The Gospel of Disappointment

(system) #1

October 22, this year and every year--a teachable moment for those who have lived in hope for something that hasn’t yet happened.

Today is the 170th anniversary of what Adventists and the progeny of the religious movements that we euphemistically call “The Great Disappointment.” Talk about an understatement. It was closer to “The Great Annihilation of Hope,” or “The Great Theological Mistake Big Enough to End the Whole Discussion” or “The Great Challenge that If It Doesn’t Break You Will Make You Stronger.”

Turns out it wasn’t the first time Christians had been majorly disappointed. As great as the disappointment might have been for those in the middle of it, it was nothing compared to the twin fundamental challenges faced by first century Christians.

For them, the first extraordinary disappointment was the execution of Jesus Christ by those in power. Their beloved leader was killed. Dead. Pretty hard to come back from that. (Cue the resurrection.)

The second disappointment, the same one faced by the early Adventists, was that after the miracle of his resurrection and his ascent into heaven, he didn’t come back like he said he would. Even though he had promised. And even though people—and this is important—were doing everything they could to cause him to come back, it didn’t change anything. For some, this disappointing set of circumstances meant cutting their losses, bailing out, and never looking back. But for the ones persuaded that Jesus was someone unlike anyone they had ever encountered before that wasn’t an option. So they tried to make some sense of it.

The various apostles and writers of the New Testament dealt with it differently:

For Mark, writing nearest to the death of Christ, it was an opportunity to understand the dynamic of the messianic secret ("Who do men say I am?"), and to embrace the mystery of this extraordinary and unprecedented occurrence: God with us. I think we can see this is exemplified in Christ’s relationship with Martha.

For Matthew it was living lives that were so enthused with Christ that the disciples became Christ to the world, and had the same impact on those whose lives they touched as Christ had had on theirs. ("Go ye therefore and make disciples."). This is exemplified, perhaps, in Christ’s relationship with the woman at the well.

For Luke it was the search for meaning in history and the continued search for the ultimate redemption of humankind (“But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel"). This is exemplified in part by Christ’s relationship with Mary, his own mother.

For Paul, who was not one of the twelve, it was the paradox of the Gospel (Jesus' death was a part of God's mysterious plan; the weakest moment is actually the strongest; through his death, not his life, he has saved the world.) This is demonstrated in the relationship Jesus had with Mary Magdalene. For Peter, it was coming to a profound understanding of God’s true purpose (“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”). His take is my favorite, and demonstrated by what the New Testament calls the Bride of Christ, for which Peter had special responsibility.

And finally, for John, the dissonance and disappointment is resolved in the personal search for meaning in the knowledge of Jesus himself (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.") This is the framework through which those who believe in Jesus were to present his claims of Lordship, and his gracious love, to the world in which they would be living. With this cloud of witnesses, what was the Great Disappointment can also be understood as a transformational spiritual moment in the lives of those who have had to confront disappointment—as advocates of equality in ministry are being forced to do right now.

Mark and Martha call us to embrace the unknown circumstances of our journeys to be disciples. Matthew and the woman at the well call us to exemplify in our own lives the gracious character of Christ himself. Luke and the Madonna ask us to look beyond the present moment to the horizon of our hopes, treasuring in our hearts that which is unattained but not unknown.

Paul and Mary Magdalene call us to treasure the mystery of salvation in our hearts, and the upside-down-ness of a world where the weakest are actually the strongest, and the shadow of death is vanquished not by the sword, but by the unquenchable, passionate light of love, howbeit small. Peter calls us to be the church of Christ’s imagination—the bride who waits with patience and the fidelity.

And John, the beloved, reminds us that our life in Christ announces his saving grace to the whole world—even those who are experiencing disappointment and disillusionment.

I was one of the producers of the General Conference's broadcast from the William Miller Farm in 1994. I got to spend a lot of time clamoring around the place and researching and developing the scripts and the show itself. It was a very cathartic experience for me, realizing that we weren't so much marking the date itself as celebrating the way the people of that time eventually turned that bitter disappointment into a transformational experience.

If we look at October 22 as a transaction on the cosmic timeline, it is nothing more than an embarrassingly wrong date marking all the wrong assumptions and conclusions. But if we look at it as a moment of profound learning, there is the possibility that it can serve as a marker for where all of our understandings turned a corner. So while October 22 is not a celebration, it’s not exactly a disappointment either. Call it a milestone.

The journey continues.

Ray Tetz is the president and creative director of Mind Over Media, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Title Image: The William Miller Home in Whitehall, NY.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Stewart) #2


Thank you, I enjoyed reading the article.

I am curious though. In your view was October 22 the correct date? I mean, was it the end-marker of the 2300 years? I couldn’t really tell from what you were saying.

