For months now, Family Radio has put the "save" in "save the date."
You may be one of the millions of drivers around the world that has passed billboards declaring May 21, 2011, as "Judgment Day." I saw my first billboard on the Connecticut Turnpike, along a stretch of road that is traditionally home to wealthy, WASPy types. I was convinced that Greenwich had gone fundy, until I saw my next billboard planted in the middle of a bohemian enclave in Brooklyn.
But it's not only U.S. highways that are littered with these doomsday predictions. Billboards have popped up in places as far away as China, Dubai and Jamaica.
Many of the billboards mention Family Radio, a station that, for decades, has broadcasted Christian programming, most notably a nightly talk show hosted by the station's owner, Harold Camping. Now 89, he founded the network in 1958.
Camping is so strict a fundamentalist he doesn't even belong to a church, believing that no church can be purely dedicated to biblical truth alone. He sees the Bible not merely as Word but as numerical code. And he has convinced thousands that his secret decoder hermeneutic can reveal the date of the end times.
The decoding process that led Camping to arrive at the May 21, 2011, date is based on incomprehensible mathematical calculations that are based on equally incomprehensible calculations of the actual dates of creation, the "Noah's ark" flood and Jesus' crucifixion. The first time Camping tried to decode the apocalypse, he arrived at a date in October 1994. He claims that faulty math was to blame for that mistake -- and, of course, he has it right this time.
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It is easy enough to write off Camping as just another manipulator in a very long line of cult figures. But as is the case with most cults, there is a human tragedy behind these billboard signs of the times.
Though Camping and Family Radio are credited with these billboards, they only pay a portion, if anything at all, for this advertising. Most of the ads are paid for by followers who have been sucked in by Camping's predictions.
There are numerous stories circulating about individuals spending their retirement funds to pay for these billboards and to travel the country proselytizing about the world's imminent end. Some families are blowing their life savings this week in the certain hope that they will be raptured to heaven before sundown on Saturday.
And yet, according to the Web site Ministry Watch, in 2007 Family Radio reported having over $121 million in assets. We can only hope that a portion of these assets will be used to create a relief fund for the folks who may find themselves disillusioned and destitute on Sunday morning.