When the California Christian group known as Family Radio predicted the beginning of the end of the world as we know it back in the spring (not for the first time), Harold Camping and his followers splashed dire warnings on billboards around the globe.
But then nothing happened on May 21. There was no rapture and true believers weren't swept to heaven while everyone else was left waiting to be consumed in the total destruction of Earth by Oct. 21.
Despite that setback, the California-based group is still looking on Friday as a day of reckoning, even if its predictions have been toned down.
There aren't any billboards this time, and the 90-year-old Camping has shifted from definitive language to adding the word "probably" to his vocabulary.
So, if history repeats itself, the world will be just fine on Saturday. In fact, one observer expects Family Radio, which describes itself as a "non-profit, non-commercial Christian radio network," will keep sending out its signals, too.
"I suspect Family Radio will endure yet another failure on Oct. 21st in terms of their predictions, and will continue on," says Richard Ascough, a professor in the School of Religion at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
What has happened with Family Radio is a "typical pattern" for these kinds of groups, says Ascough.
First there's the brouhaha around the end-of-the-world prediction, the recruiting of followers and believers, and then a kind of deflation and disappointment among them when the prediction doesn't come true. That tends to be followed quickly by a reinterpretation by the leadership.
'Judgment upon the whole world'
On its website, Family Radio has a posting under the title "What happened on May 21?"
"All of mankind was shaken with fear," it reads.
"Indeed the Earth (or mankind) did quake in a way it had never before been shaken. God had come spiritually to bring judgment upon the whole world."
How would you spend your last day on Earth? Have your say.
Camping, who is recovering from a stroke he had in June, is now speaking in more measured tones. He has talked, according to reports, of the end coming "very, very quietly probably within the next month … by October 21."
Family Radio did not respond to an email request for an interview, and a phone number on the website was not in service Wednesday.
Ascough says there is historical precedence for groups setting another end date fairly quickly, and points to the Millerites, whose leader William Miller was the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist movement, which is still around today.
In the case of the Millerites, they went through two "Great Disappointments" when Jesus Christ did not return in 1844 and 1845.
Ascough expects Family Radio will endure because, in such instances, people tend to be drawn to the group because of the charisma of the leader or his close associates.
Because of that, followers are willing to cut the leader some slack and "are willing to allow that God might slowly unfold things to them," says Ascough.
Campling's "waffling," however might throw some followers off, Ascough suggests. "They’re going to say, 'well, you know, if he’s a prophet, shouldn't he know?'"
Fear and fascination
While Ascough expects Family Radio saw some attrition in its membership after May 21, he also figures the group, which has 66 radio stations in the U.S., will continue broadcasting and attract new followers.
"They’re too big in that way to have everyone leave. It's kind of like when the stock market crashes. Lots of people bail, but some hang onto their stocks in case they go back."
Family Radio's expected survival — and the way end-of-the-world predictions draw people in — fall in line with the cultural "fear and fascination" that Ascough says such groups hold.
There's the fear that the predictions might be right, which hits on two levels: those who figure they should be prepared and have a few extra supplies on hand, and those who go to greater extremes, like selling property or giving up their jobs.
The fascination — which extends much more broadly, Ascough says — lies in people considering what does it mean to think about the end of the world.
"We see it in so many different ways," he adds, pointing to books or movies like Children of Men, The Book of Eli, The Road, or even Mad Max.
Ascough figures the fascination and perhaps a bit of the fear will return particularly in the leadup to another date that has been the subject of many end-of-the-world predictions: Dec. 21, 2012. That one has Mayan links, and Ascough says its lack of a Christian element makes it a bit different.
"It doesn’t fit the pattern. It doesn't have Jesus returning to take away his believers."
'Shrouded in mystery'
The Mayan prophecy is also linked to an obscure and single inscription and remains "a bit shrouded in mystery," Ascough says.
For him, though, the low-key buildup to Friday's predicted end does have one benefit: fewer people may go to the extreme of selling everything they have or rearranging their lives.
"It’s not that it's a good thing," he says about the Oct. 21 date. "But it is better than the kind of hyper-fear that causes people to sever ties all over the place that sometimes can't be re-established." After May 21, he says, there were a number of people who woke up emotionally devastated, and perhaps financially devastated as well.