Author Archives: Jon Paulien

Questions and Answers (1:2)

Lou Venden: We should not use the idea of God’s sovereignty as an excuse to ignore issues related to His character.

Graham Maxwell: I think where that idea really comes from is Romans 9, where you have the verse, “who are you to question God? Who are you to answer back to God?” (Rom 9:14-26, especially 20-21) But Romans 9, I believe, has been misunderstood by some very saintly people, including a notable theologian in reformation days. One really needs to put Romans 9 in the whole context of Romans —certainly in the context of chapters 1 through 9.

In Romans 1-8, Paul has been saying to his audience (which is made up of both Jews and Gentiles) “I have great good news for you. God will save all who trust Him—whether you are Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female. He’ll save everybody who trusts Him.” And as Paul was developing chapters 1-8, he could sense that certain members of His audience (descended from Abraham) were not taking this too kindly, because they thought that they had a special relationship with God. It was as if God had made a deal with their ancestor in their behalf. That’s why they were so concerned with things like their genealogy.

When Paul got to the end of chapter 8, therefore, he sensed that some of his readers would be quite offended. So in essence he turned to them and said, “I sense that some of you don’t like what I’ve said, that God is the kind of God that would save all who trust Him. But when you think that way, aren’t you suggesting that you would run the universe better than God? Are you saying God cannot save all who trust Him? Let me tell you something: God is going to run this universe precisely as He wishes. Just as the potter takes a lump of clay, and makes of the same clay a vessel for honor, and a vessel for dishonor (Rom 9:21), so God has the right—if He wants to exercise it—to run His universe any way He likes!”

Some people take that out of context and say, “God takes the material we are all made of and makes some to be saved and some to be lost. So, what’s the use of trying to know Him at all? Our destiny has already been determined.” No, what Paul is saying in Romans 9 is that God has just as much authority as the potter—actually much more so. He created this universe. He’s going to run it precisely as He wishes. And He won’t ever change. You can count on it. Does Romans 9 mean that God is arbitrary? Not in the context of chapters 1-8 where Paul has already explained how God runs the universe. God is so infinitely gracious that He values nothing higher than our freedom, and will save all who trust Him. But He doesn’t expect us to trust Him as a stranger, so at infinite cost He has revealed the truth about Himself. And that’s what Paul’s implied audience didn’t like. So Paul is really saying in Romans 9, “You impudent, irreverent people. How dare you tell God how to run His universe! How does God run His universe? Please read Romans 1-8. God’s treatment of the universe is infinitely gracious.”

Lou: But that raises another question, why would a God who is infinitely powerful, who can run the universe any way He wants to, allow a conflict like the one we read about in the twelfth chapter of Revelation? Why would He allow a war in heaven to happen?

Graham: That’s a great question. If God has that much authority and power, how could a war in heaven even take place? This question is the reason why those who stress the sovereignty of God have great difficulty allowing for a war in heaven. And it’s the reason many of the reformers really couldn’t use that sixty-sixth book of the Bible. Luther, for example, says “it was fancied that there was a war.” He just couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea. But to me it’s one of the most wonderful things about God. Though He had the infinite power necessary to stop such a war before it even started, He did not do so. God must consider something else of far greater value than our mere submission to His power, because He allowed Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven to grow and grow. By secular standards of good administration, God was weak. It was bad management. I mean, how long would a pastor last in our church, if there was such chaos in the membership? The committee would meet!

Lou: The pastor would move on, wouldn’t he!

Graham: Yes. Shall we ask God to move on, then, because of weakness on His part? We know He has infinite power, yet He allowed this war to develop. He allowed the questions to arise. That tells me there is something of even greater importance to God than our mere submission to His infinite power.

Questions and Answers (1:1)

In the original conversations, Graham Maxwell delivered a monologue on each topic and then Lou Vended (pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time) followed up with his own questions triggered by the monologue and questions written down by people in the audience. The questions and answers sometimes ramble, as conversations do, but they are always interesting.

Lou Venden: We’re calling this book Conversations About God. But just above you said that Jesus is the one who reveals God; if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen the Father. Then why shouldn’t this book be called “Conversations About Jesus”?

