I don’t like to see anyone’s views, right or wrong, misrepresented or distorted. In my Evangelical Protestant days, I often found myself inadvertently explaining Catholic beliefs against Protestant distortions of those beliefs, not because I accepted them as true, but simply because I felt we should be clear on what other people do and don’t think. Eventually, in explaining the Catholic faith, I began to find that it was not only more intelligible than my Protestant friends recognized, but more intelligible than what I believed as a Protestant.
This is not what happens with the beliefs of someone like Harold Camping, whom I used to listen to on Family Radio back in the 1980s. I even called into his show one time and briefly debated him on calling Mary the Mother of God (which even in my Protestant days I saw the sense of, as do many in the Reformation tradition going back to Luther and Calvin).
The better one understands beliefs like Camping’s, the more misguided and sad they appear. Even so, those who opine or comment on Camping’s views ought to take the trouble to be clear about what he did and didn’t say. Much of the online mockery and condemnation directed at Camping, understandable and human as it might be, has been not only uncharitable but misguided.
Christians should regard Camping and his followers with compassion and understanding. This doesn’t mean overlooking the seriousness of his errors. The fact is that Camping is a nut who has done great harm to his followers and to the broader world of faith. I think Camping should admit his disastrous wrongness and step down from his leadership position at Family Radio. If he doesn’t, I think Family Radio should force him out.
The wrongness of Camping’s approach and arguments has been repeatedly demonstrated, both by argument (see for example Jimmy Akin and Jimmy Akin again) and by observation, notably in 1994 when Camping first predicted Jesus’ return, and now on May 21 when the earthquakes and rapture of the faithful failed to materialize. Between now and October, we will have opportunity for further disconfirmation, and, if Jesus tarries, on October 22 the failure of Camping’s eschatology will be complete.
Let’s be clear, though, about what he did and didn’t say. For example, the Washington Post (AP) gets it wrong:
A California preacher who foretold of the world’s end only to see the appointed day pass with no extraordinarily cataclysmic event has revised his apocalyptic prophecy, saying he was off by five months and the Earth actually will be obliterated on Oct. 21.
Wrong! Actually, Camping has been calling for the end of the world on October 21 all along. May 21 was never supposed to be The End. Instead, Camping predicted that May 21 would be “Judgment Day.”
Now, to most people from a Christian or post-Christian milieu, “Judgment Day” means “the end of the world,” because that’s basically the reality that the Catholic Church, followed by most of Protestantism, has always taught: that at the end of history comes the Second Coming, general resurrection, final judgment, and recreation of the heavens and the earth.
Among some non-Catholics, though, there are other views. One of these is the idea of a prior eschatological event, the Rapture, in which the faithful are snatched up to heaven and thus spared the final tribulation of the last days. It was this event, not The End, that Camping’s followers expected on Saturday, along with the earthquakes we didn’t get.
Confronted with a mismatch between his roster of expected eschatological events and the timetable he’s calculated for them, Camping initially pronounced himself “flabbergasted,” but quickly embraced the least tenable option open to him. Instead of sticking to the events and ditching the timetable, he’s chosen to stick to the timetable and ditch the events.
In other words, Camping now says he wasn’t wrong about May 21 and October 21—he was only wrong about the Rapture and the tribulation. Instead of a rapture, we only got a “spiritual judgment,” and instead of a time of unprecedented tribulation it now appears that we will have a relatively quiet and uneventful prelude to The End in October.
That’s about as far from hermeneutical sanity as I can imagine. Granted that one believes that (a) the tribulation and the rapture are biblically prophesied events and (b) from the Bible we have calculated when they will happen, surely the former must be considered better founded than the latter. Surely if it turns out that one must be wrong about either (a) or (b), the most reasonable option would be to reject (b) first before reevaluating (a).
That, though, is not what Camping has chosen to do. Instead, he’s concluded that “Judgment Day” came and went as scheduled, but with no outward manifestation. This is essentially the same strategy that the Jehovah’s Witnesses used after their predictions of Christ’s return in 1914 failed. Ever since then, the Watchtower line is that Jesus did return in 1914, but spiritually and invisibly.
It also seems to be the same maneuver Camping used regarding previous eschatological deadlines where nothing happened, going back to 1988. That year, instead of the rapture predicted by some, Camping says the “church age” came to an end. Christ abandoned the churches to Satan, and true believers were henceforth to have nothing to do with sacraments, church membership or ordained ministry. 1988 also marked the beginning of the Great Tribulation in Camping’s timetable.
1994 is the next event in Camping’s chronology. After mistakenly predicting Christ’s return in that year, Camping later said that what instead happened in 1994 was a new eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Between 1988 and 1994, according to Camping, it was nearly impossible to be saved.
Now Camping has spiritualized the predicted events of May 21, 2011. If he finds himself on October 22 with the world rolling on as usual, he may find it necessary to find a new spiritual reinterpretation of the end of the world itself.
This sort of spiritual reinterpretation of beliefs originally held to refer to empirical realities is toxic to faith. If Judgment Day, which last week Camping was sure the Bible taught as a physical, observable event, turns out to be only a spiritual, invisible reality, can he or his followers be sure that the Second Coming is any different? Could it be that Jesus is never coming back in any visible, bodily sense? What about our future resurrection? What about the resurrection of Jesus Himself?
A friend of mine commented in another forum, “I am bummed that guys like Camping actually end up inoculating us against the joy of believing that an end is ultimately what our faith envisions. False prophecy isn’t just a lie, it is actually a cancer that gnaws on the eschatological core of our identity.”
It is not enough to reject lies. Our hearts need truth. And the truth we need is this: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.