Apocalypse when? New documentary examines failed prophet Harold Camping

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Radio evangelist Harold Camping once determined that the end of the world would occur on May 21, 2011. Photo courtesy of Zeke Piestrup

Radio evangelist Harold Camping once determined that the end of the world would occur on May 21, 2011. Photo courtesy of Zeke Piestrup

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(RNS) Three years after his failed prophecy about the end of the world, a new film about doomsday prophet Harold Camping offers an intimate glimpse inside the last days of his Family Radio empire.

  • Neon Genesis

    It’s one thing to humanize a flawed individual. It’s another thing for this guy to actively help this guy spread a msg that caused real harm to innocent people when this atheist doesn’t even believe in it.

  • Atheist Max

    Suckers are people who want easy answers.
    Religion is built for that.

    Children should learn how to prevent con artists from duping them as part of a school course. A religious school would never offer it 😉

  • Turn in your cars, Matt.

  • Seems to me you’re givin’ easy answers, Max. I shall disregard as instructed.

  • Ray

    Zeke, I am somewhat confused. Are you a Christian or an atheist?

  • Ray

    I found Harold interesting as I find all religions interesting, but Harold could also be aggravating There were a couple of times he strayed into heresy in speaking of the Trinity. He backed off. Other heresies he clung to. And certain idiosyncratic scriptural interpretations, like identifying “not even the Son” as referring to Satan and not as orthodox interpretation holds that Jesus was speaking of the human nature and not the Divine Nature of the God-Man, Himself. But I enjoy listening to Harold. I could not understand why FR staff didn’t stand opposed to him. They surely doubted Harold’s ideas. If not, where are their apologies. If they believed him, likewise, where are their apologies. Surely it is not in service to God to make false prophesies, so who were they all serving?

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  • Re: “There were a couple of times he strayed into heresy in speaking of the Trinity. He backed off.”

    The line between heresy and orthodoxy is extremely thin, and figuring it out is altogether subjective. One of the more notorious heretics of history, Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, was famously — and viciously — condemned as a vile heretic in the late 4th century. To this day, Christians curse his very name, and “Nestorianism” is dismissed as a lunatic idea by a Satan-deceived heresiarch.

    But the truth of the matter is something else. Nestorius and his supporters (the vast majority of the then-large and influential Antioch church) had come up with their views as a response to what they, themselves, viewed as others’ heresies. In turn, the views he opposed had been a collective response to the claimed “heresies” of the perhaps-even-more-famous heresiarch Arius of Alexandria; Arius and his followers, in turn, had viewed themselves as “orthodox” and others as “heretics.”

    The seesawing between factions of eastern Christians continued even after Nestorius was dead (having been betrayed and destroyed by Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria). One of his allies against Nestorius had been Eutyches of Constantinople, but the two later had a falling out and Eutyches ended up being condemned for “heresy” right along with his former enemy Nestorius. Later, the movement called Monophysitism would arise as a way of responding to these various “heresies,” but that, too, would end up being condemned as a heresy, itself.

    Ultimately, accusations of “heresy” are juvenile and serve only to perpetuate hatreds that have no rational basis. It’s all too subjective to really be worth anyone’s time to argue over. There was no valid reason for eastern Christians to go to war (literally!) over homoousios vs. homoiousios.

    So after that little history lesson … the question I must ask is, so the heck what if Camping appeared to save “strayed into heresy” at some point. Honestly … does it really freaking matter? Is it really that important to Christians? How productive or useful are such distinctions, anyway, and is there any reason to throw accusations of “heresy” at people?

  • Atheist Max


    Excellent history lesson. Thanks.
    As I read through it I kept thinking, “what a pity.”
    Look at all the history of wars and murder over arguments of heresy and claims of religion. These people had no knowledge of how anything truly functioned in the world – no knowledge even of how big the world is.

    The world was wild with superstitions. And here we are in the internet age with literally limitless libraries at our fingertips and religion simply won’t die – people continue this superstitious nonsense with trigger fingers and nuclear weapons at the ready.

    Humans simply must wake up from the superstitious eons and snap out of it. Somehow.

    The spread of religion must cease. There is too much at stake.

  • Jon

    ….. and yet, at the same time, I suspect that part of the decline in heresy charges is due to many of us – Christian or not – realizing that the Bibles are manmade fables, not to be taken seriously. After all, one might think, if one or another Bible was really the word of the all powerful creator of the Universe, then to interpret it wrongly would indeed be a terrible thing, and a charge of heresy (or much worse) would be clearly justified, and would be as important as all the people’s lives it may send to eternal torture in a real and heinous Hell.

    Seeing it the other way – if the Bibles are just fables spun by this or that person, then it wouldn’t be a freaking big deal.

    So the constant retreat from the prosecution, importance, and gravity of “heresy”, over the past 500 years, is an outgrowth of our slow awakening that the Bibles are human fables filled with hatred, falsehood, and mistake.

    Looking at that long trend gives me hope for our future. We’ve come a long way, and soon people like camping, who take this or that Bible seriously, will no longer cause so much harm to all of us every year.

