A Restless Remnant

News of COVID-19 vaccines being developed have brought a sense of optimism in some but in others fears bordering on conspiracy theories. Not surprising, Adventists have joined the fray and have given the issue an eschatological twist. Without delving into some of these conspiracy theories, it is clear that COVID-19 has exposed Adventism’s entanglement with conspiracy theories. Adventism’s history is replete with conspiracy theories which have included secret connections between U.S. presidents and the popes, Jesuit infiltration of the General Conference, secret societies, ecumenical collusion, changes in the church logo, and recently COVID-19, which has been labelled a precursor or dress rehearsal to the mark of the beast. This raises the often-ignored question on why Adventism seems to have an insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories? What is it in us that makes us vulnerable?

A Revelation of the Remnant

The concept of the remnant is very dear to Adventists. According to the retired church theologian Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, it plays a role in our self-understanding, mission, and message. The conviction that there is a particular divine reason for our presence in the world makes the idea of the remnant an existential question for Adventism. This explains the sensitivity around the remnant motif which makes any attempt to de-emphasize or ignore this fundamental self-definition sacrilegious.

Tied to this is a strong belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Our self-designation as the remnant is premised on the shortness of time (Jesus’ second coming) and persecution (Revelation 12:17). Thus, for years Adventists have seen themselves as the remnant who bear a special message and will be the subject of Satan’s attacks in the last days. Consequently, we have read ourselves in the book of Revelation, using various passages to showcase our place and part in end-time Bible prophecy. In a sense, we have made the Book of Revelation to be more of a revelation of the remnant than Jesus himself. As we exerted our energies in proving our place and identity in the book, our experience in the end of time, our persecutors and final victory we have relegated Christ to the margins. In accentuating our identity, we have reduced mission to a critique of other denominations.

Without debating the remnant motif itself, the critique here is that an excessive focus on oneself as a victim breeds suspicion about everyone else. An approach to apocalyptic prophecy that places excessive emphasis on ourselves creates an “us versus them” mentality. Rather than use prophecy to connect and embrace people in a way that leads them to Christ, we end up manipulating it to accentuate our corporate ego. We become eloquent in explaining events around the coming of Jesus while failing at exhibiting His love which is the greatest mark of the remnant. Unwittingly, we run the risk of missing the person in the Book of Revelation as we focus on our experience during the coming crisis. Corporate narcissism is addictive; not only does it create an inflated sense of indispensability, but it increases vulnerability to conspiracies.

A Remnant Under Attack

Since the concept of the remnant has come with an emphasis on persecution, we have been painting ourselves as eternal victims of Satan’s attacks. As a result, we are always on the lookout for anything that suggests or points to Sunday laws and persecution. As one African pastor said, “we have become notoriously eschatological and incurably apocalyptic where anything and everything new is viewed as apocalyptic eschatology.”

In our understanding of end-time events, the book Great Controversy by Ellen White occupies a special place. It predicts a national Sunday law in the United States as the trigger moment that will unleash a series of end-time events which will culminate in the second coming of Jesus. Among these includes Protestants in America playing a pivotal role in ushering in Sunday laws, a return to papal domination, and persecution of Sabbath keepers. With this emphasis, many Adventists are raised to be suspicious of Catholics, critical of other denominations, apprehensive of U.S. presidents and popes, but so sure about their place in the Book of Revelation. While we have been alert to any move in the U.S. or Vatican that could trigger Sunday laws, we have unwittingly become vulnerable to speculation and conspiracy theories. Excessive focus on the “last crisis” and rigid apocalypticism unfortunately breeds some sort of fatalism. We end up viewing the Catholic Church, Protestantism, and the United States of America and their role in ushering in Sunday laws as fixed. Our role becomes that of digging up evidence to confirm their place on the wrong side.

