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The End Has Not Yet Come

May 23, 2011
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You may have noticed that the world did not end over the weekend. Now, the world fails to end most weekends but what makes this important is that Harold Camping and Family Radio have been making a very big push to explain to everyone that on May 21st, 2011 the Rapture will occur and the end of the world will begin. This isn’t the first time someone’s predicted the end of the world from the Bible. In fact, it isn’t even the first time Harold Camping has done so. I’d like to use this latest specific attempt to discuss the larger problem: that anyone attempts this at all. I’ll be referring repeatedly to one of Camping’s main works on this subject, “We Are Almost There” (which I will abbreviate to WAAT), which could be found here prior to the entire document becoming an enormous embarrassment. Who knows how long it will stay up.

Before I launch into the meat of this article, let me respond to at least one potential objection: why didn’t I post this prior to May 21st? I certainly had it written before then (I started work on it on May 7th). Wouldn’t it be a stronger statement to say “this won’t happen” and then be vindicated? Yes, possibly. However, I doubt that any of my readers are actually deceived by Camping’s bad arguments. If they are, this seems like the time to speak. Rather than start an argument and create enmity before the event I wish to start making my argument when it’s obvious that Camping has lost. If you are reading this article and are flabbergasted that May 21st came and went without incident I have some answers. Presumably you’re now more willing to listen to them.

Let’s start small. Camping makes any number of specific arguments that are constructed almost entirely out of speculation. In the interest of getting to my other points in a reasonable amount of time, I’m actually going to put most of this material below the cut in a second section. However, prior to that cut, I would like to present and address at least one good example argument. On page 37 of WAAT Camping lays out one of his anchor dates. Since much of his argument is numerological, it’s important that the dates from which he calculates everything else are good. Unfortunately, most of these dates are simply presented to us without any argument for their accuracy. In this particular case Camping tells us that 1948 is an important date (and then goes into an extended argument about how the really important date is the Jubilee year following this date) and provides some reasoning. Since 1948 is a date that anchors the whole timeline we’d expect the evidence to be insurmountable.

Actually, the evidence comes from Mark 13:28 (I’ve provided verse 29 as well for reasons that will become obvious). Mark 13:28-29 makes a lot of sense. Jesus uses the fig tree budding as an analogy: when the fig tree buds you know that summer is coming. He then says, pretty clearly, that what he’s been talking about is like that: when you see the signs Jesus has mentioned, the destruction Jesus has been talking about is coming. There’s no natural way to claim that the fig tree budding is itself a sign. However, that’s Camping’s evidence. He’s then interpreted this non-sign as the reestablishment of an Israeli state (which occurred in 1948). The evidence is obviously thin on the ground. Yes, Israel is sometimes compared to a fig tree in agricultural metaphors, but fig trees also appear as symbols of prosperity (1 Kings 4:25, 2 Kings 18:31, Isaiah 36:16, Jeremiah 5:17, Hosea 2:12, and Micah 4:4 to name a few), one’s master (Proverbs 27:18), easily-captured fortresses (Nahum 3:12), the heavens (Isaiah 34:4, Revelation 6:13), and perhaps a rich or talented man (Judges 9). For Camping to be right his anchoring dates need to be right. For this one to be right, Mark 13:28 needs to be a prophecy (despite the fact that it rather clearly isn’t) and Camping needs to have properly interpreted what figs mean despite the presence of multiple options. Finally, Camping’s entire Dispensationalist framework needs to be correct because what he uses 1948 to figure out is the end of the Church Age and yet outside a Dispensationalist framework the Church Age is just nonsense.

Let’s move a level up. Camping gets to this kind of interpretation through his approach to Scripture. WAAT contains several sections on Biblical interpretation including a discussion on page 4 about the false “man-made, historical, grammatical hermeneutic method of Bible Interpretation” (which is rather obviously a nonsense name). WAAT then outlines its own method for Biblical interpretation. The four main points of this method can be found on page 24. First, the Bible is “a very analytical book” which is “written like an engineering book “. This is supposed to discourage subjective interpretation, not that this has stopped Camping. Second, all the numbers are accurate – no scribal error affects them. Third, there isn’t any rounding in the numbers. Fourth, some numbers symbolize other things. This does not just outline an alternate method of reading the Bible, it outlines a different sort of Bible. The reason WAAT wants you to use this method of interpretation is because WAAT thinks the Bible is a different sort of document.

