In all the busy-ness of the last couple of days, I initially missed the news that Harold Camping had passed away Sunday. If that name sounds familiar, it is most likely because in 2011, he gained a lot of notoriety when he falsely predicted judgement day and the end of the world… complete with an extensive, expensive, and pretty embarrassing advertising campaign.
To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about him for years before he made the news for that. I wrote about it (and my childhood connection to Camping’s ministry) here. For better or worse, he had a significant influence on how I thought about the Bible and Christianity in general, and that influence continued long after I tuned him out. When I hear certain phrases, even today, I can’t help but recall them in Camping’s distinctive voice. The people we encounter in life, even temporarily, can leave a mark: sometimes good, sometimes bad, and most often a little of both. This is what I’ve taken away from his life:
1. “The Bible alone, and in it’s entirety, is the Word of God.”
I value the Bible as much as I do in large part because I heard this phrase repeated over and over again by Camping on his call-in show (which I listened to). Enough that it made me want to read the Bible myself… which I did, several times cover-to-cover as a young pre-teen and teenager. It also made me want to study ancient languages like Greek (and I did go on to study Greek for a short time in college) so I could read the Bible in its oldest preserved form.
Although it appears that Camping no longer truly believed this (at least, not the way he was teaching it when I was younger), that statement has stuck with me all these years. Ironically, he often used and elaborated on this phrase when he responded to callers asking about various charismatic phenomena… including prophecy. Long before he himself became a prophet in the eyes of his followers.
But listening to him as a preteen/teenager, the biggest thing I took away was a foundational belief that I could and should read the Bible for myself. Thankfully, that stuck with me, even later on when I had pastors telling me some very different things.
2. You can be successful and still… wrong.
Harold Camping was successful at building a radio empire. That might not seem like much today, when nearly all radio stations are ‘networks’ and radio itself is just a minor player in the media world, but he did it starting in the late 50s and 60s, before the Internet, when radio (though past its golden age) was still significant.
For more than 50 years he gathered a devoted international following, but his teaching changed over time. Since I hadn’t really followed his teachings since the mid-to-late 80s, it was a little shocking to hear about what he was teaching by 2011. It wasn’t at all what I remembered. He no longer believed in the existence of a literal Hell. He thought he had his own special revelation of what the Bible meant. In the end, it seemed like he became the very thing he taught against back then. He had people so convinced that the world was going to end in 2011 that they quit their jobs, sold houses and other assets, and gave all their money to Camping’s ministry.
When I was reading through various online forums in 2011 trying to understand what had happened, it was scary to read what some of the most devoted followers were saying. They were star-struck. He could do (or teach) no wrong.
3. Community and Accountability matter.
If Harold Camping had retired before the 2011 mess, the story could have been much different. He could have been remembered as the Christian radio pioneer with some doctrinal eccentricities, but someone who genuinely loved the Bible. He could have left a thriving radio network as his ongoing legacy. But that’s not what happened. In the wake of the failed prophecies, donations (understandably) dried up quite a bit. The network was forced to sell some of it’s most powerful stations — including the one I used to listen to as a pre-teen.
The fact that he didn’t know when to stop may have something to do with this: the founder of “Family Radio” seemed to be a spiritual orphan. Camping and his ministry were not affiliated with any other organization or church, a fact that was prominently displayed on their website. Camping himself had not been a member of a local church since 1988. He felt that churches were all corrupt and apostate, and advised his listeners to stop attending churches as well… just study the Bible and listen to his broadcasts. There was no one in Camping’s life who could question his teachings… and no one on earth who could hold him accountable for his errors.
Camping was never an ordained minister and never claimed to be one. He didn’t call himself a pastor, though what he was doing certainly seemed like virtual pastoring. Behind a microphone in a controlled setting, his radio flock couldn’t really know him. They didn’t see him “doing life.” They knew the radio persona only to the extent to which he wanted to be known. They loved him, and they assumed that he loved them. But after May 21st and Oct 21st of 2011 came and went… he appeared very much unmoved by the pain those who trusted him and felt betrayed. And for those who were hurt, that lack of empathy and community to heal the wounds probably hurt worse than the actual failed prophecy.