“Judgment Day is coming May 21, 2011” proclaims the roadside sign. It is one of many hundreds going up around the country and, apparently, around the world. One version of the billboard adds “The Bible Guarantees it!” At the same time RV Caravans are spreading out across the country carrying the same message. What is this all about? Is there any validity to it?
The following will serve as a brief guide and a place to voice some of my key concerns.
Is the return of Jesus a biblical idea?
Yes, the idea that Jesus will return one day in glorious power is a thoroughly biblical idea. It is prominent in the Book of Revelation (for example, Revelation 19) but actually appears throughout the New Testament documents. Indeed, the New Testament affirms that Christians are living “in-between the times,” that is, between Christ’s first and second comings. The confident hope of the return or Second Coming of Jesus (parousia in Greek) is even reflected in the Lord’s Prayer (“thy kingdom come” Matthew 6:10) and the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:25). It is found in the earliest portions of the New Testament documents, as for example the Aramaic phrase “Maranatha” that Paul preserves for us in 1 Corinthians 16:20. “Maran-atha” is a prayer to the risen Jesus that means, literally, “Lord, come!”
We need to be ready at any time for the return of Jesus. For believers, this means living faithfully for Christ in every aspect of our daily lives. (And that probably does not mean joining an RV Caravan crisscrossing the country proclaiming “The End is Near.”) For unbelievers of every type, this means turning to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and trusting him with your past, present, and future. As it says in the Gospel of John chapter 3:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Who developed the particular connection to May 21, 2011?
The idea that Judgment Day will be May 21, 2011 is the conclusion of Harold Camping and his organization Family Stations, Inc. which owns and operates 66 radio stations throughout the United States forming the “Family Radio” network. This is the platform from which Camping has gained a certain following. Mr. Camping graduated from UC Berkeley in 1942 with a degree in civil engineering but apparently holds no formal Bible degrees. According the organization’s web site, he has been “a tireless student of the Bible for over five decades” and has spent “tens of thousands of hours…analyzing the Bible.” Indeed, I remember hearing him over the air back in the 1970s giving Bible lessons. We are to understand, therefore, that this type of familiarity with the Bible – combined with a kind of claimed prophetic insight (see below) – has allowed Camping to “calculate” the exact day of the return of Jesus to judge the world.
What does Mr. Camping believe will happen on May 21, 2011?
He believes that it is on that day that Jesus will return in power. According to Camping, there will be a great earthquake and all the graves will be opened and people will be alive again in a general resurrection. Those who truly belong to Jesus will be saved, while those who do not will begin a terrible ordeal that will conclude on October 21, 2011 when God will completely destroy this earth and its surviving inhabitants. It should be noted that Camping had claimed something similar for 1994, even authoring a book with that title: Harold Camping, 1994? (Vantage Books, 1992). Camping defends himself from having failed in that earlier prediction by simply noting the “question mark” that is part of the title and claiming that he made a slight miscalculation – something he has subsequently corrected.
What is the motivation of Mr. Camping, his organization, and his supporters for advancing this idea?
I have no reason to believe that there is any ulterior motivation behind this proclamation other than a sincere belief that there is something special about May 21, 2011 and a desire to prepare people for that day. However, sincerity is no guarantee of truth.
A Pastoral Concern
My main concern relates to the phrase “The Bible Guarantees it!” that is prominent on road signs and the idea of which runs throughout Camping’s materials. Indeed, Camping answers the question “What if May 21 ends and nothing occurs?” with the following: “The biblical evidence is too overwhelming and specific to be wrong.” When Camping’s prediction fails, it is setting up many people for another excuse to deride the Scriptures and the Christian community. For outsiders it will be another example of religious fanaticism and folly. For insiders – the contributors to Family Radio, the families and children who have pinned their hopes to this particular date – there will be serious fallout.
For example, what will be the fallout for Allison Warden, an ardent Camping supporter who was interviewed for a piece that appeared in USA Today entitled, A durable doomsday preacher predicts the world’s end – again? When she was asked, “What if Camping is wrong?” She responded:
“It is a fair enough question,” she said. “But the fact that it is in Scripture is why you can say it with such a degree of certainty. It’s one of those things where you have to trust God.”
The way Camping has “calculated” the date
According to Camping, May 21, 2011 is the 7,000 year anniversary of the biblical flood. The flood is recounted in Genesis chapters 6 through 9, and some kind of flood of historic proportions is attested elsewhere in Ancient Near Eastern sources such as the Sumerian King List, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Epic of Atrahasis. In the Bible, the flood is clearly a judgment by God on a world that had become increasingly evil and unjust. It is on this supposed anniversary that Camping is convinced that Jesus will return for another day of judgment.
