HAROLD CAMPING: Anatomy of a False Prophet

(Originally printed in the Fall 2011 Issue of the MCOI Journal)

Harold-Camping1US preacher: “What I meant was the end of the News of the World.”

American evangelist Harold Camping has confirmed that his earlier prophecy of the end of the world, which was due to fall on 21 May this year, was intended to refer to the end of the News of the World.

“By the Lord’s grace, I am proved right,” a jubilant Reverend Camping told a rally of his followers today. “If people had only listened closely they’d have realized that I was actually saying, ‘The end of the News of the World is nigh’. I was never talking about the end of the world—that would have been crazy tabloid talk.”1

So begins the tongue-in-cheek article in the News Biscuit, a British satirical on-line magazine like The Onion . The thing I like about satire is that it begins or is premised on a grain of truth. In this case, the truth that Harold Camping did predict the end of the world for May 21, 2011, which failed to occur. Camping’s ministry launched a world-wide campaign of billboards (1,200 in the United States and over 2,000 overseas).2 The billboards not only declared the date, but also stated unequivocally: “The Bible Guarantees It.” This wasn’t just a media blitz—Camping had “boots on the ground.” In the time leading up to May 21, CNN reported on Camping’s followers:

They walked away from work, families and communities in places as far-flung as California, Kansas, Utah and New Jersey. Among them are an electrician, a TV satellite dish installer, a former chef, an international IT consultant and a man who had worked with the developmentally disabled.

They gave away cars, pets, music collections and more to relatives, friends and neighbors. Some items they kicked to the curb. In homes that weren’t emptied, clothes are still hanging in closets, and dishes, books and furniture—including one man’s antique collection—are gathering dust. Unless, of course, they’ve been claimed by others. If you believe it’s all going to be over soon, why would it matter if you close the front door, much less lock it, when you walk away?3


I am uncertain if it was because news was slow, the press loves to make fun of Christians or, perhaps, both; but Camping got what he wanted. News outlets as well as talk shows were publicizing his claims and the involvement of his followers. Even the night before and the day of May 21, 2011, newscasts began reporting at the appointed time beginning in New Zealand that, no, nothing seems to have happened. No one disappeared in the rapture; and no, the destruction of the world did not commence. Camping went into hiding for a few days; Family Radio—Camping’s International radio conglomerate—resorted to canned music and closed their offices. He had been so clear; his predictions were what God had said. According to him, there was no “Plan B.” “The Bible Guarantees It,” or at least, that was the claim. Would he confess his error? We didn’t have to wait long to find out. After a few days, he came out; and during a press conference, cleared up the matter:

It was just invisible.

After a few days of silence—as thousands reveled in the fact that they hadn’t been Raptured on Saturday—Judgment Day-calculator Harold Camping figured out a way to spin his (second!) failed prediction: it actually did happen, you just didn’t see it. The 89-year-old Christian radio station owner explained on Monday night, during a Family Radio station broadcast, that rather than a physical Rapture taking place, the judgment was spiritual. But don’t worry; the real end of the world is still ahead. 4

As Inspector Clouseau 5 might say, “Ah, yes, the invisible judgment ploy.” Since obviously (according to Camping) the Bible guaranteed it; and equally as obviously, we couldn’t see it; it must just as obviously have been invisible. Isn’t that obvious? Camping not only revealed the Judgment did happen … invisibly, but the Destruction will occur on October 21, 2011 and will be physical and not invisible:

Radio evangelist Harold Camping said in a special broadcast Monday night on his radio program Open Forum that his predicted May 21, 2011 Rapture was “an invisible judgment day” that he has come to understand as a spiritual, rather than physical event.

“We had all of our dates correct,” Camping insisted, clarifying that he now understands that Christ’s May 21 arrival was “a spiritual coming” ushering in the last five months before the final judgment and destruction.

In an hour and a half broadcast, Camping walked listeners through his numerological timeline, insisting that his teaching has not changed and that the world will still end on October 21, 2011.

“It won’t be spiritual on October 21st,” Camping said, adding, “the world is going to be destroyed all together, but it will be very quick.”

