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World doesn't end: prophet had no Plan B

TO the shock and distress of a handful of ultra-devout Christian believers, the sun went down yesterday on an America and a world that had signally failed to end.

Instead of a series of earthquakes hitting countries at 6pm local time and heralding The Rapture -- in which millions of the Faithful would ascend to heaven before the Second Coming of Christ -- planet Earth simply carried on and, mostly, kept calm.

Middle East peace remained unresolved, political turmoil hit a few countries and bypassed many others. But by and large the world's toiling billions, as usual, just got on with their lives.

The non-event was a great disappointment to hundreds of followers of a hitherto obscure California-based religious group called Family Radio, which had lavished millions of dollars on a worldwide advertising campaign proclaiming yesterday as Judgement Day.

The group is centred on the teachings and broadcasts of prophet Harold Camping, an 89-year-old self-styled expert in the scriptures who told his followers that his interpretations of the Bible had uncovered the true date of the end of the world.

Camping, who lives in the northern California town of Alameda, got the date wrong in 1994 when he said the world would end that year, and later explained its continued existence by saying he had made a mathematical error.

But what made this prediction different was the lavish spending that accompanied it. Camping and his followers spent more than $100m worldwide on billboards and posters, financed by the sale and swap of radio stations.

Advertising popped up across America and the globe from Iraq, Israel and Jordan, to the Philippines and Vietnam, where thousands of the Hmong ethnic hill tribe gathered together on the Thai border in anticipation of the event. The campaign was backed up by Camping's radio show, which can be heard worldwide, and a website that featured, naturally, a countdown clock.

Yesterday that clock was at zero underneath the banner headline: "Judgement Day: the Bible guarantees it."

Camping's followers became a familiar sight in cities such as New York, wearing T-shirts proclaiming their beliefs and handing out leaflets in subway stations. On Friday, they were at Manhattan's Union Square station, attracting a throng of fascinated gawpers who posed for pictures with them.

They handed out their Judgement Day booklets and chatted amiably enough, given their conviction that the End Times were about to arrive.

But as yesterday approached many told reporters they would spend the time huddled in their homes with their families. They planned to pray for their loved ones and hope to be among the lucky few taken up into heaven and spared the global calamity the rest of us would have to put up with for the (much shortened) rest of our lives. Camping himself, who wound down his radio operations ahead of time, said he would watch events unfold at home on television.

Unfortunately for them, nothing happened; a fact that caused much hilarity on Twitter and elsewhere as the 6pm deadline passed in New Zealand, then Australia, Europe and finally America.

"Harold Camping Doomsday prediction fails; No earthquake in New Zealand," read one posting on Twitter. "If this whole end-of-the-world thingy is still going on... it's already past 6.00 in New Zealand and the world hasn't ended," said another. The jokes were global. "Through Croydon; devastation, pestilence, drawn, emaciated faces of the walking dead. No sign of the Rapture though," cracked someone.

Perhaps not surprisingly, atheists and other non-believers used the opportunity as a way to mock the religious.

In Fayetteville, North Carolina, the local chapter of the American Humanist Association held a party last night to celebrate the Earth's survival.

The American Atheists held "rapture parties" in places such as Wichita, Kansas, Fort Lauderdale in Florida and even just a few miles from Family Radio itself at a conference centre in Oakland. New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg used a press conference to assure citizens that post-Rapture his administration would not pursue parking tickets or late library books.

But other non-believers and cynics saw an opportunity to make money.

There has been a mini-boom in firms and individuals offering to look after the pets of those who believed they were about to be raptured. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, set up by New Hampshire atheist Bart Centre, has about 250 clients who paid $135 for insurance policies that guarantee Centre and others will care for their animals when they ascend. Others paid out to sign up with websites that would send out farewell letters to those left behind.

But there is a serious side. Camping seemed entirely genuine in his beliefs, enough to spend a small fortune promoting them. While others may be making money out of believing in Doomsday, Camping is not one of them.

Many experts have worried about the psychological impact on his followers who are suddenly confronted with the collapse of their belief system. Some Christian pastors planned to gather outside Family Radio to counsel any distraught members who showed up wondering why they were still there.

Camping himself admitted he had pretty much staked everything on his fervently held belief. "There is no plan B," he told Reuters late last week. As the sun set in California last night -- well past 6pm and with no global mega-quake in sight -- he and his followers needed one.


Sunday Independent