If there's a Rapture and no billboard announces it, has the world really ended?
Yes, or probably, according to the Oakland-based Family Radio ministry and its leader Harold Camping, who are sticking to their latest prediction that the world will end -- for real this time, well maybe -- Friday.
Camping originally foresaw a cataclysmic rolling earthquake spawning Doomsday on May 21, and his nonprofit spent millions of dollars proselytizing with the Armageddon on billboards, a fleet of RVs, radio stations and throughout the worldwide media.
Camping became one of the most popular web searches in the days before the end, and the butt of jokes, particularly after the world survived the day.
Five months later, Camping, now 90, and his believers have not lost faith, but they have kept it to themselves.
The billboards have disappeared, the evangelical caravan parked, followers have folded up their End of Days sandwich boards, and Camping, recovering from a stroke at his Alameda home, and his ministry have kept quiet.
"We have no comments for the media," a friendly Family Radio operator said Friday. "We're not doing that any more."
"Family Stations, Inc. has no comment concerning October 21," spokesman Thomas Evans wrote in an email. "Our media response was made back in May."
Camping's home phone number has been disconnected.
A woman answering the door at Camping's house Monday said he was not seeing anyone and politely closed the door.
The End of the World notwithstanding, 2010 tax returns show the Oakland-based nonprofit now has assets of more than $104.8 million, up more than $30 million from the year before.
Donations soared in the months before the expected end in May, and the nonprofit dumped millions of dollars into more than 5,000 billboards worldwide, but those figures will not be public until next year.
The nonprofit owns several dozen radio stations across the globe, but Camping stopped his weekday broadcast of Open Forum religious programming after his June 9 stroke. Camping recorded a message to his followers in recent weeks.
"I'm still a long ways away from being healed, but there is progress being made," said Camping, his normal gravelly voice now slurred.
In the six-minute message, Camping addressed the mistakes of May 21 and the expectations for Friday, which will not come with the global earthquake he previously predicted.
"There's a lot of things that we didn't have quite right and that's God's good provision," he said. "I really am beginning to think as I restudy these matters that there's going to be no big display of any kind. The end is going to come very, very quietly, probably within the next month. It will happen, that is, by Oct. 21."
The once-resolute Camping's use of words such as "probably" has led to seeming crisis of faith among his adherents in a Yahoo chat room dedicated to all things Family Radio and Rapture.
"This is so confusing. One person says that October 21st is guaranteed, another person (Mr. Camping) says that it's a 'possibility,'" one chat room member rants. "Which is it? What do we really believe? What do we stand for? ... Either we believe what we preach or we don't. ... I'm telling you, if nothing happens on October 21st, I'm ending it all. I'm done. I'm through. And Family Radio is to blame."
Another responded: "What do YOU believe in? Why is this even worth discussing? If its God's will, then it will happen. If its not, we continue on living. All the proof points to this date, but maybe God didn't want to reveal everything?"
And a third went after both of them: "When you wake up on October 22nd wondering what the hell didn't happen, I hope you guys can realize that and let your misplaced faith be corrected by true faith in Christ and what the Bible was actually meant for. Here's a hint: it's no cosmic countdown calendar of doom. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. You are living in a land of make-believe."
Camping, who also survived his 1994 Doomsday prediction, explains the May 21 false end in a Family Radio website link: "What Happened on May 21?"
Fourteen paragraphs illustrate how May 21 was the end of "God's salvation program" and in the subsequent five months the world has been under God's final judgment.
The passages also explain how the group mistook the word "earthquake" for a geologic event when it actually meant mankind would shake with fear.
Staff writers Peter Hegarty and Kristin Bender contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026.