The Life and End Times of Harold Camping

Updated on February 25, 2018
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

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Sunday, May 22, 2011 was a day Harold Camping didn’t expect to see. Despite being 89 years-old, Camping was remarkably healthy for his age. Still, he believed that the previous day, May 21st, was going to be his last day on Earth.

His rationale was simple: the Rapture was coming and he knew the exact day and time, thanks, in part, to a “mathematical formula” he applied to the dates of Biblical events.

May 21st came and, to his dismay, he and 200 million Christians were not teleported to Heaven.

Such an event would crush one’s belief system. It may even force the would-be prophet to reassess his ability to predict the future. However, after more than fifty years of preaching, teaching, and prophesying on matters of the End Times, Camping still believed he could predict the end of the world.

His Early Years

Camping was a self-taught and self-proclaimed biblical expert. He never attended a seminary or took the time to learn from a theologian (then again, he proclaimed he had no patience for them). Instead, his early education resulted in a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of California-Berkeley.

According to a webpage from Family Radio.com, Camping started his own construction company and amassed a small fortune shortly after the end of World War II.

It’s not clear when and where Camping “found the calling” to become a biblical scholar. It may have started when he and his family became members of the Christian Reformed Church.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA or CRC) is a Protestant Christian denomination. It is often evangelical and Calvinistic in its theology and places a lot of importance on the use of theological study and applications of them to explain current issues.

According to his biography, Camping became more involved in his church by becoming a bible teacher and Elder. He remained active with the church until 1988.

Family Radio may have been described as a non-profit business; however, Camping miraculously ended up making a profit

The Emergence of Family Radio

In 1958, Camping sold his construction business and devoted his time toward his new calling. He and two other business partners formed the non-profit ministry of Family Station, Inc. in Oakland, California. This organization would later become known as Family Radio. At first, he was a full-time volunteer before becoming its president and general manager.

Family Radio was – and still is – a Christian radio network. It has been broadcasted on FM and AM radio stations with non-commercial licenses, and television. More recently, it has produced a website containing numerous pages, archived recordings, and PDF files of Camping’s 30 self-published books and pamphlets. Also, Family Radio is broadcasted in 40 different languages and can be heard in places such as Nigeria.

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In 1961, Family Radio’s most important show “Open Forum” began. It was a live weeknight call-in program. From its inception, Camping became the host, and remained there until 2012. Usually, he dispensed all things about the Bible and its application to everyday life.

Family Radio may have been described as a non-profit business; however, Camping miraculously ended up making a profit. According to a Washington Post report, it was estimated that Camping was worth more than $120 million.

The Rapture

In later years, Camping became obsessed with the Rapture. The Rapture is an end time belief based on interpretations of a Biblical passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-7. It states: “…and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

While the Rapture was based on a Biblical verse, the word first appeared during the 17th century in the Puritan Colonies of America. The person credited with coming up with the philosophy behind it was 19th century English preacher John Nelson Darby.

The Rapture became a popular topic among Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in the United States and England during the mid and late 20th century. Many started to come up with their own scenarios about the eventual end of the world.

Also, as a result, there was a need among true-believers to find signs or codes in the Bible that may give clues to when this event would occur. Camping was more than willing to take this challenge.

Biblical Numerology

Camping always loved math. With an education in civil engineering, Camping had developed strong skills in analytical thinking. He believed he could formulate an equation based on important Biblical dates to find this fateful day.

An equation was not enough. Camping began to believe that numbers were also divine symbols. Thus, he embraced numerology, an occult belief that numbers had symbolic meaning.

Eventually, Camping would use Biblical numerology to recalculate the age of the Earth (around 12,000 years), and to find the date of the Rapture.

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The Predictions

In 1992, Camping wrote his first book detailing his prediction. In “1994?”, he claimed that the Rapture would begin on September 6, 1994 and eventually end in 2011. The year came and went with no sign of the Rapture. Camping wasn’t deterred. He went back to his formula and recalculated it.

