Radio Preacher’s ‘Rapture’ Prediction Fails, Draws Global Attention
After ‘Great Disappointment, Adventists learned lessons, leaders say
AN ADVENTIST REVIEW NEWS ANALYSIS
merican radio preacher Harold Camping’s prediction that “Judgment Day” would strike Earth on May 21, 2011 -- at precisely 6 p.m. in each time zone across the globe – now joins many other famously failed prophecies.
As Britain’s Guardian newspaper tartly observed on May 22, “To the shock and distress of a handful of ultra-devout Christian believers, the sun went down [May 21] on an America and a world that had signally failed to end.”
Approximately 24 hours after Camping’s prediction fizzled, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the 89-year-old broadcaster’s assessment: “It has been a really tough weekend,” the paper quoted Camping as saying, noting he was “flabbergasted” at his prophetic misfire. “I'm looking for answers,” he reportedly added.
FAILED PREDICTION -- In this Dec. 12, 2002 file photo, Harold Camping speaks while holding the Bible, in San Leandro, California. A loosely organized Christian movement spread the word around the globe that Jesus Christ will return to earth on Saturday, May 21, 2011, to gather the faithful into heaven. The prediction originated with Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer, who founded Family Radio, an independent ministry that has broadcast his prediction around the world. [PHOTO: AP]
Precisely 166 years and 7 months after the “Great Disappointment” followers of Baptist preacher William Miller experienced when the world didn’t end on October 22, 1844 (one year after Miller’s first predicted date), global attention focused on Camping, a retired civil engineer whose Family Radio stations in the United States have a wide reach. Until recent years, Family Radio was widely regarded as a non-offensive source of Christian hymns, 30-minute programs of Bible readings from the King James Version, and Camping’s question-and-answer Bible call-in show.
Beginning with a 1992 prediction that judgment might come in 1994, however, Camping began to veer sharply from the Calvinist teachings of his earlier years. By 2002, he declared the “church era” had passed, and true believers should worship at home, listening to his broadcast sermons.
To promote “Judgment Day 2011,” Camping’s followers reportedly spent millions of dollars on billboards, subway advertisements, literature distribution and personal canvassing. A fleet of large recreational vehicles, smaller vans and automobiles -- all decorated with advertising warning of “the end” -- crisscrossed the United States in the weeks leading up to May 21. Overseas advertisements appeared in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the Philippines and Vietnam, the Guardian reported. The Reuters news agency quoted Camping, before May 21, as saying “there is no ‘plan B,’” should his prediction fail.
Seventh-day Adventist Christians, however, could empathize, since the movement was birthed in large measure out of Miller’s prophetic misunderstanding. Although Adventists believe that an important event in human salvation did commence in 1844 -- the ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary and the concurrent “investigative judgment” -- the church, formed 19 years later by a subset of Miller’s followers, has never set a date for the end of the world.
Adventists hold fast to the belief that Jesus is returning soon, and have proclaimed it to the world for nearly 150 years. Today, 17 million people are baptized members of the church, and it’s estimated that as many as 30 million people globally attend weekly Adventist worship.
Present-day Seventh-day Adventist thought leaders say Camping departed from the Bible’s counsel not to engage in such specific speculation.
‘BEEN THERE, DONE THAT’: Ellen G. White Estate director James Nix says there's no reason for people to predict the date of Christ's Second Coming. A great thing came out of a mistaken prediction in 1844 -- the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- but it would be wrong to make predictions again, he said. [PHOTO: Josef Kissinger/ANN]
"If [Camping's followers] understood correctly God's word, they would already know that this man is in violation of what God says," said Stanley Patterson, associate professor of Christian ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
He and others point to Matthew 24:36, which quotes Jesus saying, "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father."
"God has accepted responsibility for the day and the hour and not us," Patterson said. "If our hope becomes so strong that we stop regarding His Word, that's a horrible irony. Ultimately, God is going to take care of the things He said He would care for."
Patterson said speculating about God's will isn't the job of humans, and doing so capitalizes on the fear people have about the future. Setting a date may give some people hope, he said, but the tragedy is that it's a false hope.
"As Adventists, we join them [Camping’s followers] in longing to see Christ return, but given our history we also know what happens when mistaken predictions are made," added James Nix, an Adventist Church field secretary and director the Ellen G. White Estate, which manages the intellectual property legacy of one of the movement’s co-founders. "We've been there, done that," he added.
- with reporting by Mark A. Kellner and Adventist News Network