An American radio preacher is predicting that Biblical prophecies regarding the end of the world will start coming true in a few days. His warning has provoked bemusement and ridicule as his followers crisscross the country warning of the Apocalypse. But Bible scholars say doomsday scenarios are deeply rooted in Americans' religious beliefs.
The message is being broadcast on Family Radio, a network of stations in the United States and abroad led by 89-year-old Harold Camping. He is not an ordained minister and is not associated with a church. But he says he has studied the Bible and says the Final Judgment will begin with an earthquake on Saturday, May 21.
"The Bible says it will be an earthquake far greater than this world has ever ever experienced," Camping said in a Voice of America interview.
The vast majority of Pentecostal and other charismatic Christians believe that the righteous will be raptured, or lifted up to heaven, for the return of Jesus Christ, and the sinful will suffer catastrophe and judgment on Earth.
Camping admits to getting his apocalyptic prediction wrong once before in 1994. But he insists that this time he is right.
"There's not any question at all! None! None! It is going to happen," he says, "and it's scary beyond measure. It's frightful beyond measure. But we've followed God's instruction of trying to tell the whole world."
Camping's followers have been spreading the message by driving in caravans around the country and putting up billboards along major highways.
A 2006 study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 20 percent of Americans believe that Jesus' Second Coming will happen in their lifetimes. Even former President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary that he thought Armageddon, an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, was near.
Camping, who is a former civil engineer, says he calculated May 21 using time periods alluded to in the Bible.
But Vinson Synan, an ordained Pentecostal pastor, says that in the Christian gospels, not even the son of God knows when the end is supposed to come. "So this man seems to have knowledge that Jesus himself doesn't even have," he said.
Synan teaches religious history as Dean Emeritus of the divinity school at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He says that since the second century, false prophets have claimed to know when the Day of Judgment would be.
"It's really a cynical play on the sincere beliefs of millions of good Christians who are looking for the Second Coming, the rapture of the church," Synan says. "And it's kind of cruel, I think, to pick out one day because most Christians believe Jesus could come at any moment. You should be ready every day."
On Washington's National Mall, tourists dismiss Camping's prophecy. But several say they still try to live as though the Second Coming were imminent.
"Could be tomorrow, could be 5,000 years [from now], I don't know," says Keith Hastings of Pennsylvania. "But for me, I'm going to be ready."
"I'm ready, whenever," says Mary Beth Donatelli of Illinois. "You know, that's how I feel. I definitely know there's a better place."
Many people have been ridiculing Camping's prediction. Some websites are heralding end of the world parties; some jokingly offer left-behind pet care services for those raptured into heaven.
So what will happen to Camping's followers on Sunday, May 22, if the world does not end?
"They might spiritualize the prophesy and say that something spiritual happened that can't be seen, but nevertheless the prophecy was fulfilled," says Catherine Wessinger, a professor of religious studies at Loyola University New Orleans, who has written about apocalyptic movements.
"They might say that God is giving humanity a second chance," she adds, "so then they will redouble their proselytizing effort and they might set another date."
But Wessinger says that would set up Camping's followers for another disappointment, with many losing faith and returning to their homes and jobs.