Wednesday, November 13, 2013

THE TIME OF TROUBLE

On one early fall day of my senior year at Battle Creek Academy, I was beginning to panic.  Mr. Young, the principal who also taught our senior religion class, had decided to poll each of us in the class as to when we thought the Second Coming would happen.  By my senior year I had become a closet agnostic, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to respond when my turn came.  Most of my classmates estimated that the time was very short, perhaps months or a few years at the most.  One girl only wished that it would be postponed until after she had gotten married, since she knew that there would be no marriage (read, “sex”) in heaven.  Another classmate hoped that it would not happen until after the World Series was over.  No one was suggesting that it could be even decades off.


The world was clearly in crisis in 1962.  In the escalating cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union were threatening each other with mutually assured destruction, and everyone was trying to cope with the ramifications--ICBMs, the Cuban missile crisis, civil defense drills, bomb shelters in the backyard.  But that was not the only--and arguably not the most serious--crisis Seventh-day Adventists felt they were facing.  They were concerned because the U.S. had just elected its first Catholic president, and they were speculating as to when Kennedy, under the thrall of the pope, the very anti-Christ, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the Whore of Babylon featured in the book of Revelation, would begin the long anticipated persecution of Adventists leading up to Christ’s Second Coming.

To understand the origins of the Adventist viewpoint on the end of days, I need to go back in the history of the church.  This will take some explaining, a lot of explaining, really.  But I hope you will stick with me, because I think it is instructive to understand how commitment to a belief in the inerrancy of  scriptures, coupled with tortured attempts to make sense of certain otherwise opaque Bible passages (“they were inspired directly by God and must be there for a purpose, but what?”), can lead to a belief system that, in my view, is bizarre beyond all rational sense.

I think I have to start with the Millerite Movement.  Millerite Movement, you ask?  This was a religious sect begun by one William Miller, who in the 1830s believed he had come to understood the true meaning of certain Old Testament passages, particularly in the book of Daniel.  He thought, in fact, that they specified the very time of Christ’s Second Coming.  The prediction was based on a 2300-day period cited in Daniel 8.  The period was to begin with the time, in 457 b.c.e., when the Jews, who were then living in exile, were authorized to return to Israel to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.  Of course, 2300 days is only a little over six years, so this was reinterpreted as 2300 years.  The scriptural authority for doing this was scant, but that didn’t deter Miller.  And 2300 years from the beginning date would end in the 1840s.  Now it was relevant to Miller’s time.  

Initially, Miller had predicted that Christ’s Second Coming would occur no later than April 21, 1844.  When that date came and went, he re-examined his analysis and concluded that he had miscalculated; the date was instead October 22, 1844.  His followers, thousands by this time, were excited, and many quit their jobs or chose not to plant their fields, feeling that there would be no need.  Turned out that October 22, 1844 also came and went, and at that point the movement fell apart and most of the Millerites lost heart, chastened by their experience, and returned to their former congregations.  

But not all.  One young Millerite woman, Ellen G. Harmon, began having “visions” in which she claimed to leave her body and be transported to heaven to be in the presence of Christ and the rest of the heavenly host from whom she learned the proper interpretation of scriptural passages.  By the 1860s, now married to James White, she, along with James and a few others of like mind, formed what became the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  

And here’s the thing, Ellen White did not abandon the 2300-day prophecy or the date of October 22, 1844; she simply reinterpreted it.  Instead of being the date of Christ’s Second Coming, it became the date on which Christ entered the most holy portion of God’s sanctuary in heaven to begin an active intercession on behalf of those righteous persons on earth, living and dead, who were deserving of salvation at the Second Coming.  In other words, God began the task of considering the tallies of good and bad for each and every person who ever lived to determine whether they should be granted eternal life or perdition.  And Christ acted as their advocate, if you will.  Only after that job was completed would Christ return to earth.  Note that the event that occurred on the critical date became one that was no longer empirically verifiable.  Clever, and it worked.

Ellen White began writing prolifically about her visions and her views on the true interpretation of scripture, including the writings, not just of the Old Testament prophets, such as Daniel and Ezekiel, but of John in the New Testament book of Revelation.  It all made sense to her.

