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Participants in a movement that believes Judgment Day is May 21, 2011, gather on a street corner in New York.
Participants in a movement that believes Judgment Day is May 21, 2011, gather on a street corner in New York. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Recent full-page ads in newspapers and signs on street corners have been carrying a dire warning: Judgment Day is here.
Followers of Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping believe the Second Coming of Christ is this Saturday. They believe that's the day the dead will rise from their graves and a worldwide earthquake will bring five months of torment for the unsaved, until the universe finally ends on Oct. 21.
So what's so special about May 21?
Jerry Walls is an expert on beliefs about the end of the world, known as eschatology, and a visiting scholar at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He tells NPR's Neal Conan that Camping's esoteric numerology is responsible for the specific date of May 21.
According to Walls, Camping's numerology goes back to the flood that led to Noah's ark, which Camping has dated at 4990 B.C.
"So even though scholars by and large agree that we have no idea when the flood actually occurred," Walls says, "he's got it down to the exact year."
Starting with that date, Camping turns to Scripture for directions on the rest. In Genesis 7:4, God warns Noah that the flood will come seven days after he finishes his ark. Camping understands each "day" in the Bible as representing 1,000 years on Earth because of the New Testament verse that says "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day."
So by adding 7,000 to 4990, Walls explains, Camping comes to 2011 for the date of the Second Coming.
According to Walls, Camping arrived at the specific date in May through an even more complicated calculation. He says that's what's so fascinating about these kinds of predictions.
"The more esoteric they are, the better they are," Walls says. "It's kind of like someone that has special insight that nobody else could have come up with or seen, has suddenly hit the lodestone and nailed this thing in a way that everybody else missed before."
Camping first predicted the Second Coming of Christ would happen in 1994. Walls says Camping explains the earlier, inaccurate prediction by saying he misread important parts of the Bible. But, Walls adds, "he says it's absolutely clear this time."