For a long time, I’ve been reporting on the apocalyptic prophecies of Family Radio, the group that identified May 21, 2011, as the date for the manifestation of Christ and the rapture of God's elect. When that date passed without either the Rapture or the great earthquake that Family Radio’s founder and chief, Harold Camping, had predicted, it was a big news story. It got enormous attention around the world. As I’ve been saying, this was actually a significant event, not just a media event, because it provided the best chance we’ll probably ever have of seeing what occurs when prophecy conclusively fails for a large group of people.
What followed May 21 was a process familiar to students of apocalyptic history — the spiritualization of the failed prophecy. Camping, who at first seemed stunned by the complete normality of May 21, soon decided that the earthquake had actually occurred, but it had been a spiritual earthquake, signaling an invisible and wholly spiritual Last Judgment. According to him, the enrollment of the elect had been completed; all that remained was the final elimination of the non-elect, which would take place, as he had previously prophesied, on October 21, 2011, when the physical universe would be totally destroyed. God's activity would thus be visible on October 21 as it should have been on May 21. Camping suggested that the remaining months of Family Radio’s existence would be devoted to quiet cultivation of the spiritual lives of the elect, not the attempted conversion of persons irrevocably condemned.
Already, however, there was strong evidence that many, if not most, of the people at Family Radio's headquarters in Oakland, California were dissenters from the official message. Most broadcasts on the worldwide radio network had ignored Camping's distinctive doctrines and predictions. Many broadcasts were devoted to presentations that contradicted his doomsday prophecies — discussions of health maintenance, provision for old age, long-term strategies for child rearing, care for the environment, and so forth.
Camping’s new emphasis appeared to satisfy both the believers and the nonbelievers within the organization. The former could continue to believe whatever he said; the latter could go about their normal business, unworried about the need to convert anyone to his unusual ideas. Family Radio’s website withdrew all direct mention of Camping's endtime books and pamphlets, although it continued, and continues, to run a link to his quaint answer to the question, “What Happened on May 21?”
Yes, we got a few details wrong about the second coming, or the total collapse of the financial system, or the destruction of the middle class, or the coming of global warming (which used to be global cooling), but thank the Maker that the Message still got out.
Then, on June 9, Camping, age 89, suffered a stroke. He was hospitalized, and his Monday through Friday live broadcasts ceased. Virtually the only Campingite voice on Family Radio was that of an epigone, one Chris McCann, who kept preaching the party line about May 21 and October 21, though without Camping’s goofy panache. In a recorded talk that FR broadcast on August 12 (one of a series of talks that is still going on), McCann said of the apocalypse of May 21, “In some small degree it didn’t happen.”
In August, Family Radio’s monthly direct-mail fundraising letter quoted listeners who thanked FR for its message, even though May 21 didn’t turn out to be exactly what they had been led to anticipate. “I am not disappointed with anyone at Family Radio," one listener said. "I believe all intentions were good.” The letter betrayed no visible embarrassment on FR's part. But the September letter didn't mention May 21, or October 21, either. It contented itself with an understated request for support. So the stage was set for a full, though gradual, withdrawal from predictions and disconfirmations.
On September 20 came the news, delivered by website, that Camping had returned to his home, followed on September 27 by a recording of Camping’s own voice — firm and clear, only a little slurred, and precisely the same in reasoning and intention as his pre-stroke explanations of what had occurred and will occur in 2011.
In this new message, Camping reasserted the idea that October 21 will see the end of the physical universe. The elect will survive; the non-elect (everyone not saved by May 21) will perish eternally. His one addition came in response to a question of urgent concern among his remaining followers: what will happen to the unsaved members of our families?
Camping had already established the doctrine that only 200,000,000 people, out of the billions who have ever inhabited this planet, are among the elect. Now he offered consolation to people about to be deprived of their families and friends. He said it is likely that there will be no violence on October 21: “Probably there will be no pain. . . . They will quietly die and that will be the end of their stories.”
“The end," he went on, "is going to come very, very quietly, probably during the next month, probably by October 21.” Lest you mistake “probably” as a concession to uncertainty, he also said, “I am very convinced that all the elect will go to be with the Lord in a very few weeks.” Regrettably, however, from the point of view of his own credibility, he recurred to an idea that he had been preaching before his stroke — his explanation of why God had let him go so wrong about May 21. There were a lot of things, he said, that “we” didn’t understand, but it was good that God had withheld the full truth; it was good that God had let Camping declare, in the most dogmatic terms, that there would be a literal cataclysm on May 21 — because if he hadn't, the rest of his message wouldn't have aroused much interest.
Here is the unconscious cynicism that religious and secular prophets so often display. Yes, we got a few details wrong about the second coming, or the total collapse of the financial system, or the destruction of the middle class, or the coming of global warming (which used to be global cooling), but thank the Maker that the Message still got out. So please keep trusting and respecting us, the people uniquely qualified to convey such Messages.
I will continue to report on events at Family Radio. My current, highly fallible prediction is that within a few months after October 21, Mr. McCann will vanish from the broadcast schedule, the greatness of Mr. Camping will be institutionally recalled, but not his teachings, and Family Radio will return to a more or less typical Christianity — unrepentant, unconfessed, and unwilling to remember the great events of 2011. Such is the way of this sinful world.