For over 50 years, Harold Camping has used the Family Radio pulpit to teach what he believed to be God’s word in the Bible.
In his trademark gravelly voice, Camping could be heard over radio airwaves and in small classes speaking about the Bible passage by passage. But as years passed, those teachings began morphing into predictions, as Camping claimed he had unlocked the dates of Judgment Day and the rapture by using numerology found in the Bible and a calculated formula.
Camping’s latest prediction was that the rapture and Judgment would take place May 21, the date that would signal the beginning of the End of the World. To this day, it is not certain how many people sold their homes, quit their jobs or gave away their life savings in anticipation of his doomsday prophecy. But from the few that did share their stories publicly, one thing was for certain – they believed his predictions were the real deal.
But as the world knows by now, May 21 came and went. And although Camping issued a statement saying he was only wrong in the sense that the judgment came in a “spiritual sense” instead of a physical one, the damage to whatever remained of his public integrity was done. To the observers in the U.S. and around the world, it was official: Harold Camping was and is a false prophet.
Then last Thursday, nearly three weeks after his predicted May 21 Judgment date, the 89-year-old Camping suffered a mild stroke and was admitted to a local hospital near his home in Alameda, Calif. The stroke has reportedly only affected his speech, which has become slurred as a result.
For many observers, the stroke – while tragic – seemed like a divine act to punish the radio preacher for his false predictions or at the very least warn him not to do it again. It was too coincidental, many observers said on Twitter and Facebook, that it was Camping’s speech that was affected.
Was Harold Camping's stroke punishment from God? Does a loving God even punish people if they disobey Him?
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"God, certainly in the Bible, judges and punishes. Punishment is deserved for human rebellion," said Erik Thoennes, associate professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University, to The Christian Post.
Thoennes pointed to several examples of God's punishment throughout the Bible: Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, the world being judged in Noah's flood, and King Herod being struck down. God takes "disciplinary action" not just on individuals but on people groups as well, including the Israelites, Canaanites and Egyptians, he said.
"When we read the Bible, it is clear that God is active in creation. He takes sin seriously, he judges sin, he punishes individuals and people groups and nations and churches," said Thoennes. "All the time you have God revealing himself and working out His redemptive purposes for creation."
But for Harold Camping's case, it's hard to say, according to the Talbot School of Theology professor.
"To speculate with some sort of certainty that we know what’s going on when someone has a stroke is not something we’re able to do because the Bible doesn’t give us the interpretation for it," continued Thoennes.
"That’s not to say it can’t be helpful for us to ask: Lord, are you up to something here? Lord, are you trying to teach me something? That may be the case but it’s very hard to know with certainty ... Sometimes we rush to connect the dots but sometimes we can’t know why they (calamities) happened."
Thoennes said too often people focus only on the particulars of God's judgment rather than understanding that universal reality of God’s judgment on a rebellious humanity. People forget that they, too, are under God's judgment.
"We're all under God's curse equally because of the fallen condition of all human beings," he explained. "So Harold Camping's stroke in that sense is an act of judgment in the same way my deteriorating body is an act of judgment."
People who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, who took that punishment and wrath upon himself, no longer have to bear that judgment while people who have yet to accept Christ will one day need to answer to that wrath, according to Thoennes.
"Thankfully, Jesus takes on our punishment if we are benefiting from that by faith," he said.
So, what is a biblical response to someone like Harold Camping?
Thoennes said our first response should be humility upon the realization that we all deserve judgment and death because of our sin.
"Rather than being self-righteous toward someone who is going through a difficult thing, it should be a sobering, humbling repentance we feel."
Secondly, it's always good to pray for the person. In Camping's case, pray that "he would come to physical health and come to understanding of the truth," said the Biola professor.
A pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, Calif., Thoennes said if Camping belonged to a church, he could seek wisdom from the community of believers as to what God is trying to reveal to him. However, since the Family Radio broadcaster believes the church age is over, it will be near impossible to glean those types of lessons without being part of a functioning church, he noted.
Thoennes commented that he feels it is entirely appropriate for the public, including Christians, to respond to and confront Camping's unbiblical teachings, as long as they do it with humility. Despite the May 21 rapture dud, Camping still maintains that October 21 will mark the End of the World.
What Christians should avoid, however, is joining the mocking bandwagon along with everyone else and turning the church's teachings on the final Judgment and the Second Coming into a laughable idea.
"Harold Camping is only wrong of the date setting," said Thoennes. "He’s not wrong about the magnitude and seriousness of this."