It’s 10 days before all hell will supposedly break loose. A caravan of RVs, vans, pickups and cars, all emblazoned with large signs reading “Judgment Day: May 21, 2011,” idles in the parking lot of the Tri-State Mall, a shabby strip mall tucked just inside Delaware, right off I-95. Several dozen evangelical Christians—of all ages and races—stand around chatting. Many are Philadelphians. Most are wearing neon-yellow T-shirts with the words “May 21” and “The End” or “The Rapture” in big black letters. They’re grinning, laughing, embracing.
Once a few more people arrive, the caravan will hit the highway for a five-day trip to New York City, where the group will stand on street corners handing out tracts warning that the end of the world is nigh.
Chris McCann glances up at the sky, the brim of his “Judgment Day” baseball cap shielding his eyes from the morning sun. “It’s going to be a beautiful day,” says the Darby resident, a 49-year-old married father of four and leader of the locally based online ministry eBible Fellowship. But he isn’t talking about today. He’s speaking of Judgment Day. According to McCann, the others gathered here and countless more doomsday believers worldwide, this coming Saturday is when trumpets will blare and Jesus will return to scoop up his “elect” and lift them to heaven.
“If you hit the lottery, if you win 100 million dollars, that’s the ultimate good day, right?” asks McCann. “This will be a billion times better than that for the believer.”
McCann says he’s convinced that on Saturday, a cataclysmic earthquake will strike New Zealand at about 6 p.m. local time—marking “the shutting of the door to heaven,” he warns—and begin a slow, destructive roll through the world’s time zones, hitting Philadelphia at 6 p.m. our time. “You’ll be able to see it coming, but there won’t be anything you can do about it,” McCann says.
According to the May 21’ers, caskets will be unearthed and the remains of believers will ascend to the clouds along with the living “saved.” Meanwhile, the unsaved who somehow manage to survive the event will be left to suffer in the rubble until Oct. 21, 2011. That’s when the world will actually end, they explain.
“There’s going to be death everywhere,” says South Philly native Barbara Pisano, 55, who strolls over in her “Earthquake: So Mighty So Great” shirt. “There’s going to be no electric, no gas, no water, no stores. It’ll take you five days just to get around the block because of all the debris. I’m scared to think what people will do to each other.”
“It will be like the earth is giving birth,” says 52-year-old Kevin Brown, a soft-spoken South Jersey resident with piercing blue eyes. “There will be great pain for those who stay, and great joy for the saved.”
To a skeptic, this whole scene—the RVs, the T-shirts, the dire predictions—might feel like an elaborate put-on, a prank. But to the believers gathered here, May 21 is for real. Many have quit their jobs, given away their possessions, and burned through their life savings.
Elvis Nditafon, 25, left his engineering job at the end of March. He’s standing next to his gleaming white Mitsubishi Eclipse—he just drained what was left of his bank account to get huge “Return of Christ” graphics on the sides of his car. “I’m not sure how it’s going to work, but our bodies will be changed,” he says of May 21. “It could be vanishing. The Bible gives evidence that it’s going to be something visible to those who are left behind. I just pray that I’m one of the chosen.”
The spiritual leader of the May 21 movement is Harold Camping, the 89-year-old founder of California-based Family Radio—a nonprofit, noncommercial Christian broadcasting network that boasts more than 100 radio stations around the country (their programming is heard locally on 106.9FM WKDN out of Camden) and many millions of listeners worldwide. A self-proclaimed “tireless student of the Bible,” Camping’s been on the airwaves for 50 years analyzing Scripture and sharing his end-of-the-world beliefs. In 1992, Camping famously predicted that Judgment Day was slated for mid-September 1994. When it didn’t happen, he claimed he’d simply gotten the math wrong.
Over the past several years, though, Camping has told his followers he’s re-crunched the numbers and is sure he has it right this time. Family Radio’s website says: “The Biblical evidence is too overwhelming and specific to be wrong” about May 21. Camping’s complex formula to arrive at Saturday’s date with Armageddon involves numerous assumptions (“absolute truths,” McCann insists) derived from various Biblical passages: The world was created in 11,023 B.C. Noah’s flood occurred in 4990 B.C. Judgment Day is supposed to happen seven days after the flood. One of God’s “days” really equals 1,000 years. And so on.
“I’ve studied the numbers and there’s no question [Camping’s] right,” says McCann, who left his mutual fund company in 2008 to focus solely on Bible study. “It’s all there in the Bible.”
While Camping is the main force behind May 21, McCann has emerged as his right-hand man and prime mover of the message beyond the Family Radio airwaves. The nonprofit eBible Fellowship, run by McCann with the help of a few other volunteers, is Family Radio’s advertising arm. They’re the ones primarily responsible for the “Judgment Day” billboards and bus banners seen all over Philly in recent months. EBible has helped erect thousands more billboards around the U.S., and throughout Africa, South America and South Asia. It has had a hand in millions of May 21 text messages sent to China, and tracts floated into North Korea via balloon. From a small rented room equipped with a Xerox machine in Sharon Hill, Pa., just west of Philly, eBible has copied and mailed hundreds of thousands of tracts to people around the world. And it has helped provide a fleet of RVs for several May 21 caravans that have been crisscrossing the country the past two years.
It’s all been funded by donations to eBible and Family Radio. McCann won’t say how much money has been taken in or how much has been spent, aside from saying it’s a “very significant amount.” But, he insists, “This isn’t done for any profit whatsoever … we haven’t made a cent, and neither has Mr. Camping.”
The advertising has undoubtedly been effective. People are talking about May 21 like they did about Y2K. “Never in history has a date speaking of Judgment Day spread around the whole world like this,” McCann says proudly.
McCann acknowledges that most people on the streets of Philly and elsewhere think he’s a kook—“You know the Philadelphia attitude,” he laughs—but he says that people regarded Noah and Jonah much the same way. “Every once in a while God sends messengers to warn people. This is something I have to do.”
While it’s difficult enough to make the world believe that the end is rapidly approaching, several May 21’ers say they’ve struggled to convince their own families that Judgment Day is coming. McCann says that his wife believes, but that only one of his four children is on board. “I pray for all of them and it may be that the Lord will open up their eyes, there’s still time,” he says.
But the entire Pisano clan—Barbara, her 61-year-old husband, Paul, and their two kids, 22-year-old James and 24-year-old Rachel—believes. “We’re hoping that on May 21 we’ll all be raptured up together as a family,” Paul says.