On Saturday you could shop, chill at home, do some yard work — or join Jesus in heaven and leave the rest of us behind to suffer torments until the world ends in October. The rapture has been added to Saturday's schedule by radio preacher Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer from Oakland, Calif.
Camping's Family Radio Worldwide has been broadcasting worldwide his prediction that May 21 is Judgment Day. RVs and campers heralding the event have passed through cities around the country, including Wichita, for months.
Camping's prophecy comes from numerological calculations based on his reading of the Bible. His math was off in 1994, the last time he crunched the numbers.
Most religious leaders don't like the way Camping treats the Bible as a math book, claiming it misrepresents Scripture.
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Bruce Hays, pastor at Parkview Southern Baptist Church in Wichita, said he believes in the rapture and the end of the world, but he also believes in taking the Scripture literally. And Jesus said nobody knows the date or hour it will happen.
"It's God's timetable," Hays said.
People like Camping do more harm than good to true believers when their predictions fail.
"At the end of the day, Christianity looks like an idiotic faith system. It's branded across the board," Hays said.
Skeptics hope to educate
Groups of atheists and skeptics around the country are planning events for Saturday, including in Wichita.
The Air Capital Skeptics at Wichita State University will hold a Rapture Day Conference from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the CAC Theater on the WSU campus. Organizers expect 200 to 300 people to attend.
The day is not being held to mock rapture believers, nor as a party, they said. There are two serious goals: to educate people on the history of such predictions and the dangers they present, and to let other skeptics and nonbelievers who may feel stranded in the Bible Belt know they are not alone.
Andrew Juby, one of the organizers, noted that some believers of Camping's prophecy around the country have disrupted their lives and the lives of their children to prepare for Saturday.
Sean Gillespie, president of Air Capital Skeptics, said education about such claims is important to head off future claims.
"We've seen Jonestown, we've seen Waco, we've seen Heaven's Gate. These things typically don't end well," he said.
Reaction to the event, which will include six national and local speakers, has been mixed on campus, Juby said.
He printed 300 fliers about the conference to post around campus, and most have been torn down repeatedly, he said.
Mocking, preparing for the event
Nationally, Camping's prediction is being mocked.
A Facebook page titled "Post rapture looting" offers this invitation: "When everyone is gone and god's not looking, we need to pick up some sweet stereo equipment and maybe some new furniture for the mansion we're going to squat in."
By Wednesday afternoon, more than 175,000 people indicated they would be "attending" the "public event."
An atheist from New Hampshire, Bart Centre, decided to make some money on the prophecy. He has offered rapture believers an insurance plan for the pets they leave behind. For a fee of $135, Centre and some of his fellow nonbelievers will take responsibility for the abandoned animals.
Camping's followers ignore the nonbelievers and prepare for the event. Marie Exley, who left her home in Colorado last year to join Family Radio's effort to publicize the message, just returned from a lengthy overseas trip that included stops in the Middle East. She said billboards have gone up in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
"I decided to spend the last few days with my immediate family and fellow believers," Exley said. "Things started getting more risky in the Middle East when Judgment Day started making the news."
Signs of disaster?
Hays and other religious leaders in Wichita who believe in the rapture said signs are growing that it's going to happen, but probably not by Saturday.
Jesus compared the end of the world to birth pains, when the Earth suffers disasters such as earthquakes, pestilence and famines that grow in numbers and intensity as the end nears, they said.
Although more disasters than usual seem to have occurred in recent times, the intensity isn't there yet, Hays said.
"For anybody's who's wanting to pay attention, there's not going to be any question," Hays said.
Meanwhile, Camping's predictions discredit true believers.
"If in our lifetimes more of these things do begin to happen, and I stand up and say, 'It's here,' who's going to believe you?" Hays said.
Dade Ronan, associate pastor at Calvary Chapel in Wichita, also believes in the literal return of Jesus to take believers to heaven.
But, he said, "We do not believe in setting a date. We just have the hope he is going to come, and we persevere until that time."
Because predicting a date contradicts what Jesus said, someone like Camping is a false teacher, Ronan said. In the old days, he'd be stoned to death.
"But ultimately in America he has a right to free speech," Ronan said.
Marty Freeman, senior pastor at Believers Tabernacle in Wichita, also believes the rapture will happen at some point, but it's something that's not to be feared, he said.
"My concern is it (Camping's prophecy) portrays God as some sort of big bogey man," Freeman said. "If we look at the Scriptures as a whole, God is a loving father. He's trying to draw people into a relationship with him."
Camping's May 21 prediction is another example of "fringe wackos that get a lot of attention for their extreme views," Freeman said.
"On May 22," he said, "nobody's going to remember it."