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Doomsday Redux: Prophet Says World Will End Friday

Oct 17, 2011
Originally published on October 18, 2011 2:15 pm

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.

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.

Again.

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The world is ending on October 21, according to Harold Camping. He's the Doomsday prophet who said Judgment day would come on May 21. That did not happen on schedule and Mr. Camping recalculated. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: May 21 was supposed to bring a rolling earthquake that would devastate the world. That's what Harold Camping predicted. True believers would join Jesus in heaven, he said. Unbelievers would be tormented for the next five months. So when May 21 came and nothing happened, Camping had some explaining to do. Two days later, the head of Family Radio Network announced that he had been right about the date of God's wrath, just not about the method.

HAROLD CAMPING: It was not a judgment day that was visible. It's a spiritual judgment day but it is judgment day.

HAGERTY: And he said we're right on track for total earthly destruction on October 21. Now, for some of Camping's followers, that was small comfort. Many had quit their jobs to spread the message, and others had given their life savings to Family Radio. When Camping was asked if he would return the money, he was unrepentant.

CAMPING: I don't have any responsibility. I can't be responsible of anybody's life. I'm only teaching the Bible.

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

CAMPING: Probably there will be no pain suffered by anyone because of their rebellion against God.

HAGERTY: Unbelievers might just fall asleep and never wake up. As for a violent upheaval?

CAMPING: The end is going to come very, very quietly, probably within the next month.

HAGERTY: You'll note the word probably. Catherine Wessinger did. She's an expert on doomsday groups at Loyola University in New Orleans, and she says she's seen this before. When prophecy fails, she says...

CATHERINE WESSINGER: The person making the prediction can give themselves a way out. Sort of a backdoor way to get out of the original prediction, or on the other hand, when nothing happens, the event can be spiritualized.

HAGERTY: So in the days before October 21, Camping's followers seem to be in a state of nervous anticipation.

BRANDON TAUSZIK: Nobody has admitted defeat.

HAGERTY: Brandon Tauszik is a documentarian who's been following the movement. He visited Camping's church in California on Sunday, and he says it was full.

TAUSZIK: The congregation was still very much excited about the approaching date and the sermon was entirely about October 21, which really surprised me.

HAGERTY: Mind you, he says, the church only holds about 100 people. 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. David Liquori, who helped spread the news about May 21st last spring, admits that donations have plummeted.

DAVID LIQUORI: The reputation of Family Radio is marred, and the money is not coming in.

HAGERTY: Still, Liquori believes the end is coming October 21st. He's just not sure what exactly it will look like.

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

HAGERTY: Liquori won't say what he'll do if he wakes up on October 22. Nor will Harold Camping, though he does say he's officially retired.

Catherine 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.

WESSINGER: We don't want to suffer and we don't want to die.

HAGERTY: And these movements give an escape. Next up, says Wessinger: December 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar seems to indicate the world will end. Again.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.