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Despite his reach on the radio, Camping is a man who goes out of his way to avoid the limelight. He doesn't talk to the press, and even longtime associates know very little about the man's private life. What they do say, however, is that Camping is a completely stand-up guy. If there's a yellow light, he'll just about cause an accident slowing down for the red. He's also honest to a fault. Having made his fortune in construction, he accepts no salary from Family Radio. He lives modestly. Harold Camping, in other words, is no Jim Bakker.
"You will never get him on those things," says Pastor Jesse Gistand, a former confidant who understands Camping perhaps as well as anyone. "He's not your typical moneybagger -- the 'poor' preacher hiding all the money in his chest and living like some prince or king. It's not the case. He's on a mission that has nothing to do with his own personal financial gain. Nothing."
"He's sincere," concurs Dean Harner. "Sincerely wrong, but sincere."
In the 1980s, Camping belonged to the Christian Reformed Church of Alameda, but his increasingly influential doomsday teachings in its Sunday school were raising the hackles of church elders. Camping, they believed, was turning the Sunday school into a "para-church" whose views conflicted with the pastor's. When the elders pressured Camping to modify his teachings, he instead split from the church in 1987, bringing a large group of parishioners with him, and established the Alameda Bible Fellowship. Gistand was one of those parishioners, who went on to be one of Camping's right-hand men.
Yet things didn't exactly go smoothly. After September 6, 1994 came and went uneventfully, Gistand and other Camping followers hoped their leader would admit he'd been wrong and move on. Camping refused. "A lot of his family members left and took negative positions toward him after that," Gistand says. "He's suffered for what he's taught, believe me. But he has sort of stiffened his back and has taken a martyred position: 'I'm being persecuted for the truth.' And, you know, when you do that, you become utterly blind to any legitimate criticism and observation."
So Gistand himself moved on, leaving the Bible Fellowship and eventually starting the Grace Bible Church in San Leandro. "He had seven or eight good men who really cared about him during the time that we were trying to develop as a good, orthodox, Christian church," he says. "But once he started preaching his doctrine, he ran so far ahead that we couldn't restrain him."
One of the things that particularly irks the evangelical Christian community about Camping is his refusal to accept criticism or consider the views of his peers. "He's one of those people that doesn't have a lot of self-doubt," says theologian Tremper Longman III, who debated Camping in 1994 in front of 1,500 of the broadcaster's followers, back when Camping was still apparently open to debate. "I wouldn't use the word 'crazy,' but I would say that his obsession made him unbalanced as to his interpretation of the Bible. He has also set himself up in such a way that he doesn't listen to criticism."
Gistand now goes so far as to call his old colleague a cult leader. "I hesitated to call him one all the way up to the point that he started preaching the Dead Church Doctrine," he says, "because at that point he had entered another stage of the typical heretical prophecies that take place under eschatology. You set your date; your date doesn't come; you reinterpret what has happened -- spiritualize it, mythologize it -- and then finally just condemn everyone else as being lost."
Which is exactly what Harold Camping did in 2001. This time it wasn't about date-setting or eternal damnation. This time he was saying something that made even some of his most loyal supporters bristle: Quit your church.
According to the broadcaster, all churches -- Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, you name it -- have been taken over by Satan. "Certainly something strange is happening," begins Camping's manifesto, Has the Era of the Church Age Come to an End? "On the one hand we see churches everywhere becoming more and more apostate. Yet on the other hand we see a ministry like Family Radio becoming more and more useful to the Lord in sending the true Gospel into the world."
This latest crusade is in line with the broadcaster's doomsday obsession. His warning that today's congregations are veering astray signals his belief that the last days are approaching -- prior to Armageddon, the Bible says, there will be a "falling away" of the churches. And while Camping's 1994 prophecy fell flat, in his view one need only look around at the liberalization of Christian denominations to see that the churches have been defiled: women and gays in positions of authority, a departure from the conservative teachings he grew up with, a preponderance of bureaucratic or corporate churches, and "Christian" rock bands singing about Jesus -- and may God spare the poor souls who don't see the writing on the wall.
Camping's detractors, naturally, are having a field day, especially with his statements that Family Radio is one of the few entities that is still pure and blessed. It would be one thing if he were to say it to his own congregation during a Sunday sermon, but his following is estimated by some to be in the millions.
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