Oddly enough, Harold Camping chose the International Business Times to be the conduit for his message that he will deliver a statement by tomorrow evening on the reasons for the failed prediction and how he is responding to it. Camping, says the IBT, looked “dazed and confused,” and “said he needed some time to think and recover.” He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was “flabbergasted.”
I don’t doubt it. I’ve never listened to Mr Camping’s radio program, and I certainly can’t claim to any privileged insight into his state of mind. But I’ve known folks like him, people so consumed by an idea — an unlikely idea, a scandalous idea, an idea that most others find absurd — that they come to believe it in their bones and tendons, in their viscera, and that idea animates their lives. It gives their lives coherence and significance, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a Heroic Struggle to fight. I’m pretty confident he was a true believer. And when you’re surrounded by other people who believe the same thing, and you taught them to believe the same thing, the pressure to justify and sustain that belief is extreme. You cannot cease believing it; if you ceased believing, then others would cease believing, too. Their trust in you would crumble — and become anger. They would come to believe that you’ve horribly misled them. And they would be right. That prospect becomes so horrible that you simply must believe in what you’re teaching.
Let’s assume that Camping was indeed a true believer in what he taught. What does he do now? Believing in his teaching, his followers skipped their final exams, left their jobs, euthanized their pets, spent their life savings, in order to proclaim the coming of the End and save as man souls as they could. Families were divided. People’s hopes were shattered and their faiths deeply broken. One disturbed woman even tried — unsuccessfully, thank God — to kill herself and her children by slitting their throats, lest they suffer in the tribulations that were to follow the rapture.
What should he say, and what should he not say, in his statement tomorrow?
- He should certainly not say that the calculations were sound but the data was off. This is my personal fear. We don’t really know when Jesus was crucified, and we certainly don’t know when the flood of Noah occurred. Nor is there any real reason to think that the countdown to Judgment Day can be measured with reference to those events. So Camping might say: “It’s still going to be 722,500 days from the crucifixion, but perhaps the crucifixion really happened a week after I assumed it had.” Or “Perhaps it’s 722,500 days from the ascension and not the resurrection.” No. This is it. No more predictions. Even if he has a suspicion in his heart, an inkling that perhaps it’s May 27th (!), he must keep it to himself. He has done enormous damage now with his two false predictions, damage to many lives and damage to the credibility of the church.
- He should not try to justify his prediction. This will be very difficult, and it will tell me a lot about the state of his heart. Human pride wants to explain, even though we were wrong, why we believed what we believed. Even if our belief was false, we want to say, it was justified. With all the mockery he has faced, before and after May 21, the temptation will be nigh-irresistible to explain why he was really quite reasonable in believing what he believed. Yet this is not about him, and it’s not a time for pride. It’s a time to focus on those who sacrificed their finances, their careers, their relationships because of their trust in him. He needs the humility to take his lumps, end the circus, and simply bless those he harmed.
- So, right from the beginning he should ask for forgiveness. He should confess not only that he was mistaken (which is obvious), but that he was wrong to enter the doomsday-prophecy business, that he should have listened to his brothers and sisters in Christ who warned him that his teaching was false and destructive, and that he let his pride get the better of him. This is not about humiliating Harold Camping. This is about making him whole, and making whole the people who suffered from the trust they placed in him. They deserve a thoroughgoing apology and confession, and his restoration to the fold of the faithful will not be complete unless he repents.
- He should vow to do everything in his power to restore those who lost jobs, funds, and relationships with loved ones. The world’s assessment of Harold Camping would change dramatically if he fully admitted his fault and then used the resources at his disposal to help those his teachings harmed. His own wealth (whatever it may be), his empire of radio and television stations, these should be used to whatever extent possible to help those left destitute. Some have suggested a fund to help the victims. While Camping himself should not administrate that fund, he can use his media influence to raise the funds to help his victims. This will help in their healing, and in his own.
- Finally, he should announce that he will make his radio show, indefinitely, into a forum for understanding what went wrong in this story and for reconciling families that were divided. I’ve never spent much time thinking about a “Rapture,” but this story illustrates the danger that follows when we develop a very specific vision of the end times, a specific vision of what the Bible leaves mysterious and filled with symbolism, and then cling to that vision with tenacity. Evangelicals need to have an open and thoughtful conversation about the problems of popular Rapture theology. Even if I don’t expect Camping to change the basic contours of his eschatology – his beliefs regarding the end times – he could do great good if he could hold an edifying conversation on these things. And he could do even more good if he invited families that were divided by his teachings into mediated on-air conversations that look to bring understanding and reconciliation.
I’ve written elsewhere the story of how I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident during my sophomore year at college. Soon thereafter, I faced a decision. Would I see this (on the face of it) horrible thing that had happened in my life as something accidental, something tangential to the calling God has for my life? Or would I see this as a part of the story that God wants to tell through me? Whether or not God meant this for me from the beginning, what could God do with it now? The same question is faced by countless people everyday who have suffered terrible turns in life. Is this hardship extrinsic to my vocation, or intrinsic to it?
Harold Camping’s followers are facing this decision right now, and so is Mr Camping himself. Since nothing can separate us from the love of God, there is nothing ultimately that the love of God cannot redeem within us. God can turn the worst of things into the best of things. Who knows how many years Harold Camping has left. Let us hope that he chooses to work with God in redeeming the wrong he has done and making whole the people he has harmed.