Close Mobile Menu

Solving for Doomsday

Harold Camping ’42 thought he had calculated when the world would end. Ten years after his death, he still has plenty to teach us about the dangers and appeal of “doing your own research.”

May 31, 2024
by Hayden Royster
A colorful, illustrated scene depicting a crowd of people wearing green jerseys with the number "21" and the word "MAY" on the back, holding signs with doomsday messages such as "END IS HERE." In the background, large screens display the image of Harold Camping in a suit, delivering a message about "DOOMS DAY 2011." Illustration by Michael Byers

It’s best to start at the beginning of time. Harold Camping calculated that first. Eventually, he’d become known as an end-times forecaster with a radio empire. He’d gain worldwide attention (and devotion and criticism and derision) as the 89-year-old broadcaster who spent tens of millions proclaiming doom was coming—on May 21, 2011, with an earthquake beginning at 6 p.m., New Zealand Standard Time. But half a century earlier, in 1960, Camping was not in the prognostication business. He was barely in the radio business; Family Radio, the Christian station he cofounded, was just 2 years old. Mostly, he was a buttoned-up, UC Berkeley–educated engineer who ran a thriving construction outfit in Oakland. He attended church in a sanctuary his company built and lived with his wife, Shirley, and seven children in a home of his own design: a ranch-style cottage on a leafy lane of Alameda Island.

Construction wasn’t his true passion, however. The Word was. In recent years, Camping made a habit of excusing himself from the dinner table and, asking his family not to disturb him, retreating to his office to study the Bible. He’d considered pursuing a doctorate in biblical studies, but after much prayer, decided against it. Instead, he later recalled, “the Bible has really been my university.” Of course, Camping’s only frame of reference for collegiate-level studies was cramming his way through multivariable calculus and soil mechanics at Cal. Often, he ignored his Berkeley engineering professors’ lectures entirely, opting to get a head start on homework instead. “The answer could always be found in the book,” he said later.

Camping frequently studied well past midnight, sometimes for eight hours at a time. Naturally, the engineer was drawn to the many, many numbers in the Bible. Poring over his leather-bound King James translation, he eventually zeroed in on the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. A calendar gradually began
to cohere for him. If his calculations were correct, he had solved the previously unsolvable: The exact date the world began was 11,013 B.C.

“When I first suspected I had been led to the proper understanding of these chapters, I was, of course, quite thrilled,” he wrote in his 1974 monograph, Adam When? A Biblical Solution to the Timetable of Mankind. “Discovering truth is a wonderful experience.”

Decades later, the timetable he “discovered” would form the basis for his most infamous prediction. In late 2008, he began promoting May 21, 2011, as the date on which some 200 million faithful Christian souls would be spirited up to heaven, leaving the rest of humanity to suffer until October 21, when the
cosmos would be snuffed out. By now the long-established face and voice of Family Radio and its 66 stations, Camping had the platform and profits to spread his forecast globally, and he did. Camping financed broadcasts in 84 languages and some 5,000 billboards along roadsides as far-flung as Dubai and Moscow. He dispatched a fleet of RVs that drove throughout America, exteriors emblazoned with the words, Have you heard the awesome news? The End of the World Is Almost Here! (Next to these lines, the year “2012” was emphatically crossed out. In the battle for apocalyptic attention, the Mayan Long
Count calendar was Camping’s biggest competitor.)

“There’s no reason in the world, no possibility, that it will not happen,” Camping told the Associated Press—one of many news crews that descended on Alameda in the latter days of May 2011.

May 21 came and went. Scores of believers worldwide were devastated, some having sold homes or spent savings in preparation. Camping, for his part, was “flabbergasted.” Following days of radio silence, he returned to his call-in radio program, Open Forum, to offer a muted alternative: The judgment on May
21 had been “invisible,” not physical, and the true day of destruction would be on October 21. Less than three weeks later, Camping suffered a debilitating stroke that impacted his speech and halted Open Forum. When he did return, he expressed doubts about whether there would be “a big display” at all come October. There wasn’t, and in March 2012, he issued an apology, saying that he had “no interest in even considering another date.” He soon stepped back from Family Radio entirely. On December 15, 2013, he died at home.

