Party on as Armageddon proves a squib

If the world’s going to end, you might as well go down smiling. So says Chris McNaboe, a postgraduate student from Monterey in northern California, who has invited friends to spend this evening at his home, eating, drinking, and making merry celebrating an apocalypse that is scheduled to commence at 6pm .

McNaboe this week paid a small fee to an internet site that allowed him to be ordained as a minister in the Universal Life online church. At tonight’s party, he will therefore be baptising guests in his paddling pool in a last-ditch effort to save their souls. “It was kind of God to give us this excuse for a party,” he says.

Not everyone gets the joke, though. A couple of hours north of Monterey, in a large house not far from Oakland airport, a famous evangelical preacher called Harold Camping will be spending this evening surrounded by family members, praying, reading from the Bible, and keeping an eye on CNN.

When the clock strikes 6pm, Camping believes, a large earthquake will indicate the second coming of the Lord. Roughly 2 per cent of the world’s population will be immediately “raptured” to Heaven, he predicts. The rest of us will endure a few months of fire and brimstone on Earth, before being sent to the fiery pits of Hell.

Camping, who is 89 and uses hearing aids in both ears, is not the first self-proclaimed prophet to call the apocalypse. Neither, given his track record, is he necessarily the most reliable. But thanks to his skill at persuading followers to part with large amounts of time and money, he is one of the hardest to ignore.

Each weekday, Camping, a former civil engineer, preaches to hundreds of thousands of followers from the studios of Family Radio, a broadcaster funded entirely by the donations of listeners. Such is the generosity of listeners that his organisation, founded in the 1980s, has over the years acquired US$120 million ($150m). Its programming is carried on the airwaves of 66 radio stations in the US, and roughly 80 more around the world, in 48 languages.

That gives Camping quite a pulpit. In recent months, Family Radio has paid for roughly 2500 billboards with slogans such as “Blow the Trumpet! Warn the People!” Advertisements in major newspapers have, for most of the past week, instructed readers to: “Cry Mightily unto the Lord for Mercy!”

A fleet of 30 buses touring the country warn of the impending apocalypse. Two are parked in Times Square, spreading the word to the sinners of New York. Their message is capturing the public imagination, and being lapped up by news networks.

“In the Bible, the Lord says to ‘occupy until I come’,” Camping says. “So my business is to carry on saving souls as long as I can. The end is now getting real close, and we’ll find out whether we’re going to be eternally dead, or eternally alive. That’s pretty awesome, when you start to think about it!”

Camping was born a Baptist, but split from organised religion in the 1980s. A biblical literalist, he now advocates home worship. Many of his views – he is against abortion, thinks evolution is a hoax, and says sex outside of marriage is an “abomination” – are relatively common among mainstream Republican voters.

The conviction that the world will end at 6pm on May 21 comes from a mathematical system he claims to have devised for unearthing prophesies hidden in the Bible. By his logic, May 21, 2011 is exactly 722,500 days from April 1, AD33, which he believes was the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The figure of 722,500 is important because you get it by multiplying three holy numbers (five, 10 and 17) together twice.

“It’s all here, in black and white,” Camping says, waving a well-thumbed copy of the Old Testament.

He has encouraged followers to quit their jobs and tour the country saving souls. The roughly 225 employees of Family Radio have been kept on the payroll, but told to head to the streets spreading the word. The organisation hasn’t been sending post or paying bills for the past couple of weeks.

Asked for further evidence that Judgment Day is approaching, Camping cites recent natural disasters, including the earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand and Haiti. “But believe me,” he adds, “the earthquake on May 21 will make them look like a Sunday-school picnic.”

God’s decision to call time on the world is hastened by declining social values, Camping argues. The Gay Pride movement was “sent by the Almighty” as a sign of the end. So was “all the stealing, lying, wickedness and sexual perversion” that has accompanied the internet revolution.

“When I was young, you had to go out to a theatre some place if you wanted to look at raunchy movies,” he says. “Today, you can watch pornography on a computer in your bedroom. Nobody sees you. And these films … they contain the most horrible perversity you can ever, ever imagine.”

Camping predicts that the world will end at 6pm local time in whatever part of the globe you happen to be. He therefore plans to wake up in time to witness Armageddon strike New Zealand. He will spend his day watching CNN coverage of it sweeping the time-zones.

Cynics point out that this isn’t the first time Camping has called the Second Coming. In 1994, hundreds of his followers gathered in Alameda to await Christ’s return, only to have to sheepishly go home when the world failed to end.

If he’s wrong again this time, one idea is gathering steam on Twitter to create an ersatz Rapture.

A tweet suggests laying out old clothing and shoes on pavements and lawns today to give the impression that some lucky people have indeed been beamed up.

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