Harold Camping: False Prophet?
As I type we are still days away from the purported rapture of the church, as predicted by Bible teacher and radio guru Harold Camping. Though his first prediction, that Jesus would return in 1994 failed, that hasn’t kept him from predicting, nor his followers from expecting that Jesus would come for His own May 21, 2011. Which raises the question — when the sun rises again on May 22, are we warranted in concluding that Harold Camping is a false prophet? The Bible, after all, says that one way to distinguish the false from the true prophet is to see if their prophecies come true. What God speaks happens. What men predict usually does not.
Despite this, and my confidence that Christ’s return will not occur in a few days I would argue that this does not mean Camping is a false prophet. It means instead that he has erred as an exegete. That, while sad, disappointing, and perhaps for some disillusioning, is not nearly so bad as being a false prophet. What’s the difference? The false prophet is the one who says, “God has revealed new information to me and called me to reveal it to you.” The false, or erroneous exegete merely says, “God has spoken in His Word, and I understand Him to be saying this…” In both instances we have a man saying God is saying something God has not said. In the latter, however, the Word of God in the Scripture remains the sole final and binding authority on men.
In the internet age we often miss these kinds of distinctions. Consider the creation debate. I am a young earth guy. Have been for decades. The issue matters to me. I believe the Bible to be abundantly clear on the issue, and believe those who deny the young earth view to be wrong. I don’t believe, however, that they are self-consciously denying the Bible. I know of no evangelical scholar who has said, “God, in the Bible, teaches a young earth view. God and the Bible are wrong.” These folks don’t deny the Bible. They simply misunderstand it.
Just like you and me. If being wrong about what the Bible teaches is the same as denying the truthfulness of the Bible, we are all guilty. Not a one of us is right about everything the Bible teaches. Which means in turn, if we have opportunity, that we should show grace to the disappointed May 22. They were wrong, and thankfully then will know it. We, however, will still find our errors difficult to nail down. Let us pray that their eschatological disappointment will lead them to correct a far more grave error, their understanding of the church. We are the body that often misunderstands God’s Word. We are the body which is often led astray. But we are those who affirm that the Bible is true in all that it teaches, including its teaching that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. May we see on May 22 not the return of Jesus, but the return of these prodigals to His church. And may we feast together with them, remembering that such once were we.