Harold Camping Needs an Intervention

Harold Camping Needs an Intervention May 27, 2011

Some of the intersections of faith and politics are so littered with landmines that it’s virtually impossible to navigate them without taking some shrapnel in the legs.  People of faith and good will must discuss them, however, if they’re matters worth discussing, lest we leave the conversation to those who simply enjoy or actually profit from setting off explosions.  So please bear with me.  I’m about to draw a parallel that could easily be twisted.  The parallel is not between Harold Camping and a terrorist Imam.  I have no respect for that kind of moral equivalency.  The parallel, rather, is between the way I feel toward Harold Camping and, in some limited respects, the way that some moderate Muslims seem to feel toward the preachers of Jihad.

So, to begin.  I’ve often wondered why, when we hear of another Jihadist terrorist doing another terrible thing, moderate Muslims are not stumbling over themselves to condemn him.  When an extremist Imam preaches for the downfall of America, the Great Satan, or teaching something that is completely and patently and destructively false — shouldn’t moderate Muslim leaders be angry at the harm the Imam has done to the reputation of their religion, and shouldn’t they be eager to condemn him, correct the record, and even seek to remove this Imam from power?

Some moderate Muslim leaders do speak up, of course.  And some presumably cannot penetrate the media din.  Still, even taking those things into account, I have often been surprised that we do not see and hear the majority of Muslims rising up en masse to carve this cancer out of the body of their faith and to bury it forever beneath a flood of righteous condemnation.  If peaceful Muslims are angered when non-Muslims regard them with distrust, shouldn’t they direct their anger first at the Muslims who have attacked the innocent in the name of Islam and planted the seeds of distrust in the first place?  Some moderate Muslims — including personal friends of mine — are openly frustrated when it’s suggested they should offer some comment or criticism.

Harold Camping and his ongoing doomsday debacle have helped me to understand the dynamic a little better.  There’s no equivalence between the wanton destruction of innocent human life and the proclamation of a false prophecy about the end of the world.  It would require moral obtuseness of the highest order, and abandonment of our powers of moral discernment, to equate a proclamation that the world is ending and all should take refuge in Christ with the attempt to explode school buses full of children.  So, as I said, I’m not at all equating Harold Camping with terrorists or with Imams who exhort their followers to become terrorists.

What are illuminating, I think, are the tensions in both cases between the periphery and the center.  (Of course, the more extreme critics of militant Islam will argue that the ultra-violent ideology that motivates the likes of al-Qaeda is not actually on the periphery of the Muslim world, but is more common and widespread than we care to admit.  While there are pockets around the world where those who sympathize with Jihadist terrorists outnumber those who do not, I don’t believe that’s true as a general characterization of ‘the Muslim world,’ and thankfully the Arab Spring is showing another way to struggle for reform.)

So, all qualifications aside, how is this comparison illuminating?

(1) What does he have to do with me? When I’m pressed by atheists and skeptics to respond to Harold Camping and his extreme ideas — not just the 1994 prediction and the May 21st prediction, but the numerology and the esoteric calculations, the notion of a “spiritual judgment” to justify the doomsday dud, and his teaching as far back as 1988 that Satan had taken possession of American churches — some part of me resents the association in the first place.  Why am I accountable for what Harold Camping says and does?  Why is the presumption that I am like him, unless I publicly demonstrate otherwise?  Why should I have to answer for him?  Are we even of the same tribe?

One part of this is justified.  There is no good faith from the skeptic who demands that I condemn him.  The skeptic ought to be able to see the significant differences between myself and Harold Camping; they are obvious in the things we believe and in the ways we act.  But the skeptic pays no heed to those differences because he does not really care whether or not I condemn Harold Camping; he just wants to paint me with the same brush as another Christian crackpot with crazy, irrational, unscientific ideas.  It irritates me that people cannot see — or the skeptics are not willing to see — that Harold Camping is not a representative of healthy, orthodox Christianity.  I imagine many Muslims feel this way: why should I be compelled to distinguish myself from the extremist, when the extremist does not represent my faith in the first place?

