You will notice in the title that I said 'false prophecy' and not 'false prophet'. Now that the fervor regarding Camping's prediction that the Rapture will occur last May 21st, I feel it is time for some reasoned analysis. By that, I mean, reasoning according to the scriptures.
Whatever damage may have been by Camping's prediction, I think that there has been an overreaction by some in the church. None of wants the church,or the gospel, to be ridiculed because some goofball spouts off this way. We are rightfully concerned that the church and the Bible will be made a laughingstock by false predictions of the Return of Christ or the Rapture or whatever. Some, however, have too harshly judged and condemned the man for his foolishness.
That being said, we now must go back to the scriptures to see how the church ought to handle these things. First of all, I want to admit to not knowing a whole lot about this Camping fellow and what he preaches. I am unsure of exactly what he teaches nor his motives. So I will use the information that I have and go from there.
Based on incomplete information, I am not comfortable, at this point, calling him a false prophet. (Some of you may be upset with me at this point, but please keep reading.) You might ask, 'Doesn't his making a false prediction, especially regarding a future event in the Bible, automatically make him a false prophet?'. The answer to that is no.
Let me explain: If a person predicts something will happen based on his own study of the scriptures, they are not technically prophesying. They are teaching. I am not sure if Camping is basing his prediction on the Bible (wrongly interpreted) or if he is saying that he has had a special revelation from God. A prophecy is an inspired utterance. It is not the result of Bible study. If Camping is teaching in error, then he could be a foolish teacher and not a prophet at all.
But let's say that he is prophesying. How should we approach it? Many of us would turn to the Old Testament to find what it would say about false prophets. Deut 18:20-22 "The prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him."
According to Deuteronomy, a false prophet was to die. I realize that nobody is suggesting such a thing for Camping, so we agree that we are not to respond to false prophets in the way that they did under the Old Covenant. We should not, however, be afraid of him. He is not speaking in the Lord's name.
Let's look at Deut. 13:1-3a “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams." There is something different going on here. The point that Moses makes is that the coming to pass of the prophecy is not the most important issue, but whether or not the prophet is leading people away from the Lord.
This, I think, is the real key to calling someone a false prophet. Does their prophecy bring people closer to God or further away from Him? This puts a new light on this issue. It is too simplistic to say that Camping was wrong and, therefore, he is a false prophet. Is he leading people away from Christ? I honestly say that I don't know since I do not know all that he is teaching. If he is teaching heresy then he is a false teacher/prophet. If not, he may just be a confused believer. If his general teaching is orthodox, then we must consider him a brother in Christ even if some people discouraged from following Christ because of his error. (Have we not all done damage to the Kingdom of God because of our sin or foolishness?)
We need to go to the New Testament to find out what Christians ought to do with prophecies, both false and real. 1 Thess. 5:20-21 "Despise not prophesyings.
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." Apparently there was a misuse of prophecy in the church in Thessalonica. Paul, instead of banning all prophecy or condemning those who abused it, gave us sage and reasonable advice. He said to test all such things. Keep the good and throw away the bad.
He says nothing about making fun of false prophecies or excoriating those who do this. He tells us to simply judge the prophecy. Seems rather simple, doesn't it? No ranting about those who make foolish predictions. Rather the believer is to judge the prophecy, and those who give the prophecy must be humble enough to submit their prophecy to judgement without becoming haughty or offended.
So then, how do we judge prophecy? First and foremost by the Word of God. Does the prophecy line up with the Bible? If it does not, then the prophecy is easy to judge. Camping's prophecy falls under this category. Jesus said that we would not know the day nor the hour of His coming. Therefore, all such predictions are false.
Other prophecies are more difficult to judge. A prophecy may not contradict the Bible, but still be false. The next criteria is whether that prophecy gives glory to the Lord, or does it tend to draw us away. Many false prophets and teachers have used the Bible to exalt themselves and make themselves the center of their little group. We need to judge that as well.
Finally, does the prophecy bear witness with our spirits? All born-again believers have the inward witness (Romans 8:14) to help us know what is of God and what is not. We need to develop and cultivate the inward witness and become sensitive to God's Spirit. Just because something seems spiritual or exciting does not mean it is of God. (It's probably not the Devil either, but only the flesh.)
We need to remember as well that Paul also tells us to hold fast to that which is good. If a prophecy is from God, we have to embrace it. This is not, however, putting even a true prophecy on the level of scripture. All prophecy is subordinate to the Word of God. God may speak a true Word to you, but even that must be examined in light of scripture. Do not make some personal revelation into a doctrine. It could just be a Word for you and nobody else. We cannot expect others to follow what the Lord has shown you, unless you are in a position of authority and that Word is for the whole group. Then it still must be judged.
The person who gives a prophecy must not be haughty about it, and neither should those who judge the prophecy be haughty against those prophesying. None of us is perfect and we have all missed the mark regarding what the Lord has (supposedly) shown us.