This brings in a second important influence on her writings, in my opinion--the strong anti-Catholic attitude common particularly in the eastern United States during the latter half of the 19th century.  Anti-Catholicism has been a persistent feature in American culture, but it was heightened in the mid-19th century following an influx of Catholic immigrants resulting from the Irish potato famine.  It appears clear that Ellen White participated in that sentiment.  Her prophecies regarding the last days before the Second Coming prominently featured the pope and the Roman Catholic church as the primary villains.  As evidence, prominent Adventists have noted that the pope’s pontifical crown reads “Vicarius Filii Dei,” and if one adds up the value of the letters that also serve as roman numerals (including regarding a “u” as a “v”), the total is 666, the number of the beast in Revelation!  What further proof does one need?

Here’s a brief synopsis of Ellen White’s view of the period leading up to the Second Coming:  The Catholic church would command a greater and greater influence over the legal system and culture of the United States.  The foot in the door would be the passage of so-called Sunday blue laws, prohibiting businesses from being open on Sundays.  This would be followed by laws requiring businesses to stay open on Saturday, the Adventist sabbath.  Of course, Adventists believe it is sinful to work on the sabbath, so they would be put into a bind, either disobey the law or disobey the fourth commandment.  Next, it would be declared a felony to worship on Saturday, punishable by incarceration and torture.  Finally, it would be declared “open season” to kill anyone who was found to keep the seventh-day sabbath.  I kid you not.  Adventists euphemistically refer to this as the “Time of Trouble.”

I still recall vividly an Adventist bus tour of Battle Creek, the headquarters of the church until 1913, that I took when I was back in town for a visit when in my early 20s.  We were introduced to such landmarks as James and Ellen White’s home, the local Adventist church and school (which of course I was well acquainted with), as well as Ellen and James White’s graves.  At one point on the tour the bus passed the local Catholic church.  The tour guide announced that, of course, as we Adventists knew, beneath that church were chambers that had been prepared for the torture of Adventists during the Time of Trouble.

No wonder the Adventists were worried when a Catholic was elected president.  According to Mr. Young, our principal, to make matters worse Kennedy had named his brother Robert as Attorney General.  As Mr. Young stated, now the world’s two most powerful offices were held by Catholics.  The stage surely was set for the Time of Trouble.  Things, he felt, were going to move very rapidly.

So back to Mr. Young’s query to my classmates and me.  When the question came around to me, I knew that I couldn’t lie.  I also knew that I couldn’t say what I really thought.  That would open up an enormous can of worms, with all sorts of sessions with the principal, and, worse, with my parents.  It would have been a disaster.  What I should have done was to quote Matthew 24:36 that no one knew the day nor the hour, but I was never fast on my feet.  What I did say was that I thought it wouldn’t be for a very long time.  Lame, but it got me out of the jam.

At the time, 1962, it had been less than 120 years since the critical year of 1844, less than 100 years since the Adventist church had been established, and less than 50 years since the death of Ellen White.  There seemed to be one crisis after another.  Matters seemed so urgent.  But now another 50 years have passed, and I have not directly kept up with Adventist teachings about the end of days.  Could it be that the church has sustained that sense of urgency?  Do Adventists still believe that the pope is the anti-Christ, that there will be a Time of Trouble, that the Second Coming is imminent?  How much play do these doctrines still have in the day to day thinking of the average Adventist parishioner?  It would be interesting to know.


© 2013 John M. Phillips

11 comments:

  1. Oh, my goodness! I had forgotten so much of this history. You have done a fantastic job of pulling it all together in a nutshell glance. Yes, I too wonder if Adventists still believe that the pope is the anti-Christ. I don't remember Mr. Young asking when we felt the Lord would return, but I certainly do remember the seemingly panic when Kennedy, that Catholic guy, was made president! You'd have thought the end of the world was right on our doorstep! It's a bit embarrassing to admit that as a young impressionable jr. high schooler, E.G. White was my hero during those days. Oh, dear me! Still...as rediculous as it all seems today that the SDA thinking was (still is?) during our time at the Academy, and as hard as it is to believe that more than a mere handful of people might have picked up Miller's way of thinking, I can't help but believe that there really is something to the belief that there is/will be an end time. I’m assuming all Christians believe this in one way or another, but I could be wrong. Regarding this topic though, I would loudly proclaim today that same verse that you referred to that you could have repeated to Mr. Young...that no one knows the day or the hour.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, "Grace."
      As to whether Christians in general believe in the "end of days," most of my Christian friends really don't talk about a second coming. Many of them feel the focus should be on how we conduct this life and they prefer not to talk about the next, in part, I believe, because, as I have pointed out, there are some logic problems with most conceptions of heaven. Others believe that the next life begins immediately after death--one way or the other--so there doesn't seem to be a need for a second coming.
      As to end times, it's been estimated that unless we wind up wiping out humanity earlier through some sort of nuclear conflagration or other disaster, then in four billion years or so the sun will turn into a red giant and consume the earth with heat. Upon hearing that estimate, one concerned person asked, "Wait a minute. Did you say million or billion?"

