Growing up, the concept of death is something that children struggle to wrap their heads around. The idea of reaching an old age and ceasing to exist one day can be a terrifying thought but after observing it through the deaths of pets and family members, it is something they eventually learn to be more familiar and accustomed to. What most children probably haven’t dealt with though is that at the blink of an eye, they and everyone they know will either cease to exist or be subject to hell on earth. Even more terrifying is they know the exact day this would happen. Up until I was 15 years old, I was part of a Christian group that believed the rapture would occur on the 21st of May, 2011, followed by five months of natural disasters and death that would crescendo with it, the universe being consumed by fire and then being snuffed out forever. This was the reality for thousands of followers of Harold Camping and his organization Family Radio. What happened on the 21st? Did I survive the rapture? Did YOU? Well read on to find out the true story of how I was a teenage Christian rapture prepper.
As grim as it sounds, there was no mass drinking of Kool Aid, no compounds, no scams or child slavery rings. The inside was a largely squeaky-clean Christian organization. On the outside however, it was one of the most hated, ridiculed, and misunderstood doomsday groups in recent times. Almost like a forerunner to recent elections, families were split apart and relationships were strained. In recent years, especially after the 2012 Mayan predictions and other events blown up to be cataclysmic, Family Radio and the May 21 doomsday has largely been forgotten. Family Radio has also distanced itself from its past, with no mention of its founder on its website and trying to shift to a more mainstream Christianity. Like other phenomena from the early 2010s such as Kony 2012 or the 2012 election, it might seem like simpler times when people got upset over stranger but less threatening events. For those who lived through it though, it is hard to overlook, and harder to bring up.
Harold Camping is the man who came up with the end of the world prophecy. A former engineer, the devout Calvinist studied the Bible through a mathematical lens, coming up with what he concluded to be the date of creation, about 13,000 years ago, and finding the years for other events such as the flood and the Exodus. He first gained prominence and disdain among Christians for declaring the Church age to be over. The Church age began with the formation of the religion, when the bible declared the Christian Church was the main means of salvation. Camping, through mathematical calculations as well as simple observations of the Church, found that churches have lost their vision. Instead of salvation by grace, you can be guaranteed a seat in heaven by being a good person. Instead of singing hymns that glorify God, they began to sing songs that are fun to listen to and have modern rock and pop influences. On social issues, they began to be more open to previously Christian taboos such as divorce. Many church goers objected, saying their church only taught the scripture and hasn’t changed at all in hundreds of years. By association however, all churches were guilty, there was no way to be saved while attending one. When God told you to leave the Church, you had to leave, no matter what yours taught.
My father came across Harold Camping and Family Radio sometime in the late 80s while commuting to LA several hours. He grew up Baptist but fell out after being unhappy with the “do it yourself” salvation they preached. With Family Radio renewing his interest with his faith, and him taking care of my brothers and I growing up while my mom was at work, we were practically raised by Harold Camping. The radio was almost always on, in the car, on his radio at home, and on the computer once we got the internet. Growing up, my parents had us attend a private Christian school. Most of my classmates went to the church that was attached to the school. Since my peers and I were all Christian, I always assumed my Christianity was just as normal as the rest of the students. I never brought it up much with my friends, the only major difference between us being our family never went to church, instead reading the bible together as a family.
The one thing that set our family and fellow believers eons apart from other Christians was our belief in the impending rapture and doomsday as laid out by Harold Camping. I won’t get into all of the mathematics of it, but here are just the facts for you. From archives of Family Radios website, Camping wrote in regard to the claim that no one knows when the end will happen:
The Bible tells why the Bible did teach that. In Acts 1:7, at the time that the New Testament church age was about to begin, Jesus taught His disciples:
And He said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power.
Jesus then said in the next verse:
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
From these verses we learn that during the church age there would be a great curiosity concerning the time of the end, but believers were not to be at all preoccupied with this question. They were to concentrate and focus all of their attention on the task of bringing the Gospel to the whole world…
…Nevertheless, there is a very striking statement in the Bible. It is recorded in Ecclesiastes 8:5. There God declares:
Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man’s heart discerneth [better translation: will know] both time and judgment.
