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Static on the airwaves

Christian radio tycoon says the world will end May 21-and surprising numbers believe him

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

Ralph Workman believes what he hears on Christian radio. He believes preacher and Family Radio chief Harold Camping is right about Judgment Day. He believes the world is coming to an end May 21, 2011.

An engineer at Boeing's avionics lab, Workman helps manage an RV caravan winding its way around the United States-from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh to Virginia-sharing the belief that biblical numbers point to the specific expiration date for the world. He also runs a website called eBible Fellowship, which distributes Camping's teachings. "I hope many people will get saved and God will have mercy like Nineveh, but most are just scoffers," Workman said. Even his wife does not agree with him on Camping's teaching.

The timing coincides with earthquakes, tsunamis, and Middle East turmoil, feeding greater than usual response to end-times predictions. It precedes the Mayan 2012 prediction, which broke into popular culture through the 2009 big budget movie 2012 . Theologians, former listeners, and skeptics warn that Camping's teaching is unbiblical, prediction off-base, and message harmful to followers. But many seem to be listening to Camping rather than his critics-funding ads, signs, and postings from Iceland to India, along with YouTube videos, some with more than 300,000 views and titles like "Rapture Soon," "Jesus Coming," and of course "May 21, 2011." Family Radio is sponsoring the caravan of four RVs, plastered with Camping's message, and has bought space on 1,000 billboards nationwide.

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This is Camping's latest prediction after followers were disappointed in 1994, when he gave a range of dates. He says he wasn't sure that was the end, but now he's sure. Camping, a University of California at Berkeley-trained civil engineer, bases his end-of-the-world predictions on complicated mathematical interpretations of Scripture. He grew the Oakland, Calif.,-based Family Station Inc. from one station he purchased in 1958, and his predictions are amplified by the 150 stations and signal repeaters it now owns in 37 states, with short-wave signals going worldwide potentially heard by millions.

Some Christians are saddened by the change in Family Radio, which was a source of comfort, inspiration, and gospel music in the 1980s when it aired programs such as "Unshackled" by Pacific Garden Mission of Chicago and on-air Bible studies and devotionals from local churches. Camping now teaches that Jesus died twice. He teaches that "real Christians" can get good teaching from the internet and radio (read: Family Radio) rather than local churches. He prohibits partaking in communion and rejects baptism.

"He is a false prophet," said Richard Rodriquez, a former listener who now moderates an online forum on Crosswalk.com critical of Camping. "He is deceiving and deceived and is leading people astray." Rodriguez worries that publicity for Camping will be another black eye for Christianity, as mainstream media outlets like NPR, CNN, and MSNBC have picked up the story.

"We have no idea how many people listen to us," said Tom Evans, a member of the Family Radio board of directors. But listeners gave $80 million in donations from 2005 to 2009, according to an IRS form 990 for Family Station Inc. Details of where all the money goes is closely guarded, even among board members of Family Radio. Evans says only the controller, Gary Cook, and Camping know how the millions are being spent. Neither Cook nor Camping responded to requests for interviews.

"Let's be satisfied with the signs that Jesus gave and with His instructions. No one knows the date or time. Be ready always watching and praying," said Gordon Lewis, senior professor of Christian Theology and Philosophy at Denver Seminary. Author of Confronting the Cults, Lewis points to Matthew 24:36 and said Camping's teaching distracts from the context and intent of the Bible. "Expect and hope the Lord may come today. Just plainly do what He says."

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