Some 25 years a book ago appeared under my by-line, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Review and Herald, 1991). Plans are nearly complete for a second edition of the book to appear under the Energion imprint.
In the original edition of that book, one chapter that came out almost immediately was the one on eschatology, the study of last-day events. This article kicks off a discussion about eschatology starting on October 22 – the anniversary of “The Great Disappointment” of October 22, 1844. That’s the date on which the followers of William Miller believed the world would end. A number of those disappointed believers would come together in 1863 to form the Seventh-day Adventist church.
The disappointment was only possible because the believers were certain that God had fixed a specific date for Jesus to return. It didn’t happen, of course, and ironically, that shattering event should have prepared Adventists to explore the multiple “disappointments” in Scripture, including all those occasions in the Old Testament when God “repented,” to use the KJV vocabulary. The NRSV simply says “changed his mind.” A word study of “repent” in the Old Testament shows that God “repents” many more times than humans. He does not repent like a man repents, of course, because God never does anything that deserves repentance in the way Christians usually use the term. But in the Old Testament God does repent.
If, however, God is going to repent or change his mind, what does that mean for the events that are to happen at the end of time? Devout conservative believers typically do not take kindly to either change or diversity, and to deal properly with the topic of eschatology from a biblical perspective, one needs to grapple with both.
And so it was that in 1991, when my book was being published, the chapter on eschatology came out of the book before it was published. It was a topic too volatile to address at that time. Is the time right now? I don’t know. Two chapters on eschatology did appear in another book of mine, one that was published in 2009 by an Adventist publishing house, Pacific Press: Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other. Thus far, that book has slipped in under the radar. Inspiration erupted in a firestorm. By comparison, Beyond Common Ground has been stillborn.
In what follows, I have excerpted portions of that 1991 chapter that might help focus our attention on the topic in a productive way. After a brief synopsis, I list several crucial passages of Scripture. A brief survey of the contemporary scene follows, almost an exact replica of a portion of the chapter that was headed for publication – until it got side-tracked. Whether the decision not to publish was demonic or providential, we shall not know until the kingdom.
Synopsis: The principles that determine the last great conflict between good and evil have always been the same: coercion in the interest of selfishness vs. freedom in the interest of loving service. When could it happen? Any time. How should human beings react? Be prepared.
Joel 2:1-2: Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations.
10-11: The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD utters his voice before his army, for his host is exceedingly great; he that executes his word is powerful. For the day of the LORD is great and very terrible; who can endure it?
24-25: The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer and the cutter, my great army which I sent among you.
28-32: And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit. And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that all who call upon the name of the LORD shall be delivered; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
Acts 2:15-21: For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Matt. 24:33: So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
Matt. 24:44: Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
The community of believers that was to become the Seventh-day Adventist Church was born in the crucible of end-time expectation. Hopes were never so high as they were on October 22, 1844, and never so low as they were the day after. In the well-known words of Hiram Edson, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. . . . We wept, and wept, till the day dawn” (cited in Mervyn Maxwell, Tell It to the World, Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1976, p. 48).
When it comes to interpreting Scripture, nowhere do our presuppositions produce such dramatic differences as in those passages which speak of the time of the end. There are four basic approaches:
1. Preterist: The “time of the end” was in the past, in the author’s own day. There is no such thing as genuine prophecy, no future hope. All end-time passages speak of the author’s hopes and apply only to his own day. Originally developed by Roman Catholic interpreters to avoid the Protestant charge that the Roman Catholic Church was the “little horn” of Daniel and the Beast of Revelation, preterism currently is the standard position of modern critical scholars.
2. Futurist: The “time of the end” is in the future. God has a fixed and firm plan which He will bring to pass. The response of human beings cannot affect God’s plans for He is Master of History. Like preterism and for the same reasons, futurism was developed by Roman Catholic interpreters in response to Protestant accusations. Currently, however, its primary supporters are so-called Dispensationalists, fundamentalist Protestants who project detailed plans for the establishment of God’s kingdom.
3. Historicist: The “time of the end” began at a particular point in history. We are now in that time. Classic historicism was born at the time of the Reformation. Adventists were part of a larger Protestant movement which interpreted the 1260 days/years of Daniel and Revelation as ending in 1798. Since that time we have been in the “time of the end.” After the Disappointment, Adventists have adopted one of two attitudes towards God’s plan: a) Although we are now in “the time of the end,” the precise fulfillment of God’s plan depends in part on human response; b) God’s plan has always been on schedule and will be fulfilled regardless of the response of human beings.
4. Idealist: The “time of the end” has occurred on several occasions in history. The passages that speak of the end contain certain “ideals” which can be adapted to a variety of times and circumstances. Since human beings cannot really know the mind of God, they are quite within their rights to find multiple applications in history and to re-apply them in their own day. Elements of this kind of thinking have been present in Adventism ever since the Disappointment. Generally, non-fundamentalist Protestants, insofar as they believe in a genuine end to history, take an idealist approach to end-time passages.
The crucial factor in all of the above approaches is the interplay between human freedom and divine will and the role assigned to each:
A thorough-going preterist has no room for the divine will, only the human. A thorough-going futurist is Calvinist and determinist, making God the master; the human will cannot affect the future. A thorough-going historicist is also a determinist. In Adventism, however, the Disappointment introduced the element of conditionalism, allowing a significant role for the human will within the boundaries of “the time of the end.” An idealist seeks the best of all worlds, seeing an active interplay between the human and the divine will in the author’s own day (preterism), through history (historicism) and in the future (futurist).
So that’s a start. By God’s grace we can have an earnest discussion starting on October 22, 2015.