May 16, 2011
May 21, Harold Camping, The End of the World and the Bible
According to Harold Camping and his followers the doomsday schedule goes like this:
- Sometime before 6 PM on May 21, 2011 all true believers will be taken directly up to heaven, or “raptured”. Camping and company seem to think this will only involve a small number of people. The multitude that remains will have lost all chance of salvation. As one follower said, “If I’m here on May 22 I will be going to hell.”
- Starting at 6 PM Pacific time there will be the greatest earthquake that has ever happened. This earthquake will apparently spread to other parts of the world as different time zones switch to 6 PM. This implies that the cataclysm will begin in the Pacific Basin.
- The next five months will be “a horror story beyond measure,” as Camping puts it. This is when all the horrific predictions of Revelation take place.
- Then on October 21, the world will finally end for good. Complete destruction. Everyone left goes to hell.
I’ve often pondered just how popular the end of the world is these days. Recent end of the world films I can think of off the top of my head:
- 2012, of course
- The Book of Eli
- The Day the Earth Stood Still
- The Day after Tomorrow
- Children of Men
- The Battle for Los Angeles
- I am Legend
- The Road
This end of the world voyeurism is a vivid fascination in a post Y2K millennium. In the same way that we want to watch violence without actually hurting anyone and experience sexual adventure without being unfaithful, we also want to watch the world get destroyed and then go home and take a nap. This is why people will pay good money to watch films about the end of the world, but when a guy like Camping comes along who actually believes in it, everyone boos him off the stage.
What about 1988?
But that’s Hollywood apocalypses. What about biblically inspired predictions? The last century has seen a dramatic rise in predictions about the end of the world, particularly since the creation of the state of Israel. For many prophecy buffs that event seems to confirm that a) Biblical prophecy ought to be taken literally and b) because of that, the end is near.
I remember one of those predictions quite well. It happened in the summer of 1988, just before I headed off to Bible College. Former NASA engineer (Oh, Lord, save us from engineers turned Bible students!) Edgar C. Whisenant wrote a little booklet called 88 reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988 and mailed a copy to every pastor in the country. Since my dad was a pastor, he got one too. I remember reading through the book and perusing at random some of the reasons. I was greatly impressed by the connections the guy had dredged up. He had gathered all sorts of minutiae from history involving dates, names, durations of reigns, solar cycles, lunar cycles, Bible verses, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic. I mean, you name it and it was in there, all cross referenced and tied up in a pretty little bow labeled 1988 . And I thought, man, this is really convincing stuff. Just the sheer weight of the evidence left its impact. How could all of this line up and it mean nothing?
Oddly enough, though, it never even came close to convincing me. I guess I was already sold on the “no one knows the day or hour” approach and that was that. I wasn’t holding my breath on September 13, 1988. But it did convince me once and for all of another thing: apocalyptic math doesn’t add up, even when it looks like it does. Since then, I don’t really dial in to all the minutia for these arguments. I mean, how can I? Whisenant was a genius at this stuff and he was still wrong. So here are a few reasons why this approach is never going to work (aside from the fact that after a multitude of attempts it never has).
Why apocalyptic math never adds up
History is not so precise
I’ve studied enough history to know that the sort of dating precision that apocalyptic math requires is a joke. There are three or four dates you can really trust in history. Then there’s everything else. For example, our Gregorian calendar is off by four years. This means that Jesus was born “before Christ” and that the “year 2000″ actually occurred around 1996. In biblical history it’s even worse. The complexities of integrating different dating systems, the fact that the ancients weren’t always so careful about chronologies, and the fact that they often adjusted the figures towards symbolically significant numbers, insert an enormous amount of ambiguity. So for me any argument that uses precise dating to predict the end of the world is highly suspect, just on that count alone. Anything that predicts to the level of a day is ludicrous. It’s just not a feasible exercise.
Camping on Dates
Camping’s entire prediction is based on the absurd claim that he has calculated the beginning of Noah’s flood to the day, and that it was 7000 years ago. Creation occurred 13,000 years ago. “The Bible is very precise,” Camping tells us, “so when we harmonize the Biblical calendar with our modern calendar, we know that the year of creation was 11,013 B.C.” But such precision can only be arrived at by importing some sizable presuppositions into the the text, such as,
“The Bible is a very analytical book. It is not written in such a way as to encourage subjective analysis or philosophical reasoning (II Peter 1:20). It is written like an engineering book, wherein truth is presented as absolute fact.” (Both quotes from We Are almost There)
I’ve read the Bible a bit and I confess that the comparison to an engineering book never occurred to me. (Again I ask, Lord, save us from engineers turned Bible students!)
