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Fundamental Belief Number 27 (The Millennium and the End of Sin)

The millennium is the thousand-year reign of Christ with His saints in heaven between the first and second resurrections. During this time the wicked dead will be judged; the earth will be utterly desolate, without living human inhabitants, but occupied by Satan and his angels. At its close Christ with His saints and the Holy City will descend from heaven to earth. The unrighteous dead will then be resurrected, and with Satan and his angels will surround the city; but fire from God will consume them and cleanse the earth. The universe will thus be freed of sin and sinners forever. (Jer. 4:23-26; Ezek. 28:18, 19; Mal. 4:1; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3; Rev. 20; 21:1-5.) (Rev. 20; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3; Jer. 4:23-26; Rev. 21:1-5; Mal. 4:1; Eze. 28:18, 19.)

There were no changes in this fundamental, other than the usual rearrangement of Bible texts. When first introduced to the millennium many wonder as to its purpose. Why a resurrection of all the wicked simply to face a second death? Sigve Tonstad, in his dissertation at St. Andrews University in Scotland, notes the odd reality that everything seems settled and the victory of Christ is assured at the Second Coming, yet there is a new resurrection and a new conflict after the millennium. This only makes sense in light of the cosmic conflict articulated in Revelation 12 (and FB8) and hinted at in many other parts of the Bible. There are broader issues in the universe than simply the salvation of humanity or the superior power of God. There are issues in the cosmic conflict of the character of God and the accusations of Satan. These issues require one final confrontation at the end of the millennium, where God’s character is finally vindicated and Satan’s character finally and fully exposed. So in the larger picture of a cosmic conflict, the millennium plays an important role.

The release of Satan at the end of the millennium is a big surprise. After all, he is the ultimate villain of universal history. Confining him (Rev 20:1-3) seems like the intelligent thing to do. Yet at the end of the millennium he is not only released, the text says that he “must be set free.” Why does this happen? Clearly the capture and release of Satan means that he is an extremely important character in the story. In spite of all the suffering and anguish he has caused, it is necessary for him to be released one last time to demonstrate what happens to an individual who nurtures rebellion and sin. After a thousand years to contemplate his deeds, his character is completely exposed by his actions after his release. Repentance and reform are no longer of interest to him, he is bent on destruction of the most magnificent thing any creature has seen, God’s amazing New Jerusalem. But he also contains within his sinful self the seeds of his own destruction (Ezek 28:18).

As noted in this fundamental, Revelation 20 describes the destruction of the wicked as “fire from God” (Rev 20:9). The cosmic conflict is often portrayed in graphic military language (see Rev 19:14-15, for example, see also Rev 12:7-8). Yet under the surface of the military language there is a spiritual reality in play (Rev 12:11-12; 19:11, note also the spiritual context of Armageddon—16:15). So one can read Revelation through two different lenses. The first is the more popular reading which focuses on the surface of the text and seems to portray earthly battles, sometimes even in a Middle Eastern context (Rev 16:12). But a careful re-reading of the book shows a deeper dimension, a cosmic conflict behind all the earthly conflicts, a universal war of words over the respective characters of Christ and Satan. This more detailed reading can reconcile the seeming conflict between the idea that God destroys the wicked and sin’s own tendency to self-destruction. Throughout the Bible, the wrath of God often turns out to be God sadly turning away from those who no longer want Him and allowing them to reap the consequences of their own choices (Ezek 28:18; Hos 11:1-9; Rom 1:24-28). Why would it be any different at the End?

Modern cosmology has certainly changed the size of the universe in our minds. It is infinitely larger than anything the ancients might have had reason to suspect. The ancients did, however, know that the universe was very big. Because of electric lights, we don’t see the sky as clearly as they did, so we miss many things. Modernity has a certain superiority complex that we know infinitely more than the ancients did. That certainly true in some ways, but the opposite is also true in some matters.

