There are many conversations currently taking place among Seventh-day Adventists: conversations about women’s ordination, homosexuality, and evolution in our schools, as well as some of the old favorites like the nature of Christ, the nature of sin, standards, music in worship and so on.
But there is one conversation that Adventists are not having: mainly that Adventist theology is becoming less and less credible with every year that passes.
There was a time when Adventists placed a high value on having a rational belief system. We made every effort to offer sensible answers to legitimate questions put forth by critics. We believed that if Christianity was true, it should be supported by the weight of evidence. Today, however, it is becoming harder and harder for a rational person to see the logic of our theological framework.
Consider an intelligent, honest, well-educated person living in the first century A.D. and deciding to take an investigative look at the Jewish religion. It might appear that the claims of the religion are plausible:
- Israel is God’s chosen nation.
- Because of sin, the Lord has punished them by allowing their enemies to overpower them.
- The Messiah is coming, and He will set them free.
But then Jerusalem is destroyed and the Jews are scattered everywhere. They are oppressed for century after century with no sign of God’s favor or of a coming Messiah. As time passes, the narrative becomes harder and harder to swallow.
Accepting, however, that Jesus Christ is the Jewish Messiah resolves the dilemma: The Jews were in fact the chosen nation; the Messiah did come and set His people free, not from the Romans but from the slavery of sin.
However, by the modern era, Christianity itself had begun to pose its own dilemmas:
Jesus had claimed that He would establish His church and nothing would prevail against it. And yet the church bearing His name had kept the world in darkness for over a thousand years and had committed innumerable atrocities.
Moreover, Jesus had promised His disciples that He would go away, prepare a place for them, and return to take them unto Himself. And yet, almost two thousand years later, He still had not returned. Was it sensible to wait for a promise like this for millennia? Would people still wait if ten thousand years or fifty thousand years passed? But if not, what made two thousand years a more credible duration?
In an era of enlightenment and scientific advancement, these were the types of questions thinking people were asking of Christianity. And, for the most part, Christians could offer only cliché answers like “God does everything in His own time” or “To God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day.”
Adventists, on the other hand, had real answers. Using a prophetic framework we had inherited from the Reformers and William Miller (himself a converted skeptic) coupled with our own unique understanding of the great controversy and the sanctuary doctrine, we were able to resolve each of these dilemmas intelligently and persuasively.
For a rational, educated person holding legitimate concerns, our perspective was compelling:
- We had a method of prophetic interpretation that appealed to one’s intellect, that was not arbitrary in nature and that could be applied consistently across the board.
- Applying this hermeneutic made it evident that the Bible had, centuries before Christ, predicted the apostasy of the Christian church, predicted that God’s people would be in hiding and predicted that this apostasy would last for almost thirteen centuries.
- We could show that Christ’s second coming was not meant to take place until after this apostasy period, no earlier than the mid-1800s. So, for a denomination that was forming at that very time in history, we could demonstrate persuasively that Christ’s second coming was still exactly on schedule.
More than this, making use of our sanctuary and great controversy doctrines, we could even explain just why Jesus had waited so long to return. This explanation gave unprecedented force to our preaching regarding the nearness of Christ’s second coming. Even though almost two millennia had passed since the ascension, we had very good reason to be confident that now, at last, the end truly was near.
The Problem of Christ’s Delay
As with the Jews, the passing of time poses a serious challenge for our prophetic interpretation. The very theological framework that gave power to our preaching in the nineteenth century brings the soundness of our theology into question today.
Let’s think for a minute on what grounds early Adventists were so confident that the return of Christ was just around the corner.
Through the great controversy doctrine we came to understand that God placed a high value on the individual’s freedom of will. In fact, free choice was so important to God that He would rather endure Calvary than tamper with or manipulate our choices in any way. At the same time, we knew that God had no intention of allowing sin to rise up a second time after Christ’s return. In order to prevent this without compromising free choice, He allowed this earth’s sinful history to continue long enough for sin’s ugliness to be revealed in its every respect.
God’s sensitive heart has been in constant turmoil since the inception of sin. But He needed to accumulate enough data regarding its character to protect the well-being of the universe throughout the endless bounds of eternity. If ever there were risk of another rebellion, there would be some scenario on earth that He could point to as an example of where such rebellion would lead. And there would also be people in heaven who had lived through the experience and could testify of this as well.
So Christians throughout the centuries waited and hoped for the return of the Savior but did not understand that the security of the universe would be placed in jeopardy if God ended world affairs any sooner than the predetermined time (Rev. 6:9-11). It is for this reason that the end did not happen during the lifetime of Adam and Eve, as they very likely expected. Neither did it happen throughout the history of Israel or at Christ’s first coming or even a few decades or centuries immediately after.
The apostle Paul was well aware of this and warned the early church:
Now we beseech you, brethren, touching the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him; to the end that ye be not quickly shaken from your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by epistle as from us, as that the day of the Lord is just at hand; let no man beguile you in any wise: for it will not be, except the falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, ASV).