Let’s lay these out clearly. The WAAT view of the Bible is that the Bible is a coded guide to the future. The alternative is that the Bible is an uncoded document about God’s interaction with humanity. Look at how the WAAT hermeneutic plays into this. The Bible is about collections of facts, which lets us get around the tricky issue of figurative language (which is sort of coded already – do you decode what it means or what it says?). The numbers are all accurate and precise, which wouldn’t matter to anyone interested in the people and stories. Finally, the numbers themselves can be codes. This view of the Bible also makes sense of the general Bible-in-a-blender impression one gets from reading WAAT. Why does it make sense that you should string together verses in different books or even Testaments? Because the Bible wasn’t arranged to be read clearly. It’s already all mixed up – that’s part of the code.

Alternatively we could claim that the Bible is best read in the genre the text is clearly in. Psalms isn’t a collection of dry facts. Don’t read it like one. I’ve made this case in much greater depth elsewhere but the bones of the matter are pretty simple: read in the correct genre. We could ignore the issue of minor errors. Mess up a thousand words in my Bible and I doubt you’ll harm a single doctrine. The stories might be a bit trickier to read but good doctrine comes from the whole sweep of the Bible, not a few scattered words. Genre would guide our ideas about rounding numbers. When you tell people how long ago you went to college do you report how many years, months, and days it was? Then why should the Bible give this sort of information about how long Abraham lived in Canaan before Ishmael was born? Lastly, while the numbers might be codes we’d expect them to be codes about very different things and we’d only expect them to be codes in sections of the Bible where people are having strange coded visions. In this view the Bible is about the things it says it is about. Since it doesn’t spend much time predicting the end, neither should we. When it doesn’t give details, we shouldn’t scramble to find them but, instead, accept that they are not important to the task at hand.

There’s something bigger going on here. If we read the Bible as a codebook we become very special. We’re the only ones in on the code. The Bible was mostly written for us, right now. This gets echoed in other parts of apocalypticism. WAAT seems sure that to be a true Christian you must agree with this particular idea about when the end will come. There’s a big sense in which people are now special. Not only are they special but all sorts of burdens are lifted from them. The far future won’t come. You won’t die. You won’t have to deal with anything very far out. Ever notice how nobody ever predicts the end of the world for 2182? They’ll start around 2175. If the world were going to end in our great-grandchildren’s day it wouldn’t really make us special. It certainly wouldn’t give us a new purpose in life.

This is the heart of apocalypticism. Camping predicted the end of the world in 1994. He claimed that he missed some important information when that didn’t happen. Now he’s claiming that the world will end on exactly May 21st, 2011 and that you should believe him despite the fact that he’s missed information before and last time it threw him off course by a full fifteen years. On the surface that’s a silly claim. Despite this, lots of people believe it. Why? Because it tells people that they are special. It removes the real offense of the gospel and replaces it with the offensiveness of irritating those who didn’t get it. Why would anyone sign up for a gospel that asks people to think of others as more important than themselves and asks them to do all sorts of hard things for decades when there’s an option that tells them that they’re special and it’s almost time for recess?

Stick with the hard things. Apocalypticism is a cheap solution, a way to pretend that when my wife asks me to take out the garbage she really means, “Sit down and watch television.” Maybe the world will end tomorrow. If it does well and good. If it doesn’t are you in it for the long haul?

More of the Nitty-Gritty

Originally much of this material was in the main body of the article. I had intended to give examples of each type of mistake found in WAAT (covering every mistake would be an immense task) and a rebuttal. This took too much room. I’m more concerned with why someone would believe that the Bible is a codebook to the future than what mistakes they make once they decide that. However, I’d already written up these examples. What’s more, I imagine some of you will want to see them. For some this is probably similar to the way some of us enjoy reviews of bad movies. It’s not like you thought The Fast and the Furious 6 (which many of us had hoped would be prevented by, or perhaps trigger, the apocalypse) was going to be good. However, for others this may be a valuable exercise. So without further ado, the examples.