I know that most people’s eyes rightly glaze right over when one gets into the actual chronological calculations, but I have to give at least one example here to show the sorts of ambiguities that Camping soldiers right on through. In Genesis 11:26 it says that Terah had three sons when he was 70 years old: Abram, Nahor and Haran. Camping points out that this cannot have been the case unless they were triplets. So he notes on the basis of other passages that Abraham actually must have been born sixty years later when Terah was 130. (See When Adam)
I don’t know about you, but I’m doing a double take. Wasn’t this the book that presented absolute, precise dating facts? And yet its clear claim about the time of birth of Abram is incorrect? This is engineering, right? No room for ambiguity? Precise instructions and measurements? Inerrant word of God?
If we step outside of Camping’s framework for a moment we can see some other explanations. For example that Terah might have had several wives and they might have given birth to three brothers at the same time. Or that the three were born around that time and that 70, being the number of completeness and close enough, seemed like the appropriate one to use. The important thing to understand here is that Camping makes many, many decisions like these about biblical chronology. The end result is ambiguity upon ambiguity and it is really just nonsense to suppose that anyone could wade through all that data and come up with a completely accurate timeline.
What sort of book is the Bible?
The striking congruency of highly complex apocalyptic calculations has more to do with the calculator than with the numbers themselves. If you have the patience and you fiddle with figures long enough you will find many amazing coincidences and corroborations. But there’s a deeper question here too, which apocalyptic math adepts never really address: the apocalyptists assume that the presence of patterns is self-justifying, that if you can discern connections this means that these connections have meaning. But why? I don’t see how it follows. The rub here is that Scripture never presents itself as some sort of chronological puzzle. To the contrary, the few times these chronological questions are raised they are discouraged,
- Acts 1:7 – “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
- Matthew 24:36 – “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
- 2 Peter 3:8 – “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (Yes, the point here is that God’s timing is not like ours, so don’t try to figure it out. It’s not a mathematical key to unlock prophesy)
And Koheleth aproves it all
Camping’s justification for his approach is a complete non-sequitur. Ecclesiastes 8:5-7, he says, shows that the Bible was ”given to mankind so that they can know God’s timeline of history”:
Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment. Because to every purpose there is time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him. For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him when it shall be? (Camping uses the KJV)
The key phrase here is the one about the wise man who ”discerneth both time and judgment.” For Camping this translates into, “If you study the Bible very carefully you will find out what time the judgment will occur.” Unfortunately, that is not what is being discussed in this passage. But when did context ever stand in the way of apocalyptic number crunchers? This is a section about obeying the king, and about being wise when you come before him to present a request. Don’t just rush in with something, says Koheleth. The wise man will be smart about his timing and his approach. The NIV makes it clearer, ”
The wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a man’s misery weighs heavily upon him.
But for Camping this verse means that “the true believer can know much about the timetable of history, including many truths about the timing of the end of the world.” He also gets out of it the even more unrelated notion that if you don’t know the timing of the judgment you will be left behind. That’s a nice reversal to the New Testament teaching.
One reaches for more creative terms, but always comes back the same lexicon: strange, incoherent, unjustified, illogical, bizarre. With this sort of nonsense out there I can’t fault anyone for thinking that it’s impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the Bible says. Especially when this specious interpretation is turned into: “The world will end on May 21 and The Bible Guarantees it.” Surely there is some form of insanity at work here.
Well, maybe we should be easier on Camping. The truth is that he is just applying the same old incoherent set of bible interpretation principles that many evangelical pastors practice every week when they prepare for their Sunday sermons: Make large, unjustified assumptions about the purpose and nature of the Bible, read those assumptions in to random phrases (be sure to completely ignore the context), then sort through another set of verses to make random claims about what people ought to do and think. Then call it “the word of God.” The only real difference is that Camping also has an obsession with the end of the world. No wonder there are so many people willing to believe him. They’ve all been taught to interpret the Bible in evangelical churches!
What we Christians need to realize is that “being biblical” can’t just mean getting stuff from the Bible, or mentioning the Bible in a stream of consciousness discourse, or using words and phrases that appear in the Bible to spin off unlikely theories. It has to mean learning what the Bible teaches. And the Bible doesn’t teach any of this stuff Harold Camping is making a fuss about.
- Here is a very interesting set of videos featuring Harold Camping and his followers.
- The book where Camping lays it all out, We Are almost There.
- NPR Report Is The End Night? We’ll Know Soon Enough.
- A pretty short account of why May 21, by Camping: The end of the World is Almost Here.