Can the date of the Genesis Flood be ascertained?
It is tenuous at best to even roughly “date” the Genesis Flood. Key data that Camping relies upon include the genealogies in the Old Testament. However, he fails to recognize that genealogies in the Bible are often incomplete or have different purposes than the supposed “scientific” genealogies of today. For example, compare the royal genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1 with the actual data in the Old Testament that serves as Matthew’s source. Certain names in the line have “dropped out,” including those of five different kings who reigned between David and Jehoiachin. Is Matthew inaccurate? No, because a complete list was not his purpose but rather a neat, memorizable scheme of names in a 14 + 14 + 14 pattern – something he explicitly tells us about in Matt 1:17. For the record, Camping not only thinks he can confidently date the flood but goes beyond that to the very creation of the world. (For a detailed refutation of Camping’s calculations, I would suggest the study of my colleague Dr. John DeMassa, Engineering Judgment Day – May 21, 2011 Part I.)
Claim of a kind of “prophetic” insight
Despite claiming that “the date of May 21, 2011 was derived solely from evidence found in the Bible,” Camping is in fact claiming a kind of prophetic insight for himself. The logic goes like this: First, Camping claims that God has precisely ordered and determined “all the events of man” and indeed, knew before the creation of the world the exact day he would destroy it. Second, Camping claims that God always reveals his plans to his prophets (misquoting and misapplying Amos 3:7). Finally, Camping claims that God has “revealed” this date to him through his study of the Bible, thereby essentially taking up the prophetic mantle for himself.
Agreement with Camping a kind of “litmus test” for true faith
According to Camping, “True believers are given spiritual eyesight to see and understand that they may be ready and prepared for the day of Christ’s return. All those who are not ‘born again’ do not possess their spiritual eyesight to see this evidence.” Indeed, Camping has insulated himself from important potential criticism by stating “The fact that so many church leaders are insisting that…no one can know the day or the hour is another very important Biblical ‘sign’ Christ’s return is very close.” This means, in essence, that arguing against Camping is arguing for him! This is a sign, I’m afraid, not so much of the nearness of Christ’s return but of a teacher becoming incorrigible.
Treating the Bible as a Book of “Secrets”
Faithful Bible interpretation asks the question, “What did the human author intend when they wrote this book or this letter?” and then goes on to ask, “How does this intended meaning fit in with the teaching of the rest of the Holy Scriptures and how does it apply today?” An illegitimate way of reading the Bible is to treat it as a book of “secrets” with special meanings that have to be “revealed” – meanings that are unrelated to what the original author intended. But this is one of the ways Camping reads his Bible. He writes:
God is the guardian of His secrets contained in the Bible and only He determines when or if His secrets are revealed. The Holy Spirit reveals to Christ’s people the information needful for them not only to be ready, but also to warn the world, Christ is returning…God is the guardian of His secrets. The words needed to know the time of the end “are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.”
For a discussion on faithful Bible interpretation (as opposed to this secretive, almost gnostic approach), I recommend my colleague Chip Anderson’s Keep to the Word, to the Scripture that has been given to us.
Reading not only the Bible but the Newspaper
In tandem with reading the Bible as a book of secrets, Camping is also reading his newspaper. And what he sees is largely negative: increasing injustice, folly, and unbelief. Indeed, Camping writes of “the complete disregard of the Bible in all of society today.” All of this he sees has fulfilling “predictions” in the Bible that times will become dark (much like before the flood in Genesis 6) and confirming for him the time of the end.
However his reading of history is selective, myopic, and USA-centered. Times may well be dissolute here in the West, but they have been that way before. I am currently reading Arnold Dallimore’s two volume biography of George Whitefield and there were comparable conditions in England before the Eighteenth-Century Revival or “Great Awakening.” And more hopefully, there are other regions of the world right now that are experiencing great revivals and where the church of Jesus is growing in number, devotion, and influence. So if we lift up our eyes from preoccupation with the USA we find that times are not so unique or desperate as Camping would make out.
Misreading the Prophets
Camping quotes Amos 3:7 as “proof” that God would not end the world without revealing the date to one of his “prophets”. Here is the text:
7 Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing
without revealing his plan [Camping: “his secrets”]
to his servants the prophets.
Three quick points related to God’s activity and the biblical prophets:
First, whatever the meaning of this particular text, it cannot mean that God is handcuffed from acting without running it by one of his prophets. Indeed, the biblical prophets were often surprised at the way God acted – especially in extending undeserved mercy.