One of Camping’s most prominent errors is his tendency to look at what should be a large pile of alternatives and select not the one that fits the context best but the one that fits his purposes. For instance, Colossians 2:16-17 says that questions of food and drink, festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths are “shadows of things to come”. “Shadows of things to come” is, obviously, some sort of figurative language. There are several ways one can take almost any sort of figurative language but one of them makes sense in context: these things are not the real, important issues in the light of what Christ has done and will do. Go ahead and look at the context if you don’t believe me. On page 26 of WAAT Camping provides his own interpretation (without acknowledging that there could be others). He believes that “shadows of things to come” applies only to festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths and not to “questions of food and drink”. He doesn’t tell us why or, again, acknowledge that there’s something to be explained. Having made this leap he informs us that what this actually means is that important future events will fall on Old Testament festival days. This doesn’t really make much sense in context but it does fit Camping’s desire to make the Bible into a codebook. He is not, of course, the only one to engage in this sort of error and it is not in any way restricted to people interested in the apocalypse.

Then there’s the numbers. All good apocalyptic speculation involves numbers. In WAAT there are two aspects to this. Numbers can be turned into code phrases. The first part of this is the meaning assigned to a given number. WAAT provides a helpful table starting on page 24. It assigns additional meanings to the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 23, 37, 40, and 43. I’m certainly familiar with special meanings assigned to the numbers 3, 7, 12, and 40. These are used in clearly symbolic manners in the Bible. For instance, when Jesus appoints twelve apostles it’s fairly clear that he’s using that number to represent the twelve tribes. However, a number of these numbers do not usually have strong meanings associated with them. What’s more, where there are generally known meanings WAAT ignores them, except for the case of 40. For instance, three normally symbolized holiness but WAAT assigns it “God’s purpose”. Seven signifies completion but WAAT assigns that to ten and assigns “The perfect fulfillment of God’s purpose” to seven. Twelve represents the tribes of Israel and, by extension, the fullness of God’s people. WAAT assigns it a generalized fullness. For other numbers there is no meaning normally assigned to them. For instance, 43 doesn’t appear in the Bible at all (although Numbers 26:7 mentions a headcount that totals to 43,730). Any meaning for 43 had to have been arrived at through manipulating other numbers.

This leads directly into part two of WAAT’s numerology. Most numbers are manipulated by division. Large numbers are broken down into component parts. This itself is a little strange – why not break them down through subtraction or through graphical manipulation? By graphical manipulation I mean the sorts of operations that can be done without any knowledge of math. For instance, 312 is 3 and 12. 777 is three sevens, complete holiness. There have even been suggestions that that’s what 666 is about – the imitation of 777, the number of the completely holy one. Of course, all of this is speculative. What it does show is that division isn’t the only option. Once again, it’s an alternative chosen without a clear reason. Perhaps worse than this is the manner in which division is used. On page 55 of WAAT the number 3,780 is obtained by calculating the years between two of the dates that Camping arrives at essentially magically. The big deal about 3,780 is that it is 10 x 3 x 3 x 43. This equates to “the complete fulfillment of God’s purpose of (or maybe in) judgment” using the decoder table from page 24. But 5 and 2 have meanings as well. Is there a rule that’s been followed that tells us to stop when we hit 10 and not divide it into “those who bring the gospel” and “atonement”? Obviously, the resulting sentence would be something like, “God’s purpose to send people out with the gospel to preach about the atonement which puts people in right standing for judgment,” which doesn’t fit Camping’s purposes but is that it?

This ends up pointing us back to the table. Of the fourteen numbers on the table ten are prime. I noticed this first when I looked at some of the higher numbers since many numbers lower than twelve have some extra significance in modern Judaism. Of the six numbers larger than twelve five are prime. This looks very much like Camping started by dividing things, ran across some primes he couldn’t divide further, and then went hunting for a meaning to assign them rather than starting by finding numbers that clearly meant something.

