On Harold Camping and the End of the World

Longtime readers know that I am an Evangelical Christian, and worse yet, a Calvinist (or, Reformed).  I am even one of the leaders in my congregation, and I serve my denomination.  But if religion turns you off, or you hate Christianity for some reason, stop reading now, because this is an abnormal post at this blog — I try to limit posts like this to once or twice a year, so if you don’t like this sort of thing, hit the backspace key.  That said, you might learn a little about how some Christians think.

My goal here is to explain Harold Camping as I see him.  I probably would not write this, except that I have two bits of secondhand personal data about him, and there is little intelligent commentary in the general news media about him.

In 1988 I was a member of Covenant Reformed Church of Sacramento.  Excellent church, I recommend it to all near Sacramento.  Now, Calvinism is sparse across the US, but it is even more sparse in the West of the US.  Calvinism does not appeal to individualists.  So, if there is some sort of fracas in the Reformed churches in central California, well, word tends to get around.

I met a person who was in the last church that Harold Camping belonged to, which was in the Christian Reformed Church at that time, and he told me that Camping had been a Sunday School teacher for the adults at the church, and that the pastor eventually cut him off because what he was teaching was not Biblical.  And after that, Camping left, never to darken the doorsteps of the established church again, though for quite some time, he encouraged his hearers to go to Reformed churches.

After that, a minister from Georgia came to our congregation.  He had come to Sacramento in 1988, to minister to a group of followers of Camping in Sacramento (Camping had not at that time told his followers to leave the churches).  He told them during his candidating that he was not a follower of Camping, and he would not follow Camping’s interpretations of Scripture.  They called him anyway, and he came, with a wife and three children.  After he arrived, after a few months, they fired him.  What gored him was how the members would dismember his sermons saying, “What would Camping say about XYZ?”  Camping was their gold standard.

He went to visit Camping at a conference, and tried to ask him questions during a time of free questions, and Camping just ignored him.  No matter what he tried, Camping ignored him, so he told me.  To the degree that Camping gave answers, it was akin to a politician who does not answer a question, but answers a related question that he would like to answer.

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Harold Camping is a Evangelical Christian, in some sense of the term.  But he has a bevy of personal doctrines that differ widely from Evangelical Christian doctrines.  Most notable is that figurative and numerological interpretations of Scripture are valid.  Most Evangelicals believe that the Bible should be interpreted like any other document.

  • Understand the literary genre being used.
  • Interpret books, then chapters, then paragraphs, then phrases.  Don’t ask, “What does this phrase mean?” until you understand the book, chapter and paragraph, in that order.
  • Look for the plain meaning of the text, unless there are reasons from the genre to do otherwise.

Those who look for figurative and numerological meanings everywhere, like Camping, are trying to escape the plain meaning.  The plain meaning is powerful enough, so why would Camping build up a following telling nonsense stories?

Evangelicals who are not Calvinists have a hard time understanding the Old Testament, and Camping makes their life easy by flattening it into “easy-to-understand” narrative that resembles salvation in a simple sense.  For many, a simple interpretation is better than a correct one.

But beyond that his idea that the Church age has been over since over since 1994 is just sour grapes over his prior prediction of 1994 failing.  Like Ellen White in 1844, he makes something up to say he was really right, but you just didn’t see it.

But his his idea that the Church age is finished stems from his past rejection by pastors of the church.  His teachings are aberrant in many ways, not the least of which is that one can name the date of the return of Christ.  All those who have tried to suggest a date for Christ’s return in their lifetime have erred.  Many have had sins they were trying to hide.

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Camping has a big media platform.  I don’t.  If I could have drowned him out, I would have done it.  He disgraces Christianity by his commentary, and by encourages those who dislike Christianity to jeer when May 22nd arrives.

But when there is no Rapture on May 21st, will Camping repent?  In 1996, two fellows who upset South Korea on similar terms repented on national television.  If Camping does not repent, it will do great harm to the cause of his Savior that he claims to represent.

Luther was once asked if he were planning to plant  a tree the next day, and he then learned that Jesus was returning tomorrow, what would he do?  He said that he would plant that tree to the glory of God.

And so it goes… Luther is very common-sense, as is Calvin.  Harold Camping is not common-sense — you must rely on his unique interpretations of the Scriptures, which he uniquely developed.

God does not work through “lone wolves.”  In the Bible, he revealed through 44+ men, over 2000 years, who agreed. Any religion that relies on one writer is false.  I leave it to you to fill in the blanks there.