In the Bible a wise man is a true believer, to whom God has given a profound trust in the authority of the Bible. True believers have been in existence since the beginning of time….
…However, it was not until a very few years ago that the accurate knowledge of the entire timeline of history was revealed to true believers by God from the Bible. This timeline extends all the way to the end of time. During these past several years God has been revealing a great many truths, which have been completely hidden in the Bible until this time when we are so near the end of the world.
Of course, this edited version you see is hard to explain to someone, and this is without even going into the numerological explanations and the calculations. It was hard for me to understand it, and impossible to explain it as well. Despite this, when I was younger, I did have a somewhat strong understanding of the end of the Church age and salvation, and my grandfather thought it was funny the way I used to debate any Mormons or Baptists that would come knocking on our door.
Ever since the end of the Church age, salvation was no longer attainable through there, but beginning in 1994, which was another doomsday date that Camping had considered, the final count for salvation began. Like with Noah, you had to find a seat on the ark or face the impending flood. The date he had for the final day was the 21st of May 2011. This was the day of the rapture, when God’s elect would ascend to heaven. Simultaneously, the end of the world would begin. This would feature earthquakes that are so strong, they open up the ground and spit out the dead so corpses would be seen everywhere, massive flooding from tsunamis, famine, constant death, all in all an unpleasant time, and all of these disasters were warned about in the Bible as well. After five months of unthinkable agonies and disasters, this would be concluded with fire consuming not only the earth but the entire universe. After this, God would create a new Earth for his elect, where we were to live forever. And you were thinking there was no happy ending!
There were several ways the rapture could have started. Once the day began at the international date line near New Zealand, the end would have started that second, with the earthquakes and rapture happening all at once. It also could have been gradual as the dates changed, a gradual wave of natural disasters hitting the earth. Another way was once the date line hit Jerusalem, the end would have triggered due to its importance in the end time prophecies. The way I suspected it would happen would be a last second doomsday. As the 21st would draw to a close, those waiting for the end would become frustrated and lash out at God only for the end to come in the last moments and leave those who doubted him behind in the rapture, acting as a final test. Like Job, we had to stay loyal to God no matter the hardships.
I don’t know at what age children begin to have concepts of the future. When I was younger, I could conceptualize events that were months away, such as holidays and birthdays, even years away, but at some point, the future seemed like something that was harder to conceive. My earliest recollections of talk of the end are from around the time I was 10, about five years before. Five years seemed so far away. In the meantime, I was growing up, going to school, playing, visiting my grandparents, celebrating holidays, all while the distant end creeped closer every year. It was around two to three years before 2011 that the whole concept began to seem more real and frighten me. One of the worst parts is that there was really nothing you could do to escape it, it was by grace we are saved, nothing we could do would convince God to save us. Even more futile, there was no way to stop the apocalypse from happening. As sure as the sun would rise tomorrow, the end would begin on May 21st. When for school assignments we were asked what we wanted to be when we got older, I could give more hairbrained answers such as professional wrestling CEO or Green Beret. It didn’t matter, I could imagine anything and give any answer, I was more concerned about the ever approaching day. We simply had to live out our final years the way God would want us to and not make any changes to our everyday life.
It was amazing how quickly the final months seemed. When I wasn’t busy with school, I spent a lot of time watching movies that made me feel happy, like Looney Tunes DVDs, westerns, I remember watching The Quiet Man several times too. It was impossible to escape the encroaching dreaded feeling though. The final day before the rapture, the 20th, was a somber day. My brothers and I still went to school, my mother still went to work, we were supposed to carry on like nothing was going to happen. My father made several goodbye calls to a few family members and friends that he told about in an effort to save them. For dinner, my mother made a meatloaf and we broke into several old bottles of Coca Cola. Our parents would buy the glass bottles that had the year we were born on them, as well as a few earlier ones. We had always joked we were saving them for a wedding or the deathbed but today seemed as good a day as any to crack them open. My dad said the prayer before our final meal, thanking God for our family, our pets, and how grateful he was for all of us, while trying to hold back tears at the end. We went to bed later, not knowing if we would wake up and see each other the next morning.
