In the first chapter of the book of Acts, we are told that the disciples, when they were in the presence of the risen Lord, inquired about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel: “And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6).
Christ’s answer to this question is quite remarkable, not only for the fact that H e discourages the disciples from seeking to know the times established by God’s authority, but also for its emphasis upon the work that will be given them to do through the power of the Spirit. They are not to trouble themselves with the matter of times and seasons, but they are to be about the business of preaching the gospel of the kingdom in the power of the Spirit until the time of the ascended Christ’s return. And so Jesus says to the disciples. “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:7–8).
Despite this apparently clear warning to believers against seeking to know the “times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority,” there has been a steady stream of authors throughout the history of the Christian church who have attempted to fix a timetable for the events preceding and leading up to our Lord’s return. One of the latest of these attempts comes from a rather surprising source the pen of Harold Camping, known to many Reformed Christians as the popular Bible teacher and president of Christian Family Radio.
Since Mr. Camping enjoys a good reputation in many Reformed circles as a Bible teacher, and since the argument of his book is liable to find a welcome reception in some quarters, I believe it will be useful to consider and evaluate his argument.
THE ARGUMENT FOR 1994
Though Camping places a question mark behind the year 1994 in his title, 1994?, the argument of his book amounts to the claim that the date of Christ’s return can be determined with precision down to the month and year. According to Camping’s interpretation of Scripture, Christ will return in September of 1994. In his “Conclusion,” Camping even goes so far as to declare confidently that, “When September 6,1994, arrives, no one else can become saved. Then the end has come” (p. 533). How does he arrive at this conclusion?
A good beginning
Camping begins well in the opening chapters of his book. He opens his argument by strongly affirming the doctrine of the inspiration, authority and trustworthiness of Scripture on all matters to which it is addressed. Camping then considers several subjects relating to the end times. He argues, for example, that the so-called “rapture” of believers described in 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17 will occur simultaneously with the return of Christ, the judgment of all men and the end of the present age. He therefore opposes premillennialism and dispensationalism in their teaching that the millennial kingdom will be established after Christ’s return.
It is not long, however, before Camping’s argument begins to take a more speculative and questionable turn. After arguing that there will be a period of “great” and “final” tribulation that will come upon the world just prior to the end, one of whose features will be a judgment of God upon the churches and congregations that have fallen away from the truth, he concludes that “God will destroy the external church” prior to the end. This judgment of God upon the external church in response to its apostasy and unfaithfulness will signal “that the unfolding of God’s salvation plan has come to an end” (p. 214).Camping also adds that the duration of this tribulation will “likely” be for a period of 2300 days.2
Determining the biblical “calendar”
It is in conjunction with his treatment of the church’s judgment and tribulation for a period of 2300 days prior to Christ’s return, that Camping begins to develop a timetable of redemptive history, beginning with the date of creation and ending with the date of Christ’s return. Camping’s argument for his dating of these events in the past and the future is far too complicated and obscure to summarize in brief form. We will have to be content simply to isolate some of its more important components.
The first component in Camping’s determination of the biblical calendar amounts to a complete dating of the history of creation. Camping believes, for example. that the creation can be dated precisely as having occurred in 11013 B.C., and that the dates of the Patriarchs, the Judges and the history of the divided kingdom of Israel can be preCisely and accurately determined. The biblical record provides “a very exact chronology” (p. 309), permitting us, provided we know the key to interpreting the biblical text, to ascertain the calendar of God’s redemptive program in history.
The second component in Camping’s determination of the biblical calendar is his insistence that, though the New Testament church was not to concern itself with the timetable of Christ’s return, as the world nears its end we are to expect a greater understanding and insight into the nature and time of Christ’s return. Those biblical texts that seem to warn believers against determining the precise time of Christ’s return (compare Matt. 24:36,42; Luke 12:40; Mark 13:32; Acts 1:7) only apply to the early church. The New Testament church was not to become diverted by a preoccupation with the timing of Christ’s return; this church had to be busy preaching the gospel to all the nations. Now that this work is coming to an end and the time of Christ’s coming is growing short, we should expect that the church will be given more information about the timing of Christ’s return, information the church is mandated to share with unbelievers as she calls them earnestly to repentance and faith. According to Camping, this is the reason “God has given the information in this book” [that is, Camping’s book, 1994?]: because we are living in a time close to the end, we are being taught by God to know, not the day or the hour perhaps, but the month and the year of Christ’s return!
