A Radio Evangelist’s Final Days
By Alberto Penalva
Harold Camping looks down at his watch and is ready. It is 5:15 p.m. and his radio show is going to begin in 15 minutes. He sits on a chair from Ikea in the middle of a set, in the corner of the studio, designed to look like your grandparent’s living room. The set is adorned with cheesy paintings of ships sailing along the ocean, seashells on shelves, family photos in frames next to wide leather-bound books. The room is even replete with fake ficus plants along the two perpendicular walls.
Harold Camping leans his thin head back against the back rest and closes his eyes. At 89 years old, he needs to rest up as much as possible throughout the day to make it to his radio show, Open Forum. The show is held every day from Monday to Friday at 5:30 p.m. until 7. The show airs over the radio, while simultaneously being filmed in the Family Stations, Inc. studio for later distribution.
He sits holding the Bible open in his frail hand, talking slowly and sonorously, his large ears like angel wings sticking out on the side of his head, and the skin of his neck sagging down with 89 years of age. His tan coat hangs limply on his thin shoulders. Camping’s rheumy eyes dart from camera to camera as he waits to address the callers.
Harold Camping believes that Jesus Christ will make His return on May 21, 2011 and that the world will end on October 21, five months later. He’s sure of it this time. When he made the prediction back in 1992 that the world was going to end in 1994, he wasn’t completely comfortable making it because the year 2011 seemed more significant. But he quickly got the word out and wrote a book called “1994?” When 1994 came and went without any apocalyptic incident, he chalked it up to not having studied the Bible enough by that point to be completely sure. His follower, Michael Garcia, even brings out a copy of the book and points out that Camping says he may be wrong about his prediction. But this time, things are different. Camping knows he’s correct.
A documentary crew walks in with a duffle bag full of equipment. They talk with the camera man as they quickly set up a camera next to the studio camera. Harold Camping lifts his head and squints through watery eyes at the strangers. He still can’t see clearly so he lifts his hand up to his brow to block the blinding studio spotlights. These must be the British filmmakers that Tom Evans told me about earlier, Camping thinks to himself as they come into focus. He doesn’t acknowledge them.
The Open Forum cameraman walks over to the wall and turns on the air-conditioning to battle the heat from the lights. He looks at his mobile phone for the time and walks over to the phone screener. He makes some jokes while the screener pretends to blast him away with an invisible pump-action shotgun. The cameraman walks over to the camera as a little screen at the base of the set glows blue with the Open Forum graphics zooming in as the show begins. Harold Camping sits up in his chair, straightens his light brown jacket, and props his well-worn Bible on his knee.
“Welcome to Open Forum,” a prerecorded man says to the listeners. “We welcome you to call anonymously to our program and ask questions about the bible with our Bible teacher Harold Camping.”
The cameraman motions to Camping to look at the first camera.
“Hello and welcome to Open Forum,” Camping says. “We’re so lucky to have the chance of continuing our education of the God’s word and his message. Before we begin, I’d like to talk to you about our Family Radio Caravans and the cities they’re going to stop by in.”
Harold Camping lifts up a white sheet of paper and reads, “Cleveland, Ohio. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Morgantown, West Virginia. Washington D.C. New York City. The caravan is really a good opportunity to spread the word of God and get out there and tell people about Judgment Day.”
Camping slowly bends over and slides the paper under his chair. He adjusts himself once again. “Shall we take our first call?”
The phone screener hits a key on his laptop and caller is connected.
“Hello brother Camping,” a voice says through Camping’s earpiece as well as a speaker on the ground next to the monitor. “I’ve got a question about praying to Mary. I’ve got a lot of friends who tell me it is okay to pray to the Virgin Mary like praying to Jesus. I’m just wondering what your opinion is.”
Harold Camping’s narrow, skeletal face makes a pained look. His saggy jowl shakes as he says, “I know there are churches that believe in prayer to Mary or some other people. But they’re wrong. It’s a terrible, terrible idea praying to any person other than God. Thank you for sharing. And shall we take our next call?”