(Frank Peacham) #3

One thing you missed. The difference between the disappointed disciples was the frequent warnings Jesus gave as to his pending death and resurrection. However, consider that their disappoint was just a few hours and then joy flooded them. Whereas, Miller and company are still wondering, waiting for some conformation.

What has happened since 1844? First earnest fervor for the Return as significantly slacked and in its place has arisen big church business, highly paid administrators who create programs to inspire believers. I wondered if this is what Miller envisioned would come as the results of his ministry?

(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

The problem with your thesis is, the corrective following the disappointment is a greater by many magnitudes than the first esesigetic proposition of Miller et al.
Christ formally took the role of our a high priest at His ascension, in the Most Holy a place in the universe, not Oct 22, 1844. the IJ is diabolical in all of its extensions that constitute Adventist ethos. Tom Z

(Cfowler) #5

The whole mess went from disappointment, to embarrassment, to heresy.


Ray: Don’t you think it’s time?

(Rheticus) #7

I was reading only yesterday a description of the effect of the Black Death as it swept through Europe.

So often SdA point at calamities in the news and act as if they prove the Second Coming is near. The level of ignorance required to support this position is easily attained by most people in the world.

To be ignorant of history is to fail to know your place in it, and thus easily become a victim of people who wish to manipulate you by misrepresenting that place.

(Greg Prout) #8

nicely done. your angle about this event was helpful, but it leads me to a bigger question: why hasn’t Jesus returned? when you read the gospels, He was returning soon, so soon some of those standing there would see Him. but no such thing happened (as we all know too well).

Was Jesus wrong? did He promise something which He could not deliver? (Only the Father knows the day and hour). if so, that’s a problem, and coupled with the fact it has been over 2000 years, leads me to question and wonder. yes, i am one of those who is becoming doubtful about His appearing. (another reason for faith, i suppose).

think about it, what in God’s name it taking Him so long? what’s the purpose? the old pat answers fail to explain anymore. ‘waiting for the church to gets its gospel right,’ or ‘waiting for everyone to hear our befuddled message’ no longer hold water. they fail the logic test.

we’ve been preaching a ‘soon return’ for over 150 years. not so soon from our perspective. i know a day is like a 1000 years to God, but it is we who have to make sense of a ‘behold, i come quickly.’ rarely do we hear sermons about a near return; we’ve bitten into that idea and found ‘soon’ wanting. it is no longer ‘soon;’ the sweet-by-and -by has apparently gone fishing.

meanwhile, the world continues to melt and bleed. blood flows, heads roll -literally- …the list is endless. how can a God of love tolerate such blood and gore, wars and rapes, disease and tsunamis, ad infinitum, and continue to say He is a God of love? if you watched your child slowly drown and you did nothing but say how much you love him, but did not save him, how would you be viewed? how could you live with yourself? besides being locked up, you’d be wearing a straight jacket. yet we continue to preach God is love while He delays His coming and evil continues its romp. and for what? yes, i know His ways are not my ways, but then don’t promise me something, like a carrot in front of a horse, and play havoc with my hope. seems almost sadistic.

please tell me…something new, relevant and hopeful. thanks.

(Graeme Sharrock) #9

Disappointment is part of everyday life. Humans generate disappointment by creating expectations. No expectations, no disappointment. If we feel disappointment, then it will correlate exactly with some expectation that we created.

In the biblical narrative, the first story of disappointment is Cain’s. His offering was not accepted and he felt disappointed and angry. He turned his anger against his brother, and committed the first murder.

How we deal with disappointment has moral and ethical consequences.

(Charles Scriven) #10

Thank you, Ray.

One of the church’s profoundest needs, indicated in both the anger and the pathos of the replies so far, is to face honestly the question: “What Good Is Adventist Eschatology?”

Along with Kendra Haloviak Valentine, I am going to lead a panel on this question in Loma Linda, in early March. Your thoughts, and those of the respondents, sharpen my sense of both the difficulty and the urgency of this conversation.

A sense of humility comes through in what you wrote, and when it comes to the Christian hope, few virtues matter more. One that matters just as much is persistence in faith. We should be praying for both


(Frank Peacham) #11

Charles Scriven, I think sometimes, we are too obsessed with TIME. Ancient Israelite leaders seemed to anticipate “sleeping with their Fathers,” (SDA don’t). It did not threaten their faith or practice, this was life, always was. So what is 150 years compared to Abraham to Jesus? The messiah came when they least expected, wanted or anticipated. Perhaps in a few more centuries believers will have accepted religion as a normalizing custom that unites groups with common values. Suddenly Jesus returns, after about ±4,000 years waiting, who then would be ready?

I would rather live believing that every storm, earthquake and world event heralds the sooner return. I would die believing this. Why? Otherwise hope is dead and disappointment is hard to bear. For example, last Sabbath one long-time SDA, with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, told me that God told him Jesus would return before he dies. Most of wish this were true.

