The Forgotten Story of Harold Camping

We are living in a time when the consciousness of the end of the world not only grips the community of faith, but also the world at large. Political and economic chaos characterize our news reports, and the recent applications made in comparing Russia and China to Ezekiel’s Gog and Magog have again raised fears that these events are indicators that mark the end of the world.

Wild eschatological interpretations and predictions of Christ’s return have always been a problem since Christ’s first coming, and I fully expect another great prediction of the end of the world will soon be upon us to the disillusionment of many. We seem ripe for another big prediction.

With these things in mind, I provide a brief history of the rise and fall of Harold Camping with the goal that the church would not get caught up in our turbulent times with predictions of Christ’s return and irresponsible eschatologies that have the consequence of taking believers away from their purpose on this earth. As Jesus said, “No man knows the day nor the hour.”

The present generation always needs a fresh reminder, in the face of eschatological confusion, of the mission to which we have been called, namely, “that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness,” and then, at a time only known by the Lord, “the end will come.” Hopefully, knowing the history of Harold Camping will keep us from the doom of repeating this sad error.

The Rise and Fall of Harold Camping

Harold Egbert Camping was born July 19, 1921 in Boulder, CO. His family later relocated to the Bay Area in California and became members of the Alameda Bible Fellowship (CRC). After World War II, Camping founded his own construction company, later to sell the company and join in a collaborative effort to purchase Family Stations, Inc.—a California religious based broadcasting network. Following a series of business deals and a mounting multi-million dollar surplus, Camping was able to expand Family Radio throughout the United States, also buying time on foreign stations around the world, translating his teaching into over thirty foreign languages.

In 1961 Camping started the Open Forum, a weeknight call-in program devoted to answering questions about the Bible. Camping soon gained a Reformed voice over radio that was widely influential in the Christian world. Reformed believers, excited that the doctrines of grace and hymns could actually be heard on a radio station, sent in thousands of dollars to support the efforts of Camping. Many people who had never heard of Calvinism and the Reformed doctrines were brought to faith in Christ through the teachings of Family Radio.

Camping was also involved in the Alameda CRC as an elder and later an adult Sunday school teacher. On a given Sunday morning, Camping’s Sunday school class drew almost half of the attendees of the Alameda CRC. The problems began, however, sometime before 1988 when Camping began to advance the idea that one could know from the Bible when Christ would return. When challenged that “no man knows the day nor the hour”, Camping was known for responding, “yes, but we can know the month and the year.” In 1992 Camping self-published his controversial book “1994?”, in which he suggested the possibility that Christ would return sometime between September 15th and 27th of that year, dates corresponding to the Feast of Tabernacles. Camping would soon, unashamedly, predict September 6, 1994 as the date of Christ’s return.

When Camping’s first prediction failed, claiming miscalculation, he then began to reinvent his scheme with the idea that God ended the church age. “Sometime earlier” wrote Camping, “God was finished using the churches to represent the kingdom of God.” In his book “We Are Almost There!” Camping chose the date of May 21, 1988 for the end of the church age. In an obscure time scheme combined with strange mathematical formulas, Camping was able to convince his followers of this date as the end of the church age. The common answer heard over the “Open Forum,” his daily radio program, was that around thirty-five years ago God began to open the true believer’s understanding to know the entire timeline of history—a justification based on an obscure interpretation of Eccles. 8:5, and other detailed and often confusing studies in numerology.

What Harold Camping conveniently chose not to reveal is that May of 1988 was the month the Alameda CRC began censuring Camping from teaching the adult Sunday school class. Though, according to bulletin records, the official announcement of the reorganization of the Sunday school class without Camping as the teacher was made public in the Sunday bulletin on June 5, 1988, the controversy climaxed in the weeks prior to this date, on or around the May 21 date. After a summer of conflict, church visitors were sent to assess the situation and turmoil in the congregation, and supported the Consistory’s decision to deny Camping the privilege of teaching. The official date the elders took over the adult Sunday school class was September 11, 1988.