Finally, all of this numerology depends heavily on a series of very exact dates. WAAT tells us that Israel entered the land of Canaan in 1407 BC, that Jesus was born on October 2, 7 BC (both on page 27), that Jacob went to Egypt in 1877 BC (page 40), that the Flood occurred in 4,990 BC (page 58), and that Jesus was crucified on April 1st, 33 AD (page 50). Some of these dates, like that of Noah, are critical. A big deal is made of the fact that there are exactly 7,000 years from Noah until 2011. Nowhere are we told where these dates come from, though. I’ve attempted to work out some Biblical chronology before. It’s very difficult stuff. There are multiple systems of marking months and years. Just to give you a taste of this consider that most events in the Bible are marked only with “in the xth year of king so-and-so” and that there are at least three different systems for marking the years of a king’s reign. In some places, including some periods in Egypt, the years started when the king ascended to the throne. Twelve months later the king ended his first year and began his second year. In other places the years worked off the New Year. There are two systems for this. A king might take the throne in, effectively, year zero of his reign. The New Year would come around and year one would begin. From there on out the king’s year and the calendar would be synchronized. However, no one would ever record “in the zeroeth year of the king”. Instead, the king would have an extra-long first year. In the final system the king would have a short first year. Any time from his ascension until the New Year would be his first year. Once the New Year rolled around he began his second year even if he’d been on the throne only a month. So when Camping pulls these amazingly precise numbers out of his hat I want to know where he got them because I don’t believe anyone can make a call that precisely.

My doubts are only bolstered by statements like “Considerable evidence in the Bible points to the fact that, in all likelihood, Jesus, who is the very essence of the jubilee, was born on October 2, in 7 B.C.” Anyone who is remotely familiar with the Gospels knows exactly how little information there is about the time of Jesus’ birth. Anyone who is a bit more familiar with attempts to pinpoint it will also know that the location of the shepherds (out all night in the fields) suggests that Jesus was born in the spring lambing season, not the fall. Whatever evidence Camping used it’s not the standard stuff. In fact, most of what Camping seems to be doing is deciding that Jesus’ birth needs to fall on a festival and that it’s best if it falls on the Day of Atonement. He then goes and finds a Day of Atonement that falls at a convenient time and declares that Jesus was born then. Problematically, the calculations of festivals require not only calculations from lunar calendars but also particular assumptions about how the lunar months were determined. If, as there is some reason to think, particular festivals were called more or less by eye (that is, the priests had to actually observe the new moon before calling the festival and so cloudy weather could throw you off) then we can’t calculate when particular festivals actually occurred.

There’s also some just plain weird stuff. For instance, on page 43 of WAAT we find Luke 15:10 being used to interpret the silence in heaven in Revelation 8:1 as a period in which no one is saved. Does heaven have time? John’s vision of heaven does but is the a concession to John or reality? Does that time correspond to earthly time? There’s a number of unexplained assumptions buried in there. Then there’s page 46 where Jesus’ statement about the Temple that there would not be one stone left upon another actually means that all churches would end. This is a little odd since the Temple Jesus was talking directly about suffered exactly the fate he describes in the Roman-Jewish War (as described by the ancient historian Flavius Josephus in “Wars of the Jews” Book 7, Chapter 1).

Last of all I must make a quick note about translation. WAAT is very concerned with translation and with knowing Hebrew and Greek. This makes sense – you can’t decode the code if you can’t read the exact code. It doesn’t do a very good job with it, though. On page 3 WAAT quotes Hebrews 8:8 which is itself quoting Jeremiah 31:31 and then claims that “make a new covenant” should be translated “finish a new covenant”. This initially looks pretty decent. The word in question, συντελέω (sunteleo), can certainly mean “to finish”. However, συντελέω is a Greek translation of כרת (karath). Shouldn’t we assume that the meaning of συντελέω is the same as the meaning of כרת? This would be a problem: any student of Hebrew eventually runs across the Hebrew idiom “to cut a covenant”. כרת means “to cut”. The phrase “to cut a covenant” refers to making a covenant. Any idea of finishing a covenant versus making one is found only in the Greek. Insisting that a shade of meaning that wasn’t present in the Hebrew is the best translation seems extremely suspicious.

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