Harold Camping, the radio mogul who warned that all Christians would be swept up into heaven in 1994, has set a new date: Saturday. Those left behind will have five months to suffer before the world is destroyed on Oct. 21.
He qualified his prior prediction, titling his self-published book "1994?" Now he's sure.
"The Biblical evidence is too overwhelming and specific to be wrong," he wrote on www.familyradio.com, which opens to a countdown ticker.
He has spread the word via the 66 stations in his Family Radio Network. Although his idiosyncratic teachings have no support from evangelical Bible scholars or churches, some of his listeners have reportedly quit jobs and given their life savings to help him warn others.
"He's a dangerous person," said the Rev. Jerry O'Neill, president and professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Point Breeze.
"After 1994 I'm surprised that he has any traction anywhere, but he does. He still has quite a following."
Few, if any, are in Pittsburgh. His closest stations are in Youngstown, Ohio, and Johnstown. The Johnstown station has a weak transmitter in Pittsburgh, which is buried by powerful stations farther away.
Local Christian media personality Richard Hatch said he hadn't had one question about Mr. Camping during his Friday night call-in show, "The Hatchery," on Cornerstone Television.
"I'm not hearing anything about it. I don't even know who this guy is," he said.
Mr. Camping, 89, is a civil engineer who started his first radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1958. His background is in the Reformed (Presbyterian) stream of evangelicalism. But Reformed doctrine doesn't include the rapture -- the belief that all Christians will suddenly be swept alive into heaven a few years before Jesus' return. That's a signature belief of dispensational evangelicals -- whose strength is independent churches in the Midwest, South and West Coast -- with carryover into charismatic churches. But Mr. Camping's end times scenario differs with dispensational teaching, and he has stated that the charismatic movement is satanic.
His method of biblical interpretation is based on math. He claims to have deduced the dates of Noah's flood and Jesus' crucifixion. He then uses numerology to predict the rapture.
He claims that Noah's flood was in 4990 BC. Genesis 7:4 says that in seven days God will destroy the earth. The New Testament letter 2 Peter 3:8 says that one day with God is as long as 1,000 years. Mr. Camping takes this to mean that a biblical day means 1,000 years. Thus, 7,000 years after 4990 BC is 2011.
He further claims that Jesus was crucified on April 1, 33 AD. He says there are 722,500 astronomical days from that date to May 21, 2011. He says that in the Bible the number five signifies redemption, 10 signifies completeness and 17 signifies heaven. The number 722,500, he says, is made up of two sets of 5 x 10 x 17.
Thus, he says, May 21, 2011, will be when redemption is complete and 200 million living Christians will go to heaven. (Most studies estimate the world's Christian population at more than 2 billion.) Those left behind will endure five months of intense suffering before the world is destroyed.
Mr. Camping is a fringe teacher at best, said a prominent evangelical New Testament scholar.
"He has not been a major figure for evangelicals," said Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, the flagship school for dispensationalism.
Numerology isn't an accepted way to interpret the Bible, no one knows when Noah's flood was and Bible scholars don't agree on the year, let alone the day, of the crucifixion, he said.
"As my wife says, if Jesus said he does not know the time -- Mark 13:32 -- then neither does Camping. The fact that we even pay attention to this, rather than a myriad of other religious concerns, shows that we tend to major on the fringes of what is really important," he said.
His students don't ask him about Mr. Camping because "most in the church do not pause to take it seriously."
That's not surprising because Mr. Camping teaches that all churches were apostate by 1994.
"He is insistent on his followers not attending church," said Rev. O'Neill at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He's knows of pockets of Mr. Camping's followers in Philadelphia and San Diego. Sometimes they show up in Reformed churches, but they don't stay.
"They would come for a while, but it was always clear that their allegiance was to this radio man they had never met in person. It never worked. You can't be a follower of Harold Camping and remain in the Reformed Presbyterian Church very long."
The me-against-the-church teaching is a sign that he is off on a tangent, Rev. O'Neill said.
"When he says that there is no longer an organization called the church that honors God, to me that is an enormous red flag to say that he is going against everything that the Bible teaches. One of my marching orders is Matthew 16:18, where Jesus said, 'I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.' "
Claiming that something is brand new in an ancient faith is another warning sign, he said.
"Nobody should follow somebody who is saying something for the first time when they are talking about spiritual things. The great fathers and mothers of the past are there for us to learn from," he said.
Near Mr. Camping's home base in California, Calvary Bible Church of Milpitas has planned an outreach to his disillusioned followers starting Sunday.
"It's really sad. I hear them on the radio, calling in," said the Rev. Jacob Denys, pastor of the independent Reformed church. "We want to help them understand that there is still hope, contrary to what Harold Camping has been saying about the church."
The biblical term for Mr. Camping is "false prophet," he said.
"He predicted that 1994 was going to be the rapture," he said. "That is why today we should not even begin to take him seriously. The Bible says that if a person dreams a dream and says something that doesn't come true, then you know he's not from God."
Rev. Denys heard the 1994 predictions on the radio before he became a minister, and realized then that Mr. Camping "was twisting the scripture," he said.
He strips events in the Bible from their historical setting, reapplies them to today and pays more attention to mathematical calculations than the actual words of scripture, he said.
Mainstream evangelical scholars and pastors "never just go in and pick and choose and create doctrine based on one or two passages, which is what Harold Camping does," he said.
While some of Mr. Camping's followers had a prior obsession with the end of the world, most simply don't know the Bible well enough to realize it's being distorted, he said.
"These poor people just take him as being a valid Bible teacher. They look to him as teaching God's truth. The Bible calls them sheep being led to the slaughter," he said.
"Unfortunately he has had years of promoting his teaching and he has a following through his radio outlets, which reach a huge population. He is definitely going to hit a group of people who are biblically illiterate. We want to be there for those people."
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 17, 2011) A headline on a story about Harold Camping's predictions about the end of the world incorrectly characterized Mr. Camping's occupation. He is a radio executive and a civil engineer.
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.