In a small corner of Hopkins, there’s a sign of the end of the world.
“Save the date!” the 11th Avenue billboard reads. “Return of Christ/May 21st, 2011.”
On that day, according to the group behind the billboard, believers will be raptured up to heaven and the whole world will witness an earthquake that will raise bodies from graves. Those left behind will face exactly 153 days of trial and tribulation before the world ends Oct. 21.
The billboard is one of 25 that Raleigh, NC-based WeCanKnow.com installed throughout the Twin Cities as part of a marketing campaign in about a dozen states. The group is a family-run affair of only about three or four people. Allison Warden (no relation to the author of this article) is the de facto spokeswoman. Her mother came up with the idea for the website and approves the literature that goes on it. Warden’s best friend from high school is the webmaster.
The group doesn’t disclose the amount it spends on billboards, bus benches and other advertising, but Warden said the campaign was funded by pooling private donations made explicitly for that purpose.
Warden, who briefly lived in central Minnesota a decade ago, is certainly no hair-shirt-wearing prophet. She’s a payroll clerk by day who spends her free time trying to persuade people that the end times are near.
“We’re just regular people that have had the most average American life that people can have,” she said—adding that May 21 is God’s date, not hers. “I’m 29 years old. If I were to set a date, don’t you think I would have pushed it back farther?”
WeCanKnow is not affiliated with any church, denomination or group—in fact, it believes that churches are flawed and that a biblically prescribed “church age” has ended. But it draws heavily on ideas from Oakland, CA-based Family Radio Worldwide—a network of 66 stations steered by 89-year-old Harold Camping. To maximize the reach of these ideas, WeCanKnow selected advertising sites, such as the Twin Cities, where Family Radio doesn’t already have stations.
Camping made news back in the ’90s when he predicted that the world would end in September 1994—albeit acknowledging the possibility that he could be wrong. He and his followers say now that he stumbled over a few scriptures and that the new dates are ironclad.
Said Warden: “This isn’t a person’s opinion. It’s there in black and white.”
Christianity has a deep history of belief that end times are imminent. The early church didn’t expect to wait long for Jesus to return, leading church founders to forgo pushing for long-term societal changes, according to many church historians. Yet the mainstream church moved away from these beliefs by the second century and largely continued to steer clear of them in the centuries that followed.
With the apocalyptic elements of Christianity trending to the fringe, traditional churches tend to look toward verses emphasizing the unexpected nature of the end times—as with the classic from 1 Thessalonians 5:2, “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.”
(WeCanKnow uses the King James Version of the Bible exclusively.)
But Camping and WeCanKnow, citing scripture found just two verses later, argue that these churches only got half the story: “But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.”
Combine those verses, they say, and it’s clear that there’s a timetable in the Bible.
“To me, that was a smack upside the head: Who is being addressed here that that day is not going to be a thief?” Warden said.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t actually mention May 21. Camping drew his conclusions from a complex set of calculations that looked at symbolic numbers, Jewish feast days and historic events such as the 1948 creation of Israel and the Gay Pride movement.
“A lot of people are calling it numerology. It’s simple arithmetic, really,” Warden said.
While WeCanKnow unabashedly asserts that it has the right date, it is remarkably free of mandates for those who believe its message. The group distrusts church authority and argues that believers should search the Bible on their own—free from the doctrinal baggage that has accumulated around denominations over the millennia. The message is, “essentially open up that Bible,” Warden said.
Its social organization is the exact opposite of a cult. WeCanKnow condemns trusting one’s soul to a pastor’s interpretation of the Bible—“We can’t put all of our eggs in one basket. People are fallible,” Warden said—and sees little use for the community aspects of church life.
When asked where believers can gather together without churches, Warden conceded that small Bible studies could be an option—then quickly added that communing with God is more fulfilling than socializing with people. In that respect, she said, personal Bible study and listening to religious podcasts, alone, can be just as effective.
Warden is friendly and engaging, though. She has dogs and is quick to strike up conversations with those who notice the WeCanKnow.com sticker on her Subaru during her frequent visits to the Post Office to mail out free religious literature. She describes the evidence for the end of the world more like a friend offering homework help than a fire-and-brimstone prophet.
Part of the reason they believe the Bible contains a timetable is because they think God wouldn’t condemn the whole world without warning. Warden compares her work with WeCanKnow to trying to rescue someone from a dangerous situation. Why wouldn’t you let them know they were at risk?
Yet she’s not deaf to the way most of the world views her group. Although the people she encounters face-to-face are usually at least civil, e-mails that come in through the website are much less friendly. Warden is single and both her parents believe, but other relatives don’t. Some refuse to talk about religion altogether.
For Warden, though, May 21 is just a fact she lives with—like a very important appointment. She’s checked Camping’s assertions herself and is convinced that the end is coming.
“My family, they know me. They know I’m not crazy,” she said. “In this particular instance, it’s right there in the Bible.”
Curious how Camping arrived at his conclusions? to see his reasoning. Want to know what a mainstream Christian church thinks? Hopkins Patch about his views.