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Spreading the Judgment Day Message at Union Square

People love to laugh at Michael Aitchison and Julie Baker. They believe in Judgment Day, a theory presented by, among others, the Christian group Family Radio, a broadcasting network using its airwaves to send word that the world will end on Saturday, May 21, 2011. Aitchison and Baker both recently quit their full-time jobs to hand out thousands of neon-colored pamphlets prophesying "We Are Almost There" and "Going to Church Will Not Save You."

"Some people thank you, some people laugh at you, some people get angry," Baker said, adding that only one time was she physically assaulted by two passers-by in "weird religious clothes."

The leader behind Family Radio, an 89-year-old engineer named Harold Camping, has said that the Bible indicates Judgment Day falls on May 21, 2011 because it marks 7,000 years since Noah's flood. On Saturday, a massive earthquake will then shake the earth and believers will ascend to heaven. Non-believers will be left in misery to wait for the earth to be officially destroyed on October 21, 2011. One of the pieces of scripture Camping cites is Genesis 7:4 on the Family Radio Web site.

A Family Radio advertisement on wheels for Judgment Day, May 21, 2011.

But Ron Walborn, the dean of Nyack College's Alliance Theological Seminary, said that Camping is alone in his interpretation of the bible.

“What he does is goes back and forth from a very literal, mechanical interpretation of scripture, and when that doesn’t apply he shifts to a very allegorical interpretation,” Walborn said. 

Even so, at Union Square, Baker and Aitchison said that their pamphlets had been going fast — they've been handing out 3,000 a day — in part thanks to Family Radio’s major commercial and media campaign alerting people to Judgment Day, which is also referred to as doomsday and the rapture. Believers have donated millions of dollars to the cause, some even spending their savings to spread the word. Atheists are capitalizing on the end-times message with organizations like Eternal Earth-bound Pets that collects a fee to protect furry loved ones. All manner of "Rapture-Ready" and judgment-themed T-shirts — selling for between $19 and $37 online — have also been up for sale.

On a flyering break, Aitchison sat cross-legged on the ground to munch on a ham-and-cheese sandwich. A crowd of people gathered around him — many of them Christians who don't believe in the rapture — to debate end-times.

"The Bible says that when Christ comes, he's going to come like a thief in the night," said Rory McAllister (pictured at left). He carried a pocket-sized Bible with underlined passages with him. "No one knows the time or the hour."

Ray Richardson (also pictured at left) agreed with McAllister.

“If you read the Bible — not what we think, or what we believe should happen — you’re going to find out what’s the principle of salvation,” he said.

If Judgment Day is to be believed, Friday will be the last day for people to read the Bible and ask to be taken to heaven. Aitchison said one of the things that preoccupied him most about Saturday was his wife and two teenage sons are non-believers.

"They feel I'm mentally ill, they feel I'm crazy, they feel I'm deluded, they feel like I'm following a cult," he said. "It's upsetting, but I know it's not the truth."

Still, he and Baker said they'd be at home reading the Bible on Saturday to prepare for the rapture.

Others will spend the weekend at apocalypse concerts and at tongue-in-cheek end times parties. A Facebook page devoted to post-rapture looting has over 480,000 followers. 

Back at Union Square, naysayers don't have an affect on Baker as she pressed on earnestly with her calling.

"There's great hope. There's time left, and he actually saves more people during this period than he's ever saved, so yeah. There's hope," she said.

Updated 12:00 P.M.