The End of the World According to Harold Camping: Part 2
W. Robert Godfrey
Part 1 appears here.
Literalist and Allegorist
Camping’s reading of the Bible led him to a curiously self-contradictory method which is at some times excessively literal and at other times wildly allegorical. As an engineer he has had a particular interest in the numbers in the Bible. It is this interest that has led him to reach conclusions about the date of the end of the world. His first date was 1994 and he wrote a book showing the method by which he reached this date and to show how certain it was. Since then he has come to certain conclusions about several other dates, some of which he made public and some of which he did not. His repeated failures in calculating the end of the world have not led to repentance on his part or any basic revision of his method of interpreting the Bible.
Camping’s literalism shows itself in his taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended. For example, he quotes Amos 3:7, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” He claims that this verse proves that God shows in the Bible the exact date of Christ’s return. But in context it is clear that Amos is writing of God’s revelation of his judgment against faithless Israel through his prophets. Amos is writing of God’s revealing a specific message to his prophets. Camping turns this into a statement that God reveals all his secrets, including the secret of the day of the end of the world, in the Bible. Yet it must be obvious to everyone that there are many of God’s secrets that are not revealed in the Bible. Camping has seriously abused this text.
Consider further his use of 2 Peter 3:8, “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Camping insists that this is true in the most literal way so that the seven days of Genesis 7:4 must be “exactly” seven thousand years. Peter’s point is to show that God is not slow in keeping his promises. Peter is not teaching that every place in the Bible where we find reference to a day, it actually means one thousand years. Notice also that Peter does not say that one day is one thousand years exactly. Camping has added exactly. Also Genesis 7:4 speaks of rain falling 40 days. Does this mean that judgment will last 40,000 years?
Jesus may of course return on May 21, 2011. Since we do not and cannot know when he is returning, May 21 is a possibility. But if Jesus does come then, Harold Camping will not have calculated it correctly. “Watch therefore; for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come….Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Mt. 24:42, 25:13). Apparently these verses are not to be understood literally. Camping’s allegorical interpretation of these verses makes them mean the opposite of what they say.
While often taking a literalistic approach to numbers, he also takes a very allegorical approach to many texts. This approach seems to have developed gradually, driven in part by his eagerness to refute Pentecostals. Although my memory of Camping in the 1950s is that he used the Revised Standard Version, in later years he became a passionate advocate for the King James Version. Absolute confidence in the KJV probably reflects the need for a Bible version which is so reliable that he can conveniently do without a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. Accepting the KJV requires an acceptance of the long ending of Mark’s Gospel where we read Jesus saying, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mk. 16:17-18).
To avoid the obvious ways in which Pentecostals could use Mark 16, Camping developed an interpretive method in which the apparently literal becomes allegorical or symbolic. He appealed to Jesus’ statement about teaching in parables:
“All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them” (Mt. 13:34).
“And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all thing to his disciples” (Mk. 4:33-34).
While Jesus clearly is speaking about limited situations and people where he spoke in parables, Camping turned Jesus’ statement into a universal principle. By turning everything literal into symbols, Camping can make the Bible say almost anything. For example, if Jesus always speaks in parables and said that he would be in the grave three days, does that mean that he would actually be in the grave three thousand years? But Camping’s allegorical method allows him to conclude that Mark 16 does not say that the disciples can handle literal snakes; rather it says that they can oppose Satan, that old serpent.
Part 3 will appear next week!