Harold Camping in Oakland, Ca. sits during his nightly radio program Open Forum.
Harold Camping hosting his nightly program, Open Forum, in 2011. MICHAEL MACOR/SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE/AP

A decade later, the world has moved on from the broadcaster who so decisively predicted its end. Or have we? In many ways, Camping was a forerunner to today’s think-for-yourself influencers. The rise of the internet has only made it easier for people of all creeds to hunker down for hours and “do their own research.” Online conspiracies, like Camping’s eschatology, are frequently shrouded in the objective language of math and, especially, science. And all the while, social media disseminates the “calculations” and “proofs” of perceived experts far more effectively than billboards ever could.

To the Berkeley scholars I spoke with, Camping and his followers seem quaint compared to contemporary phenomena like QAnon, the internet-born conspiracy that many sociologists now label an apocalyptic religious movement. For all his extreme views, Camping was no violent insurrectionist. But in 2024—a year of more than 80 elections worldwide, which experts believe will be saturated with conspiracies, AI-enhanced disinformation, and end-times rhetoric—understanding his mindset and influence may still be instructive. What can a radio prophet teach us about modern movements like QAnon? Plenty, in fact.

The 150 or so members of Alameda Bible Fellowship, Camping’s weekly Bible group, had not anticipated being on-planet past May 21. Like thousands worldwide, they spent the day awaiting an onslaught of disasters and their eventual Rapture. As the hours rolled on, a few global events seemed at least partially validating: an earthquake 600 miles off the coast of New Zealand, a volcanic eruption in Iceland. By nightfall, though, it was clear that Kingdom had not come. “You can imagine we’re pretty disappointed,” one follower told the Los Angeles Times.

On Sunday, June 5, Alameda Bible Fellowship gathered as usual to hear Camping speak. Their auditorium was packed and buzzing with uncertainty. After a few hymns and readings, Camping stepped up to the podium. With his sizable ears and craggy, expressive face, he resembled an octogenarian Alfred E. Neuman. It would be his final public appearance before his stroke a few days later.

Charles Sarno was in the audience that day, although he was no acolyte. A sociology lecturer at Berkeley and a faculty member at Dominican University, Sarno specializes in religion, deviance, and social control—in other words, “the study of cults,” he tells me. “Or, as we proper sociologists call them, ‘new religious movements.’” As it happened, in 2011, he had a burgeoning religious movement in his backyard; he had recently moved to Alameda, less than five minutes from where Camping’s fellowship met.

For scholars of religion like Sarno, few moments are more potent than the aftermath of a thwarted prophecy. The notion of “cognitive dissonance”—that tension people experience when tightly held beliefs are at odds with experienced reality—was first articulated in When Prophecy Fails, psychologist Leon Festinger’s seminal book. In 1954, Festinger embedded with the Seekers, a Chicago-based doomsday group who expected a UFO to rescue them from a global flood. When no deluge materialized, Festinger writes, the followers experienced “a persistent, frustrating search for orders.” Some left; others doubled down, claiming their faith had actually averted the flood. Festinger drew parallels between the Seekers and followers of William Miller, the 19th-century American preacher who first declared Jesus would return in 1843. Even after the ensuing dissonance—The Great Disappointment, it was called—some chose to keep believing. Out of their “search for orders,” the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was born.

How would Camping and his followers resolve their great disappointment? Sarno was there to find out. As he listened to the broadcaster speak that morning, offering up October 21 as the revised end date, one thing became abundantly clear, he says: “He was not in it for the sex, drugs, or rock and roll, which some people are. He was a true believer.”

A shirtless man with a large tattoo of a rifle on his back is standing. He is looking up at a large billboard advertising "Judgment Day May 21, 2011" with the tagline "The Bible Guarantees It"
False advertising: Billboards spread Camping’s prophecy far and wide. ASSOCIATED PRESS

After attending the June 5 service, Sarno decided to make Camping his summer project. A sociology professor at Holy Names University at the time, he and his colleague, psychology professor Helen Shoemaker, spent the next year conducting participant ethnography. They interviewed Camping’s family,
colleagues, and followers. He was struck by the makeup of Alameda Bible Fellowship, which was remarkably diverse racially, socially, and economically. Also noteworthy: A significant chunk of Camping’s followers worked in STEM.

