Divining Doomsday: An Old Practice With New Tricks Convinced that May 21 will mark the world's end, believers continue to warn of God's ensuing wrath. But they aren't alone: End times prophecies have existed for centuries, and today, they're on the rise, examining whether world events — from earthquakes to economic globalization — are signs of the coming Apocalypse.

Divining Doomsday: An Old Practice With New Tricks

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Judgment Day is May 21st. That is, if you trust the many billboards popping up across the country. One group of Christians predicts catastrophe will strike that day, taking the true believers to heaven and leaving the rest to a terrible fate.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports that few people genuinely believe the end of days is upon us, but prophesies of the Apocalypse are definitely on the rise.

Ms. MARGARET PEASE: Judgment Day, folks, May the 21st, 2011.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Margaret Pease stands on a corner in downtown Pittsburgh, handing out doomsday pamphlets. For the past seven months she's been crisscrossing the country in a caravan with eight others, warning anyone who will listen that God's wrath is near.

Ms. PEASE: And I'm sorry, I might be a little loud, but I want people to get the message. I know they can see it, but I also want them to notice it and I don't want anybody's blood on our hands or my hands.

Judgment Day folks.

HAGERTY: Nearby, David Liquori is telling a passerby what he thinks will happen in just a few days.

Mr. DAVID LIQUORI: On the May 21st at about 6 p.m., an earthquake of proportions which have never been known since man was on the Earth will occur.

Mr. THOMAS SAYERS: This coming 21st?

Mr. LIQUORI: Yes, sir.

Mr. SAYERS: Oh, this is going to be awesome. Where's it going to happen?

Mr. LIQUORI: It's going to happen everywhere. Everywhere.

HAGERTY: The man doesn't buy it. But like many people interviewed for this story, David Liquori has bet everything on this date. He's given up his wife and son, his job, his home. Liquori and others say that a very small fraction of Christian believers will fly up to heaven on that fateful day. Then, on October 21st, the Earth and the universe will be destroyed. For those still here during those five months...

Mr. HAROLD CAMPING: Oh, it will be a horror story beyond measure.

HAGERTY: That's Harold Camping, the man who calculated the May 21st date. Camping has been predicting the end for years on his international Christian radio network, Family Radio. Camping says the Bible is written in code and for those who are able to decipher it, it's clear as daylight.

Mr. CAMPING: With all the proof that God has given us and all the signs, I am absolutely certain it is going to happen. There is no Plan B.

HAGERTY: Of course, even Jesus said he didn't know when Judgment Day would come. Camping is not bothered by that, nor by the fact that he wrongly predicted Judgment Day once before, in 1994.

Mr. CAMPING: It was based on incomplete research and I was quite aware that the research was incomplete. And so, it was just like a first announcement that we're almost there.

HAGERTY: So far, predictors of the end times have batted zero. The most famous was William Miller, a Baptist minister who believed that Jesus would return in the early 1840s. According to Catherine Wessinger, a historian of religion at Loyola University in New Orleans, on the night of October 22nd, 1844, believers gathered on hilltops to watch Jesus return.

Ms. CATHERINE WESSINGER (Historian of Religion, Loyola University in New Orleans): People stayed up all night, they waited. Some people allegedly put on white robes, waiting to go up into heaven, and were very disappointed the next morning when the sun rose and nothing had happened.

HAGERTY: It was called the Great Disappointment.

Professor CATHY GUTIERREZ (Religion, Sweet Briar College): People have been predicting the end of the world in Christianity since the time of St. Paul.

HAGERTY: Cathy Gutierrez, a religion professor at Sweet Briar College, says usually end times prophets do not predict a specific date. That's way too risky. But she says the predictions have come fast and thick in the past 60 years, largely because of one event.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine to be called Medinat Israel, the state of Israel.

Mr. DAVID JEREMIAH (Evangelical Pastor, Author): Almost all of the prophecies of the Bible depend upon Israel being in her land.

HAGERTY: David Jeremiah is an evangelical pastor and author of "The Coming Economic Armageddon."

Mr. JEREMIAH: And when she finally became a nation and the people of Israel began to re-gather, that sort of started the prophetic clock.

HAGERTY: Israel's birth has created a booming end times industry. Dr. Jimmy DeYoung, who hosts the radio program Prophecy Today, scrutinizes every development in the Middle East and says it's all predicted in the Bible.

Dr. JIMMY DEYOUNG (Host, Prophecy Today): You talk about the Jews returning to the land, the alignment of the nations coming against the Jewish state of Israel, this anticipation for peace, the arrangements to put the temple up. The fact is that everything is unfolding. Never in the history of the world have all of these prophecies been coming together

HAGERTY: DeYoung says everything is in place for the next big event: the rapture, when believers go to heaven and the rest are left behind.

(Soundbite of "Left Behind")

Unidentified Woman #1: Honey, have you seen the kids? Where are they? Where are my kids?

HAGERTY: The rapture has been made hugely popular by movies and books like "Left Behind." Forty-one percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return by the year 2050, according to a poll by The Pew Research Center. And for many of these believers, news events can take on an apocalyptic meaning. A global economy? The rise of the European Union? It's all outlined in the Bible, they say. A spate of wars and revolutions in the Middle East? Ditto. Epidemics, extreme weather patterns, open your Bible and turn on the news.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Woman #2: Tonight from Haiti, tens of thousands of people are feared dead following a devastating earthquake.

Unidentified Man #1: Monster quake. One of the most powerful earthquakes in history hits Japan.

Unidentified Man #2: In one night, 173 separate tornadoes reportedly touched down.

Mr. JEREMIAH: We've always had earthquakes, we've always had storms, and we've had tsunamis in the past.

HAGERTY: Pastor David Jeremiah.

Mr. JEREMIAH: But it does seem that these things are happening with more intensity and more frequently.

HAGERTY: Religion professor Cathy Gutierrez says this convergence is less about the end of the world and more about the rise of instant media.

Prof. GUTIERREZ: If you're looking for signs of the end, we are more than capable of delivering them directly to your computer or to your television within seconds.

HAGERTY: Gutierrez says many of the Bible's prophetic books were written metaphorically to avoid censorship. Because of that, each generation can revive and reinterpret them. And she says for end time Christians, looking through a biblical lens can give chaotic world events - the tsunami in Japan, the fighting in Libya - a meaningful pattern. Things happen for a reason, and all of history marches toward a fitting denouement.

Prof. GUTIERREZ: It is going to come to a definitive clear end, where the good guys are going to win and the bad guys are going to lose. It's the most comforting novelistic plot that we know.

HAGERTY: And for that reason, she says, there will always be people predicting the triumph of God, and the fall of unbelievers.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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