SAN FRANCISCO -- If everything goes as Oakland, Calif., minister Harold Camping predicts, California will suffer a world-ending earthquake around 6 p.m. Saturday, God-fearing Christians will ascend to heaven and everyone else is in big trouble for eternity.
And if Camping is wrong, the American Atheists will gather in an Oakland hotel meeting room Sunday to celebrate.
"We're confident we'll still be here," said Larry Hicok, the California director of the American Atheists who scheduled the 200-member meeting to coincide with Camping's forecast that the biblically ordained rapture is at hand. "But if it does happen, we wanted a front-row seat."
The 89-year-old Camping first declared that May 21, 2011, would be the end of the world nearly 15 years ago, shortly after his earlier 1994 Judgment Day prediction passed without incident.
In spite of his track record, his latest Armageddon announcement has attracted a constant stream of national media reporters, bloggers and documentary film crews to his headquarters near Oakland International Airport.
"God is utilizing the media," Camping said from the offices of his Family Radio last week, after concluding a Skype interview with a popular website. "And my, my, has the media been busy with me."
Camping's radio and television shows are broadcast in dozens of countries, and his organization has paid for 5,500 billboards to advertise the rapture date on every continent except Antarctica. Armadas of RVs painted with Scripture have crisscrossed the country to enlist new believers before it's too late.
Tom Evans, 51, who has worked for Family Radio for 25 years and has a wife and two children ages 3 and 7 months, said it was difficult to explain the assurance he felt within, knowing that Jesus Christ will return Saturday to retrieve saved souls.
"You can understand it intellectually, but to really know it is going to happen, you have to understand it spiritually," Evans said. "You have to feel it."
To answer one popular question: Camping has not sold his Alameda home, nor has he given away his possessions, although media reports suggest a handful of believers have cashed in and pulled up stakes in anticipation of the final day.
Camping says God wants people to live every day humbly and as evenly as the next.
Saturday, predcited Camping, "will start like any other day. There's no reason to behave or act differently."
New Zealanders will be the first to know, Camping said. At 6 p.m. their time -- 2 a.m. EDT -- a great earthquake will shake the island asunder, triggering an apocalypse that rolls relentlessly our way.
"It will continue across the Earth at such a rate," Camping said, "every Richter scale in the world and every news organization in the world will have no doubt -- Judgment Day is here."
It will reach San Francisco around 6 p.m. PDT. The saved Christian souls will ascend to heaven, including those dead and buried. All others will remain as the Earth falls into fiery chaos.
To answer a second popular question: Camping and his followers will not gather at one location Saturday, preferring to stay home with their families.
Camping lives with his wife and says only one of his eight adult children shares his convictions. Few of his grandchildren have contact with him.
His follower Evans plans to huddle at home with his wife and children.
"I know I want to be with them when it happens, God have mercy," he said.
A few nonbelievers have suggested throwing a party outside Family Radio's headquarters Saturday night, mimosas in hand. Other skeptics, however, say the fact that Camping has assembled a dedicated following is nothing to laugh at.
Pastor Dave Nederhood, who knew Camping before the minister split from Nederhood's Christian Reformed Church in Alameda nearly 20 years ago, said a cult of personality surrounds Camping that makes this "every bit as dangerous as a Jim Jones or a Heaven's Gate situation."
Nederhood said Camping encouraged his followers to isolate themselves -- "to stay at home and listen to Family Radio all day" -- and of the few he's met, he's picked up on some "serious psychological damage."
"I just really feel a sense of sadness and apprehension for the people who've taken a big bite on this hook," Nederhood said.
"All kidding aside, what are some of these folks going to be doing on Saturday when the one person they followed told them they would be in hell if they wake up on Sunday, May 22?"
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)