The third component in Camping’s case for determining the time of Christ’s return focuses upon the Old Testament information that gives us “dues” concerning the first coming of Christ. If it can be shown that the method used to determine the Old Testament’s prediction of Christ’s first coming is sound and accurate, then the same method employed upon the New Testament texts which speak of Christ’s second coming ought to yield a similar result. In his consideration of these Old Testament texts, Camping maintains that they include passages in which God speaks in “parables” and in an “allegorical language” (p. 338). For example, though the seventy weeks of Daniel 9:27 are first said to be seventy literal weeks of years, the second half of the seventieth week is later said to be a figurative description of the entire period from the death of Christ to the end of the world (pp. 381–404).
The fourth and final component of Camping’s argument is a complicated, even bewildering demonstration that the biblical evidence paints to a date of Christ’s return “sometime on or between” September 15, 1994, the beginning of the 1994 Jubilee year, and September 27, 1994, the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (p. 531). Camping maintains that the year of jubilee is intimately associated with the end of the world, and notes that the year 1994 is the fiftieth jubilee year since the beginning set forth in Daniel 9:25–27 (the jubilee of jubilees). Since this jubilee year begins on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement, Christ’s return will likely occur on and shortly after September 15, 1994. Furthermore, since the Feast of Tabernacles occurs five days after the Day of Atonement, announcing the jubilee year, Camping also believes that Christ’s return will occur sometime before the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles on September 27, 1994.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE ARGUMENT?
Having provided a brief summary of Camping’s argument for concluding that Christ will return in September, 1994, it remains to ask whether his argument is convincing or worthy of consideration. Though I am afraid many readers will be impressed with the detail and complexity of Camping’s argument, I am convinced that Camping’s argument is without merit. Worse, it is an argument that is made in conflict with Scripture’s own prohibitions against establishing a timetable for or dating of Christ’s return.
Before addressing what I regard to be Camping’s misuse and misinterpretation of the Scriptures, I would like to begin by noting what the Scriptures teach regarding the time of Christ’s return. It is the consistent teaching of Scripture that believers neither are given to know nor ought seek to know the time of Christ’s return. Even Christ Himself in His office as Mediator claims not to know the time of His coming again! In Matthew 24:42,44, Christ calls His disciples to be on the alert because they “do not know which day [their] Lord is coming” and because “the Son of Man is coming at an hour when [they] do not think He will.” In Matthew 25:13, Christ also declares, “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” And in Mark 13:32 we read, “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” When the disciples later asked Christ, after His resurrection, whether He was to restore the kingdom to Israel at that time, He cautioned them that it was not for them to know the “times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7).
These biblical exhortations to watchfulness, coupled with the dear statement that the disciples will not know or be given to know the time of Christ’s return, are strengthened by the common Scriptural teaching that Christ’s coming will be as unexpected and sudden as the coming of a “thief in the night.” Though Christ’s coming will bring joy and salvation to His people, and in that sense be quite unlike the coming of a thief to do harm, it will be similar to the coming of a thief in its being unannounced and unanticipated. For this reason it is all the more important that Christ’s people be prepared and alert prior to His return (compare Matt. 24:43; Rev. 16:15). As the apostle Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “Now as to times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:1–2).
How does Camping escape the clear force of these passages? Camping replies first, by noting that Christ only speaks of our not knowing the “day or the hour.” This, he lamely suggests, does not prevent us from perhaps knowing the month and the year! He also replies by pointing out that Christ’s coming will only be like the coming of a “thief” for the unbelieving, but it will be quite different for the believing who are “not in darkness, that the day should overtake [them] like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:5). As the time of Christ’s coming approaches, the believer should expect that what was unnecessary for the New Testament church will become increasingly necessary. The biblical passages which speak of believers’ not knowing the time of Christ’s coming only apply to the early church, but they do not rule out the idea that God would reveal more in the Scriptures (and through their interpretation by Camping!) than believers knew in previous times, especially as the end approaches.
