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Adventists, Other Christians, and The Great Disappointment

Adventists, Other Christians, and The Great Disappointment

Substantially changing beliefs have been a defining characteristic of my life. That may be hard to comprehend. It’s even hard to write in a grammatical form. This admission makes some people uncomfortable. Why should they listen to me now, if I have already changed what I may have believed and advocated decades, years, or even months ago?

I can definitely understand the question. We seek certainty and safety. It’s thoroughly bred into us. Around the caveman campfire, the Saber Tooth Tiger fundamentalist was king. He knew what to do with that spear. He didn’t dither about whether to put out a side of meat, reach out his hand and say “nice kitty,” or kill the tiger.

But certainty also is dangerous, both when it is not justified and when circumstances change. Thus I embrace passionate action and enough uncertainty to make me willing to change my mind.

The largest single change was when I left the denomination I grew up in, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and became first unchurched, and then finally a United Methodist. There are those who find that change mind-boggling. Others find it obvious, as though anyone with adequate intelligence would have made the move.

Even in that dramatic change in my life I remained convinced of the value of the people whose views I was rejecting. I became an ex-SDA. There are a few SDAs who consider that horrifying. I have left the truth. I have become an apostate. I am now working for the enemy.

Let those who are not SDAs not rise up to cast the first stone. The condemnation from the SDA side meets its match on the other in those who say, “See! Just like those cultists! They can’t accept that you’ve come over to an orthodox community!” There’s an ironic twist to this accusation from folks who generally believe they have all the truth, are never wrong, and thus SDAs are cultists, especially because SDAs are, well, intolerant.

Last night in an interview I mentioned that it was a good thing God could work with people who are wrong. That way God can work with me. If you think God is working with you because you have everything right—I suspect you’re wrong about that! But I still believe God is working with and likely through you.

I’m an un-angry ex-SDA. I affirm the work of my former denomination in many areas while at the same time I differ, sometimes substantially, with that church in matters of doctrines. Differing in matters of doctrine is, I believe, good cause to find fellowship elsewhere. It is not good cause to belittle and condemn. Many mainliners find it very easy to condemn SDAs for views they, the mainliners, don’t even comprehend. I have lost count of the times someone has told me that they really don’t like SDAs because they have such incredibly false doctrines, then when I ask them just which doctrine they find so wrong, they fall back on, “Well, they’re a cult.”

And that leads me to Adventists and The Great Disappointment. There’s a great deal of detail around this event in Adventist history. There was a lesser disappointment before the “great” one. Prophetic interpretation was adjusted as people moved on. This happens frequently in many, many groups. This occurred before there was a Seventh-day Adventist Church as such, but SDAs grew out of the Millerite movement and the responses to this great disappointment.

When and what was this great disappointment? October 22, 1844. The expectation was that Jesus would return in glory and take His children home.

It didn’t happen. The day passed uneventfully.

Some Adventists came to believe that the date was right, but the event was different. This interpretation is one of the key elements of the reason why I am no longer an SDA myself. Yes, I can list specific doctrines and the interpretation of Daniel 8:14 is one of them. A rather minor one, that is. I could co-exist in a church with people who are wrong about how to interpret Daniel 8:14. Come to think of it, I manage to hang around a church in which I would be surprised if anyone could name the general topic addressed in Daniel 8.

It’s easy for mainline Christians to point fingers at those who name times for the coming of Jesus or who express excessive certainty about the end-times, life after death, or prophetic interpretation. After all, we have the perfect solution: Ignore those issues. Maybe nobody will notice.

On the other hand, the people who have been out on a limb, taken the plunge, made the hard call, and lived with the result may have something to say to us as well. That’s where I see SDAs and also other Adventist groups. They may have been disappointed. I may disagree with some of their interpretations even after the disappointment, but they’re still engaged with the topic.

And so I’m going to do a few things. Starting tomorrow I’m going to publish some articles by SDA authors, folks who are published by my company Energion Publications, specifically about the Great Disappointment and 1844. What might we learn from the experiences of the SDA church? Are we making any of the same mistakes as we read scripture? They felt they were faithful to scripture. We (and they) know they were wrong at the time. But do we carry on some of the same mistakes?

Join me Thursday night for a discussion on my weekly video study and then watch here and on the Energion Publications News blog for links as the remaining articles are published. The introductory article is already posted.

October 22 and Eschatology

October 22 and Eschatology

Eschatology: A Participatory Study GuideOctober 22 probably doesn’t mean much to most of my readers, but for someone who grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA), it has great significance. It was on October 22, 1844 that early Adventists (before they were Seventh-day Adventists) expected Jesus to return. It was actually the second time they had expected that. first came what is known as the “lesser disappointment” of 1843, when they had not set a specific date, but had set a deadline of a season. Of course, the day ended, and nothing happened.

But as often happens with failed prophecies, after thought, consideration, and some manipulation of Bible texts, the Adventists decided that something had happened, it just wasn’t something visible here on earth. Adventists made a firm decision to set no more dates for the actual Second Coming, but they continued to preach that Jesus was coming “soon.”

In an overall doctrinal sense, this is no longer the sort of thing I consider central. But it did play a pivotal role in my decision to leave the SDA church. First was my reading of Daniel. I studied Daniel at Andrews (the SDA Theological Seminary) under a professor who strongly supported the traditional SDA understanding of the passage. People often think those who change their beliefs in college or seminary do so because liberal or unbelieving professors brainwash them. My professor made every effort to convince me that the SDA interpretation of Daniel 8:14 (the famed 2300 day prophecy) made sense. But in the context of Daniel it did not make sense to me.

Having decided that the time prophecy element was completely unfounded I turned to Hebrews and eventually decided that the very concept of an investigative judgment was also not good theology. Having spent a considerable time outside the Christian community, it was this second element that made it relatively certain that I would not return to an SDA community. People expect the seventh day sabbath to be the problem, but while I don’t agree with much of the supporting doctrine (the idea that it is the distinctive characteristic of the remnant, for example), I wouldn’t have a problem making the seventh day a sabbath. (That isn’t at all what SDAs mean by this, of course.)

What’s interesting right now is that I have just completed proofs for a new book, Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide, by Edward W. H. Vick, who would see similar problems with these various elements to the ones I do, but is a former professor at Andrews University. In addition, my company distributes his book The Adventist’s Dilemma, regarding the use of the word “soon” by Adventists. I had once thought these controversies were in my past. Now I’m editing and marketing books about them.

October 22 can cast a long shadow!

Repeating Adventist Mistakes

Repeating Adventist Mistakes

William Miller
Image via Wikipedia

Harold Camping seems to be repeating the mistakes made by the early Adventist movement. While I disagree profoundly with Seventh-day Adventist eschatology, I don’t hold that history against the church. Good and interesting movements can result from mistakes, but only if you correct those mistakes.

Now consider Camping. He predicted the rapture in 1994, and then decided his math was wrong. Those who know Adventist history will likely recall the 1843 “lesser disappointment.” After Jesus did not return in 1843, William Miller corrected the date and also made it more specific, narrowing it to a single day, October 22, 1844. That day is known in Adventist history as the Great Disappointment.

Following that event, Adventists decided that, while they had the math right, what had happened was a change in heaven, as Jesus began the investigative judgment, which is still going on now.

They also, however, acknowledged that they were wrong to try to set dates for the second coming. On this last note, Camping is not following in their footnotes. He appears set to repeat their mistakes, but not follow their example when they did right.

I see that Spectrum’s Alexander Carpenter has noticed this similarity as well. Amongst the biblioblogs, I would note Peter Kirk and Joel Watts.

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An End-Timely Dilemma

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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