When I think about Harold Camping’s prediction that this Saturday, May 21, will be “Judgment Day,” I cannot help but wonder how anyone could be convinced of its truth. Of course, some people will believe anything, and having a media presence like Camping’s “Family Radio” somehow lends weight to one’s words. It may be more significant though, to notice that a lot of what Camping says sounds familiar. Camping takes ideas from the orthodox mainstream of Christianity and presses them to an extreme.
A friend of mine says that any truth taken to the extreme becomes heresy.
Robert Estienne gave us a handy way to navigate around the Bible when he added verse numbers to the New Testament. Harold Camping uses those numbers to mine the Scriptures for verses which, divorced from their meaningful context, can be made to mean what he believes.
Martin Luther, and his fellow reformers gave us a high view of the authority of Scripture. Camping makes hay of this claiming that “every Word” of the Bible “was from the mouth of God.” He can then go rooting around for coded messages hidden in the Scriptures.
Camping also builds on a thread of apocalypticism that all Christians have inherited from Jesus himself, from the Apostle Paul and, to a greater or lesser degree, from all the writers of the New Testament. Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. Paul believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. Later in the New Testament period, writers began to back off on their end times fervor and in writings like 1 and 2 Timothy, we can see the nascent Church beginning to trench in for the long haul. This was the period of what Norman Perrin called “emergent catholicism.” Even in this later time, there was an expectation of the end.
Still, neither Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament dared to set a date for “Judgment Day”
Other influences on Camping include John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) “the father of dispensationalism” who preached that history was divided into a series of time periods called “dispensations.” In each dispensation God related to creation in a different way. When Camping says that “the Church age” has ended. He is using language borrowed from Darby. Darby either invented or popularized the idea of the “rapture” which is, of course, the event that Camping predicts for May 21. Darby’s ideas, though outside the historic mainstream of Christian thought, have seeped into our American cultural consciousness.
These are just some of the precedents that give Camping’s message an aura of familiarity and, I think, make his strange biblical interpretations and outlandish predictions seem more credible to some people. In every instance--even in the case of John Nelson Darby’s teaching--Camping has taken his forebear’s ideas to eccentric extremes.