The day of the 21st, we spent it mostly waiting. I remember being in my room for a good amount of the day, reading my Bible, thinking about life. Of course I was sad, but I should also be happy, my family and I were most likely all saved. Then there was my other family that called us crazy, our friends, how long would they survive? How would you survive five months, water would be hard to come by, would they have to resort to cannibalism? Should we leave out some extra food for the pets? Which animal would last the longest do you think? I don’t like where this is going. Time to get out of the room, it smells like mom made some rice crispy treats, and I can eat as many as I want too, there’s no calories in heaven! Everyone was trying to do something to stay busy. My dad was looking at live camera footage of different cities. We started with a live cam of Auckland New Zealand the night before, and as the 21st rolled in, nothing happened. The next day, we were again looking at the world clock online. We were sure that it would occur in Jerusalem since it had not been rolling across the earth like we thought. The moments leading up to the 21st coming and then leaving Jerusalem were particularly nerve wracking. Looking at the clock on the computer tick down, I thought those would be my final moments. And both times, nothing happened again. Which made me think the final second hypothesis I had would come true. It would be four in the morning when it hits, so I wouldn’t feel a thing, no worries about feeling my soul shoot up into the heavens. And if I wasn’t saved, I was sleeping on a creaky old bed in a room with the same decoration scheme of a Cracker Barrel, so some debris falling from the wall would have likely killed me first. I was leaving it all to God now.
I woke up, unbelievably, and my first thought was “why am I still here?”. I went out and greeted my family that was awake, it was what I imagine Christmas morning being like when Santa inexplicably forgets to leave presents for you. We were waiting for some news, an announcement, an update of some kind. Later in the day, Harold Camping announced that he would address both his followers and the press the next day. And so May 21 came and went, not without any noise though. Family and friends we had told about the end had a good laugh about it. Both Christians and atheists around the world were united momentarily with the same scorn, mocking, and false sympathy. Even my 86 year old grandmother took part in the festivities, calling several times asking her son for updates and why we weren’t taken up into the skies. The ridicule from loved ones is probably what hurt the most.
After the initial shock was over and the sadness from the mocking subsided, I had a strange feeling, almost like invincibility. I never gave much thought of what I wanted to do when I was older, let alone my sophomore year of high school. Now, I had a whole future open to me. I wasn’t going to vanish instantly, I could live to my 80s, even older than that. I could have a career, a job, live out my dreams that I used to fantasize about when not worrying about either going to heaven or dying in an earthquake. The closest thing I can imagine it felt like is being a death row inmate and getting your pardon after your noose falls apart. This feeling was short-lived however. The Monday after, the family was still loyal to Harold Camping, and were awaiting what he had to say. We had a school event that night for one of my brothers, but my dad said he would stay home and listen to Camping’s next broadcast and he would meet us at Wendy’s afterwards, where we usually met after school events. After we sat down, we asked our dad what the updates were, what was supposed to come next. The rapture still occurred on May 21st, it was just not a literal rapture. Camping said it’s unlikely anyone on earth would have survived an earthquake that threw bodies buried in the bottom of the ocean onto the land like what was supposed to happen. Judgement day had occurred, the real hell on earth is that there was no more salvation, and no way to escape the final fiery end that will still occur on the 21st of October. My dad seemed in good spirits, even excited that the end was still coming, and I tried to be excited for it too. I was going to miss the feeling of looking forward to the future, but it would have been selfish for me to still think about that, now I had to be entirely focused on the final end. In fact, this was probably a test by God to weed out those who were frustrated by the weekend’s events.
