A Christian radio network called Family Radio began spreading “the word of God to the world” in 1958 in a mundane way, featuring hymns and conventional – albeit very conservative – Bible teaching. Despite many years of growth and financial health, founder and retired engineer Harold Camping became increasingly enamored with a personal brand of doomsday Bible prophecy suffused with numerology and eventually began pushing Family Radio toward that focus. After a more tentative prediction of 1988, the Berkeley-educated Camping thought that the world would end (he wasn’t absolutely certain, but was “more than 99 percent sure“) in September of 1994. He actively advocated that view on his popular daily, nationwide call-in show on the network in the months leading up to the predicted date.
Once September of 1994 had come and gone, things returned mostly to normal…for a while. However, Camping was still crunching numbers (to obtain “infallible, absolute proof”) and eventually decided that the correct date was May 21, 2011. He was really sure this time. First would come a massive earthquake, powerful enough to throw open all the world’s graves, followed by the heathen dying off until the end of the world in October. At Camping’s urging, Family Radio spent over $100 million (donated) dollars proclaiming Judgment Day to the masses over its roughly 140 stations and with billboards, fliers and more. The network’s website featured a “countdown clock” under the banner headline: “Judgment Day: the Bible guarantees it.”
Like far too many others, Peter Lombardi, a 44-year-old contractor from Jersey City, N.J., took an “indefinite break” from his work to warn others about this coming end. He plastered his Dodge minivan with stickers proclaiming the “awesome news” of Judgment Day and paraded through Manhattan to spread the word and hand out fliers.
When May 21, 2011 came and went, Camping went back to his studies and soon “clarified” that the May 21 date was “an invisible judgment day” he had come to understand as a spiritual, rather than physical event. The actual day of apocalypse would not be until October 21.
Camping was wrong yet again. On October 22, Peter Lombardi was peeling stickers off his minivan. Family Radio was trying to decide what to do next. Its website was not immediately updated and the countdown clock was stopped at zero and holding. Harold Camping was attempting to figure out what had gone wrong, saying he was “flabbergasted” and “looking for answers.”
After this final, humiliating failure, in a letter to followers some days later, Camping apologized for getting it wrong and acknowledged that he had “no new evidence pointing to another date for the end of the world” and “no interest in even considering another date.” However, he found a silver lining to the confusion, noting that his “incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention.” So there’s that. Camping thereafter largely disappeared from the ministry he had founded – it became a shell of its former self – and died in 2013 at age 92.
Most end-times preachers do not make Camping’s mistake of offering a date certain. The cynical might suggest that offering specificity puts a sell-by date on both relevancy and donations. Yet there is a solid Biblical reason why preachers insist that it is not possible to know when Jesus will return. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). What end-times preachers of every period and every ilk all agree on with unalterable conviction is a carefully crafted loophole. They insist that it is possible to know the season – if not the date – of the Lord’s return and that they are surely living in that season (I have never heard anyone try to define the length of “season”).
For a surprising number of people, it is perpetually the end-times. The apocalypse is always nigh. Continue reading