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But after all of the media furor, I have to say there are few among Evangelical Christians who believe what Camping says.  That group is very small; the only reason it gets the press that it does is that Camping has his fleet of radio stations.

Thus, aside from damage to the church and individual believers who have believed Camping (a small number), I see little effect from all the furor.  In June,  few will remember this.

13 Comments

  • wsm says:

    “But he has a bevy of personal doctrines that differ widely from Evangelical Christian doctrines. Most notable is that figurative and numerological interpretations of Scripture are valid. Most Evangelicals believe that the Bible should be interpreted like any other document.

    Understand the literary genre being used.
    Interpret books, then chapters, then paragraphs, then phrases. Don’t ask, “What does this phrase mean?” until you understand the book, chapter and paragraph, in that order.
    Look for the plain meaning of the text, unless there are reasons from the genre to do otherwise.

    Those who look for figurative and numerological meanings everywhere, like Camping, are trying to escape the plain meaning.”

    I have never heard of Camping (don’t really care), but I would be very interested in getting clarification from you on the above statements.

    Specifically, what do you mean by “figurative and numerological interpretations”?

    Next, when you say “Most notable is that figurative and numerological interpretations of Scripture are valid..” are you saying that Camping views them as valid and Evangelicals do not, or the other way around?

    Feel free to email if your explanation is too long for comments.

    Thanks-

    • Camping uses figurative interpretations and numerological interpretations in places where they are not warranted by the context.

      Example: In john 21, it mentions that the disciples caught 153 fish in their net. To an ordinary reader, this is just an inconsequential detail that lends to the realism of the account. To someone using numerological interpretative techniques, like Camping, does this: ‘Camping points out that the number 153 equals 3 times 3 times 17: “The number three signifies the purpose of God whereas the number seventeen sig­nifies heaven. Thus we can learn that [the] purpose of God is to bring all believers that are caught’ by the Gospel into heaven”’

      Figurative interpretations are required for certain passages like the parables Jesus told. Jesus tells a story to illustrate a single point, so not every detail has meaning, but the story contains figures to get one central truth across.

      Example: Matthew 25 tells the story of the five wise and five foolish virgins. The main point is to ready for Jesus to return, because you don’t know what is coming. Camping explodes the interpretation of the parable to say that so-called believers within the church are not ready, and will not be saved, while believers outside of the church, like him, will.

      Other passages, such as historical passages are never meant to be taken figuratively. And for the few places in the Bible where it is meant to be taken figuratively, often it will say in the text itself that it is meant to be figuratively understood, and will even give the explanation.

      That’s not to say there aren’t passages that are hard to understand in the Bible. My wife, a very bright woman will ask me about once a month, “What does THAT mean?” The answer usually comes from backing up and looking at the broader thrust of the passage. Details must submit to the whole of the passage.

      Phrasing it another way, it’s like contract law. When something is vague, the contract must be understood in a consistent manner that reflects the broad thrust of the document.

      Anyway, that’s a start — anyone REALLY wanting to dive in should read Berkhof’s Principles of Biblical Interpretation, but that would be a lot for the casual reader.

      • wsm says:

        Thank you for the clarification.

        Recently, I have been reading Genesis (in a ‘start from the beginning’ theme, I suppose). And I would be interested in your opinion on the proper interpretation of the life spans of the various people. For example, I think Abraham lived something like ~175 years. I’m sure you are aware there are many such instances.

        Is your interpretation literal or figurative?

        • wsm,

          The Bible posits a past where the results of the Fall were cumulative. In the Garden of Eden, man was supposed to live forever. No death. After the Fall in Genesis 3, God gave them long lives compared to what we know today, but prior to the Flood, God decided to limit life to 120 years.

          He implemented it slowly, though, and by the end of Genesis lives ended at less than 120 years.

          For many reasons, that is one reason why we place the book of Job as occurring during the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Job is in the East. No Jews, no Tabernacle, no Temple… but still some knowledge of God left behind from the days of Noah.

          So my answer to you is this: yes, he lived to be 175 years old. Some have argued that they used lunar years — given what God did for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that timeframe would be too short — they would only be teenagers at death. And some of the older patriarchs would have fathered children at age 5.

          Genesis is written as a historical account. Compare it with the Psalms, which are poetry, and with the books of the Kings, which are history. If the Bible is a true historical account, then Abraham lived 175 years. (And Methuselah lived 969 years, and his name means “when he dies, the judgment comes.” He dies the year before the Flood. His Father Enoch walked so carefully with God, given the name he gave his son, that God took him
          to be with him.)