“These were smart people, well-educated, generally in engineering fields,” Sarno says. Some of that could be chalked up to Bay Area demographics. But Camping’s timetable of human history was uniquely persuasive to left-brain believers, he argues. “To them, it fit like pieces of a puzzle.”

After a service on October 16, for instance, Sarno spoke to one longtime elder of the fellowship: a computer engineer with a Ph.D. from Stanford, readying himself for Armageddon. In the months since Camping’s stroke, attendance at the fellowship had dwindled, as had members’ certainty in the October 21 prediction. Still, the computer engineer was fairly confident. Other members were planning “watch parties,” coming together to read the Bible in their living rooms or atop the Berkeley Hills as they awaited their Rapture. How will you spend your final hours on earth? Sarno asked the elder.

Working, the engineer admitted. He was helping develop a cutting-edge computer chip. The deadline, he told Sarno, was time-sensitive.

Grappling with dissonance and uncertainty, we can all leap to emotional conclusions and “reason” our way backward. And there’s a profound comfort in having the answers, even if they are, ultimately, unfounded.

It’s easy to assume that intelligence is a bulwark against cults, or conspiracies, or pseudoscience. But it’s not. Recent studies suggest that bright, well-educated people can be even more adept at believing whatever they please. “They have some of the tools and the training to convince themselves,” says Jevin West, a visiting associate professor in Berkeley’s School of Information. “In some cases, those higher on the scale of rational skill can be just as susceptible, if not more.”

Even those in STEM—often considered uniquely data-literate and rigorous in their critical thinking—can fall prey to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” It’s only human, of course. Grappling with dissonance and uncertainty, we can all leap to emotional conclusions and “reason” our way backward. And there’s a profound comfort in having the answers, even if they are, ultimately, unfounded. Research from Yale’s Dan Kahan and others suggests that people with higher numerical literacy might be likelier to interpret data in ways that bolster their biases, political or otherwise. That may be especially true when they venture outside the realm of their expertise. (Two controversial Berkeley-associated Nobel winners—Kary Mullis ’73, chemist and AIDS/HIV denialist, and John Clauser, physicist and climate change denier—come to mind.)

Camping was, by all accounts, an accomplished engineer. Where he went wrong, according to his critics, was applying that toolbox to the Bible. “It must be approached analytically, as one would approach an engineering book or a law book,” he wrote in 1986. He also claimed the book was “its own interpreter”—no historical or literary context required. Trained biblical scholars would disagree vehemently, and some did. In 1970, responding to an early version of the Adam When? timetable, archaeologist and historian Edwin Yamauchi suggested that Camping’s “layman’s background … has unfortunately resulted in ‘tunnel vision.’”

Laypeople with tunnel vision is a pretty fair characterization of many self-taught internet scholars today. The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an “infodemic,” including a torrent of misinformation, lies, and conspiracy theories that complicated efforts to corral the virus. Trust in the benefit of science plummeted, from nearly three-quarters of Americans in 2019 to a little more than half in 2023, according to the Pew Research Center. At the same time, a think-for-yourself ethos was surging—what philosophers of psychology Andrew Buzzell and Regina Rini call “epistemic heroism.” The project of the Enlightenment, they contend, is colliding with the Information Age.

“Have courage to use your own reason!” philosopher Immanuel Kant famously exhorted in 1784. It’s an attitude that generations of Westerners have absorbed. Yet Kant and his Enlightenment contemporaries never had to contend with our level of access and overload. Nor could they have fathomed the large language leviathan that is ChatGPT. Today, hyperspecialized fields abound, and valid information and nonsense look more and more identical. Figuring it out all by yourself isn’t just hard, Buzzell and Rini argue: “It invites catastrophe.”

Throughout the pandemic, average people experienced the messiness of real-time scientific progress in personal, often painful ways. In late March, public health officials told Americans that masks weren’t effective; a few weeks later, they declared them essential. The science was developing, but to many, the flip-flopping felt sinister. A considerable swath of Americans said to hell with Dr. Anthony Fauci and began charting their own epistemic course.