“Hello, Mr. Camping?”
“Yes?” Camping says.
“You know Mr. Camping. I’m so excited for May 21. I keep telling all of my friends, family, and colleagues how excited, how impatient I am for that day. I can’t wait till May 21st comes so people can see what a damn fool you are.” The phone clicks as the caller quickly gets off the air before he can be cut off.
Harold Camping’s face went from glee to sadness during the phone call. “There are a lot of people who are relying on their own thinking when it comes to Judgment day. God has opened my spiritual eyes to see that. It is going to happen. The Bible guarantees it.”
Sad, Camping thought to himself. People were just trying to throw him off. But he’s been hosting the radio show for 50 years now and his days of anger over such a call are over. As Judgment Day approaches, Camping has noticed that the prank phone calls and the non-believers are growing in frequency. This day is an example of that. The phone calls range from questions about the purpose of the galaxy if God was going to end it anyway, to masturbation, in which the caller sounded like he was asking only to embarrass Harold Camping. The most inappropriate question of the night came when a caller asked, “What do you call a Jew burning on a cross?”
Mr. Camping, not hearing the question correctly, assumed the question was about the Romans crucifying Jesus at the behest of the Pharisees. In the middle of Camping’s explanation, the caller yelled out, “A kosher barbecue.” The phone screener quickly cut the caller’s line while Camping continued speaking, oblivious to the joke.
“84 days from now, our whole world is going to fall into collapse,” Harold Camping says a few weeks before that radio program. “I step on a lot of toes. Sometimes they call me a false prophet. They call me Satan. I never feel offended.”
Camping began his broadcasting career in 1961 when he started the Open Forum program on Family Radio. The hosting began after Camping decided to forego a formal master’s education and study the Bible instead.
“At age 35, I liked to study and decided I again wanted to further my education,” Camping says. “I know what my university is going to be, it’s the Bible. For the last 54 years, I’ve been cramming the Bible.”
This Bible study is what Camping claims is the source of his knowledge and gives him the authority to make the judgment day claims.
“It’s from God’s mouth,” Camping says. “God gave the writer the exact words to use. That means the Bible is fantastically authoritative.”
In 1988, he realized after reading the Bible that the age of the churches had ended and God no longer was going to use them. Now he stands holding the Bible open in his hand, talking slowly and sonorously, sounding like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
“Since then, God has installed Satan in the churches,” he says, wagging his finger. This time, he’s not on air but rather talking to students from the College of Arts in San Francisco who are enrolled in Jessica Ingram’s Interdisciplinary Critique class. “You’re in church worshipping Satan.”
The hour with the students went by quickly as he spoke about the difference between faith and fact using evolutionary science as his example against fact. Camping mentions that human history can only go back 5200 years because that’s how old the oldest man-made objects are. Therefore, Camping argues, any person claiming to know what happened before that is relying on more faith than someone who believes in the Bible.
His lecture on the Bible and his studies continued until Ingram raised her hand after she noticed the time on the wall.
“Can you talk about the nature of prophecy?” Ingram says, cutting off Camping in the middle of his lecture.
“Sure,” Camping says. “God has given us absolute proofs it’s going to happen.”
Camping then talks about how homosexuality is being accepted now even though it has existed all throughout history. He says it’s because the Bible says that near the end of days, the people who are gay will be accepted, and Jesus will make his return.
Camping also talks about the creation of Israel as a nation in 1955 and that being the starting point for the study of the end times. It’s the marker that allows him to do the math from creation to the end of the world. Camping says that creation occurred in 11,013 B.C. Noah’s flood took place in 4990 B.C.
“It’s interesting to note that the span of time between the flood and judgment day is 7000 years,” he says. “Until three years ago, we got magnificent proofs from the Bible. Ever since, it’s been the time of reckoning.”