Harold Camping: Intervention Needed?

But another part of this is pride.  I don’t want to be associated with a Harold Camping, or a Terry Jones (the Koran burner), or etc.  However, as deceived as I believe Harold Camping is, insofar as he trusts in Jesus Christ (and I give the benefit of the doubt here), we are not only of the same tribe, we are of the same family.  As much as I resent the association, as much as I’m embarrassed by their actions and the ways in which they harm the credibility of the Church, the fact is that I am associated with them.

There are all sorts of crazy people in the Church; some of them have megaphones.  I am not called to ignore them and pretend they have nothing to do with me.  I am called to reach out to them, to listen, to rebuke and correct and restore, even as I explain to the world that they have misused the Word.

2.  I understand where he’s coming from. The truth is, even though we differ on some very important beliefs, Harold Camping and I have many things in common.  We read the same Bible and pray to the same God.  Some of our core beliefs and values are the same.  I believe that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the creator and author of all history.  I believe that history will consummate in judgment and restoration.

I was raised in a non-denominational evangelical church where some of the adults believed things I found embarrassing.  In various ministry settings, in the prisons and inner cities of the United States as well as on mission fields overseas, I’ve encountered countless Christians whose beliefs I found strange or implausible.  I’ve had some of the most intelligent Christians I know (objectively, dazzlingly intelligent, with doctorates and many accolades to their names) tell me that they believed Christ would return in the next few years — or that demons were active in their homes before they prayed them out — or that the world is merely thousands of years old — or that my broken neck would be healed if I believed it fervently enough.  And you know what?  They’re good people.  I love those people.  In most cases, I respect them too.  When you burrow deeper and deeper into a particular way of interpreting the world, you can find yourself coming to conclusions that seem very strange to people with different worldviews.

I’ve also spent plenty of time in places where my beliefs were regarded with suspicion and astonishment.  At Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, and Harvard, students and colleagues and faculty typically treated me with respect; I was good at what I did, good at what we did.  They knew I was no fundamentalist.  But they could not believe that an intelligent and educated person should be an evangelical, much less a conservative one.

So I feel a generous measure of sympathy for Harold Camping.  I know where he’s coming from.  I know how he came to believe the things he did, even though I find them (the beliefs and the methods through which they were reached) wrong.  And I imagine many moderate Muslims feel the same way.  Even though they deplore the violence of their fellow Muslims, they understand their sense of frustration, of disenfranchisement, of anger.  They’ve heard the criticisms of the west, of colonialism, of American support for despots, and they know those criticisms make a certain kind of sense to people who live inside of that worldview.

3.  It’s not always easy to cut out the cancer. As I’ve watched the Harold Camping travesty unfold, I’ve often felt, “Can’t someone put a stop to this?  Can’t someone intervene and show him the error of his ways?”  The answer that’s come back to me is: “Why don’t you do it?  If you’re going to call for other Christians to reach out to Camping and try to put a stop to the damage he’s doing to the church, shouldn’t you be willing to do so yourself?”

And yes, I should.  In the same way that moderate Muslims should do what they can to correct the Imams who encourage young men to go detonate themselves in crowded marketplaces, I should do what I can to correct a Christian teacher who is misleading his followers in destructive ways.  But it’s not an easy thing to do.

