Something We Can Learn From the Harold Camping Nonsense

A truck advertising Harold Camping's Failed Prediction of Judgement Day (click for credit)

I am sure that you’ve probably read everything you want to read about Harold Camping and his failed prediction that the Rapture of the church would occur on May 21, 2011. However, I would like you to indulge me for just a moment, because I think his failed prediction can actually teach us something about how we Christians need to respect the Bible a bit more than we currently do.

Look at the picture of the van above. It proclaims Camping’s prediction of the coming Judgment, but note what it says on the bottom right. It says, “The Bible Guarantees It.” Now, of course, anyone who knows much about the Bible knows that it actually guarantees that no one (not even the angels) knows the hour or the day of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36). Thus, to say that the Bible guarantees Camping’s prediction is absurd.

Unfortunately, however, many Christians make one of the the same mistakes that Harold Camping made. They may not be so Biblically illiterate as to think they can state the date of the Rapture, but they do claim the Bible says something when, in fact, the Bible doesn’t even come close to saying that.

Consider, for example, what Answers in Genesis says when discussing the scientific evidence for a young solar system:

Recent observations confirm that the universe is only a few thousand years old, as the Bible says.

The problem is, the Bible says no such thing! If the creation days were 24-hour days (or roughly that long), if the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 contain every name (or almost every name) that is a part of the genealogy, if we make certain assumptions about how long generations have been throughout history, and if you are measuring the age of the universe with time as it passes on earth, then the universe is roughly 6,000 years old.

In other words, given certain assumptions, we can conclude from what the Bible says that the universe is roughly 6,000 years old. However, the Bible doesn’t say that. Now don’t think I am splitting hairs here. There is a huge distinction between what the Bible says and what I conclude from what the Bible says.

I believe the Bible is inerrant. Thus, I believe that what it says (in its original autographs) is absolutely true. However, what we conclude from what the Bible says is not inerrant, because our conclusions might be based on faulty reasoning, faulty assumptions, or both. So the phrase “the Bible says” means something entirely different from the phrase “here is what I conclude from what the Bible says.” When people fail to make that distinction, they open the Bible up to ridicule, as Harold Camping did.

Of course, the age of the earth is not the only example of Christians claiming that the Bible says something it really doesn’t say. You can find those who claim the Bible says the Flood discussed in Genesis 6-8 was not global. Others tell you that the Bible says to diversify your income sources. You can even find those who say the Bible claims the earth has a speed of zero through space. The fact is that the Bible makes no such claims. The authors of these websites conclude those things from what the Bible says. Thus, while the Bible cannot be wrong, every one of those websites could be wrong.

If we respect Scripture, we should make a strong distinction between what the Bible actually says and what we conclude from it. If we don’t, we make one of the same mistakes Harold Camping made.

17 thoughts on “Something We Can Learn From the Harold Camping Nonsense”

  1. The thing that I was most annoyed by wasn’t actually his prediction, groundless as it is, nor his saying that it would occur at a set time in each time zones and follow the earth’s rotation which is also contradicted by the verses in support of a rapture (some will be in the field/some in bed). It was the fact that so many people were willing to believe him, and take such drastic actions, when the Bible clearly contradicts what he was saying in both those ways. What is the world coming to when Christians believe the interpretation of another man, not even their own interpretation, over the word of God.

    I agree completely that we must not elevate our interpretation of what the Bible says to the level of What the Bible says. However we are then left with the question of what can we trust? Certainly not someone else’s interpretation!

    1. Josiah, I think the fact that people were willing to take such drastic actions just shows that a lot of people who say they believe the Bible have very little idea of what it actually says.

      Your question goes back to a discussion we had long ago. I agree that you cannot trust someone else’s (or some organization’s) interpretation of the Bible. That’s why you have to study it seriously yourself (2 Timothy 2:15).

  2. Dr. Wile:

    I appreciate that you recognize that there is some ambiguity in the Scriptures regarding the age of the Earth. I know that many of your fellow young-earth creationists don’t like to hear that.

    I would like to point out that the Scriptures are similarly ambiguous about the extent of Noah’s flood. I agree that the link you provided advocating a local flood goes too far, claiming that the the Bible requires a local flood.

