The Rapture That Never Happened
by Rich Rodriguez
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This was originally a blog post written on May 23, 2011. It was updated on January 6, 2013 with new information on the struggles Family Radio has been enduring as the consequences of the failed prophecies of its president Harold Camping two years earlier.
The attached billboard says it all. After being plastered on thousands of other billboards around the world eerily proclaiming Judgment Day on May 21, 2011, the doomsday prophecy of Harold Camping, the president and general manager of Oakland-based Family Radio, failed to come true.
Camping claimed that based on information gleaned directly from the Bible, on May 21 there would be cataclysmic earthquakes, dead bodies coming alive from graves flung open, and 200 million people disappearing skyward into heaven to escape five more months of catastrophe culminating in the end of the world on October 21, 2011.
After spending an estimated $100 million to warn the world of its pending doom, its failure, indeed, was awkward.
The day after, Camping appeared at the front door of his residence in Alameda, California and told reporters "It has been a really tough weekend." Ya think?
"I'm looking for answers," he added, referring to frequent prayer and consultations with friends, "but now I have nothing else to say. I'll be back to work Monday and will say more then."
But people hoping that Camping would admit that he was wrong and ask forgiveness were sorely disappointed when during a press conference at Family Radio headquarters Monday night on May 23, he claimed that May 21 was a "spiritual" Judgment Day rather than a literal one, and he was initially "flabbergasted" that nothing was destroyed because he was focused on a literal judgment. Instead, God has now judged the world "spiritually" and will bring about the end of the world on October 21:
"We've always said May 21 was the day, but we didn't understand altogether the spiritual meaning. The fact is there is only one kind of people who will ascend into heaven ... if God has saved them they're going to be caught up."
God completed his judgment and salvation plan on Saturday, so there was no point in warning people about it anymore. Thus, Family Radio would instead play Christian music and programming until the real end on October 21.
Bizarre RamblingsAs he continued to explain himself before an army of reporters and cameras, his bizarre theology came out of the closet with these rambling remarks:
- God's judgment really began back on May 21, 1988, when He left the church and let Satan take them over. Churches don't really believe the Bible is the literal Word of God because in teaching from it pastors always say "Paul says", "Moses says" or "Peter says" instead of "God says." (That simply doesn't make any sense.)
- There is no such thing as conscious eternal damnation for the lost, and thus no hell. In His grace and mercy, God spared the world five months of destruction and judgment because that would have brought eternal damnation on the earth. (Camping believes in the unbiblical doctrine of annihilation--that the lost will cease to exist rather than suffer eternally in hell.)
- God's period of judgment was from May 21, 1988 to the same date in 2011. (May 1988, coincidentally, was when Camping was kicked out of the Reformed Bible Church of Alameda, CA for his refusal to stop teaching his apocalyptic date-setting in his adult Sunday School classes.)
- September 7, 1994, the last time Camping predicted the end of the world, was actually the beginning of salvation for those who left the church and cried out to God for mercy.
- He declined to offer hope or assistance for the thousands of followers who blew away their life savings buying billboards and going on RV caravans to spread the May 21 message. He said that we're in a recession, and lots of people lost their homes "but they survived. People cope, people cope." Also, the great losses from the recent economic crash was much less than what "the average Family Radio listener" experienced.
With all due respect, these are the confusing and contradicting words of a unrepentant, rambling idiot.
The Consequences of Camping's Failed ProphecyBut when October 21, 2011 date came and went, Family Radio circled the wagons, refused all media requests for an explanation, put a gag order on all its employees, and tried to keep a brave face. Regular programming continued as usual, as if the ministry was trying hard to pretend its embarassing high-profile failures never happened. Meanwhile, an attorney in Media, Pennsylvania began offering his services to devastated Camping followers who wanted to sue the pants off him for losses and damages incurred from his misleading information.
It wasn't until well into 2012 that Camping finally admitted that he was wrong with his Judgment Day predictions, people were right in admonishing him the nobody knows the day or hour of Christ's return (Matthew 24:36), and that he would never again set dates for the Rapture, Judgment Day, or the end of the world. This confession came after Family Radio sold two powerful FM stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia to pay off debt it incurred because all donations to the ministry came to a halt, amid rumors that it was crumbling from within and could be forced to shut down. By the end of 2012, it sold its highly prized flagship FM station in New York City with Camping admitting that it either had to sell that station or have Family Radio go off the air altogether.
What We Can Learn from Camping's ErrorsSo what happens now? Camping has again been proven to be a false prophet and bona-fide cult leader, but the damage has been done to Christianity in general.
Well, I've made the following observations.
- The Rapture is a legitimate secondary doctrinal issue we can disagree on, but which Camping has twisted and brought into disrepute. The Rapture is an endtimes doctrine held by many evangelical and conservative churches in which believers will be literally caught up from the earth to meet the Lord in heaven before a seven-year-event called the Great Tribulation, followed by Christ's second coming to the earth to set up a literal 1,000-year reign of righteousness from Jerusalem. There are variations to this doctrine, such as "pre-trib", "mid-trib" and "post-trib" Raptures, but no exact or approximate date is ever given or assumed for when the Rapture will happen. While I personally no longer hold such endtime beliefs as a Lutheran, I still have fellowship and partner with fellow believers who sincerely believe this secondary doctrine and it boils my blood when nutcases like Harold Camping butcher and distort it so that it makes all evangelicals (and all Christians) look bad.
- Camping's followers need compassion and mercy in their seeking recovery from his influence. On the message boards at Crosswalk.com a pastor met about 25-30 Family Radio listeners who fell for Camping's rubbish because they grew up in strict fundamentalist churches with authoritarian leadership that told them what to believe and why. These poor folks were never taught how to read the Bible for themselves and check what was being taught. Psychologically they have been conditioned to accept anything Camping says because of his assumed authority, just like how cult members are conditioned and brainwashed. And like anyone else coming out of a cult knowing they were duped, a judgmental "See, I told you so!" approach will not work on them. A gentle, compassionate and genuinely caring approach has proven to be far more effective. When I left an authoritarian, legalistic independent church in 2000, the unconditional love showed to me by the Immanuel First congregation helped me heal from that influence.
- We ourselves need to be on guard against false teachings, lest we end up just like the Family Radio followers. It's very easy for us who sit under solid biblical teaching to make fun of and dismiss the Family Radio masses as a bunch of brainwashed nutcases who blindly believe what they are taught. But have we ever been persuaded that a certain preacher or Bible teacher is trustworthy because they are bold hellraisers who condemn hot-button issues like gay marriage, abortion, moral relativism and the liberal agenda? John Hagee is one such hellraiser who has gained a large following because of his bellicose and blunt personality, but he is also a Word of Faith preacher who believes the Jews already are saved under a separate covenant with God, that positive confession can heal all diseases, and that persecution of the Jews throughout history (including the Holocaust) was because of their disobedience to God. Like with Harold Camping, we must never let the charisma of a pastor cloud our spirit of discernment. After all, God gave us brains to use.
So much more can be said of what we can learn from this whole debacle, but this will suffice.
In closing, I am humbled that at least two frightened listeners of Family Radio were convinced to switch it off completely and instead tune in to better Christian alternatives and return to the church through my corresponding with them on Crosswalk.com. Never did I ever think that I would help set a lover of God free from a dangerous cult, but I have always been passionate about apologetics, which is part of evangelism and the Great Commission. In addition to the 25-30 others now being counseled by the aforementioned pastor, I hope that this evangelism to former Camping followers is replicated nationwide and worldwide. If even one person comes out of the darkness back into the light, it will be worth it all.