Tellingly, though, even as many moved away from the scientific establishment, they continued relying on its vocabulary. Championing the horse drug Ivermectin as a cure-all, or asserting that 5G networks wreak havoc on immune systems, people still cited statistics, provided infographics, and quoted people with multiple degrees. The paradox belies the fact that, even with the drops in trust, “science as an institution has built a pretty strong reputation,” says West. “When you use the language of science, and you use numbers and statistics, it’s more convincing. It almost seems like it drops straight from the heavens.”

West is the coauthor of Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World and the inaugural director of the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington. He cofounded the center in 2019 as a way to combat the tide of human, and now often AI-generated, misinformation. Last year, for instance, he and his colleagues examined millions of posts from a Twitter antivaccine community to see if it mattered whether users purported to be experts or not. One might expect that, in an anti-science space, Ph.D.s and lab coats wouldn’t guarantee influence. But results showed the opposite: Those few “perceived experts” were the central figures in the community. They were almost twice as likely to be retweeted as those without the aura of expertise. In the case of this particular community, West says, “the conclusion we came to is they’re not anti-science. They just have different experts.”

A man dressed in a horned fur hat, with his face painted red, white, and blue, is holding a microphone and a sign that reads "Q Sent Me!" and is part of a group of protesters.
Stormwatcher: QAnon adherents believed Donald Trump would bring a day of reckoning. ASSOCIATED PRESS

On its face, ordinary individuals engaging with science can and should be a positive, he believes. But the main issue is that average people “don’t get the luxury of doing peer review.” You need people calling BS on you, he says, which you rarely find online. “There are infinite spaces you can go to find evidence to support any claim.”

QAnon may be the biggest contemporary example of unregulated epistemic heroism. For nonbelievers, the conspiracy movement’s core narrative—that upon reelection, Donald J. Trump will round up the Satan-worshipping, pedophilic, and possibly cannibalistic elites—seems disturbingly illogical. Yet millions of QAnon adherents see themselves as rational evidence-gatherers. Like Camping, they believe they are methodically connecting the dots.

QAnon has become a sprawling big-tent conspiracy, welcoming in UFO faithful, JFK truthers, and flat-Earthers alike. But just as Camping’s movement began with him poring over his Bible, QAnon has its roots in a close reading of one particular text: the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman.

After WikiLeaks released Podesta’s emails in October and early November 2016, far-right Reddit and 4chan users scoured them for hints of malevolence. They alighted on the words “cheese pizza,” which they somehow read as code for child pornography. Soon, they posited that a Democrat-run child sex ring
was harbored in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.

#Pizzagate, as the theory became known, would inspire 28-year-old Edgar Welch to storm the restaurant on December 4, 2016, rifle in hand, and open fire. No one was harmed, fortunately, and Welch, realizing the error in his “self-investigation,” surrendered to police custody. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” he told the New York Times. For one thing, there was no basement.

And when prophecy fails? Usually, goalposts are moved.

Even though the #Pizzagate theory was disproved, its premise of Democrat-sponsored sex trafficking was soon absorbed by the mythos of Q. In October 2017, a 4chan user with the handle “Q Clearance Patriot” proclaimed to be a high-ranking government official with the inside scoop on Trump’s crusade against the deep state. “POTUS,” he announced, had tasked him with releasing “crumbs”—cryptic messages that would become known as Q drops. As these drops proliferated, an online interpretive community sprang up. Through memes and streams, Bible verses and TikToks, QAnon constructed itself.

From the beginning, sociologists point out, QAnon was steeped in apocalyptic millennialism: the expectation that our corrupt world will be radically transformed to make way for a better, brighter age. Camping and his followers anticipated the Rapture; QAnon adherents awaited the Storm. Dates were set.
On November 1, 2017, Q announced that Podesta and other “primary targets” would be arrested three days later. “Stay alert, be vigilant, and above all, please pray,” he posted on 4chan.