Graham Maxwell: I’ve run into that question several times. Since Jesus is the one who came to reveal the truth, why don’t we talk more about Him? This implies some interesting things. If we believe that Jesus Christ is God, when we talk about Christ we are talking about God anyway. If the whole purpose of His coming to this earth is to reveal the truth about His Father, He is also revealing the truth about Himself. So whether we talk about God or Christ, we’re talking about God. But I think it adds focus to our discussion to say that the ultimate question really is about God. It is God who came in human form as Christ; this is the ultimate method He used to reveal the truth about Himself. In a sense it is much ado about nothing when someone asks, “shall we talk about God, or shall we talk about Christ?”

Lou: If I’m hearing you rightly, you’re saying that Jesus Himself would really be happiest if we’re talking about the One He came to reveal.

Graham: I’m impressed that when Jesus was here, He would suggest, “Don’t look to Me, look to the Father” (see John 5:19, 30; 8:28-29; 14:6-11; 15:15; 16:26-27) It suggests to me that we should always outdo one another in giving honor. The Trinity does that. The Son is always outdoing Himself to give honor to the Father. But I have noticed that it comes back the other way as well—the Father gives the Son a name above every other name (Phil 2:9-11). And the Holy Spirit, in a self-effacing way, is always drawing our attention to the Father and the Son (John 4:23-24; 15:26; 16:13-14). The way those three divine persons behave is a model to us.

Lou: Here’s a related question: How can you really have a conversation about God? After all, how can we really know God? Take Paul’s statement in Romans 11:33 (RSV): “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways.” If that’s the case, who are we to question? God is sovereign, so why should we be sitting here having conversations about God?”

Graham: Ah, who are we to question the inscrutable ways of God? And that’s in Romans. But we need to balance that with Romans 1:19-20, where Paul says (in my words) “you’re without excuse if you don’t know God.” So on the principle of taking the Bible as a whole, and not just “here a little and there a little,” I would have to put Romans 1 alongside Romans 11.

I think when Paul is saying that God’s thoughts are so far above ours (see also Isaiah 55:8-9), that is a reverent recognition that God is infinite. Think of all He knows! We’ll never fully understand God; we’re mere creatures. And at times we need to be reminded of His infinite superiority. But then it’s marvelous that the Infinite One would want to be known.

All through the Bible He says things like “Israel is destroyed because they don’t know Me” (see Hos 4:6) and “I’ve come to this earth that you may know Me” (see John 17:1-5). So it’s pretty clear God wants to be known. But we shouldn’t pretend we’re gods who could know everything that He knows.

The Larger View of the Gospel

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:5

So what is the message of the cross? Evidently it’s much more than the payment of a legal penalty so that somehow God can justly forgive you and me. The cross was also needed by the loyal angels. And this truly suggests that we ought to go back to the foot of the cross and join the family of the universe in watching closely just how Jesus died. We will listen very carefully to His words on the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?” What does that mean? And how does that suffering and death restore peace to God’s family? I believe that in the great controversy, all Christian beliefs take on much broader significance.

The gospel most certainly is the good news about what God has done for me and you. But in the larger great controversy setting, the gospel is the truth about our gracious God. It is the truth that ends the war, confirms the loyalty of the universe, and wins some of us back to repentance and to trust. I believe that the most important of all our beliefs is the truth about God. God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be—arbitrary, vengeful, and severe. He is instead precisely what His Son revealed Him to be. We believe the testimony of Jesus when He said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). God is just as loving and gracious as His Son; just as willing to forgive and heal.

Could there be any better news than that? To me, that’s the everlasting good news that maintains the loyalty of the universe. That is the gospel that wins us back, and will maintain our loyalty and trust for the rest of eternity. And this is the message we have the high privilege of sharing with people all over this planet. People who may not know they are members of God’s family. People who deserve to know, and who deserve to hear this truth. So the ultimate question for this book to address is: Can we be sure God is just like this? Jesus always welcomed questions, and we can be sure that we ought to do the same.