The Remnant and Sunday laws

Many who quote Ellen White’s writings on Sunday laws often overlook the point that during her time, the world was divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. This was also a time when politicians in the U.S. at the state level and the national level were doing all they could to enforce Sunday observance through the famous Blair Sunday Rest Bill pushed by the National Reform Association. Adventists, and notably Alonzo T. Jones, in the late 1880s vigorously challenged this move which was seen as a fulfilment of Revelation 13. During this period, Ellen White wrote,

“I have been much burdened in regard to movements that are now in progress for the enforcement of Sunday observance. It has been shown to me that Satan has been working earnestly to carry out his designs to restrict religious liberty. Plans of serious import to the people of God are advancing in an underhand manner among the clergymen of various denominations, and the object of this covert maneuvering is to win popular favor for the enforcement of Sunday sacredness.” —Ellen White, Review and Herald, Extra, December 24, 1889.

At a time when Adventists were being jailed for not “resting” on Sunday, one can sense an ominous sense of urgency in her statements which include “soon-coming conflict” (GC 592), “movements now in progress” (GC 573), “In the events now taking place is seen a rapid advance toward the fulfilment of the prediction…” (GC 579), “The Sunday movement is now making its way in darkness. The leaders are concealing the true issue” (5T 452), “Protestants are working in disguise to bring Sunday to the front” (5T 449), “We have been looking many years for a Sunday law to be enacted in our land, and now that the movement is right upon us…” (LDE 125).

It is noticeable that the use of the present tense and earnestness in her tone reveals a reference to something immediate and imminent during her time. At the same time, as Catholics from Europe were moving into the United States, it is easy to pick up in her writings strong language including “popish,” “popery,” and “Romish,” revealing the prevailing attitudes toward Catholicism. Consequently, it should not surprise us that the scenario projected in Great Controversy and her other writings is deeply embedded in the religio-political issues of the 1880s, a point which many ignore. Taken out of context, these statements become fodder for conspiracy mongers. They are manipulated outside their context into conspiracy theories with news headlines used to back them up.

Even though the Sunday Law was never passed in her day, it does not cast doubt on her inspiration but rather, as Jon Paulien puts it, “logically positions her predictions in the realm of classical prophecy” which is conditional. The story of Jonah presents a classic example of how God can turn an unambiguous prophecy of doom into a conditional one, thus defying human expectation. Maybe its high time we move away from a rigid distinction between classical prophecy and apocalyptic prophecy and allow God to work in His own way. It is by taking White’s statements outside of their context, rigidly clinging to a certain fulfilment of prophecy, that we have become vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

A Restless Remnant

Adventist pioneers were persuaded that Christ was about to return and that the final crisis was about to begin. They had witnessed the signs of the end, experiencing rejection by other Christians, and somehow felt that dragon was angered against them as a small remnant. But here we are over 175 years after 1844, and the context has changed. As Adventism has become more institutionalized and the element of urgency has slowly waned as interest in religion is waning, secularism is growing, and religious exclusiveness is no longer tolerated. This has made it difficult for the remnant to keep portraying itself as an object of attack by other Christians or by civil powers.

However, that the context today is far more different than what our pioneers faced has largely been ignored. Our vulnerability to conspiracy theories can only be cured when we begin to critically examine our long-held positions. We have inherited a defensive motif such that our doctrinal beliefs are presented with an opposing audience in mind. Our fixation with detailed predictions has reduced us to a crisis-centered people. Our history aptly confirms how futile it is to hinge our relationship with God on a coming crisis or event. Ours should be a faith and a message that need no crisis or predictions to propel it. A conspiracy theory driven faith is exhausting as much as it is restless.

 

Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11068
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Yes, Adventism has a big problem. Advent theology is about Adventism.

Right on target.

The only remedy is to rework the Adventist very reason for existing. We have to stop focusing on our specialness and identify with the rest of humanity.

We made a mistake during the inception of the denomination - let’s admit it and move on, joining hands with all sincere Christians, looking for rest, peace and redemption.

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Amen brother. I have said that not all prophecy is conditional. And if we believe this must happen before Christ returns, and this doesn’t happen, will we be ready for his return?

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Jesus’s own apocalyptic discourse in Mt. 24, shows that the signs that so many Adventists keep pondering are actually non signs. They do not indicate the end. It’s there in the passage. They are actually part and parcel of the present order of things in this world…wars, rumors of wars, famines, pestilence, etc., so don’t be shaken by them. His parables in Mt. 25 indicate that his coming could be sooner or later than his disciples and followers would think. His message to them was, " Always be ready." To sign watchers of his day, in Luke 17, he said, “The kingdom doesn’t come with your careful observances, but the kingdom of God is already in your midst.”