          There is more to this, but I will mention one thing that should be paramount. Jesus, the Son of God, regarded Genesis as history. Jesus committed no sin, so if he was wrong there, the whole system falls apart. If Jesus could be wrong, he could not be the Savior.

  • tspare says:

    Thanks for eloquently expressing how many of us fellow Christians. Its annoying that the current media amplifies noise and lead people to forget that great many Christians are common-sensed folks believe because the message makes rational sense and not because they think some mystical set of numbers/words adds up to a magic date.

  • Steve Milos says:

    Hi David,

    I cringe when people like Camping make these predictions, because it makes Chrisitians/Christianity/Christ seem disreputable, and worse, laughable. And unfortunately, mainstream society isn’t well versed in Scripture (and why should we expect them to be, in any case?), so they aren’t able to refute these predictions with a simple quotation from Jesus, from Matthew 24:36:

    “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

    So, if Jesus Himself doesn’t know the day, then why do people credit Harold Camping with any special insight?

    ‘Nuff said.

    Steve

  • Greg says:

    David,

    We all appreciate that you maintain this blog almost pro bono, and you have no obligation to reply to individual comments, or any comments.

    Its a little offensive that you chose not to reply to my question about the ethics / morality of “jingle mail”, but you had time for a whole post about yet another prediction for the end of the world.

    You are the only person I know who took this Camping guy seriously.

    • alex edgar says:

      Greg-

      Timeliness matters. In the case of Camping, replying to his nonsense in these days is timely. Even if you don’t know anyone else who has taken Camping seriously, some of us know people who even follow him- sad spiritual cases they are!

      Mr. Merkel has been writing for several years. Did you search his posts to find out if he’s already written about your question? Has it occurred to you that he’s planning to answer your question in a new post but wants to think about how to answer it first? Or maybe your question is on his “to answer list” and he just hasn’t gotten to it yet?

      Patience is the wonderful virtue that we (unlike Camping’s followers) can afford to cultivate.

    • Greg,

      I didn’t respond in your debate because

      1) I didn’t have time
      2) the tone of the debate left me cold. I considered deleting it. Do you have anger or impatience issues?
      3) http://alephblog.com/2010/01/09/dont-strategically-default-on-your-mortgage/ (note my assertions on Chapter 11 are wrong, but most of the piece is right.)
      4) I actually have a piece in the hopper on this that I never completed, because it just isn’t a hot issue.

      Now as to Harold Camping, both Alex and I and many of our friends know many people who have been harmed by him. Marriages ruined. Churches harmed and even destroyed. Fortunes lost. Faith harmed; some walk away from Christ. Christ dishonored, which is worth more than all of the mortgages on Earth.

      To us, this is big, and it was an avoidable embarrassment created by the ego of a man would not take correction from his own pastor, and the many pastors that tried to reason with him over the years.

      It’s too bad you never heard of him till now. He was the subject of an editorial at the Wall Street Journal about six years ago. He duped tens of thousands, maybe more.

  • Greg says:

    To give you an idea of how seriously most people took this nonsense, New York City Mayor Bloomberg promised to suspend alternate side of the street parking if the world did in fact end today:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2011/05/20/2011-05-20_mayor_bloomberg_ever_the_optimist_says_if_apocalypse_happens_alternate_side_park.html#ixzz1MvSVi6jC

  • Greg says:

    David – if you didn’t have time (or interest) in responding to my “jingle mail” question, that is no problem. You are/were never under any obligation.

    But making this Camping loon into a major issue is absurd. Plenty of people heard of him before now, and we all got a good laugh out of it. As a politician, NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s joke (see 21-May 1:35pm comment) was pretty diplomatic. Most people just mocked Camping, along with anyone who took him seriously.

    If your faith is so fragile, or the faith of these alleged ruined souls in your congregation, than perhaps you need to look deeper than the apocalypse rantings of some wacko.

    I know lots of people who rarely go to church, temple or mosque — and like Mayor Bloomberg they had a good laugh at Camping’s expense. Their faith was never threatened

  • rational says:

    “God does not work through “lone wolves.” In the Bible, he revealed through 44+ men, over 2000 years, who agreed.”
    Lol! Yes there is so much clarity and unanimity in the Bible that there has been very little disagreement in its subsequent interpretation!

    • Actually, yes, there has been little disagreement in the interpretation of the Bible, leaving aside minor issues, at lest among Evangelicals.

      If you want to press a case against the Bible, go ahead and do so. I await your grand thesis. I have a bookshelf of Bible difficulties behind me, and a bevy of those who understand the original languages. I have no doubt that I will be able to answer you. Whether you will believe it or not is up to you.