LOS ANGELES, CA -- Borrowing a page from failed end-times predictions in America's past, 89-year-old Harold Camping said Monday that his bold forecast of apocalyptic events on May 21 actually did take place, but only in the spiritual realm, and that the rapture will now take place Oct. 21.
Camping's teachings were widely criticized as unbiblical by Christians of all denominations heading into May 21, and his latest statement did nothing to change that.
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"Here we go again," Jerry Vines, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, wrote in a Tweet.
Camping's Family Radio ministry, using an unknown amount of money from donors, had paid for thousands of billboards, radio and TV ads around the world proclaiming the May 21 "Judgment Day" date, perhaps spending as much as $100 million on the ads, a Camping employee told ChristianPost.com. Some people sold most of their possessions to finance the ads.
The Family Radio website has been scrubbed of all May 21 materials.
According to Camping's previous prediction, Christians were to be raptured from the earth May 21, and the world would end Oct. 21. He now says that both of those events will take place on one day, Oct. 21.
"We were convinced that on May 21 God would return here in a very physical way -- by bringing a great earthquake and by ushering in the final five months of the day of judgment," Camping said two days after the failed prediction. "And the fact is when we look at it spiritually, then we find He did come."
Camping said he was wrong to interpret Scripture "physically" and not "spiritually."
"And yet the sense of it is still the same, that judgment has come," he said. "The world is now under judgment, where it was not prior to May 21. Spiritually, there's a big difference in the world that we can't detect at all with our eyes."
To students of American church history, that sounded awfully familiar. In the 19th century, pastor William Miller set two dates for Christ's return: 1843 and 1844. When nothing happened, his most ardent supporters maintained that the events had taken place, but only in heaven. They were known as "Millerites."
In the 20th century, the Jehovah's Witnesses -- a group that denies Jesus' deity -- predicted major end-times events in 1914. When the date passed, they eventually claimed Christ had returned that year, but only spiritually. "1914 indeed marked the birth of God's heavenly Kingdom," their website states.
"It if was invisible, you can't disprove it?" Vines asked rhetorically on his Twitter account before pointing to two passages: Matthew 24:36 and Matthew 24:11. The former says that "no one knows about that day or hour" of Christ's return; the latter says "many false prophets will appear and deceive many people" -- a reference to Camping.
Prior to the latest go-round, Camping perhaps was best known as the man urging all Christians to flee churches -- a teaching some critics called even more unbiblical than his end-times predictions. He also predicted Christ's return in 1994.
Rhyne Putman, an instructor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, took issue with Camping's assertion that Christ could return without people noticing. He cited Revelation 1:7, which says when Christ returns "every eye shall see him."
Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said Camping has not helped the name of Christ, particularly when it comes to the doctrine of Jesus' Second Coming. Burk said he sensed a mocking tone when watching MSNBC's "Morning Joe" crew talking May 20 about Camping's prediction. Burk felt it was similar to what was warned about in 2 Peter 3:3-4: "Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking ... and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.'"
"And this," Burk wrote on his blog, "is the real tragedy of a false teacher like Camping. He gives the scoffers a reason for feeling vindicated in their scoffing. He gives aid and comfort to the judgment-suppressing human heart and thereby consigns them to their own God-ignoring delusions. This is a tragedy of eternal proportions, and it is anything but funny."
Burk also called Camping a false prophet.
One of Camping's most-prominent followers is now doubting Camping's teachings. The blogger that posts at the-latter-rain.com wrote May 23, "I'm being much more cautious now when it comes to the influence any Bible teacher might have on my understanding of truth." For weeks, the pro-May 21 website WeCanKnow.com -- referenced on billboards -- promoted only four other websites, one of them being the-latter-rain.com. The blogger is unnamed.
"The Bible is the infallible Word of God," the blogger wrote. "When we teach something and say, 'This is what the Bible says,' and that something is not Biblical truth, then we have done a horrible thing by teaching a falsehood. We need to acknowledge that and seek correction in the Bible."