The reason that Camping has been most vocal about judgment day is that he’s been studying the Bible for the past 54 years. He feels it gives him a different perspective from the theologians.
“Theologians look at the Bible philosophically,” Camping says. “But the Bible was logically built by the people who wrote it using God’s words.”
When asked to explain his error in 1994 about his previous judgment day prediction, Camping offers the figure of Thomas Edison as an analogy.
“When Edison first patented the light bulb, was it perfect?” Camping says. “No. You don’t arrive at perfection. Like Toyota and their gas pedal. Anyone who thinks you’re going to get it right the first time, you’re not.”
But he knows that the big earthquake is going to come this time at on May 21st as each time zone hits 6 p.m. He quotes Revelations chapter 18 saying that plagues, death, mourning, smoke will fall upon the whole world. That there will be weeping, wailing, and the world world will collapse.
“They will stand and know it’s the Day of Judgment,” Camping says. “It will make the earthquake in Japan look like Sunday school. When I think about the end, I tremble. It’s going to be awesome.”
But that’s the literal view of the end times from the Bible.
Professor Mark Miller, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco whose interest includes the religious doctrines of salvation, believes that the Bible can’t be taken literally.
“People will use the Bible for all sorts of things,” Miller says. “It’s a good thing people are concerned about the world. But they’re waiting for an outside force to intervene. It’s about blame. I don’t think his prediction is based on a genuine interpretation of the Bible.”
Camping doesn’t agree. He sees the Bible as a literal authority and is convinced that Judgment Day will take place May 21st.
“In almost all religious traditions, there’s apocalyptic beliefs,” Miller says. “If you feel like things are hopeless, you want to have peace. The kingdom of God is not to be taken literally. I think all things should be put in the realms of relationships and love. Millenarians think about revenge. It’s better to think about restoring love to everyone.”
Harold Camping is not the first person to predict the Rapture down to the hour. The practice of setting specific dates for the Rapture began with William Miller. Miller, at the behest of his followers, was asked to specify when the Rapture was going to take place. He was uncomfortable giving the dates, but he decided to give in and narrow the suspected timeline. A contemporary book quotes him at the time saying, “My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.”
When those dates came and went, with no apparent sign of Jesus, the Rapture, or any heavenly signs, Miller expressed his disappointment and held onto the belief that the Second Coming was on its way. He believed it until his dying day.
One of Miller’s followers even made a further prediction, correcting Miller’s previous attempt, and set the date as October 22, 1844. The day began like any other. The Millerites waited for Jesus’ return all day. As the sun set on October 22, the Millerites began to doubt the prediction. As the sun rose in the morning, many dropped the belief and moved on with their lives. Others attempted to explain that they were wrong and the mistake was in the people who wrote the Bible timeline. The passing of the supposed Second Coming is now known as the Millerites’ Great Disappointment.
William Miller died on December 20, 1849, still convinced that Jesus was going to return imminently.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the Rapture in 1914, 1918, 1925, 1942, and most recently 1975 through their Watchtower informational pamphlets. The lead up in 1975 was so big that the church promoted followers to sell off their personal effects and spend the last year on earth preaching their doctrine.
It wasn’t until 1979, after members had sold houses and property in ’75, that the church took any responsibility for being overzealous in its treatment of the end times.
In 1988, Edgar C. Whisenant wrote a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988. It sold 4.5 million copies. The Evangelical Christian community took him seriously because of Whisenant’s dedication to his cause. Christians prepared for the Rapture and the day came and went. It was a normal day. Whisenant wrote several follow-up books, making further prediction. He was largely ignored at that point.
Numerous groups made predictions in 1993, solely based on the fact that it was 7 years before the year 2000. It would give the Rapture 7 years to play out. 1993 was no different than previous years. Jesus didn’t show up.
Harold Camping made his first prediction in 1994 about the Rapture. But unlike the previous Doomsayers, Camping didn’t necessarily backtrack and justify his dates when Judgment Day didn’t hit. Instead, he points out that he provisioned for it, in case it didn’t happen. Now he’s 100 percent sure Judgment Day is upon us.
