Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Old Camping Grounds

From the March 2011 E-Block.
Harold Camping could qualify as a ghost of both end times past and present – and is about to become recognized as a failure in both eras. Well known for predicting an imminent end to the world this coming May, Camping played this game before, in 1994 – and lost. He didn’t learn his lesson? Yes, that is so; but there’s a good reason why, as I found in reading both his 1994 and his latest book, Time Has an End [THE].

I’ll begin with a note about Camping apart from his eschatology. I have never read or heard Camping before, except for a few static-filled minutes on a radio during a California vacation 10 years ago . I knew of him earlier when Edmund Cohen, a Skeptic, referred to him in his book The Mind of the Bible Believer. In my review of that book I said:

Beyond that, he considers Harold Camping to be "the most intellectually competent and honest Bible expositor" [370] he knows of -- which, with due respect to Camping, frankly tells us little other than that Cohen's scholarship level leaves much to be desired.

…Finally: "The believer prays more, turns Family Radio up louder to drown out the doubts, goes to a church service to get peer reassurance, reads the Bible to reinforce the allegorical suggestions of separation of the realms, etc." [359]

In retrospect, I gave Camping far too much credit. After reading these two books, Cohen’s comments take on a new light. I wouldn’t call Camping a cult leader...yet. But he comes very close. Examples of some of his stranger views include:
  • Using birth control is “re-writing God’s law” because it means disobeying three passages in the Psalms (!) that praise fruitfulness, and violates other passages like Is. 42:5 indicating that God creates the baby in the womb. Those who use birth control fail to “trust that God knows exactly what size every family ought to be.” [1994, 146-7]
  • Satan himself is the antichrist. [1994, 190]
  • Camping employs homiletics that are strange and imaginative by any standard: For example, Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27 “typifies Satan’s attack on the church.” [1994: 227] How? Example: “the ship was destroyed even as the era of the New Testament church will end with the final tribulation period.” Later [1994:446], the 2000 cubit space between the ark and the people in Josh. 3:3-4 is taken to be a picture of the 2000 years between Jesus’ lifetime and the modern age. This is all strictly contrived and without any textual, historical, or exegetical basis.
Oddly enough, though posed as eschatological manifestos, the bulk of both of these books are not about eschatology. Most of them go towards validating a complex yet contrived thesis of Camping’s that significant events in the Bible are separated from significant eschatological events in our future by spans that equal large, round numbers of years (2000, 3000) or otherwise are attended by certain significant numbers. The “bulk” of these books -- and by this I mean size, not content – make for an imposing presentation to those unfriendly with mathematics, as I am. I am, however, more friendly with statistics, and from that perspective, find that Camping makes too much of too little.

In the above referenced item on Paul’s shipwreck, for example, Camping is impressed by the use of the number 276 as the number of survivors of the ship wreck. 276 is designated as an “extra special number” [1994:229]. Why?

Because it can be figured as 12 times 23, or 1 + 2 +3 +4…..+21 + 22 +23 = 276. Or, as 2 x 2 x 3 x 23. Or as 4 x 3 x23.

Yes, I know: So what? Well, we are assured that the number 2 “signifies the body of believers,” 3 represents “the purpose of God,” and 4 “universality,” and 12, “the fullness of whatever is in view in the context.” Do they? No, not really. All Camping has done here is play a familiar game. Here’s an example of how.
In some instances in the Bible, twelve does represent a fullness – of Israel, because there were twelve tribes. And some Biblical “twelves” (like the Apostles, or the cakes of Lev. 24:5) are derivative of that same tribal accounting. But because they are all derivative from that original “twelve” they really count as only one signifying instance of the number, statistically speaking.

Other “twelves” have no bearing on this and do not represent fullness in any sense. But in the examples Camping does give, he “force fits” the description of an event into his theme for the number by adding explanations until it fits. An example (not one he uses here) would be taking the woman with the 12-year issue of blood (Luke 8:43) as a fulfillment of the theme by saying the 12 represented her “fullness” in being healed. Once this is seen, Camping’s mathematical gerrymandering can be plainly seen for the statistical playground that it is.

I mentioned earlier that there is a reason why Camping did not learn from his 1994 error. The answer to this is that he had already set it up in his 1994 book that 2011 would also be a significant year. He had targeted it [1994:494] as being exactly 7000 years after the Flood, so under his scheme that round, large numbers signify events, it was already in his mind that 2011 would mean something. All he did was re-arrange the events attached to the years in question.

Thus it is that in THE, Camping now says that 1994 was the year “Christ came a second time to begin the completion the evangelization of His true people.” [xv] If that sounds familiar, it should: It’s essentially the Jehovah’s Witnesses all over again, an “invisible” coming contrived to controvert the error. (Camping is ready for another shift if he also proves wrong this time: We’re told that if the world does not end in 2011, “we surely will receive correction from the Bible” – e.g., he’ll realign the pattern to suit the evidence again.)

As part of this adjustment, we are now told that we are presently in the “Great Tribulation” – which will end in 2011; Satan is ruling in many local church congregations, and “true believers” have been cast out of them. It is not made quite clear who these “true believers” are, but it doesn’t take a stretch to suppose that Camping counts himself among them, and that those who follow his teachings are also included.

So is this “over the edge” into cultism? Some ministries think so. I find it fairly close, but am less concerned with the term than with the error and the results on May 22, 2011. I also frankly think that apart from mathematics, Camping is not brilliant enough to be leading a cult, or to understand why his exegetical routines are sheer folly. But that does not lessen the danger or disappointment his teachings cause, and they stand s yet another object lesson with respect to why the church needs to better educate believers: If we do not, well – the next Harold Camping might be in the next pew, ready to say the end is coming in 2045.

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