  • Ray, many early church fathers found themselves on the wrong side of the quickly evolving proto-orthodox line (i.e. Tertullian). I’m sure you understand there was no fully formed theology that sprang from Jesus and matriculated on down. What was orthodox one day become heresy the next. Hence, Mr. PsiCop’s response.

    As for “nor the Son” (Mark 13:32, Matthew 24:36), I too found this fascinating with Harold. That “the Son” was Satan! Harold’s trouble with this verse was definitely not unique. “Nor the Son” has historically presented problems for Christians. Those three words are excised from the King James Version (Matt 24:36), but are in our oldest manuscripts. Why would folks want to remove “nor the Son”? Well, here is an instance where the all-knowing Son of God could be perceived as not knowing something.

  • Nonbeliever. Down with Jesus. And Lenny Bruce, Jacques Tati, Harry Nilsson.

  • Jon, my next doc is about fundamentalism. The first of the Five Fundamentals is inerrancy. It’s this idea, that the Bible is perfect and God is the author of it all that leads so many math types like Harold to try and solve problems by “comparing scripture with scripture.” But as the great bib scholar John Collins says in my film, if you’re utilizing something written in 500 B.C. to create meaning for something written in 100 A.D., “you’re going to do violence to it.”

  • Fran

    The Bible specifically tells us the answer to the question posed: When will the end of an era (not of the earth nor mankind) come about? Matthew 24:36 advises us: “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son (Jesus), but only the Father.” Therefore, NO HUMAN KNOWS the answer to this question. I also find it interesting that Jesus, the son of God does not know. This surely does not make him equal to his Father, nor make him an Almighty God, as his Father is. However, the Bible does provide many specifics on signs that would be occuring in the last days of an era, and fulfillment of many Bible prophecies are taking place at this time (2 Timothy 3:1-7; Matthew 24:3-14; Luke 21:25-28). We can probably say we are close to it happening, we just don’t know ‘how close’ it is. 1 Thessalonians 5:2,3 provides this aspect: “For you yourselves know quite well that God’s day is coming exactly AS A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (totally unexpected). Whenever it is they are saying “peace and security” then sudden destruction is to be instantly upon them just as the pang of distress upon a pregnant woman (and I know how that feels 🙁 ) and they will by no means escape.” That is definitely one prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled but is guaranteed to happen by God, who never lies (Titus 1:2) 😀

  • Fran, the Bible is not a proof text, nor a flat text written by one author. Yes, the Bible says the end will come like “a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5)
    But the Bible also says a bunch of very public, non-thief-in-the-night stuff will take place (2 Thess 2) before the end.

    Making the Bible a flat text, one in which it was all written by God, destroys the context of each individual book. It may be more fun to play End of the World Dungeons & Dragons with your Bible than it is to actually understand your Bible. But, if you ever feel so compelled, it’s called the historical-critical method, and the “mysteries” of the Bible will be revealed to you! Amen.

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  • Re: “….. and yet, at the same time, I suspect that part of the decline in heresy charges is due to many of us – Christian or not – realizing that the Bibles are manmade fables, not to be taken seriously.”

    I’ll concede that Christians marching to war with one another appears to be a thing of the past, however, their collective immaturity and irrationality remain. The famous pastor Rob Bell, for instance, still deals with nasty accusations of “heresy” over his book “Love Wins.” There are still people who are really and truly ANGRY that he wrote that book and that he dared say some maybe-heretical things in it.

    That’s right. They are actually ANGRY about it, even a couple years later.

    If these people were mature and rational, this would not be the case. They wouldn’t care. Even if they subjectively believed Bell to be a “heretic,” they wouldn’t have anything to say about it, and would not ever have been angry that he wrote his book. It’d have washed over them like water off a duck’s back.

    So long as irrationality and immaturity remain a component of Christianity … and clearly, they do! … there will always be a danger that Christians might once again take up arms against one another over “heresy.” Or, maybe worse, against non-Christians for insolently daring to remain non-Christians. Let’s not be too sure that violent militancy is a thing of the past. We have no reason, at the moment, to assume it is.

  • Re: “I’m sure you understand there was no fully formed theology that sprang from Jesus and matriculated on down.”

    Thanks Zeke for pointing that out! What people don’t understand about the earliest Christians is that they had no “doctrines” of the sort we’re now familiar with. No Trinity, no “original sin,” none of that stuff. All of those were later developments … often, much later (the Trinity developed over time as the result of seesawed responses to other ideas and didn’t really gel until the late 4th century … but even then, it continued to be refined well into the 5th.)

    The earliest Christians would not recognize modern Christianity. The claim many churches make, that they’re relaying the teachings of the original apostles, is a laughable absurdity that’s remarkably easy to refute. Had things like the Trinity (for example) been an original teaching of the apostles, it ought not to have required several ecumenical councils in the 4th and 5th centuries to resolve it.

  • Re: “We can probably say we are close to it happening, we just don’t know ‘how close’ it is.”