Fundamental Belief Number 26 (Death and Resurrection)

The wages of sin is death. But God, who alone is immortal, will grant eternal life to His redeemed. Until that day death is an unconscious state for all people. When Christ, who is our life, appears, the resurrected righteous and the living righteous will be glorified and caught up to meet their Lord. The second resurrection, the resurrection of the unrighteous, will take place a thousand years later. (Job 19:25-27; Ps. 146:3, 4; Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10; Dan. 12:2, 13; John 5:28, 29; 11:11-14; Rom. 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; 1 Tim. 6:16; Rev. 20:1-10.) (Job 19:25-27; Ps. 146:3, 4; Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10; Dan. 12:2, 13; Isa. 25:8; John 5:28, 29; 11:11-14; Rom. 6:23; 16; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 20:1-10.)

There were no changes in this fundamental other than the usual rearrangement of Bible texts. The Adventist view on the “state of the dead” actually depends on the “state of the living.” The foundation of this perspective is the unified view of human nature (see FB 7, The Nature of Humanity). In the Adventist view, which increasing numbers of scholars consider the biblical view, body and “soul” are necessarily interconnected, the one cannot live without the other. When the body dies, therefore, all consciousness ceases. There are no thoughts or plans without the body, and there is no return to life without the body, hence a bodily resurrection is needed for life to return.

In spite of its strong biblical foundation, this is one of the most controversial of Adventist doctrines in the wider world. Major figures like Rob Bell and Nancy Murphy, who have adopted positions on death similar to Adventists, have faced more opposition on this issue than any other. Many people recoil from the doctrine because it seems to take away the assurance that “mom is in heaven now.” The idea that the person is “asleep” in death does not strike them as comforting. But in fact, the Adventist teaching takes nothing away and gives much in return. If the person is completely unconscious with no sense of the passage of time, then the next thing the believer experiences after death is the face of Jesus. In their experience their “ascension to heaven” will truly have occurred in an instant. But the bonus in the biblical perspective is that the whole community is resurrected together, at the same time (1 Thess 4:15-18). So the community is preserved. Mom is not up in heaven alone for a time, but is immediately joined in resurrection by all her loved ones, living or dead, at the Second Coming of Jesus.

This fundamental mentions two resurrections, a resurrection of the righteous and a resurrection of the unrighteous, separated by a thousand years. So everyone who ever lived will be resurrected, it is their relation to Jesus that will determine the timing. But an important aspect of the biblical teaching on resurrection is missing. John 5:28-29 is mentioned in the text list because it describes the two resurrections mentioned in the statement. But John 5:24-25 is left out. There resurrection is not just a future bodily event, it becomes a metaphor for the life transformation that occurs when the gospel is received and the Holy Spirit enters the believer’s life. In the words of Paul, believers in Christ can “know the power of His resurrection” (Phil 3:10). The life-giving power of God, which raised Christ from the dead and will one day raise all others, can also bring resurrection life into our experience today. This theme is widespread in the New Testament.

I was once talking with Lyn Behrens, former president of Loma Linda University. She said something quite startling. She said, “I have come to believe that it is possible to die whole.” Death is inevitable in this life, but how one dies matters. It is possible to face death as a whole person in spite of the deterioration of the body. She felt that Loma Linda University should be the place where people can experience a “good death,” if there is such a thing. The biblical doctrine of death and resurrection should not only benefit those who remain living but also those going through the process of dying itself.

In our faculty discussion at the School of Religion, someone raised the issue of “baptism for the dead” (1 Cor 15:29). This mysterious text has baffled scholars through the years, it is a concept unique to that text in Scripture and neither the biblical context nor ancient practices illuminates what Paul was talking about. The most that can be said is that it must have been a local practice of the church at Corinth that Paul wasn’t sure he could buy into, but was willing to use as an illustration of his larger point on death and resurrection. He was meeting them where they were. The core message of 1 Corinthians, which we do understand, is that the resurrection of Christ guarantees the resurrection of those who trust Him. Faith is not for this life only, but is the beginning of a beautiful relationship with God that climaxes in a new order at the resurrection (1 Cor 15:12-23).

Thoughts on the Inauguration and Bible Prophecy

I’ll do my best to be non-partisan in my remarks below. Some have wondered if the election of Trump and the threats to the inauguration would have prophetic significance. I would suggest that we tend to blow current events out of proportion, simply because they are what we know and our fears for the future magnify them. A lesson or two from history may be helpful.

