When I abandoned my belief in God and religion in high school, belief in the 2300-day prophecy automatically fell as well. Recently, though, I decided to take another look. I wanted to see how my childhood religious training compared with a more, shall we say, secular understanding of this scriptural passage. In addition, I wanted to see how the SDA church now treats this concept that had been important to its history.
The 2300-day prophecy is found in the book of Daniel. As kids, we were taught that Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE by, well, Daniel, a high ranking Jew exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The first portion of Daniel consists of fantastical stories that involved him, including the familiar tale of Daniel in the lion’s den and the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who survived being placed in a fiery furnace. The last section of this relatively short book describes visions that Daniel had concerning mythical beasts and other surreal events, along with their interpretation. The interpretations dealt with kingdoms that came to power hundreds of years after Daniel’s supposed lifetime. We were taught that all of Daniel was factual as written, including both the fantastical stories and the visions, thus establishing Daniel’s prophetic powers. Most scriptural scholars, based on all the evidence, understand Daniel to have been written in the 2nd, not the 6th, century BCE—after the times of the kingdoms the book references.
The 2300-day period is mentioned in one of the visions in Chapter 8 that concerned a battle between a ram and a goat, each with strange collections of horns. (Yup.) Here are the verses:
- 13 Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to him, ‘How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled—the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, the rebellion that causes desolation, the surrender of the sanctuary and the trampling underfoot of the Lord’s people?’
- 14 He said to me, ‘It will take 2300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.’
That’s it really, although there is an explanation in the chapter that the vision refers to the “time of the end.”
Given the fundamentalist assumption that all scripture is the word of God, there had been numerous attempts over the years to understand the meaning of this reference to 2300 evenings and mornings. But the interpretation that finally caught interest was that of William Miller, a Baptist minister from New England, who in 1833 made the argument that the passage foretold the date of Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the 2300-day period. He first argued that the 2300 evenings and mornings each represented a year on the assumption that a day in prophecy is equal to a year in real time. He then placed the beginning of the 2300 year period as 457 BCE, the year of the Persian decree to allow the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Based on those assumptions, he calculated the end of the 2300 year period as sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. People got excited. However, when the latter date came and went without the Second Coming, Miller did a quick recalculation and announced that the date would be October 22, 1844. Needless to say, there was no Second Coming in October 1844 either.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Despite the great disappointment, many of Miller’s followers adopted alternative theories of what actually happened at the conclusion of the 2300 days. The theory that survived was one that was integral to the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist church. It was that October 22, 1844 was indeed an important date; it was the date that the judgment of humans began in the sanctuary in heaven. Christ’s Second Coming would then occur once that judging process was completed. This view was championed by Ellen G. White, who became acknowledged by SDAs as a prophet of God.
This is what I was taught and what I believed until, that is, I didn’t believe any longer. Viewed from a remove of some 55 years, I have a number of questions:
1. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the forced exile of the Jews to Babylon was a crushing blow. They had come to rely on their god to protect and promote their way of life. So it was difficult for them to accept that their god had failed to protect them. Many of the OT prophets wrote during this period of exile and prophesied that the temple in Jerusalem would be restored and that they would return to their homeland. What was the basis for asserting that these prophecies, including the one of Daniel, had a dual meaning, relating both to the return to Jerusalem and to the end times thousands of years later?
2. What is the basis for claiming that in prophecies a day stands for a year in real time?
3. How is this so-called judgment process supposed to work? Since God knows everything, shouldn’t it occur instantaneously? Is this like the caricatures where God is methodically toting up everyone’s “score” and Christ is serving as defense counsel?
4. Since there are more and more people who have lived, is God catching up or falling further behind in this judgment process? People are being born all the time. How is God supposed to cut things off and “close the books”?
OK, so where does the SDA church stand on this today? The official SDA website has a section stating the church’s 28 “Fundamental Beliefs.” One of those, Number 24, references the 2300-day prophecy. It states, inter alia, that in 1844, at the end of the prophetic period of 2300 days, Christ began the process of investigative judgment, first of the dead and then of the living (of course, everyone living in 1844 is now long dead). The completion of that ministry, according to this fundamental belief, will mark the close of human probation before Christ’s Second Coming. The language is more nuanced than it might have been years ago, but, yes, the SDA church has clung to the prophecy as part of its peculiar eschatology. Whether many of the current members of the church still subscribe to this doctrine is another matter. My guess is fewer and fewer.
Here’s the lesson for me. As a child I saw this as a truth that had been revealed to a prophet of God and that she, in turn, revealed to us. The ability to see this doctrine for what it truly is—a puerile and naive narrative—is a matter of getting past the acceptance of received authority as irrefutable. More and more I see this as a conflict between two fundamental approaches to arriving at a world view. On the one hand is a willingness to accept a belief simply because an authority—scripture, a parent, a teacher, or a religious leader—has stated that it is true. On the other is an insistence on questioning everything, on putting any statement to a test based on critical thinking, on an analysis of objective evidence, and on common sense unsullied by unquestioned acceptance of authority. These are two fundamental ways of attempting to ferret out the truth. One is better than the other.
© 2016 John M. Phillips