The whole controversy that spanned Camping’s censure and departure from the church was roughly from May to September, 1988. It was no coincidence that the period Camping’s teaching controversy broke open in the church coincides with the “month and year”, if not the exact date, that Camping would later declare the church-age ended. Camping would later declare that the Holy Spirit was removed from the church beginning on May 21, 1988, the very same period Camping himself was removed from teaching in the church. Camping, now outside of the church, would declare, soon after his own departure, that anyone still identified with any church is now under the judgment of God.
Camping constucted an ominous mathematical formula:

144,000 (Symbolic number of the complete church before May, 1988) – 1 (Harold Camping exits sometime after May, 1988)
= 0 (No more salvation in the church)

Camping declared that upon the year of his censure and departure from the church, God was done with the entire church, and from that time forward, God would only work in the true believers who were willing to take the stand with Camping and come out of the church. Over forty percent of the Alameda CRC, many of whom were employed by Family Radio, went out from the church and subsequently started their own fellowship.

As September 6, 1994 approached, the impact of Camping’s prediction was felt, astonishingly, worldwide. People sold their homes, gave their money to Family Radio, and gathered together as they waited for Christ to come that year. As the date passed, hopes were dashed and the next day Camping was unrepentant over the radio, stating that he had made an error in his calculations. Camping would soon recalculate stating that he missed one last outpouring of God’s mercy which he called the latter rain. His views were widely circulated in the pamphlet, “No Man Knows the Day or the Hour?” Camping wrote,

We had learned that May 21, 1988 was the last day of the church age and was also the first day of the 23-year period of Great Tribulation, during which Satan has been employed to officially rule the whole world. During this first 2,300 days of his 8,400 day period the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from all churches as well as the entire world, insofar as salvation is concerned…This salvation is not occurring in any church but will continue outside of the churches to the end of the Great Tribulation, on May 21, 2011.

In a scheme that rivaled C.I. Scofield’s dispensationalism, Camping’s teachings inflicted fear and confusion upon many in the church. If anyone was to be saved, declared Camping, he must be saved outside the church since God has rejected anyone “identified with any church.” Camping declared that since the church age ended and people were to leave the churches, the sacraments were also to be discontinued—an astonishing claim since the church is commanded to observe them until Christ comes (1 Cor. 11:26). Camping would go on to reject the doctrine of hell and advance a form of annihilationism.

The date Camping set for the final judgment of the world was May 21, 2011, one that came and passed, as before, leaving in his wake a mass of disillusioned followers. Shortly before Camping’s death, it is reported that he confessed predicting the date of Christ’s second coming was sinful, and that no one knows the day nor the hour. Family Radio has also issued a public retraction of Camping’s errors. But the untold damage that was done is a warning to all that false teaching often begins with bad eschatology.

7 comments

  1. McDurmon no longer identifies as a theonomist and his present eschatology is unspecified.

    There’s nothing inherently dangerous in postmillennialism. There are dangerous teachers associated with every -ism.

  2. His family later relocated to the Bay Area in California

    This tells you everything you need to know about him.

  3. I remember listening to his goofy eschatology takes. It was odd to hear someone who used to be Reformed go that route. I recently stumbled upon a Calvary Chapel video and they are still trying to read into scripture every current political crisis. All that time talking about such nonsense is time they could have focused on the law and gospel, building up the body of Christ into a correct view of Christ, our blessed Hope..

  4. Pastor Gordon – I referred to McDurmon (thanks for the spelling correction) because I found his definition succinct and to the point – which I often rephrase to read ‘discovering truth is a process for us mortals, never an end state’. That also means we never stop the process of ‘prove all things’.
    What is wrong with that, regardless who said it? Unless I read your reply incorrectly, you seemed to imply something negative about him.

  5. Not exactly sure of your point here since we all see through the glass…darkly.
    We take many wrong turns in life and then make corrections as we see them – http://www.crushlimbraw.com – ‘logic is the systematic study and practice of discerning and then telling the truth’ – Joel MucDurmon.

    • To retell the story, provide caution, and warn of dangerous eschatology (like post-mill/theonomic stuff since you’re citing McDurmon), that leads to this kind of damage. Or you could just read the intro:
      I provide a brief history of the rise and fall of Harold Camping with the goal that the church would not get caught up in our turbulent times with predictions of Christ’s return and irresponsible eschatologies that have the consequence of taking believers away from their purpose on this earth.”

Comments are closed.