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    2. Just thought I'd say that I rarely ever talk about a second coming, and I too feel hat our focus should be on living the best life we can possibly live right here, right now. The older I get though, I do find myself thinking and praying about the "hereafter" and feeling that I am ready whenever it is the right time. Till then, I pray to be content with the here and now, do my best to be loving and kind and hope that I can find the extraordinary out of each ordinary day. Oh, and I too have wondered if the end of our world might not come as a result of man's lust for power and/or fear via some sort of nuclear disaster, or through some natural explosion or other type of disintegration of planet earth. Good fodder for even more science fiction stories, but still...not only do we not know the day or hour, we don't know the big "how" answer either. It's fun to speculate sometimes though, as long as one doesn't gather up a following and develop some sort of new religion out of it. (smile!)

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    3. I know I have stated this before, but I feel I am content with the here and now and do my best to be loving and kind--and without any concern for any "hereafter." This is my one and only shot. Frankly, I have been so fortunate. I could have been born in, say, Bangladesh and been raised on the edge of starvation and without access to literacy. On the other hand, maybe I would have been happy whatever my circumstances.

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  2. LOL for that million or billion comment!

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  3. I am thankful you question the teaching of a few, but I'm sad that this was enough for you to quit exploring faith, or experience what might be more logical or true about God. I agree that authority is not enough to base faith upon. Not even the scriptures, words by inspired men, could paint a true picture. Until Jesus came, the writings were very misunderstood and since He left they are often used as a hammer over someones head or as a tool to create fear so someone will believe a certain way. That was the experience at school. We weren't taught to think and reason and to ask, what does this mean...and we were not allowed to question the authority of our elders or Mrs. White. I understand why you made the decision to back away...I, too, had many questions and have been searching for answers, for the "truth." And I only see real truth in the life of Christ. His unselfish giving of Himself for others...He truly loved. God is love...so whatever genuine love is, explains who God is. He never forces and He leaves us free to believe or not and respects our right to make that choice. I believe, as you well know, and I hope He comes soon...this world is in such need. But the world still has such a flawed view of who He is and His character. I think that this view is rapidly changing...there are so many preaching a new message about God..and I believe that when the world sees God as He really is, and decisions are made one way or the other the end will be here. With the abilities of communication available today, that message will rapidly go around the world. It's not necessarily one denomination preaching that God is love...it's coming from all directions. Jesus is interceding for us but not to convince the Father that He paid a price...but interceding with us to see Him as He really is...the price He paid was giving His life to show us, His children, that He would do anything to bring us back to trust and to demonstrate His great love for us. He came and lived a perfect life of love so we can through loving Him be changed...by beholding you become changed...that is scientific!

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    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “the teaching of a few.” My recollection is that the Adventist attitude toward the Catholic church as the beast of Revelation was (and may still be) official doctrine of the SDA church.

      My attitude toward the imminence of the Second Coming and the Time of Trouble by my senior year of high school was not a factor in my abandonment of belief in God. I had become an agnostic a year earlier. Those doctrines only served to reinforce my agnosticism.

      Your comments regarding scriptures are really interesting. I find it difficult to understand how one decides whether a scriptural passage should be interpreted literally (the creation story), metaphorically (Christ’s parable of Lazarus [at Abraham’s side after death] and the rich man [being tormented in hell after death]), in accordance with a code (2300 days really equals 2300 years), or simply ignored (e.g., the reference in Genesis 6:4 to sons of gods having sexual relations with the daughters of men). I suspect it has more to do with one’s existing beliefs than with the plain language of the scripture. In that sense, scripture appears to be the ultimate Rorschach test: we see what we want to see.

      I think you hit the nail on head when you indicated that what was most troublesome about our education was that we were not allowed to question authority. That perspective, more than anything else, was responsible, I think, for my “conversion” to agnosticism and ultimately atheism. I used to have fantasies of coming back to the school as a guest lecturer and springing a surprise on the school’s faculty by giving a talk devoted to the virtue of thinking for oneself and not accepting anything simply on the authority of others. I’m sure I would have gotten “the hook.”

