Tom Evans leads me through the low-ceilinged offices of Family Radio. He walks past the bustling admins and mail sorters, back past the noisy printing presses where workers churn out thousands of tracts. As we climb the worn wooden steps up to his tiny office, he says, “Welcome to the executive suite.” Evans takes a seat behind a small desk. The wall to his left is decorated with photos of his kids and an old Disneyland map. His desk is remarkably organized for someone who has booked a one-way ticket to heaven. Judgment Day is just 15 days away. This humble building, sandwiched between a car parts shop and psychic reader near the Oakland airport, is the center of operations for the May 21st doomsday ministry.
Why May 21, 2011? Because, according to Family Radio’s president Harold Camping, it’s exactly 7,000 years to the day after God originally showed his infinite love—my words, not his—by drowning almost every woman, man, and child on earth in a worldwide flood. I’d explain the math behind Camping’s calculations, but, honestly, I don’t understand it. I tried. The timeline in the back of his book, Time Has an End, which I ordered from Amazon a few weeks ago, didn’t make the reasoning any clearer. I got hung up on passages like this: “The year 391 B.C. is the year when the Old Testament was finished, and 2,011 + 391 – 1 = 2,401, or 7 × 7 × 7 × 7. In the perfectly complete end of time, Christ will finish speaking to this present world.”
How seriously do believers take this message? One guy I met in the Family Radio lobby had just returned from an RV proselyting trip that went as far as Colorado. Another told me he drove up from Los Angeles that morning just to correct a translation error in one of the ministry’s tracts. Some listeners in China have sold their homes and are donating the money to Family Radio’s campaign. NPR reports that in the U.S., one couple—with one kid and another on the way—cashed out their savings accounts and budgeted to run out of money on the big day.
Before visiting their headquarters, I had seen Family Radio billboards all around the Bay Area. On a recent trip to the East Coast, I spotted their ads on a train in New Jersey and on a Boston subway. The ministry’s RV campaign has grabbed the attention on media outlets nationwide. After Family Radio put up billboard ads in Dubai, the public uproar pushed a government agency to remove them. And, as the countdown on the Family Radio website ticks closer to zero, the media coverage is increasing.
Tom Evans is at the very center of all the attention—or next to the center, at least. As Family Radio’s media representative, he arranges and sits in on just about all of Harold Camping’s interviews (including a soon-to-be-published interview with Killing the Buddha). See, at 89 years old, Camping’s hearing isn’t that great. He wears a headset during his nightly Open Forum broadcasts to help him hear comments and questions. During interviews, Evans listens to the calls, and when Camping can’t understand the reporter’s questions, he relays them so that Camping can respond.
Clarity of speech is evidently his strong suit. Even as Evans describes the May 21st Rapture, the horrific worldwide earthquake that will follow it, and how the planet will go to shit—my word, not his—until October when God finally destroys the Earth and all creation, he speaks so matter-of-factly that he might as well be giving me tips on how to execute a proper deadlift.
Evans is clean-shaven, with dark green eyes and short combed hair. Wearing a black polo, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes, he looks more like a gym coach than the media guy for an international religious organization worth at least an estimated $100 million.
This all started for him in the 1980s, as a teenager in Southern California, when some of his friends gave him a Bible. Soon, after enrolling at UC Berkeley, he began tuning in to Camping’s broadcasts. He eventually called up the station to find out where Camping taught Bible study classes. After attending his first class, Evans introduced himself to Camping and it turned out the two had much in common. Camping studied civil engineering at Berkeley, while Evans had worked in carpentry and construction. Both had taught themselves the Bible.
Midway through his senior year, Evans told Camping he was thinking of moving back to Southern California after graduation. Camping offered him a job taking care of the Family Radio facilities. He accepted it, and stayed around.
Over the years, a divide grew between Evans and his family. While his siblings were having children of their own, he would remain single until his early 50s. And while they all professed belief in some form of Christianity, Evans says his understanding of the Bible drove a wedge between them.
When Evans first listened to Family Radio and attended Camping’s Bible study classes, he heard no mention of a date for Judgment Day. But as early as 1982, some other people in the class whispered that Camping had been talking specifics about the return of Christ. It wasn’t until 1991 or 1992 when Evans heard from Camping himself about a date for Judgment Day: September 7, 1994. Camping had been slowly unearthing the biblical evidence. He would lay out his case in the book 1994?—where he also named 2011 as another possible date—and in a companion volume which he eventually give away free of charge.
