Followers of rapture evangelist lost millions

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It looks like they'll have to make those credit card payments after all.

Followers of Harold Camping, a fringe evangelical radio minister, believed him when he said that the Rapture would begin May 21. According to Christian theology (the fringe kind), during the Rapture, Jesus will take the best Christians (Camping's followers all assumed they were part of this group) to Heaven, while the rest of the world begins a series of earthquakes and other natural disasters, and then goes on to be destroyed sometime in October.

Unfortunately for them, and luckily for those of us who are less righteous, May 21 came and went without a terrible cataclysm, the return of Jesus or the disappearance of a few million believers (at least not that anyone noticed).

Camping today feigned surprise that he was wrong about his prediction, telling Reuters that he was "flabbergasted" by the continued existence of the Earth.

Still, it can't be that big of a deal for Camping. First, he's been wrong before. This is his second prediction of the Rapture: the first was in the 1990s, which, just like this one, failed to materialize. Even then, before the rise of the Internet, he was able to get his message far and wide via his Family Radio network, and the remnants of fliers announcing the first failed Rapture still adorn street posts in cities across America.

In addition, while Camping was wrong spiritually, he is stilling doing well in the material world. After all, Rapture prediction is big business, at least for Camping, and his organization reportedly raked in more $80 million in the three years preceding the most recent May 21. This is on top of the millions the group received in the lead up to the 1992 non-Rapture and the tens of millions of dollars they raised since Camping founded the radio network in the 1950s.

"I find myself irritated by the light-hearted, jocular way in which these matters are treated by the media," biologist Richard Dawkins wrote on his website, referring to a clip from CBS. "If I were an American journalist, I would be out for blood: at very least I would be campaigning to strip these charlatans of their tax-exempt status. Yet the media treat it as a bit of jolly fun."

Indeed, as silly as Camping's story is, there is a dark side. His supporters did not fare so well as he did.

The Daily Mail reported on a New York City transit employee who spent his entire life's savings - $140,000 - advertising Camping's message. What will he do now?

NPR reported before the failed Rapture on 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez and her husband Joel. She had been planning on medical school, but, since the world was set to end, she quit her medical school plans; the couple both quit their jobs. They moved their infant daughter to a rented house in Orlando, and spent all their time - and savings - up to May 21 giving out Biblical tracts.

What the Martinezes are doing now is anyone's guess.

The millions of dollars Family Radio received came from Camping's devoted followers, many of whom put their life's savings into donations. While the charlatan evangelist is checking his equations - he claimed in 1994 that he made a mathematical error in determining when the Rapture would occur; no doubt he'll claim the same this time - while living a life of luxury, his followers awoke May 22 to find that they had distanced themselves from their friends, spent their life's savings, quit medical school, or done other such things - only to find that they now have to figure out how to navigate a world that is still here but, at least in their eyes, much less understandable.

And while the less charitable may be inclined to say that their circumstances are their own fault, surely the same can't be said of their children: A California mother tried to kill her 11- and 14-year-old daughters, so that they wouldn't have to deal with the end of the world. Luckily, her friends showed up and stopped her. While it's not clear that she was acting only at the behest of Camping, the timing of the attempted murders - May 20 - is hard to dismiss.

If there is a God of justice, it seems unlikely that He would look favorably on Camping. Perhaps the federal government shouldn't either.

Image: whatleydude // CC 2.0