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The Prophet of Judgement Day

Article by Edmund D. Cohen.

Dr. Cohen discusses the case of radio evangelist and uber-fruitbat Harold Camping, who claims the Christian Judgment Day is going to happen on May 21.
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My clearest recurring impression of Camping is his deep, un spoken longing that his way of life—wandering obsessively in circles in the Bible’s semantic wilderness—will be concluded, finished, ruled out for succeeding generations. In 1994, I speculated that he unconsciously desired to trigger a scandal to discourage others from squandering their lives enmeshed in the futility of Bible-belief in the way he had. No one would have expected Family Radio’s listenership to prove so long-suffering that it would simply disregard the episode and continue on blithely as if nothing had happened. Perhaps that constituency has something to teach the rest of us about tolerance for eccentricity. Long live freedom of speech!

By declaring certainty and approving a publicity campaign (with billboards, print-media advertising, missionary junkets, and touring RV caravans), Camping has raised the stakes. It is as if he were deliberately tweaking the noses of the rest of the fundamentalist Christian establishment and the public, seeking to goad us all to react.

Such a motive would also explain Camping’s uncharacteristic foray into gay-bashing. Over all these years, he has never been given to “hot button” rhetoric. His current tract, Gay Pride: Planned by God as a Sign of the End is, however, a full-throated piece of hate literature. It was published under Camping’s name, even though comparably short Family Radio tracts are usually unattributed. It is nothing but an attention-getting stunt in terrible taste. I see it as Camping’s version of Springtime for Hitler. How much more outrageous must Camping become in order to provoke an outcry?

The key to the whole ungainly story could lie in Camping’s stance toward natural science. In recent years, the terminology of formal, numerical proof has cropped up more and more in his parlance. It is easy to detect the frustrated quantitative scientist behind all that fastidious analysis of biblical chronology. How much more satisfying could he have found a life devoted to investigating something real? What a productive natural scientist this man—with his meticulous attention to detail, facility with numbers, and capacity for hard work—might have become had he been influenced toward higher academic aspirations in his youth. He has never really seemed to relish science-versus-religion polemics. He “protests too much” when he lambastes and caricatures scientists. Sometimes on Open Forum, he perfunctorily re cites stock “intelligent design” talking points. What sour grapes. Could that be what is really amiss in his life without his even being aware? These date-setting episodes are all about what happens when a brilliant person’s urge to be creative and original is repressed. It crops out self-destructively.

Camping is poised to succeed in bringing a high-profile media crucifixion upon himself. Most likely, he will find himself hastily trying to walk the prophecy back at the moment of truth. He has done that before. He might even be able to ease things back to status quo ante a second time. He can always appoint his own hundredth birthday as the next scheduled apocalypse. For him to face up to his obligation—incurred on precisely his own terms—to concede that he has unwittingly adduced evidence of the falsity of Bible truth claims is doubtless too much to hope for. We might as well enjoy the show.

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