The end of the world came on May 21, 2011, and again on October 21.
Tough times can beget obsessions with end times. Natural disasters, for instance, shake the doomsayers loose online, as do political shifts, blockbuster thrillers, Mayan prophecies, and a Dolly Parton song.
Those two 2011 dates, though, figured in a Biblical calculation of when the rapture would come. Radio evangelist Harold Camping had been broadcasting his beliefs on his Family Radio network, based in Oakland, California, since 1959. The nonprofit enterprise with stations nationwide has earned about $80 million between 2005 and 2009, although Camping himself always claimed to be an unpaid volunteer.
Guaranteed, no-money-back apocalypse
Camping, who turned 90 between the two doomsday dates, believed that May 21 marked 7,000 years since Noah’s flood, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This wasn’t the first expected second coming of Jesus Christ. The former civil engineer had previously settled on September 6, 1994. His initial calculations were off, but he did sign up more followers.
A 1992 San Diego Tribune article noted Camping blamed “the breakdown of morality — divorces, abortions, sexual perversion, birth control, women ‘disobeying God’s law insofar as their place in the church is concerned,’ and no longer honoring the Sabbath” for incurring such judgment. This year, the father of six and grandfather of 28 expanded the failings to include gay rights, Israel’s rebirth, and its dismissal of Jesus. And he offered a “guarantee.”
Breakdown of morality
Followers, some selling their worldly possessions, did their best to alert the faithful via 5,000 billboards and RVs broadcasting gaudy messages across 30 countries. The fair warning cost about $100 million, reported the Los Angeles Times, also “financed by the sale and swap of TV and radio stations” that would be moot on May 22.
The apocalypse, Camping claimed, would take the form of a massive earthquake starting in New Zealand. The world would self-destruct over five months, enduring “plagues, quakes, wars, famine, and general torment before the planet’s total destruction in October.” End times, of course, have an upside, called the rapture, when the righteous — 2 to 3% of mankind — get delivered up to heaven and the nonbelievers get left behind.
Latter days spurred online searches for “judgment day,” “May 21 2011 rapture,” “May 21 2011 end of world,” “Harold Camping May 21 2011,” and even competing end times like “Mayan calendar 2012.” They also provoked secular counter-programming: The American Atheists threw rapture parties on May 21 and 22, the biggest in Oakland, a hop, skip, and a jump away from Family Radio’s offices.
When May 22 dawned and nothing happened, Camping said he was “flabbergasted.” But conversations with documentarian Brandon Tauszik revealed the leader’s own doubts just five days shy of “the end.” Camping and his wife shut down press communications, especially after October 22. Those who had believed Camping weren’t just flabbergasted; they were irate.
A few weeks later he made another special announcement. He again acknowledged his mistakes but pointed out, “If six months ago we had all of the information that we have now, there would not have been the spectacle of the whole world learning about the Bible: Learning about the fact that God some day is going to bring a judgment upon the world.”
Camping, always keeping up Family Radio’s motto and feeding God’s sheep.
An earlier version of this article was written by Claudine Zap for Buzz Log. In addition to writing for Buzz Log, Claudine contributed to team coverage of the royal wedding and the 10th anniversary of 9/11. This article was updated by Vera H-C Chan, the Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.