Camping had previously pointed to October 21 as the last day on earth for all humanity.6

Reading comments on Facebook and other internet sites—on which Camping’s followers were posting during the days between the failed prophecy and Camping’s proclamation it was an “invisible judgment”—was a little difficult. Many people were hurting, confused, and disillusioned. Some were commenting his teaching just had to be right; after all, they felt so much more spiritual than they ever did in church, and hadn’t they forsaken everything to get the word out? Wasn’t this date guaranteed in the Bible? But it gets worse—a little over a month later (June 29, 2011) The Christian Post carried the headline: “Harold Camping Follower Shot Man Over Rapture Belief?”

An Oregon man, believed to be a follower of Harold Camping and in jail for allegedly shooting a co-worker last week, wanted to punish the victim for mocking the California preacher’s rapture prophecy, emerging developments suggest.

A 39-year-old man from west Eugene, Dale O’Callaghan, shot his co-worker, 33-year-old Jerry Andrews, in the shoulder June 24, calling him “one of those Satanic” people, according to a sworn affidavit filed in Lane County Circuit Court by Eugene Police Detective Ben Hall.

Is Camping a false prophet or simply a mistaken preacher?

Beware of False Prophets

During His earthly ministry to the Jews, in Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus said the following:

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits

This passage is not talking about how to identify who is a Christian and who is not based on various external appearances. It is talking about false prophets—not false professors. How do we know that? Simple, that is exactly what Jesus said: “Beware of the false prophets … .” In the verses following, Jesus makes this even clearer as He talks about those whom He would deny—they would appeal to their prophesying in His name, casting out demons, and performing miracles. To His Jewish audience, His meaning was clear. The first-century Jewish community had fairly clear definitions of what a false prophet was. The definitions come from the Scriptures. The first one is in Deuteronomy 13:1-3, where we read:

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

So, if a prophet or dreamer gives a sign or wonder that actually does come to pass, but follows with an invitation to go after other gods, don’t follow them.

God may be testing your fidelity to Him and His revealed Word. The rest of the chapter demonstrates how the nation was to follow and carry this out.

The next definition of a false prophet occurs in Deuteronomy 18:20-24:

But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. You may say in your heart, “How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?” When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him

In this case, if someone speaks on behalf of God and what they claim does not come to pass, they are a false prophet. It is not necessary for them to preface their prediction with, “Thus saith the Lord” in order to be a false prophet. Speaking in the name of the Lord is simply claiming to be speaking in the power and authority of God and delivering His Word of promise or judgment. In colloquial Twenty-first Century USA language it would be equivalent to saying, “Stop in the name of the law.” The underlying assumption is that the one claiming to be acting “in the name of the law” is doing so with the official commissioning to make that claim—perhaps, a local police officer, a state trooper, FBI agent, or some authority along those lines. If they do not have the legal commissioning, they do not have any legitimate right to speak authoritatively in this area. Once discovered, they will be prosecuted for impersonating an officer; and, if found guilty, this charge results in some sort of incarceration. Wikipedia is fairly accurate when they write:

Police impersonation is an act of falsely portraying oneself as a member of the police, for the purpose of deception. In the vast majority of countries the practice is illegal and carries a custodial sentence.

Impersonating a police officer is sometimes committed in order to assert police-like authority in order to commit a crime. Posing as a police officer enables the offender to legitimize the appearance of an illegal act, such as: burglary, making a traffic stop, or detaining.7

The difference between being a false police officer and a false prophet is fairly great. In the Old Testament, a false prophet was to be stoned to death. A false law officer claims the authority of the local, state or Federal government; a false prophet claims the authority of the God of the universe. Zechariah 13:2-6 describes what will happen in the last days and says that false prophets will deny who they are when exposed:

“It will come about in that day,” declares the LORD of hosts, “that I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, and they will no longer be remembered; and I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirit from the land. And if anyone still prophesies, then his father and mother who gave birth to him will say to him, ‘You shall not live, for you have spoken falsely in the name of the LORD;’ and his father and mother who gave birth to him will pierce him through when he prophesies. Also it will come about in that day that the prophets will each be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies, and they will not put on a hairy robe in order to deceive; but he will say, ‘I am not a prophet; I am a tiller of the ground, for a man sold me as a slave in my youth.’ And one will say to him, ‘What are these wounds between your arms?’ Then he will say, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.’

