On This Day The World Didn’t End: The Harold Camping Story


I know way more about Harold Camping, the deceased radio evangelist, than I probably should. He’s best known for several failed doomsday prophecies, the most recent being on May 21, 2011 (Apocalypto Part One, The Rapture) and October 21 of that same year (Apocalypto Part Two, Electric Boogaloo).

The remarkable thing about Camping’s prophecies was how the media picked up on them—especially the May 2011 date, the hysteria that followed feeling like a test-run for the 2012 “Apocalypse.”

Camping, who had also created the ministry Family Radio, obviously seemed like a crackpot. So why was he believed by so many?

I think it’s because he was so earnest about his predictions, and fit the archetype of the Doomsday Preacher so perfectly. Consider this preacher guy from the Poltergeist movies:

and Camping:

Harold Camping never yelled on his radio show and never lost his temper. He just calmly reminded us that the world was going to end, and provided an intricate equation of Bible verses and corresponding years to prove his point. Indeed, much of his doomsday prophecy was firmly rooted in math—divine math.

what Divine Math might look like

Waitaminute…isn’t that a lot like numerology? Numerology, which the Bible tells us not to fiddle with?

As his nervous disc jockeys would explain after a Camping sermon broadcast, it wasn’t really numerology. To the contrary, it was completely Biblical.

Personally, I was scared shitless on that initial May date. I didn’t buy most of what Camping preached…but I had listened to Family Radio for almost two years while recovering from a serious illness.

Family Radio is a 24-hour channel of soothing, pacifying music (peppered with Bible verses and requests for donations) for Believers, insomniacs, prison inmates, recovering addicts, lost causes, the suicidal, and comic book writers. It put me to sleep without the use of tranquilizers within 30 minutes tops, which was what I wanted.

(Of course, that meant that listened to an awful lot of religious propaganda, often while I was unconscious. But I’m sure that was fine & had no lasting effects.)

The absolute cream of the Family Radio crop, however, was Camping’s call-in show Open Forum, where people would ask him about various Biblical topics. Unedited and with no time delay, the show could get pretty entertaining, with the callers getting more and more strange and the unflappable Camping failing to detect any sense of irony whatsoever. Was having sex with a head of lettuce Biblical? Harold would tell you.

But as much as Camping gave off the aura of the friendly doddering grandpa, there was a darker side to his ministry. In addition to the doomsday predictions, he also preached something called the end of “The Church Age”. He interpreted certain Biblical passages as indicating that the era of the physical church as a place of worship would end in our time…and that the only real legitimate church that would remain would be…

…you guessed it, Family Radio!

You see, it’s because the radio audience is not in a physical church…but a Church of the Mind! A church that preached and brought everybody together by use of electricity and radio waves.

As you might have expected, Camping’s doomsday prophecies had an extreme impact on many of his followers. Believers sold off all their possessions weeks and even months before the “end date” (which was reinforced by multiple mentions on Family Radio every day).

And the End of the World also apparently didn’t stop Family Radio from accepting donations right up to the end of the End. (When later asked if he planned to give back some or all of the donations because his predictions were proven wrong, Camping was quoted as saying “We’re not at the end. Why would we return it?”)

In June of 2011, Camping had a stroke. Soon after the failed October prophecy of that year, he “retired” from Family Radio. In March of 2012, the preacher seemed to have a change of heart regarding his vocation as Prophet, now coming to the conclusion that his attempt to predict the end date of the world was “sinful”:

“We have learned the very painful lesson that all of creation is in God’s hands and He will end time in His time, not ours! We humbly recognize that God may not tell His people the date when Christ will return, any more than He tells anyone the date they will die physically.”

Of course, people get premonitions and so forth all the time that do turn out to be true. Camping was a very devout man, even if his methodology might have been somewhat wacky. Why does a random housewife (or science-fiction writer) get an accurate prediction about some event, but then this guy Camping based his entire career on this & totally studied the Bible & was proven wrong in a spectacularly public way?