There is a continual tension between the now and the not yet of God’s reign on the earth. Traditional SDAism has been preoccupied with the not yet, and the timing and signs pointing to it all. I think these stories of Jesus cut right to the heart of the matter in such a religious culture.

The timing is immaterial, faithfulness for the short or long haul is what counts. The signs, and scoping them out, won’t do one iota in bringing the kingdom, or making people fit for it. Instead, it’s by participating in the kingdom as it is presently here, in our midst, by joining with Jesus and his people in words and acts of love, truth, upholding justice, and showing mercy and kindness, that we make the kingdom of God a present reality, on earth as it is in heaven. This is a signpost pointing into the mist, to the full fruition of the kingdom, when Jesus appears…whenever that may be.

Adventism, its eschatology, and its self identity, needs to be totally rethought.

Thanks…

Frank

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We Seventh-day Adventists should rethink the Sunday Law prophecy, as it has resulted in unfortunate consequences for our faith community, as follows:

  1. Because the predicted Sunday Law has not occurred and will not occur in the foreseeable future, SDAs no longer believe that Jesus is coming soon. SDAs should believe, as Scripture teaches, that Jesus could come tomorrow like a thief in the night. Instead, SDAs believe that Jesus can not come and will not come until the Sunday Law has occurred. This unbiblical belief denudes the biblical doctrine of the Second Coming of relevance, vitality, and power.
  2. The author of this excellent essay makes the astute point that the Sunday Law prophecy of Ellen White is historically conditioned. Our historical context is different than the historical context of Ellen White. Accordingly, we are challenged by different final tests than what challenged her and her contemporaries. Fixation on an imaginary final test (the Sunday Law) has lead SDAs to ignore (and fail) real final tests. One of those final tests that many SDAs have already ignored and failed is Donald Trump, an anti-Christ. Numerous SDAs by virtue of their vote for him have already apostatized and that apostasy stands irrespective of how they might respond to a Sunday Law in the future.

It is important to understand that prophecy is a text. Interpretation of texts is the focus of hermeneutics. Prophecy, like all other texts, is historically conditioned, even though it appears to have a transcendent quality that is seemingly absent in other types of texts. By the way, categorizing prophecy as “classical” or “apocalyptic” is hermeneutical error, or more precisely, the sort of error one commits if one does not understand hermeneutics. Once SDAs begin to learn hermeneutics, interpreting prophecy (and other texts) will be less difficult.

  1. Fixation on the Sunday Law prophecy has resulted in the transformation of many SDA administrators, pastors, evangelists, and lay persons into crackpots and loony conspiracy theorists. By interpreting current events in light of their feverish imagination about a future Sunday Law, they have become ungrounded in factual reality. Right now, many such SDAs oppose combatting climate change based on their imagination about what the pope might do rather than based on the factual reality of what we will suffer if we do nothing.
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Are Adventists different from the many, many, more non-Adventists buying into these various conspiracy theories? Are we asking a fair question? If Adventists buy into these conspiracy theories because of certain beliefs how do we explain non-Adventists who buy into the same theories yet have never heard of our beliefs? Adventists buy into the theories because of blah-blah, but non-Adventists because of this other blah-blah?

There are others, non-Adventists, who are coming up with different conclusions which make much more sense. To me, with all due respect. :slight_smile:

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In this we agree. Both the bible and Ellen White are full of that message. As I read them anyway. I believe Revelation 18:4 states the same thing. Those people aren’t Adventists but they had heard the Holy Spirit and lived by it by caring for and doing for others. In reading the posts and comments of a certain group of Christians it appears that the election of Mr. Trump “called them out of” their various churches due to the position of those churches in regard to that person.

Personally I think it will be pretty cool to come on that day and see “heathen” who’ve never heard of Jesus but were humble and cared for others in that throng. To see the look on their faces when they did what was put in their heart to do without thinking of any reward. We Adventists, as well as Christians at large, are far too egotistical for own good.