    Here is a brief Biblical case for a local flood:

    1. Bible translators often need to make difficult decisions. There are a number of Hebrew words that could be translated by more than one English word. It is interesting to read Genesis 7:17-24 with the following translation choices in mind:
    earth could be just as legitimately translated as land
    mountains could be just as legitimately translated as hills
    heavens could be just as legitimately translated as sky.

    With these substitutions, the passage ends starts with: “For forty days the flood kept coming on the land, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the land. The waters rose and increased greatly on the land, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the land, and all the high hills under the entire sky were covered…”

    The passage takes on a very different feel when read with a few minor changes.

    2. Genesis 7:20 could be translated, “the flood rose more than twenty feet, and the hills were covered.” While this would still be a locally catastrophic event, there is no need to insist that the flood covered the highest points on the Earth.

    3. The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 only lists nations in the Middle East, Asia Minor, North Africa, and other nearby areas. It seems to be quite a stretch to make this list include everyone from the Aztecs to the Zulus.

    Was the flood global in extent or more localized? The Bible is not clear on this, so we should leave room for alternative interpretations.

    One more point: the Bible nowhere states that the flood created the sedimentary rock record. Flood geology is something that is read into the text by young-earth creationists, rather than something that flows out of the text.

    Grace and Peace,
    Kevin N

    1. Kevin, I am very familiar with the arguments for a local Flood. I consider them the weakest part of the Biblical case for an old earth. In my mind, those who treat the Flood as allegory are in a much better Biblical position than those who believe the Flood happened and was local. I agree that translators must make difficult choices, and I agree that all those are possible translations. However, I think there is a reason that no major Biblical translation renders the verses that way. It just doesn’t make sense in the context of the entire account.

      I agree that the Bible nowhere states that the Flood created the sedimentary rock record. That is a classic “straw man” argument, as no young-earth creationist would even come close to claiming that the Bible says that. Young-earth creationists use scientific evidence to attempt to show that the Flood laid down a large portion of the sedimentary rock record. They do not claim that the Bible says anything about that, other than that the Flood occurred and was global.

      Likewise, the Bible nowhere states that the sedimentary rock record was laid down over billions of years.

  3. “The Bible cannot be wrong”

    Wow, that’s a pretty big assumption, bet the followers of Harold felt just the same, lol. As far as I know The Bible was not handed down from the heavens, and even if it was absolutely true when it was written down, it has been twisted and manipulated even into even more fireside fantasy. Not hard to imagine what craziness a biblical version of Harold Camping could have whipped up.


    1. Pyrodin, I agree that the followers of Camping probably thought he couldn’t be wrong. However, he had a track record already of being wrong, given that he predicted the end of the world on May 21, 1988 and September 7, 1994. Thus, Camping’s followers should have known that Camping could be wrong.

      The Bible, on the other hand, has a track record of being 100% correct. It has accurately predicted future events in detail, it has been shown to be very historically reliable, and it contains medical and scientific knowledge that was unheard of at the time it was penned. Thus, it is much more reasonable to assume that the Bible cannot be wrong.

      The Bible was written under Divine inspiration. Thus, I would say it was, indeed, handed down from the heavens.

  4. Hehe, maybe, but that’s your conclusion. 😉

    And I agree the “Campers” should have known from his record, Camping should have been more vague, or at least kept his “calculations” a trade secret.


  5. Dr. Wile,

    Amen and amen regarding the lunacy of Campingism. One would think that by now his audience would dwindle to zero, but evidently he is already rallying followers with the next predicted date.

    I agree with you about the inerrancy of Scripture in the original manuscripts, but I also lean towards the regional/local (although universal) Genesis flood. You’ve probably already read this (or the like), but I thought this presented a decent case for a local flood:

    Grace to you,

    PS Have you seen the Great Homeschool Convention Mediation Report recently issued regarding Mr. Ham and AIG? I know this was a big can of worms on your blog not long ago. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment, David. I certainly have read the “Reasons to Believe” article before. I have read most of Hugh Ross’s work, because he provides an excellent way to fact-check those YECs who play fast and loose with the truth. For example, I used to believe the view promoted by some YECs that the early church was unanimous on the creation account. However, because of Ross’s book, Creation and Time, I was motivated to check the primary literature and found that such a view is 100% false. I also truly enjoy Ross’s emphasis on the design you see in nature.

