By Jason Boyett
From the iPad 3 announcement to the Super Tuesday primaries, it's been a busy week in the news world. So you're forgiven if you missed a significant development involving a popular, controversial radio host who said some regretful things. This powerful broadcaster offended sensible people. He proved himself demonstrably wrong. When he finally apologized, fans and critics began discussing the sincerity of his regret.
You're also forgiven if you thought this was about Rush Limbaugh.
The apologetic broadcaster is none other than Harold Camping, the 90 year-old founder of Family Radio who spent the last two decades warning that Jesus would return and Judgment Day commence on May 21, 2011. Though the designated date passed without incident, Camping stood firm. He announced that he'd been virtually correct despite all evidence to the contrary: an invisible, "spiritual" judgment had in fact occurred, he said, and the world was still on schedule for destruction on October 21, 2011.
That day came and went, too, noticeably lacking in apocalypse. Months earlier, in July, Camping had suffered a stroke and was no longer broadcasting. He secluded himself in his Oakland home. He retired from his Family Radio role in October. Harold Camping stayed quiet.
Until this week. On Tuesday, Family Radio published an apologetic letter on its website in which Harold Camping admitted he was wrong, apologized to listeners, and promised to never again predict the day of God's Judgment.
"We have learned the very painful lesson that all of creation is in God's hands and He will end time in His time, not ours!" the letter reads. "We humbly recognize that God may not tell His people the date when Christ will return, any more than He tells anyone the date they will die physically."
While stating that some good may have come from the failed May 21 campaign—namely, that people began thinking and talking about the Bible—Camping's letter doesn't flinch from acknowledging the extent of his wrongness. He describes his own guarantee that Christ would return on May 21 as being not only incorrect, but immoral. "We tremble before God as we humbly ask Him for forgiveness for making that sinful statement," Camping writes.
He proclaims his own arrogance in thinking he knew the mind of God. He acknowledges that he misunderstood the Bible. He even compares himself to Balaam, a reviled figure in the Old Testament book of Numbers, whom God nevertheless uses to accomplish certain purposes among the Israelites. (Read the full statement here.)
I'm stunned. With this letter, Camping has totally gone off-script. From William Miller and Charles Taze Russell in the 19th century to Hal Lindsey and Edgar Whisenant in the latter part of the 20th century, doomsday prophets rarely admit to being wrong. Rather than apologize or own up to their mistakes, they simply "recalculate" and announce another upcoming doomsday.
In fact, that's how Camping himself settled on his 2011 doomsday. He began pushing it not long after his first rapture predictions—September 6, 1994, followed by September 29, 1994, and then October 3, 1994, and then March 31, 1995—fizzled out. Camping dedicated more than 15 years of his life toward promoting the May 21, 2011, rapture.
That's what makes his contrite letter so surprising. False prophets may admit to getting the math wrong, or misunderstanding God's personal communication to them, or misinterpreting "the signs of the times." But identify their failure as sin? Ask forgiveness? Display humility? Announce they're no longer in the apocalypse-prediction game?
It just doesn't happen.
For that reason—even as a constant critic of doomsday prophets in general and Camping specifically—I applaud Mr. Camping. I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of his humble contrition. The tone of his letter indicates someone whose faith has been shaken, who feels remorse, and who is grasping for something positive to take from his public failure. He labels it a "painful lesson." He's right.
I almost feel sorry for him, though there is still plenty to criticize. His apology doesn't address the plight of his many disillusioned followers, many of whom abandoned their jobs or wasted their life savings to promote Camping's doomsday. He doesn't own up to his role in the broken families left in the wake of a quixotic end-times obsession, or the fear his proclamations caused among the young or gullible. He admits no responsibility for the damage done to the faith of those followers who staked everything on Camping's guarantee. His arrogant pronouncements may not have been criminal, but they weren't victimless either.
My sense of justice still wants him to be held accountable for these things—ethically, morally, and even financially.
But my humanity, on a spiritual level, compels me to accept his apology.
It doesn't make things better, but it's a first step. And it's a step far beyond what any of us expected.
Jason Boyett is the author of several books, including Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse and the new e-book Pocket Guide to 2012: Your Once-in-a-Lifetime Guide to Not Completely Freaking Out, available on Kindle and Nook. Follow him on Twitter @jasonboyett.