Rapture Round Up
Harold Camping was dead wrong about the Rapture on May 21. What’s next for him and
Since the adoption of the First Amendment, Americans have had freedom of choice in
all matters of religion. The resulting free-market religious economy has produced
an amazing religious diversity, from the stodgy to the bizarre. Alongside traditional
faiths new religious experiments suddenly appear, threatening and sometime supplanting
the old orthodoxies. One generation’s “mainline” religion may become the next’s “sideline.”
For the most part, Americans have cherished their religious freedom, even when it
has enabled false prophets, charlatans, and religious con-artists to compete with
everyone else. Such people are the price we pay for religious freedom.
Harold Camping has now joined the ranks of failed prophets. He got famous because
his followers were willing to act on his mathematical calculations. Like the Millerites
of the 19th century, they quit jobs, spent their savings, incurred debt, and took
to the streets to bear witness. They gave millions in donations to Family Radio for
billboards and custom-painted vans that warned of Judgment Day and proclaimed the
“Bible guarantees it.” This has happened before. Camping first predicted the Rapture
in 1994, but the response this time was huge in comparison.
What happens now? Donations to Family Radio and media coverage will decline drastically.
Once-devoted followers will fall away. A few followers might file lawsuits in an
effort to recoup their financial losses. In short, one expects failed prophets to
lose both their credibility and their clientele.
Not necessarily. Discredited date-setters often calculate new dates or offer explanations
for their failed predictions. Camping now says that Judgment Day will occur on October
21. Some of his followers may forgive and forget and change their calendars. In the
19th century, many but not all of William Miller’s followers accepted his reasons
for Jesus’ no-show on October 22, 1844. They regrouped and eventually formed the
But don’t expect any long-term continuation of Camping’s movement beyond October
21. The air seems to have gone out of Camping’s efforts. Shortly after May 21, he
suffered a stroke; and Family Radio has cancelled his regular call-in program “Open
Forum.” In short order Camping lost the ability and the platform for promoting his
new date. And no one has stepped up to carry on. In this case, Camping’s efforts
may have no long-term future.
In an on-line poll, 346 readers of Christianity Today answered the question, “Should
Christians treat Harold Camping as a brother in Christ?” The results were as follows:
- 17% Yes, he’s simply misguided and needs correction.
- 36% Yes, but also as a dangerous false teacher.
- 23% No his false prophecies put him outside the church.
- 10% No, his anti-church attitudes put him outside orthodoxy.
- 14% It is not my place to judge.
Camping probably would not do as well in the court of public opinion. The same media
that enabled him to get his message out has now made him a laughing stock, a joke
on late-night TV. His name is now carved on pop culture’s Wall of Shame. Thanks to
extensive exposure, the public is mostly immunized against his teachings. In other
words, America’s free-market religious economy has a way of sorting out people like
Isn’t that enough? Not according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. On May
31 this organization of “freethinkers” asked California’s Attorney General to investigate
whether Family Radio should lose its 501(c)(3) non-profit status for committing fraud
and deception in its prophecy campaign.
The FFRF did not challenge Family Radio’s right to believe or teach about the Rapture.
Rather it charged that while it was announcing the End, Family Radio acted like it
expected to continue broadcasting after May 21. Thus the Attorney General “has a
duty to protect the public from predatory charities . . . .” On the run up to the
Rapture, Camping would not entertain the possibility that he might be wrong. Evidently
some executives at the radio station thought otherwise: they never told their employees
to cease operations on May 21.
Was Camping’s crusade just about money and publicity? It does not look like it. Were
his followers merely trying to validate their views by recruiting others? Maybe.
Was Camping’s “guarantee” an act of arrogance since hedging one’s bets is an honored
tradition among almost all other prophecy-believers? Absolutely. One might even quote
comedian Ron White: “There is no cure for stupid.”
Prophecy-belief has a long history in America; and preachers have regularly warned
about the wrath to come and how sinners can avoid being “left behind.” Believers
expect to be included among the saved and sincerely want others to join them. But
they rarely agree on prophetic details; and only a few indulge in setting dates.
Camping is the latest exception, but he will not be the last. Get used to it; and
take heart. America’s free-market religious economy will sort it out by and by.