The headquarters for all this is a squat, unmarked, dusty green-blue building that sits along a parking lot shared with a sushi bar, grill, and lounge on an industrial road that leads to the Oakland International Airport. The parking lot leads to a chain-link fence with wooden slats, unremarkable save for the barbed-wire lining the top. The fence is motorized, requiring vehicles and employees to have the receiver in order to enter. Visitors are greeted by a motor pool where large trucks, the size of u-haul vans, sit with pictures of the earth from space emblazoned on all discernable surfaces and “Judgment Day is coming May 21, 2011” written all over.
The front door is tinted and unmarked and always locked. There is no doorbell. Instead, a paper sign is taped that reads, “If you would like to enter, please call…” The people who work for Harold Camping always screen visitors before they open the door for them.
To the left, down another hallway, are the kitchen, a warehouse, and most importantly, the television studio. The high-ceilinged studio lies behind double soundproof doors. The wall to the right is painted half blue and half green for the filming and insertion of digital effects into whatever films they wish to produce. To the left sits a circle of chairs with a stool in the middle, set up for talks and lectures.
Static hisses from the speaker on the ground next to the screener’s desk. Outside the set, the screener and the cameraman look at Harold Camping as he awakes and props the Bible open across his lap. It’s another Open Forum Program. Camping takes a sip from his mug, hands trembling as he does, as the hiss turns into a religious song from the local Family Radio station.
Camping clears his throat, the sound reverberating around the room as the screener lowers the volume on his mike. “Good afternoon,” Camping says to the two others in the room. He shields his eyes with his hand over his brow to drown out the glaring lights and looks out to the cameraman. “How do I sound? Do I sound okay?”
The cameraman gives him the thumbs up and adjusts the cameras. As the hymn ends over the speaker, a voice reads a Bible passage and tells the audience to think about it. He then introduces the Open Forum program and tells listeners to call in and ask Camping their questions.
Camping quickly adjusts his coat and sits up straight his chair. The intro plays on the small screen. The cameraman holds up his hand with four fingers held up and counts down. As he reaches zero, the light atop the camera blinks red.
“Welcome to the Open Forum,” Camping drawls. “Once again we have the grand and wonderful privilege of looking together into the word of God.”
The first caller asks Camping when exactly the world is going to end.
October 21, Camping says. But it begins on May 21st and that’s when judgment catches up.
Yes, but what day? Asks the caller.
It’s a Saturday. Saturday is a special day according to the Bible, Camping says. It’s the day that in the Bible, God stopped saving people.
“Thank you for calling and sharing,” Camping says as he ends the call. “And shall we take our next call?”
All of the calls that day are related to the end of the world. Each caller wants to know how Camping knows, why he’s allowed to know, what will happen when it happens. Camping, in his slow cadence and resounding voice, assures the listeners that there will be a giant earthquake to signal the beginning of the end. Will it happen simultaneously across the globe? They ask.
“Every city and every region is going to have a huge earthquake,” Camping replies. “Maybe it’ll happen at 6 p.m. in one city. That city will experience that earthquake which signals judgment day. It’s going to be a moment of instant death. It’s just going to be horror, horror, horror, horror.”
As the show comes to an end, Camping thanks the screener and the cameraman as he pulls the microphone clipped to his lapel off. He walks off the stage as the lights dim behind him. He walks out the double soundproof doors back into the hallway and makes his way out to his car. He’s going home to study his Bible.
Harold Camping was born in Denver, Colorado on July 19, 1921. He moved to Southern California when he was six. The Bible played an important role in his life from the beginning.
His God-fearing mother took it upon herself to make sure that her son would learn the Bible and be a good Christian boy.
Harold Camping had memorized the first 20 lines of the Book of Luke by the time he was 5 years old in order to recite them in front of the congregation. During Christmas season, she had him learn all of the Nativity verses so that he could recite those as well.