John Adams was so contemptuous of Thomas Jefferson that he left the White House in the middle of the night on March 4, 1801, refusing to attend the inaugural ceremony of the man who had vanquished him.

Democrat Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote in 1876, was urged to lead an army into Washington to stop the “corrupt” handover of power by Congress to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes; luckily, Tilden declined. Nonetheless, Tilden and his backers insisted they had been robbed. President Hayes was thereafter called “His Fraudulency.”

So bitter was the rivalry between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt that they said not a word to each other during the 1933 inaugural drive from the White House to the Capitol. Hoover and Roosevelt never reconciled, and they hurled insults at one another with regularity. The last three paragraphs are are deeply indebted to a brilliant essay posted earlier today: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/political_commentary/commentary_by_larry_j_sabato/the_end_of_the_beginning.

As riveting as the current election and its aftermath have been, in many ways it is nothing new, so breathe out slowly everyone, relax, and enjoy the ride, wherever it leads. Prophecy is not concerned with the ins and outs of political intrigue. It is written to provide direction and hope to the people of God. No matter how out of control things appear, God is still in control.

Fundamental Belief Number 25 (The Second Coming of Christ)

The second coming of Christ is the blessed hope of the church, the grand climax of the gospel. The Saviour’s coming will be literal, personal, visible, and worldwide. When He returns, the righteous dead will be resurrected, and together with the righteous living will be glorified and taken to heaven, but the unrighteous will die. The almost complete fulfillment of most lines of prophecy, together with the present condition of the world, indicates that Christ’s coming is near imminent. The time of that event has not been revealed, and we are therefore exhorted to be ready at all times. (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; John 14:1-3; Acts1:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:1-6; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:8; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 9:28; Rev. 1:7; 14:14-20; 19:11-21.) (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:1-6; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:8; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 9:28; Rev. 1:7; 14:14-20; 19:11-21.)

There was just one minor change in this fundamental in San Antonio, the word “imminent” was changed to “near” because the latter word is a biblical term, the former is not. As with the other FBs, the biblical reference texts have been reorganized.

We cannot overestimate the importance of the doctrine of the Second Coming to Adventist theology and experience. For many Adventists this is probably the single most important of all the fundamentals. At the very center of Adventism is the conviction that whether or not we live until the Second Coming, the first face we will see is that of Jesus.

While this fundamental speaks about heaven, there is no mention at all of what heaven is or where it is located. The Adventist fundamentals are written for Adventists and often assume things that others would not understand. Adventists have tended to take the Second Coming very literally, hence the location of heaven in the general direction of Orion has been for many an important insight. But the framers of these fundamentals were often wise in leaving out things that were not central or were held by some Adventists but not most.

The imminence of Jesus’ return has been a central theme within Adventism until very recently. Most Adventists have thought that Jesus would return within five or ten years, certainly within their lifetimes. But it is hard to maintain that kind of urgency, certainly not over several generations. This doctrine has also been infused with a lot of fear. The Second Coming is not so much a beacon of hope as a time of trouble and many other horrible things. It is the destruction of wicked people as much as the rescue of the righteous. But as time goes by Adventists are increasingly realizing that the time of trouble theme in the Bible is not nearly as pervasive as the narratives that have grown up around it.

More recently Adventists have assumed more of a New Testament approach to this doctrine, the Second Coming is about a theology of hope. It is the experience of Christ’s presence in the here and now that creates the anticipation of the “then.” The Second Coming provides the vision and incentive for Loma Linda’s mission of healing. So one of the goals of healing at Loma Linda is to provide a down payment on the glorious wholeness of God’s New Earth. While our efforts today can never equal that future, they can provide a foretaste of it. But because of this focus on healing, the how and when of the Second Coming seems less important than the meaning of the Second Coming. The Second Coming means that human suffering, as in refugee camps and Ebola clinics, is not the end of all things. Something better is coming. It is particularly when you lose someone close to you that the theology of hope that we find in the Second Coming becomes more real.

As one reads the end-time texts of the Bible it is helpful to know that the visions of the end that God gave in the Bible were always natural extensions of each prophet’s time and place. As a result, the pictures of the End were constantly shifting and it is wise not to take the details too seriously, as the Pharisees did. The Pharisees had the future so carefully charted out that they rejected the Messiah when He came, because He didn’t fit their prophetic expectations. So it is important to study the prophecies carefully, but not to take the details so seriously that we miss the real thing when it comes.

