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The Rapture Racket: Cashing in on the Apocalypse

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Oops. He missed it again - the date for the rapture, that is. But that’s okay, miscalculating the date for the end of times is nothing new for Harold Camping.
In 1992, he published his book, “1994?” in which he predicted Sept. 6, 1994 as the beginning of the end. Undeterred by that non-happening, Camping did some re-calculating and published another book in 2008, “We Are Almost There!” He conveniently forgot to mention his 1994 prediction’s failure to launch.
Then, last summer, Camping and his followers made another effort to spread the word: “The rapture is nigh!” Specifically, May 21, 2011. At exactly 6 p.m.  
Now that it didn’t happen, I suppose Camping will anticipate another date. That’s what one of his followers, Robert Fitzpatrick - who plunked his entire life savings of $140,000 into advertising the rapture - is doing.
Give it some time, and we can anticipate more of the same from rapture rousers.
That’s because there is something comforting in being assured that you will escape the worst of times by being whisked into the heavenlies. And the harder the times, the more urgent becomes the call for the apocalypse.
People are curious; they want to know: when will it happen?
Those who claim to know created a rapture racket that has reaped big financial dividends.
According to Family Radio’s IRS filings, contributions and grants to Camping’s organization topped $18 million last year. Warning the doomed of their fate in the predicted apocalypse wasn’t cheap. Family Radio spent as much as $1 million on the billboard campaign alone. But, what’s a mere $1 million when your radio network’s net worth is about $122 million?
So, when 6 p.m. May 21, 2011 came and passed uneventfully, Harold Camping may have been hurt, but not financially. He still sat on a personal net worth estimated at $72 million.
That’s right, $72 million.
“$72 million,” I whimsically thought to myself at approximately 6:01 p.m. Saturday as I scanned the horizon for any paranormal activity. Later, I repeated the figure aloud to myself, sitting in my lawn chair on our back patio, picturing how many hungry and homeless people could be fed and housed with just half of $72 million, and fantasizing what I would do with just a fraction of the revenue gleaned from the rapture racket.
Camping is not the only one who has profited from the prediction of the world’s end. Bart Centre, an atheist, sells insurance policies to those who might be worried about what will happen to their pets in the event that the raptured believers will leave their dearly beloved behind.
Then there is Mark Herrod, who according to the Wall Street Journal is a 52-year-old Evangelical Christian who created a business for believers who want emails sent to friends and relatives in the event of the rapture. He has more than 100 clients who pay $14.95 a month for the service.
And then there are those who hawked T-Shirts and assorted paraphernalia. There was the “I Survived Judgment Day! and All I Got Is This Lousy T-Shirt” shirt for $25, the “2011 Rapture Survivor” mug ($15), the “Darn, I Slept Through Judgment Day” baby onesie ($15), and the truism, “If you can read this, we’re both sinners - 5-21-11,” available in shirt, mug or thong ($15-25).
And I’m on the patio, warmed by the glow of the setting sun even as I’m plagued by thoughts of the homeless, hungry and hurting, and yes, rising expenses in my own house.
Then, I recall that Jesus never promised it would be easy this side of eternity, even though ultimate victory is promised to the believer. The trouble is, we just don’t know what the date is for that final triumph, for Jesus himself put a damper on rapture predicting when he said, “No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself” (Matthew 24:36).
And Jesus had stern words for those who focus on the irrelevant as they grab more and more while ignoring the needs of people in front of them: “When you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me” (Matthew 25:45).
Now, that’s the message I’d like to see on a T-shirt or billboard - somewhere, anywhere. The only problem is - this side of the apocalypse, who on earth will buy it?
Editor’s note: David B. Whitlock, Ph.D. is pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church in Lebanon and an adjunct instructor at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville. You can contact Whitlock at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.