His father was a different sort of Christian man.
“My father was a legalist when it came to the Bible,” Camping says. “He took the Bible literal in the most serious sense. My father didn’t understand salvation but my mother did. But by the time he died, he understood the Bible a little bit better.”
At 19, Harold Camping moved to the Bay Area in order to attend the University of California at Berkeley to study Civil Engineering.
Camping led a simple lifestyle during college. He had no interest in radio. He had no interest in making a lot of money.
“By 1942, I had never spent a nickel for a coke. I had no money for anything. I would go to church Thursdays and Sundays. Then I’d have dinner with a family and get a freebie dinner,” he says with a laugh.
He met his future wife Shirley at church. He saw her, became interested, dated her, and when he was 21 years old, he married her. They have now been married 68 years and she has always supported him in his endeavors.
Harold Camping proudly exclaims that she loves family. They had six children together. They have 24 grandchildren and 38 great grandchildren. She keeps track of all of their names for him.
But Harold Camping saddens when he thinks of his six children.
“Many of my children haven’t accepted the truth,” he says. “God hasn’t opened their eyes. As judgment day approaches, I pray every day that God will open their eyes and they’ll see his truth.”
After college, Camping started a construction company and joined the Alameda Christian Reform Church. He became an Elder and began teaching Bible study classes. But the rules of the church were too confining for what Camping wanted to teach.
“They didn’t want me there anymore,” Camping says. “That’s why they made the rules that you had to be an Elder to teach the adult class and the classes could be no more than 20 people at a time.”
In 1988, Camping decided to leave his church. He left amicably and respectfully from the church and attempted to start his own church with little success. In 2000, when he officially shuttered his latest church, Camping came out and said that the Church age was over. God was done with them.
Family Radio, Inc. began in 1958 when Dick Palmquist came into Harold Camping’s office at his construction company. Palmquist pitched the idea of a for-profit radio station by gathering a group of Christian businessmen to start it.
Harold Camping was intrigued but was wary of the message they were sending if the station was to be for-profit. So he convinced Palmquist to make a deal for a non-profit station dedicated to spreading the word of God where no board member could make a profit.
Camping and his fellow partners then purchased KEAR 97.3 in San Francisco and started Family Radio by playing gospel music and bible readings. In 1959, Camping was asked to get behind the microphone and answer questions about their mission in order to drum up support for the fledgling station.
Harold Camping enjoyed answering questions so much; he started offering advice and had people calling in asking about the Bible. Open Forum was born on that day and has been on the air since. It’s been on for a minimum of 5 days a week, for at least a half hour a night, depending on how busy Camping is. Even when Camping would go on vacation with his family, he would take time out of his day and go to a place with at least two phone booths, in case somebody needed to make an emergency call while he was hosting the show.
It took great discipline to host the show every night, but it helped Camping to learn how to teach the truth.
Harold Camping plans to host his final Open Forum program on Friday, May 20. After 50 years, he knows he’s done his best to spread the word of God and get his message out to everyone who is willing to listen. After that, Camping believes there’s nothing to teach anymore. He will go home to his wife that night and keep studying the Bible.
The next day, May 21st, Judgment Day, he plans on going about his daily routine of waking up, eating a light breakfast, and studying the Bible. When the Universal Time Zone reaches six at the Greenwich Meridian, Harold Camping will be sitting in front of his television in his home, watching as the Great Earthquake strikes each time zone at 6 p.m. local time. Once people see that first earthquake, he knows they’ll start praying. They’ll watch Judgment day as it is televised across the world.
When Judgment day reaches his own time zone, if he is one of God’s saved children, he will take part in the rapture and be lifted up into heaven.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” Camping says. “There will be no sin. We’ll be reigning with Christ. It will be a whole new dimension.”
And as he ascends, body and soul, into heaven, into the white light, Camping knows that it’s to the everlasting glory of God, Amen.