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Apocalypse Shortly?

Darby Borough man heads group that now predicts end of world in 2015, as Internet sends believers from one doomsday to the next.

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A handmade sign, quoting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, hangs near the Delaware County union hall used for eBible meetings.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER A handmade sign, quoting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, hangs near the Delaware County union hall used for eBible meetings.Read more

AS MAY 21, 2011, was approaching, the money was rolling in to get the word out: Judgment Day was close upon us.

A suburban Philadelphia group, eBible Fellowship, which had fallen for Christian evangelist Harold Camping's latest doomsday prediction, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to help fund a global advertising blitz.

Billboards, T-shirts, caravans, SEPTA bus wraps, bumper stickers, radio broadcasts, foreign missions. All with the same message: May 21, 2011 would be the end.

Camping's biblical math was solid, they said. Millions would die on the first day alone. Earthquakes would rumble from nation to nation, throwing open graves. The Rapture. All that stuff.

Some believers quit their jobs. Some liquidated their assets and ended up losing their homes.

"What risk is there when God is telling us what's going to happen? Zero," Chris McCann, eBible's leader, told 150 followers packed into the basement of a Delaware County union hall in May 2011. They thought it was their "last Sunday."

The apocalypse was supposed to begin here around 6 p.m. May 21, 2011. But when it turned into just another Saturday night, eBible Fellowship didn't miss a beat. By lunchtime the next day, the group's official Twitter account was tweeting verses from the Book of Psalms.

Judgment Day was moved to Oct. 21, 2011, group members said. They put up a billboard on I-95 in North Philadelphia asking whether March 2012 might actually be the end. Their Twitter hashtag was #2012TheEnd.

This is modern apocalypticism, where the Internet and social media are upending lives and sending people bouncing from one doomsday to the next. Experts say the Judgment Day craze appears to be gaining traction as it infiltrates pop culture and as potential recruits struggle to make sense of a deteriorating world - earthquakes, tornadoes, global warming, terrorism, economic inequality.

"It's not just a bunch of people holed up in a compound in Waco anymore," said Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal who specializes in the study of global apocalypticism.

Apocalypse 2015?

As if on cue, eBible Fellowship is floating a new end date, posting a complex chart online that points to Oct. 7, 2015, for the possible "destruction of the universe" and "annihilation of the unsaved."

Sounds crazy, right? Camping's 2011 prediction did, too, but he convinced many otherwise-rational Christians with biblical calculations that he broadcast in 61 languages through Oakland-based Family Radio.

"These are not people that are running around painting their faces and frothing at the mouth," DiTommaso said. "They are normal people who believe in something strange."

DiTommaso said that he has heard Internet buzz about 2015, but that eBible Fellowship may be the first to post a specific date.

McCann, 51, a father of four from Darby Borough, said he was too busy teaching to speak with the Daily News about eBible Fellowship's latest prediction, or the current status of his organization, which took in about $900,000 in contributions between 2007 and 2011, according to IRS records. Contributions increased dramatically leading up to 2011.

"We don't have that kind of income anymore," said Robert Daniels, eBible Fellowship's treasurer. Income and membership dropped after the 2011 prediction failed, he said, but "the core group is still there."

Most of the money was spent on international mission trips, billboards, literature drops and caravans, Daniels said.

"We're never paid a dime," Daniels said of himself and McCann, the group's president. "It's for the love of the Gospel."

The group's website includes messages of support from local followers as well as from around the world, including India, Nigeria, Italy and Pakistan.

Doomsday dangers

New religious movements often are dismissed with a snicker, but they can have life-altering consequences for their members and their children, experts say.

"You can create a cult-like group through the Internet without people actually meeting each other," said Rick Ross, a Trenton expert on cults. "You start Google searching for answers and you run into some group like eBible Fellowship."

Ross, who has testified in child-custody court cases involving doomsday parents, says children in the groups can experience anxiety and other symptoms that remain into adulthood. The eBible Fellowship "last Sunday" gathering in 2011 included children who said they'd been convinced by their parents that the world was about to end.

"By setting a doomsday date, you create a crisis mentality," Ross said. "People want a sense of safety, and that desire for safety makes them easier to manipulate and exploit."

Psychologists and experts in new religious groups say growing up in such groups could lead children to become suspicious, cynical and untrusting, or stunt the development of their ability to think freely and make decisions.

"It's like children of war," DiTommaso said. "They can transcend that, but the experience narrows their view. It colors their lives."

In some cases, membership can be deadly - from the Heaven's Gate cult, whose members committed mass suicide in 1997, to Philadelphia faith-healing parents Herbert and Catherine Schaible, who let their 7-month-old and 2-year-old sons die because the Schaibles belong to First Century Gospel Church and don't believe in medical treatment.

"Some groups are more destructive than others," Ross said. "Some groups just want your money."

Tom Kuckla, 66, a Vietnam veteran and former eBible Fellowship listener from outside Wilkes-Barre, said he still listens to Family Radio and hasn't lost faith in the belief that these are the end times.

"Every day that goes by is one day closer to the Lord's return," Kuckla said. "We're living in modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, and we know what God did to those cities. It's just a matter of time."