The doomsday prophet claimEd the world will end on OCTOBER 21, 2011
May 21, 2011, came and went. Nothing happened.
I feverishly checked the message boards for post-May 21 updates. All those people who quit their jobs, maxed out their credit cards, drove in RVs that said, “May 21, 2011: Judgment Day”—what would they say now? There were no rolling earthquakes, no bodies released from the graves, no Rapture. Were they despairing? Shame-faced? Repentant?
Why would I even care what a bunch of kooks following the doomsday teachings of controversial cult leader Harold Camping decided to do with their time?
Because this bunch of kooks includes my mom and dad.
I couldn’t believe the outlandish and pathetic claims the “Latter Rain” and “Time and Judgment” Yahoo groups put forth to excuse the fact that they were just dead wrong: May 21st marked the end of salvation…believers were “spiritually” raptured…October 21 would now mark the end of the world…those still in local churches were under the command of Satan and were definitely not followers of God.
Did my parents actually believe this garbage? Would they choose Harold Camping over me, again? I felt desperate—what would it take to tear my mom and dad away from this date-setting drivel and bring them back to Jesus, and to me? I had tried talking with them before, but discussions quickly degenerated into shouting matches.
So I decided to write them. Say my piece, plead with them to stop wasting their lives and distancing themselves from me and their grandson. Beg them to re-evaluate what they believed before they sold all their possessions, or cut communication with me totally, or worse. So many doomsday cults end with suicide. They were so sure we’d all be destroyed or raptured by May 21, but here we were, very much alive. And…didn’t they miss me?
Would they even respond? Our relationship dangled by a thread as it was.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I struggle with how those who believe these things [about May 21st] could, within a weekend, go from bewilderment and disbelief at not being raptured, to absolute certainty that God meant to deceive and shut their eyes to the truth as a part of a big master plan. God sounds like a jerk. An untrustworthy, deceiving jerk.
My mouse hovered over the “Send” button. I closed my eyes and inhaled. The stuff was about to hit the fan.
Upon this rock, I stand
When I was little, my folks would play records for me before I left for school in the morning. “I Am a Promise,” “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” and songs about God’s agape love filled my ears from the time I could say my ABCs. That, and morning Bible quizzes from Family Radio.
Yes, Jesus loved me, and so did Mom and Dad. My dad taught me to read Charles Dickens in kindergarten and trounced me in board games until I lost my intimidation for playing against adults. He taught me to debate him enthusiastically and without fear. When the play rivalry ended, he would hoist me on his shoulders, praise my crazy drawings and wild hair, or allow me to pull his bushy beard. I adored him.
My mom didn’t tell me how to reverence God as much as she showed me, by reading Bible stories, or by ensuring that I gave God thanks for everything—from my ham sandwiches to my crayons. My mom was so adamant about my spiritual formation that she would wake me at 5:30 a.m. and take me with her on the Sundays she had to work at the hospital. I’d sleep in the staff lounge until it was time to walk to Sunday school, then I’d stay there for services from 9:30 a.m. until my mom got off work at 3:30 p.m. Every. Other. Week.
I feigned sickness many times to try to sleep in, but Mommy didn’t play that. She helped me see worshiping God as my priority. She was my rock, and God was hers.
Because of this, at 5 years old, in Sunday school, I came to understand the gospel through felt board and a faithful teacher. I trusted in Christ.
If Family Radio had a mascot, and mascots could be voices, it would be the voice of Harold Camping: gravelly deep in monotone, with a touch of saliva on delivery. I used to think that God must sound like Harold Camping. He never hesitated to give an answer, seemed to know every verse in the Bible from Nahum to Jude, and faithfully encouraged his listeners not to take his word for it but to search the Scriptures themselves for God’s truth.
Family Radio, established in 1958 with the goal of faithfully and skillfully teaching the Bible, had long been a lighthouse in a sea of God-phobic secular stations and spiritually shallow Christian ones. Droves of believers have tuned in for decades. The organization was attractive in its simplicity; the founder, Harold Camping, did not receive payment for his role as director, and the stations continue to be listener-supported. Family Radio boasts 66 stations, two shortwave facilities and two TV stations, with broadcasts translated into 36 languages from Amharic to Uzbek, and more than $120 million in assets. That’s a lot of listener support.