Evans remembers that in 1994, like today, media grabbed hold of the story. He hoped that it would be right. When the “catching up” of believers described in the Bible—what other Christians commonly call the Rapture—didn’t occur that September, Evans remembers feeling disappointed. But, he says, “My trust is that God is always in charge. Essentially, once you’re made a child of God, nothing can separate that and God promises that.”
Evans believes Camping had unwisely heeded mathematicians from Lawrence Livermore Labs and that their calculations had made Camping “overconfident” in the 1994 date.
The phone in Evans’s office suddenly rings. He picks it up and listens to the voice on the line for almost a minute with eyes closed, rubbing his open hand back and forth along his forehead.
“As far as how you can help us, at this point, with less than 15 days left, we really pretty much have that in hand,” he says. He listens for a while longer, writes down a name, then thanks the caller and hangs up.
“He had some wacky ideas,” Evans tells me.
“He was talking about buying a lot of property in Pacific Heights in San Francisco and he wanted us to partner with him,” Evans says. “And that’s not something we’re at all interested in.”
A little later on in our conversation, Evans’ office phone rings again. Again his eyes close and a hand goes up to his forehead.
A few years ago a heart murmur forced Camping to undergo bypass surgery. Then, six months ago, he fell and broke his leg. With these health problems, Camping began working more out of his home instead of the Family Radio offices. Meanwhile, Evans had become head of Family Radio’s international tract distribution program, and he sometimes drove out to Camping’s home to talk shop. It was on one of those visits six months ago when Camping’s phone rang. On the line was a reporter.
“[Camping] had a hard time hearing the person,” Evans recalls. “So I was sitting there. It was on speakerphone and I could understand what the person was saying.” Evans helped out by restating the reporter’s questions so that Camping was able to understand them and then respond.
Evans still isn’t sure why Camping could understand him so clearly while he had trouble understanding the reporter. Whatever the reason, the interview went well. So well, in fact, that at the end of the call, Camping looked at Evans and asked him to be the ministry’s media representative. Evans had no previous media experience. But, just as his carpentry and construction experience prepared Evans for maintaining Family Radio facilities, he believes God had been preparing him for this new role. Another part of his preparation was teaching junior high and high school children for some twenty years, making him used to answering lots of questions. Plus, a media rep friend has shared tips and warned him what to look out for.
But he’s also worried that all the attention will focus too much on Camping and not enough on God. “We have not tried to garner any kind of publicity. That’s not our motivation—at all,” Evans explains. “The only reason that we make ourselves available to the media is because we feel that media is one of many tools that can be used to get out this message.”
Their openness seems to have worked. In recent weeks, media as far as The New Zealand Herald and The Hindustan Times have reported on the ministry’s efforts to spread the Gospel’s bad news. Evans has received requests from documentary filmmakers in Sweden, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands, most of them wanting to focus on a May 22nd aftermath film. Evans has had to decline those requests: “We just don’t have time for that.”
The most negative response has come from other Christians. They say Camping’s date-fixing contradicts Jesus’ own words about his return: “No man knows the day or the hour.” Even many of Family Radio’s employees reject the May 21st date. While waiting in the lobby for Evans, I spotted a memo listing the company’s 2011 holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas were on the list. When I ask Evans about this, he tells me that he has had confrontations with several staff members about Camping’s prediction.
For him, though, the signs are too big to ignore: the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, the rise of the gay pride movement, and the splintering of Christianity into so many denominations all signal that the end is very nigh.
I have a hard time imagining what I’d do if I were in his position, thinking the way he does. These days, Evans tries to spend what little free time he has with his wife and two small children, a three-year-old daughter and six-month-old son.
“I really don’t know what it will be like in the new heaven and the new earth,” he says. “All I know is that what God does tell us is that there will be no more pain. There will be no more suffering. The former things, all the problems that we’ve had throughout our lifetime will be forgotten.” Not only the problems, the earth and the universe will be forgotten, but any memories of the unsaved will be wiped away, too.
So, I have to ask, what does that mean for his brothers and sisters?
“They have since learned to respect what I do,” he says, though he has to avoid certain topics when he talks to them. “They’ve made it clear they don’t share the same convictions.”
I ask if that’s difficult for him, knowing that his own family members aren’t saved.
“I do not ask that question,” he replies. “I try not to get into that issue of whether someone’s saved or not. God tells us not to do that.”
What will he do if he wakes up May 22? Grab coffee? Come in to work?
“No, it’s far more serious than that,” he replies. “I’ve said if you boil everything down it’s really trusting the Bible. If you can’t trust the Bible, then you got nothing. There’s no truth.”