The Larger View of the Bible and the Cross

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:4

Not all Christians have understood the Plan of Salvation in this larger view of a cosmic conflict over the character and government of God. Even the great theologians of the Reformation did not see things in this way. Luther, for example, was preoccupied with God’s gracious provisions to save you and me. One reason Luther does not emphasize the larger view is that he was unable to make much use of the book of Revelation. Luther correctly insisted that we should use “the Bible and the Bible only” (Sola Scriptura), but he himself was not able to use all sixty-six books. He particularly regarded Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as inferior to the other books in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation he said he found “too little about Christ, and too much no one could understand.” And then he summarized, “there’s no way the Holy Spirit could have inspired this book!” But as a result of not being able to use the book of Revelation, he missed the larger view, as do many of his admirers today.

Some of us though, have been greatly helped by Luther in placing the Bible as the highest of all authorities. We have done what Luther recommended and we’ve studied the Bible seriously, not just sixty-two books or fewer, but all sixty-six. We have learned to read the Bible as a whole, and relate all its parts to the one central theme, the revelation of the truth about God in the great controversy. I have had the privilege of leading groups through all sixty-six Bible books more than a hundred times. Every time I do this it becomes even clearer to me that the Bible is an inspired record of how God handled the crisis in His family. I think if Luther were alive today, he too might rejoice in the larger view.

There are no shortcuts to trust, or the Bible would be a much briefer book. Claims prove nothing. Even when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it is only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, especially difficult ones, that trust can be re-established and confirmed.

The Bible records just such a demonstration, beginning with the entrance of sin into the universe and climaxing with the death of Christ on the cross. My understanding is that Christ died to re-establish peace in God’s family. The apostle Paul explained the purpose of the cross, and why Jesus had to die, in a number of passages. Look at Colossians 1:19-20, for example:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (RSV)

The word “reconcile” here means to atone, to bring to unity. Note also where peace is made. It is at the cross. Let’s look at the same text in another version:

For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s death on the cross, and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven. (TEV)

Notice two other passages in Ephesians that make the same point. Ephesians 1:9, 10 reads:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (RSV)

Here we have a glimpse of the ending of the war, when God’s purpose is fulfilled and the whole universe will be united. Uniting all things is the opposite of war; when you have unity you also have peace. Now the other text, Ephesians 3:9, 10:

. . . and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (RSV)

According to Ephesians, the way God is demonstrating the truth about Himself and winning the war is through His church, through His people. This is explained in a dramatic way in another of Paul’s letters, in 1 Corinthians 4:9: “. . . we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.” (RSV) The Greek word for spectacle is theatron, from which we get “theater.” Some saints might be reluctant to attend the theater, but Paul tells us we live in a theater all the time. God’s stage. And on this stage He is demonstrating the truth about Himself by the way He is dealing with His church.

God includes the whole family in the results of this demonstration. Look at John 12:32:
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to me.” (TEV) The TEV here expresses the real meaning of the original. The word for “all men” is not limited to human beings. It is the word for the entire universe; everyone and everything. Not just people on this planet, but even the loyal angels, I believe, were drawn closer to God by this costly demonstration. These verses say to me that Christ died for sinless angels too. And they certainly needed no forgiveness or adjustment of their legal standing. Yet the Bible says they needed the message of the cross as well.

Our Role in The Cosmic Conflict

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:3

Whether we want to be or not, all of us are now caught up in the consequences of this cosmic conflict regarding the character and government of God. Everyone in the universe is unavoidably involved. And the future of God’s family, to which we all belong, depends upon the outcome of this war. Compared with God’s solution of this problem, our own personal salvation, while important, is relatively inconsequential. For if God does not win this war, who would want to be saved?

For God to win this war, however, does not leave out our salvation. The way God has worked to win you and me is the same as the way in which He won the war among the angels. In other words, the methods that God has used to win us back to repentance and faith (trust) are the same methods that have led the unfallen universe to tell Him He’s absolutely trustworthy. Even if He should fail to win you and me, they will trust and worship Him for the rest of eternity because of the demonstration of His goodness and trustworthiness.

