By Peter Savodnik, July 28, 2011, 4:30 PM EDT
For nearly a year, nonagenarian preacher and radio personality Harold Camping predicted the world would end on May 21. Locusts would blanket the earth and millions would die while Camping and his flock would rise up to the sky, rendezvous with Jesus, and ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, May 22 happened, Camping postponed the end of the world by five months, and then suffered a debilitating stroke—leaving a huge vacuum in the Rapture market.
The meltdown came at a propitious moment for apocalypse followers. A proliferation of earthquakes, a plague that may or may not be sweeping Brazil, the Greeks, and Kim Kardashian, among other things, may be conspiring to create a Rapture bubble. In addition to Camping’s revised forecast—the world is definitely going to end on Oct. 21—many Rapture-seekers now believe the Aug. 2 debt-ceiling deadline signals that the end may be very, very near. “If the economy goes, that’ll be fertile soil for the antichrist to take power,” says Todd Strandberg of Little Rock, Ark. “Hitler came out of the Depression. A lot of us believe the antichrist will use the same stepping stone.”
This means there are only so many days left to get rich. Strandberg, the proprietor of RaptureReady.com—the most popular Rapture-preparedness website in the world—is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs trying to take advantage of Camping’s absence. Unlike Camping, the new apocalypse establishment is offering an unprecedented array of doomsday-themed literature, podcasts, survival kits, and other goods and services for navigating the end of times.
Jack Van Impe, a televangelist from Troy, Mich., has developed an e-commerce business hawking educational literature such as the Prophetic Guide to the End of Times ($14.95) in addition to DVDs like 11:59: The Countdown (two-discs, $34.95). Van Impe, who co-runs his ministry and budding apocalypse empire with his wife and fellow prophet, Rexella, is competing for market share with the Costa Rica-based writer Tim McHyde; Alex Dodson, whose Watchman Radio Hour enjoys a nationwide audience; and evangelical minister and author Tim LaHaye, who has co-written 16 Judgment Day-inspired novels. According to Cheryl Kerwin, senior marketing manager at Tyndale House Publishers, LaHaye’s Left Behind series has sold 63 million copies worldwide.
All are facing a common problem of the Rapture business: They’re making more money than they can spend before the world ends. Keith Preston, owner of Rapture Ready Consulting in Kenton, Ohio—which is completely unrelated to RaptureReady.com, he says—estimates his company grossed $380,000 in 2009 by selling products like screen savers featuring the Red Sea and a smartphone app for $4.99 that tells you if you’re in a flood zone. Although sales plummeted to $200,000 in 2010—the short-lived economic uptick, Rapture-sellers say, cast a pall over the sector—Rapture Ready rebounded this year. Preston is currently at work on an app for everyone who is not Raptured. “Let’s say 2 million people disappear,” Preston says. “You’ve got doctors and police officers, you have IT guys, writers, and politicians. So the problem is, who’s going to do whatever they were doing? You need an app for that.” How he plans to sell it from Heaven remains unclear.
Still, Preston is scrambling to compete with a bustling service sector that already encompasses natural-disaster-preparedness outfits, moving and storage companies, and post-apocalyptic survivalists. Data storage company You’ve Been Left Behind of Harwich, Mass., is preparing to offer a service that sends the sensitive material of its soon-to-be-Raptured clients to designated contacts and family members. James Rawles, who runs SurvivalBlog.com, says he gets 260,000 unique visitors each week. There’s even a new genre of chick lit called Rapture Erotica. Apocalypse Sex: Love at the End of the World ($4.99) focuses on characters who stare down the end of days by, according to its publisher, having “the best sex of their lives.”
The Rapture economy even includes heathens. Since most Rapture prophets have traditionally declared pets barred from Heaven, insurance company Eternal Earth-Bound Pets is now offering a 10-year relocation policy. For $135, the company promises to place dogs, cats, bunnies, and so forth with a loving family of atheists who have no hope of being saved. Eternal owner Bart Centre, an atheist himself, says he already has 263 clients and expects that figure to jump by 60 or 70 in 2012. He also has a strict no-refunds policy. “In the remotely absurd chance that the Rapture happens and you’re not Raptured,” Centre says, “you can keep your pet, but you don’t get your money back.” (Van Impe, in a transparent play for ascension-ready hearts, has declared that domesticated animals will be admitted to Heaven. This is a huge selling point, since Rapture-believers’ main concern is who—and what—will be among the elect.)
Yet the dirty little secret about the Rapture trade is that it’s run by people who often hope there is no Rapture. The trick is to encourage belief in—and spending on—the Rapture for as long as possible. Camping’s most recent failed prophecy—his fifth—has reaffirmed many Rapture-based entrepreneurs’ conviction that staying vague is the best plan. Terry James, who co-runs RaptureReady.com with Strandberg, recently published his 22nd book on the end of the world. “We don’t set dates,” he says. “That’s one thing that Jesus said. No one knows the hour except the Father.” Left Behind author LaHaye urges his readers to log on to his site to “take your time, browse around, but by all means, get prepared for the coming of the Lord”—whenever that happens.
Regardless, many Rapture enthusiasts believe that even if the world does not end on Aug. 2 or Oct. 21, then 2012 is definitely the year to end all years. And this is good news for Harold Camping’s own professional resurrection. A year off the Rapture circuit could do wonders, says Karen Kessler, president of public-relations firm Evergreen Partners in Warren, N.J. Failed prophets looking to reenter the market need only “come up with some rationale why you swore what was the case was not the case,” she says. “Then you just have to hold your head up high and keep walking, and hope that if you sold enough memorabilia that’ll ease the pain.” Dr. William H. Sledge, a Yale University professor of psychiatry, says believers in the Rapture tend to be either psychotic or very “suggestible.” In other words, if the world continues after the fall, they may be willing to give Camping a sixth chance. And a seventh.