article

05.19.11

Before the Rapture

The man who spent his life savings to tell New York the end was near.

The man who spent his life savings to tell New York the end was near. Plus, your guide to the end of the world, John Avlon on the doomsday unhinged, and Left Behind author Tim Lahaye on the Rapture.

Twelve days before Judgment Day, Robert Fitzpatrick saw a sign. And thank goodness, because he’d paid top dollar for it. Fitzpatrick, a 60-year-old retired engineer, boarded the Staten Island Ferry on the afternoon of May 9. When he reached Manhattan, he walked to a subway station and picked up the Metro, a free newspaper. There it was on page four—one of the spooky, apocalyptic ads Fitzgerald has placed all over town. “Global Earthquake: The Greatest Ever!” the ad read. Below that, in large letters: “Judgment Day: May 21, 2011.”

In the last month, Fitzpatrick has done for the Rapture what Dr. Zizmor did for skin care. Fitzpatrick’s ads line subway cars, subway platforms, and bus shelters. The Staten Island Advance carries them, and so does the trade publication Defense News, out of Springfield, Virginia. Fitzpatrick says that “blowing the trumpet” about Judgment Day cost him a sum in the low six figures—his life savings. The mortal certainty of the message made me curious about the certainty of the man who’d paid for it.

Fitzpatrick meets me one afternoon in a building in the Financial District. The sun is shining, and from our perch we can see cars crawling across the Brooklyn Bridge and financial wizards going about their rounds. “Inundated, yeah,” Fitzpatrick says glumly, imagining what downtown will be like after the great earthquake. “This is a low-lying area, and the water will be up here pretty quickly, I think.”

Fitzpatrick is extremely thin, and at certain angles his body seems to vanish inside his blue checked sports coat, as if he has already been raptured. He was born in the Bronx and attended St. Peter’s Boys High School on Staten Island. He has since determined that, doctrinally speaking, the Roman Catholic Church of his boyhood was “a million miles away from the truth.” He tried the New York City Church of Christ but left when a congregant announced he was marrying a divorced woman; only Fitzpatrick thought this didn’t jibe with biblical law. “I was reading the Bible on my own and always looking for the truth,” he says.

In 2006, Fitzpatrick retired from the transit department with visions of moving to Maui and “marrying a pretty Japanese girl.” He’d started work on a book of nature haikus. Then he heard a terrifying proclamation that sounded, finally, like the biblical truth he’d been seeking. He says, “I wasn’t exactly thrilled to learn what I did about the end of the world.”

He heard the news on the radio. Every weeknight at 7:30, the religious chatter on New York’s WFME is interrupted by an octogenarian with a compellingly odd and reedy voice. Harold Camping isn’t a credentialed minister. But since the 1950s, Camping has been harvesting secret messages from the Bible at a clip that would impress Dan Brown. He reveals them on his call-in show Open Forum. Some few years back—no one can pin down the date, strangely—Camping told listeners of his greatest discovery: the date of the Rapture.

I call Camping at his office in California one afternoon in the final run-up to the Rapture. He is hard of hearing, and I have to shout some of the questions. One a scale of one to 10, how certain is he that on May 21 the saved will ascend to heaven and the unsaved will be marooned in a hell on earth? “Oh, it’s 10-10-10-10,” he says. “It’s so solid you can’t even put it on a scale like that.”

Photos: Rapture Across Country

Camping’s apocalyptic certainty gives him the bubbliness of a high-schooler eyeing his graduation date. “It is absolutely awesome that the whole world is within a few days of coming to an end,” he purrs. “It’s beyond feeling. I just tremble when I think about how tremendous this moment is.

“The Tokyo earthquake was like a Sunday-school picnic in comparison. Everybody will know that this never happened before, exactly what we’re warned about. We’ll know it is Judgment Day, the jig is up …”

Robert Fitzpatrick brings some papers to explain to me how the May 21 date was discovered. It’s not an easy thing to understand. Harold Camping’s calculation includes numbers divined from the founding of the state of Israel in 1948; Jesus’ order to “flee into the mountains” in Matthew 24; and the jubilee year of 1994. From there Camping performs handsprings back and forth through biblical time before ending up, with a great flourish, on May 21, 2011. For Fitzpatrick, the calculation’s outlandishness confirms its rightness. “A genius could not understand this,” he says, “because God has to open your mind to allow you to understand this.”

Fitzpatrick took Camping’s math and laid it out in a self-published book called The Doomsday Code, a soup-to-nuts guide to the Rapture. That cost him a few thousand dollars. He poured the rest of his savings into signage. Fitzpatrick’s belief in the May 21 date has been buttressed by various “proofs.” For instance, it is Camping’s contention that God imbues numbers in the Bible with special meaning. Five means atonement; 10 means completeness; 17 means heaven. If you were to multiply atonement times completeness times heaven and then, for a reason that remains mysterious, multiply that sum by itself again:

(5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17)

You’d end up with 722,500. Fast-forwarding 722,500 days from the date of the crucifixion—at least, the date as divined by Camping—lands you on May 21, 2011, the date of the Rapture. QED.

Rapturenomics has a margin of error. Camping once fingered September 6, 1994, as the possible end of the world, and his followers waited in California for the great ascension. The only calamity reported around that time was a USAir crash in Pennsylvania that killed 132. Camping blames the fact that he was “just seriously getting into the timing of the end” and notes that his book 1994? had a question mark in the title.

Note the punctuation on Camping’s new tract, We Are Almost There! Fitzpatrick won’t be moved from May 21 and is reluctant to discuss much else. He recoils when I ask him what he’s eating for breakfast. “It’s irrelevant. It’s like asking how long I’ve been wearing glasses. We’re talking about the end of the world here!”

I tell him I’m interested in how a man who knows the date of the world’s end would spend its final days. Well, Fitzpatrick allows, he has been trying to send Harold Camping an email. The precise timing of the earthquake is in dispute—after some biblical spelunking, Fitzpatrick believes it will arrive in New York around 6 p.m. ET. Fitzpatrick bought his sister a new cell phone. He’s paying his bills. When I point out this is unnecessary—we’re talking about the end of the world here—he says it is nonetheless the menschy thing to do. He wants to be in Times Square on May 21, so he can pass out leaflets until the end.

“Living with this idea, it’s not easy,” Fitzpatrick says. Even an ad buy of biblical proportions doesn’t calm his thoughts. He stands in the subway handing out Gospel tracts and each day sees dozens—no, hundreds—of the unsaved. He knows these poor souls will die in the earthquake, or else cling to life before the whole universe is vaporized on October 21. “That’s one of those things that could really get to you if you let it,” he says. Fitzpatrick’s mother has dementia, and he’s not sure if God will make a special dispensation for her.

Knowing the date of the judgment is only half the Rapture equation. The other half is knowing whether you’ll be among those who will “meet the Lord in the air,” as it says in 1 Thessalonians. When I ask Fitzpatrick if he’s sure he’ll be raptured, I notice that his confidence takes a small but perceptible hit. He can’t say for certain. He uses the words “strong suspicion,” lawyerly language he would never use about the date of the Rapture.

You might think of Robert Fitzpatrick’s dilemma like this. He knows that on May 21 the very last train is leaving the station. But he has only a strong suspicion that he has a ticket. It’s the kind of existential fear that might make you spend your life savings on subway ads, or pass out leaflets until the final seconds before the great earthquake. Fitzpatrick tells me, “I’m still praying, let’s put it that way.”

Bryan Curtis is a national correspondent at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis@thedailybeast.com.