BY BOB SMIETANA • THE TENNESSEAN • DECEMBER 1, 2010
There are 24 shopping days left till Christmas.
And 171 days left until Jesus' second coming.
That's the message on 40 billboards around Nashville, proclaiming May 21, 2011, as the date of the Rapture. Billboards are up in eight other U.S. cities, too.
Fans of Family Radio Inc., a nationwide Christian network, paid for the billboards. Family Radio's founder, Harold Camping, predicted the May date for the Rapture.
Their message is simple — "He Is Coming Again" — and their aim is to get unbelievers to turn around quickly. But critics say the billboards are a waste of time, one more failed attempt to predict the end of the world.
The Rapture is going to be a great day for God's people but awful for everyone else, said Allison Warden, 29, who orchestrated Nashville's billboard campaign. She's a volunteer with WeCanKnow.com, a website set up by followers of Family Radio. She and other fans designed the billboards, along with T-shirts, bumper stickers and postcards to get Camping's predictions out.
Warden traveled from her home in Raleigh, N.C., to Nashville last week to check out the billboards, purchased through the end of the year. She wouldn't say how much they cost or name who paid for them.
She is absolutely sure that Camping's prediction is right.
"It's a certainty," she said.
But the Rev. Fred Fuller of Madison Campus Seventh-day Adventist Church disagrees. He says the Bible points to Jesus' return, but no one knows when.
"The Bible says no one knows the day or the hour," he said. "I don't believe that date-setting or the scare tactic of an immediate date is a biblical approach."
Predicting the second coming for Jesus dates to the first days of Christianity, when believers said he would return in their lifetimes. Since then there have been a series of failed predictions.
One of the most famous, known as the Great Disappointment, happened in 1843, after William Miller and his followers sold their homes and waited out in a field for Jesus to come back.
Former NASA engineer Edgar C. Whisenant sold millions of copies of his book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988.
Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, said predictions of the end of the world provide relief from the pressures of daily life for some. That's why they continue to be so popular.
"Whatever the mess that your life is in, it makes everything nice and simple," he said.
Billboards In Other Cities
Tom Evans, a spokesman for Family Radio, insisted the predictions are true, and he and other Family Radio supporters want to save their friends and neighbors from God's judgments.
The billboards are also up in Louisville, St. Louis, Detroit, Little Rock, Omaha, Kansas City, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Bridgeport, Conn. In cities with Family Radio-affiliated stations, the message is on the air.
The latest prediction comes from a verse in Luke 17: "As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the days of the Son of Man."
It's a matter of simple math, said Evans.
Calculation Of The Date
According to Camping's prediction, the Rapture will happen exactly 7,000 years from the date that God first warned people about the flood. He said the flood happened in 4990 B.C., on what would have been May 21 in the modern calendar. God gave Noah one week of warning.
Since one day equals 1,000 years for God, that means there was a 7,000-year interval between the flood and rapture.
"We hope that anyone would get a Bible out and try and prove that this is wrong," he said.
To spread their message, Family Radio is also sending out caravans of RVs across the country, with the Rapture message. One should make its way to Nashville after the first of the year. They're sending missionaries around the world to hand out tracts.
But he thinks only a small number of people — about 3 percent — will take the billboards seriously.
"Sadly, only eight people survived the flood in Noah's time," he said. "The number of people that are going to be saved is going to be very small."
At least one Nashville resident remains unconvinced. Sophie Boes is a manager at Whiskey Kitchen, the downtown restaurant closest to a Gulch billboard. She said she'd never seen a message like it.
"Wow," she said. "Welcome to the South."
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