Harold Camping, the End of the World, and the Investigative Judgment

I was wandering through a small Christian bookstore when I came to a shelf labeled “Prophecy.” One title jumped out at me; it was simply 1994 by Harold Camping. I pulled it off the shelf and browsed through it. Apparently, Camping, based on his study of Bible dates, was predicting that the end of the world and the rapture of the church were going to occur in September of 1994. As I stood there, I immediately realized one major problem with his prediction; it was already January of 1995! I took the book to the owner of the store and gently suggested he remove it from his stacks. He looked at it, nodded, and thanked me.

This same Harold Camping (B. 1921) was back again with a new prediction – the rapture was going to happen on May 21st of this year. Well, if you are reading this article, you know that he was wrong again (unless you didn’t get raptured on Saturday – in that case, see you later). Camping is only one in a long list of those who have made the audacious claim to know when Armageddon was going to occur or when the Lord was going to return. In 1988 a man named Edgar Whisenant (1932-2001) wrote a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. When that date failed he changed it to 1989. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have posted numerous dates for Armageddon, the last being 1975.

Perhaps the most famous end of the world prognosticator was a Massachusetts Baptist minister named William Miller (1782-1849). He boldly predicted that the return of Christ would be in 1843 or 1844. He based his prediction on his interpretation of Daniel 8:14: “And he said unto me, ‘Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed’.” Miller interpreted the 2300 days as meaning 2300 years. He asserted that the 2300 year countdown began in 457 BC with the decree of Persian King Artaxerxes to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. So he figured 2300 years from 457 BC would equal AD 1843. He changed it to 1844 when he realized the math didn’t work, given there was no year zero. He eventually pin pointed the date to October 22, 1844.

Many people took Millers’ prediction seriously, some selling their homes and belongings to wait for the end. Legend has it that some people put on white robes and stood in corn fields waiting for the rapture. On October 23 Miller and his followers were badly embarrassed, to say the least. The failure of the prediction led to what became known as the “Great Disappointment.” To his credit, Miller later apologized for misleading so many people.

Not all of Miller’s followers, however, were so easily convinced of the error. Two of his followers, Hiram Edson and O.R.L. Crosier, both decided that Miller’s date was right, but it was the event he got wrong. They came to the conclusion that the date of 1844 was not when Christ was to return to earth, but rather, when He began to cleanse the Holy Sanctuary in Heaven. They reasoned that the earthly temple’s holy of holies sanctuary was a type of what existed in Heaven. So, on October 22, 1844, Jesus entered the heavenly Sanctuary to initiate what they called the “Investigative judgment.” This they said was the second and final phase of Jesus’ atoning ministry which had begun with his crucifixion.

Another of Miller’s devotees at that time was a young woman named Ellen Gould Harmon (1827- 1915). Young Ellen embraced the conclusions of Edson and Crosier and claimed she received heavenly visions confirming their interpretations. One man who was convinced of the authenticity of Ellen’s visions was James White, whom she married in 1846. Together they established the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA), which combined Edson’s and Crosier’s Sanctuary doctrine with the Seventh-day Sabbath teachings of Captain Joseph Bates (1792-1872) and other unusual ideas.

Today, the teachings and biblical interpretations of Ellen G. White are the foundations for the SDA Church. It is one of the fastest growing churches in the world. And though they no longer attempt to set dates for the return of Christ, they still hold to the Investigative Judgment doctrine whose timing came from the faulty biblical teachings of William Miller. I sincerely hope no one will try to take Harold Camping’s date setting in the same way. Christians should restrain from ever setting dates for Jesus’ return. As He himself said: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone (Matthew 24: 36).”

© 2011 Tal Davis