Behind thousands of “Judgment Day” billboards on rural highways and city skylines, responsible for a small army of volunteers traipsing across the country to warn that the world will end on May 21, is a frail, 89-year-old California multimillionaire who runs one of the largest Christian radio networks in the world.
Each day, Harold Camping’s slow and sonorous Bible readings and his Open Forum call-in show broadcast for hours from the Oakland, Calif. headquarters of Family Radio, where Christian gospel and shows with titles such as “Beyond Intelligent Design” and “Creation Moments” punctuate his words.
And while the retired civil engineer and former Sunday school teacher has been preaching the gospel for decades and talking about God’s wrathful plan for the past two years, recent times have brought him into the spotlight like never before.
In the last week, variations of “End of the World May 21st” and “Harold Camping” have remained among the top search terms on Google. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control released a mock guide to the “Zombie Apocalypse” on its web site that quickly went viral.
But "it’s no laughing matter," Camping told The Huffington Post. “It is not something where it's a tiny, tiny, tiny chance it may happen. It is going to happen.”
He and his fringe group of churchless followers believe that at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, a massive earthquake will make its way around the earth, beginning in Fiji and New Zealand. Graves will open and two hundred million 'saved' individuals will float up to heaven. The doomed remainder will live on an unruly earth for five months before God annihilates it five months later.
Complex Biblical numerology partially based on a literal reading of the King James Bible and partially based and obscure interpretation of the book’s many symbols form the basis for Camping's warnings.
He says certain numbers repeat in the Bible along with particular themes. The number five means "atonement;" ten equals "completeness;" 17 is "heaven." Multiply those numbers by each other and multiply the result by itself. It equals 722,500.
"Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.," he says. "Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that's 1,978 years."
If you multiply that number by 365.2422 -- the number of days in the solar calendar -- it equals 722,449. And if you add 51 (the number of days between April 1 and May 21) to that number, it equals 722,500.
It gets more confusing.
Camping also believes that May 21 marks the 7,000 anniversary of Noah's flood and the end of a 33-year-year period of Tribulation, during which he claims Satan has ruled churches. He points to the increasing acceptance of gay clergy, for example, or the rise in charismatic and Pentecostal movements as signs that churches have gone astray. To him, rituals such as baptism and confession are worthless.
He made a similar prediction in the 1990s but later said he didn't look close enough at the Book of Jeremiah. This time around, he’s absolutely certain.
Like many of those who follow his predictions, Camping wasn't always so radical.
Born in Colorado, he moved to California at an early age and, with a budding interest in math and science, trained as a civil engineer at the University of California-Berkeley in the in the early 1940s. During World War II, he worked as an engineer for Kaiser. Afterwards, he joined a small construction business in Oakland.
But he really shined in church.
At the First Christian Reformed Church of Alameda, Camping, his wife Shirley and seven kids were well-known for his popular Bible study class. Self-taught with no formal religious training, the charismatic Camping would read and dissect the Bible with an ease and depth that attracted dozens of students.
For much of the time since its humble founding in 1958 in San Francisco and its expansion over the decades, Family Radio largely preached a command brand of evangelism, featuring Bible readings, early American hymns and southern gospel along with programming from Protestant churches across the country. Some local stations played contemporary Christian music, and shows from socially conservative organizations such as Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family were also syndicated.
By 1988, as Camping began quietly proclaiming a pending end of the world during his radio and Bible class lectures (he had no date yet), his church life and Family Radio changed drastically. In Alameda, church elders sternly told him to stop his predictions. Instead, he and 110 members of the church left to start their own congregation, which Camping quickly left after declaring the "church age" over.
"I began to see that the doctrine of salvation was wrong. Every church would say 'We will show you how to become saved,'" says Camping. "Salvation only comes through faith. We don’t know what’s going to happen to Family Radio or the banks or anyone else on May 21, but it will be horror."
Camping himself doesn’t know if he will be 'saved.' He says that’s predetermined by God.
Some Christian evangelists today are "millennialist," which means they believe in a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ upon his return, when there will be peace on Earth.
Not Camping. On May 21, the saved will go to straight to heaven to meet Jesus, he claims. The unsaved, including those already dead, "will never have conscious existence again...That person himself will not know anything about it they are dead," he said.
"Christ has no pleasure in the death of the unsaved. It is an enormous comfort about our loved ones," he added. "Pray they die quickly."
As Camping started to preach such views on Family Radio, programming that wasn't attune to his reading of the Bible was banned. Today, the station produces the majority of its writing in-house, devoting a chunk of the day to repeats of Camping’s own shows.
Worth more than $120 million and with 66 stations throughout the country, the network's broadcasts reach as far as Nigeria. Via the Internet, it's available in 61 languages. While Camping doesn't ask for donations, he admits that followers have generously given and also financed their own campaigns. Many have quit jobs and depleted their life savings to join caravans that preach across the U.S.
In 2009, the last year Family Radio publicly released a tax return, the group reported $18.4 million in contributions and $1 million through investments and other income. It spent $36.7 million and employed 348 people paid more than $9 million in wages and benefits.
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Christianity isn't the only religion that believes the world will end, though its prescriptions about end times tend to be more frequent and pronounced than other faiths. In non-Abrahamic religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, the idea of death and destruction is more cyclical than finite.
Denominations differ on the exact chronology and length of Christ's second coming, but almost all say that the date is unknown and point at two key passages. One is 2 Peter 3:10: "The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night." Another is Matthew 24:36: "Of that day and hour knoweth no [man], no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."
Yet Judgment Day preachers say reading these passages alone leads to misinterpretation, claiming God has only recently given humans the ability to understand the hidden code of his book.
Throughout history, dozens of end-times predictions have gone unfulfilled, but some have had a lasting outcome.
In 1844, Baptist preacher William Miller gained thousands of followers by predicting Christ's return. Dubbed the "Great Disappointment" when Jesus didn't come, Miller's movement nonetheless grew into today's Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Hal Lindsey famously promoted in "The Late Great Planet Earth" and the idea that end times would soon approach, set off by a Soviet invasion of the Middle East.
The year 2000 passed without widespread digital breakdowns, while the year 2012 has also gained popularity among those interested in the ancient Mayan calendar.
On the date of Camping's Sept. 6, 1994 prediction, dozens of his followers gathered a short drive from his station's office in Alameda to watch for the return of Christ. They wore their best clothes and held their Bibles open toward heaven.
When the day came and went, the preacher initially didn’t admit his error. Instead, he offered a new date. Nothing happened again.
After a San Francisco Chronicle reporter asked him to explain, he said "nothing has been negated...The Bible is based on the Biblical calendar, which began in March. So 1994 runs until March 31, 1995."
“I always said if it wasn't 1994, it would be 2011,” Camping says today.
On May 21, the preacher, who says he rarely watches TV and even more rarely uses computers, will join Shirley in his living room. They’ll turn on the TV to watch for news of the quake.
When they see it, they’ll be “trembling before God for mercy."
The octogenarian hasn't been able to avoid the alienation many of his followers experience. His six living children, 28 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren think his theories are a sham. Only Shirley, his wife of 68 years, believes him.
"Most do not understand at all," he said of his family. "They think I have lost it."
Watch Harold Camping discuss the 'Judgment Day' and the end of the world: