Predicting Jesus' Return
Book Review by Sherman Isbell
Harold Camping, 1994? New York: Vantage Press, 1992, xxi, 552 pp., paperback.
The thesis of this book is that God has hidden clues in the Bible, enabling men at the end of time to discover that Christ's second coming will occur in September 1994. Camping teaches that before the return of Christ, the New Testament church will become apostate under the dominion of Satan, and will be rejected by God, judged and destroyed, leaving individual believers to withdraw from the church. He believes that tongue-speaking and false gospels will overrun the visible church, and views divorce under any condition as being an evidence of this increasing apostacy.
Camping arrives at these positions through laying aside the grammatical-historical method of interpretation practiced at the Reformation. He often does not seek to establish the meaning of Bible texts by considering the grammatical constructions in the original language and the historical setting which is being addressed by the biblical writer. Camping instead appeals to correspondences between Bible texts. But the correspondences he draws are not based upon the whole doctrine taught in each passage, but rather on surface resemblances. Thus, for example, he makes out that the account of Paul's shipwreck is an historical parable of the final tribulation, because the Greek word for "tempest" in Acts 27:20 is the word translated "winter" in Matthew 24:20. "By the word 'winter,' God is tying Acts 27 to the final tribulation period." (p. 227) Camping then proceeds to find a special characteristic in the number 276, which is given in Acts 27 as the number of people on board Paul's ship. Camping believes that the number 23 in the Bible is identified with God's judgment on the church, and 276 is 12 multiplied by 23.
Camping explains that these, and other numbers which he says have symbolic meaning in the Bible, share the special property that the sum of all the integers preceding and including certain odd numbers is the same as the odd number multiplied by that odd number plus one, divided by two. The teaching he derives by this means from Acts 27 is: "The ship was destroyed even as the era of the New Testament church will end with the final tribulation period. None of the 276 people on board lost their lives in the shipwreck, and not one true believer in the church will be spiritually lost during the final tribulation period." (p. 227)
The lessons which historic Protestant exegesis has found in the shipwreck account are God's faithful care of his people, and the relationship between God's sovereign purpose and human responsibility. Of course the Christian church has long known that the kind of allegorical and numerical exegesis practiced by Camping is so arbitrary that by it anything can be proven from the Bible. Luther and Calvin chided the medieval Roman Catholic Church for employing just this method of biblical interpretation, by which Rome sought to establish the doctrines of the mass, human merit and the papacy, and with no less cogency than Camping.
The Reformation exercised great caution about the presence of symbols in Scripture, rejecting an allegorical exposition of other words and passages, because it inevitably takes away the authority of the plain words of Scripture. The absurdities of this method give Scripture a nose of wax; it is little wonder that in asserting its speculations not taken from Scripture but read into Scripture, the medieval Roman Church relied upon discovering in Scripture what Camping calls "historical parables" (p. 226). Camping may teach some of the doctrines of the Reformation, but he has surrendered the principles of biblical interpretation by which those doctrines were found in Scripture.
Ultimately, the interpretive principles on which Camping operates are inconsistent with one another; he relies on traditional exegesis for traditional doctrines, but turns to allegories and numbers to overturn doctrines well-established from the unequivocal statements of Scripture. We believe that Paul's warnings in I Timothy 1:4-8 and Titus 3:9 were directed to the same kind of speculative elaborations on biblical texts which Camping utilizes; two hundred and fifty pages of his book are devoted to finding hidden references in genealogies, the ages of saints, and other numbers. In the end his practices in interpretation will undermine confidence that Scripture's meaning can be determined with any certainty, because the speculations that will be foisted on the text in this manner are endless. He often does not expound the text, so much as assert suggestions which are not required by the text. The result is that he finds numerous allusions to the end of the world. He says, "The final tribulation period . . . is so frequently alluded to in the Bible that we wonder why it has not become an important part of Christian theology."
Camping is a prime example of how reliance upon allegorical and numerical interpretation leads one to deny the authority of the plain words of Scripture. In one instance after another, Camping suggests a doctrine by going to passages which have no bearing on the question, and then ignores or explains away the texts which directly address the issue, and which give a different teaching than his. We shall examine several areas in which his teaching contradicts the explicit statements of Christ.
