A powerful man who predicted the end of the world repeatedly over a 30-year period to no good effect died last month in California at the age of 92. He was Harold Camping, and he got a good-sized obituary in The New York Times because of his astounding failures.
Truly, I think, there has never been such a failed announcement on such a big scale ever before. To get out his message that the end of the world would come on May 21, 2011, he spent tens of millions of dollars over three years buying billboard space, issuing the warning to his millions of followers on radio, giving TV interviews and buying newspaper advertising around the world, all urging people to declare for God and save themselves before it was too late.
Some say that Harold Camping was a big fake just trying to make money. But he had made his millions in the construction business earlier on. He didn’t need more money. In retirement—he retired from business early—he had become a charismatic interdenominational religious leader with a solid grounding in the Bible and a determination to convert others. And from a careful reading of the Bible, he had figured out back in 2008 that May 21, 2011 would be Judgment Day. He, Harold Camping, was issuing the fair warning. It was three years’ notice. God would, amidst all the fire and brimstone on Judgment Day as 7 billion people passed on, allow all those good souls who believed in him or those who had repented and converted to a belief in him, even if it was just at the last minute, a safe refuge in the Kingdom of Heaven with all the other good people for ever and ever. Everybody else would suffer all the fires of hell.
For these three years, this was his message. As he said, he could get out this message to some nonbelievers, but he could not get it out all over the world to everybody. To make that happen, he asked his followers to contribute as much as they could so he could buy as many commercials and advertisements and billboards as he could. For that reason, people opened their wallets to help him. I have little doubt that even you, dear reader, remembered this time. Certainly I do. Damned to Hell? I have to make this choice? This was a difficult thing to have to decide.
I mentioned this was not the first time that Harold Camping forecast the end of the world. Apparently he studied the Bible and the vast numerology contained within it as a lifetime pursuit. He had made mathematical calculations. According to the Times, he had first predicted various doomsdays in the 1970s, but they got little attention. His first prediction that the public really noted was for an end of the world on May 21, 1988. When that didn’t happen, he worked further with his mathematical calculations and wound up writing a book called 1994?, in which he gave numerous dates in September of 1994 that the world would end. Exactly when that month, however, he was not sure. Then that date passed.
He was, however, sure of his calculations back in 2008 about the new date of May 21, 2011, and indeed many people took him very seriously as the date came closer and closer. Many converted. Many sold everything they owned. A woman in Palmdale, California stabbed her two daughters, age 14 and 11, and then slit her own throat with a box cutter. Mercifully, all three survived. In the Far East, when a huge earthquake and tsunami hit the region, a man in Taiwan, thinking this was the beginning of the end, jumped out a window to his death. Another man died trying to swim across a lake in Antioch, California to reach God.
I think that May 21, 2011—particularly closing in on midnight that evening—must really have been tough on Harold Camping. After midnight, crowds went out and trashed his radio studio in Oakland. In the days that followed, protesters inundated the FCC, demanding that Camping’s broadcasting license be revoked. They demanded he be arrested for being a false prophet, for misleading the public, for causing a riot.
Camping himself went into seclusion. The earth was still under his feet, the sky was still blue above. He thought two things. One was that since everything was still here, he’d obviously made a mistake. Two was that he owed everybody an apology for his mistake. He would soon make such an apology, but first he wanted to figure out what happened.
Camping went back to the Bible to see what signs and signals he had missed. Everything had to be there. It was just something he had once again interpreted incorrectly.
What he came up with a few days later was that he had made certain mathematical mistakes. The real date when the universe would be consumed in brimstone flood and fire was five months hence, on October 21. It was just that Judgment Day had been May 21. The decisions about who gets into heaven and who gets into hell were now decided. It was a done deal, and so there was no further point in giving grand publicity to the fact that the real end of everything was now October 21. Why bother? The books were closed.
And so, quietly, Camping waited. He also quietly apologized for the mistake about the wrong date over the airways. And further, he also said there was no point in reaching out to anyone else about the new date because the book was closed. No matter what anybody did, there was no changing that. After that, he suffered a minor stroke. He was 90 years old and needed, and got, medical attention. What he thought of the fact that he had had a stroke, I do not know, and neither does the Times, apparently. But his mind stayed clear. And, in several brief interviews he allowed, he stood by October 21.
But then October 21 came and went. And at that point, he knew he was really, really wrong, and furthermore, he was probably wrong to have made any predictions about it all in the first place. He was sorry he did. He described what he had done as a “sin” for which he would atone. And he said he would never, ever again make any predictions about the End of the World.
“I really am beginning to think,” he said, “as I restudied these matters that there’s going to be no big display of any kind. The end is going to come very, very quietly.”
But he did have one final thought. And I think, here at the end it must have brightened his day.
“My incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention,” he said.
He was a believer, and I am sure that today, a month after his passing, he is upstairs in the Kingdom of God looking down at us, thinking that now as the end is quietly approaching for us all, he may have made a difference in how many got accepted into heaven rather than go down to Hell prior to May 21. His good works might have affected millions.