Why We Wished Harold Camping Was Right

Katherine Britton

Why We Wished Harold Camping Was Right

"I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth," said Keith Bauer, who drove his family across the country from Maryland to California for the supposed Rapture to visit Camping's Oakland headquarters of Family Radio International.

Well, Harold Camping's done it again – led thousands of people to quit their jobs, give away their life savings, and breathlessly await their exit from this world. Today, the Monday after this latest non-Rapture, Camping has emerged from his cave only to say he’s “flabbergasted.” He has yet to explain why his loyal followers are still here. Given that he's already spent the mathematical error excuse, I half expected him to hole up in an undisclosed (but well furnished) location as if he really did disappear from this life.

But Harold Camping is the lucky one in all this. Even men whose hubris leads to such spectacular tumbles can recover and rebuild. His math was faulty, but at least it was his math. After 1994, he's a man who knows how to be wrong. It's his followers who concern me. 

Take Keith Bauer, who I’m guessing left his job in his departure for the end of the world. Bauer was a man possessed of an idea, an idea that leads little children to knock their heads against the back of dark closets searching for Narnia and sci-fi addicts to write volumes of Star Wars fan fiction. It's the idea that our surroundings are too constricting, and we might experience greater freedom if we can just escape its confines. Like we could discover a world with an added dimension that would let us fly. Bauer uprooted his family in pursuit of a dream that someone else would fulfill for him. It's like someone else was winning the lottery and giving it all to him – no work, all gain. 

Since so many of Campings' followers sold their homes and eschewed worldly concerns, I'm tempted to call this philosophy a modern-day Gnosticism. Our bodies don't matter if the world is ending tomorrow, right? All we have to do is clench our fists and shut our eyes and when we wake up, our souls will have escaped to heaven. We will have escaped the confines of this mortal coil, and now we can kick back on the sandy beaches of heaven with nary a care. 

Except, of course, that's not what happened. Bauer and his family shut their eyes against the naysayers but eventually had to peek, because May 22 dared to show its face. No magic portal to a good life opened up. They're still shackled to daily living. They haven't escaped life's consequences, nor have they escaped their earthly responsibilities. Since Bauer has children, he still has to figure out how to put food on the table and keep a roof over his kids' heads. He'll have to worry when they're out after curfew. He will have to deal with loss, as those he loves will move away over time and even die. Yes, I understand Bauer’s furious belief that the escape hatch is within reach, because heaven "would be a lot better than this earth." 

That's the deadly fallout of Harold Camping's predictions. He quantified heaven, and so he distracted people from longing for Jesus. He twisted the longing every Christian should have and made it a longing for escape per se, for the idea of heaven as an eternal "good life" in which all our worries melt away. That's not Christianity. W. Robert Godfrey, president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California, said simply, "The saddest and most distressing element of Camping’s latest theological statement is that it is Christless. He does not write about Christ’s return, but about judgment day."

Christian escapism appeals to our spiritual certainty of worldly unsatisfaction. After all, the great Christian quotable C.S. Lewis vouchsafed this idea. But longing for Jesus – the heart of heaven – leads us in the opposite direction as Harold Camping would. It demands real interaction and real living on our part. In that sense, the Kingdom of heaven primarily exists on real dirt, not a heavenly beach. We will always long for something beyond ourselves. But there's a world of difference between longing for a promise fulfilled and escaping to our happy place. When we forget that, we fall into the temptation of escapism, a temptation that stands waiting for us every time we think running away from this world is better than loving its people. Harold Camping’s philosophy didn’t create this easy out, he just publicized it for thousands of people. We need to relearn the difference between escapism and true longing, and get back to living real life. That’s the least confining pursuit anyone can dream of.

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