First, Christ teaches that we cannot know the time of his second coming. At Mark 13:32-33 the Savior says: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is." Camping suggests that the knowledge men are said not to possess is not a knowledge with respect to the date of Christ's second coming, but a personal experience of the judgment day. Camping further declares that though the Savior may rule out the possibility of identifying the day of his return, nothing is said about knowing the month and the year. But the thought of a surprising coming is obvious in such passages, and the plain lesson that Jesus inculcates in these reiterated sayings is that his servants must always be diligent in the faithful discharge of their responsibilities, for they do not know when the Master will come. Thus the practical lesson of these sayings is subverted by Camping's reinterpretation of them.
Similarly, Camping interprets the coming of Christ at Matthew 24:50 and 25:13 as referring to the moment of an individual's death. However, the coming of Christ at the judgment day is the obvious meaning of 25:31-46, and the coordinate sequence of 24:29-31 with 24:36-41, 24:42-43, 25:10-13, 25:19 and 30, and 25:31-32 is obvious; these are all sayings and parables respecting the accounting at the judgment day (and cf. Luke 12:35-40). What is more, Scripture does not speak of our death as Christ coming to us; when we die, we go to him: Philippians 1:21-23. In the same passages where the apostles speak of believers falling asleep in Jesus, and elsewhere, "the coming of the Lord" is an expression denoting the final return of the Savior: I Corinthians 15:23, I Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 4:14-17, 5:23, II Peter 3:4 and 12, and I John 2:28.
In Acts 1:7, Christ declares: "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power." Camping must acknowledge that "By this answer Jesus is saying that believers ordinarily are not to know the timing of the return of Christ." (p. 321) But this does not stop Camping from arguing that this rule will not be true at the end of the world, for he says that as the time draws near, God will use clues hidden in Scripture to give his people insight into the date of Christ's return.
Among the sparse materials he appeals to for this contention is Daniel 12:4. Edward J. Young points out that this difficult verse probably has the following force: "many shall run to and fro, that knowledge may be increased." Young comments: "These words state the purpose of the going to and fro. It is for the sake of increasing knowledge. . . . 'Many shall go to and fro in search of knowledge, but they shall not find it.' There is a strain of sadness in these words. The written revelation of God is in the world, but men heed it not. Instead, they look for knowledge where it is not to be found." (A Commentary on Daniel, pp. 257-258) But Camping is not reticent to build one pillar after another of his thesis on difficult passages, or on conjectural suggestions. Camping also appeals to Dan. 2:21-22 and Amos 3:7 as evidence that God will disclose the date of Christ's return to his people before it occurs. However, these passages which speak of God revealing secrets are references to God's infallible revelation to men who possess the gift of inspired prophecy.
For Camping, I Thessalonians 5:1-5 means that believers will know the date of Christ's return, rather than what the church has always understood the passage to mean - namely, that believers are to walk soberly, and thus be prepared for the return of the Savior. Camping says concerning Hebrews 10:25, "This verse clearly implies that the believers will know when the end is coming very near" (p. 315), without considering that the verse would then have had no practical significance as an exhortation to its original readers. The correct interpretation of 10:23-25 is that it means something very much like I John 3:2-3. Christ's disciples are at all times to follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14), with a view to being made like Christ when he shall appear. Those who hope for conformity to him when he comes will strive after purity now.
A second area in which Camping's allegorical interpretation violates the unequivocal statements of Christ is with respect to the perpetuity of the church. Camping has the notion that Satan is the man of sin in II Thessalonians 2:1-9, despite the distinction between this figure and Satan in verse 9. He says that "a short time prior to Judgment Day increasingly virtually every congregation and denomination in the world is to become apostate." (p. 69) "Because the church has been used of God throughout the New Testament era to reveal God's salvation plan to the world, it is shocking to the highest degree that it will finally have served its purpose and will come to an end as an instrument of God to evangelize the world." (p. 109) "We, therefore, should be quite accurate in saying that the New Testament era of sending forth the Gospel officially came to an end on May 21, 1988 - the day before Pentecost." (p. 515)
The New Testament warnings against apostacy, Paul's words about the end-time appearance of the man of sin in the temple of God, and the historical narratives of unbelief in Old Testament Israel are taken by Camping as predictive prophecies that the church will ultimately succumb to Satan's rule, and that "God will destroy the external church" (p. 167). About one hundred pages of the book are devoted to these claims concerning the demise of the church. A pervasive theme of the book is the failure of the church, the wretched note on which the ages are wrapped up, and the miserable collapse of the preaching of Christ because his church falls into apostacy. Consequently there is an intense gloom about the book. The biblical teaching that Christ will triumphantly conquer the nations through the gospel (as in Psalms 2, 22, 72, 89, 138, Isaiah 19:18-25, 49, 60, Romans 11:12 and 15, etc.) is completely ignored.
