This morning I read the stunning news: Joseph Ratzinger—that is, Pope Benedict XVI—will step down from his position as the Roman Pontiff. At first I didn’t believe it. This is basically unheard of. As the New York Times stated, Benedict is “the first pope to do so in six centuries.”
After the shock wore off, my thoughts immediately turned to my brothers and sisters in Christ who will be bizarrely disturbed by this news. And I am not referring to my Catholic friends, though I am sure that they may also be disturbed (while others will be relieved). I speak of my Adventist brothers and sisters: my friends with whom I attended youth group, and Bible studies, and (dare I confess?) prophecy seminars. I am thinking about my friends who watch out for the “signs of the times,” the ones who were pretty certain Jesus was going to come back a few years ago. The ones who are convinced Jesus will surely come back in the next few years—tops.
They come to mind because I wonder how they’re going to handle this. And I admit that I’m a bit cynical, but I suspect they’ll scramble for a few minutes, and then figure out a way to integrate this little bump in the apocalyptic road into their predictions. I know not how. Surely a resignation is insufficient to constitute a “deadly wound.” And I remember more than a few people insisting that Papa Joe was supposed to be one of the heads on the seven-headed beast of Revelation 17—the eighth who wasn’t and then was. I’m no biblical scholar, and I don’t pretend to have a great handle on that particular passage, but I do know quite a few Adventists who do claim to understand it, and they’re pretty sure that Benedict was one of those heads.
What I fear is that this will be yet another instance in which a commitment to a specific apocalyptic scheme will trump a commitment to the plain facts of existence. That is, rather than revising the predictive scheme, some Adventists will continue to insist, perhaps more emphatically during this next conclave in March, that the papacy remains the beast of biblical prophecy, that surely the next pope will be the last, the one who will bring about the National (worldwide…) Sunday Law.
However, I believe the oddity of Benedict’s abdication affords us an interesting opportunity. Here is a chance for us to reengage our own theological tradition, and to think of ways of reviving a genuinely prophetic voice that fully embraces the apocalyptic imagery with which we are all familiar in fresh ways, and yet overcomes some of the specific interpretations that were suitable and adequate for our spiritual fathers and mothers.
In case anyone has forgotten, the world remains the world, and so long as it is the world, it remains desperate for the good news of Jesus, and so long as we are the church we exist precisely to proclaim that good news. And in this world of ours, there are many beasts, and they continue to devour people, to crush them with their political, military, and economic power. The world has no want for beasts. Yet it continues to want for a church that will speak out against them, who will announce God’s victory over them, who will announce the message of the three angels that the empire created by these beasts has already fallen, and that we are free to worship the One who created us.
Over the next several weeks, Adventists have an opportunity to reclaim a tradition of speaking prophetically. But if Adventists do not seize this opportunity, it will be yet another step towards ideology and irrelevance.
—A graduate of La Sierra University, Matt Burdette is in the Ph.D. program at the University of Aberdeen.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5074