The Man Behind Judgment Day
As I’m driving down a country road at night, I hear Harold Camping’s bass-saxophone voice—ominous yet calm, like a premonition. The pages of his Bible flip audibly in the background as he pushes his lips closer into the microphone and reads from the Book of Revelation. His voice is a bit gravelly at 89 years of age, but Camping takes effortless command of his Open Forum call-in radio show, which he has hosted since 1961. Open Forum is a free-for-all discussion on biblical matters, especially end-times prophecy, and, by my estimate, at least 90 percent of callers think he’s nuts. The rest are longtime listeners expressing their faithful support for the man they apparently revere as a mouthpiece for God.
Those remaining 10 percent are not to be dismissed. They have financed the great warning that Judgment Day will happen on May 21, 2011. Camping bases this date on his reading of the Jewish calendar combined with certain Bible verses. He uses many, many verses to support his claim, as well as various deductions involving prime numbers, doubling numbers, and other mathematical gymnastics.
He takes his primary reference point from Genesis 7:10–11, which says that Noah’s Flood happened on “the seventeenth day of the second month.” According to Camping’s understanding of the “Biblical calendar,” that would have been May 21, 4990 B.C. He combines that with a warning found in 2 Peter 3, which includes a reminder of the flood before launching into the description of another, final “day of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly.” The hinge, for Camping, lies in verse 8 of that same chapter, when Peter mentions how, “with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years.” Camping cross-references that with Genesis 7:4, in which God said He would destroy everything “in seven days.” So, from all this, Camping deduces that the final Judgment Day that Peter warned about would occur on the 7,000-year anniversary of Noah’s Flood—May 21, 2011. Then, on October 21, the world and those left behind will be totally destroyed. His followers have run with this.
You’ve probably seen the signs. Billboards and RV caravans are carrying the message around the world: “May 21, 2011—Judgment Day. The Bible Guarantees It!” The amount of signage alone represents millions of faithfully-donated dollars passing through Family Stations Inc., the nonprofit Camping founded, which has offices in several countries in addition to its headquarters in Oakland, CA. (It’s usually known as “Family Radio.”) “We are a nonprofit ministry, and we’re solely supported by our listeners,” says Michael Garcia, project manager for the billboard campaign. “And this is not for publicity. We’re just being faithful to God and sending His message out.”
Throughout my conversation with him, Garcia quoted scripture passage after scripture passage, including chapter and verse for reference, to explain their cause. He seems to be a true believer, like so many other Family Radio employees and volunteers around the world working tirelessly to spread their news. You might dismiss it all as the result of one man’s dictatorial rule over a small, ignorant group of lonely souls who could only find their home in a doomsday cult. Or you might not.
Those who accept Camping’s message do not believe he is a god, or Jesus reincarnated, or a prophet, or even their pastor. “He’s a Bible teacher, and a good man,” says Garcia. “He’s a humble man, a gracious man, but he can’t save me; only God can.” They describe him respectfully—always referring to him as “Mister Camping”—but they’re always down-to-earth.
“Mr. Camping does not want May 21 to be about him,” I was told, more than once, when trying to schedule an interview. He may not want it to be about him—he points toward God, Jesus, and the Bible instead—but when one announces on an international radio network that the Bible absolutely guarantees an exact date for Judgment Day, it can prove difficult to shun attention.
Finally, I had a chance to speak with him over the phone. He was in his Oakland office, along with an assistant (himself recently profiled here at KtB) who repeated the questions to him more loudly because of his difficulty hearing. He was expecting my call, answered it himself, and seemed relaxed and ready to talk at length. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Mr. Camping, do you consider yourself a minister, a prophet, a broadcaster, a businessman or something else?
I am a Bible teacher, a Bible scholar. For the last 50 years, I’ve made the Bible my university. I’m not a minister. Not a pastor. I am a servant of the Lord, declaring what I have learned from the Word of God.
What sort of biblical training do you have?
I got my BS in civil engineering. I learned that all the information the professor is teaching is found in a book. And I learned that it was very efficient for me to learn from the books they were teaching from, and it was more efficient than taking notes in class. So instead of having to go through the screen of theologians who have tried to understand the Bible, I found that it was far more efficient just to study the Bible itself. So for the last 54 years, the Bible has been my university.
So then, you’re a self-trained Bible scholar?
I am trained by God. And I pray constantly for wisdom. And I have learned the rules from the Bible itself on how to study the Bible.
Tell me about your religious upbringing. Were you raised in a Christian home?