Once exposed, false prophets continue deceiving; but the deception is for self-preservation rather than power. Although the life of a false prophet is not in jeopardy today, their livelihood—which is financed by the following and power they have amassed through their false teaching—is jeopardized. Their denial is geared to keep them in a position of power without having to suffer the consequences. For example, groups, like the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS aka Jehovah’s Witnesses), admit to predicting the end of the world, but deny they are a false prophet, because they claim they never did so using the words, “in the name of Jehovah.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their eagerness for Jesus’ second coming, have suggested dates that turned out to be incorrect. Because of this, some have called them false prophets. Never in these instances, however, did they presume to originate predictions ‘in the name of Jehovah.’ Never did they say, ‘These are the words of Jehovah.’8

First, this is completely false. The Watchtower claims that Jehovah uses their publication to transmit His message:

THE WATCHTOWER being the means the Lord is pleased to use to transmit his message of truth to the people, it is a real comfort to the remnant and to the “other sheep” of the Lord to have this given to them regularly twice each month.9

In court and under oath, then-president Fred W. Franz stated Jehovah is the editor of the WTBTS publications:

Q. Didn’t you state that on October 15, 1931, the Watch Tower discontinued the naming of an editorial committee and then Jehovah God became the editor? A. I didn’t say Jehovah God became the editor. It was appreciated that Jehovah God really is the One who is editing the paper, and therefore the naming of an editorial committee was out of place.

Q. At any rate, Jehovah God is not the editor of the paper. A. He is today the editor of the paper.

Q. How long has He been editor of the paper? A. Since its inception he had been guiding it.10

Second, the WTBTS misses the point of the passages. As pointed out, it is not necessary to say those particular words, but only to teach, state or imply you are speaking with the power and authority of God, and therefore, what is taught cannot be questioned. To do so is not to question the one making the claims, but rather it is viewed as questioning God Himself. God becomes “the big stick” by which false prophets/teachers keep their followers in line. That is tremendous authority.

I Was Right But …

One of the more effective ways of trying to turn around a failed prediction is for the false prophet/teacher to claim the date was correct, but the event was wrong. Many of the more popular false prophets/teachers and groups use this as a recourse. Ellen G. White pulled this one out of the bag when she began Adventism. Baptist minister William Miller had predicted the return of Christ for 1843. Many of his followers sold their homes and businesses and met him on a hill in rapture-ready attire. When Jesus didn’t show up, Miller claimed he missed it by a year and rescheduled the return event for 1844. When 1844 failed to see Jesus return, Miller gave up his predicting and faded from the scene. However, Ellen G. White truly believed Miller and claimed God had given her a revelation that Miller’s predicted year was correct, but the event was wrong. According to White, 1844 was the date Christ entered and cleansed the sanctuary (cf “What You Need To Know About Your Adventist Neighbors,” MCOI Journal, Fall 2009, vol.15 no.2 beginning on page 1.) (How it got dirty is anyone’s guess.) And how do we know this revision actually is the correct event? Well, it was invisible, silly; and it was made clear to God’s anointed prophet/teacher: Ellen G. White.

After creating alliances with Nelson Barbour—Second Adventist preacher, editor, and publisher of The Midnight Cry (later called Herald of the Morning), Charles Taze Russell and he began publishing The Millennial Dawn and Herald of Christ’s Presence. C.T. Russell had a falling out with Barbour, and Russell went on to found the WTBTS. Like William Miller and Ellen G. White, Russell was enamored with end-times events. Through a complicated system of mathematical equations (sound familiar?) buttressed with his belief the Great Pyramid in Egypt was God’s witness in stone (Russell measured the passageways of the Great Pyramid and claimed they confirmed his biblical calculations), Russell contended Christ was returning in 1914, and the world’s end would occur in that year. He was so convinced of his mathematical musings that when asked if he might change the date, he wrote:

We see no reason for changing the figures – nor could we change them if we would. They are, we believe, God’s dates, not ours. But bear in mind that the end of 1914 is not the date for the beginning, but for the end of the time of trouble.11 (emphasis ours)

1914 came and went, and all that occurred was 1914 rolled into 1915. Russell simply moved the date forward to 1915, then forward to 1916. For Russell, the end occurred in 1916 when he passed from this life to what awaits. “God’s” new date became 1918, and then the new leader, Judge Joseph Rutherford, claimed 1925 was the date and launched the “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” campaign. The 1914 date was maintained as the correct date, and it was allegedly fulfilled, but it was … you guessed it … invisibly! I have to say, the predictions of false prophets are so predicable! The WTBTS continued in their end times prognostications to declare 1942 and, later, 1975 as the dates for the end. As 1975 approached, the WTBTS discouraged higher education as “not only unwise but extremely dangerous:”12

Many young brothers and sisters were offered scholarships or employment that promised fine pay. However, they turned them down and put spiritual interests first.[13. approached, the WTBTS discouraged higher education as “not only unwise but extremely dangerous:”12

The excitement within the ranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses was growing, and the leadership in the offices of the WTBTS recognized and encouraged it:

Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end. – 1 John 2:1714

Selling their homes and property in order to go on the road to promote the claims of the WTBTS? Do we see a tradition here which is carried on by Harold Camping and the followers of Family Radio?

