Back in May, when Harold Camping predicted (not for the first time) that Judgment Day was upon us, a lot of people paid attention -- believers and nonbelievers alike. Doomsday was among the most popular Google search terms for days leading up to May 21; when followers of the Family Radio host reached out their open arms to the heavens and waited for the Rapture.
They're still waiting.
One of them, Robert Fitzpatrick, self-funded a six-figure shelter ad campaign in New York City last spring that was a direct plug for Camping's Family Radio (which, presumedly, could have kicked in a little something). But Fitzpatrick, a former MTA worker, was convinced of Camping's prediction. Still, he said he was only fairly certain he would be lifted up in the Rapture himself.
There is nothing you can do on your own to be saved, Fitzpatrick told IBTimes in May. God chose us before the foundation of the world. Whatever one's perceived fate, the bottom line is that we're supposed to sound the warning.
Fitpatrick was the subject of a mini-media blitz on Judgment Day (Part One) itself, when he marched to Times Square to await the Rapture. His bewilderment and dejection when it didn't come was captured in print and on video.
Shortly after, he stopped talking to the press altogether, explaining to IBTimes this summer that this decision was based on my understanding of what the Bible is telling us about the nature of this time after May 21.
We have no way of knowing if Fitzpatrick is waiting once again to be lifted up. But we do know that even Camping himself has dampened the strengh of his prediction this time around.
I do believe we're getting very near the very end, Camping, 90, said during a podcast recorded earlier this month and posted on his Family Radio website, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Oct. 21, that's coming very shortly, that looks like it will be, at this point, it will be the final end of everything.
In May, IBTimes spoke to religious scholar and author Amy Frykholm, who closely interviewed dozens of evangelicals for her book Rapture Culture. Frykholm observed a clear pattern among her interviewees of estimating the Rapture to coincide with the end of their own expected lifespan.
If the person was in his or her thirties, he might say, 'Oh, the rapture will happen in the next forty years', Frykholm told IBTimes in May. If the person was older, say in her seventies, she would say, 'Within the next five to ten years, for sure.' Camping is 89 [now 90], so I can't help but connect his timeline to his own impending death.
One aspect of American evangelical apocalyptic culture that is often overlooked is how much self-doubt it involves, Frykholm continued. One never knows if one is truly saved until a decisive moment like death or the Rapture. It is incredibly common that whenever there is talk of the Apocalypse or some kind of impending doom, Rapture-believing evangelicals go through the motions of confirming, for the thousandth time, that they have done, said and thought the right things... it wouldn't surprise me if the Camping adventure isn't itself a kind of self-confirming process. Perhaps this is part of a very personal struggle to reckon with issues of life and death.
Camping suffered a stroke in June, and gave an audio address shortly afterwards. I really am beginning to think as I restudied these matters that there's going to be no big display of any kind, The Washington Post quotes him as saying. The end is going to come very, very quietly.
To help explain why Camping's May 21 prediction caught the attention of so many secular people, Frykholm pointed to natural disasters (like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan) that had taken place in the time leading up to that Judgment Day.
So many people have just a partial understanding of the Bible's apocalypticism, Frykholm said. They know it has something to do with natural disasters, so whenever natural disasters occur one right after the other, a sense of doom builds that filters into the popular imagination.
So can we blame this fall's non-reaction to Doomsday redux for the relative lack of catastrophic acts of God?
The most likely cause for a lack of interest in Camping has to be a combination of factors -- media fatigue, the failed prediction, the quick turn around from his last prediction to this one, maybe his own or his group's marketing strategies, the cultural moment, Frykholm told IBTimes this week.
Apocalyptic thinking does seem to have cultural cycles, ironically enough, and these can be short or long she said. Camping seems to have missed the cycle this time.
He also seems to have missed the date again --- as of 5 p.m. EST on Oct. 21, we're all still here.
Amy Frykholm is a staff writer for The Christian Century. In addition to Rapture Culture, she recently published a biography of Julian of Norwich called Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography. Her latest book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon), will be published on Nov. 1.