The problems with Camping’s argument at this point ought to be rather obvious. When Christ speaks of the “day or hour,” He clearly means to refer to the time of His coming, whether it be measured in days, months, years or decades. Indeed, this is precisely what Christ declares in Mark 13:33 (“Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time is”), a passage which Camping conveniently ignores. Furthermore, the passages which speak of Christ’s coming as being like that of a “thief” clearly mean to teach that the believer’s watchfulness is especially important since Christ’s coming will be unknown as to its time. Though Camping rightly points out that Christ’s coming will not take the believer by surprise in the way it will the unbeliever, he wrongly concludes from this that its precise time may and will be known.
Camping’s additional claim that believers, as they approach the time of the end, may come to know through books like his information about the time of Christ’s return, unknown and unrevealed to the New Testament church, is completely unsubstantiated by the Scriptures. If this latter claim were true, then Camping would apparently be a prophet greater than Christ, than Paul, indeed than any of the inspired writers of the New Testament who were revealing truths hidden even from them but only now being revealed to us!
The use of Scripture
But it is not only the disregard for these plain prohibitions of Scripture against determining a timetable for Christ’s return that is objectionable in Camping’s argument. Equally objectionable is the way in which he handles the Scriptures in making a case for dating Christ’s return for September, 1994. Anyone who reads Camping’s book carefully and attempts to follow each step in his argument, will undoubtedly be amazed at the way Camping is able to find meaning in the biblical numbers, feast days, dates and passages dealing with the future. Camping seems to have an uncanny knack for finding meanings otherwise hidden from the ordinary reader (and even from the church throughout most of her history), and piecing together the biblical calendar for the timetable of redemptive history.
Who would have thought for example, that the following biblical numbers have the symbolical or hidden meaning Camping assigns to them: 2 means the church; 3 means the purpose of God; 11 means the certainty of salvation, 13 means super fullness and 23 means judgment?3 Or, who would have known that the Bible contains a complete and exhaustive record of all the generation.s that lived from the time of creation until the fullness of time and the birth of Christ? Or that, in the Old Testament genealogies, key individuals are listed when their birth dates coincide with the death year of the previous patriarch (p. 298)? Again and again, Camping finds “hidden” meanings and spiritual significances in persons, dates and events, that leave the reader (at least this reader) wondering how he is able discern them in the text.
One can only conclude that Camping’s use of the biblical texts amounts to a kind of allegorizing in which the interpreter is free to find hidden and spiritual meanings not evident on the surface of the text, at least not to most readers.4 This is a highly dangerous use of Scripture however, for it snatches the Bible out of the hands of God’s people who are incompetent to discover such hidden meanings, and places believers in the care of Bible teachers whom they must trust implicitly. Such a use of Scripture is clearly at odds with the Reformation’s insistence that God’s Word is clear and sufficient and should be understood according to the standards of grammatical-historical exegesis. Contrary to Camping’s use of the biblical texts, the Reformers insisted that the biblical texts have only one meaning, a meaning able to be determined by following the ordinary rules of grammar and considering their historical setting. Camping’s reading of the biblical texts, by contrast, amounts to a return to uncontrolled allegory and spiritualizing.
The view of the church
Perhaps more subtle than these two flaws in Camping’s argument is the flaw in his doctrine of the church of Jesus Christ.
One of the prominent threads in Camping’s argument for the dating of Christ’s return is his claim that we are in the last days, in that period of history just prior to Christ’s return when the visible (he terms it the “external”) church of Christ is wholly apostate and under the judgment of God. During the present period of history, Camping argues, we should recognize that the external church is being removed by God, Hence, the church should no longer enjoy the believer’s confidence. Nor should believers place much stock in the teaching of the church’s pastors and office-bearers.
