On Saturday, May 21, at around 6 pm Pacific Standard Time in each time zone, a colossal global earthquake—the likes of which no one has ever felt before—was supposed to tear across the Earth. This quake was to be so destructive that all humans would be left to suffer amongst the wreckage—everyone except a lucky few who believed that moment would come and would ascend to Heaven.
Saturday was to be the first day of the Rapture or Judgment Day, according to predictions by Harold Camping, Christian radio host and head of the non-profit Family Radio, which is headquartered in Oakland. The Rapture would continue for exactly five months until the world’s final demise on October 21, 2011. Camping, a UC Berkeley graduate and former civil engineer, based his predictions on complicated calculations using key dates from the Bible, and prophesized that May 21 marked 7,000 years after Noah’s flood.
But May 21 came and went. Camping and his followers stayed out of sight and off the air. In the Bay Area, the only sign of an earthquake was a small 3.6 tremor on the Hayward fault around 7pm.
Camping has had only minimal contact with the media since May 21, and Oakland North was unable to reach him directly for comment. Nobody at Family Radio’s Oakland office appears to be answering the phone, but an outgoing pre-recorded message states “Please call back at a later date” and “We have no official statements to make regarding this weekend’s events.” Emails sent to Tom Evans, Camping’s PR man for the Judgment Day campaign, were bounced back and there was no response to emails sent to Family Radio.
On Monday, Camping announced that the day’s broadcast of his decades-long “Open Forum” radio show would be his last. Afterwards, Camping hosted a press conference, which was also broadcast on Family Radio stations and could be streamed through the group’s website. He announced it was the last time he would ever speak to the press. (Family Radio itself continues to broadcast, and its website remains live, although it does not seem to have been updated with any messages to followers regarding the outcome of May 21.)
But Camping’s last radio broadcast, and the press conference that followed it, indicate Camping has not changed his mind about Judgment Day. On Monday, Camping announced that despite the lack of earthquakes, the end of the world had indeed begun and its final chapter will still occur on October 21.
In his broadcast, Camping said that when nothing happened on the predicted day, “It was a very difficult time for me.” Hiding out in a motel with his wife for the night, he said he waited for the Rapture to begin. “I was truly wondering what is going on,” he said as part of this broadcast. “What in the world happened?”
Then, he had an epiphany—the Rapture had in fact already begun. “Suddenly the light dawned,” he said. “Suddenly I felt better.”
According to Camping, the part he got all wrong was that Judgment Day would be filled with violent, destructive acts of God. But “God is a merciful and loving and compassionate God, he will not let anyone suffer hell on earth for five months,” he said during his last radio show.
Instead, Camping believes that God is now quietly judging all humans. “The world is under judgment today,” he said in the broadcast. “We didn’t see any difference in the world but we know God brought judgment on the whole world and it will continue on until October 21, 2011 and at that time the whole world will be destroyed.”
This isn’t the first time Camping got the date for the Rapture wrong. In 1992, he predicted Judgment Day would happen on September 6, 1994. When that day passed, he said he got his math wrong. Experts on prophecy beliefs say that people who predict the world’s end—and miss—tend to blame themselves for the error, but don’t give up their faith.
Camping and his organization have been criticized for their Judgment Day predictions and have been accused of fear-mongering and misinterpreting the Bible. Camping’s willingness to change the date yet again has only undermined his credibility with his critics.
Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, a non-profit dedicated to atheism which organized a spoof Rapture party in Oakland over Judgment Day weekend, says pushing the date back was a predictable move. “I knew that in May, he would go to October, I totally predicted it right down to a T,” Silverman says. “Because he set it up, he’s a smart man. This was not about saving anybody.”
Silverman, as well as reporters, have raised questions about how much money the organization raised from followers who believed that May 21 would be Judgment Day. According to CNN Money, Family Radio received $80 million in listener contributions between 2005 and 2009 and made $18.3 million in 2009 alone. The organization’s most recent IRS records, from 2009, showed that Family Radio had total assets worth $72 million.
Over the past year, the non-profit launched a May 21 Judgment Day publicity campaign, posting billboards and driving trucks around the U.S. warning people of the impending doom. Camping has said much of the listeners’ donations went to this campaign.
During Monday’s press conference, several reporters asked him about his finances, including how much money was spent on the publicity campaign and how much was left over. He responded, “I don’t know, I haven’t kept track of that.”
Camping said that “most” of the money was spent to send out the gospel. “How many organizations reach the whole world with the gospel like we do?” he said. “We’re not in the business for the money. This is God’s business, he’s the CEO.”
Throughout the year, as May 21 neared, several news stories reported that a few of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and sold all of their possessions in preparation for the Rapture. However, Camping said at the Monday press conference, he wouldn’t take responsibility for any of this.
“We in Family Radio never tell anyone what they should do with their possessions, that’s between them and God,” he said. “We just had a great recession, there are lots of people that lost their jobs, there are lots of people that lost their houses. Somehow they all survived. People cope.”
Camping followed up by saying that he also wouldn’t return money to anyone. “We still have five more months,” he said. “By October 21st, we may only have $10 left.” Since the world would be ending at that point, he said, no one would need the money then. As far as getting rid of his own possessions, he said that would be pointless since he’ll need his house and car until the last day. “Why would I give it all away?” he said. “What would be the value of that?”
During Monday’s press conference, Camping also said that Family Radio would no longer be doing any advertising about the end of the world. “The world has been warned. My, has it been warned,” he said.
Although many Christians believe in the concept of Judgment Day, most mainstream churches don’t believe that one can predict a date. “It isn’t the sort of story that one can follow as a Catholic and take seriously,” said Mike Brown, the communications director for the Diocese of Oakland, although he offered this comment as only his own opinion. According to the Catholic reading of the scripture, “it doesn’t really matter when the end of the world is,” said Brown.
According to Silverman, despite the May 21 failed prophecy, people continue to follow Camping and other religions because “what religion does is that it allows people not to believe in death,” he said. “When faced with the undeniable conclusion that your religion is wrong… you have to admit that you’re going to die. You have to admit your own mortality and the mortality of everyone else you know and love. People don’t want to do that.”