I have fewer memories of the 21st of October. In fact, the only association I have with it now is the day after. Like back in May, I was paying close attention to the world clock. I was sure again that this was going to be a last second rapture, that everything would end at the latest possible moment to test everyone’s strength. Like Linus in the pumpkin patch, any doubt of the Great Pumpkin and he was going to fly over your house, no matter how sincere you were. In fact, the reason I associate the two is because we went Halloween shopping the day after to the aptly named Spirit Halloween. On my flip phone, I had all of the world times mapped out like it was the Pentagon. Similar to May, I was expecting a last-minute call again. This was going to be it. I was concerned, however, that my family wasn’t as worried. On the next day, the 22nd, the 21st of October had already faded away, but it didn’t seem real until the 23rd would come, which I was confident would not. We were in the parking lot walking to the store when the international date line was crossing again, and somewhere in the middle of the Pacific the 23rd of October came into existence. As we walked in the store, I felt the same feeling I had back in May of having a whole life ahead to live. Could I actually be a professional wrestling manager? Maybe an astronaut, and why not? Of course I had to make it through high school now, I couldn’t rely on the rapture to get me out of Spanish 2, but I was confident there were going to be much greater things than school in my future.
Since that October, our Family would still listen to Family Radio, but we gradually fell out after Camping left due to old age and then died at the end of 2013. Our interests moved to other things, such as politics, world events, family issues, and school. I graduated high school in 2014 and started community college. My father was the only one that still studied the Bible looking for answers. He also looked at what other people had to say regarding what happened in 2011 and what would happen next. He lost interest in Family Radio after they began speaking in favor of the church, playing modern Christian music, and tried to cut all ties they had with the now deceased Camping. What he found instead was a smaller group called E-Bible Fellowship led by Chris McCann. McCann never worked at Family Radio, but like Camping he also had a mathematical approach to the Bible. His explanation in short was that 10,000 days after the Church age ended on May 21, 1988, was the date October 7th, 2015. The 2011 dates were still integral in his hypothesis, he was simply continuing where Harold Camping left off. The certainty of this newest prediction and the fact that the other two seemed certain to happen made me believe this next one was going to happen. I had never studied as in depth into McCann’s date as I did with Camping’s date, but my father seemed certain of it this time, which convinced me as well. This prediction had not been years in the making, it seemed to have come out of nowhere a few months before. The last night before it was supposed to happen, we were on a drive to the store, and we were talking about if this was the real rapture finally. The thought that everything was going to cease to exist again sent me into a frenzied fit of breathing heavy, hysteric crying, and all around freaking out. My dad helped calm me down, and I kept asking him questions about the end. Why only save so few people, why make it hard to be saved, why even create the earth and people if you’re just going to incinerate it all in a few thousand years? My dad boiled it all down to we don’t know, just for His own amusement. If I were in my dad’s Reebok shoes, I probably would have said the same thing as well.
After 2015, I have had a somewhat distant but still close relationship with my private faith. I still consider myself a Christian, and I still do think that the Church age is over, the few Church services I have attended with friends leave me feeling it’s still about the money and feeling good about yourself, I think Harold Camping was correct that you can’t find salvation there anymore. I still don’t know whether we can know when the end is, and at this point I do not care anymore. If I get engulfed in a giant fireball, so be it. My father still thinks the end is coming soon, he says to look around at the signs of moral degradation and the disdain of God. I tell him that there have been many moments in history similar to this but he says that’s just revisionist thinking to make people feel better about themselves. And he isn’t wrong, I don’t want to live through any more doomsday predictions again. In regard to other religious groups that take up the news for usually bad reasons such as Westboro Baptist, Scientology, even ISIS, I don’t have any hate for them, and I don’t look down on them either. I get it, and I get that getting smug hate from everyone does nothing to want to change your viewpoints, I can even see how that frustration and anger would lead to someone whipping out the knife and smiting those nonbelievers! It’s also easy to get carried away wanting to see revenge for those that kick you when you’re down, which is why I’ve kept this story to myself for the most part, only telling a small handful of people over the years. You will probably be disappointed to read that instead of starting my own wrestling company like I dreamed of in high school, I am becoming a teacher, which is nowhere as cool but I still have big things planned, college hasn’t crushed all of my aspirations yet! In the meantime, I’m keeping my spiritual ears and eyes open, my relationship with God more personal, and my room still debris filled so the big earthquake can take me before the real apocalypse starts!