There are any number of examples of this theme in Camping’s book. At the conclusion of the book, he cautions his readers, “There is no time left to trust your pastor or your church. You must trust only the Bible” (p. 534). Already in his introduction, Camping anticipates that his book will “probably bring exceeding strong reactions,” particularly since it “faults the churches and denominations of our day” (p. xvii). Since the church in our time has become so seriously deformed and unfaithful in its preaching and teaching, this is a time to trust the Bible alone and to distrust all forms of official church teaching and practice.
The problem with Camping’s view of the church at this point is not so much his contention that the contemporary church has become largely apostate and unfaithful. He does have a considerable body of evidence on his side for this contention! The problem is the sweeping way in which Camping generalizes about the church, suggesting that the individual believer should simply take the Bible in hand, even ignoring the preceding history of the church’s understanding of tire Word of God. All churches, and even their confessions, tend be placed under the same suspicion. As a result, however novel may be Camping’s reading of the biblical texts. it is given the “benefit of the doubt” above the reading given in the church’s confessions. Thus, the reader is asked to trust Camping’s reading of the biblical text, even when it may conflict with the church’s historic reading of the text in her confessions.5
There is the danger in this procedure that some believers will be encouraged to distrust even faithful office-bearers in the church, disparaging all teachers in the church when they do not agree with the findings of Camping’s book.
A diversion from our calling
The last comment I would make about Camping’s argument is that it diverts the believer’s attention from his primary calling to be alert and watchful, remaining faithful to the Word of God in doctrine and life until Christ comes again. This is the uniform teaching of the Bible about Christ’s return: be ready, be on the alert, prepare yourself for the great day of the Lord’s coming, a day which the Father has fixed by His authority.
To his credit, Camping writes his book in order to stress the urgency and faith, especially in view of Christ’s coming. However, by establishing a timetable and date for that coming, he not only violates the Scripture’s own warnings against doing so, but he also risks undermining the authority of the Bible he is seeking to defend. If his interpretation and use of the Bible to determine this date prove wrong, then it is likely that many who have placed their confidence in Camping’s reading of the biblical texts will be compelled to ask—are the biblical texts to be trusted? This is especially the case since Camping’s case rests upon such an exhaustive treatment of so many biblical passages.
Our approach to the question of Christ’s return ought rather to reflect the simplicity of the biblical message itself: be prepared, wait with firm expectation and continue steadfast to the end. Meanwhile, whatever the precise time of our Lord’s coming, we should continue to preach the gospel of the kingdom to the nations praying “Come Lord Jesus, yes, come quickly.”
1 Harold Camping, 1994? (New York: Vantage Press, 1992).
2 It is difficult to see how Camping’s argument that the “external church will be destroyed prior to the end is compatible with Christ’s confident affirmation in Matthew 16:18, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.” It is also at odds with the Reformation confessions which affirm that the church of Christ will always be found upon the earth. The Belgic Confession, Article XXVII, says, for example: This Church has been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end the visible church prior to Christ’s return is of a piece with his disparagement of the church’s office-bearers and teachers as well.
3 This is only a small sampling of literallydozens and dozens of numbers to which Camping assigns a spiritual meoning. How Camping knows that these are the spiritual meanings of these numbers we ore not realty told.
4 Camping acknowledges this to be his procedure, as we have seen, when he declares that God frequently speaks with His people in parables…sometimes cloaking “the truth He was teaching by using figures of speech in analtegorical language” (p. 338). This declaration opens the door to any kind of use of the text. Who is to say that Camping’s interpretation of these parables and allegories is correct or not? Because the meaning is hidden within the text, the reader is at the mercy of anyone who claims to hove discovered its secrets.
5 It is interesting to note that the confessions of the Reformation explicitly forbid, on the basis of the Scriptures, attempting to date the time of Christ’s return. The Belgic Confession, Article XXXVII, says the time of Christ’s return is “unknown to all creatures.” The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXIII. iii, also says that Christ “will have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security.” They also affirm, contrary to Camping’s position, that Christ will always have and preserve His church upon the earth until He comes. On this lost point, the Westminster Confession of Faith, ChapterXXV, v, declares that “there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.”