In 1843, people sold their homes and businesses in anticipation of the imminent return of Christ. They were the followers of William Miller, a self-taught Bible student from New York. Miller understood the 2,300 days of Daniel 8:14 to refer to the number of years until the return of Christ. Previously, scholars had agreed that this prophecy was fulfilled in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. But Miller insisted that it would be fulfilled in his day.
In 168 B.C., just as God had prophesied through Daniel, the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes entered Jerusalem to punish the Jews. He put an end to sacrifices at the temple, and rededicated the temple to Zeus. Daniel 8:14 does not literally refer to 2,300 "days" (KJV, NKJV), but to 2,300 "evenings and mornings" (NASB, NIV, ESV). From the time that Antiochus entered Jerusalem until the temple was cleansed and proper sacrifices were reinstituted, roughly 2,300 days passed. The number of evening and morning sacrifices that were prevented totaled roughly 2,300 (of each). Either reading of the text, then, finds fulfillment in history.
Nonetheless, William Miller believed that the cleansing of the temple mentioned in Daniel 8 was the purification of the earth by fire at Christ's second coming. Miller assumed that all prophecies referring to "days" must mean "years." Adding 2,300 years to the time of Daniel's prophecy gave Miller a date for Christ's return between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. He began to teach this view and gained a wide following in the northeastern United States.
Despite the great excitement that Miller generated, March 21, 1844, came and went without the return of Christ. Miller was devastated, but one of his followers went back through the calculations and found what he believed to be an error. A new date was set: October 22, 1844.
When October 1844 did not pan out, either, some of Miller's followers abandoned the movement. Many, however, tried to find a new explanation. They were too embarrassed to admit their error. They had invested too much to be wrong. Ellen G. White eventually founded the Seventh-day Adventists, leading them to the conclusion that Jesus had returned invisibly in 1844, and that he would soon make his presence known visibly. Another group that tried to hold to the 1844 date was led by Jonas Swendahl; they were known as the Second Adventists. They believed that 1844 marked the date, not of Jesus' return, but of the beginning of the last generation. Swendahl taught that Jesus would return in 1874.
One of Swendahl's followers was a former Presbyterian named Charles Taze Russell. When 1874 came and went, Russell concluded that thirty years was not long enough for a generation. So he added seventy years to 1844 and concluded that Jesus would return in 1914. This and other differences led him to split from the Second Adventists and to launch Zion's Watchtower and Herald of Christ's Presence. His followers became known as the International Bible Students, and they went about the country with the message, "Millions now living will never die!" His followers were to leave their churches and fellowship together. All churches were considered apostate, but God had supposedly provided a new channel for their instruction, Zion's Watchtower Tract Society.
What began as the International Bible Students has become the Jehovah's Witnesses. The date of 1914 was changed to 1925, then to 1941, and then to 1975. What began as calling Christians out of their churches to prepare for Christ's return became an anti-Christian cult. I believe we are seeing something very similar happening today.
In 1992, Harold Camping published the book 1994? Like Miller, he rejected the historic understanding of Daniel 8. The prophecy clearly describes the rise of the kingdom of Greece under Alexander the Great and the division of his empire among four successors. But instead of seeing the prophecy as fulfilled then, Camping transported its fulfillment to our own day. Like the Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses, he focused on the "hidden" meanings of texts, seeing pointers toward 1994 in the number of swine drowned in the Sea of Galilee and in the number of servants in Abraham's house. Camping introduced 1994? with the following statement: "No book ever written is as audacious or bold as one that claims to predict the timing of the end of the world, and that is precisely what this book presumes to do." No matter how audacious or bold, it was wrong. September 6, 1994, came and went.
Camping seemed to back away from his false prophecy, but he has now decided that he was right all along. It was too bitter a pill to swallow to be wrong. Like the Jehovah's Witnesses, he says that 1994 wasn't the wrong date. We just have to add seven years to it! Like Russell, he is now telling Christians to leave their churches. All the churches are apostate. You should no longer trust your pastors and elders. You should abandon them and turn to the true channel of God's Word, Family Radio. Like Jehovah's Witnesses, you should simply fellowship together and await word from Oakland.
In these new fellowships, there is to be no discipline, no baptism, no communion, and no authority apart from Family Radio's interpretation of the Bible. Mr. Camping rejects 1 Corinthians 11:26, which says that we are to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. He rejects Christ's clear teaching that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church (Matt. 16:18). With even greater certainty than he had in 1994, Mr. Camping now tells us to abandon the elders whom Christ has provided to watch over our souls (Heb. 13:17), to shepherd his flock (1 Peter 5:1-3), and to feed his sheep (Acts 20:28-31). Do we no longer need shepherds other than Mr. Camping? Do we no longer need men to watch over our souls? Do we no longer need to be reconciled to our brothers (Matt. 18:15-17)? If we do, which church is to do the judging? Is Mr. Camping our pope, who will judge for us?
Harold Camping may not be the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society, but he builds on the same wrongheaded interpretations of Scripture, the same date-setting, the same recalculations, the same accusations of universal apostasy, and the same claim to be the last true channel of God's Word. Despite the differences, both are heretical and schismatic, tearing apart Christ's church.
We do live in a day of great apostasy. Churches do more often than not resemble circuses and stage shows, but the church has always had these troubles. The church has also always had predatorsincited by the ancient predator (Rev. 12-13)who point out these problems in order to pry people away from the body of Christ and into their groups. The Jehovah's Witnesses rightly point out the pagan origins of Christmas and Easter celebrations, only to lead people into much greater error. Now is the time to earnestly pursue faithfulness, not to opt for just another form of apostasy.
Like the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mr. Camping accuses anyone who disagrees with him of not really believing the Bible. He accuses them of making an idol of their church. The true idol here is Mr. Camping. Will Christians read the Bible for themselves and search the Scriptures to know if these things are true, or will they blindly follow Mr. Camping into yet another false prophecy? And what will be the result for them if they do?
The author is the pastor of Christ OPC in Salt Lake City, Utah. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2002.