As I’m teaching a Sabbath School class one day, I refer in passing to the Three Angels Message. A young woman raises her hand. “I’m embarrassed to admit this,” she says. “All my life I’ve seen three angels associated with our church. I know they have something to do with the time of the end. But I don’t know what makes them important.” Some of the oldsters in the class claimed they had at least a basic grasp of the Three Angels’ Message. Most of the younger ones admitted they were in the same boat as the questioner: they knew it was eschatological, but not what the significance was.
They can be forgiven, I think, for not knowing. The number of sermons on these topics has diminished in recent years. And those sermons that are preached sand down some of the abrasive edges that the Adventist pioneers left there.
So, for what it’s worth, a primer on those three angels that you see pictured on church books and in our publications, for Seventh-day Adventists who don’t know (or have forgotten) what they meant to the founders of our church. We begin with the first angel, which John labels “another”.
Revelation 14:6 Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people— 7 saying with a loud voice, “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.”
Some commentators emphasize “the everlasting gospel” in this passage: that grace is really the heart of our message. To our pioneers the spotlight fell on the word “judgment”—specifically, that it had already begun in their time, as taught by the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8. This judgment was more than a general warning that Jesus was coming soon. Nor was it a future, public event—the Great White Throne of Revelation 20:11 was only a post-millennial formality for the damned. They taught that a closed-door judgment had begun in 1844 up in heaven, with the record of each individual’s life being inspected at this very moment. “He will examine the cases of each individual with as close and searching scrutiny as if there were not another being upon the earth. Every one must be tested, and found without spot or wrinkle or any such thing”. (The Great Controversy, page 490).
It is essential to understand that this judgment is happening in present time. “Beginning with those who first lived upon the earth, our Advocate presents the cases of each successive generation, and closes with the living. Every name is mentioned, every case closely investigated. Names are accepted, names rejected” (The Great Controversy, p. 483). What happens when all the dead are judged, and judgment passes to those of us still alive? According to the pioneers if, when your name comes up for judgment, you are not found “without spot or wrinkle,” you have no further chance for salvation.
This “close of probation” is a sort of eschatological predestination: you carry on with your life, but your spiritual choices no longer affect your salvation. When does probation close? Some said it happens all at once, others implied that it could happen individual by individual without warning, leaving you thinking you’re doing fine when you’re already lost, or conversely, still in doubt about your salvation when it is in fact already locked in.
This angel also introduces the other eponymous Seventh-day Adventist belief: in “worship him who made heaven and earth,” is the Sabbath, the memorial of a creator God. Its acceptance was a key point—perhaps the key point—in the judgment going on.
Revelation 14:8 And another angel followed, saying, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.”
This is more than a general warning about doctrinal error. To our pioneers it had a specific application: Babylon was the Papacy, and all nations being partners in her fornication referred not just to Roman Catholic believers, but to the Protestant churches (what Ellen White called “apostate Protestantism”) that held doctrines that can be traced back to Roman Catholicism, such as Sunday worship. The only hope was that the honest people among them would hear the call of Revelation 18:4 (“Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues”) and cross over to be with us.
Eventually, in their resentment, all reject and oppose us. This angel’s message and the one that follows fed the narratives familiar to 20th century young people of Adventist separation, persecution, and of fleeing and hiding from Catholic torturers and their Protestant and governmental allies.
Revelation 14:9 Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
The third angel’s message is usually summed up in the single phrase “the mark of the beast.” Our pioneers taught that the mark-giver was the lamblike or two-horned beast of Revelation 13:11-17, which they identified as the United States of America. Yet this beast was but a factotum of the first beast of Revelation 13:1-10, the Papacy, for the mark of the beast was Sunday worship. To the pioneers it meant that those who get this mark—that is, keep Sunday—will be lost. That is to say, in the time of the end not only Roman Catholics but all other Sunday-keeping Christians will not only be refused eternal life, but would be punished with unusual severity. Yes, our hymnals are full of their hymns, and we read their books. Still, not only are we right and the majority of Christians wrong, but having once been warned about the Sabbath, they cannot be saved if they don’t accept it.
Revelation 13:16-17 had already told us of the mark’s consequences to us: without it you couldn’t buy or sell, thus explaining one sort of persecution we suffer for keeping the Sabbath. In my youth there were some who said that credit or debit cards, even bank accounts, made us vulnerable to authorities who wanted to cut off economically anyone who kept the Sabbath, and they warned us against using them. Others thought the mark of the beast was a literal thing: an invisible barcode imprinted on people’s hands and foreheads.
The intensity of the message of the three angels has been attenuated in recent years. Some may be pleased about that, others disappointed. I know congregations that insist on hearing the unvarnished Three Angels’ Message, and others that would be upset should their pastor preach this part of historic Adventism, with its indictment of other Christians and notes of perfectionism and salvation uncertainty. But every Seventh-day Adventist should at least know what those three stylized angels in your church stained-glass window meant to those who first identified them as ours: 1. Judgement is going on now behind the scenes, and at some point while you’re still alive your access to salvation may be cut off whether or not you realize it, 2. Other Christians will be lost unless they leave their churches and join ours. 3. Sunday-keepers will be spectacularly punished, but not before they ostracize and persecute Sabbath-keepers at the behest of the Papacy and with the authority of the United States government.
Some Seventh-day Adventists choose not to believe the historic interpretation of this passage, or offer more palatable interpretations. But if you are among those Seventh-day Adventists who claim the high ground of doctrinal originalism, then you must proclaim the pioneers’ interpretations without spin or obfuscation. Nor can you obscure the truth until people can handle it, like Scientologists waiting to learn about Xenu. The messages of the three angels are meant to be heard by all humankind, not reserved for a handful of esotericists.
This separationist, martyrist identity may seem in tension with the highly organized, respectable, world-connected, cooperative-with-government church that we have now, with 20 million believers, billions in assets, a massive payroll, specialists in investments, law, insurance, and banking, world-renowned hospitals, universities and social-service agencies, media outreach, even recognition by world leaders. If end-time events unfold as the pioneers predicted, we may soon see if we are still as invested in this dystopian interlude predicted by the three angels as we were at the founding of our denomination.
 Only the third angel is referred to by number. In our publications I’ve seen this teaching denominated in both singular and plural: the Three Angels’ Message, or the three angels’ messages.
 A popular story when I was young, one often mentioned in Sabbath School class, was that Billy Graham knew we were right, and before the time of the end he would declare himself openly and join us. I heard it referenced to evangelist Emilio Knechtle, who claimed to be a personal friend of Graham’s.
 Though I think it was terrible PR for the church, inoculating whole cities against us, I give this much grudging respect to the Great Controversy mass mailers: at least they are stating plainly what they believe. I don’t think the same can be said for all church leaders.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6563