Prophets Gone Wild
Harold Camping has passed away at the age of 92. This man, the founder of the radio ministry Family Radio, has been best known in recent years for his spectacular failure in predicting the end of the world in May 2011. He based this in his detailed reading of the Bible, and even his detractors admit that few have ever poured through the Bible with more diligence. So sure was he of this date that he allowed a massive billboard campaign saying that the “Bible guarantees it.” When the world went on spinning after May 21st he revised the estimate to October of that year before calling off his whole obsession with end-times prophecy.
I first remember Camping when, in the 1970s, my young wife and I listened to his “Open Forum” program on WFME out of New Jersey. I was impressed that night after night, no matter what the subject, he was always able to instantly recall Bible verses to support his views. Eventually we left to go to the mission field but in the mid-80s I was surprised to receive a visit from Camping in my mission office in Sri Lanka. I probably would not have been quite so happy about the visit had I known that he was soon to call my mission agency, and indeed most of the church, apostate. He was sure the church age had ended and we all needed to get ready for the return of Jesus.
The 2011 fiasco was not his first venture in predicting the end times. He had earlier called for the return of Christ in 1994. While not getting as much coverage in the media, he was quite detailed in his 1994 prediction too. By this time the fascination I had with Camping had worn off and I recall, since I was going to be flying to a missions meeting at the minute of the prediction and expected to be at 35,000 feet, telling my wife that this would give me a 7 mile heard start on the way to heaven but not to worry, I’d wait for her.
One of the articles about Camping’s life quoted the early regard most evangelicals had for him; a regard that wore off quickly after he called most of us apostates. The article says he was respected for his “encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture.” I think this quote puts the problem of Camping’s life into perspective. The problem is simple, the Bible is not an encyclopedia.
Sadly, Camping was not, and is not, alone in his treatment of Scripture. Too many of us believe that we can pick a topic, any topic, and comb through the Bible and discover what “it teaches” about that subject. Whether it is the complex and arcane numerology that Camping followed, the application of selected Scripture verses to topics such as climate change for example, or the personal scouring some do to find specific answers to questions like “Should I take this job offer?” we too often try and make the Bible address issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with the passages we pick and choose.
Too many of us have come to believe that inerrancy requires us to treat the Bible as the font of all knowledge. If science, real life or common sense seems to contradict what the Bible says then these other sources are wrong. It doesn’t occur to many of us that the potential for the “Camping error” exists in us all. The problem is not what the Bible says, it is what we think is says. It never occurs to us we may be wrong in our understanding. Look around at the Christian world and you will see all sorts of battles going on where all sides appeal to Scripture to support their views.
I read a secular critic sneering at the death of Camping in strongly sarcastic words. He called the man a “snake oil salesman of the worse kind.” But that critique misses the point. The problem really was that Camping truly believed what he taught; he was sure he was teaching the only truth. He was peddling an untruth he firmly believed and it was sad, particularly for the many that trusted him.
In the end, by failing to admit he could be wrong before uttering his predictions he became a prophet gone wild, spouting nonsense that harmed many people. Only grace and humility can keep us from walking in his footsteps.