Camping acknowledges that his teaching about the church will make pastors unhappy: "They may profess to love their congregations and are sure that they are Christ's church: If someone warns of God's judgment on the institution of the church, he speaks in their home territory." (p. 151) Camping's explanation of this unhappiness is: "The same thing happened in the nation of Israel when Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others prophesied that Babylon was going to destroy them because of their sin. The false prophets in Israel were unhappy with Jeremiah and the few prophets that dared to predict that judgment was coming." (p. 151)
Camping says that 1988 was the year the final tribulation began. In explaining why the apostacy and tribulation are outwardly quiet to such a large degree, Camping claims that Matthew 24:21 means the final tribulation will be like no other, in the sense that bloodshed will not be characteristic of it. Of course Jesus is not speaking there of a tribulation different in kind, but of a tribulation more severe in degree. But Camping does not notice this, and moves on to John 16:2: "In this verse we find that being put out of the synagogues is equivalent to being killed. Thus when congregations embrace false gospels, or become so apostate that they approximate a false gospel, the true believers within them are killed in the sense that they are driven from these congregations either voluntarily or by force." (p. 198) Jesus is plainly speaking of two quite distinguishable actions, but Camping is happy to make a simple identification of the two parts of the verse, so that he can read the Bible's language about the tribulation as indicating that the true believers will be isolated from the church.
In contrast to Camping's confident assertions that "Satan will become the dominant ruler within the congregations" (p. 170), Jesus speaks in Matthew 16:18-19 of the perpetuity of that church in which he establishes the keys of the kingdom of heaven: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Camping's teaching is a most audacious contradiction of the Savior's promise faithfully to preserve and invigorate his church. That Jesus speaks here of the structured church to which he has given ordinances of worship such as preaching and baptism, government, and discipline is apparent from the language of verse 19, compared with 18:15-18. When Christ sends forth his commissioned apostles in Matthew 28:18-20, he tells them that even unto the end of the world he will sustain them in their task of teaching and baptizing. Paul repeatedly tells us in I Corinthians 11:26 that the ordinance of the Lord's Supper is to be observed when the church comes together, in distinction from what is done at home (11:18-34). But this is a church ordinance which is perpetual: by it "ye do shew the Lord's death till he come."
Christ, as a fruit of his ascension triumph, has provided his church with pastors and teachers as the means to bring his people to a maturity of knowledge and holiness (Ephesians 4:7-14). Camping, by teaching that believers will soon leave the church because it is succumbing to Satan, is directly subverting the means Christ has given for preserving his people in the truth. Thus Camping concludes his book by telling his readers, "There is no time left to trust your pastor or your church." (p. 534) Of course it is not a matter of trusting what pastors say, because the Scriptures are quite explicit in contradicting Camping's thesis. But so far from teaching that there will be no faithful visible church when Christ returns, the New Testament admonishes us that consideration of that approaching day should stir us up not to forsake the assembly (Heb. 10:24-25).
A third area in which Camping ignores the unambiguous declarations of Christ is with respect to the present condition of unbelievers who have died. From Hebrews 9:27 ("And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment"), he draws the conclusion: "Thus the next conscious awareness of an individual who dies unsaved is that of standing before the Judgment Throne of God at the end of the world." (p. 326) This kind of arbitrary interpretation is typical of Camping. The verse certainly teaches the sequence of death followed by judgment, but says nothing about whether unbelievers are conscious between the two events. Appeal to Psalm 115:17-18 and to the resurrection of unbelievers at the judgment day does nothing to support his cause. However, the words of Christ could not be clearer. In Luke 16:19-31, we have one of the plainest passages in the Bible about the condition of the lost in hell. There Jesus tells us of the rich man who died, "And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments," crying out for even a momentary relief, "for I am tormented in this flame." This very conscious man carries on a conversation with Abraham. And when is this man in torments? It is while he still has five brothers alive, whom the rich man would have to be warned "lest they also come into this place of torment." Abraham's reply is that they have Moses and the prophets, and if they will not repent by hearing them, "neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." The rich man is in conscious torment in hell during the time that his brothers are still alive on earth, with opportunity to repent, and before the resurrection.