In many ways, Adventist expectation of the End has been a lot like that of the Early Church. The Early Church passed through a period of intense and imminent expectation followed by a long-term settling in to the mission that Jesus left them. An important delay text is 2 Peter 3. A day with the Lord is like 1000 years. The answers to the delay in the New Testament are great ones, but they are not found in this fundamental or in the texts listed below it (although 2 Peter 3 is mentioned in Fundamental 28).

The doctrine of the Second Coming is important enough to Adventists that four different fundamentals are needed to address different aspects of it (FBs 25-28). And the story does not end with the Second Coming itself. In John 14 and 1 Thessalonians 4, the Second Coming means that we go to God. But at the end of Revelation 20, God comes to us. None of the Second Coming hymns talk about this! God is coming to us. He wants us in heaven, but then when the new earth is renewed, He comes to earth with us! He not only comes to us but He stays with us. In the larger picture of the Bible, God comes to us at least four times; in creation, in salvation, at the Second Coming and at the Third Coming (see also Fundamentals 27 and 28).

Issues with the Blog Site

Friends, I just went deep into the blog site and discovered that eight months of comments had not been approved or responded to. My web master has had a lot of things to deal with recently and has not been able to play that role. It never occurred to me that I could or should approve comments on a regular basis to keep things flowing. My apologies. I have responded to nearly every comment now and hope that you will forgive the delay. I appreciate this online community very much.

From Waco to Isis: The Roots of Radical Jihadism

My initial impression after September 11 was that it was the work of “crazy people,” people suffering from a deep mental illness of some sort. But as profiles of the terrorists emerged, that scenario was not supported. Instead, the actions of bin Laden and his cohorts on September 11 were a carefully crafted irregular type of warfare (which is why the word “attack” is often used for terrorist actions). And that warfare was grounded in a view of history quite different from the view traditionally taught in Western schools. The opening salvo of that new war was met with far more approval from sane and rational people in the islamic world (from Morocco to Malaysia) than I would have imagined. Why was that the case? I began researching Islam and the Qur’an, looking for the roots of radical Islam. It would be unfair to assume that the terrorists were normal, everyday Muslims, just as it was unfair to assume that Koresh was a normal, everyday Adventist. Nevertheless, in each case, their disturbing view of the world was heavily grounded and justified by important islamic and Adventist ideas respectively. But before we get to the religious ideas behind the jihadist actions, I will begin with an analysis of history from the islamic perspective.

From the islamic perspective, the root of most problems in the islamic world are the result of colonialism. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire (based in modern-day Turkey but extending from North Africa into central Asia) after World War I, the victorious European powers (England, France, Italy) divided up the former Ottoman lands into artificial “countries,” whose boundaries were chosen by outsiders with little or no sense of the impact on the ground. For example, the new colonial boundaries ignored tribal connections. The Hashemite tribe extends from modern-day Jordan deep into western Saudi Arabia. But the colonial borders split the tribe in half. The Houthi tribe was split between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And pertinent to the formation of ISIS, the Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq was split into eastern Syria and western Iraq. What had once been natural communities were now divided into different countries with all the barriers to travel and divided loyalties that could arise from that.

Similarly, the colonial borders also ignored religious divisions and connections. The main body of Shiite Muslims live in an arc running from Iran to Lebanon. But in the heart of this Shiite arc is a strong contingent of Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority in Syria and western Iraq, but are a minority in Lebanon and Iraq as a whole. Although a minority within the arc, Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are supported by their compatriots in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But to make it even more complicated, within this volatile Sunni-Shia mix are a significant element of secularized Arabs who are not completely comfortable with either Sunni or Shiite militancy. It is doubtful if any system of borders in the Middle East could fully accommodate this complexity, but it is clear to jihadists that the borders instituted by the Western powers do not serve islamic interests and should be considered null and void.