(Frankmer7) #12

I sometimes wonder what good it serves when I sit through the latest sermon given by someone preaching that Pope Francis has sent a Sunday law letter to the POTUS, and it’s just waiting to be signed into legislation…along with all kinds of other conspiratorial tripe. This junk seems to continue to make the rounds in Adventism, even after it is continually exposed as fraudulent, fear mongering.

I have come to think that the problem with this nonsense is that it springs out of our denominational DNA. We were birthed out of eschatological error, then wedded to Catholic…now Jesuit conspiracy theorizing… as what would build to the earth’s climax before the parousia. Nowhere in the NT is Jesus so specific. Nor are the apostles.

Yet, whenever this stuff gets peddled in a new round of "here it comes,"I can feel the faithful getting quietly worked up into a lather. It’s almost like religious crack. The high ensues from the pounding that the end is coming just the way we think…and we’ll be proven right! Then it wears off, and we realize that the end for most, if not all of us, will be when we take our last breath. No hidden conspiracy behind that!

How we deal graciously and hopefully with the up and down road of life in the meantime, is where the gospel of Jesus Christ places the majority of its focus, whether we are alive until his return or not.



(Greg Prout) #13

we often speak of what the delay says about us…our lack of mission, legalism, our schisms, etc. which do not hasten the Lord’s return, but i ask what does the delay say about a God of Love? by the way, in spite of deep doubt, i am a believer…though questions hound me like an addict’s monkey, and though my faith is battered and beaten, i still cling to the Saviour. that is why i feel free to ask Him any question(s) i please; He has purchased my freedom. see isaiah 43:26. ‘state your case…’

that said, i wonder about a loving God who tolerates such unspeakable misery and not for just a moment, or a few decades, or several generations, or a slew of centuries, but for mellenia. no one is speaking about an isolated tragedy or pandemic, but for the long -endured thousands of years of evil’s vile nature; hell on earth.

for those of you who scoff at our obsession with time, time is all we have to ‘get it right,’ to understand and to flourish, and we don’t have much of it in the scheme of eternity. i imagine he who thinks little of time stands a good chance of wasting it.

the soon return of Jesus has ‘grown long in the tooth.’ we can no longer speak of ‘i come quickly,’ with any degree of credibility, but we are called ‘adventist’ and that causes some to suffer cognitive dissonance. at least we should be more honest. Jesus said He would come back, someday i suppose He will, when we least expect it. but for now, our lamps have grown dim not because we have run out of oil, but because we have outlived ‘soon’ and’ near’ and ‘quickly.’ all i am asking is we tell it like it is.

(Ole Edvin Utaker) #14

This question goes to the core of Adventist identity and mission, and it’s high time to take a critical look at some of the basic assumptions underpinnng this historicist outlook. Adventist scholars, as far as I can see, have tended to focus on historicism as a method of biblical interpretation, without questioning its philosophical assumptions.

Is history the evolution of a sacred, God-ordained plan? In Hegelian terms, is history to be understood as the thoughtprocess of the “Absolute Spirit”; the “World Spirit” - reasoned out, as it were, by Providence? Is this God-ordained historical development the logical conclusion in the process of perfecting, recollecting, so to speak, the world? Is this Hegelian notion of history, at the core of Adventist identity and mission, Adventism’s unique contribution to the Christian world? Is God really in control of history? And, isn’t the Adventist historicist approach narrow and Western-centric, with a focus on Church-history only? Could Adventist eschatology be defined as a form of historical pantheism?

Karl Popper claimed that “Hegel’s hysterical historicism is still the fertilizer to which modern totalitarianism owes its rapid growth”. Could it be that Adventist eschatology is based on a false, deterministic, and totalitarian notion of God’s Sovereignty? What is the relation between God as the Sovereign and human freedom?

Adventism seems to have paid little or no attention to the problematic historicist notion of history (and God) that underwrites its eschatology, and have been more concerned with its more traditional usage, as a practical method, in interpreting the apocalytic texts of the Bible.

What’s bad in Adventist eschatology?

(Harry Allen) #15

I’d say the issue is at least threefold:

First, everybody is God’s child. So, we can’t just speak about the drowning one, but we’d have to speak about all of them—dead and alive—at the same time. That is the kind of description one must give, in order to possibly approximate what God is doing.

Second, God does not see the drowning of a child the same way a human parent does. Because, to Him, Life is like…like…well…like a tube of bathroom caulk from a bathroom caulk factory that He made out of bathroom caulk, He does not look at a dead or dying child with the confusion his human parents do.