As indicative of the more reliable exegesis found in Reformed literature, we quote John Murray: "The Scripture represents the disembodied state as one of full consciousness. . . . For the wicked it is a state, not of semi-conscious stupor, but of conscious endurance of unmitigated torment (Luke 16:23-28; cf. Jude 7). Those expressions in Scripture which might appear to support the notion of sleep do not reflect upon the psychological condition of the disembodied spirit but upon the phenomenal aspect of death. The person is no longer active in this sphere of life and activity, and therefore with reference to this life has fallen asleep." ("The Last Things," in Collected Writings, vol. 2, pp. 402-403)
When one becomes accustomed to reading exegesis of the meticulous standard set in Murray's writings, it comes as a shock to read Mr. Camping's book. Though Camping has gained a hearing in Presbyterian churches because he teaches God's sovereign grace in salvation, his book shows that he has been affected remarkably little by Reformation principles of biblical interpretation or by Reformed systematic theology. Mr. Camping rejects much of the Reformed system of doctrine.
Fourth, Camping teaches that "If a man finds that his wife has been engaged in fornication, he cannot divorce her." (p. 85) In what is obviously an historical misrepresentation, he writes as if the church allowed no divorce when he was growing up, but in our generation has begun to allow divorce in the case of fornication, and remarriage under certain circumstances. The fact is, this is not some recent development, heralding the last generation on earth, for the Reformation of the sixteenth century asserted this, as has the Puritan tradition of the Westminster Confession for three and a half centuries.
Of course Camping's words stand in contrast to Christ's exception clause in Matthew 5:32, allowing fornication as a cause for the innocent party to sue for divorce. Like the unbiblical idealism that says that Christians must not be soldiers, Camping refuses to accept Christ's just provision for those who are wronged in this evil world.
Churches must have some agreed statement of what the Scriptures teach, if there is to be accountability with respect to the teaching which is given in the church. This is recognized by Mr. Camping also, for the congregation to which he belongs uses a version of the Belgic Confession, albeit substantially rewritten. Elders must exercise vigilance to protect Christ's sheep from error (Acts 20:28-31). When doctrines arise which violate the church's confession of what the Scriptures teach, elders must oppose them. Camping's book is antithetical to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms in at least the four areas named above.
The Westminster Confession, chapter XXXIII.iii, affirms this summary of Scripture teaching: "As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: so will he have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may ever be prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly, Amen." The Scripture references given for the first part of this section are II Peter 3:11 and 14, II Corinthians 5:10-11, II Thessalonians 1:5-7, Luke 21:27-28, and Romans 8:23-25; the references for the second part of the section are Matthew 24:36, 42-44, Mark 13:35-37, Luke 12:35-36, and Revelation 22:20.
With respect to the perpetuity of the church, the Westminster Confession, chapter XXV.ii, teaches: "The visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel, (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all these throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." The Scripture references are I Corinthians 1:2 and 12:12-13, Psalm 2:8, Revelation 7:9, Romans 15:9-12, I Corinthians 7:14, Acts 2:39, Ezekiel 16:20-21, Romans 11:16, Genesis 3:15 and 17:7, Matthew 13:47, Isaiah 9:7, Ephesians 2:19 and 3:15, and Acts 2:47.
Section iii: "Unto this catholick visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of the world; and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto." The Scripture references are I Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11-13, Matthew 28:19-20 and Isaiah 59:21. Section v: "The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth to worship God according to his will." The Scripture references are I Corinthians 13:12, Revelation 2 and 3, Matthew 13:24-30 and 47, Revelation 18:2, Romans 11:18-22, Matthew 16:18, Psalm 72:17 and 102:28, and Matthew 28:19-20. Section vi: "There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God." The Scripture references are Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22, Matthew 23:8-10, II Thessalonians 2:3-4 and 8-9, and Revelation 13:6.
On the state of men after death, the Confession, chapter XXXII.i, states: "The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them....and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the scripture acknowledgeth none." The Scripture references are Genesis 3:19, Acts 13:36, Luke 23:43, Ecclesiastes 12:7, Luke 16:23-24, Acts 1:25, Jude 6-7, and I Peter 3:19. On divorce in the case of fornication, the Confession, chapter XXIV.v, says: "In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead." The Scripture references are Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:9, and Romans 7:2-3.
