ALAMEDA, Calif. – So long as people could see the ominous sign atop his car warning that the End of the World was nigh, Jeff Hopkins figured the gas money he spent driving back and forth from Long Island to New York City would be worth it.
As the appointed day drew nearer, Hopkins started making the 100-mile round trip twice a day to warn people about the apocalypse coming on May 21, spending at least $15 in retirement savings on gas each trip.
When the Rapture didn't arrive Saturday, Hopkins and countless other crestfallen followers began turning their attention to more earthly concerns. On Monday, they anxiously awaited California radio preacher Harold Camping's first public statement about why his doomsday prediction did not come true.
"I've been mocked and scoffed and cursed at and I've been through a lot with this lighted sign on top of my car," said Hopkins, 52, a former television producer who lives in Great River, NY. "I was doing what I've been instructed to do through the Bible, but now I've been stymied. It's like getting slapped in the face."
Reached at his modest home in an Oakland suburb Monday, the 89-year-old Camping said he said he would make a full statement via broadcast through his independent ministry, Family Radio International. His show, "Open Forum," has for months headlined his doomsday message via the group's radio stations, TV channels, satellite broadcasts and website.
Camping, a retired civil engineer, had forecast that some 200 million people would be saved, and warned that those left behind would die in earthquakes, plagues and other scourges until Earth until the globe was consumed by a fireball on Oct. 21.
His earlier apocalyptic prediction in 1994 also was a bust, but he said it didn't happen because of a mathematical error.
Camping told the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday he was "flabbergasted" his latest doomsday prophecy did not come true.
Gunther Von Harringa, who heads a religious organization that produces content for Camping's media enterprise, said he was "very surprised" the Rapture did not happen as predicted, but said he and other believers were in good spirits.
"We're still searching the Scriptures to understand why it did not happen," said Von Harringa, president of Bible Ministries International, which he operates from his home in Delaware, Ohio. "It's just a matter of OK, Lord, where do we go from here?"
Apocalyptic thinking has always been part of American religious life and popular culture. Teachings about the end of the world vary dramatically — even within faith traditions — about how they will occur.
Still, the overwhelming majority of Christians reject the idea that the exact date or time of Jesus' return can be predicted.
Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling "Left Behind" novels about the end times, recently called Camping's prediction "not only bizarre but 100 percent wrong!" He cited the bible verse Matthew 24:36, 'but about that day or hour no one knows" except God.
"While it may be in the near future, many signs of our times certainly indicate so, but anyone who thinks they 'know' the day and the hour is flat out wrong," LaHaye wrote on his Web site, leftbehind.com.
Signs of disappointment were evident online, where groups that had confidently predicted the Rapture — and, in some cases, had spent money to help spread the word through advertisements — took tentative steps to re-establish Internet presences in the face of widespread mockery.
The Linwood, Penn.-based group eBible Fellowship still has a website with images of May 21 billboards all over the world, but its Twitter feed has changed over from the increasingly confident predictions before the date to circumspect Bible verses that seem to speak to the confusion and hurt many members likely feel.
"For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee," the group tweeted on Sunday, quoting the book of Isaiah.
Family Radio spent millions — some of it from donations made by followers — on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 RVs plastered with the doomsday message. In 2009, the nonprofit reported in IRS filings that it received $18.3 million in donations, and had assets of more than $104 million, including $34 million in stocks or other publicly traded securities.
Family Radio's special projects coordinator, Michael Garcia has said he believed the delay was God's way of separating true believers from those willing to doubt what he said were clear biblical warnings.
"Maybe this had to happen for there to be a separation between those who have faith and those who don't," he said. "It's highly possible that our Lord is delaying his coming."
Associated Press writer Tom Breen in Raleigh, N.C., and Videographer Ted Shaffrey and AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York, contributed to this report.
Garance Burke can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/garanceburke.
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