Later, Camping made his May 21st doomsday proclamation. This time he truly believed he had it right. In fact, it was reported by several news outlets he spent nearly $100 million on advertisement using billboards, pamphlets, and other forms of media to spread the word of this pending doom.

His formula was the following:

  • He took the number of days between Christ’s crucifixion (April 1, 33 A.D) and May 21, 2011 (722,500 days);
  • He determined the number was the square of 5, 10, and 17; and
  • Finally, he applied its numerological symbols, in which 5 represented “atonement”, 10 meant “completeness”, and 17 stood for “heaven.”

With that, he somehow determined May 21 was the beginning of the Rapture, October 21, 2011 the final day of this event.

Once again, May 21 came and went. Camping blamed it on misreading his equation and made another bold proclamation: The Rapture was coming on October 21, 2011. He also claimed that May 21 was indeed an end: an “end of spirituality”. He never clarified what that actually meant.

His Critics

Not surprisingly, many have dismissed Camping’s predictions. What’s surprising was who some of the critics are: members of the Evangelical communities and fellow End Time believers.

Tim LaHaye, ultra-conservative evangelist and co-author of the successful Rapture-inspired “Left Behind” series called Camping a fraud. Jason Wallace, a writer for the website Jesus-is-savior.com, wrote: “Harold Camping…is a false prophet!” Also, he called him a Jehovah Witness and listed 29 fallacies in Camping’s Biblical teaching.

His biggest critics, according to the Washington Post, may be his own family. His six children, 29 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren reportedly think his theories a were a sham. His wife, however, supported and stood beside him.

From Open Forum

Final Prediction and the Aftermath

October 21st came and went. This time, there was an end, but it was the type Camping didn’t anticipate. His congregation decreased. According to reports from the South African online news publication, News24, his congregation was down to “about 25 adults.”

The failed events started the ridicule. Time Magazine editors listed the May 2011 prediction as one of its “Top 10 Failed Predictions.”

Also, a month after the first failed prediction, he was “awarded” the infamous Ig Nobel Prize for “teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.” Eventually, the negative publicity forced him to go into seclusion.

Since then, there has been many self-described prophets out there predicting the end of the world and getting the type of publicity Camping received and adored.

The downfall continued:

  • March 2012 – Camping admitted he made an error in his calculation. He also announced that he was through with End Times predictions.
  • May 2012 – Former congregation members accused Camping of being a cult leader.
  • October 2012 – Camping seized broadcasting live sermons; instead, Family Radio began re-broadcasting older recordings of his teachings.
  • March 2013 – a report surfaced that Family Station Inc. spent more than $5 million on billboard advertising in the moments leading up to the initial date of the predicted doomsday. As a result, the radio management team suffered major revenue loss and was forced to sell its main radio stations and lay off some of its staff.

It appeared that Camping had gone into hiding after the first prediction failed. In truth, Camping had suffered a stroke on June 9, 2011. The stroke left him with a speech impediment, greatly affecting his ability to clearly do his radio sermons.

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Still, he managed to do a July 15th broadcasting. It would prove to be one of his last, considering that less than a month before this, Family Radio had announced that Open Forum was going to be replaced with new programing.

Then, the “unexpected” happened: Camping fell at home and never recovered from the injuries. He died on December 15, 2013 at the age of 92.

So ended Camping’s long career as a preacher, and his brief foray into stardom as a doomsday prophet. Since then, there has been many self-described prophets out there predicting the end of the world and getting the type of publicity Camping received and adored.

Whether he foresaw his brief rise to prominence or his death a few years afterword is mere speculation and best.

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© 2018 Dean Traylor

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    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James-MizBejabbers 

      5 months ago

      Very interesting read, Dean. We all are probably familiar with Camping's predictions. Where he appears to have made his mistake was by relying solely on the abstractness of the Bible to base his predictions. Had he factored in other dates used by pagans, like the Mayan prophesies, he probably would have been so confused that he would not have dared come up with these dates, much less spent millions on publicizing them.

      As my daddy used to say, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." Daddy wasn't referring to the Rapture because Daddy was an atheist, by the way. You write so well, and I enjoy reading your hubs.

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