There are a number of reasons.  (1) Do I really want to get involved? Reaching out to Camping as a fellow believer implies that he is, indeed, a Christian leader of sorts who deserves the time and attention it would take.  It only makes the association between him and me even stronger in the minds of the skeptics and the mockers.  (2) Is there any hope of changing his mind? A man like Harold Camping believes wholeheartedly that he’s doing the right thing, and that critical voices are (perhaps literally) the voice of the devil tempting him to give up the task to which God has called him.  He’s not likely to be dissuaded, any more than an extremist Imam is.  (3) Could his influence really be curbed? Camping has substantial resources and a radio network at his disposal, as well as bitter-end supporters.  We live in completely distinct circles.  Short of physical or legal coercion, what could I really do?  (4) My life is overwhelming enough already. I have a wife, a child, another child on the way, a more-than-full-time job, side jobs and side projects, ministries.  Do I really have the time to reach out to someone I’ve never met and seek to dissuade him (as I did attempt to do, for instance, with Terry Jones)?

Some of the same reasons must come up when moderate Muslims are asked, “Why don’t you remove the cancer of Islamic extremism from your community?”  Moderate Muslim Americans are struggling to keep their heads above water, like everyone else, and may have no connections with, and no influence over, the extremist Imams.  It’s much easier to insist that the extremist does not represent your faith than it is to correct the extremist or remove him from influence.

These are some of the tensions between the middle and the periphery in religious communities.  Do you get angry at the extremists whose words and deeds tarnish the reputation of your faith?  Or do you get angry with those who use the extremists for their own partisan purposes to smear the whole faith?  Or both?  Do you resent the embarrassing association with the crazies on the margins, or do you accept the association, accept that there are crazies in all communities and do something to heal and restore them?  Do you confess that you understand where they’re coming from, or do you pretend there’s no overlap between their views and yours?  And are you bound to involve yourself in the near-impossible task of changing their minds or undermining their influence, when you are overwhelmed already with the life God has given you?

I think Christian leaders, rather than lobbing criticisms from a distance, or in addition to that (since it’s important to correct the record on what the Christian faith teaches), should reach out to Camping and see whether he can be persuaded to end this damaging charade.  And I should do the same.  Camping should be encouraged to repent, to seek forgiveness, and to make amends.  Even if it seems hopeless, it’s the right thing to do.  And you never know what might happen.  God has done much more astonishing things.

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  • I appreciate your desire to be loving but if I may suggest the New Testament provides a balance between severity and mercy.
    St Paul to the 2nd Thes 3:14)Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.
    Teachers are even more accountable;Titus 3:10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.Some of us have been dealing with Camping’s damage since 1985. Close up and personal.As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Rom 2:24 Again my friend I appreciate where you are coming from. Let’s all ask for balance and last not least mercy.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yeah, I’ve been mindful of such texts. There comes a time for expulsion and shunning. After this debacle, though, I wonder if he might be a little more open to overtures from Christian leaders – particularly if there are any he respects – that he needs to leave the prophesying behind and use what time he has left to just teach simple biblical truths. I, in any case, don’t feel that I have done enough to go to the shunning yet. -Tim

  • Rob Ely

    Good article. I do see a major difference, however, between the moderate Muslims and the true, yet balanced Christian who disagrees with Camping. The true Christian is, hopefully, adhering to the FUNDAMENTALS of hs faith in Christ. This is what makes him a true Christian, yet not an extremist. Moderate Muslims, on the other hand, are not adhering to the fundamentals of their religion. The terrorists are. That’s why the terrorists are so often called Islamic fundamentalsts. The difference actually displays the stark differences between the two faiths at their essential core. Moderate Muslims would be more comparable to “secular” or luke warm Christians. True Christians who follow the fundamentals of their faith in Christ live for peace and love toward others, even their enemies in the name of the One they follow. Muslims who follow the fundamentals of their faith, on the other hand, live to kill and destroy their enemies in the name of the one they follow.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I get where you’re coming from, but personally I think it’s more accurate to say that there are strands within the Muslim scriptures and traditions that the terrorists can draw upon to justify what they do, and there are strands within those same scriptures and traditions that moderates can draw upon to argue that they represent true Islam. The same could be said to some extent for Christianity, except that Christianity has a very, very strong critique of violence that comes through Christ and colors the way in which Christians read the more violent parts of their scriptures. So, while both traditions have strands that can justify the moderates or the extremists, that does not mean that they’re the same.