When I entered high school I noticed a shift. Programs like Unshackled, sermons of James Boice, or the Old Time Gospel Hour were pulled and replaced with Harold Camping studies.
Then, in 1994, Harold Camping announced that the end of the world would come in September.
Matthew 24:36 says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Harold Camping’s response to the passage in Matthew was basically, “True, we can’t know the day or the hour, but we can know the year and the month.”
Family Radio was moving from orthodoxy into the cult zone.
September 1994 came and went. Nothing happened.
Undeterred, Harold Camping updated his prognostications. The world would likely end before 1994 did. It didn’t. My parents continued to tune in. I didn’t. I eventually moved away to attend seminary.
My parents began to drift. First, I heard that they were in a disagreement with the church leadership back home. Then they moved far away. Right after I graduated from seminary, my parents, who faithfully reared me to reverence corporate worship, teaching, and prayer, informed me that God had judged the churches, all according to Harold Camping. The Holy Spirit had departed. They did, too.
Because the church age ended, they explained, there was no need to keep tenets of the faith like the Lord’s Supper or baptism. I could no longer talk to my parents about huge chunks of my life—my class on the Trinity, my husband’s appointment to an associate pastor position, the frustration I experienced in ministry. My dad and I used to parse Greek words together with nerdy glee; now, I didn’t even want to tell him if I had a bad day at work.
In 2006, my husband and I went to visit my folks for the first time as newlyweds. While we were talking over breakfast, while we watched movies, while we slept, Family Radio droned on, always. We strained to communicate over the noise.
One day, my mother and father said that they had studied the Scriptures and were convinced that what Camping said was true.
“What’s true?” I asked.
“We can know when the end of the world is. God warned Noah. God warned Jonah. He warned Abraham and Lot. We can know. He always tells His people when trouble is coming. The end of the world is May 21, 2011.”
I hadn’t heard my mom and dad talk about Jesus for years, but they sure spread the news of Judgment Day on May 21st like it was the gospel. They left tracts as tips in hotels and restaurants (I’m sure that left a great impression) and made the “awesome news” part of every conversation they had with both strangers and loved ones. I braced myself for apocalyptic talk each time I answered a phone call. The truth is, they became uncomfortable to be around.
Yet my parents responded to their loss of friends as if they were persecuted for Jesus’ sake. My father, who drives a taxi, bought car magnets that declared the end of the world and said, “The Bible guarantees it.”
We vowed not to stay at my parents’ house for more than a couple of days and instead took them on cruises when we visited (what a feat on our ministry salaries!), because their short-wave radio would not work on the high seas. Ever determined, they purchased a netbook solely to listen to Family Radio online whenever they stayed with us.
Our relationship atrophied. When my parents visited, they never went to church with us, even though my husband was one of the two pastors. Shortly after I had my first child in the summer of 2010 (a miracle for this 30-something), my mother told me that she prayed I wouldn’t get pregnant because the end is near.
My mom came to visit one “last” time in March. A pregnant friend of mine came over, and when she told my mom of her September due date, all my mother did was grunt. Then she walked away.
My father, my lifelong verbal sparring partner, told me he didn’t want to talk to me about May 21st. “It wouldn’t do much good,” he said. Instead, he instructed me to listen to a two-hour Harold Camping interview. I did. In it, Camping stated that the proof of true belief was not faith in Jesus Christ but in an unquestioning resolve that May 21, 2011, was the Rapture date. It was sin, sin, to doubt even for a moment.
This doomsday date-setting was a media gold mine. I heard about Harold Camping everywhere—atheists planned Rapture parties, CNN incredulously followed the RV caravans. They were being mocked now, the Camping followers said, but they would have the last laugh. God would vindicate them and scoffers would be toast. Local news reporters interviewed people who quit their jobs, drained their life savings, and stopped having sex (lest they conceive a baby destined for annihilation—see sidebar), so they could spread the word about May 21st.