In the Old Testament book of Daniel we were told that this “falling away” and the reign of the “man of sin” would not begin until several centuries after Christ and would last for over a millennium. Finally, in the eighth chapter of Daniel, it was revealed that the amount of time God had set aside for this data collection process would end with the year 1844. By then, God would be able to accumulate sufficient evidence to safeguard the universe throughout the rest of eternity, and there would no longer be a reason to prolong the great controversy further. The purpose for which Christ’s second coming had been delayed for so many centuries would finally be accomplished, and now God could begin the closing work and bring an end to suffering and sin at last.
The very reasoning that resolved the dilemma of Christ’s delay and gave unprecedented force to our end-time preaching in the 1800s is what makes our position so difficult to defend today, a century and a half later. Not just this, but with every decade that passes, that difficulty increases. It is one thing to be really late for an appointment. It is a whole other thing to call, provide a good explanation for being late, promise to be there immediately, and then again not show up for several hours more. Because we did have very good reason to expect Christ’s return during the lifetime of our pioneers, the passing of several generations since then brings the soundness of our theology into question today.
Why We Can’t Ignore This Dilemma
Now some might read this paper and interpret it as an attack on the church. In fact, to some, it will even be a welcomed attack. But to such I would say, don’t be so ready to abandon a rational belief system the minute you run into some theoretical difficulties, since there really aren’t very many rational alternatives out there. That being said, this is not a question that our denomination can just continue to ignore. Either our theology is wrong, in which case we should fix it or abandon it altogether, or WE are wrong. In other words, there is something we as a denomination have done, or maybe failed to do, that has forced God to delay His coming even beyond the necessary delay that He had scheduled.
At the present time, the Adventist Church and the majority of its members take the position that, while we did expect Jesus to come sooner, God still holds the times and seasons in His own hands and knows exactly when He plans to return. Things are still exactly on schedule, and our job is to continue to hope and to preach of His soon coming. But, to a rational person, this position appears completely absurd.
Just consider that God placed certain prophecies in Scripture millennia in advance, leading William Miller and thousands of his followers to expect Christ’s return in 1844. And this group was terribly disappointed.
Out of the aftermath of that disappointment God led our pioneers to discover an alternative explanation for those same prophecies, bringing them to the conclusion that the element keeping the great controversy from ending had finally been resolved by 1844. As a result, they also were led to believe that they were living on the very brink of eternity.
Instead, generation after generation has passed since then, as well as world wars and unprecedented atrocities—and all this when God’s work had already been completed a century and a half ago? At what point do we acknowledge that the logic of it all just doesn’t quite add up?
Sometime during those early years Ellen White even had a vision where she was told that certain people attending a camp meeting would be alive until Jesus came. Because everyone mentioned in that vision has since died, the White Estate published an explanation (see here) pointing out that Adventists have always understood the promises of God to be conditional, including the promise of the second coming. The following passage from Ellen White’s own writings is quoted:
It was not the will of God that the coming of Christ should be thus delayed. God did not design that His people, Israel, should wander forty years in the wilderness. He promised to lead them directly to the land of Canaan, and establish them there a holy, healthy, people. But those to whom it was first preached, went not in “because of unbelief.” Their hearts were filled with murmuring, rebellion, and hatred, and He could not fulfill His covenant with them.
For forty years did unbelief, murmuring, and rebellion shut out ancient Israel from the land of Canaan. The same sins have delayed the entrance of modern Israel into the heavenly Canaan. In neither case were the promises of God at fault. It is the unbelief, the worldliness, unconsecration, and strife among the Lord’s professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and sorrow so many years (Ms 4, 1883, quoted in Evangelism, pp. 695, 696).
To explain why the people Ellen White had talked about did not live to see Jesus come as she had foretold, the White Estate made use of a passage placing on our own church the responsibility for delaying Christ’s coming beyond what was originally intended. But this idea of a second, church-caused delay is not a fancy concept we can make use of in our apologetics and then just ignore. It carries with it serious implications that we must confront.
In essence, our denomination is forced to choose today between two very difficult options: either we were wrong about 1844 and surrounding themes, in which case a central pillar of our theological framework crumbles, or we have in some way moved God to delay His coming beyond even what He considered necessary.
If the former, we should probably ask ourselves if we even have a reason to exist as an independent denomination anymore. Without 1844, are we different enough from other churches to justify remaining separate?
If the latter—if this time WE are the ones responsible for the delay—can we really continue on without stopping to figure out what we’re doing wrong? Just consider all the atrocities humanity has endured in the past century and a half. If we don’t make an effort to figure out our mistakes and correct our course, doesn’t that imply that we will make ourselves responsible for many more atrocities? In essence, the question we should be asking ourselves is: Are we doing today anything significantly different than what has been done all this time by previous generations of Adventists? And if not, why would we expect different results?
I would propose that a theology of church-caused delay is the only hope we have left for a rational Adventism (or even a rational Christianity for that matter). Such a concept demands that we drop all the nonsensical conversations and debates that preoccupy our time and figure out how to resolve this issue first. Part two of this article attempts to do just that: to identify what went wrong and how things can be corrected.
Please read, The Conversation Part II – How to fix Adventism