    A couple of things that occur to me, in response:

    First, knowing that “we are close to it happening” is not entirely useful. “Close” could be 100 years (in which case we wouldn’t even be alive to see it occur) or it could be 2 minutes from now (in which case that advance knowledge does us no good whatsoever). If God were in the business of helping us “know” when it will occur, he’s done a pretty poor job of it, and ought never even to have attempted any warnings at all.

    Second, the idea that “we are close to it happening” has been a hallmark of Christianity since the religion’s birth. Yet, as it turns out, we’ve actually come no “closer” to “the End” than the very first Christians back in the 1st century CE. What good has it done nearly 2,000 years of Christians to have been telling each other “we are close to it happening”? Again, God has clearly done a very poor job of telling us anything, if that’s all we know so far.

    Third, the whole thing about “here are some warnings of when it will happen but don’t be fooled into thinking you can know when it will happen” is really just a transparent justification for propounders of doom to predict that doom will befall anyone without putting them on the hook for making any verifiable predictions.

    What you have to understand is that Christianity was the product of an apocalyptic variety of Judaism which then acquired some overlays from Hellenic tradition as well as from “Godfearers” (i.e. Hellenes who were interested in Judaism). The apocalypticism of the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE was a product of disillusionment; Judaea had previously been independent, as had supposedly been the promise of YHWH to Abraham and his descendants, but it had successively been ground into the much-larger empires that surrounded it.

    People seriously began to wonder at the validity of YHWH’s promise. They found various ways to do so. The apocalypticists decided that God was merely allowing the great powers to do as they pleased, for a time, but that someday his patience would end, and when it did … BOOM! He’d unleash hell on earth. All earthly powers, great and small, would be destroyed; the lowly and the great would become equivalent; YHWH would finally impose his will on the planet; wrongs would be righted and wrongdoers punished; and all would be clear.

    Over the years as this movement continued, it became increasingly evident that even this supernatural rationalization wasn’t going to materialize. They found various ways to respond to that, but a lot of those apocalyptic promises were left behind within Christianity.

    Today what you see, then, is the natural result of this: A lot of very indefinite promises that “the End” is coming, and it’s even coming “very soon,” yet with some exceptions, nothing very identifiable or verifiable, so there’s no possibility of disappointment when “the End” fails to come on time.

    But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been predictions that came and went without occurring, yet the people who believed in them haven’t given up on them (http://www.randi.org/encyclopedia/appendix3.html). The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, just changed their predicted dates of “the End” as they came and went without there actually being “the End.” After the prediction of 1914 failed, they finally threw their hands up, decided that Jesus had returned but was merely “hidden,” and that he’d reveal himself when he damn well chose to.

    They’re still waiting for that. But curiously, it doesn’t seem to bother them. Nor do they seem to think this is the least bit strange. Like lots of people, they rationalize reality away in favor of … well, whatever ridiculous bilge they find emotionally satisfying.

    The bottom line is, when people say that “‘the End’ is near but I can’t tell you when,” I find it weaselly and suspicious.

  • I wrote and performed a show about the End Times mythologies back in 2012, then published a book called Apocalypse Later, which gives a summary of the End Times of most religions. Many religions have fascinating End Times stories, but the Christians are by far the most obsessed with bringing them on. PsiCop is right when he says that Christianity was founded on a Judaic apocalyptic sect. Christianity has a tremendous amount to offer humanity, but unfortunately it’s always been handicapped by these roots.

    What you see now in Syria and across the Middle East are the same kind of apocalyptic spasms that Christianity went through in Europe in the Middle Ages. The trouble is that the weapons available are that much more powerful.

    Religious people the world over need to stop obsessing with God’s master plan and just get on with enjoying their lives on Earth.

  • Reverberations of the 1920s Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversies continue today.

  • Zeke. I greatly admire the grace you exhibit in all this. I will watch your documentary and hope you do well with it. As a non-believer who is down with Jesus, do you believe the reports that he rose from the dead or did supernatural miracles? http://www.overcoming-lust.com/

  • I’m a non-miracle believin’ dude. Every religious tradition embellishes the lives of their leader. The virgin birth is a prime example (not mentioned in the first and fourth Gospels written, and relayed differently in the two that do). Personally, I think it’s hypocritical to insist on Jesus’ miracles, but then deny them to his contemporaries (Apollonius of Tyana) and later religious rivals (Mohammad). Ancient folks believed crazy, supernatural stuff happened all the time. Collectively, it appears we’re only slightly smarter today. Lightning is caused by electricity, yo.

  • May the miracle working Most High reveal himself to you.
    I hope you will read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy if you have not yet done so.

  • If He reveals himself to me, does it necessarily follow that I have to accept all the ornaments added to Him by others? “I am the way the truth and the life” is beautiful, but did not come from the mouth of Jesus. Hebrews 13:8 ignores character development.

    I just ordered the book. Somewhat embarrassed that I missed this one. Chesterton was a big influence on C.S. Lewis? Awesome. Thank you for hipping me.

  • I think some of your concerns are valid. The Church has not been a good witness to the life and teaching of Jesus. This recent article by NT Wright speaks to how the Church has failed to deal with the Jesus displayed in the Gospels. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/05/28/4013711.htm
    I think you will like it as well.