Countdown to Armageddon: Maybe the World Will End Friday Night (or Sunday Morning)

And there was Harold Camping, the man behind the end of the world , right in the middle of last night’s cable lineup, on the way from the ABC station that had had the Grizzlies-Thunder game up to TNT, which had the Bulls and Heat. Right before a swath of undifferentiated Community Programming: “Open Forum.”

All through the decades, late at night on the car radio, I’d imagined Harold Camping fielding phone calls in a small, barren studio somewhere, a pool of light in the sleeping darkness, leaning into a ponderous old-time microphone. Instead here he was, shriveled as life, clutching each arm of an armchair, in what looked like a wood-paneled den, with a two-camera setup. The lighting was strong and even; the microphone out of view. The background decor included a small potted tree from one angle, and a conch shell from the other.

Camping’s Bible, thumbed into floppiness, lay in his lap. According to that Bible, as he reads it, the Rapture is coming on Saturday. He has gotten the world’s attention, however cynically that attention may be given. It is a thing to talk about that everyone assumes won’t happen, like Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Saturday: the end of the world. Bulls in two, then.

Even before these countdown days, “Open Forum” was always noticeably open, allowing callers a moment to tell Camping he’s a heretic, a crank, a fool—or to try dragging him toward an even more unhinged and impenetrable engagement with the biblical text than his own. Last night, someone phoned up and asked him if he was on crack cocaine. He fielded the question as if it were any other factual matter. He had never taken any mind-altering drugs at all, he said. Then he reared back his head in his standard wince-smile and thanked the caller and said “shall-we-take-our-next-caller-please.”

Someone else had a thornier question: what about the time zones? The whole concept of Judgment Day would seem to be based on a flat-earth cosmology, where a single day has a single boundary. The Camping position on the timing is not totally clear—by one account , the Rapture, like the New Year, is supposed to make a circuit of the globe, time zone by time zone. A new batch of the saved will ascend as each set of clocks strikes 6 p.m. On TV this afternoon, though, Camping (now at a podium, before a red curtain) was fudging a little: “maybe” we can even know the hour, he said.

Last night’s caller was concerned that an omnipresent Rapture might occur before some people’s calendars had even turned for the 21st. Camping’s answer was convoluted and inconclusive; it had something to do with the notion that “days” in the Bible referred to the daylight hours particularly. For reference, the sun will rise on Jerusalem at 5:39, local time, on Saturday morning—which will be 10:39 on Friday night on the East Coast of the United States. (Crunch time in the Bulls-Heat game.)

Those details don’t matter. Nobody’s going to be mocking Harold Camping if the Rapture arrives early. The pressing question is how long May 21 will last. Camping will not be guaranteed wrong until—unless—the final minute of May 21 expires from the last possible place on the globe.

That last place appears to be Samoa. Earlier this month, the island nation declared that it would jump the International Date Line at the end of 2011. December 31 will be deleted, and Samoa will move straight into 2012 on the leading edge of January 1.

Assuming, that is, that January 1 arrives at all.

Will it? If you’re on the East Coast, 11:59:59 p.m. in Samoa—the last tick of May 21—will fall at 6:59:59 a.m . on Sunday, May 22. If your clock hits 7 a.m., we’ll just have to keep on living.