December 17, 2013

Thank you for calling and sharing, and shall we take our next false prophet, please? (Harold Camping, 1921-2013)

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

- T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

Harold Camping, the discredited former radio preacher who doubled down on a false end-of-the-world prediction and lost, is dead.

[T]he California preacher who used his evangelical radio ministry and thousands of billboards to broadcast the end of the world and then gave up public prophecy when his date-specific doomsdays did not come to pass, has died at age 92.

Family Radio Network marketing manager Nina Romero said Harold Camping, a retired civil engineer who built a worldwide following for the nonprofit, Oakland-based ministry he founded in 1958, died at his home on Sunday. She said he had been hospitalized after falling.

[Full Story]

Most people's knowledge of Harold Camping and his nonsense probably doesn't go back much farther than 2010 or 2011, when his infamous prediction of the end of the world on May 21, 2011 became international news. As many date-setters are wont to do, when that prediction failed, he "discovered" an error in his calculations, and revised his prognostication for October 21 the same year. And yet, here we all still are.

I first became aware of Camping when I chanced to tune in Family Radio on my shortwave in 1992 or 1993. I listened to his "Open Forum" call-in show every now and then. Apart from hyper-Calvinist leanings and a tendency to prefer "spiritual" interpretations of the Bible to straighter literal ones, he was a voice of relative sanity on the madness that is Christian shortwave radio. However, he had recently published two books, Are You Ready? and 1994? in which he predicted the end of the world on or about September 6, 1994. This subject began to dominate his airtime. When the 1994 prediction also failed, declared an error in his calculations and revised it for one year later. (Two years later, I was still finding the odd copy of 1994? on Christian bookstore shelves!)

Camping's tendency toward allegorical theology and date-setting went back years earlier, though. In his 1970 book The Biblical Calendar of History, Camping asserted that the world was created in 11,013 BC, based on an unorthodox reading of the genealogy of Noah (which I discussed here). Camping subsequently claimed that exactly 13,000 years later, on May 21, 1988, the Church age came to an end. The Holy Spirit had departed all organized Christian churches, which were thereafter under God's wrath. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—this was about the same time that Camping was removed from teaching Sunday school at his Christian Reformed church because of his increasingly eccentric theology. He left that church altogether a few months later. Camping encouraged his listeners to leave their churches and form loose fellowships in which they listen to Family Radio instead (from which he also expelled all programming that supported the continuation of the church). In the early 2000s, between failed Rapture predictions, this was the teaching that Camping was most notorious for.

And then, some time in 2009, it came out that Camping was doing it again: he had announced that the end of the world would occur on May 21, 2011. This date is very significant because it comes exactly 23 years after May 21, 1988, as well as exactly 722,500 days after the Crucifixion on April 1, AD 33. 722,500 is the square of 5 × 10 × 17, which are (according to Camping) "enormously significant spiritual numbers." No, I don't get it either.

Predictably, as was the case in 1995, 1994, and 1988 (which, I have come to understand, was yet another possible date for the Rapture, if only Camping hadn't discovered it years after the fact), nothing happened. Camping had unambiguously left himself no way to weasel out of this prediction when it failed again, and so he became a laughingstock, both in the church and out. It didn't make matters much better when he tried to weasel out of it anyway, claiming that the May 21 event was "spiritual" and that the really-and-for-true end of the world was on October 21. Well, that wasn't true either. In the meantime, he also suffered a stroke that effectively ended his public ministry.

After October 21, 2011, Camping finally clued in that something was fundamentally wrong with his methods, and issued an apology before disappearing into a well-deserved obscurity. On the occasion of his death, however, Family Radio's note whitewashes the fact that he (and they) swindled his followers out of millions of dollars used to promote the apocalypse that never was. Many of these people sold possessions, quit their jobs, or went on the road for the sake of promoting Camping's message. I wonder where they ended up?

There's a reason that James said teachers needed to be careful about their teaching because they would incur a stricter judgment (Jas. 3:1). Harold Camping did not fight the good fight, and he abandoned the faith years ago for all manner of apostasy: for example, annihilationism, modalism, adoptionism, and hyper-Calvinism. His doctrine and date-setting led many Christians to follow him into the ditch, and drove Family Radio, a once-legitimate Christian ministry, into the ground. They still want to eulogize him. I think I'll take the advice of the Who, instead: let's forget him, better still.