Your Guide to the End of the World

A small but devout group of people believes May 21 (yes, Saturday) will be the beginning of the end of the world. Confused? Fear not, David A. Graham answers your pressing questions.

05.20.11 12:44 PM ET

Plus, John Avlon on the doomsday unhinged, Bryan Curtis on the man who spent his savings to tell New York about the Rapture, and Left Behind author Tim Lahaye on the Rapture.

So the world is ending on Saturday?

Well, not quite. Believers say that what’s actually going to happen is the Judgment Day, when the chosen who will be saved are taken away. For everyone else, it’s really just the beginning of a new phase. It’ll be followed by a time of tumult. You may also hear Saturday referred to as Doomsday or the Rapture; not to worry, it’s all the same thing.

Photos: Rapture Across the Country

I think I heard about this somewhere…

That’s probably true—especially if you live in New York, where you’ve probably been accosted by people with handbills on the street and aggressive ads on the subway. If you’re outside of the Big Apple, you might have encountered billboards as well as cars with megaphones broadcasting the news. You’ve been warned. You may even have a friend, relative or neighbor desperately trying to convince you it’s true!

What time is the world supposed to end? I want to catch the Thunder-Mavericks game.

You’re out of luck, pal. There’s no consensus on what time exactly the Rapture will occur—and time zones, international date lines, daylight savings time, etc., only makes it more complicated—but the word is that it’s likely to be 6 p.m. on the East Coast.

Who is behind this?

The whole thing has been set off by a gentleman named Harold Camping. Camping’s a spry 89 years old and runs Family Radio, a network of Christian radio stations. He started broadcasting in 1958 and has been at it ever since, with the flagship being his own daily “Open Forum” program, during which he takes questions. But he’s also very into calendars and biblical chronology, and has been publishing works on numerology and the Bible for decades now, although he’s not ordained himself. His views tend toward the esoteric: instead of hell, for example, he believes that life just ends for those who aren’t saved. Not surprisingly, he’s not especially fond of existing Christian churches, which he believes have lost the way.

How did he come up with May 21, 2011?

It’s pretty elaborate. Basically, the Bible states that one day for God is a thousand years for mankind. Camping reasons, based on a verse in Genesis, that the world will end seven God-days, or 7,000 years, after the end of Noah’s flood. And he’s calculated that date as being tomorrow. The math is pretty impressive—he’s got a variety of different ways of reaching the number, buttressed with biblical quotations and numerology. It’s pretty difficult for us to grasp, but then again Camping was a civil engineer before he turned to religion, whereas we are reporters who can’t do math.

How many people believe the end is tomorrow?

It’s tough to say. Family Radio appears to have a pretty large audience, but who knows if all of them are convinced? There’s been no census or survey, either, and the true numbers have perhaps been obscured by a flurry of bemused (and perhaps voyeuristic) press coverage. The thousands of billboards and handbill distributors suggest it’s not just buzz, though.

Are they Christians or what?

Sure—but they’re not your average mainline Protestant, Catholic, or evangelical Christians. As we’ve said, Camping’s views tend toward the esoteric. Most of the believers say they aren’t affiliated with a specific church: they believe in Jesus Christ and the Bible, and they’ve come to be convinced by Camping’s math.

Uh-oh. How can I be saved?

You better watch out, there’s no sure-fire solution to that. Your best bet is to turn to Christ and repent: throw yourself at his mercy, confess your wickedness, and pray. Don’t bother with your current pastor, Camping warns: what matters is God’s mercy, so you’ll want to be praying directly to him. Time’s running short, though. Still, that might not do it: not every believer, or even all members of the penitent, will be taken.

How many people will be saved?

Camping says the Bible indicates that about 200 million people will be saved—an indication of God’s manifest but not infinite mercy. “Sadly, the Holy Bible tells us that only a small percentage of today’s world will turn from their evil ways, and with great humility and fear will cry to God for mercy. Nevertheless, the Bible assures us that many of the people who do beg God for His mercy will not be destroyed,” Family Radio’s website says.

What if I’m not taken?!

You’ve got a long few months ahead of you. The whole thing’s going to start with a massive earthquake—a temblor that Camping told The Daily Beast will be so fierce that “the Tokyo earthquake was like a Sunday-school picnic in comparison.” The dead will be thrown from their graves, and those who are saved will be bodily resurrected and taken to heaven. If you survive that, there will be a time of tribulation lasting five months (derived from a Genesis verse stating that “the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.” On October 21, 2011, the world will actually end, vaporized in flame.

What about my dog?

Good news on that front. If you’re worried that you’ll be taken up in the rapture but Fido won’t, you can pay Eternal Earth-Bound Pets just $135 to take care of him (additional animals are just $20 apiece). The proprietors say they’re a group of atheists out to help their believing friends. According to the company’s site, “Our representatives have been screened to ensure that they are atheists, animal lovers, are moral / ethical with no criminal background, have the ability and desire to rescue your pet and the means to retrieve them and ensure their care for your pet's natural life.” Unfortunately, it seems hard to imagine the service will help after October 21.

Where’s the best place to weather this sucker?

Avoid low-lying areas, buildings, and fault lines. The Great Plains are probably a good bet. Basically, you’re going to want to stay away from anywhere that’d be dangerous in a normal earthquake. One believer, Robert Fitzpatrick, described the great flood that’s likely to swamp New York pretty quickly, so avoid—or leave—the Big Apple.

Seriously, though, should I be worried?

Oh, fine: Probably not. It’s not just that Camping’s formulas are nearly incomprehensible to anyone without an advanced degree in Biblical codebreaking. It’s the fact that he’s made this prediction before. In 1992, he announced that September 6, 1994 would be the end of the world. Then, as now, a group of believers gathered and prepared and then… nothing happened. Camping writes this off as a rookie mistake—he was just getting into reading the codes in the Bible. He’s confident this time: "Beyond the shadow of a doubt, May 21 will be the date of the Rapture and the day of judgment," he told the Associated Press.

Someone must be making money off this, right?

One would think. But it’s not clear that Camping is the one. He’s been open about his teachings, posting them online and also distributing them in a free book. One religion professor told the CBC that Camping was particularly unusual and maybe dangerous because he isn’t asking for money up front. And Family Radio is a nonprofit organization, although it’s also worth an estimated tens of millions of dollars. Some people are surely profiting: you can buy T-shirts, for example, and there are the dog-walkers, too. We wish we sold advertising on billboards, though: believers have shelled out lots of money—sometimes their entire life-savings—on advertisements to warn the populace.

How dumb are you going to feel if they’re right?

Pretty silly. But it’ll be the least of my worries, right?

Good point! I guess I can just relax and not worry about it then.

What?! Haven’t you heard about the Mayan prophecy? The world is ending in 2012.

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David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.