      I note a couple of very important facts that are left out of the article you linked. The big one for me is the “fountains of the great deep.” We read in Genesis 7:11 that to start the flood, “all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened.” Now according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, the Hebrew term “deep” (thom) means “an abyss (as a surging mass of water), especially the deep (the main sea, or the subterranean water supply); – deep (place), depth.” When you add the modifier “great,” (rab), that pretty much clinches it. The verse is talking about the fountains in the ocean. There would be no reason to open up fountains in the ocean to cause a local flood. Additionally, it’s not just a few of those fountains. It’s all the fountains. How in the world do all the fountains of the great deep end up producing a middle-eastern flood while leaving the rest of the world intact?

      Second, Genesis 7:23 says that God “blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land.” Now if that term “land” simply refers to the local area (which I agree is a possible translation), how is that possible? Many of the living things (fast-moving animals, flying creatures, etc.) could have simply moved out of the area before the floodwaters overtook them. However, the verse doesn’t say that God got rid of the living things on the face of the land. It says He blotted them out. Thus, every animal in the area died. They wouldn’t have all died if the flood was local – some of the local animals would have escaped a local flood.

      In my mind, these are two big reasons that the account strongly indicates a global Flood. As I understand it, those who know Hebrew well say that the language itself is best understood in the context of a global catastrophe, which is why all major translations render the verses so as to indicate a global Flood. Obviously, however, I am neother a theologian nor an expert in Hebrew, so you can take this whole discussion for what it’s worth!

      I did, indeed, see the Great Homeschool Convention Mediation Report. Unfortunately, it didn’t surprise me, as I experienced a similar situation. After the “can of worms” (as you describe it), I sent the same E-MAIL to two people I know personally (and like very much) in the AiG home office. I told them that I was willing to speak with Mr. Ham if he wanted to try to clear the air. Both of my friends indicated that they got the message and passed it on to Mr. Ham, and I heard nothing more. Unfortunately, this same lack of desire for healing seems to have been shown to Great Homeschool Conventions as well.

  6. While I agree that the words of others on what the Bible means are not to be taken as having the same authority as the Gospel itself, this tale does illustrate the danger of only considering the individual interpretation. It was after all largely Camping’s decision not to listen to the words of his fellow Christians that brought about such a wretched ending.

    In my opinion this illustrates the importance of a trialogue, a three way conversation including our own reason the collective wisdom of the Church and most of all the wisdom of God, before becoming dogmatic on anything at all.

    1. Josiah, I was turned off by your link because it bought into the nonsense that there is a correlation between YECs and engineering. Nevertheless, it did make some valid points, especially the one about the problems associated with an unscholarly approach to the Scriptures.

      I agree that we ignore the views of the church (as well as our brothers and sisters in Christ) at our peril. Unfortunately, Camping isn’t even close to the only example of a Christian who does that!

  7. A very interesting discussion. I do believe that God is able to keep His Word (ie The Bible) intact through the ages and has done so, regardless of what human opinion may be on the matter. In the Bible He says He has magnified His Word above His name (Ps 138:2). So we should definitely take note of that. We also do need each other and can learn from each other. But the Word of God itself (or perhaps I should say “Himself”) still has preeminence. The Word says that The Spirit of Truth will lead us into all Truth (John 16:13). Our foremost dependence must be on the Lord and His Word, trusting Him to do the leading. And how do we really know that what we are believing is true? The Word also says You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free (John 8:32). If we are believing the Truth we will be coming to greater and greater degrees of freedom in our lives. As a pastor I had to relinquish the things I thought were true inorder to embrace what the Lord says is True. That was a very difficult time for me but I had to humble myself and let the Lord blow my theological boats out of the water, which thankfully He did and still is. I found out that I had actually been depending more on my theology than on Him. Bottom line is that no matter how much I think I know, my total dependence needs to be on Him – that is a process for all of us. It will be so awesome when we all meet in heaven and see the Truth about these things. We will all rejoice together in His Truth and Love on that day. In the meantime this is a great time of sharing and learning….

    1. Thanks, Sandy. I really appreciate your comment that you were depending on your theology more than Jesus. That’s something well all have to be careful of!

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