The last few days have been interesting and, almost, amusing. Harold Camping, the civil engineer turned self-taught-Bible-teacher-Christian radio mogul, proclaimed that judgment day was coming on May 21. Not only that, it was coming precisely at 6PM and we’d know that it had arrived because of the wave of earthquakes that would follow. Well, it didn’t happen, much to the glee of atheists who got the opportunity to say of Christians, “what nuts,” and to the chagrin of Christians who think of people like Camping as “such nuts.” It leaves some us just standing by and saying, “aw nuts.”
So, a jolly time all round, as it were and now Mr. Camping has decided that he miscalculated and that the real day is October 21. He’s reported to have said, “The timing, the structures, the proofs, none of that has changed at all,” But what I find fascinating is that now he’s saying that the judgment day did come, but “it was spiritual.” Camping said: “On May 21this last weekend…God again brought Judgment on the world…We didn’t feel any difference,” he says, “but we know that God brought Judgment” on the world. “The whole world is under Judgment. . . . We don’t always hit the nail on the head the first time,” Camping says. “All I am is a humble teacher. I search the Bible. I search the Bible.” I have my doubts, both as to his humility and to his qualifications to teach the Bible. After all, he also said that the world would end in 1994 and that didn’t happen, even though he says he was correct then, too.
One would think that Mr. Camping might pause in his search of the Bible and spend a little time in studying the history of the Church – it might keep him from making these mistakes time-after-time. The poor man doesn’t realize that he’s taken up a system of calculation and dispensations that can be traced to Joachim of Fiore (13th century) and then through the dispensational system made popular by C. I. Scofield (of Reference Bible fame) in the late 19th century. Of course, Mr. Camping doesn’t think that the Church has anything to say any longer, since the “Church age” has passed and now it’s every Christian for him/her self (ministered to, of course, by his “Family Radio” network).
A cursory study of Church history might also let him know that he’s now joined the company of such apocalyptic worthies as William Miller (1782-1849) and Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). Miller, a Baptist preacher, came to the conclusion – based on numerical calculations, probably similar to those used by Camping – that the end would come in March 1843. It didn’t happen – miscalculation. Then March 1844 passed and nothing happened. Then he predicted October 22, 1844 (Mr. Camping is now saying October 21) and nothing happened. What came of the movement? Well, a “prophetess” by the name of Ellen White arose and led the movement into what became Adventism (the Seventh Day Adventist Church). The side benefit of the group moving to Battle Creek, MI was the involvement of a young physician named Kellogg, who developed the corn flake (Seventh Day Adventists promote what some would now call a ‘Vegan’ diet). Russell, a haberdasher from Allegheny, Pennsylvania, began a series of private Bible studies which led to the formation of ‘the Bible Student Movement,’ and out of which would emerge the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups. Russell had said that the “Millennial Dawn had come” in 1874 and that the end would come in 1914, but it didn’t. Russell’s followers used to say, “Millions now living will never die.” However, Russell did die in 1916 and the movement passed into other hands and continues in various forms to the present day. Other predictions would be made and their failure explained away by a spiritual explanation similar to that Mr. Camping is now offering.
“Prophets” like Mr. Camping and (non-) events like May 21 remind me of why I study and teach Church history. If we learn anything it is that the future is in God’s hands and that we are in His hands as well. The whole issue comes down to a question of trust in the goodness and providence of God. In John 14 Jesus tells us, “I will not leave you orphans,” that should be enough to satisfy us, without having to come up with numerological systems which will allow us to know a day and an hour that our Lord says that He Himself does not know. So, the Lord has left us the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Word and the Sacraments and these are all the guarantees of His presence. Our task is to work the coming of the Kingdom in the here and now, rather than looking for a quick exit and a solution to all of our difficulties.
Mr. Camping is a distraction to what Christians are supposed to be about. We can, however, learn a lesson from him and that is to not follow him or those like him. If someone comes along telling us that “the end is near” or that “Jesus is coming soon,” remind them that the Lord is come, is already here and that we should be busy doing what He bid us do and not so concerned about His return. After all, when it really is the end, somehow I think we’ll be the first to know!