The Oakland, Calif., radio preacher has predicted the end of the world -- beginning today.
At 6 p.m. in every time zone across the globe, Camping anticipates the rapture of righteous Christians, while the rest of Earth's people remain in a five-month tribulation. They're to endure fire and plagues until the world finally ends Oct. 21.
"The only thing left to say now is that time is short," said Fred Store, the team leader of Caravan One, one of four RVs traveling the country to spread the message of Family Radio, which Camping founded in the 1950s.
"The reception is good most everywhere we go," he said. "Lately, though, there's been more resistance. People don't want to hear the world is ending."
Store passed through Augusta in January after leaving home in Florida in December. He's now in Boston, where he plans to spend his final days handing out tracts.
"You have to remember the thief on the cross," Store said. "He was saved in the last few minutes of his life. That's why we do this."
With more than 60 radio stations across the country, Camping has built a following of Christians who share his judgment day predictions. Some, like Store, have sold their homes and possessions for the cause.
The end times
There are many skeptics, but a significant number of Americans say they believe current events point to the end times.
The Public Religion Research Institute conducted a poll in March, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. They found 44 percent of Americans believe that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of the end. The number rises to 67 percent among white evangelicals.
Christians must pay attention to the signs around them, but be careful not to be swayed by false teachers, said Kenneth Gentry, a South Carolina author of several books and commentaries on the Book of Revelation and the end times.
"I am an evangelical Christian. However, I am frequently embarrassed by the naivete and gullibility of my fellow evangelicals," said Gentry, the pastor of Living Hope Fellowship in Greer, S.C. "Camping made a similar prediction and caused quite a stir in the early '90s when he released his book titled 1994?. He missed it then, and he will miss it again."
Camping did predict the end in September 1994, but said afterward that he has had more time for Biblical study since and his new calculations are accurate.
He would not be the first, or likely the last, to falsely prophesy the end of the world, said Kevin Lewis, a religious studies professor at the University of South Carolina.
Lewis teaches a popular course, Visions of Apocalypse, which covers the Book of Revelation and doomsday cults, such as Heaven's Gate and Branch Davidians. Students, he said, tend to be less interested in evangelically rooted messages like Camping's than esoteric beliefs that the world will end along with the Mayan calendar in 2012.
"For every doomsday scenario that turns out to be wrong, there is another lining up behind it to take its place," Lewis said.
Every semester, he teaches students about William Miller, who predicted the end of the world in 1844. The non-event came to be known as "The Great Disappointment" when Jesus did not appear.
"There are a lot of disappointments in religion and elsewhere," Lewis said. "There's a whole history of disappointment when it comes to forecasting the end of the world. They just have to regroup and think differently. The world goes on. People move on. They have to."
The idea that Christians will ascend into heaven and Jesus Christ will return to Earth is a basic tenet of Christian belief, though many different interpretations are offered for how it happens. Revelation, the last book of the Bible in the New Testament, describes the end of the world in detail.
Few churches, however, are willing to predict the end, often citing the words of Jesus to his disciples that no man knows the hour or day of Christ's return.
Gentry suggests Christians respond to apocalyptic predictions with those words.
"They should quote Christ," he said. "'But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. (Matthew 24:36)"
In Augusta, John Hill directs the Center for Care and Counseling, a nonprofit supported by churches to provide discounted mental health care and counseling.
There's a great deal of anxiety produced over end-of-the-world scenarios, he said.
"Some clients want to talk about these things -- others would be scared to death to do so," he said. "Personally, I believe the theme of the Book of Revelation is, 'The cavalry is coming.' It is a hopeful time, though turbulent and dangerous, for Christians in the end."