May 10, 2011— -- "Judgment Day" is approaching. Fast. The world, as we know it, will end May 21, at least according to the now-ubiquitous prophecy posted on more than 5,000 billboards, posters, fliers and digital bus displays across the country.
Family Radio, based in Oakland, Calif., is a nonprofit evangelical Christian group that has declared May 21, 2011, as the day of Armageddon. It has been funding the campaign to spread the word through an outreach program it calls "Project Caravan."
Tom Evans, a spokesman for Family Radio, said the doomsday date is based on a complicated reading of the Bible and calculations that stem from the "7,000 year anniversary of the flood."
"You know how Sherlock Holmes arrives at 'who dunnit?' It is really a process of eliminations and bits of pieces of information to arrive at May 21 and then confirming the date by testing it against everything else the Bible says," he said. "In Ezekiel, chapter 33, God tells believers when the sword of judgment comes, the watchman and believer is to blow the trumpet and tell the world."
The thousands of billboards and fliers are Family Radio's way of blowing the trumpet. The radio network -- which has 66 stations in the United States -- is headed by Harold Camping.
A former civil engineer turned radio host, Camping, 89, is the president of Family Radio and is touring the country to spread his message of impending doom.
Members of his fundamentalist flock show up to his presentations sporting yellow T-shirts, cheerfully disseminating word that the Rapture is almost here. The signs on their RVs proclaim, "Have you heard the awesome news? The End of the World is almost here."
Evans said Camping and his followers believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. "It is a manifestation of God's word," he said.
While Family Radio says it has faith in the Bible, it has no use for organized religion and believes Catholics and Protestants, among others, have corrupted the word of God.
"If you're a Christian, you know that God does not elevate any man above any other man," Evans said.
One sore spot in the group's campaign is that Camping has predicted the end of the world before: in 1994. But, Evans said, Camping was "thrown off a correct calculation because of some verses in Matthew 24." So when 1994 came and went, Camping headed back to the drawing board and came up with May 21.
Camping and his followers point to three specific harbingers of their interpretation of the End: When Israel became a nation in 1948, when churches stopped following a strict interpretation of the Bible and the profound increase in "immorality and lawlessness" in our world (specifically homosexuality, they believe).
Many skeptics deride the group as fringe players or religious cranks but the multimillion-dollar billboard campaign has certainly caught the nation's attention and fed into the public's fascination with apocalyptic scenarios.
Popular books about Armageddon include the best-selling series "Left Behind," which has sold more than 1 million copies. And, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, more than 40 percent of Americans who consider themselves Christians believe there will be a Second Coming sometime in the next 40 years.
Judgment Day: 'All the Money Wasted" on Billboards
But religious scholars point out that while Camping and his group might be amusing -- even interesting -- their message has no factual basis. Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said Camping's math doesn't make sense.
"In the Gospel of Matthew, it says we know not the day or hour; only God knows the End time," he said. "Camping's calculations are totally contrived. He kind of says a thousand years must be equal to a day and multiply that by the number of floods. ... It's all so bizarre. If God doesn't tell the angels, he certainly doesn't tell Harold Camping."
Groome said Camping and his group are an example of "religion run amok" and lamented over "all the money wasted" on the billboards.
"The Bible isn't meant to be taken literally, "he said. "It is a book of faith, not a book of data that offers predictions. We will all still be here on May 22."