And when prophecy fails? Usually, goalposts are moved. May 21, 2011, for instance, was not Camping’s first end times prediction. Decades prior, he went all in on September 1994. He proclaimed it repeatedly on Family Radio (to the horror of many colleagues), published 1994?, his 551-page tome that earned
$1 million in sales in less than a month, and went on programs like Larry King Live to debate his critics. After he was proved wrong, he copped to a “mathematical error.” But he didn’t disavow his timeline completely. “I don’t know what you mean by the word ‘repent,’” he told one detractor who challenged him to do so on-air. He continued revising his timeline until October 21, 2011. Only after that point did he, at last, repent.

Similarly, when no mass arrest occurred in November 2017, QAnon adherents shifted the date of the Storm again and again and again. Why? Because the feeling of being in the know was more important than actually being in the know, explains Peter Forberg, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Berkeley who has published extensively on QAnon. Even as adherents were repeatedly proven wrong, he says, the communal interpretative process left them feeling empowered. “In these kinds of digital movements, you have constant social support that is always amplifying you, and it feels really good.

The biggest draw to something like QAnon is its “radically participatory nature,” Forberg continues. Far more than Camping and his followers, Q and his adherents constructed their alternate reality together, building off Q drops in YouTube dissections and Twitch chatrooms and text threads. For many, the
movement offered them social and ideological support they weren’t getting elsewhere, Forberg says. “You feel like you’re being absolutely trampled by the political system, the economy’s bad, the government’s corrupt, and you don’t know what you’re doing—and then, you’re in this movement, and they’ve given you the tools to create your own interpretation. Suddenly, you’re contributing.”

Over and over, Forberg heard this common QAnon refrain, as a badge of honor and a canny rebuttal to charges of manipulation: No cult tells you to think for yourself.

While QAnon grew steadily during Trump’s presidency, the COVID-19 lockdowns turbocharged it. Now, millions were stuck at home, perusing fringe sites like 4chan and 8kun, but also mainstream ones like Facebook and YouTube, discovering the Storm. Forberg began researching QAnon in earnest during this period. He interviewed followers, monitored message boards, and performed natural language processing on 300,000 tweets. He found that, perhaps first and foremost, believers identified as “not just smart or moral, but particularly smart and moral.”

“I’ve always been a critical thinker,” a young man named Derrick told Forberg. “I was the kid that could decipher the important stuff from the garbage.” Derrick purported to be college-educated, and plenty of those drawn into the QAnon narrative were. According to a 2020 Pew Research survey of more than 9,000 adults, 28 percent of QAnon supporters reported holding undergraduate degrees, just 2 percent less than respondents from the general population. So mainstream media outlets labeling QAnon a “collective delusion,” or the U.S. House of Representatives denouncing the movement as a “sick cult,” as they did in 2020, only entrenched individuals like Derrick. Over and over, Forberg heard this common QAnon refrain, as a badge of honor and a canny rebuttal to charges of manipulation: No cult tells you to think for yourself.

In many ways, viewing QAnon as a doomsday cult rather than purely a conspiracy theory is “right on,” Forberg says. “They had key moments that were supposed to happen that really motivated participation.” Structurally, too, doomsday cults and conspiracies revolve around gnosis: secret knowledge, usually delivered from on high, that reveals the true nature of reality—and, often, its end. It’s a core reason why cults and conspiracies are so appealing. In an uncertain world, they offer believers the satisfaction of certainty.

Gnosis is really the bedrock for any apocalyptic movement, explains Poulomi Saha. The codirector of Berkeley’s Program in Critical Theory, she teaches a popular course on cults at Cal. “The secret that you have access to, that produces a community, because that secret is a cipher for everything,” Saha says. “When you know that secret, everything looks different.”

Where the doomsday cult framing becomes unhelpful, Forberg believes, is the negative connotation. “It makes it much easier to dismiss QAnon as something completely aberrant from how ‘normal people’ think.” Saha, for her part, challenges her students to drop the term “cult” by the second week of class, opting instead for “intentional community.” She’s not too keen on the word “irrational” either. “Rationality is a kind of weapon of defense,” she says. “It’s what we say to reinforce our difference from the irrational, as though these are permanent conditions. None of us are always rational, ever. None of us are always irrational.”

