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Doomsday Redux: Prophet Says World Will End Friday

Mark your calendars: The world is ending on Oct. 21.

This announcement comes from Harold Camping, the doomsday prophet who said Judgment Day would come on May 21, 2011. On that day, a rolling earthquake was supposed to devastate the world. True believers would join Jesus in heaven. Unbelievers would be tormented for the next five months.

<p>Harold Camping speaks during a May 23, 2011, taping of his radio show <em>Open Forum </em>on the Family Radio Network.</p>
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Harold Camping speaks during a May 23, 2011, taping of his radio show Open Forum on the Family Radio Network.

So, when May 21 came and nothing happened, Camping had some explaining to do. Two days later, Camping, the head of Family Radio Network, announced he had been right about the date of God's wrath — just not the method.

"It was not a Judgment Day that was visible, and it's a spiritual Judgment Day," he told his Family Radio audience and a throng of reporters in May. "But it is Judgment Day."

And Camping insisted that we are right on track for total earthly destruction on Oct. 21.

For some of Camping's followers, that was small comfort. Many had quit their jobs and joined caravans to spread the message. Others had given their life savings to Family Radio. When a reporter asked Camping if he would return the money, he was unrepentant.

"I don't have any responsibility," he said. "I can't be responsibility [sic]for anybody's life. I'm only teaching the Bible."

Camping had a stroke 18 days later. By September, he had recuperated enough to go on Family Radio with a modified prediction.

"Probably," he said, "there will be no pain suffered by anyone because of their rebellion against God." Unbelievers might just fall asleep and never wake up.

As for a violent upheaval?

"The end is going to come very quietly, probably within the next month," Camping said.

You'll note the word "probably." Catherine Wessinger did. She's an expert on doomsday groups at Loyola University in New Orleans and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism. She says she's seen this before.

When prophecy fails, she says, "the person making the prediction can give themselves a way out, sort of a backdoor way of getting out of the prediction. Or on the other hand, when nothing happens, the event can be spiritualized."

In the days before Oct. 21, Camping's followers seem to be in a state of nervous anticipation.

"Nobody has admitted defeat," says Brandon Tauszik, a documentarian who has been following the movement. He visited Camping's church in California on Sunday, and it was full.

"The congregation was still very much excited about the approaching date," he says, "and the sermon was entirely about Oct. 21, which really surprised me."

Now mind you, the church only holds about 100 people, Tauszik says. And it's clear that the ranks of Camping's true believers have thinned. One source says Family Radio is trying to sell off stations to avert bankruptcy.

"The reputation of Family Radio is marred, and the money is not coming in," says David Liquori, who traveled the country last spring in a caravan, spreading the word about May 21. Still, Liquori believes the end is coming Oct. 21. He's just not sure what, exactly, it will look like.

"Now I don't know if God is going to destroy the world, burn the world with fire, but I know the Bible uses that kind of language."

Liquori won't say what he will do if he wakes up on Oct. 22. Nor will Camping, though he does say he's officially retired.

Wessinger at Loyola says if past is prologue, a couple of things could happen. One is that the group could dissipate. Or they could take a page from the Millerites. That group predicted that Jesus would appear in the 1840s. When he didn't — an event called the Great Disappointment — they reorganized and became the Seventh-day Adventists.

No matter what, Wessinger says doomsday movements will always be with us because they play into a primal fear.

"We don't want to suffer and we don't want to die," Wessinger says.

And these movement give an escape.

Next up, says Wessinger: Dec. 21, 2012 — when the Maya calendar seems to indicate the world will end.


Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.
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  • Convinced that May 21 will mark the world's end, believers continue to warn of God's ensuing wrath. But they aren't alone: End times prophecies have existed for centuries, and today, they're on the rise, examining whether world events — from earthquakes to economic globalization — are signs of the coming Apocalypse.
  • May 21, 2011, according to some Christians, is Judgment Day, when the true believers will fly up to heaven while destruction befalls the rest. Disciples of this message are spreading the message of God's imminent wrath — and feverishly preparing for the Final Day.