And so six o’clock dawned on the South Pacific.
And there was nothing.
Reached on his doorstep the following morning, Camping was, he said, “flabbergasted.” He was visibly shaken. “It has been a really tough weekend,” he acknowledged. He said he was “looking for answers.” And so in the hours that followed he pulled the drapes, doing all he could do, which was diving back into the Bible, reading, calculating, praying, reading, calculating, praying.
By Monday, in a development he could not have previously fathomed, Camping found himself sitting back in his chair in his wood-paneled studio before a scrum of television cameras. His rail-thin body was clad in an old JCPenney suit, and in his lap he held a massive leather-bound Bible. Though ancient-looking, Camping came across surprisingly confident. After calling “this last weekend a very interesting weekend,” he cut to the chase: “And so, the first question is, ‘Camping, what about you? Are you ready to shoot yourself, or are you ready to go on a booze trip, or whatever?’ ” he asked rhetorically. “Well, I can tell you very candidly that when May 21 came and went, it was a very difficult time for me.”
As God had it, an answer began forming and was furthered along via some ideas in a letter he’d received that very morning from a listener. He realized, he explained, he’d been taking some of the end-time verses in the Bible too literally. “Suddenly it dawned on me, Oh, I see what happened,” he said. God had indeed returned to Earth on May 21, he explained, but His return—and the earthquakes and terror that were to accompany it—was for now spiritual, not physical. It was, Camping said, necessary for it to be this way; if God had let Camping realize there would be no fire and brimstone, then his warnings might have been less vigorous. Most important, the timeline he’d parsed from the Bible was no less accurate. The Final Judgment was already occurring. It would last for five months—153 days—and we were already two days in.
“And it will continue right up until October 21, 2011, and at that time the whole world will be destroyed,” Camping said calmly. “This is why we don’t have to talk about this anymore. The world is under judgment. We are not going to be passing out any more tracts; all billboards are coming down. Our work is done. The world has been warned. My! How they have been warned.”
And then it was time for questions.
With accents from around the world, the reporters struck a collective tone of righteous indignation. They seemed appalled, personally aggrieved. One by one, they chided him: Was he prepared to apologize to the world? Would Family Radio return the money of those who’d donated? What about those his message had driven to madness?
“If you listen to Family Radio,” Camping insisted, “I have said it so many times, I am not the authority; the Bible is the authority. I will simply show you where to look in the Bible.
“All I am,” he said, “is a humble teacher.”
Harold Camping is ferociously in love with every one of the 788,258 words of the Bible, a “wonderful, authoritative, majestic” work that is 100 percent accurate, scientifically and historically. It is “God-breathed,” “from the mouth of God! God! God!” Camping believes in the principle of inerrancy, whereby God has taken pains to control His word exactly, through every disciple, apostle, transcriber, and translator, starting with an everyday shepherd named Moses who was summoned to Mount Sinai 3,320 years ago. And so Camping trusts implicitly every word—and, as important, every number—of his King James Version of the Bible. One evening on his radio show, a caller had suggested he put together a draft of the Bible in which corresponding verses were positioned beside each other, for easier scriptural comparison.
Camping: Well, now, I don’t think you’re really serious about that because that of course—
Caller: Of course I am because—
Camping: Excuse me. Ex-cuse me. That’s an impossibility. We don’t rewrite the Bible. The Bible was written by God … We tremble before the word of God … My, my! Just think of it. The Bible has come from the infinite mind of God. And who are we?
Camping was born into the Christian Reformed Church—a Dutch denomination rooted in staunch Calvinism—one of five brothers raised by Dutch immigrants in Southern California. He was a shy child and slow to develop socially, but he had an obvious affinity for numbers; he went on to earn a degree in civil engineering at Berkeley, and within a few years of graduation, he acquired his own construction company and began amassing a small fortune. It was during college that he began worshipping at the Christian Reformed Church in nearby Alameda, where he met his future wife, Shirley. He became increasingly religious, and by the time he was 35, he’d shifted his professional duties to part time and devoted himself to the Bible, studying it for eight or more hours a day, scanning it for its meaning and the hidden codes that underlay it.