Looking Back on Harold Camping’s Judgment Day

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California and professor of Church History, wrote a helpful paper on the theology of Harold Camping,who predicted that today (May 21, 2011) was judgment day. Having actually had Camping for a Sunday School teacher when he first came to faith in Christ in high school, Godfrey writes from a unique perspective.

Here are a few things you may not have known about Harold Camping.

Reformed Background

Harold Camping was an elder at Alameda Christian Reformed Church, where he regularly taught Sunday School. When Camping first started Family Radio, he aired recordings from many Reformed speakers.

Self-Taught

Camping never received any formal training in theology or Biblical interpretation. He was completely self-taught. I admire self-taught musicians and cooks, but I would never go to a self-taught physician. Harold Camping’s story is a sobering reminder that self-taught theologians can be just as dangerous as self-taught physicians. Godfrey writes,

After Camping began to work full-time with Family Radio, he spent much time studying the Bible. His knowledge of Bible verses is impressive indeed. But his study of the Bible was undertaken in isolation from other Christians and theologians. He adopted a proud individualism.

Studying the Bible in isolation did not make Camping’s faith more pure or his understanding of the Bible more objective; it made his beliefs more bizarre and beyond correction.

Emergent?

The emerging church is a movement of Christian leaders from diverse theological backgrounds who are seeking new ways to foster authentic faith and life outside the boundaries of the institutional church. Camping would never identify himself with the emergent church movement and Godfrey never actually suggests that Camping has any connection with the movement. Still, I find it striking that Camping ultimately rejected the institutional church in favor of a more unstructured form of Christian community. Godfrey writes,

Camping concluded that the organized church had become faithless and that individual Christians must leave the church and fellowship informally with other true believers. He seems to have come to this position somewhere around 2001, and supported it with various allegorical appeals to Scripture.

Camping’s rejection of the institutional church did not actually create a more egalitarian Christian community but fostered a culture that set Camping at the top as a spiritual “guru” for everyone to follow.

Heretical

It’s a little too easy to make fun of Camping’s unflappable belief that the world was supposed to end today. But the most dangerous thing about his teaching is not his kooky Judgment Day predictions (his last one was back in 1994). Camping’s most dangerous teachings are not concerning obscure and difficult Bible passages about the end times, but the plain as day passages about our hope in Christ. Godfrey writes,

The saddest and most distressing element of Camping’s latest theological statement is that it is Christless. He does not write about Christ’s return, but about judgment day.

Sadly, in his attempt to steal into God’s secret counsel and find the date of Christ’s return, Camping has completely lost Christ Himself.

In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, which Camping once affirmed as an elder of the Christian Reformed Church, our only comfort in life and death is:

That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, wherefore by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.

Every Sunday, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at New Life, we say in one voice,

“Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Christ is our only comfort in life and death. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

You can read Dr. Godfrey’s paper, “The End of the World According to Harold Camping” in its entirety here.

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About David Lee

I am the pastor of New Life Mission Church of Fremont meeting in Newark, CA. I live in Fremont with my wife and three children. In my former life I was a history teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont. I love watching and discussing movies (but not at the same time), playing board games, hiking, visiting local cafes, and watching and complaining about (at the same time) Bay Area sports.
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