On the evening of December 15, Harold Camping, failed predictor of the Apocalypse, “passed on to glory,” according to the California radio station he co-founded and led for more than 50 years.
Camping had a degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley, but felt his true calling was as a Bible teacher. He taught the Bible at his Dutch Calvinist church in Alameda, California, the Christian Reformed Church—starting in the 1940s while he was still a university student.
He started Family Radio in 1958 to reach a wider audience with his teaching—a deep conviction that nothing was accidental or coincidental in the Bible and that it was a unified, logical whole.
Camping was committed to the conservative Christian doctrine of Biblical inerrancy that was articulated in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of his youth, and followed his understanding of that belief even when it lead him into the wilderness.
Only if the Bible is accepted on its own terms, Camping taught, as entirely self-sufficient, could it be rightly understood. It is its own interpreter. The Bible is its own context. Most methods of reading the scripture err because they don’t rely on the text completely. As Camping wrote,
We can do almost anything we wish with the Bible. We become free to read the Bible and make our own personal judgments as to what God means in every verse …
This makes man the ultimate judge and the final authority. It effectively declares that God has written words and phrases that we call the Bible but which depend upon us, as teachers, to decide what God means; thus, the reader has the final say as to what is truth.
This kind of ‘anything goes’ thinking has spawned cults and false gospels that prevail all over the world. A teacher interprets verses according to a preconceived idea and then tried to show that his gospel is Bible-based. This condition exists in many of our churches and congregations.
In his study of the Bible, Camping became interested especially in establishing the dates that demonstrate the “exquisite accuracy of God’s book,” as he wrote in The Perfect Harmony of the Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. He worked extensively on dating creation and Noah’s flood.
In 1970, he published The Biblical Calendar of History, a work he revised and re-published several times. These studies are dense and complicated, and seem mostly impenetrable and pointless to outsides. The fundamental presupposition, though, on which all this work is based, is that the Bible is inerrant, perfect in every detail, and logically consistent. The payoff of all this attention to obscure detail is supposed to be the reliability of the Christian scriptures.
In The Biblical Calendar, Camping explains, “The chapters in Genesis are part of the Word of God, and, therefore, they must be true and dependable. The question is, can they be rightly understood? I would be so presumptuous as to suggest a solution to these chronologies.”
Camping was not outside the mainstream of conservative American Christianity, at this point, though the tendency to see secret clues in the biblical text and the presumptuous chronologies interpretations would take him far from accepted boundaries of evangelical and Reformed belief.
He turned from the timelines of the past to those of the present and the future in the 1980s. Many Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists were turning to eschatology in those days, predicting that the believer’s rapture and the rise of the Antichrist were imminent. Some, including former NASA engineer and self-taught Bible student Edgar Whisenant, went so far as to set a date for Christ’s Second Coming in 1988, 40 years after the establishment of the state of Israel. Camping rejected the specifics of the popular arguments for that date (Whisenant’s in particular), but began to proclaim the end was coming soon. He became very interested in the possibility of establishing the date of Judgement Day.
Camping left the Christian Reformed Church in 1988 over the issue of predicting the apocalypse. He was soon working on Bible-calculations for the date of the end of the world.
The first date he set for the end was 1994. The book in which he published that prediction included a cautious question mark, 1994? Camping, however, wrote that he was 99.9 percent certain the end would come in September of that year, between the 15th and the 17th of the month. Critics quoted Jesus saying “no man knows the day nor the hour” of Christ’s Second Coming, but Camping said that was right. He knew the year, the week and the month, not the day or the hour.
A follow-up, setting the same date, was titled Are You Ready? In it, Camping claimed to have discovered a calendar in the Bible, missed by everyone who had ever read the Bible before.
Referencing the prophet Daniel’s description of an apocalyptic unsealing of “the book,” Camping wrote:
It is God’s plan that knowledge of His Word would be on the increase near the end. Therefore, we should not be surprised at what we are learning about the numbers God has placed in the Bible. We should not be surprised at the new insights many believers are receiving, insights that relate to the timing and the details of the end of the world.
There were about 80,000 copies of the two books in print when the end didn’t come.
“So that was inaccurate,” Camping told Christianity Today.
The error didn’t cause Camping to reform. If anything, attacked by critics and ridiculed by outsiders, Camping became even more committed. He broke with fellow Christians completely in 2002, when he began to teach that Satan had taken over all the churches. The church age was over, Camping said, and true believers should abandon organized establishments of the faith. He told reporters that “The Bible says God is not saving people any longer in the churches … They’re being saved outside the churches.”
According to the Associated Press, the radio network was taking in annual donations of about $12 million, at that time. The wire service observed:
From its base, a modest reddish-brown building sandwiched between a burger joint and an auto parts store on a road to the Oakland airport, the network has built a broad and powerful reach.
Its signal is broadcast or relayed on more than 150 stations and translators in the United States. It airs in several major metropolitan areas, on the Internet and in Europe, Africa and Asia. It reaches mainland China from a station in Taiwan and is building a station to reach much of Southeast Asia.
It also has expanded into television. Its signature show — ‘Open Forum’ — features Camping answering called-in questions, often rambling about obscure Biblical and religious references in his slow, deep voice. He repeatedly refers to Matthew 24, the Bible passage that speaks of how wars and other trials will precede Jesus’ second coming.
Three years later, Camping was again publicly calculating the date of the end of human history. In Time Has an End, he explained that Christians would be raptured on May 21, 2011, and the tribulation would last until October of that year, when the world would be obliterated and all non-believers annihilated.
“God has given sooo much information in the Bible about this,” Camping said, “and so many proofs, and so many signs, that we know it is absolutely going to happen without any question at all.” At the time he was 89.
This, his last prediction, was supported by a five million dollar advertising campaign, and attracted national attention and ridicule. He was met by disbelief from most quarters, including from his family. Camping had six living children, 28 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren, and none of them believed him, according to the Christian Post.
His wife stood by him, though. And he had a few followers who were so committed they gave up their jobs, their savings, their social standings to join the effort to warn others of the impending end.
One explained “if you boil everything down it’s really trusting the Bible. If you can’t trust the Bible, then you got nothing.”
The end didn’t come in May 2011. Nothing happened in October, either. The board of Family Radio released a statement in March 2012 renouncing the practice of date setting. Camping’s teachings, they said, had been”incorrect and sinful.” The statement still defended the teaching, however, as part of God’s plan to reach the lost: “This incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people,” it read, “who otherwise would not have paid attention.”
In one of his final on-air messages, shortly before his stroke, Camping made a similar statement, which many interpreted as an apology.
“When it comes to trying to recognize the truth of prophecy,” he said, “we’re finding that it is very very difficult … Sometimes [God] gives us the truth and sometimes He gives us something that causes us to wait further upon Him.”
Camping ended, in many ways, in the same place he had begun. “In our search in the Bible,” he said, “we must continue to look in the Bible, look to the Bible. Because there is where truth comes from.”