Some of you may be tempted to think, What does he know about presenting messages like Revelation 13? Academics think they know everything, but what they say often doesn’t play where the rubber meets the road. Well in this case I think I can say my rubber meets the road. While it is challenging to share the mark of the beast with an audience of strangers that is unlikely to have a scholar among them, imagine what it would be like the share the mark of the beast with an audience of non-Adventist scholars in Daniel and Revelation! I have been invited to do this on more than one occasion.
A dramatic occasion was a series of dialogues between leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and leaders of the Lutheran World Federation. The Federation provides a loose oversight of more than a hundred church bodies in 79 countries with approximately 70 million adherents. The fourth in a series of week-long dialogues took place near their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in 1998. It was on the subject of eschatology, how the two church bodies view the biblical topic of the end of the world. Dr. B. B. Beach of the General Conference public affairs office invited me to represent the Adventist Church’s position on Revelation 13 and the mark of the beast. I would be facing nearly ten Lutheran scholars and officials, several of whom were specialists in Daniel and Revelation. In other words, I couldn’t get away with the kind of easy deductions that uneducated people might accept. I would have to meet the highest standards of logic, reason and biblical exegesis.
What I did not expect was the deep sensitivity among the Lutherans against “Catholic bashing” of any kind. The same group had had a similar series of dialogues with the Vatican and could put the faces of real people into play when I talked about the papal system. It is one thing to talk about the other in the absence of the other. But when the “other” has a face and a name and a shared love for Mozart, the same information can come across pretty lame. While it was very important in a dialogue not to hide unwelcome elements of one’s faith (dialogue is for the purpose of understanding rather than persuasion, and you can’t understand what you don’t know), a great tension entered the room when I shared and we discussed what Adventists believe about Revelation 13.
The tension came to a head when a professor of Revelation from a major German university summed up how he was feeling. “What I hear all of you telling me is that I am OK because the mark of the beast is an end-time concept. But my grandchildren will be lost if they don’t become Seventh-day Adventists! I cannot bear this teaching! I love my grandchildren, and I would rather be lost if it meant they could all be saved. I thought I was dealing with a group of fellow Christians, but now I realize that deep inside you are just another sect or cult (not flattering terms in the German context), you are not really a Christian Church. I am sorry I ever agreed to this dialogue.” He broke into tears and put his head down into his hands.
You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. A large knot was developing in my lower intestines. After a moment of silence one of the Adventist scholars spoke up and said, “You call us a ‘sect,’ we are no true Christian church. But let me be clear that we don’t care what you think. You can think and say what you want, but we will go on and think and say whatever we want. What you think doesn’t matter.” Somehow that approach didn’t strike me as particularly helpful at that moment! While the German professor was rather abrasive in his own right, he was a sincere follower of Jesus and was truly distressed by the teaching he had heard.
The key perhaps isn’t so much what you share but how you share it. When the mark of the beast message comes across as “We’re better than you and our grandchildren will be better than yours,” there is a prideful aspect to the message that can seem downright wrong to honest, heartfelt followers of Jesus. And in the process we may leave the impression we think God hates Catholics and anyone else that doesn’t toe the line. The reality is that God loves all the creatures He has made and His warnings are designed to redeem not to condemn. The mere fact that the final judgments have been delayed for nearly 2000 years shows God’s love and patience for sinners of all kinds, including Adventist kinds. Perhaps the best way to share the mark of the beast is with the kind of humility that acknowledges how easy it is to lose one’s way. Given enough time, what religious institution has ever avoided putting the institution ahead of the mission? The papacy is the poster child for a problem that has affected all religious institutions to one degree or another.
Story will be concluded in the next blog. . . .