Third, however, God is all-knowing. So, he knows what it feels like to be a drowning six-year-old in a cold lake, and, simultaneously, to be that child’s screaming parents on the shore. He knows what it is to be a mother, at a funeral, furious with rage that God didn’t save her son…and to be the object of that anger.

God is “living out” all of these experiences, through His knowledge, at the same time—the immense width and depth of human misery, confusion, and rebellion—yet, at the same time, He is Lord.

Thus, I say that, in the wake of all this, and His expressed purposes—to redeem, to save, to glorify, but to do so in a “gentlemanly” way; i.e., without force, and with deference—questions of why he has not yet returned have the innocence and childishness of that six-year-old boy, hours before, squealing, “Why aren’t we there yet?”


(Greg Prout) #17

i started a lengthy response to your post but i didn’t like the spirit in which i was writing. so let me try again. unfortunately, you will probably see what i wrote earlier, i tried to delete it but didn’t realize it would be posted for at least 24 hours. so, let me begin with an apology for the snarky reply to your honest post, for which, by the way, i was grateful.

frankly, your first response, i agree with, everyone is God’s child, but your point did not assuage my complaint. i failed to see how your point alleviates suffering. secondly, i would contest a parent who has lost their child is confused. i believe their pain is piercingly clear. i believe He does view their pain as they do, and that is the product of the Incarnation. here i find love for a God who would join us in our cesspool as one of us.

your third point i find interesting, but of little help. so He knows what the child and the parent feel, and i believe He does, however, the event is still real, the child is really dead, and the grief of the parents is genuinely unbearable, even if God feels the same. no real relief provided.

i don’t question He is Lord, but i question His methods. how dare i? i am His son and He is my Father. nothing i do will chase Him away; no question i ask will deny me an audience. He can handle any puny complaint of mine. so in that vein, i openly approach Him, warts and all, knowing full well i am accepted and approved.

and i am sorry you found my question childish. i will own that. but it will not stop me from wondering how a God of love can stand thousands of years of His children suffering. it is an oxymoron and almost sadistic, in my humble and perhaps ‘childish’ opinion.

the 800 pound gorilla in the room is He promised to come quickly, and He hasn’t. that is my point.

again thank you for you reply and again, i apologize for getting off the reservation of courtesy and respect.

(Harry Allen) #18

Thanks, Greg.

It might help me to work backwards, in responding.

• I appreciate your apology, but I did not see your initial response.

• Regarding His promise to come quickly, I’m not clear what adventists (small “A”) agree “quickly” is, and how we agreed on this.

I know life is “quick.” The longer one lives, the more unfair its brevity feels. As well, few live life optimally, as it pertains to the time needed to live the lives God requires of them for eternity.

So, frankly, He can take as long as he wants to get here; I appreciate the few extra minutes of sleep. If I die in a year, for all intents and purposes, He comes in a year. If in fifty, He comes then. Human beings have just begun to pierce the realm of the attosecond. The last thing God needs from me is an opinion on His timing.

• I wasn’t specifically calling you “childish,” but it helps if you receive it as such, because we are all childish in our understandings of the infinite. Indeed, “childish” is probably overstating it; “amoeba-ish” might be better put.

• Ask God anything you like. He approves of this. However, He does not promise you will understand the answer He gives, or that, if you do, you will like it. But He will not lie to you. Indeed, human suffering is one such answer.

• I’m not saying God knows how they feel. I’m saying God’s experience of themselves is deeper than their own experience of themselves. He is more they are than they are.

As well, no relief is provided, but God is not here for our relief. He is here to get us into shape for eternity. Doing this may involve experiences that, to us, seem oxymoronic and almost sadistic, to use your terms. Again, He respects us enough to not lie to us, or to tell us that the dung life gives us are really chocolate chip cookies.

• Many parents, upon the loss of a child, have said they experienced mental confusion. Deeply emotional events often are confusing. Many did not experience such fogginess. None of this is my point. My point is that the human burden God bears is deeper than that we bear, as an aspect of His infinite qualities.

If you are all-knowing, that implies that you feel everything everyone feels, have a perfect memory of all such experiences throughout time, You feel it all at once, and do so more deeply than people do because, just for starters, You also know what they are not doing that they should be doing, and what’s coming next as a result. You know what everything really means, in other words.

You are also powerless to act, even though your typical mode is All-Power, which deepens your experience of human frailty. (For God, this is probably the “day is as a thousand years” part.)

There is nothing worthwhile that any human being has done that did not involve suffering. George Lucas nearly died filming Star Wars. Making the Brooklyn Bridge killed J.A. Roebling. Parents suffer immeasurably just to raise children. I don’t see why building something as transcendent and indescribable as the Kingdom of Heaven would come with less bloodshed.


(Dan M Appel) #19


Your essay reminds me of the words of a historian whose work I read once: William Miller almost single-handeadly brought the 2nd Great Awakening to a close.