first, then UC Los Angeles and trying out different areas of study. Eventually, he settled on medicine at UC San Diego. But soon after “God had put a couple obstacles” in his way, he said, von Harringa, now 25, became disenchanted with the university system.
“I was starting to realize that a lot of college students – they dive into debt for the prospect of getting a job,” he said. “It’s like, why would you want to put yourself into debt for the rest of your life to get a job and pay your way out? It just doesn’t make sense from a practical standpoint.” It was around this time that von Harringa returned to studying the Bible, and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the word about May 21.
According to Boyer, it’s not unusual for lay people who are interested in science to take on prophetic beliefs. “I’ve found that people in engineering and science tend to be drawn to interpreting Bible prophecies more than those in the humanities,” he said.
Camping likens the analytical nature of his Bible study to the kind of analysis required in engineering. “I’ve crammed for the last 54 years,” he said. “I’ve crammed the Bible just like I used to cram for finals when I was going to Cal.”
If you listen to the MP3 file available on FamilyRadio.com called “Judgment Day: May 21” — which is a reading of the tract that Camping’s followers distribute around the world explaining why May 21, 2011 will be the end — then read a series of mathematical equations that Camping gave to the San Francisco Chronicle in January of 2010, it’s easy to see why cramming might be necessary. Von Harringa’s simpler version is this: “May 21, 2011 is 7,000 years after the date of Noah’s flood, which occurred in 4990 B.C.”
But if Judgment Day is like a final exam from God, Camping may have failed before. In 1992, he predicted that September 6, 1994 would be Judgment Day, although now he claims to have prophesized the 2011 date about 20 years before that.
“In 1992, I saw the likelihood that it could be 1994, even though I had already found 2011,” he says. “So I quickly wrote a book called 1994? And I put a question mark after it to sort of show that it was tentative.”
Von Harringa, too, agrees that 1994? is a hastily-written volume. But that doesn’t weaken his current faith in Camping’s prophecy.“People don’t understand the difference between a prediction and a prophecy,” he said.
According to Boyer, the reason neither Camping’s – nor his followers’ – conviction in the coming rapture dissolved after the world failed to end in 1994 is because they, like many prophecy believers, blame themselves for miscalculation and try again. “Usually there are ways of rationalizing failed prophecy rather than giving up the whole belief system,” said Boyer.
Although Von Harringa noted that not everyone who works at Family Radio believes in May 21, most of its employees don’t even entertain the suggestion that they’ll wake up in the same human form on May 22, in spite of the fact that, as Boyer said, “there’s considerably more skepticism about Camping now than before his prior predictions.”
Garcia said that while his 12-year-old daughter is “scared and terrified” of the end, she understands its imminence. He can’t say the same for his 17 and 19-year-old children, who don’t believe in May 21. “That’s why it’s called the great tribulation,” he said, referring to the possibility that his children will be left behind to suffer with other non-believers.
For Harold Camping and his voice, May 21 might be just another trial.