My parents loved the Lord. Particularly, my mother really loved the Lord. When I was 5 years old, she helped me memorize the first 20 verses of Luke chapter 2 for a Christmas program. So early on, I became very much involved in the Bible, and I’ve always had a real interest in the Bible.
You were a civil engineer with your own construction business before starting your broadcast company in 1958. How did you make the connection between engineering and religious broadcasting?
I was an engineer and that helped me enormously in studying the Bible, because, just like engineering, the Bible is very analytical. And most preachers are not very analytically designed and they’re more philosophically designed. But I approached the Bible the same way I approached any engineering question, in a very analytical way. And so, as I learned more and more from the Bible, my engineering training helped immensely.
You were part of the Christian Reformed Church for many years, yet you say the “Church Age” ended in 1988, and you are no longer part of any church. What caused you to leave the church?
I was right in the heartbeat of the church. But I began to find that things I had been taught in my church did not square with the Bible, and that troubled me. I had a Bible class in that church, so I began to teach what I was finding in the Bible. The class had grown quite large because many people were listening on Open Forum.
Well, in 1988, we had a new pastor, and he was not happy with what I was teaching. I think there was a lot of envy because we had a lot of people coming just for my class and not for his. In any case, he figured out a polite way to get me to leave. They decided that anybody who was teaching the adults had to be an elder. And because I had to agree to the doctrines of the church to be an elder, I could not do that. So I told them that I would have to leave, because I felt I should be free to teach what I wished. And so, very peacefully, I left in June of 1988. Most of the people in my class left with me and we tried to form our own congregation. Shortly thereafter, I learned that the Church Age had come to an end in 1988, so we disbanded.
You wrote a booklet called I Hope God Will Save Me. Do you “believe” and “know” that you’re saved and will be raptured on May 21? Or do you “hope” so?
Yes. I feel very sure that I will be raptured.
What are your plans for the evening of May 20th? Do you have certain events or services in order, or perhaps a special set of clothes in preparation for the Rapture?
Oh, no. The Bible says, “Occupy until I come.” I will probably do an Open Forum like I do every night—and now I’m doing them seven nights a week. I’ll do an Open Forum Friday night, and then I’ll wait for news that Judgment Day has begun. But I don’t plan anything special of any kind. Any time the focus is on heaven, it’s not on this earth.
What does your family think about all this?
I have six living children. The Lord gave us seven, one has died, but six are still living. We have 24 grandchildren, and 38 great-grandchildren. Only a small percentage of them have had their eyes opened up so that they agree with what I’m teaching. They are still trusting their preachers and their denominations, rather than listening to the whole Bible.
You’re now almost 90 years old, and you’ve done a lot in your life. What is the legacy you want to leave the world with? What do you hope people remember you for?
A legacy for who? There’s nobody left. There is no legacy. When we come to May 21, it’s the end of God’s salvation program, totally. And on October 21 of this year, the whole world is going to be annihilated, and never be remembered. So what legacy am I going to leave to anybody? The only thing is that I hope that there are people who are listening that will begin to plead with God and begin to cry out.
How do you respond to those who criticize you?
I have a lot of people call me who are very angry with me, because they’re very frightened and they don’t want to think about Judgment Day. And they’ll call and slander me, and revile me, and call me every name in the book, including “Satan” and “false prophet” and so on. But it never troubles me at all because I feel sorry for them. I know that their spiritual eyes are not open, and all I want to do is pray for them. Because this is to be expected. The Bible indicates that, at this time, there will be many scoffers, and all I can do is feel sorry for them.
Now that the day is almost here, is there anything in your message that you’d like to modify or retract?
Well, yes. I’m continuing to study the Bible and now we’re learning that it’s not going to be… Let me read where God is speaking; that is much more valuable than anything I could ever say. These are God’s words, not mine, in Revelation 16:18: “And there was a great earthquake…” [He reads the verse.] For a while, I thought that that great earthquake would be simultaneously all over the world, but recently we learned that God says that the evil would go from nation to nation, like we read in Jeremiah 25:32… [He reads the verse.] And so I have learned that Judgment Day will begin in one part of the world, when they arise on May 21, about six o’clock Standard Time. And then every time another city or an area of the world comes to May 21, at about six o’clock, they will be in the Day of Judgment. And so the rest of the world that has not arrived there yet will know that it is occurring, many hours before it comes to their nation. On May 21, beginning at the International Date Line, the moment that first earthquake happens, the whole world will know that Judgment Day has come. It will follow the sun, from east to west.