(RNS) California radio evangelist Harold Camping's false prophecies about the Rapture and the end of the world, first in 1994 and now again in May 2011, are a bit of deja vu.
Harold and I, you see, have a history.
As a college student in the Bay Area in the late 1960's, I read the Gospels for the first time and saw the distinction between Jesus and the Christian religion. I heard about an unorthodox Bible teacher on a local radio station, where you could watch the show through a street-side window on San Bruno Avenue in Berkeley.
I went a couple of times, peering in the window to find an older-looking guy, Bible open, rambling on in a sonorous but resonant voice. It was Harold Camping.
I liked that Camping was a layperson and was self-taught, because like most of my peers in the 1960's, I was wary of anything institutional, especially religion.
Even back then, Camping approached the Bible as an engineer, looking for the logic and connections of every verse to every other verse. In his mind, the Bible should and could make sense if you studied it long enough and carefully enough.
Camping was a civil engineer, and to him the Bible was like a building that was designed and constructed to fit together, not literature to be understood literarily. Add to that his fascination with dates and numbers and you get an engineer and mystical mathematician imposing his talents on a text written in words, not equations.
Pretty early on I realized that the Bible is not a horoscope to be interpreted by secret knowledge and magic decoders. After my early encounter with Camping, I forgot all about him until 1994, when he convinced thousands of people that the world would come to an end.
At the time, Camping agreed to come on my nationally syndicated radio show in Chicago. When his predictions of a 1994 doomsday failed to materialize, he came back, trying to explain his miscalculations. He was shameless and unapologetic, seemingly undisturbed by his failure. The next time, he said, he would get it right.
After a return to his biblical drawing board, he reemerged again in 2011 with his new calculations. The Rapture would happen on May 21, 2011. To be even more precise, at 6 p.m. in each time zone, he promised.
When that date came and went, Camping announced that -- despite total evidence to the contrary -- his prediction actually was fulfilled! May 21 was a spiritual, not physical, manifestation of God's judgment, he said.
“The whole world is under Judgment Day and it will continue right up until Oct. 21, 2011,” he said, “and by that time the whole world will be destroyed.”
Many of his listener's lives had already been devastated by Camping's arrogant folly -- they sold their homes, left their jobs and drained their children's college funds. But Camping is unconcerned, saying these people made their decisions without his advice or counsel.
Some people resist comparing Camping to other failed cultish leaders because he's sincere enough and means no harm. But Camping's arrogance, errors and lack of concern for those he deceived are dangerous.
“God's ways are higher than our ways, and God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts,” the prophet Isaiah reminds us. To think otherwise is arrogance. “Pride goes before the fall,” cautions Proverbs.
Camping represents the law of unintended consequences when it comes to the Bible: the Reformation's proclamation of biblical authority, and the availability of the Bible to the masses were not bad things. But biblical authority is misunderstood when applied to our individual interpretations. The Bible is authoritative; our interpretations are not.
Camping doesn't agree with that.
Camping thinks he can solve the riddle, and he convinced thousands of people to organize their lives around the end of the world. Not just once, but twice. This has happened throughout history when trusting folks have fallen prey to convincing but false prophets.
Here's what the Bible does teach: Yes, the world will come to an end. But Jesus also said no one knows the day or hour. Not even Harold Camping.
c. Religion News Service 2011. Used with permission.