      To simplify, you might say there’s Conquest Theology and Servant Theology in both traditions. I think the Servant Theology is stronger in Christianity than in Islam, and we live in a world where the Servant Theology has largely triumphed in Christian thought. We may see Christian individuals take up violence to achieve their ends, and we see Christian or ostensibly Christian nations go to war when they think it’s justified. But we don’t see large masses taking up arms for overtly Christian Crusades. It’s more complicated in Islam, where Islam and the State are still enmeshed to the point of being (in non-secular Muslim nations) one and the same. What Islam needs is a long and thoroughgoing critique of its Conquest Theology — the scriptural and traditional strands justifying violence against the infidel — in order to move beyond its present situation.

  • rjwalker

    >>Still, even taking those things into account, I have often been surprised that we do not see and hear the majority of Muslims rising up en masse

    If they did, would we hear about it? IOW, is the problem in what they say and do or in hat the press reports?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Like I said, I know the moderates don’t get quite the press the extremists do. If it were a large enough movement, though, and they truly persisted in their desire to be heard, then, yes, I’m pretty sure we’d hear about it. Especially if they were very actively reaching out to extremists and trying to change their hearts. Some have said that the Muslim world needs something like the Reformation or something like the Enlightenment. I agree. (I’m not a complete fan of the “Enlightenment,” but we’re just talking a loose parallel here.) -Tim

  • Dear Timothy,

    You have touched on an issue that we struggle with every single day on our Fan Page, “Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented”.

    To address the issue to being misrepresented is an ongoing and challenging thing. We have been accused of acting exactly like the people we rebuke. So the question is, how in the world do we approach these “cancers” within our faith?

    This article was Excellent!!! We vacillate between wanting to ignore them, wanting to confront them, wanting to rebuke them, wanting to love them. Our page consists of many faiths, and non-faiths. How we approach our fellow “christians” reveals who we are and if we are genuine. It is not easy.

    Thank you for articulating Our Mission, a Mission that may need to be refined after reading your article. 😉

    God bless you and keep up the good work.

    Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks so much for this comment. I look forward to exploring your FB page. -Tim

  • ammes

    Harold Camping is responsible for the death of a teen girl and must be prosecuted!

    See here http://haroldcamping-21.blogspot.com/2011/05/14-year-old-girl-kills-herself-over.html

    • @ammes – Of Course he should!! Don’t think for a minute that Christians think he hasn’t done horrific harm and caused lives in the process of his false prophet antics. It is repulsive. He will face his Maker and have to be accountable for that.

  • c’est moi

    what I think is remarkable about the whole Camping rapture prediction is that the discussion is not that he was wrong that a rapture event would happen but that he the audacity to pick a date.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      There have been some who responded to his “rapture theology” in general — of which I am also critical. But a part of the reason for the focus on the date is because there is a very specific statement from Christ that none but the Father can know when the end will come. -Tim

  • Debbe May

    I guess I have felt some obligation to assuage the fears of those who don’t read the Bible much, or maybe not at all. I have pointed out Matthew 24:36 many times since this last round with him started. If he is using numerology to arrive at these dates, then he is one of the people the Bible warned us about. That is a form of witchcraft, is it not? I haven’t contacted him directly and haven’t felt compelled to do so. Although, I suppose if I ran across a blog of his or his church, I would have felt compelled to comment. I’m too wrapped up in trying to survive on a fixed income, these days, I suppose. It hadn’t entered my mind. He has probably insulated himself from scoffers and naysayers, but he might be reachable. At his age, I wonder if he also has some kind of dementia.

