Doomsday predictions for Saturday met with hope, prayer, skepticism
"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." Matthew 24:42
FARGO - If the lawn doesn't get mowed Saturday, it won't be the end of the world.
Or will it?
Billboards across the United States, including one near the Fargo intersection of 25th Street and Main Avenue, are trumpeting a claim that Judgment Day will arrive Saturday.
The message was reinforced by a decal-laden caravan of RVs that rolled through the Fargo-Moorhead area last weekend and then headed out to spread the word to other cities.
Humankind has received similar warnings before, though so far every breathless claim has evaporated like morning mist when the day that shouldn't dawn actually does.
What's behind such passionate pronouncements?
A fervent belief that good will triumph over evil, according to John Helgeland, a professor of religion and history at North Dakota State University.
"It is a brand of apocalyptic religious thinking that involves the promise of the end of the world and the coming of God to put an end to evil and evildoers," Helgeland said.
End-of-days prognostications are as old as the Book of Revelation, Helgeland said, adding that many people thought the world's number was up when the calendar turned from 999 to 1000.
The same thing happened a thousand years later.
"Y2K was probably the last really big one," Helgeland said, though he added that many other examples can be found throughout history.
In the 1840s, he said, a group that gave rise to the Seventh-day Adventists decided it had figured out when the final grain of sand would sift through the hourglass.
On the day they believed God would return and bring an end to everything, church members stood on a hill in white robes, waiting for sunrise.
"I suppose you could guess: It didn't happen," Helgeland said.
The people behind the May 21 Judgment Day billboards and caravans share a belief promoted by Harold Camping, founder of a large California-based Christian radio network known as Family Radio.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Camping said his prediction that Judgment Day will begin Saturday was based on biblical research.
Updated research, that is.
Camping originally predicted Judgment Day would come Sept. 6, 1994, and he wrote about it in a book called "1994."
He told NPR he redid the math using information in the Book of Jeremiah, which he hadn't considered in his first calculation.
Under Camping's latest reading of the Bible, The Rapture - a time when some believe worthy souls will be lifted up to heaven - is to take place Saturday and the end of the world will follow five months later, on Oct. 21.
Even if creation makes it through 2011, it has another potential expiration date to look forward to: December 2012.
That is when the world is supposed to end based on an ancient Mayan calendar.
Rumors of war
When it comes to things like predicting Judgment Day, the Catholic Church "tends to be pretty restrained," said Monsignor Robert Laliberte, parochial vicar at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Fargo.
"The teachings of Christ are that we are to expect the end, that we are to be ready at all times.
"Therefore," Laliberte added, "there are not going to be any imminent signs of the coming."
Laliberte said many things people commonly point to as signs of the end are generally not treated as such by the Catholic Church.
"Nowhere does Jesus say that earthquakes and wars are going to be signs that his coming is soon," Laliberte said.
"He simply says: 'There are going to be earthquakes in various places and wars and rumors of war, but the end is not yet,' '' Laliberte said.
While an extreme makeover of the universe may sound alarming, Helgeland said belief in a cosmic final curtain can be comforting.
"If you think about the world going on into the future infinitely and that the world has been going on infinitely into the past ... it gives people almost a feeling of chronological vertigo," Helgeland said.
By putting a myth at the beginning of time and another at the end, "It gives people a sense of being bounded," he said.