Increasingly, QAnon spilled offline, often violently. The QAnon links to the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, are well documented; research from the University of Maryland shows that 1 in 10 January 6 defendants had direct ties to the movement, more than any other extremist group that day. In a sense, the insurrection can be viewed as an adaptation to thwarted prophecy. Apocalyptic groups are always pivoting, explains Catherine Wessinger, a religion scholar from Loyola University New Orleans and coeditor of the journal Nova Religio. “When one method is failing to achieve a millennial goal, there’s a strong temptation to try some other method, especially resorting to violence.”

After January 6, the movement received a series of successive blows: Joe Biden’s inauguration; purges of QAnon content on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter; and the arrests and prosecution of numerous January 6 participants. All of this served to splinter and decentralize the movement. Recent years have seen a few flare-ups, like Negative48, the QAnon offshoot that flocked to Dallas by the thousands in November 2021 to witness the second coming—not of Jesus, but of JFK and JFK Jr. When neither Kennedy emerged, many decided to remain in Dallas anyway. Their actions underscore the main argument of Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails: The ones who remain devoted always care more about the community than the prediction.

As we approach the 2024 election, though, Forberg isn’t convinced we’ll see the kind of offline action we saw four years ago. Q, who hasn’t posted in years, has probably been unmasked. Linguistic studies point to South African software developer Paul Furber, who handed the baton off in 2018 to Ron Watkins, son of Jim Watkins, owner and operator of 8kun. So, at least for now, there is no central voice in the movement. Apocalyptic groups often struggle after a leader’s death or disappearance. When Camping died in 2013, his movement largely did, too.

Somewhere along the way, though, Q’s interpretive community outgrew its need for new revelations. And the conspiracy movement is definitely not gone; if anything, it’s gone mainstream. Ever since Elon Musk initiated acquiring Twitter (now X) in April 2022 and reinstated scores of previously banned accounts, the Anti-Defamation League has tracked a steep resurgence in QAnon content on Twitter—some of it amplified by Musk himself. Devotees are winning elections, from school districts to the U.S. Senate. Sound of Freedom, a 2023 Christian action movie about an ex–federal agent rescuing children from sex trafficking in South America, got the QAnon bump at the box office, earning a quarter of a billion dollars. Globally, too, their core conspiracy of the global cabal is being embraced in large numbers, in Britain, New Zealand, Germany, Russia, Brazil, and beyond.

Harold Camping is standing in a doorway marked with an "EXIT" sign above it. He is looking directly ahead with a serious expression.
HWorld without end: Camping appears at his studio, two days after Armageddon failed to unfold. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Harold Camping’s apocalyptic vision spread throughout the world, too, although he and his narrative were “scrupulously apolitical,” Sarno points out. Not so for QAnon. In the U.S., the movement has inserted itself directly into the political process. “QAnon is like the Tea Party 10 or 15 years ago,” Forberg contends. As the 2024 election ramps up, he sees their “fervor for cultural and social revolution” fueling the discourse over everything from critical race theory to immigration. And while activists and politicians may distance themselves from the Q label, “people who are a part of QAnon, or who believe in the fundamentals of QAnon—they’re all over the place.”

For all his global influence, Harold Camping’s digital footprint was small. He saw FM and AM radio as the primary vehicle for his message (along with billboards, T-shirts, and actual vehicles). “After 13,000 years of history … God allowed mankind to discover electromagnetic waves,” he marveled in one interview.

When we spoke in January, I asked Charles Sarno what would have happened if Camping and his message had arrived a few years later, when the infrastructure of internet influence had better solidified. Would the broadcaster have had a greater impact? He didn’t think so. “He would have been drowned out.” Camping was a relic in his own time, and especially so compared to the “darker apocalyptic forces” at work today, Sarno says.

Looking back at the decade since Camping’s death, another question inevitably surfaces: Is there more irrational thinking than ever? According to the Berkeley scholars I spoke to, not necessarily. Humans have always believed and spread outlandish ideas. Instead, Forberg says, what we’ve experienced in recent years might be just increased online connectivity. “We’re seeing certain beliefs become more centralized because now all these people are able to act together.”