    I know a lot of people a LOT of people who subscribe to the doomsday theology put forth by the Left Behind series, Hal Lindsay, et al. At one time, I bought in to it wholesale and researched it a lot myself. It finally hit me one day, that what does it matter if it happens this way or not? If I am ready to go, I am covered and I can simply spend my time on other aspects of my Christian life, rather than wasting energy on that. I was raised in churches that have a fundamentalist view of eschatology, but even there, no one put a date on it. They were aware of the many signs in the Bible about it and tried to educate their congregation, but emphasized that people would not know the day or the hour and that at all times, we should be at a place in our Christian walk that we are ready to go. Since I have come to that place that I don’t feel a need to try to figure this out any more, I really hadn’t paid any attention to Camping and until the talk about it became rampant, I was unaware of it. I don’t interpret the Bible when I read it as a fundamentalist does very much any more. However, I suppose I always will see some things from that vantage point. It is the culture in which I live and the common denominator among most denominators in my area.

  • LaValley

    I agree 100% with “Ammes”….he should be prosecuted and held accountable.

  • Jeff E.

    Why is the church responsible for the words of Harold Camping? Because it fails to publicly renounce that Mr. Camping is a false prophet, scream it from the rooftops if need be.

  • john

    Wow tough questions you ask yourself. Just a few to add, Is Harold Camping’s belief in Jesus real or maybe I should say does he believe in the real Jesus? Not our place to judge, true, Only God knows his heart, but Jesus did say to look at His fruits(Matthew 7:15-20). Is his doctrine that much different different from the mormon “faith” in that both are based on the interpretation of scripture by men? (despite what Peter warns in 2 Peter 1:20 or Paul in Gal.1:8-9) They say they “believe in a “jesus christ” and spread false doctrine around the world deceiving many. Or even within the Catholic (and protestant) Church there are many sects and detachments from truth. Jesus is the way, truth, and life. He is the eternal truth and not some man made interpretation. You see there are many “jesus christs” but only one Jesus the Christ son of God the father come in the flesh for the salvation and redemption of man. Only one truth by which mankind can know the Father in Heaven. What I’m trying to say is that a true Christian is not part of a man made religion that you have to defend. They are part of the TRUTH! against the truth not even satan/the gates of hell can stand. Do you have an obligation to share the Truth with this man? maybe, if that is what Christ in you is leading you to do. After all, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.Ephesians 2:10” He does instruct His church to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. I think based on what I’ve read of Camping’s doctrine and beliefs, that he needs to, like all trapped in falsehood, have Christ give sight to his blind eyes. Are you the one to do it? Ask Jesus, He’ll guide you! Blessings!
    P.S. Be careful not to become to understanding of anti-Christ’s (i.e. people that are anti- Jesus the Christ our Lord), because it is a great temptation among intellectuals today to be politically correct to the point of inadvertent blasphemy. Cast off pride and the sin that so easily entangles and run the race set before you. But don’t worry Jesus is the Author and perfector of your faith! 🙂

  • nwcurtis

    Thank you Timothy for some carefully considered, well crafted answers to some very difficult questions.

  • rose blackwell

    Thank Timothy for giving me the understanding of this situation.

    I’m still searching to understand religion…
    I love Karin she makes it very easy..

  • Phil

    Despite Timothy’s gracious comments, I’m not at all sure that Harold Camping and I read the same Bible or pray to the same God! The God I find in the Bible has very little relationship to the God I find in much of the “evangelical” Christian world. At what point are we allowed to say (despite the fact that we use a lot of common vocabulary) “That’s actually a different faith than the one I practice.”?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It’s a good question, Phil. I’m assuming that Camping would affirm most or all of the Nicene Creed, which summarizes a way of reading scripture that he and I share. I definitely feel an impulse to hold him at arm’s length, and there are certainly areas of profound difference. I still feel, embarrassing though it is, that Camping is my brother and I am – to some extent – his “keeper,” meaning that I have some responsibility to reach out to him as a brother when he is straying. But I don’t doubt that there comes a time when someone’s theology and biblical interpretation are so far divergent from my own that we cannot say we have the same faith. I feel that way, for instance, about many prosperity gospel preachers. -Tim