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Thank you for the important insights in this excellent article. I believe we need perspective and careful study to fully understand our beliefs. Too many Adventists do not know that Ellen White came out of a place and time where there was widespread fear and antagonism toward Roman Catholics. Maine, where Ellen White was born and raised, had many Irish immigrants during her early life and that raised a strong anti-Catholic reaction.

The reminders about the importance of understanding prophecy as conditional are important. The social and religious culture today is vastly different than in Ellen White’s time.

And, I ask - did Jesus in Matthew 25 urge us to be afraid? Did He urge the preaching of fear and conspiracy? No! He taught us to be outward-focused on caring for others! It seems that too often Adventists have totally overlooked those teachings about who will be saved and turned their focus elsewhere.

If we truly trust God we need not live in fear. Rather, I want to live our Christlikeness in the present rather than thinking about self - where can I flee, how will we find food at the end, who is a “Jesuit”, etc.

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none of the adventists i know and circulate amongst have the kind of tendencies outlined in this article…all of us believe in egw like we believe in the bible, but we also believe that christ is the centre of all our belief systems…is our author perhaps articulating a motswana context, or perhaps a GOP american one…honestly, i don’t think canada, and in particular calgary, has this problem…

in fact i do see a parallel between those american adventists vulnerable to conspiracies - and that the mRNA covid vaccines are the mark of the beast is the ultimate conspiracy theory i’ve heard lately - and those who believe that the presidential election was stolen from trump, that storming the capital was a patriotic act, and that trump shouldn’t have been impeached either time…but this parallel is likely a reflection of a shared mental inability to form a balanced perspective…it’s hardly a valid indictment of egw, or any of our eschatological teachings…

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This quote assumes, or at least implies, that belief in conspiracies is necessarily wrong, if not inherently evil.

Further, this notion is accepted without question by many people on the left and the right as being fundamentally true and people who believe otherwise are immediately assumed to be necessarily insane and essentially inane.

This while both sides cling fervently to conspiracy theories of their own.

To not see the irony and hypocrisy in this is beyond funny to the point of being sad.

Further, skepticism has shown to be the most prudent course in any number of historical cases. Protestantism was a justifiable conspiracy against the papacy and inquisitions, The American Revolution was a rational conspiracy against the British Monarchy. Those who believed that Nixon was involved in a conspiracy to dupe Americans into thinking he was not a crook were eventually proven correct.

Which of the current conspiracies believed by the left or the right will one day be shown to be real?

This may never be known.

But the underlying assumption that conspiracy theories should be rejected out of hand simply because they do not conform to what some consider to be the mainstream dogma would mean that no one should have ever considered such “off the wall” ideas as Christianity, democracy, individual rights, slavery is bad, ad infinitum.

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Ellen White was not a prophet. Her Sunday Law “prophecy” was based on her reading of current events in the very narrow world of New England and upstate New York where anti-catholicism was at a fever pitch with the arrival of the “papist” immigrants from Ireland and Italy to Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

And Donald Trump was not and is not an “anti-Christ”. He is just another failed politician.

It is strange for a world-wide movement such as the SDA church to be so fixated on US politics. The US has only about 5% of the world’s population and only about 5% of the world’s SDA membership. Daniel and Revelation are not about popes and presidents, and they are most certainly not about the US and US politics.

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While it is true that Ellen White’s extremely narrow world was divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the world in Ellen White’s day was not so divided. In the 19th century there was also Orthodox Christian, Jew, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists and others. Ellen White focused on the US and Western Europe to the exclusion of the rest of humanity.

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You’re pointing to conspiracies that were out in the open and verifiable. The reformation, American Revolution, protests against the Vietnam war, etc., were public movements that were plain to see. Leaders worked together, or conspired together if you will, in order to effect change in society.

Fraudulent claims about stolen elections, liberal, satanic cabals engaging in child sex trafficking, deep state operatives that are seeking to make America into a communist country, multiculturalism as a propaganda tool to bring about a one world government, and belief in Jewish space lasers, are an entirely different animal.

This is where America finds itself today. The fact that many evangelical Christians buy into these types of conspiracy theories, partly or wholly, begs the question of how much does a religion that teaches an adversarial eschatology, including SDAism, and bathes its adherents in such a scenario of a final showdown attached to morality and culture wars, contribute to a susceptibility to believing conspiratorial distortions and fantasies, with no evidential basis, in general?