“We tend to think of ‘making meaning’ as good. Oftentimes, it is, because it helps get us through the night. But some of that meaning is delusional.”

Charles Sarno

West notes, too, that extreme ideas often arise in moments of extreme crisis. In 2024, there are multiple overlapping emergencies: fraught political elections worldwide; protracted wars; the creep of artificial intelligence; and, looming over all, the unfurling climate crisis. Invariably, as anxiety levels rise, “there’s the swooping in of stories to help you,” he says. “I think we’re all susceptible.”

Indeed, if there’s a moral to the Camping saga, Sarno argues, it’s one that implicates everyone. “Human beings are promiscuous and sometimes pernicious meaning-making creatures,” he tells me. “We tend to think of ‘making meaning’ as good. Oftentimes, it is, because it helps get us through the night. But some of that meaning is delusional.”

In the years since Camping’s death, Family Radio has distanced itself from its founder. The company relocated its headquarters to Tennessee and no longer airs any of his broadcasts. It has moved on, and so have most of Camping’s followers. Chris McCann, however, has not. The founder of eBible Fellowship
and host of its online call-in show, New Open Forum, McCann believes Family Radio is abandoning its core mission: get the word out about the end. With eBible Fellowship, he’s endeavoring to pick up where Camping left off.

“The Lord saved me through Family Radio,” he tells me over the phone. In January 1987, he was fresh out of the Navy and attending 12-step meetings for alcoholism when he first heard Camping’s call-in show. “Night after night, I’d listen to the Open Forum and learn things that I wasn’t taught in school and I wasn’t taught at home.” He’s now trying to offer the same with New Open Forum, which he began in late May 2020. The videocast is painstakingly modeled on its predecessor, from the studio space with its antique furniture and potted plastic foliage to McCann’s drab blazers and ties. (It’s all meant to be “a little dig” at Camping’s doubters, he says.) When I watched one of McCann’s Facebook livestreams in January, it showed one viewer present: me. But McCann says the eBible Fellowship community is quite expansive, and it may well be. The Facebook page has more than 500,000 followers.

More than a decade since Camping gave up on his timetable, McCann remains committed. “He was not the same after his stroke,” he insists. “[That] was evident to anyone who knew him.” In 2015, McCann and eBible Fellowship made a few headlines for using Camping’s methodology and teachings to say
there was “strong likelihood” the world would end that October. He’s since recalibrated and is now pushing the year 2033.

Like the Millerites, Seekers, or any number of apocalyptic thinkers before him, McCann has spiritualized the events of May 21, 2011. In his view, that’s the day a spiritual judgment kicked off. There was an earthquake that day, he tells me patiently, in the sense that there was a tectonic shift in the nature of reality. “I’m sure you’ve noticed this being a reporter: What is probably the single word that you hear every day, everywhere? Divided.”

He pauses for emphasis. Like Camping, McCann spends his days behind a microphone. He knows how to wield his airtime. “Division: political division, societal division. When you look at it spiritually, a spiritual earthquake going from nation to nation, unsettling all the nations and the kingdom of this world…. ”

“Everybody knows something’s desperately wrong,” he tells me. “But they can’t put their finger on it.” And I will admit, for a brief instant—before he goes on to explain how the Hebrew word sheol is translated 31 times as “grave” and 31 times as “hell” in the Old Testament and I lose the thread of his argument
entirely—I can see how McCann’s explanation could make sense. On a level beyond logic, I feel puzzle pieces slot into place. I want them to, I suppose.

The feeling scares me. But I also understand. Who doesn’t want to know? Don’t we all want to see time and history laid out—a clean chalk equation etched on a blackboard—and feel, as Camping once did, the thrill of discovering truth?

Hayden Royster is a playwright and journalist from Oakland who writes at the intersection of belief and culture. Find him on X (for now) at @haydenroyster and

Join the Cal Alumni Association’s California Reading campaign and support your award-winning alumni magazine. Donate by July 1, 2024, and receive a complimentary Cal Alumni Association bookmark to go with your Cal-themed reading list.

Share this article