      It’s not clear to me what you mean by the statement that Christ is “interceding with us to see Him as He really is.” To intercede means to plead on another’s behalf.

      I’m sure that Jesus was an honorable man and clearly a charismatic one. But he is certainly not the only person to have lived a good life devoted to others.

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    2. I assume you were being facetious in saying, "by beholding you become changed...that is scientific!" Otherwise, your notion of what constitutes science is very different from mine.

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  4. "Full Definition of INTERCEDE

    : to intervene between parties with a view to reconciling differences : mediate..." I see it as Jesus making every effort to help us restore trust in God. We have believed lies about Him and the HS is interceding to reconciling our us back to God. God doesn't have a problem with us, but we have a problem with Him.

    Behavioral Science has done studies on people to show that what absorbs their attention changes them...they become like, change into, emulate what they worship.

    Scripture explains itself...by studying the whole, and comparing texts, it can clarify what it is trying to say...especially if you look for the original meanings in the old languages that is was written in. And use Jesus as a lense to see through, because He came to clarify who God is and what the writings mean.

    Teachings of a few...we heard the beliefs of a few Adventists at BCA, there were many others elsewhere that did not hold a legalistic view of God. There are of course 28 fundamental beliefs in the SDA church and I don't agree with some of them...yet still consider myself an SDA... If that could get me disfellowshipped I am alright with that too, since being a member in a denomination does not insure salvation. I think that many still think the "authority of the church" gives no room to think for yourself...and swallow hook line and sinker whatever is preached from the pulpit...they don't really listen and can't discern truth from error. I believe truth is unfolding...and some are stuck in a rut made 100 years ago. Just think if science never changed...even as knowledge increases...nothing is stagnant, and living. The dead sea is a perfect example...the flow stops there...therefore the sea is dead. Rather lukewarm I'd say.

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    1. Lisa,

      Thanks for alerting me to the Adventists' "28 beliefs." I went over them, and, while they speak of an apocalypse, I didn’t see a single reference to the Catholic church. Also, while they talk about Christ's second coming, they appear to say nothing about its imminence. Clearly, EG White wrote that the Catholic church is the beast of Revelation and will initiate an attack on SDAs as part of the Time of Trouble. The 28 beliefs cite EG White's prophetic inspiration, but it is downplayed.

      I am inclined to think that the SDA leadership has finally accepted that (a) EG White's supposed prophetic powers should be downplayed, since her views, especially her eschatological ones, were pretty extreme and frankly wrong in a number of particulars, (b) the second coming is not as imminent as we were led to believe 50 years ago, and (c) the idea of the time of trouble has been pretty much entirely abandoned, even though it played a prominent role in EG White’s writings.

      You indicated that what we were taught were "the beliefs of a few Adventists at BCA," but that is simply not the case. Not only were we taught those beliefs each and every year at the school--and I attended the school for 12 years--but that was the thrust of the church ministry and of the periodic revivalist series that we endured every few years. In addition, when I "studied" for my baptism, those beliefs were front and center. I just don't believe this was an approach held only by a few in Battle Creek.

      I would be very interested in learning the history behind these changes in the church’s doctrines. The Adventist church is much closer to mainstream Protestantism than when we were in school. But they still have a ways to go, in my mind. There is still a doctrine in support of the inerrancy of scripture and a literal creation story. Disappointing, but still I am encouraged.

      I agree with you that Christian faiths have to keep up. Otherwise, they will lose their congregations even faster than they already are. The SDA church simply could not maintain indefinitely a "sky is falling" approach to the end of days, even though the idea of a soon second coming is fundamental to their distinction from other denominations. If they were to relinquish the idea of a literal 6-day creation then the rationale for the 7th day sabbath would be undermined as well.

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    2. One more comment, Lisa, regarding the evolution of scientific knowledge as analogous to the evolution of religious belief. There certainly have been changes in both, so in that sense the analogy is apt. However, I also see a difference. Science does not say, "This is the truth." While scientists generally accept that there is a truth about the world--the world is a certain way--they also accept that whatever understanding we have is tentative and subject to refinement or change as we gain more knowledge. Religion, on the other hand, does say, "This is the truth." The prophets, the writers of scripture are considered God's messengers and the scriptures are deemed to be the word of God and to contain "the Truth." So when religious doctrine changes, as it has with the SDA church, it is more of an admission that the prior beliefs weren't really the truth after all.

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