Beliefs that have now been causing grave damage to our society.

Thanks…

Frank

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So does the entire Adventist historicist way of reading Daniel and Revelation. It is centered in an American, EU scenario, and makes little to no sense for the rest of the world… outside of those surmising that the pope is behind a climate change agenda in order to enforce a world wide Sunday law. I’m sorry, but that one is just plain nuts!

Thanks…

Frank

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i think one difference between conspiracies and plausible alternatives is the intellectual quality of the theory itself, quite apart from how likely it is, given current vantage points, which is a separate question…in some of the trump conspiracies, for instance, namely that people with baseball bats can storm the capitol and reverse a certified national election, or that only votes that didn’t back trump, and from groups he regularly denigrated, were fraudulent, is risible on its face…

and people prone to such conspiracies generally demonstrate a pattern of attitudes and behaviour that separates them from others…ask yourself if an individual like jacob chansley, who wore the furry hat with horns at the capitol riot, and who has now transferred to the alexandria detention centre in order to access organic food as part of his shamanic belief system, is likely to spearhead anything inherently noble like the reformation, or the emancipation of slaves…

the problem over and over again, from koresh to trump, is that large swaths of people are born with substantial intellectual deficits and have little or no protection from themselves, or the people who prey on them…thankfully, and at this time, these people are still in the minority…

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Again with the projection, Jeremy and Frank.

For whatever reason, neither of you seems (or perhaps wants?!?!?) to understand that to judge others is to incriminate oneself.

As I’ve pointed out in previous comments, this assertion is not only an essential tenet of what Jesus reportedly taught but has been verified by modern psychology and poets throughout history.

That is, it seems there is no getting around the childish retort “I’m rubber and you’re glue, so what you say bounced off me and sticks to you.”

Thus, I have nothing to say to anyone who resorts to ad hominem attacks in an attempt to justify what are essentially his own, faith-based assertions and preferred conspiracies as the use of terms like “fraudulent” and “substantial intellectual deficits” have little interest for me except as they inform one about the nature of the person making the accusation.

If either of you can respond without resorting to this logical fallacy, I’d be more than happy to engage.

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Some historians claim that rather than being a prophetic message, John’s Revelations were written in code for the people of his own time and that early Christians would have understood his references on a matter-of-fact, “current events” basis, while reading nothing into his “dreams” beyond the message that they–and perhaps only they–could dechiper.

For example, John’s contemporaries may have had no doubt about the true identify of the person who’s number was 666. Instead, they probably knew this was John’s veiled reference to Emporer Nero and the notion that he was talking about some future “antichrist”, such as The Pope, Adolf Hilter, Donald Trump or any other personality-yet-to-come would have been considered laughable to them.

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It must be part of the naiveté of the American self identity. There was a M.A.S.H. episode where a US soldier was trying to explain something to a Korean peasant but having no luck making himself understood. Hawkeye suggested he “just speak a little louder”.

Even at 16 I thought it strange that a meteor shower over Portland Maine would be found in the Bible as a sign of the end of the world - the “dark day” as well.

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The devil is a deceiver turning the verses in the Bible for men’s destruction, we Adventist have been deceived by twisted EGW writings for our own destruction. What should awaken Adventist is the thought that regardless of negative things said about Catholics, they seem least bothered about what Adventist say neither has the Pope instituted legal actions on the SDA Church. If after all this poking, the devil is silent, it is imperative to think, Are we not in the same bus as the Catholics? The devil has deceived us with some of out twisted teachings, he wants us to be comfortable in error until the fulfillment of Jesus words…”Behold I come as a thief”,happens to the “remnants” Pharisees of today.

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i agree that there is such a thing as accusing someone of something when there’s more to accuse in one’s self, which is what jesus’ saying about the mote and beam in one’s eye refers to…but there’s also such a thing as calling something out that needs calling out, and that doesn’t reflect anything negative in the person doing the calling out…

there’s a judgement call capacity involved in this distinction, similar to the kind of capacity required when distinguishing between a meritless conspiracy and something that’s noble, although unpopular…

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