Harold Camping’s Judgement Day “Math”

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(This is a post from May, 2011. Harold Camping has since updated his prediction to October 21, 2011. So I thought I would re-post my thoughts.)

If you haven’t heard about Harold Camping, here is his basic position: the rapture of the church was supposed to occur today, Saturday May 21, 2011. His reason for believing this? Biblical study and mathematical equations.

Needless to say I take great issue with both his position and his methodology. There is something about all of this that upsets me greatly. That something is what I will try to describe here briefly, even though I am finding it hard to come up with the right words.

First, after reading some of the literature, it is clear that Camping has a misguided interpretation of certain biblical passages. These faulty interpretations lead to an awkwardly constructed end-times theology (referred to as eschatology).I could devote an entire (very long) post to this topic but I don’t think this is the main issue I want to address. If you would like to see a response to Mr. Camping’s position, I recommend reading An Open Letter to Harold Camping Regarding the Church and May 21, 2011. Also, since eschatology deals with God’s plan for the future and can sometimes be difficult to fully grasp or understand (and thus open to misinterpretations of almost every variety), it may be helpful to check out a free class on eschatology offered by Dallas Theological Seminary on iTunesU. I credit this class with helping cement in my mind and in my faith both what eschatology is, and is not, from a distinctly Christian perspective (thanks Dr. K)! In brief:

Eschatology is…

  • The study of the culmination of God’s plan for His creation
  • The study of the completion of God’s work of redemption and recreation
  • Hope, NOT fear

At this time the best course of action is not a theological debate with Mr. Camping, but rather offering loving support to his many followers. Many of them are coming to the realization that they have pledged their allegiance to a false hope. My prayer is that their disappointment and disillusionment will be aimed where it belongs: at a false teacher, and not the true promises of Christ and the Christian faith.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:3-9

Second, and I think this is the point I really want to address more, Camping’s key “proofs” (a word which he uses loosely and definitely not in any rigorous mathematical sense) focus on the use of important biblical numbers and his derived equations. You can read the link above to see his methodology in greater detail, particularly the document poorly titled “Another Infallible Proof.” Here is a short summary, thanks to LiveScience:

Here’s the gist of Camping’s calculation: He believes Christ was crucified on April 1, 33 A.D., exactly 722,500 days before May 21, 2011. That number, 722,500, is the square of 5 x 10 x 17. In Camping’s numerological system, 5 represents atonement, 10 means completeness, and seventeen means heaven. “Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said on his Oakland-based talk show, Family Radio, last year. “It’s the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you’re completely saved.”

I used this quote because I believe it refers to Camping’s method as what it is: numerology and not mathematics. Whereas mathematics is very logical, providing a clear sequence of steps to a solution, numerology is a practice that ascribes special meaning to certain numbers and thereby manipulates them freely in a manner that can vary from person to person. The sad thing is I don’t think the average person knows the difference.

Since most people have an aversion to mathematics, even to the point of boasting that it was subject they did poorly in, they accept mathematical statements and “proofs” with blind faith rather than a critical eye. Camping is not the first to predict the apocalypse with the use of numbers and he certainly won’t be the last. But his case should serve as a reminder to us in the Christian/Mathematics community about the importance of our work in educating people both in biblical understanding and mathematical practice.

I don’t know how many of Camping’s followers would have been spared the pain and heartbreak of unfulfilled expectations by a better understanding of mathematics. But knowing that the pain they experience could greatly damage their relationship with Christ and breed skepticism in the truth of the biblical message, if just one more person could be spared that fate, then our work is worthwhile.

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