So as much as God wants to save all of us, He could fail to do this and still not lose the war. For in heavenly places the war was already won two thousand years ago. All through the book of Revelation, angels are celebrating God’s victory in the war. They never cease telling Him that He’s proved Himself to be righteous and holy and just and good and infinitely worthy of their trust (Rev 5:9-12; 15:3-4). And that victory is the foundation of our salvation.

The early Christians sorely needed Revelation’s encouraging picture of the angels celebrating, because there were several serious crises among them at that time. For one thing, the Second Coming seemed to be indefinitely delayed. They thought He would come around 50 A.D. and Paul had to tell them, “No, not yet” (2 Thess 2:1-3). There were still more things to happen (2 Thess 2:4-12). But by the 90’s Jesus had still not returned. And besides this, there were heresies in the church. Some, for example, were teaching that Christ had not really come in human form. He had not really suffered and died. He had faked it all. For that reason, they were sometimes called the Docetists (from the Greek word for “seeming to be”). And then there was great opposition, and serious persecution. Not only that, the apostles were all dead, except one. And he was the elderly John, now a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos. What good news was there to encourage the early Christians?

You can count on God, when things are that bleak, to send a message of encouragement and explanation to His people. He surely wouldn’t send a book of mysteries and dates and schedules of events that they could not possibly understand. Rather, the sixty-sixth Bible book that God did send is titled “Revelation,” or “Clarity.” The book of Revelation is an invitation to discouraged early Christians to look a little higher, to take the larger view of things. It helped them see how they’d all been caught up in a vast conflict that affects the whole universe! And that it’s a conflict over God’s own character and government.

Not only that, as you read through the book of Revelation you see that God has already won this war, and the angels in heaven all agree with Him. This is the good news. Revelation also invites us to join in the celebration; and then to go out to the world and invite all who are willing to listen, to join in God’s victory in the war. When Christians discover this larger view of things, they don’t need to be on the defensive all the time; they have good news to tell. There is no way God and His side can lose. The invitation of the Bible’s sixty-sixth book is to join the winning side.

The book of Revelation also says that you can count on God to wait until this truth about Him, this good news about His character and government, has been spread all over the world. God is the kind of person who will wait until His children have had an opportunity to understand the issues in the war. He wants them to be ready for the awesome events the Bible describes as taking place before Jesus’ return. The highest privilege of God’s friends on this planet today is to understand and to present the plan of salvation in the larger setting of the great controversy.

Summing up, the first step in the journey of faith is to recognize that we are sinners and that we need to be saved. It is understandable, therefore, that at first we might be preoccupied with what God has done in order that we might be saved. But as we grow in the journey of faith, and our knowledge of the Bible deepens, and we learn to take the Bible as a whole. It then becomes apparent that our own personal salvation (important as that is) is only a small part of a far larger picture that involves the peace and security of the whole vast universe. It involves the confirmation of the truth about our God Himself.

The Origin of the Adversary (Satan)

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:2

Looking far in the past when there once was peace, a crisis of distrust broke out in God’s family. Sin in its essence is a breach, a breakdown of trust. And thus sin entered our universe for the first time. We all know the story if we’ve ever read the Bible through. It begins with the most brilliant of all God’s creatures. He is pictured in Ezekiel 28 as standing in the very presence of God. He is pictured in Isaiah 14 as knowing God so well that he went forth from the presence of God bearing light and truth to his fellow angels. That is why he was given the name Lucifer (Isa 14:12, KJV), which is a Latin term for “bearer of light” or teacher of truth. A Greek version of the same name is applied to Jesus Christ Himself in Revelation (Rev 22:16 [morning star], see also John 1:4-5). So Lucifer had a Jesus-like role among the angels before sin.

But moved by jealousy and pride, this brilliant, most trusted, even revered angel, set out to undermine trust in God by circulating misinformation and lies about our heavenly Father. And thus he became, not a bearer of light and a teacher of truth, but a bearer of lies. The name Lucifer no longer applies to him. He no longer bears light, he is now the bearer of lies. His real name is Satan, the opponent, the adversary.