In closing, we would warn of dangers arising in the practical effect of Mr. Camping's teaching. Though he urges men to go about their affairs without interruption, it is inevitable that men will alter the conduct of their lives if they believe that the date of Christ's return can be determined. One cannot hold Camping's doctrine and not be affected in one's outlook concerning longer-term responsibilities for one's family and for a righteous society. A second likely effect of Camping's teaching is that men will withdraw from the church and consider Camping their sole reliable teacher. But the church is the institution of Christ to provide for the edification of his people. A third effect of Camping's teaching will be that as his predicted date draws near, evangelism will be curtailed among those who follow him, for he says that near the predicted end, a time will come when God will no longer save sinners.
A fourth effect of Camping's prediction of a date for Christ's return will be to increase skepticism, and bring God's Word into contempt. Camping is zealous to share what he believes about dating the end of the world, hoping that by warning the world of the month and year of judgment, some might be brought to repentance. But Camping's book, and the unscriptural date-setting which has been incorporated into the Family Radio tract, "Does God Love You?", will have the opposite effect. When the date has passed, men will be strengthened in their derision not only for the date-setting, but also for the precious truth of the gospel; Camping represents them both as revealed by God in the Scriptures. Many men on the street will make no distinction between the one and the other. Camping himself says about his predictions: "God has given the information written in this book." (p. 330)
Fifth, Camping's predictions, because they are a word of man, will leave the sheep unfed. Hours and weeks spent studying his numerical puzzles will not advance the believer in spiritual maturity. In I Corinthians 3:10-15, the apostle Paul charges teachers to take heed as to the materials they use in the Lord's house. The doctrines arising from human speculation are like wood, hay and stubble; these will not build the godly character that endures in eternity. But when a sound exegesis of Scripture brings forth the solid verities of God's own Word, the Lord's people are built up in faith and holiness, and such a work will be sustained in the judgment.
A most helpful treatment of Christ's teaching about his second coming is found in John Murray's two essays, "The Interadventual Period and the Advent: Matthew 24 and 25," and "The Last Things," in his Collected Writings, vol. 2, pp. 387-417. A useful volume setting forth the biblical perspective that Christ's gospel will have glorious triumphs in this present age, and demonstrating that this was the hope which impelled generations of Reformed evangelism and the rise of the modern missionary movement, is Iain H. Murray's The Puritan Hope. These volumes are published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Also of value are two tapes by Pastor William Shishko, analyzing the teaching of Camping's book. They are available from Franklin Square Orthodox Presbyterian Church, P.O. Box 66, Franklin Square, NY 11010-0066. Louis Berkhof's Principles of Biblical Interpretation is a standard Reformed work; a close study of it will pay rich dividends in Bible study. Also valuable are William Cunningham's Theological Lectures, pp. 580-90, in which Cunningham deals with double sense, types, and grammatical and historical sense.
Those who perceive the dangers of a Bible translation by one man, as opposed to a group endeavor, should consider the imprudence of a Bible interpreter who, in setting forth novel doctrines, passes over the consensus of the Reformation confessions and four centuries of Protestant Bible exposition, much of it far more careful and precise than that practiced by Mr. Camping. Neither at the Reformation nor at other times does the Lord teach his church by one man's unique interpretation of the Scriptures, but rather by the combined labors of many pastors and teachers. This brings us to the sad consideration that Mr. Camping is not a minister of the Word, set apart in a biblical way to the teaching office in the church. He has assumed a role in teaching the Scriptures to many, but without the structures for biblical office which are the Lord's way to provide accountability in the church. To take on such a role without seeking the office to which it corresponds is an evasion of the Lord's arrangements for his household.
When the passage of time proves that Camping is wrong in his interpretation of biblical teaching about Christ's second coming, this book itself will constitute, like many others before it, a powerful refutation of the unsound methods it employs. But, sadly, this will not prevent others in the future from resorting to the same practices. What few good things are said in this book can be found stated far better elsewhere. The presence of some biblical truth in Camping's book is not a sufficient reason to commend it; what generally leads believers astray is a mixture of truth and error. There is, in print, a vast amount of theologically and experimentally sound Puritan and Reformed literature, built solidly on biblical foundations. This body of literature, in its faithfulness to the Word of God and its ability to nurture the people of God in a mature faith and holiness, is immeasurably superior to Camping's expositions. Believers should be encouraged to spend their time reading solid Reformed literature rather than listening to or reading Camping.