Certainly Wrong: Are We Making Harold Camping’s Mistake?

Harold Camping was certain the world would end on May 21, 2011. He was convinced that was what the Bible said. You might say he was certainly wrong.

He wanted to deliver a warning to those who disregard the Bible. It ended up being a warning to those who misuse the Bible. We, too, could be certainly wrong.

How would we know? There are ways.

Lessons From Harold Camping’s “Last Days”

I got an email a while ago from Zeke Piestrup, asking me to take a look at Apocalypse Later, his excellently produced documentary on Harold Camping. Camping was the radio preacher who predicted the end of the world on May 21, 2011. On May 12 he backed his prediction up to October. The next year he finally acknowledged he had been wrong about the whole thing.

Somehow Camping allowed Piestrup and his cameras to follow him through the whole May countdown. I can’t help wondering whether Camping thought Piestrup might be able to relay his message to the remaining world after the Christians had all been raptured away. It’s very clear that Camping wanted to issue a warning to those who disregard the Bible.

I wish Piestrup hadn’t relied as much as he did on one-sided scholarly commentary, but I didn’t let that bother me much, knowing that these scholars’ skeptical opinions have solid answers. I chose to let other errors pass, too, including his identifying the late Chuck Smith as the founder of Calvary Bible Church in Milpitas. Those were weaknesses in the documentary, to be sure, but they didn’t disturb me near as much as its strength: its portrayal of Harold Camping.

Camping knew the end was coming, and he knew what day it would be. He had followers traveling the world, spending millions of dollars (I believe) to get the word out. One young, attractive couple spoke to the camera about their billboard-building trip to the Middle East.

Could I Be Another Harold Camping?

How did Camping get it so wrong? More importantly, when it comes to contentious issues today, how do I know I’m not getting it wrong, too? I can’t evade the question. I can’t ignore its importance.

Recently I reviewed two authors’ books on the Bible and homosexuality. I concluded that one of them, Matthew Vines, was completely off track, and the other, Michael Brown, was doing responsible scholarship. I was quite sure of my conclusions. Could it be that I’m another Harold Camping: completely convinced, yet embarrassingly erroneous?

Healthy Hermeneutics

There are two ways to look at this. In my reviews of these books I focused on issues having to do with translation, genre, and historical and literary context. Michael Brown devotes the great majority of his book to matters like these, which fall under the category of healthy hermeneutics. (Hermeneutics is the study of textual interpretation, or, how to discern what a text means by what it says.)

Could Matthew Vines Be Another Harold Camping?

We could also look for signs of unhealthy hermeneutics. Harold Camping has lessons for us in this; and while anything’s possible, and I wouldn’t claim to understand anything perfectly, in this case I think it’s far more likely that it’s Vines this time who is another Harold Camping.

Here’s why.

Camping’s prediction wasn’t his first foolishness, and maybe not even his greatest, though obviously it was the most damaging. He went wrong long before that, when he cut himself off from the fellowship and correction of other believers.

In fact, though I never knew this until I watched the documentary, he actually pronounced every church apostate since 1988, and every church-based preacher a tool of the Devil. Every one of them. Meanwhile he developed a novel view of Scripture, and in his independence he refused to listen to knowledgeable correction. These are all indicators of unhealthy hermeneutics. They all tend to make one certainly wrong.

Unhealthy Hermeneutics

Once I met a man in Yorktown, Virginia, who had his own novel interpretation of the Bible. He explained to me that there were five, maybe six other people scattered around the world who had it right along with him. I asked him, “Paul, would you tell me how likely it is that God would have allowed everyone in all of church history to have gotten it all wrong until the half-dozen of you came along?” He responded with a look of obvious discomfort. That was it, though. As far as I know he never changed his view.

Yes, it’s possible that the whole church has completely misinterpreted a basic teaching in the Bible for thousands of years. How likely is it, though? To “discover” a new moral teaching in the Bible requires that (a) the teaching wasn’t there before, but it is now, or (b) the teaching was there in plain sight and everyone missed it, or (c) the teaching was there but hidden until something in the passage of time brought it to light.

For anyone who accepts the authority of Scripture and the work of God through the church, (a) is impossible, (b) is exceedingly unlikely, and while (c) is possible, there’s a strong burden of hermeneutical proof on the shoulders of one who wants to make a case for it.

Vines’s approach to Scripture is novel. As Brown said, no one ever dreamed that the Bible was pro-homosexuality until sometime after the sexual revolution turned everything upside down in the 1960s. A small minority of biblical interpreters struck off on their own, denying all that surrounded them and had preceded them in the church, and produced a new, private interpretation.

Culture-Comfortable, Ad Hoc Approaches to Interpretation

Sure, that sort of interpretation is spreading and becoming popular as time goes on. It’s suspicious to me, though, that its rise has followed after the increase in public support for homosexuality. If the Bible really is the revelation given us by a holy God, it ought to be leading moral progress rather than following it. It should be challenging its followers’ comfort rather than changing to suit their current preferences.

When a novel interpretation arises just in time to make some new cultural practice comfortable, that’s at least a yellow flag, a caution notice, an indicator that it might be a self-serving, ad hoc misuse of Scripture. It bears the marks of having been read into the Bible, rather than being read out of it. To use the technical terms, it looks more like eisegesis than exegesis.

If I’m right about this, then Vines and others in his camp seem to have made an additional identifiable error on top of those that they share with Camping. Not only are they depending on a novel interpretation, but they’re also displaying one of the chief indicators of eisegesis.

Developing a Healthy Suspicion For Common Errors

Let me put it another way. The Harold Camping video got me wondering whether there’s any way to tell when we’re stuck in a false sense of certainty. Camping missed several signs that should have signaled him that he was committing that foolishness. He rejected historic biblical interpretations. He developed a novel interpretation with no credible scholarly background. He cut himself off from current fellowship. He wouldn’t listen to correction.

These are some of the most significant signals indicating that someone has found a meaning that was never there in the text to start with; that they have read it into the text rather than finding it from within the text. There’s an important additional signal to watch out for: novel interpretations that conveniently fit current cultural preferences, which can be indicators of self-serving ad hoc interpretations.

Pro-homosexual biblical interpreters made all these errors in the early days of the gay rights movement. That may not be so clear now, though, since it could appear these days that they’ve moved into the mainstream of biblical interpretation and Christian fellowship. In truth, though, it’s the other way around: the mainstream never supported homosexuality until after it started to bend toward culture, bearing all the marks of ad hoc eisegesis.

Who Is Making the “Certainly Wrong” (Camping) Error?

I’m quite sure I’m right about what the Bible teaches on homosexuality. Pro-gay interpreters are quite sure they’re right. Up to that point, we have a lot in common with each other — and with Harold Camping.

Is one of us repeating Camping’s “certainly wrong” error, then? How would we know?

We could only know by applying the most appropriate objective indicators. In this post I’ve focused especially on several indicators of unhealthy hermeneutics: novel interpretations, making oneself independent of the larger church fellowship, not listening to correction, and reinterpreting the Bible in a manner that’s comfortable to new current cultural trends.

Who is making the “certainly wrong” error? Seek out objective criteria, apply them, then decide.