MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
Over the past couple of weeks, we've followed the story of some Christians who believed Judgment Day would arrive on May 21st. That was this past Saturday, but the day came and went without event. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports on how true believers are coping with the disappointment.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: As recently as two weeks ago, Gary Vollmer was absolutely certain that on May 21st, God would send devastating earthquakes, raise believers to heaven, and then destroy the world five months later. Now that it hasn't happened, he's unfazed.
GARY VOLLMER: God is God, and God's going to do what he has to do.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: True, Vollmer says, believers got some of the details wrong. But the thrust of the message is right.
VOLLMER: Judgment Day has come and passed, but it was a spiritual judgment on the world. There is no more salvation; salvation is over with. The fact is, we have 153 days and the 21st of October, the world will end.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: I profiled several believers before May 21st. Yesterday, most did not answer the phone. And those did wouldn't talk on tape. But one man, his voice quavering, said he was still holding out hope that they were one day off. Another believer asserted that their prayers worked, and God delayed judgment so that more people could be saved.
Tom Evans was contrite. Evans is on the board of Family Radio, the organization led by Harold Camping, who calculated and promoted the May 21st date.
TOM EVANS: I don't know where we went wrong, other than we obviously didn't understand the Scriptures in the way that we should.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Evans hopes they will not recalculate and announce a new date for Judgment Day. After all, they've done that at least once before, in 1994, and he believes they've learned a lesson.
JERRY WALLS: This kind of thing has a long history.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Jerry Walls is an expert on eschatology, or the study of the End Times, at the University of Notre Dame. He says there've been dozens of doomsday prophets, though most don't pinpoint a date.
One of the most famous was William Miller, a farmer and amateur Bible scholar. Miller persuaded many people that Jesus would return in 1844, and when he didn't...
WALLS: One of their followers said, we wept and wept all night, till we could weep no more. And just this sense of utter devastation because these people had completely sold out. And when it did not materialize, their lives were really shattered, in many ways.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: They eventually decided that judgment had occurred, but it happened in heaven. From that was born a new denomination, the Seventh Day Adventists. It's too early to know how believers will cope with Saturday's failed prophecy in the long run. Some will admit they were wrong, but experts say most will find a way to rationalize their beliefs.
ELLIOTT ARONSON: It's very hard for us to say boy, was I stupid.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Elliott Aronson is a prominent psychologist and co-author of the book "Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me."
ARONSON: And the more committed a person is to their prophecy, the more likely they are to justify that action, and to try to convince people that their belief was, in some way, right or good.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Before May 21st, many believers quit their jobs, left their families, and gave their savings to Family Radio, which then sent out caravans and put up billboards announcing the end. Tom Evans says now that the date has passed, all they can do is pick up and move on.
EVANS: I don't know what the future holds for Family Radio, or for any of us. We just have to pray that God will be merciful.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Evans says he hopes the organization will repay people who gave their money to the cause. But at this point, he can't guarantee it.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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LOUISE KELLY: This is NPR News.