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An End-Timely Dilemma

A couple of months ago my company, Energion Publications, began distributing two previously published books by Edward W. H. Vick. As I normally do, I planned to publish my reflections on these books here. Time has been in short supply recently, and I haven’t gotten to them.

The Adventists Dilemma

But fortuitously, one of the books is The Adventists’ Dilemma, and relates to the end times, so what better day could I have to publish some notes on the book than May 21, 2011, the day on which Harold Camping says the rapture will occur. Now as I write this, it’s already past 6 pm in many places, and thus Camping’s prediction is, predictably, failing.

As usual, this will be more my reflections on the topic of the book than a formal book review. In fact, it won’t resemble a formal book review at all. Since I now distribute the book in question, and thus have an interest in selling it, you should also not consider this unbiased. It is, however, a subject in which I have great interest.

I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is also Dr. Vick’s background. There’s even a family connection. He replaced my uncle, Don F. Neufeld, as Greek teacher at Canadian Union College, now Canadian University College. Seventh-day Adventists have a very strong emphasis on eschatology. Indeed, the word “Adventist” in their name refers to their belief that Jesus will return soon.

The church came out of the Millerite movement in the 1830s to 1840s, which resulted in two disappointments, the first in 1843, and then the second–the Great Disappointment–on October 22, 1844. Those who are predicting Camping’s response to his disappointment today might consider the Adventist response at the time. One of those responses became the investigative judgment doctrine in Seventh-day Adventism, which maintained that October 22, 1844 was an important prophetic date after all, but that the event which took place was in heaven and thus we couldn’t see it. The time was right, but the event was wrong. (For those interested, this all came about through interpretation of Daniel 8:14, badly out of context in my view.)

But Adventists generally, and particularly Seventh-day Adventists, decided they had been wrong to set a date for the second coming, and so the dilemma I reference in the title is not based on setting dates. Rather, it has to do with the idea of proclaiming the “soon” coming of Jesus Christ. To quote from the book description of The Adventists’ Dilemma,

If you use ‘soon’ in the ordinary sense, you can’t go on saying that the Advent is soon. If you say that the Advent is ‘soon’ in a qualified sense (meaning ‘in the unknown and indefinite future but not long into that future’) the claim is meaningless. So the claim that the Advent is soon is either false or meaningless.

But, you may ask, doesn’t the Bible speak of the return of Jesus as “soon?” Doesn’t this same dilemma apply to the New Testament writers? Dr. Vick believes it does, they noticed, and they dealt with it. Since he spends three chapters on it, I’m only going to quote two snippets in summary:

Jesus as a Jew spoke to his generation. Jesus’ message to that generation was, Your opportunity is here and now. It must now be seized. It will pass. Jesus’ words sponke again to the early church. Your opportunity is here and now. You must seize it. It will pass … (123-124).

…Whatever the struggles ahead, the assurance of triumph, God’s triumph, makes the present full of meaning and full of hope (125).

The one weakness I see in this book is simply that Dr. Vick takes a very long time dealing with the issue of the meaning of “soon” and many who are not Adventists as such will find the material on the movement’s history and on recent Seventh-day Adventist responses on eschatology to be excessive. On the other hand, for those interested in those topics, the weakness is a strength.

I have shown little interest in Camping’s predictions, because they are so obviously wrong. But my question is whether we don’t both leave some Christians vulnerable to this sort of thing, and also provide an unnecessary opportunity for ridicule by failing to deal sensibly with eschatology. Some people will be concerned with end times whether we like it or not.

I went from growing up in the SDA church where eschatology was king, we all could quote verses from Daniel and Revelation to support our beliefs about the end, and the soon coming of Jesus was a firm conviction, to the United Methodist Church, where very few people had a clue. Now you may justifiably point out that I regard the Adventist “clue” as wrong. The problem on the Methodist side was not incorrect eschatology, but rather an eschatological vacuum. One Methodist minister even told me about inviting an SDA minister to teach Revelation to his congregation because, he said, “they know so much about it.”

But the issue here is not SDA or non-SDA, but rather just what your congregation will believe about eschatology in the absence of some good teaching. If you ignore Revelation, what will your congregation believe? In my experience, the answer is that those who care will follow someone on TV or in popular books, and that means the “left behind” eschatology.

I remember the first time I was invited to teach a Methodist youth group. This was a seminar offered on a day off from school, and the young people were selected–the most interested. I was to teach them about Bible backgrounds and Bible translation. I completed my presentation and opened it up for questions. What did they ask? Was I pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib.

Now most of their parents couldn’t have defined the terms, but these kids had heard them. They were quite surprised to find out I didn’t believe in either the rapture or the tribulation (in the sense of a seven year period of tribulation), and discussion died. I must not know much about Revelation!

But I found the same thing with the adults. People either knew nothing of eschatology, or they had absorbed popular culture on the topic. To them, Revelation was the left behind series. They had no idea there was any other way to look at things.

And there is where we mainliners have failed, I think. In the absence of sound discussion of the available scriptures and evidence, people will jump on just about anything that is confidently asserted and clearly proclaimed. While most Methodists are unlikely to go with a particular date, many are going to ride the “soon” bandwagon right off a cliff.

There is a sense in which imminence trumps immanence. We lose the motivation to live our lives for Jesus based on the fact that he is present with us now, because we’re too concerned with when he’ll return and end everything. We sing “soon and very soon, we’re going to see the king” when we should be sing “now and truly now, we always see the king.”

God’s ultimate triumph is our hope, but God’s presence now connects us to that hope and should motivate us to proclaim that presence and kingdom, the one that is with us while the earth continues.

I’d like to suggest that we need to make sound eschatology a regular part of teaching and preaching. I don’t mean by this responses to predictions like Camping’s. Explaining how wrong other people are, even if they are indeed very wrong, still leaves a vacuum. What we need to do is proclaim the positive message of eschatological passages. While we’re doing that, let’s put the emphasis on the good news, which is not how many people will be left behind or how many will burn in hell, but rather how many people we, as the body of Christ can reach with God’s grace and help acting as Christ’s body.

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  1. Martin LaBar says:

    As I am sure you are well aware, Revelation does not contain the phrase “seven years.” There are seven of a lot of other things mentioned, but not seven years.

    1. Well, yes, but you should see the surprise on people’s faces when they are told that. In my study guide on Revelation, I don’t go into the rapture and the tribulation at all, because quite frankly I don’t think it’s there.

      The first time I taught a class with my own study guide, the group demanded a lesson on the rapture and tribulation, and were surprised that I took them to other scriptures to provide the basis that is used. I don’t accept that basis, but at least one can find the elements.

  2. Penny Saufley says:

    I am a nurse and I see the end of days on a regular basis. The end just comes one person at a time. Perhaps people are so fascinated by a “rapture” because death is such an individual experience; it’s very scarey to step over that threshold by yourself. And that if Jesus were to come back, they are hoping we would all go together and they find that very comforting. —

    It’s much easier to take your loved ones hand and say, “Look, it’s Jesus, let’s go!” instead of taking that last breath and falling into that dark pit and hoping to come out on the other side.

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