Obituary: Harold Camping / Radio evangelist who predicted doomsday

July 19, 1921 - Dec. 15, 2013

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Harold Camping, a Christian radio evangelist whose brimstone-ridden sermons stoked an international media frenzy in 2011 after his Armageddon prophecies coursed through the Internet and social media, died Dec. 15 at his home in Alameda, Calif. He was 92.

The death was confirmed by Family Radio, his Oakland, Calif.-based broadcasting company. He suffered a stroke in 2011.

That life on Earth continued after May 21, 2011, was a crushing disappointment to Mr. Camping, his legion of devout followers and millions of listeners on his Family Radio network.

A civil engineer by training, he was a self-taught and self-described Bible scholar who ordained his world-ending prophecies through complex mathematical calculations and, he said, "clues sprinkled throughout the Bible."

"It is going to happen," Mr. Camping told NPR in early May 2011. "There is no Plan B."

He reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars to spread his doomsday message. His May 21 prediction was plastered on more than 5,000 billboards across the country. He had 100 million pamphlets printed in 61 languages, including some that read, "The End of the World is Almost Here!"

His volunteers canvassed the country, including dozens who walked Washington's Mall handing out fliers that reminded passers-by to "Save the Date."

Through the Internet and social media platforms, Mr. Camping's bold prognostication "was made all the more accessible to a wider demographic and more quickly," said Jay Johnson, a religion professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. "He benefited from it in a way that no other [doomsday predictors] previously had."

In his deep, gravelly voice, Mr. Camping told listeners that Judgment Day would begin with a tremendous earthquake. The true Christians, he said, would experience a rapture. In all, he predicted that 200 million saved souls would ascend to heaven.

Awaiting their salvation, many of Mr. Camping's followers sold their homes, quit their jobs and depleted their savings accounts to help finance his end-of-the-world campaign.

After May 21 came and went, Mr. Camping emerged from his California home in the following days "flabbergasted." He called May 21 an "invisible Judgment Day" and said his calculations had been off by six months. The real Armageddon, he said, would come Oct. 21, 2011.

Did his wrong May prediction affect his reputation among followers? A moot point, he said.

On "October 21 of this year, the whole world is going to be annihilated, and never be remembered. So what legacy am I going to leave to anybody?" Mr. Camping told the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha in 2011. "The only thing is that I hope that there are people who are listening that will begin to plead with God and begin to cry out."

When that prediction did not come true, Mr. Camping retired from his radio work.

Harold Egbert Camping was born July 19, 1921, in Boulder, Colo., and was raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination. In the 1980s, Mr. Camping split from the church to form his own congregation.

Mr. Camping was not the first American evangelist to claim to know mankind's expiration date, including other church leaders.

"One thing that sets him apart from the broader kind of apocalyptic flavor of Christian history is his insistence on an actual time and date. That's quite remarkable because it's easily disconfirmed," said Mr. Johnson, an expert on doomsday religious groups. "To have that firm confidence to have the ability to predict such an astonishing thing with such prescience was really quite stunning."


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