Second, we must understand that prophets were not primarily “foretellers of the future.” They declared God’s perspective, will, and decisions regarding God’s people. It is only a subordinate part of that commission that the prophets sometimes spoke of God’s decisions about future judgment or future salvation.
Third, if there is one thing that God almost never revealed to his prophets it was precise chronology. When the prophets were given glimpses of future events it was much like seeing a series of mountain peaks in the distance: The peaks are seen, but the distances between them are not. Case in point: What prophet predicted the “surprising” distinction between the First and Second Advent (coming) of Jesus? Jesus himself spoke of it, and it makes splendid sense now. But prior to Jesus it was simply not revealed. In that respect, we must have some sympathy for the Pharisees and experts in the Bible at Jesus’ time. What God was bringing about was so simply unexpected. So no – God does not need to reveal his exact chronology of future events before doing them.
What has God revealed about the timing of the return of Christ and future judgment?
Relatively little. We are given some preliminary events in Mark 13 and parallels, but scholars and thinking Christians have interpreted these variously throughout the centuries. In fact, when Jesus was on earth he explicitly said he did not know the exact time of his return in power (Mark 13:32). What he instructed his disciples, rather, was to always be ready because he could return “at any time.” But if Camping is correct, then Christ could not have returned prior to May 21, 2011 – making foolishness of the prayers and anticipations of the church in the last 20 centuries. And not only that, making foolishness of so much of the teaching of the New Testament which breaths with the anticipation of the return of Christ – remember Paul’s “Maranatha!”
But shouldn’t we seek to know the date?
No. We should seek to be found faithful, whether Christ comes today or May 21 or whenever the day may be – in this or any century. Indeed, such a “seeking after dates” seems to be explicitly ruled out by the resurrected Jesus just before his ascension. Acts 1:6-8 reads:
6 Then they [the apostles] gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In other words, Christ’s followers have work to do on the earth and that work is not dependent on the calendar. But here Camping simply goes beyond and against Scripture.
Faithful Christians everywhere joyfully affirm:
Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again!
Only we do not know when.
Will Christ come “as a thief in the night”?
Yes and no. For people who are unprepared, his return will be a surprise and will catch them at a disadvantage – much like a family who sleeps while their house is being robbed. But for people who are prepared, his return will be altogether positive and not like “a thief in the night.” So both the Bible and Harold Camping want us to “be prepared.” So what’s the difference? Only this: The Bible tells us to be prepared always by trusting Christ and living a consistent life that is glorifying to our Savior Jesus Christ. That way, though the calendar day may be a surprise, everything is prepared nonetheless. Camping, however, wants us to be prepared by – supposedly – knowing the exact date of Christ’s return.
Will Christ return on May 21, 2011?
It is possible but that is not something that God has revealed – whatever Camping may be claiming. So humanly speaking, the chances are slim.
What will happen if Christ does not return on May 21, 2011?
For most of the unbelieving world, Camping’s failed prediction will be one more excuse to deride “Christianity”. But for Camping and many of his most devout followers, it will be a kind of judgment day. Their unbiblical confidence about this particular date will be shattered and there will be a crisis that will resolve itself in one way or another. One “resolution” will be to “reinterpret” the day in some way so as to avoid facing the failure – perhaps by offering a recalculation, or claiming that God had changed his mind for mercy’s sake, or interpreting events to find that Christ really “did” return in some way or other. You see, this has all been played out before in the history of the Christian church (see for example, the Great Disappointment of the Millerites in the 19th Century).
My real concern, however, is for the families (including children) that have followed and contributed to this campaign with their time, energy, and finances. With the constant and false refrain, “The Bible Guarantees it!,” the disappointment that follows a failure of Christ to return on May 21, 2011 may turn off large numbers of young people from turning to the Scriptures for answers or to Christ for life itself. That will be a tragedy and it is one important reason for writing this blog post.
Where can I go for further information? (expanded May 16 + May 20)
I am in full agreement with both Albert Mohler, The End is Near? The False Teaching of Harold Camping (a brief critique posted May 16) and Ben Witherington, Why You Shouldn’t Go Camping on May 21rst (a brief critique posted May 18). For a detailed refutation of Camping’s calculations, I would suggest the study of my colleague Dr. John DeMassa, Engineering Judgment Day – May 21, 2011 Part I. Camping’s roadside signs direct interested people to visit the website www.FamilyRadio.com and there is a nine-page (2,836 word) summary available there called Facts about May 21, 2011. That “Facts” document was the main source for my information on Camping and his beliefs. Allison Warden, a Camping supporter quoted in this piece, runs a website called WeCanKnow.com.
By Ray Pennoyer (May 6, 2011; revised and expanded May 8, 2011; minor revisions May 10, 2011; expanded information links May 16)