This Time for Sure! (Oops,wrong hat!*)

In 1992, Harold Camping released his book 1994?. He was clear he had the inspired, inerrant understanding of the inspired, inerrant Scriptures on the dates of the end times. He declared in his book:

When September 6, 1994 arrives, no one else can become saved. The end has come.15

This seems to create another real problem in Camping’s teaching as he declared:

… we have no other excuse for existence except that we might faithfully declare the Gospel to the world.16

If that was true, then why didn’t Family Radio close their doors on September 7, 1994? Well, the answer to that came later in 2001:

This plan shows that a time will come when God will no longer use the churches and congregations to bring the Gospel to the world. They instead will come under the wrath of God … No longer are you to be under the spiritual rulership of the church. This command is given because God is finished with the era of churches being used of God to evangelize … The message should be clear. We must remove ourself [sic] from the church.17

Flee from the churches. They are under God’s wrath. But where are we to go? Why to Family Radio, of course. We addressed quite a bit of this in our 2002 MCOI Journal article “Camping with Gwen.” 18

So again, the date was right, but the event was wrong. 1994 wasn’t the return of Jesus and the end of the world, it was God judging the churches, rejecting them, and replacing them with Family Radio as the proclaimer of the Gospel. As folks began leaving their churches in order to follow God’s anointed—Harold Camping and Family Radio, a new date began to surface through some new mathematical manipulation. May 21, 2011: The Lord would return, take out all true believers (Family Radio listeners), and begin judgment. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Millerites before them, Family Radio devotees quit their jobs, sold homes and businesses, cashed in retirement accounts, and donated the proceeds to Family Radio to put up billboards around the world. They purchased R.V.s, painted and posted signs on them to caravan through their respective countries to get the word out. Their basis was (as Harold Camping taught and their billboards stated) “The Bible Guarantees It.” May 21, 2011 came and went; and nothing of note happened except that, again, Harold was wrong. Or was he? Well, after a few days of reassessing, he again determined—as did Ellen G. White, Charles Taze Russell, and others in the past including Camping—that his dates were correct, but the event was wrong. Jesus did return, but it was … are you ready? … INVISIBLY! The physical return of Christ and the final judgment are still certain, according to Camping, and all will be fulfilled … on October 21, 2011. Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Harold Camping has repeatedly shown himself to be a false prophet of the highest magnitude.

Guard the Flock

How should pastors and churches respond? I think the Bible is the rule and authority for faith and practice. First, there is abundant Scripture charging pastors with the duty to guard the flock from two directions. The Apostle Paul met the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-31 and charged them with this mandate:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.

Guard the flock from false teachers who would try to creep in from the outside. In general, the church has done fairly well with this one. Guarding the flock from those who would rise up from within has not been as well practiced. There are several reasons for this. Teachers that exist within the church tend to get a free pass, because they have been around a long time or are endorsed or at least not discredited by other well-known teachers. Something what works hand-in-hand with this is the great access to media and the internet today. Most pastors and elders are not even aware of what or to whom their congregation is listening, watching, or reading during the week. By the time the leadership realizes there is a problem going on, it is often too late to address it well. Once they try, they are often met with the notoriety of the teacher in question and the comparison of this well-known teacher vs. the local, less-well-known ministry, pastor and/or church that is trying to rescue their people. This is the task of the pastor and elders none-the-less. Better to have teaching on false teachers on a regular basis early on, but mostly we don’t know what we don’t know until we realize we don’t know it. By then, it is a bit late. However, churches have suffered through this and have a good handle on grace. Prepare yourself, and love those who have left. Some of the Family Radio followers are already struggling with their faith and are disconnected from Family Radio and the church. A welcoming place to help them heal is what is needed. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 6:1-2:

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

The context of his comment is about sin, but I think a broader application can be made to someone who succumbed to following a false prophet and/or teacher. We, too, can be deceived, and realizing our own weaknesses can help us minister to someone who has been led astray.

