Unless you’ve been hiding in a spider hole, you know that the reports of the rapture have been greatly exaggerated. No one left the planet in any way other than the usual way. There was a small earthquake somewhere but nothing apocalyptic. The only person of note to leave the planet was a former professional wrestler. Like many, I watched all of it with the fascination of a train wreck. You just can’t look away. I’m sure many of you get tired of explaining that not all Christians are like Harold Camping and despite the name Family Bible Reading Fellowship is a lot like the First Church of Christian Science (there is neither a Christian nor a scientist in the whole place.) You may not know that there were hundreds of devout followers of Camping that gathered in places like Vietnam and a few in Times Square to await the revelation of Jesus Christ. The scoffers scoffed. The pundits . . . (punditted?) and the comedians had lots of great material. But what wasn’t seen was the tremendous spiritual damage that was done by Camping’s theological gymnastics. Over the last few days, I’ve been reading through a forum that discusses Camping’s teachings called Depart Out. Initially my reasons were voyeuristic.
I wanted to see if any of Camping’s followers would admit they were wrong. I wanted to see what lengths the true believers would go to just to justify the failed prophecy. Just imagine me in a toga watching the gladiatorial matches with a hand full of grapes and a blood thirsty smile. Yuck.
Gradually, my heart softened because, as Jay Leno found out, there are only so many interesting ways to kick someone when they are down. And down they are. Devastated. Disillusioned. Disappointed. Some of them stayed up for days waiting for the rapture. Others spent large sums of money and social capital because Camping was 100% sure that the rapture would occur on May 21 and then the destruction of the world 5 months later on October 21. Of course, Camping himself while initially flabbergasted rebounded with all the verve of Charles Taze Russell. I awaited his announcement and press conference, I admit, with a bit of my gladiatorial spirit still in place. Hey, I do like to see false prophets get their comeuppance. I also thought I might, just might, see a spiritual leader humbled, repent and step down in a genuine act of contrition and soul searching.
Well that didn’t happen. Camping gave his announcement of Family Radio’s “Forum” radio talk show in a room of reporters. And aside from some penetrating questions that Camping waved aside, it was same song, second verse. Camping repeatedly insisted that May 21st prophecy did not fail. Something did happen on May 21. It was spiritual rather than physical. Now if you are a former Jehovah’s Witness or have ever dealt with a doomsday cult you’ll recognize the script. On May 21st, judgment did come. However, what Camping learned during his weekend trip back to the biblio-mathematical drawing board was that nature of the judgment itself. The world was judged by Christ invisibly and no one else can be saved. On October 21st, the world will end.
An analogy: Suppose your contractor promises that you your house will be move-in ready on May 21st but that all the incidentals will be finished up on October 21st. May 21st comes and you show up at the house ready to move in. The contractor is flabbergasted. After a bit of head scratching he comes to you and says, ” Well, my time line wasn’t wrong. We did reach a benchmark on May 21. The roof and doors are on the house so you can “move in” because there is a door and walls and stuff. Before the 21st, you couldn’t move in because there was no door or walls. However, to really physically move in, you will need to wait till our second original benchmark. But I’m not really changing the date. We met our May 21st deadline on time. It just wasn’t literally a move in, in the sense of you can start living here.”
But this isn’t about Camping’s tenacious denial of logic. It’s about those left dejected in the wake of his grievous failure. As I read the scores of posts where his followers try to make sense of what happened on May 21st, I am struck by the similarity of the reasons for holding on to Camping and the pin the tail on the rapture date. The more emotionally invested in the outcome, the harder one will try to bend the truth to make it work. As the clock ticked down and then ticked by, the faithful held on to their prediction with everything they had. Consider this post:
Critics and believers, please bear with me. I simply refuse to believe everything I have learned the last 3 years is false. I refuse to believe the Spiritual discernment was just a figment of my imagination.
The past 3 years have been the most Spiritually rewarding years of my life. I cannot believe we were wrong. Everything fit PERFECTLY. It was only our understanding of May 21 that was WRONG.
The culture driven church elevates experience and replaces logic and humility when it comes to our own interpretations of the Bible. It was devastating for the faithful because it invalidated their entire emotional experience and because that experience is seen as equal to evidence and reasoned faith, then it becomes so much easier to blame our reason and understanding rather than admit the experience could have been glorified wishful thinking. We should not believe Jesus is God because of a burning in the bosom, a moment of revelation, or even because of a steady, childhood inculcation. I do not mean that our own experiences with the Holy Spirit may not serve as further proof for ourselves but those experiences, especially when it comes to our interpretations about the mysteries eschatology should never rely on our feeling of being right about them. To paraphrase theologian Gary Freisen, impressions, especially spiritual impressions about one’s own interpretation of scripture, are just that. They are impressions only. We may enjoy them. Revel in them. But we should never build a doctrine on them. We should never ever found a theology on them and we should never, ever, ever get on the radio and elicit money and prayer based on them. The result can be devastating.
So that’s what’s wrong. What should our response be to these devastated Camping followers? I should note that as of my examination of the Depart Out board today, those who stuck with the prophecy till the wee hours when it turned May 22nd in Jerusalem (in hopes that the Hebrew Calendar might be a better judge) don’t seem to be all that enthusiastic about this new move in date. Most of them have deleted their responses from the board and are very quiet. In fact, the people who seem to be the most active are atheists who have switched from ridicule and are encouraging the skeptical streak in the wake of May 21st. There have been calls to read Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” and some of the Jesus Seminar people in order to show that one can “appreciate” Jesus without buying into the whole Christian belief. I would encourage those who are well versed in dealing with the cult mindset to start talking on this board so that atheism isn’t the only position heard. Here are a few suggestions I’ve come up with:
1) Please, please please stop mentioning “No man knoweth the hour or the day.” That verse is talking about the second coming not the rapture.
2) Enough with the jokes. Realize that these people are devastated, sleep deprived, and questioning a lot of what they held with emotional conviction. In trying to help me understand, Don Veinot once explained it to me this way. If I came up and told you that your mom was a prostitute secretly. You would be shocked. If I told you I had proof in the form of pictures, would you really want to see them? I might be able to convince you to be open to this painful new evidence but not by flashing the photos at you.
3) Try the same approach that MCOI sometimes uses with JWs. Point out that Camping said the same thing in 1994 about the doors to salvation being shut. Either he was wrong then or he is wrong now. Furthermore, this same strategy has been used by Millerites in the wake of the 1844 “Great Disappointment” including Seventh Day Adventist prophet Ellen G. White.
4) Its cliché but, pray for warm hearts, open minds, honest discernment, and for the Holy Spirit to work in the gentle way that the Spirit does to draw people to Christ.
What else? Well, dear reader, I’ll leave it to you to give me advice. As usual, I’m still trying to figure out how I should reach out to the disappointed.
This has been the first article I’ve read since May 21st that has been empathetic to Camping’s followers. I am so relieved. Thanks for this perspective.
One short comment about Item 1:
There are a good many of us who believe the second coming and the rapture are one and the same event – post-tribulation.
Our statement of faith is clear that we affirm the physical return of Christ but we do not officially take a position on the when question. Although important it is not an essential of the faith. However, that does not give false prophets an open invitation to name the date either.
I agree! It’s just that some of us believe that verse IS talking about the rapture, so we can indeed use it to counter the false prophets.