TORONTO — The message is dire, the billboards are bold, the campaign is relentless, and most people don’t care.
Scholars are shrugging off a prediction from a California-based fringe Christian organization that says the beginning of the end is mere days away.
Family Stations Inc., more commonly known as Family Radio, has launched an aggressive global campaign to warn the world that the Rapture is set to take place on May 21, ushering in the final five months of the earth’s existence.
The judgment day prediction was issued by organization president Harold Camping, a self-styled religious scholar who purports to have calculated the end of the world based on evidence found in the bible.
The earth’s destruction, Camping says, will get underway when a devastating earthquake hits Australia and New Zealand and quickly works its way around the globe, killing millions in the process. Chaos will reign until Oct. 21, he contends, when God will destroy the planet and anyone unfortunate enough to still be alive.
Camping’s findings have unleashed a frenzied advertising campaign from Family Radio, which has vowed to spread word of the pending disaster and give people a chance to save themselves.
The organization has put up 20,000 billboards around the world, including 85 in major Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Saskatoon.
Family Radio has also launched a convoy of caravans to canvas the U.S. and Canada and warn of the impending disaster.
The message is falling on deaf ears in more mainstream religious circles, who openly challenge Camping’s methodology.
“It’s not going to happen. It’s impossible,” said Michel Desjardins, President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Desjardins questions Family Radio’s assertion that the bible is a divine document passed directly from God to his followers, without human revisions or interventions.
That belief forms the basis of Camping’s forecast, since he claims the clues contained in the text are direct messages from on high.
“These texts were written 2,500 years ago, for a different purpose, in different languages,” Desjardins said. “These people here don’t understand the beginning of it.”
Family Radio says Camping’s understanding is infallible and stems from his more than 40 years of rigorous bible study.
Spokesman Gunther von Harringa said Camping is the only person to accurately assign dates to significant biblical events, including the great flood that plays a key role in his current doomsday calculations.
Camping’s theory is based on the belief that the flood associated with the tale of Noah’s Arc took place in 4990 BC, von Harringa said, adding scientific evidence such as sediment deposits support the idea.
The rest of the calculation was derived from a bible verse equating 24 hours in God’s life with a thousand years on earth.
“God is saying to mankind, ’you have seven thousand years to get into the safety of the arc,the arc representing Christ himself,” von Harringa said.
Those 7,000 years have now come and gone, but Richard Ascough, a religious studies professor at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ont., isn’t alarmed.
Ascough acknowledges that Camping’s numbers add up, but says nothing else about the argument holds water.
“It’s a fairly easy calculation that they’ve done, if you assume that they’re correct, which they’re not,” he said.“
“The math works, but only in a very funny kind of way. It’s a game the whole family can play.”
Ascough calls Family Radio’s prediction and publicity campaign “irresponsible,” adding the advertising strategy is worthy of a major corporation.
He fears the group will be able to persuade certain people to take drastic actions.
Religious fervour has convinced people to quit their jobs, sell their houses and in some cases even end their lives, he said.
Family Radio members appear to sincerely believe what they’re saying, Ascough said, which makes their persuasive power all the more compelling.
Von Harringa said the lavish advertising campaign signals Family Radio’s commitment to its message, adding the group is actively trying to deplete its funds.
“We believe this so strongly, not only are we putting our reputation on the lines, but we’re spending all our money like there is no tomorrow, because we don’t believe there will be a tomorrow,” he said.
This is not Camping’s first end times prediction. He previously pegged the Rapture for a day in 1994, though with a caveat that he may be wrong. When the world didn’t end, he claimed to have misread a line of scripture.
Family Radio is more definite about the 2011 date and the consequences of the projected earthquake.
The organization’s website predicts the divine temblor will be powerful enough to crack open all graves, hurling worthy corpses heavenwards and casting the others on the ground “to be shamed.”
The ensuing 153 days will be a period of “nothing but death and devastation,” von Harringa said, adding only true believers will pass on to heaven where they will “be married” to Jesus in a celestial wedding.
Desjardins is fascinated by the human ability to accept such a drastic scenario, adding the notion may be hard-wired into the brain.
“Something about the idea of ’you get what you deserve’ just makes sense to us as humans,” he said. “And there’s something about cleaning the whole place up, whether it’s your house in the spring or the world, that appeals to humans psychologically. There’s got to be some of that happening here.”
And there’s something about cleaning the whole place up, whether it’s your house in the spring or the world, that appeals to humans psychologically. There’s got to be some of that happening here.“
Both Desjardins and Ascough, however, have put forward predictions of their own — it’ll be business as usual on May 22.
“These (predictions) come and go several times a year, and some groups get more attention than others,” Desjardins said. “It’ll be a variation of what others have done in the past.”