Harold Camping and the Error of One-Dimensional Time

Harold Camping, the civil engineer turned Bible-prognosticator and broadcaster who died December 15, seemed certain he could use his mathematical mind to work out Heaven's calendar and give the world the precise date for the return of Christ.

When God's schedule for the Lord's Second Coming failed to mesh with Camping's calculations on September 6, 1994, Camping suggested the cause was "mathematical error."

The math gremlin wouldn't give up, and confounded the numbers on May 21, 2011, and again in October, 2011. Camping kept proving one of Albert Einstein's axioms: "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

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Camping, though a conservative Christian, was a technological modernist. Modernism, bred in the Age of Reason, presupposed that human science and reason could figure out and hence eliminate all the mystery in the universe. Postmodernism pole-vaulted to the other extreme, thinking there is nothing but mystical mystery – but that's another topic.

For technological (if not theological) modernists like Camping, all you have to do is open the Bible, add up the numbers, and Eureka! You have discovered the date of Christ's Return.

Ah, but there's a "ghost in the (mathematical) machine," to borrow a notion from philosophers Gilbert Ryle and Arthur Koestler. Camping's technological modernism had no room for the "ghost" and it made mischief with his calculations.

It was not so much mathematics that tripped Camping as it was a failure to understand the Bible's revelations concerning the physics of time. That mistake made Camping look like an engineer trying to design a one-dimensional cube.

The Bible, however, reveals that time is multi-dimensional. That branch of physics tagged "quantum mechanics" we are just beginning to understand. One thinks of astrophysicist Robert Jastrow's pungent observation: "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

Technological modernist Harold Camping wasn't among the band of theologians sitting on the peak, but down there with the calculators trying to haul himself up the slope on the pitons of his mathematical reasoning.

For good reason God Himself discourages us from making prophetic calendars out of our cerebral musings. It's a human being thinking his sand-dripping hourglass or sundial is as good as an atomic clock. Casting the calendar through human contrivance gets one bogged down in "might and power" that is not the authoritative revelation of God's Spirit. (Zechariah 4:6)

That revelation shows that time is even more intricate than Einstein's Relativity. Both the Old and New Testaments have distinct words for the two dimensions of time. The New Testament Greek word kronos refers to chronological time – the ticking of the clock, the seeping of the sand in an hourglass, the passage of solar radiance on a sundial. Kairos is the Greek word that signifies time on the scale of eternity. It is time unbounded by kronos, in which a day is as a thousand years. (2 Peter 3:8)

"Mere abstract calibrations that graph concrete history by space and kronos are like the 'inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds,'" writes Peter Kreeft, borrowing from Frank Loesser. Camping and the techno-modernists measure the stalk and stem but fail to bring us to the flower in full bloom. That only happens in kairos – God-time.

"Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone," says Jesus, with good reason. (Matthew 24:36) As Camping shows, our kronos calibrations and predictions without kairos are as futile as geometry in a world without shapes. God doesn't want us to go there because it will cause us to try to invent shapes to fit the math. The figments of our imagination become our reality.

No doubt Harold Camping's motives were pure: he wanted to alert people to be ready for Christ's coming and the Day of the Lord. But because he calculated only on the kronos scale he kept trying to concoct the shape that would fit the geometry.

And God brought it to nothing because "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong… the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

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