Doomsday prophet Harold Camping tells The Atlantic what to expect when the end of the world begins
LOS ANGELES -- In his relentless study of the Bible, 89-year-old Oakland-based Harold Camping has seen the signs. You may have also seen them recently.
They read, "Judgment Day: May 21, 2011 -- Cry mightly onto God," followed by a bright yellow stamp that proclaims, "THE BIBLE GUARANTEES IT!"
The end is near ... very near, according to the billboards and Camping. Indeed, it's this weekend.
The end of the world will be at exactly 6 p.m. on May 21, 2011, says Camping, who along with his organization, Family Radio, are behind those billboards across the country forecasting the Rapture this Saturday. The Rapture, the Last Days, Armageddon and the Final Days of Judgment are all interchangeable. It's when God will destroy the Earth to show his love for humanity.
Is that Eastern Standard or Pacific Standard Time?
Neither, says Camping, whom I interviewed recently for my online news show TYT Now. The Rapture is at 6 p.m. on May 21, 2011, where ever it's 6 p.m. first, with the "fantastically big" world-ending event taking place on a time zone by time zone basis.
That means we can expect the Rapture to start when it hits 6 p.m. at the International Dateline at 180 Longitude -- roughly the between Pago Pago, American Samoa, and Nuku'alofa, Tonga. We'll know it's Judgment Day because there will be an earthquake of previously unprecedented magnitude, Camping predicts.
So, according to these calculations, the Rapture will actually begin like a rolling brown out across the globe at 11 p.m. PST on Friday, May 20th. "Everyone will be weeping and wailing because they'll know in a few hours it'll come to their city," said Camping.
This also means that, if Camping is right, his signs littering California and in his current hometown of Oakland -- not to mention thousands of atheists throwing Rapture parties -- have the date wrong. It's Friday, Friday...gotta get down on Friday.
What are Camping's plans for Armageddon? "We're not planning anything at all," he told me. The secular world will have their cameras out there filming the destruction, he said, and "I'm sure our pre-occupation will be watching that come around.... It's going to be a horror story of tremendous proportion." And so, the nearly nonagenarian messenger of doom has decided his final day will be spent gleefully watching CNN's obligatory disaster porn.
After I had interviewed him, I stumbled upon Camping's listener supported radio station by accident. I was on "The 5" Freeway in the middle of the hours-long slaughterhouse-stench exactly halfway between LA and San Francisco. Family Radio is the strongest of all the signals in that area.
Camping's baritone bursts out of the speakers emphasizing his certitude. His End of Days prediction are all very obvious to him -- after all he's an end-all authority. Even though he'll tell you the bible is the authority, he's merely its humble teacher. He's spent several decades looking into it. "Time spent reading the Bible" is his main verification for everything he touts. He never wavers and even his caveats sound definitive.
Of course, Brother Camping, as his supporters call him -- a 1942 U.C. Berkeley grad originally from Boulder, Colo., with a civil engineer degree -- bucks traditional fundamentalist doctrine. It makes you lean in just a little closer to hear what he has to say. If you ask him, this belief that the world is 6,000 years old is just malarkey. To him, it's simply ridiculous if you look at the evidence. Which he, of course, has.
The Bible, he says, is his university. Take that Berkeley.
This self-professed Christian man of science -- and current syndicated world wide call-in radio host -- has studied the Earth's age in depth. He took five years out of his life to just research it. He says he looked at tree rings and such and finally came upon the truth: Much to his surprise, 1988 was the 13,000 birthday of the world. Anyone who says any different is mistaken.
The thing to note about Camping is that, like all doomsday prophets who get a following, he's charming. There's something in his delivery which is very compelling to listen to, even if everything he says is purely fictional.
When I interviewed Camping he used the recent earthquake in Japan as an example of what the Rapture will be like. Judgment Day will make that, "look like a Sunday school picnic" he explained. By the time I caught him on the radio a month later, the Japanese earthquake had become proof of the end. It had been transformed into a sign.
Camping is not the first to decide the world will end. It's a perennial fascination with humankind. The "end of time" has been a popular topic since the beginning of time. No one has gotten it right yet, but that hasn't stopped still more from trying. Yes, most doomsday sayers have begrudgingly died of old age.
Camping's tic is to bombard skeptics with arithmetic. Noah's flood? 4990 B.C. (of course).
Camping writes on his site:
Just before the flood Noah was instructed by God that in seven days the flood would begin (Genesis 7:10-16). Using the language of 2 Peter 3:8 that "a day is as a thousand years," it is like saying through Noah, who was a preacher (2 Peter 2:5): "mankind has seven days or 7,000 years to escape destruction." Since 2011 A.D. is precisely 7,000 years after Noah preached, God has given mankind a wonderful proof that Judgment Day will occur in the year 2011.
In short, if you add two and subtract for leap year (noting there is no year zero), then multiply by three (because of the Holy Trinity), then you have something infallible. See, he's done the math. The math is in the Bible. The Bible is infallible. Discussion over.
It's the magic of arbitrary facts -- they start to support themselves after a while.
If YOU don't believe that means YOU don't believe in the Bible. And if you don't believe in the Bible ... well ... perish the thought because Judgment Day is soon.
Doomsday prophets are religion's going out of business salesmen: "You look like a nice guy, let me level with you, this deal is not going to be here tomorrow. This whole place is over. This deal -- you'll never see it again. Yes, we take all major credit cards."
Brother Camping, like most who spend their time predicting the date God will smite all but the proper kind of Christian, is a prolific writer. His subject is urgent -- his word count ample ... even if his point is time is limited. Camping's monolithic manifesto published in 1992 was titled "1994?" In it he postulated, based on seemingly random numbers appearing in the Bible that the Rapture, was likely to happen in 1994. "Remember early in our study we learned that the final tribulation period could be either 70 years or 23 years in duration. The three and one half days of Revelation 11 are far to short to be understood in any way except symbolically," he wrote.
Most of the book is pretty vague: It's most likely September 1994. But it could be before 2011. It's possible in 2011. It could be somewhere in between.
I asked Camping if he regretted writing that book, if it now hinders his credibility. "I'm not a bit embarrassed by that. You know anytime we're learning -- and the Bible is really complex," he said. And then he went to his default "I've spent 50 years reading the Bible" to authenticate his claims.
But now at the end of his life, Camping has gotten very specific. He's giving the precise time, which he says was encrypted in a book written nearly 1,400 years before time zones were invented.
And if he's wrong? He's already written the pamphlet, "We are almost there!"
Doomsday prophets are the greatest example there is of "failing up." If Saturday (Friday night for the West Coast) comes and goes quietly, Camping can always claim it means the end is even sooner now. He's already been wrong. The wrath of the general public as his date comes and goes could endear him more to his most loyal followers.
Michael Moyer at Scientific American wrote, "Our fears of the apocalypse may in the end mirror the most fundamental fear of all: fear of our own mortality. It is all of a piece--death, the dissolution of our people, the extinction of our species." And after all, scientists believe that we are, in fact, doomed. Our species, like all species is temporary. Plus, in four billion years, this planet is toast. Wait long enough and nothing you recognize will matter or exist. Our planet is mortal. It's middle-aged and some day it will die.
So in a way, Camping is right about there being an end. It's just his calculations of the timeline are (as per usual) just a little off.
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