Harold Camping Is Not Sorry

Harold Camping did not repent.

He is not sorry.

He did not apologize, or say, even, that he was wrong.

The 90-year-old radio preacher who predicted the end of the world in May and October, who said the Rapture would happen in the spring and then the violent end of the world this fall, and that this was guaranteed in the Bible, known with certainty to be the Truth, capital-T, the guarantee of an honest God, released one last statement after his latest date for the final coming of Christ passed without incident. The Christian Post ran the text of that statement with a six-paragraph story. The headline: “Family Radio Founder Harold Camping Repents, Apologizes for False Teachings.”

The headline was picked up and re-run by several dozen media outlets. The Huffington Post, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and others all ran some iteration—“Sorry,” “Apologizes,” “Embarrassed,” “Repents.” None of them appear to have done any additional reporting, or even to have read the text they referred to as an “apology.” It’s not even a non-apology apology, when you look at it. Harold Camping isn’t sorry. If they’d been willing to let details of Camping’s final(?) statement get in the way of a good headline, reporters might have found something different. Something more complicated, more problematic. More heartbreaking too.

“Why didn’t Christ return on Oct. 21?” Camping asks in his message.

“It seems embarrassing for Family Radio. But God was in charge of everything. We came to that conclusion after quite careful study of the Bible. He allowed everything to happen the way it did without correction. He could have stopped everything if He had wanted to.”

Note, first, that it seems embarrassing. Not that it is. The ministry may feel embarrassed, but only because they don’t trust that God was in control of this as God governs all things. Note, second, that all the responsibility is God’s, none of it Camping’s. God led him to make the predictions he made, and could have corrected it at any time. The misinformation was God’s misinformation.

Camping says “when it comes to trying to recognize the truth of prophecy, we’re finding that it is very very difficult,” a point he, so far as I can find, never made in any of his extensive, definitive exegeses of prophecy, a qualification and a caution he never offered when people sent him money, sold everything, and staked their hope on the parousia Camping said was certain. Further, Camping notes, “Sometimes [God] gives us the truth and sometimes He gives us something that causes us to wait further upon Him.”

This isn’t just not an apology, it’s a statement that, in a very real way, it’s not even possible for Camping to have been wrong. He is, in a sense, hermetically sealed against error, since even when he was wrong, that too was from God. God gives truth, which Camping relays, and God gives lies, which Camping also relays. But they aren’t lies, exactly, but a method of teaching God uses.

Camping admits he was wrong, but only in the most technical way. He wasn’t really wrong, he is saying, because he trusts God, and was just passing God’s false prophecy along. It’s not that he’s wrong, that’s not the point, and not that he’s sorry. This, Camping says, is just “how God brings His messages to mankind.” Apology and repentance this is not.

BUT:

That’s not what’s really interesting about Camping’s final (?) statement. What’s interesting is the running thread throughout of reassurance that, whatever didn’t happen on Oct. 21, whatever hope wasn’t fulfilled, God has not abandoned those who believe.

Camping, the old, creaky preacher on the radio, the predictor of doomsday who won’t ever say “I was wrong,” is worried—deeply worried, as evidenced by this message—that he has led people to crushed hope, led people into the despair of the silence of God who did not come. This is a real fear. It’s the fear totally missed in the hoopla around the May 21 prediction. There was real hope, here. Real, desperate, aching hope. People—real people—cast themselves with everything they had on this belief in the coming end. They believed with the abandon of those, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, who gave up all they knew and all they owned in search of a better country.

An act of faith. And of desperation.

As one man told NPR, “There is no Plan B.”

As another, who worked closely with Camping, explained, “if you boil everything down it’s really trusting the Bible. If you can’t trust the Bible, then you got nothing.” And now that’s what they have.

Camping’s apology wouldn’t do these people any good now. It wouldn’t save them from the groundlessness they inhabit now, where God is not coming, help is not arriving, and the Bible can’t be trusted.

“Whatever we do,” Camping says, “we must not feel for a moment that we have been abandoned by God—that He is no longer helping us or interested in us… God will not abandon us, He will provide.”

This is as orthodox a Christian teaching as one can find, but how hollow it must ring to the last faithful few, their hopes dashed, who tune in to Camping on their radios in hopes of some explanation, some reassurance of the reality of their God.

We want Camping to apologize, I suspect. That’s why the news is so eager to latch on to a catchy headline unsupported by the details of the story, “Camping Repents,” “Camping Apologizes,” “Camping Embarrassed.” His apology would be a confirmation that we ourselves are too smart to be led into foolishness. 

As Rene Girard says, we’re never really satisfied with our scapegoating until that moment when the scapegoat himself confesses, confirming us in our righteous rightness. Maybe it’d be good if we got that. Maybe we’d feel better, and that’d be worth something. I don’t know. Regardless, it’s worth a moment, if we’re going to pay attention to this story at all, a moment to pause and consider the void of lost faith some people have found themselves falling through these last few days.

“We do not have to have a feeling of calamity or a feeling that God has abandoned us,” Camping says.

But some of us, it needs to be said, most certainly do.

Daniel Silliman is an instructor of American religion and culture at the University of Heidelberg. He is currently writing his dissertation at Heidelberg on secularity and faith in contemporary evangelical fiction. He worked as a crime reporter in metro Atlanta for several years before moving to Germany with his wife in 2008.