And how this adversary worked among the angels! In a pious manner he insinuated that God Himself was an untrustworthy liar. Specifically, he charged that God did not respect the freedom of His children; He was arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. With carefully chosen words he hoped to turn his fellow angels away from God, and win them to worship him instead. It seems unbelievable that a creature could presume to think of himself as God, and suggest that angels worship him. But the Bible records that Satan (Lucifer) is actually capable of such insanity (Isa 14:12-14):

How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, (Lucifer in the KJV) son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.” (RSV)

Later on Satan even asked his creator to get down on His knees in the wilderness of temptation and worship His own creature (Matt 4:8-11):

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. (RSV)

The angels watched that whole experience. They must have been stunned to see one of
their fellow angels, a created being, asking God to get down on His knees and worship.

God bore long and patiently as He watched this insurrection developing in His family. He watched until one-third of His brilliant, intelligent angels agreed with Satan that God was not worthy of their trust. This means that even God, though infinite in power, could not persuade one-third of the brilliant angels that Satan’s charges were false. Finally, as we saw in Revelation 12, war broke out in Heaven.

Satan not only shared these false charges (that God is an untrustworthy liar) with the angels, he wasted no time passing them on to our first parents in the garden, thus involving us in the conflict as well (Gen 3:1-5):

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (RSV)

The word “subtle” in this text means the serpent was more cunning or crafty than any other creature God made. I don’t blame Eve for wanting to be like God, isn’t that your prayer as well? But here the serpent (Satan) deceived her into thinking there was a miraculous shortcut to becoming like God.

The Conflict in God’s Family

With this blog we begin chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:1

Even though our heavenly Father is so incredibly gracious, even toward those of us who have misbehaved, the Bible describes an amazing reality. Conflict broke out in God’s family, even to the extent of war in heaven. The most vivid description of this war is presented in the last of the sixty-six books of the Bible, the book of Revelation (12:7-12):

“Then war broke out in heaven! Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, who fought back with his angels; but the dragon was defeated, and he and his angels were not allowed to stay in heaven any longer. The huge dragon was thrown out! He is that old serpent, named the Devil, or Satan, that deceived the whole world. He was thrown down to earth, and all his angels with him.
“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven saying: “Now God’s salvation has come! Now God has shown his power as King! Now his Messiah has shown his authority! For the accuser of our brothers, who stood before God accusing them day and night, has been thrown out of heaven. Our brothers won the victory over him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the truth which they proclaimed; and they were willing to give up their lives and die. And so rejoice, you heavens, and all you who live there! But how terrible for the earth and the sea! For the Devil has come down to you, and he is filled with rage, for he knows that he has only a little time left.” (TEV)

As we hear these words, it’s good to reflect that before there was war, there was peace throughout the whole universe. There was peace because all the members of God’s vast family trusted each other, and all of them trusted their heavenly Father. The Father in turn could safely trust in them. Where there is such mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect freedom. Perfect peace. Perfect security. And that’s the way it’s going to be in the hereafter. The Bible never talks about prisons in eternity. There will be no police on every corner. And women can safely walk the streets alone at any hour.

How the prophets must have enjoyed describing the peace, security, and freedom of the hereafter! They do this in many places. Isaiah, for example, says there will be wolves, leopards and lions mixed in with the farm animals. And little children will lead them (Isa 11:6-9). While there may be lions in heaven, there will be no reason to be afraid. Zechariah offers another beautiful picture. He says that in the city to come, elderly men and women will sit in the streets with staff in hand, while boys and girls play safely there (Zech 8:4-5). But not yet.

Preface to Conversations About God, by A. Graham Maxwell, edited by Jon Paulien

Beginning today, I am taking renowned oral presentations made in 1984 and shaping them into a readable book. I have taken on this book project and give you a sneak preview here with permission of Maxwell’s surviving family. The words that follow are from the Preface of the in-progress book.

