Harold Camping – Heretic?

I would like to suggest that people be a bit more careful with the word “heretic.”  Christians throw this word around as if it means “someone who disagrees with my beliefs.”   After Love Wins was published, Rob Bell was vilified as a “heretic” for is nebulous view of Hell.  More recently Harold Camping’s prediction of the Rapture for May 21 resulting in not a charges that he was a “heretic.”  In both cases the basic core beliefs of Christianity are not at stake.  Rather, these two men have expressed a belief of the church in a way which is out-of-step with the norm.  Bell believes in eternal punishment, just not in the same way that Calvin did.  Likewise, Camping believes in the return of the Lord, just not in the same way Luther did.

Do not get me wrong, I think that Christianity as properly understood from the Bible down include some sort of an eternal Hell, although I doubt it is the medieval fantasy plagiarized from Dante which most people imagine. Likewise, I do believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture, but I see no warrant in scripture to try and predict the date, nor do I feel any great compulsion to write an epic book series describe “what happens next.”  My point here is that one is not a “heretic” for misunderstanding scripture on these issues.  We need to reserve that word for someone who denies a core doctrine of Christianity and not use it to describe people who know how to work the media to sell books.  Both Bell and Camping land within the bounds of the Nicene Creed and should not be called heretics.

Historically, the study of Last Things, Eschatology, was among the last categories of doctrines to be developed.  While I am well are that there is eschatological thinking throughout church history, it was not until the last century that biblical scholars and Christian thinkers began to develop what the return of Jesus means. This theological work is in some ways in response to Dispensational thinking, but Dispensationalism has made solid contributions to the on-going discussion.  Someone like Camping stands in a grand tradition of date-setters, but these people have always been on the fringe.  But being “on the fringe” is not heretical, just dangerous.

I certainly think that Christianity is has suffered much from the Camping debacle.  A generation ago few would have heard of Camping as the day approached, a hundred years ago there would have been very little media coverage at all.  The Internet as given a platform to anyone with a strange idea.  They can “publish” their ideas and gain a huge following in ways which were impossible until recently.  The Internet also makes it possible to mock these sorts of ideas and make them out to be more mainstream than they are.  Jokes about the apocalypse were everywhere last week – even Doonesbury got into the act.

I am most disappointed that many non-Christians groups have used Camping’s prediction to paint all Christians as lunatic date-setters who look forward to the Apocalypse.  The media calls Camping an “evangelical.”  I suppose this is true, but I cannot image Camping reading a paper at the Evangelical Theological Society, or publishing his ideas through a major Evangelical Publishing house.  To use Camping as a model of Christianity is fuzzy thinking at best, and intentionally dishonest at the worst.

Camping is neither a heretic nor a paradigm of contemporary Christianity.  To mis-quote The Life of Brian, there is no heretic here, just a very silly man.

14 thoughts on “Harold Camping – Heretic?

  1. Agree with you on almost everything with one possible exception. Would you not say that Camping’s claim that all of those still in churches being left behind would redefine the idea of salvation?

  2. You are correct, Camping is very anti-church and thinks that all institutional churches are false. Again, I am not sure that is “heretical” since people have called for “true Christians” to come out of false churches your centuries. That is what the reformation was all about! What is strange about Camping is that he does not really start an alternate “pure” form of the church to compete with the false-churches.

    Camping associates the decline of churches with the introduction of modern “rock and roll” style worship. The best line I saw was that Chris Tomlin was responsible for the death of the church.

    You and I both know plenty of people that consider all denominational churches to be “dead” and would rather stay in their home Bible studies than associate with them.

    • “Again, I am not sure that is “heretical” since people have called for “true Christians” to come out of false churches your centuries.”

      Point taken, so simple I missed it until you pointed it out, thanks.

      “The best line I saw was that Chris Tomlin was responsible for the death of the church.”

      That’s a good one!

