Memories of my youth in the American Midwest include visits by the conference evangelist who you could always count on having impressionable pictures of multi-headed beasts depicted in the book of Revelation. Much of this interest in the book of Revelation, of course, is an outgrowth of another book well known to Adventists, The Great Controversy (1). So, in a sense, this childhood memory dovetails with recent actions of the Adventist church leadership to undertake a mass distribution of this book.
With a few years of maturity under my belt I have discovered that the The Great Controversy (TGC) does not speak with the same voice to all members. With this in mind there may be some value in considering the several ways in which the content of this book defines Adventism.
Since most readers will be familiar with this volume and the theme that emanates from it, this will not be a critique of the book per se, but rather a discussion of how Adventists respond to its message. In actuality, it appears that at least three definable approaches have developed:
- the fundamentalist camp whom have built a dominant theology around end-time events, that in some cases approaches a cultic level of emphasis;
- the philosophical camp characterized by those who recognize the value of the cosmic conflict theme in addressing problems of theodicy;
- the science based camp who question the viability of the cosmic conflict theme on the basis of reason and certain data.
We will take a look at each of these approaches in this 3-part series, and in this particular article we will spotlight the first of these—specifically those who specialize in a theology of the end-time.
While some have discovered a grand theme to the TGC that gives rationality to the concept of a moral universe connected by the history of Christianity and visionary anticipations of the future, we are also forced to reckon with the book's main shortcomings—issues of factual balance and accuracy, and its seeming lack of good-neighbor sensitivity and Christian ethics. And if there is any credence in the admonition “by their fruits you shall know them” we must also acknowledge the social pathology that the book has generated in a subset of Adventists who have asserted vast amounts of energy on sideshow issues that are well outside the central pillars of Christianity.
As a teen I recall overhearing a conversation between several adults—a couple of them were Adventists, with the others being evangelicals of some other denominational background. The discussion had to do with when the Second Coming would happen. The evangelicals reckoned that it was soon, but probably not in their lifetimes. The two Adventists were adamant that it was not only very soon, but likely within a matter of a few years. From there the conversation degenerated into a discussion—or perhaps it was more of a sermonette—about the end-times and the “time of trouble” drawing less from the Bible than from a timeline inspired by Ellen White.
In observing some of the conversations occurring within Adventism today, it is clear that the exchanges I overheard many years ago are similar to many occurring even today around the world. The best evidence for this conclusion is to do word searches using a good search engine like Google. Anyone who plugs the following word searches in will get an abundance of search results:
- [Adventist +”end time”] = 655,000 search results
- [Adventist +”last days”] = 1.4 million search results
- [Adventist +Catholic] = 15.8 million search results
These are all key terms found in TGC and given its focus, and the size of the Adventist membership, the number of such entries should not be entirely surprising. Many of the entries are rather pedestrian and some are from Adventist detractors. Yet, unfortunately, many of these entries do expose the cultic underbelly of extremism sometimes inspired by this book. For a cross-section of what you will find from apparent Adventist source, a few examples are linked below.
10. Last Day Events
Many Adventists have been captivated by White’s predictions of the end-time presented in TGC and elsewhere. Consequently, most readers are likely familiar with a brand of Adventism that is consumed by such focus, it becoming the filter for an illuminated understanding of the daily news—particularly headline grabbing occurrences such as natural disasters. Such a focus often becomes the platform for purveying a very unbalanced theology. Some in the Adventist community affectionately refer to those who identify with this orientation as “Event-ists”—those who obsess over such matters, critically diminishing those who do not share the same level of passion regarding end-time chronologies and details—including a lot of passion for Ellen White’s discussion of the history of the Christian church and how the conflict between good and evil has been expressed in some of the dark chapters of church history; and predictions that the United States will itself one day become an instrument of this warfare between good and evil by embracing a form of religious fascism (2).
There are Adventist enclaves around the world today where end-time theology is the Christian face of Adventist Christianity. I have acquaintances that fit within this subset, and I know many of these individuals to be very sincere and committed. Yet this approach generally comes with a darker side, with tendencies of thinking in terms of achieving perfection over sin in this life, and its corollary judgmentalism—the constant need to measure how everyone else is performing.
Unfortunately, the Church’s printing presses have sometimes been enablers of these patterns. While I am not familiar with most of the 72 books currently offered on the Adventist Book Center website related to the topic of “end-time events,” I am familiar with at least one of them that pedals perfectionistic theology, that being the perennial book Preparation for the Final Crisis by Ferando Chaij, first published in 1966 and still in print today. While this book builds largely on themes emanating from TGC, it limits its focus to Ellen White’s prophetic understanding of end-time events, and from this attempts to build an end-time chronology. This publication has enjoyed something of a cult following for the past 45 years it has been in print. In it, the author admonishes readers of, among other things, the necessity to, “achieve victory over our weaknesses; we must experience complete deliverance by God…” (3).
In addition to inspiring some to pursue theology with an aberrant emphasis, occasionally the TGC has inspired public displays of un-neighborly behavior (4). For example, back in 1993 David Mould spearheaded a giant billboard campaign that appeared to have two purposes—first, to defame the Catholic Church, but second to advertise TGC (5). At the time, Church administrators appeared to be unhappy with the tone of the billboards, but were clearly in an awkward position, for if they had openly opposed this campaign, they risked a backlash from many members (6). But as we fast forward to 2011, we observe that whatever reticence administrators may have had about the billboard campaign some eighteen years ago, such concerns seem to have vanished as evidenced by the current plan soon to be launched that would distribute millions of copies of this book.
There is perhaps now an emerging identity within the Adventist church leadership to understand “cosmic war” in militaristic terms, with this distribution project representing the weapon of choice. If history is a guide, it has the capacity to launch a very public inter-sectarian conflict.
In the next installment we will consider the larger philosophical framework of the cosmic conflict motif in addressing theodicy. Certainly if we are to countenance the New Testament message of a God of love it is necessary to figure out how to integrate this into our thinking in light of the human existential realities, and a world that is seriously flawed. It is here at the philosophical level we will consider whether the cosmic conflict motif may provide some assistance.
—Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.
- For any reader who may be unfamiliar with this literary work, it essentially attempts to trace the rise of evil in the universe from the biblical description of the fall, and then proceeds to outline evil’s manifestations down through the ages of time, including a somewhat insensitive discussion of the sordid history of institutional Christianity. Along with this discussion come predictions that history will repeat itself and that institutional Christianity will be very much involved in this process.
- This latter idea has always seems a remote concept throughout most of my life. However, ironically, today, riding on the back of a poor economy it suddenly appears to be within the realm of a viable political ideology. See for example.
- As an aside, all Ellen White quotes are in red ink, and all Scripture quotes are in black ink—the color of the main text. This should give some indications of where this book places its priority.
- Defame here refers to the provocative questions he posed on these billboards, like “Why is the Vatican Trying to Change Our Constitution?”
- See reference in note 3.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3414