Conversations About God 0

This book is entitled Conversations About God not only because of its content, but in order to make available in written form a series of twenty programs by that name presented at the Loma Linda University Church in 1984. In that memorable series, Dr. A. Graham Maxwell opened each evening’s topic with a presentation, followed by questions and comments from the audience, moderated by then-pastor Louis Venden. The book you hold in your hands is an edited version of the original “conversations.” The editor, Jon Paulien, has sought to preserve the flavor of the original conversations as much as possible.

These conversations offer another look at our heavenly Father in the larger setting of a universe-wide conflict over His character and government. God is infinite in majesty and power. Yet when He came in human form, He didn’t try to intimidate or overwhelm people with a show of majesty and power. Instead, He sat down among them. He conversed with them. He even invited their questions. As a matter of fact, Jesus taught some of His most important truths while reclining at a table, eating supper with His audiences.

As indicated in the title of this book, these twenty conversations will be primarily about God. But one could fairly raise the question, whose God are we going to talk about? God is not the exclusive property of Seventh-day Adventists. The Methodists and the Baptists worshipped God before Adventists came on the scene. The Lutherans were worshiping God before the Methodists and Baptists came on the scene. The Jews were worshipping centuries before there were any Christians. Adam and Eve were worshipping before there were any Jews and, before there were any people on our planet, so were the loyal angels throughout the universe.

God belongs to all of us. While there are religious differences among us, and those differences may be important, we are all members of His family. Or should we rather say that only the good ones among us are members of God’s family? Is it the way you count your children? Today you report you have one child; tomorrow maybe three. And the next day only two? Because you only acknowledge the children who are behaving well? Frankly we have all misbehaved. And yet God recognizes every one of us, counts every one of us, as members of the family of the universe. It is this amazing, gracious God that is the subject of this book. And “conversations” like this are needed today and will continue, because even eternity will not be long to enough to fully understand and celebrate our God.

Conversations About God

I have exciting news. For a little over a year now I have been editing a famous series of lectures (1984) called “Conversations About God” by Graham Maxwell. These 20 lectures were each followed by questions and answers with Lou Venden, pastor of the LLU Church at the time. This series most articulately sums up Maxwell’s theology of the Great Controversy over the character and government of God, but has never come out in print due to it’s oral nature. With the encouragement of his family and a close friend of his, I have been going through the lectures, updating and editing them into language more appropriate to book form than the original. While publication is still probably a year or more away, I have just received permission to publish excerpts in my blog, which I will begin to do in the next week. For those who knew him, this will be a wonderful reminder. For those who have never heard or read him, you will be amazed at his passion for God and the clarity of his vision. Feedback is not only welcome, it will be greatly appreciated. Stay tuned.

Fundamental Belief Number 28 (The New Earth)

On the new earth, in which righteousness dwells, God will provide an eternal home for the redeemed and a perfect environment for everlasting life, love, joy, and learning in His presence. For here God Himself will dwell with His people, and suffering and death will have passed away. The great controversy will be ended, and sin will be no more. All things, animate and inanimate, will declare that God is love; and He shall reign forever. Amen. (Isa. 35; 65:17-25; Matt. 5:5; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 11:15; 21:1-7; 22:1-5.) (2 Pet. 3:13; Isa. 35; 65:17-25; Matt. 5:5; Rev. 11:15; 21:1-7; 22:1-5.)

There were no changes in this fundamental, other than the usual rearrangement of Bible texts. Revelation 21-22 are the key chapters behind this fundamental. These chapters build very strongly on a number of Old Testament contexts; Genesis 1-2, the Hebrew sanctuary, the historical accounts of the original Jerusalem and Ezekiel 47. This fundamental focuses on the conclusion of the Great Controversy story when “sin and sinners will be no more.” One of the mysterious things promised in these chapters is the “healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). This is not so much a reference to the healing of human bodies and minds, but rather healing between peoples and nations. But as a part of this prophecy, it is a call for readers to anticipate the New Jerusalem by seeking social justice on this earth now.

There are a couple of other beautiful promises in Revelation 22:1-4. It is said that the saved will “see His face.” It is not clear if the “His” refers to “God” or the “Lamb” (Jesus Christ). Face to face contact with God was extremely limited in Old Testament times but became real on earth with the incarnation of Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14). The ultimate privilege of human existence is to be face to face with God, but without any fear (unlike Genesis 3:10).

