For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.—1 Thessalonians 16-18
In the end, they believed, on Saturday, May 21, 2011, 13,023 years after His breath first blew across the vastness of the space and time He was simultaneously creating, separating light from darkness, the Earth from the firmament above, producing creatures of every kind, and fashioning in His own image His beloved children, children who would promptly forsake him, thus condemning to death themselves and all generations to come—on that day this May, they believed, they knew, He would return to fulfill His promise and at long last begin the systematic destruction of it all.
“The Bible is perfect—the literal word of God—infallible and utterly precise,” 89-year-old Harold Camping reminded them each weeknight, his slow, sonorous voice spilling from radios across the world. The end, the five-month period of God’s judgment, whose dates he’d ascertained from a lifetime of intense scriptural study, was to begin at 6 p.m. east of New Zealand and spread across the globe as that hour dawned on each time zone. Deep beneath the South Pacific, two tectonic plates were to press and finally slip past each other, releasing incalculable concentrations of energy. As walls of ocean drowned the islands of the Pacific, the Earth’s crust would continue ripping, destroying entire villages and cities. Fires would tear across the forests of Asia and Europe, en route to America, volcanoes erupting and nuclear reactors exploding and airplanes falling from the sky. Finally, the sun and the moon darkened by smoke, trumpets would roar from the heavens, and those still alive would gather in the streets to do all they could do, which was to look up and plead for His mercy.
They had been warned. Over the course of years of herculean effort, Camping and his listeners had spread his—and His—word far and wide: $100 million raised to finance 5,000 billboards across the U.S. and 30 countries; millions of copies of free books and pamphlets distributed; 24-hour Bible instruction translated into 75 languages, available to millions via Family Radio’s network of radio stations and its website. Added to this, the extraordinary media attention: from the New York Times to the BBC to Al-Jazeera to the Kenya Daily Nation. Every day as May 21 approached, hundreds of stories ran in media outlets around the world—an informational saturation “only God could have orchestrated,” as Camping noted.
“Wel-come to the ‘Open Forum!’ ” Camping began on the evening of Thursday, May 19, as he had every weeknight for the past 50 years, his voice emanating from the satellite dishes and low-rise radio tower behind his well-worn but expansive Family Radio world headquarters, a quarter of a mile from the Oakland airport. The 90 minutes passed fairly typically—callers challenged him once again to explain why, if he was so certain of the world’s ending, he hadn’t given away all his money, and his answer was the same: After Saturday there will be no use for money—and after thanking his listeners for their decades together, he signed off for what was supposed to have been the last time, standing to shake hands with his cameramen and producers, reminding them, including one who was Jewish, that they’d never see each other again. He had ordered the offices closed Friday and had taped to its windows computer-printed notes—SORRY WE MISSED YOU! To avoid the media swarm at his home in Alameda, he spirited off to a hotel with Shirley, his wife of almost 70 years. There, they watched the news and prayed for the 98 percent of the world’s population who he estimated were hours away from terrible suffering.
Around the globe, some unknowable number of people were waiting and praying with them. Over the past several months, most had carried on dutifully; others, the media reported, had become hysterical, quitting their jobs, racking up credit-card debt, marrying capriciously. In March, a Los Angeles County mother had purportedly stabbed her daughters in Rapture hysteria, fearing they would be rendered apocalyptic “slaves.” But now there was only anticipation. Shortly before 6 p.m. on Long Island, a man pleaded with the teenager on the phone to rush his pizza before the world started ending. At any minute, he was sure, trumpets would sound as Jesus Christ, flocked by angels, surfed the billowing clouds. First, the quaking would throw open the tombs of loved ones as they burst up through the ground. Then they’d all be lifted, too, so that high above the madness unfolding below, all of them would be caught up, together with Christ.