In a comfortable office, Bible placed firmly atop his lap, 89-year-old Harold Camping is preaching with utter certainty about the end of the world. "May 21, 2011, is the day of judgment," he says with conviction, in a YouTube video posted last year. "It is the day that ends all gospel salvation activity ... It is the most important day by a billion times than any other day the world has ever known." On that day, Camping estimates roughly 207 million people, or about 3% of the world's population, will be plucked from the earth. What will follow is five months of earthquakes and other calamities until the world officially ends on Oct. 21 of this year.
Like all who proselytize the end the world, Camping has spread his message using a small army of followers; in his case, they're supported by a substantial budget that by some estimates is more than $100 million. There have been stories in the media of families selling their homes, quitting their jobs and budgeting their finances such that by May 21 they will be left with nothing. After all, they won't need it, right?
But Camping has been wrong before. The former engineer, who started the Family Radio network in 1958, predicted in 1992 that the world would end in September 1994. (He also wrote a book, titled 1994?, along the same lines.) When the apocalypse failed to materialize, Camping cited a mathematical error and re-emerged with a new date: May 21, 2011. Despite dubious evidence to support it, the current campaign has garnered a surprising number of followers, who hand out pamphlets, broadcast his message from the backs of trucks and plaster it on billboards nationwide a fact that Paul Boyer, a historian at the University of Wisconsin who studies apocalyptic beliefs, attributes to Camping's radio voice. "He has a very compelling manner of speaking," Boyer says. "He speaks with conviction and there's a certain percentage of people who will respond to that sort of belief."
Throughout history, movements like these have sprung up, especially in times of war or economic and political instability. "When you think your world is going to hell in a handbasket, it's comforting to say, 'The world is bad, but God will take me out of this,'" says Doug Weaver, an associate professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who teaches the history of Christianity. To that end, apocalyptic movements have surfaced in almost every era of chaos: following the Great Fire of London in 1666, for example, or during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The outbreak of World War I unleashed a torrent of end-of-the-world predictions: Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, predicted the second coming of Christ would occur in 1914, which he said would mark the end of time for nonbelievers.
The most famous example might be that of William Miller, a Baptist preacher who predicted the world would come to an end sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. (When the end didn't arrive on time, he changed the date to Oct. 22.) It's been estimated that as many as 100,000 "Millerites" sold their belongings between 1840 and 1844 and took to the mountains to wait for the end. "It fits into a cult mentality," Weaver says. "That it's O.K. to escape and take flight. It's a very escapist version of religion, but some people are very afraid to die and it's a very powerful thing to feel as though you are on the winning side." Indeed, when Miller's prophecy proved false, his followers explained it away, saying the event did in fact occur we just didn't notice anything because it only happened in heaven and not on earth and went on to form the Seventh-Day Adventist movement.
But while history is littered with failed predictions of the apocalypse, that's no reason to think it might not be just around the corner. In fact, a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 41% of Americans believe Jesus will return to the earth before 2050. Many Christians firmly believe in the Rapture, which is when the faithful will be swept up from earth into heaven, thus avoiding the seven plagues that herald the end of the world.
While the Bible affirms that belief, it does not endorse date setting. "I don't think there is any kind of clear indication in any part of the Bible that can be used for a road map or calendar to try to plot when the end times might happen," says R. Scott Nash, a Bible scholar in the department of Christianity at Mercer University in Georgia. Attempts to set a date generally string together various passages from scripture and completely ignore the context in which they were written. Camping, for example, bases his complex calculations on Jesus having been crucified in 33 A.D. But Nash, like many Biblical scholars, thinks the crucifixion actually happened three or four years earlier meaning that even if what Camping is preaching were true, the end should have come as early as 2007.
So what does the Bible say about preparing for the end? Basically, be on your guard: "Ye know not on what day your Lord will come," as Matthew 24: 42 puts it. "The Bible teaches followers to wait expectantly," says Kathy Maxwell, assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. "We're not supposed to be quitting our jobs, selling our stuff and moving onto compounds to wait, we're supposed to be taking care of people and contributing to society."
As for Weaver, when asked what he expects to be doing on May 22, he said he plans to go to church in the morning and jump on a trampoline with his grandson in the afternoon. Later in the day he plans to watch the Yankees game, which if they continue playing poorly, he says, will be the only way he will suffer that day.