Both the Bible and this fundamental belief indicate that death itself will have passed away. That makes sense on the large-scale human perspective. But does that cover all forms of death? Cell death and replacement are an important piece of healthy existence as we know it. The death and decay of plants provides nutrients for the soil. The human process of eating involves the extinction of plants and their fruits. So how literally are we to take the “no more death” (Rev 21:1-4)? Death itself is literal, but some death is necessary for life, at least as we experience it. Since the Bible was not written in the distant past to provide modern scientific information, we should probably be cautious as to how far we take this assertion.

Also, what does it mean that suffering will have passed away? Will we never stub a toe? Bump heads accidentally? Some suggest that true enjoyment is enhanced when you have something else to compare it to. In The Matrix it was argued that the complete absence of suffering would not be a desirable state for human beings. It is contended that suffering at some level is necessary for paradise and true happiness to exist. So FB 28 is clear in practical terms, but doesn’t answer all the questions that could be asked. When it comes to eternity, our ignorance exceeds our knowledge.

The statement talks about a “perfect environment.” This suggests a new ecological order, one that is symbiotic (where creatures co-operate with each other in meeting their daily needs) rather than predatory. Such a return to the original order of things is forecast in texts like Isaiah 11:6-9, where predators and prey are on genial terms with each other. The new earth signals the end of predation. Ethicists speak of moral evil, natural evil and ecological evil. God’s new order will overcome all three.

God’s willingness to dwell with His people is amazing, given the size and scope of the universe as we have come to know it through astronomical science. While not stated explicitly, this reality implies a divine commitment to human well-being that exceeds all other divine/creature relationships. God chooses to be with humanity on earth in eternity, to permanently share His life with us. The promise of special relationship that is experienced in the Sabbath will fill the whole of eternity.

While the new earth will be real, it would probably not be wise to make too much of the details (streets of gold, gates of pearl). These are imaginative visions couched in the language of the ancient world and the historical context of God’s people as chronicled in the Old Testament. The details of such prophecies are tied more closely to the traditions of the past than to some movie of the future. This is evident, for example, in Isaiah 11, which was referenced above. Verses 15 and 16 are a prophecy of the exile to Babylon and the return. This picture of the future is grounded in the Exodus and in Isaiah’s own context. According to the chapter, Israel will come out of Assyria when a wind from God dries up the Euphrates so Israel can escape on foot through the dry river bed. Not one detail this prophecy is fulfilled as written. It is Judah that escapes Babylon, not Israel that escapes from Assyria. Why the discrepancy? Because Babylon as an empire did not exist in Isaiah’s day, it was assumed under the Assyrian Empire. And Israel had not yet been destroyed. Isaiah met people where they were at the time of the prophecy. In reality the Euphrates was not dried up by a wind from God either but through the efforts of Cyrus’ engineers. And the people of God crossed the river on bridges not the river bed. Why the discrepancy? Because the Exodus was the model for the prophecy. God projected the future in the language of Israel’s past.

With the above in mind we can say that until a prophecy is fully fulfilled, it is unwise to project every detail in advance. When God gives a vision to a prophet, that vision views the End as a natural extention of the prophet’s time and place. When the fulfillment comes, all will be clear (John 13:19; 14:29). But until then, we don’t get to decide just how the prophecy will be fulfilled. Our job is to study, pray, and wait.

While the previous paragraph may disappoint some, it is important to remember the purpose of prophecy. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future, but to teach us how to live today. These texts are much more powerful than the details of their picture of the future. They are designed to change who you are. They are in the form of stories that teach principles and shape people. They give clues to the future in order to shape who we are today. Getting the details right is less important than being transformed by the vision of the prophet.

Daily healing and transformation is what Loma Linda University Health is all about. Something similar can be said about the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists. They have been carefully crafted and each line is important. But unless we allow these ideas to transform our lives they are but “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). While they can help to shape our ideas, what really counts is whether we allow them to shape our lives, to change who we are. As we conclude this series on the 28 Fundamentals, I invite you to do just that.