The next Harold Camping

I’ve actually picked up a couple new commenters at Evangelical Realism recently. One of them is tokyotodd, whose philosophical arguments I touched on yesterday. The other is Mike Gantt, who reminds me a lot of Harold Camping (without the end-of-the-world fixation). Speaking of his views on hell, he writes:

I came to it by reading such Scripture passages in context, thus allowing its words to be understood in the ancient milieu in which they were uttered. It is the distorting lens of institutional Christianity and secular modernity that obscure the Bible’s plain teaching on the subject.

Like Camping, Gantt seems to make no distinction between “the Bible’s plain teaching” and his own personal interpretation of the Bible. He can readily see that other people, including William Lane Craig, have interpretations that are wrong (i.e. that conflict with his interpretation), and he even goes so far as to claim that the institution that created the Bible is also at fault for distorting it (i.e. producing teachings that conflict with his interpretation). But it’s very difficult to challenge his interpretation because, in his words, you’re not challenging his opinions, you’re challenging the plain teaching of Scripture.

I’ve actually got a fair amount of sympathy for him, since I had pretty much the same mind-set when I was a believer. There’s no point in believing anything less that God’s infallible truth, so I made sure I believed only what the Bible itself plainly taught. What I didn’t realize until much later on was how much of this “plain teaching” was actually the product of my own biases, experiences, conceptual framework, and even past Bible study. Every time you read the Bible, you interpret the “difficult” passages in light of the “easy” ones, not realizing that your background and personality have a strong influence over which passages you find “easy,” and what you think their “plain teaching” is. And the longer you study the Bible, the more you build up your own personal network of mutually-reinforcing interpretations that seem to prove that you (and you alone) have at last uncovered the “true” meaning of Scripture.

The problem with this approach is that it ultimately leaves you with no authority but your own personal interpretation itself, as the standard by which you judge the correctness of someone’s Bible interpretation. There’s no objective standard against which you can measure the interpretation that seems right in your own eyes, to tell whether it’s actually correct or not. All you have is your own self-reinforcing network of assumptions, rationalizations, and or personal goals, to guide you into discovering that, hey, you’ve really been right all along!

In Harold Camping’s case, it led to worldwide embarrassment, because he was convinced enough to pin himself to a test that would actually prove him right or wrong. In Gantt’s case, the consequences are far less testable, but it does lead him to some pretty idiosyncratic ideas, like people experiencing eternal punishment in heaven.

In Matthew 24-25 Jesus said the kingdom would come before His generation passed away – a point affirmed over and over throughout the rest of the New Testament. Thus what is described in Matthew 24-25 is past tense for us, not future.

Both the blessings and curses described in that passage are everlasting. However, our time on earth is not everlasting. Therefore, those blessings and curses go on forever, but we go elsewhere when we die. To heaven.

Jesus’ predictions in Matthew 24-25 did indeed fail to come true, and nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Second Coming, Judgment, and subsequent eternal Kingdom were only “spiritual” events that came and went at some indiscernible moment in the first century. Even though that’s not actually written in the Bible, though, Gantt needs a spiritual fulfillment because the literal fulfillment never happened. And thus it simply becomes the “plain teaching” of the Bible, as dictated by his own personal needs, goals, and assumptions. There’s no real constraint, other than personal preference, on what you can end up believing if you take this approach to Scripture. And therefore, your conclusions have no particular relationship to the truth.

Caveat lector.


  1. says

    It’s a trivial fact that each and every theist thinks that god agrees with them 100% of the time. And disagrees with the other guy who says that god agrees with him 100% of the time.

    Matt: It’s all in your head. All of it.

    The bible is a collection of fables, revisionist Jewish history, and dietary guidelines for people with no ice. A little smutty poetry mixed in to keep it interesting. That’s it.

    It’s not real, Matt. There’s no god watching your every move. No invisible voice whispering in your ear. You’re listening to your own thoughts.

    No heaven. No hell. No judgement. No after-death experience of any sort.

    Jesus, if he ever lived at all, died 2000 or so years ago and is nothing but bone dust by now. He is not coming back. Not in this generation, or the next, or ever.

    Grow up. Stop believing children’s fairy stories. Get off your knees and stop staring at the ceiling.

    And get a new hobby.

  2. jaranath says

    Camping was the best example of that blithely unaware bias I’ve ever seen. He was so deep into it that critical elements of his theology, like god making proper human understanding of certain biblical passages impossible until he decides otherwise, were purely there to both legitimize Camping’s own biases and changing interpretations, and to hide them from him. Any time Camping changed his mind, that was God deciding it was time to pull the veil of deception from another passage…and I think he really believed that.

  3. kennypo65 says

    Sometimes I think that religious belief is a form of mental illness, No, sorry, that’s not it. I think the mentally ill can find refuge in religious belief because it too is irrational.

  4. Artor says

    I’m amused that Gantt thinks he is reading the bible “in context.” So is he an illiterate Hebrew shepherd? Is he fluent in Greek or Aramaic? How much does he know about the life & times of a 1st century Jew in Palestine? Alot less than he thinks I’ll wager.

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