Harold Camping’s False Doctrine of the Church

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 2, 2001

For many years the worship services of Tenth Presbyterian Church have been broadcast over Family Radio, a national network of Christian radio stations. The services—which are produced by The Bible Study Hour—feature the teaching of Dr. James Montgomery Boice, as well as prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings from Tenth Church.

This mutually beneficial partnership in ministry has helped to spread the good news about Jesus Christ across America. Every week countless listeners are exposed to reverent worship and sound biblical instruction. Everywhere I go, I hear testimonies from people whose lives have been touched by The Bible Study Hour. Here at Tenth we praise God for the faithful men and women who have helped put our worship services on the air.

Family Radio has continued to broadcast sermons from Dr. James Boice. However, the network is no longer willing to air the weekly hour-long worship edition of The Bible Study Hour. This programming change is directly related to a significant shift in the theological views of the network’s founder, Harold Camping. Since Camping’s teaching influences many radio listeners, and since it has begun to affect Tenth’s wider ministry, it now seems necessary to examine his views according to Scripture.

In a recent essay entitled “The End of the External Church,” Harold Camping argues that the time has come for faithful Christians to leave the organized church. The essay begins as follows: “The Bible discloses the fact that the last great spiritual event that will occur in this world is that there will be a period of great tribulation which will be immediately followed by the return of Christ and the end of the world.” For biblical support, Camping turns to Matthew 24, where Jesus says, “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be… . Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken” (Matt. 24:21, 29).

Harold Camping believes that the final tribulation has come. His evidence is sketchy, but it includes the current fascination with signs and wonders, including the charismatic practice of “being slain in the Spirit.” Camping views this phenomenon as the last Satanic sign foretold in Revelation 13. He also notes that in the present era we have unprecedented opportunities to spread the gospel around the world. Surely this means that we are getting close to the end of history, when the full number of the elect will be saved.

If it’s the end of the world, then what should Christians do? Harold Camping thinks we should leave the church. In his view, “Satan has occupied the churches and has become victorious over the saints.” The evangelical pulpit has become a “high place,” like the ones where people offered pagan sacrifices in the Old Testament, and thus it needs to be torn down.

Camping takes Matthew 24:15-16 as a command for Christians today: “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation… stand in the holy place… then… flee into the mountains.” In this verse Jesus was telling his disciples what to do when Jerusalem was destroyed. However, on Camping’s reading, this verse commands Christians to flee the church. Here is his conclusion: “No longer are you to be under the spiritual rulership of the church… . God is finished with the era of churches being used of God to evangelize… . We must remove ourself (sic) from the church… . [T]he church era has come to an end and the church no longer has any divine authority.”

What shall we say in response? First, that it is always a risky business to predict the end of the world. Harold Camping should know, because his own prediction that it would end in 1994 is now history. We know Jesus is coming soon, because the Bible tells us to expect his return at any moment. We also don’t know exactly when. Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36).

Even if we did know, this would be no time to panic. Still less would it be a time to give up on the church, which God has promised to endure until the very end (see Matt. 16:18). Rather, it is a time to live stable, godly lives, which always includes remaining committed to the local church. As Peter told the early Christians, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Pet. 3:10-12).

The current controversy also shows how important it is to know how to interpret the Bible. Harold Camping’s recent essay repeatedly makes elementary errors in hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. In particular, it takes prophecies concerning Jerusalem that have already been fulfilled and mistakenly assumes that somehow they will be fulfilled again in the church.

We greet these developments with a sense of sadness and Christian concern. We fear that Family Radio is at risk of squandering its rich legacy of gospel ministry. We believe that Harold Camping’s teaching about the church is not only false, but also dangerous, because it encourages people to leave the community God has ordained for our growth in grace. It is our prayer that the network will reaffirm the importance of the visible church, which everywhere in the New Testament is viewed as essential to God’s plan for saving the world in Jesus Christ.

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