Fasten your seat belts, ye miserable sinners. It's going to be a bumpy weekend, according to the Prophets of Doom.
In case you haven't seen the billboards, on May 21, 2011 (yikes! that's this weekend), life on Planet Earth will be destroyed. For months now, doomsday followers of Harold Camping — an 89-year-old preacher whose Oakland, Calif.-based company, Radio One, is worth an estimated $100 million — have been traveling around the country spreading the "awesome news" that the Second Coming is almost here.
See also: Are you superstitious?
At exactly 6 p.m. on Saturday, Camping has promised, a monster earthquake will wreak global havoc, sending 2 percent of the world's God-fearing, commandment-following population straight to heaven while the remaining 98 percent of us mere mortals will be spewed into the jaws of hell. According to his biblical "calculations," God will then rain shame on the world for five terrible months before annihilating the whole Earth on Oct. 21.
Though Camping may seem kooky to some, hundreds of his followers have left behind jobs, homes, even children in preparation for Judgment Day. And get this: His doomsday obsession is anything but original. People have been predicting the end of the world for millennia. The Norse called it Ragnarok; the Hindus, Pralaya; the Muslims, Qayamat; the Jews, the End of Days. Europeans predicted the end of the world would occur in the year 1000.
In the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague was believed to augur the beginning of the Last Wrath. In 1835, Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith warned church leaders that Jesus would return in 56 years.
Jehovah Witnesses claimed that the war of Armageddon would start in 1914, while Pat Robertson of the 700 Club announced that the world would end in 1982. Then there was the hysteria over Y2K, and 2012 in the Mayan calendar. Camping himself first predicted the end back in 1994, later claiming that his math was wrong. (Now, he insists that May 21 is 7,000 years to the day since God's first warning of the flood in the Bible.)
The question is: Why are we so obsessed with the end of the world? According to Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal, "It's a very persistent and potent way of understanding the world."
Next: Planning for the end. >>
"Problems have become so big, with no solutions in sight, that we no longer see ourselves able as human beings to solve these problems," DiTommaso explained to the online magazine, LiveScience.
"From a biblical point of view, God is going to solve them. People feel that there is something dreadfully wrong with the world of human existence today. But there is also faith that there is a higher good or some purpose for existence, a hope for a better future. The apocalyptic worldview is an attempt to reconcile these two conflicting beliefs, and requires some sort of catastrophe."
This helps to explain how someone such as Camping can convince his followers that the end is near. Hundreds of his people are crisscrossing the country in motor homes as part of Project Caravan, spreading the news.
On a recent afternoon, a group of Caravaners from Montana was handing out "I Hope God Will Save Me" booklets in New York's Union Square. One of them, Rhonda, 64, looked flushed and exuberant in her flowered blouse, Mom jeans and Keds.
"Repent!" she shouted at a passing reporter, shaking the pamphlets in the air.
"How should I do that?" the journalist wondered, since God supposedly has already determined who among us is doomed or saved. That means any effort to change things now would be wasted.
Rhonda couldn't take this in. "Cry for mercy!" was her only response.
As I see it, P.T. Barnum was right, they're born every minute. And, like P.T. Barnum, Camping is ready to move the big tent after the circus leaves town and his flock is still intact.
According to a story making the rounds on the Internet and supposedly started on Wikileaks, the preacher's credit card files show that he has a trip booked to St. Barts for Saturday, May 28, 2011, complete with flight tickets, hotel and restaurant reservations. Guess he needs the vacation. Maybe to work on his calculation skills some more. Or maybe just to relax. It's been a busy year, planning the end of the world.