  3. I would use very misguided and wholly unfortunate to describe the whole Camping debacle. But I think that you are likely right that it falls short of heresy. I have found Craig Blomberg’s article “The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When the Apostles Really Get Mad),” JETS 45 (2002): 59-72, to be helpful in this regard.

    • Thanks Charles, I was going to use the Blomberg article but the post was already running long. I happened to be at ETS the year Blomberg read the article as a paper, I was very much impressed then.

  4. My only question is what then do Evangelical Christians call someone like Harding? I think you make a valid point when you say that he is on the fringes and that is dangerous, especially in the internet era. As you have pointed out, this is a case where non christians took his message and either made jokes about it or used it to describe all Christians.
    I see what Harding has done very different from what Bell did. Bell redefined a term. Harding went from just redefining a belief, to spouting something that was almost a given untruth. While calling him a heretic might be overboard, looking at Paul’s and John’s epistles, I cannot help but think they would have called Harding a Heretic.

  5. “what then do Evangelical Christians call someone like Harding?” I hate to sound ignorant, but who is Harding? All I can think of is Tanya Harding, and I am pretty sure that is wrong!

    • Correction, make it Camping. Some how when I read his name I merged it into Harding.

    • That should be Camping. Apparently, I combined his names and came up with Harding. So yes, Plong, Tonya Harding was wrong.

  6. Phillip,

    I happened to be there as well. The room was pretty packed as I recall.


    I am not sure why some feel the need to call Camping something. What does that really accomplish? At the end of the day, those who disagreed with him needed to show where and why they disagreed with him anyway. In some of the circles I have traveled in, Pentecostals and Charismatics, Arminians and Calvinists, paedo-Baptists, promoters of seeker-sensitive and the like were often quickly and carelessly called the “H” word. In my experience, calling someone a heretic does not help to move dialogue further. It tends to close doors rather than open them. Concerning what Paul and John would have thought, I would commend the Blomberg article to you in why he surveys the NT, including the writings of Paul and John.

  7. “I happened to be there as well. The room was pretty packed as I recall.”

    It always is for Blomberg. I agree, obviously, that the description of Heretic is too easily used. It has become a way to slander someone you disagree with without actually addressing their ideas, something of a Religious Godwin’s Law!

  8. I’m not so sure that Camping falls in to the Nicene Creed camp. He is clearly a false teacher, however, by virtue of the fact that he is making claims about the Bible that are not true.

    The man has no theological training, no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, and has insulated himself against both the historical teachings of the Church and from modern scholarship.

    That doesn’t leave a whole lot…

    There’s a 5-part blog post that describes this better than I could:


  9. You obviously have not listened to much of what Camping has said brother. Camping teaches the church is under the control of Satan since 1988 and that no one has been saved in the church since. So when we go to church on Sundays we are worshipping Satan. How could attributing the work of the Spirit to Satan not be heretical? There is more too that I could write about. His error is far more than eschatological in nature. I speak this as a pastor of 30+ years and hope you will correct your error. Blessings to you brother.

  10. Hi Jeff, thanks for the comment. Far be it from me to defend Camping, I think he is an embarrassment and completely wrong on a number of things. But your comment, “How could attributing the work of the Spirit to Satan not be heretical?” is interesting, since I am sure I could come up with that same line from Luther describing the medieval catholic church. Separating from what one considers a dead church is not heretical, unless I happen to believe the church is in fact being led by the Holy Spirit.

    For the record, Camping is *not* a reform movement in the church, he is a layman with too much time on his hands, no historical perspective or theological understanding. He is not saying anything new, he stands in a long tradition of fringe movements which have thought they were the last and only true believers left.

    This is a wrong teaching, certainly dangerous and in need of a biblical answer, but a damnable heresy in the tradition of Arius or Montanism? My point above is that we ought to not throw the word heretic around lightly. (In my Sunday school class this week we discussed this issue a bit, and I said there is a difference between being a Heretic and being an idiot. Camping is the latter!)

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