On the other hand, church leaders need to address Harold Camping head on. In dealing with elders, Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:17-21:

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.

Paul is writing about how to hold pubic teachers accountable. If they do well, they should be honored. However, if they stray, they are to be held accountable; and if they are unrepentant, they should be publically rebuked. Camping has been confronted, but he remains unrepentant. Some ministries, like Personal Freedom Outreach, have been writing about this since the 1990s and MCOI since early in 2000. Churches need to unite and demand the Board of Directors at Family Radio remove Harold Camping from any teaching position immediately, and the ministry retain the services of some theologically astute leadership in order to be useful to the Kingdom again instead of provoking a punch line in a media joke by unbelievers. Somehow headlines like “US preacher: ‘What I meant was the end of the News of the World’ are not honoring to God or a compelling reason for someone to take the Gospel or the Church seriously.

All quotes are from the New American Standard version of the Bible.

*Famous quote from cartoon character Bullwinkle Jay Moose from Rocky and His Friends show as he again fails at an attempt to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

VeinotL.L. (Don) Veinot Jr. is co-founder and President of Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., a national apologetics ministry and mission to new religious movements based in WonderLake, IL., with a branch office in Spring Hill, Florida. He, along with his wife of 41 years, Joy, have been involved in discernment ministry as missionaries to New Religious Movements since 1987. He is a frequent guest on various radio and television broadcasts including The John Ankerberg Show as well as being a staff researcher and writer for the Midwest Outreach Journal and is co-author of, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, contributing author of Preserving Evangelical Unity: Welcoming Diversity in Non-Essentials,as well as articles in the CRI Journal, PFO Quarterly Journal, Campus Life Magazine, Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Midwestern Journal of Theology and other periodicals. He was ordained to the ministry by West Suburban Community Church of Lombard, IL, at theGarden ofGethsemane inJerusalem,Israel in March of 1997. Don is a charter member of ISCA (International Society of Christian Apologetics) and is also the current President of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR), a consortium of Counter cult/apologetic and discernment ministries from around the country.

  1. US preacher: “What I meant was the end of the News of the World”; http://www.newsbiscuit.com/2011/07/09/us-preacher-insists-i-only-ever-predicted-the-end-of-the-news-of-the-world/
  2. Billboards: May 21 is Judgment Day: http://www.upi.com/Odd_News/2011/05/11/Billboards-May-21-is-Judgment-Day/UPI-95941305144969/
  3. May 21, 2011, judgment day caravan profiled by CNN; http://www.goddiscussion.com/41889/may-21-2011-judgment-day-caravan-profiled-by-cnn/
  4. Harold Camping: Judgment Day Did Actually Happen Saturday; http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/05/24/harold-camping-judgment-day-did-actually-happen-saturday/
  5. Inspector Clouseau is a fictional character made popular by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inspector_Clouseau
  6. The Washington Post, On Faith; Harold Camping says May 21, 2011 was ‘invisible judgment day,’ world will end October 21, 2011; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/under-god/post/harold-camping-says-may-21-2011-was-invisible-judgment-day-world-will-end-october-21-2011/2011/05/23/AFZmc99G_blog.html
  7. Wikipedia, Police Impersonation; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police_impersonation
  8. “Why So Many False Alarms?”; Awake!; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, March 22, 1993, 4
  9. Year Book Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1937, 82
  10. Court transcript, Olin Moyle VS. WTBTS, 1943, Sections #2596-2597, 866
  11. Zion’s Watch Tower, “Can it be delayed until 1914?”; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, July 15, 1894, 1677
  12. Kingdom Ministry, “Full-Time Service – Youth’s Splendid Opportunity,” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, June 1969, 3
  13. approached, the WTBTS discouraged higher education as “not only unwise but extremely dangerous:”[12. Kingdom Ministry, “Full-Time Service – Youth’s Splendid Opportunity,” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, June 1969, 3
  14. Kingdom Ministry, “How Are You Using Your Life?,” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, May 1974, 3
  15. Harold Camping, 1994?, (New York: Vantage Press, 1992), p. 533
  16. “Family Radio Staff Meeting,” 20 September 2001, audio cassette
  17. “Family Radio Staff Meeting,” 20 September 2001, audio cassette
  18. “Camping with Gwen”, MCOI Journal, Vol 8 No 2; Spring/Summer 2002

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