My parents, who are retired on fixed incomes, bought two new cars with astronomical car notes in the first week of May. Facebook was ablaze with photos from South Africa, Thailand, Ohio, and New York of billboards that warned in every language of the coming judgment. Leno and Letterman and America and the world laughed. And waited.
May 21, 2011, finally arrived. We Skyped with my parents that morning so my mom could say goodbye to my son. My dad had already resigned himself to the fact that nothing was going to happen. My mother, however, vehemently disagreed. “There are 24 hours in a day!” she bellowed. While I bounced my son on my knee, she described the impending rolling earthquakes that would begin in Dallas. She shared the doomsday details with casual detachment, as though she were talking about the nail polish color she picked out before a manicure.
Her words were ice water in my spine.
Who were these people? This couldn’t be the woman who woke me up for Sunday school and lovingly prayed with me before tucking me in each night. This couldn’t be the man who encouraged me to speak the truth, fearlessly.
The End is near…again
May 21st came and went. Nothing happened.
Enough. I had heard Harold Camping in a press conference say that those who spent their life savings, sold their homes, and quit their jobs in anticipation of The End would “cope.” I heard him say that the people of the earth “shook in terror” at the Judgment Day message, and that’s just like an earthquake. My dad parroted these thoughts when I next chatted with him, and added, “The May 21st date may be wrong, but the church thing isn’t. We just have to keep calculating.”
I laid my thoughts bare, with nothing left to lose but hope. I prayed that God would create a wedge in my e-mail for truth to slip through to them.
I’m trying to see a thread of Christianity in this, but I don’t. It’s a false gospel. You are being led astray. Satan has rendered you useless to the kingdom as you waste your time calculating and theorizing instead of actually interacting with people and sharing the gospel of Jesus with them.
I am so sad for you both. So grieved. This is not the abundant life—chasing equations and sitting by a radio when you could be worshiping God and serving His people.
Family Radio has taught you to abuse the Bible and see parables where there are none, come to false conclusions, and then defend the false conclusions (rather than repent) when they don’t come to pass like you guaranteed they would. So arrogant. So false. So sad.
What will happen to my son? To me? To my husband? Annihilation? I’m not sure how you both resolve this in your relationship with us…but that must make you really sad.
Do you believe anything will happen on October 21st?
My mouse hovered over the Send button. I closed my eyes and inhaled…and clicked.
Months passed and nothing happened. No response. No acknowledgment. Nothing.
I don’t know what my parents believe about October 21st, Harold Camping’s latest, lamest doomsday date. I don’t know if they believe my family and I are doomed. I don’t know if the warm, loving, dedicated people I once knew will ever pass through the doors of a church again, or whether they will repent.
But I do know this: October 21st will come and go. Nothing will happen.
Campingisms: What Harold Camping and His Followers Believe
What Camping says: Hell does not exist. God in His mercy will annihilate people rather than have them suffer eternal torment and separation from Him.
What (Most) Christianity says: Hell is a real, physical place of eternal torment, and is a place reserved for those whose faith is not in Jesus Christ (Luke 12:4-5, Rev. 20:9-15).
What Camping says: May 21, 2011, marked a spiritual rapture of God’s elect. The time of salvation is over, and humanity is now in torment. The end of the world is October 21, 2011.
What Christianity says: “No man can know the day or the hour” of Christ’s return. The Rapture (literally, “snatching up”) of God’s people and the torment of unbelievers will be physical and unambiguous.
What Camping says: Since May 21, 1988, the Holy Spirit has left the churches. Anyone attending a church is under the command of Satan.
What Christianity says: The gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church. The Church is the bride of Christ, and those in Christ are sealed by the Holy Spirit as a down payment for an eternal inheritance.
What Camping says: The way to salvation is to beg for mercy. Perhaps God may save you (pre-May 21st). To say you “believe” in Jesus or “put your trust” in Him is an arrogant work—and no one is saved by works.
What Christianity says: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9-10).
Sharifa Stevens is a wife and mother, singer, and writer. She earned a B.A. from Columbia University in New York and a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in Dallas.