A further aspect of colonialism that still impacts things today was the tendency of the European powers to rule these “countries” through a social elite. Rather than installing true democracies, the colonialists ruled through local elites (people already recognized locally for their wealth and influence) who were often Western educated and generally supported the colonial powers in exchange for additional wealth and power. This approach created a serious divide between the mass of common people and the authorities (such as tribal chiefs) who had once ruled by popular consent but now were in power as the “lackeys” of foreign oppressors. Colonialism drove a wedge between the people and their traditional leaders, planting the seeds of rebellion and revolution.

Opposition to the colonial powers came from two main sources. The first group of opponents were the “pan-Arabists,” who were secular and dreamed of a “United Arab Republic,” a “United States” of the Arab peoples who dominate the landscape from Morocco to Iraq. Their goal was to overthrow the colonial powers and replace them with a home-grown Arab version of the secular West (or at times the Communist ideology). The big pan-Arabist name in the middle of the Twentieth Century was Gamal Abdul Nasser, who for a time ruled Egypt and Syria, calling the combined states the United Arab Republic. Figures like him were replaced with the current generation; al-Sisi in Egypt, Yasser Arafat in Palestine, King Hussein in Jordan, Bashar Assad in Syria, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The second group of opponents to colonialism were the “pan-Isalmists,” whose vision was based in the islamic religion and thus transcended ethnicity. Pan-Islamists dreamed of a “caliphate” (an islamic version of Israel’s theocracy– direct rule by God) which would expand far beyond the Arab world, including Muslim-dominated countries all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia. While the pan-Arabists centered their goals on a society run by and for Arabs, the pan-Islamists centered their goals on a society ruled by islamic principles. The biggest islamic “success story” in the Twentieth Century occurred first in Saudi Arabia and then, after 1979, Khomeini’s Iran. In these countries a board of islamic clergy had ultimate veto power over elected or appointed governments.

Those who were promoting islamic rule were not crazy. There was a deep and penetrating analysis of reality behind it. We cannot even begin to deal with the jihadist mentality unless we understand the theology and the philosophy behind it. Next time. . .

The Trajectory of Leadership Language in the First Christian Century

Shortly after the close of the New Testament canon (110 AD), the early church father Ignatius describes a three-part system of leadership that had developed by his time:
“You must all follow the bishop (episkopos), as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery (council of elders– presbuteros) as you would the apostles; respect the deacons (diakonos) as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop or whomever he himself designates is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic (universal) church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid.” (Ignatius, Letter to the Church at Smyrna, 8:1-2. Translation taken from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, second edition, edited and translated by J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 188-191. Material in parentheses is mine.)

In many ways an outline like this is more structured and defined than the realities exhibited in the New Testament. For the New Testament offices were a means to an end, not the ends themselves. For Ignatius, on the other hand, each office has a fixed place in a hierarchy with an overseer (bishop) at the head with a council of elders subordinate to him and a group of deacons serving both. The question to be addressed here is when such a structure developed and what stages led from the charismatic leadership of the earliest church to the situation described by Ignatius around 110 AD. The primary body of evidence for the situation of the first century church is in the New Testament itself.

The earliest church began with a charismatic leadership made up of apostles and prophets, who emerged naturally through giftedness or a direct appointment from Jesus or the original twelve. As the church grew and the apostles spread out or died off, a non-charismatic leadership of appointment was soon required. To be an overseer or a deacon was also based on a “gift” (Rom. 12: 7-8; 1 Cor. 12:28), but these gifts could only be exercised after a person was elected and called by the community to a position of leadership.

While the first century cultural context was preoccupied with titles of office, Paul often refers to the leaders of churches without any reference to titles, and does not mention the term “elder” until fairly late. There seems to have been a concern not to encourage pride in leadership and hierarchy and to emphasize the Christ-centered nature of Christian leadership. Nevertheless, offices and titles came to be needed within a generation of the church’s first leaders.

One thing to keep in mind when assessing church organization in the first century is that most Christian gatherings occurred in private homes and were fairly small, even in urban settings. A city like Rome or Ephesus might have hundreds of Christians but they would be scattered in groups of 10-50 all over the city (compare Rom. 1:7 with 16:5). The fact that an important qualification for the position of “overseer” is to be able to handle one’s own family is a natural consequence of the house-church reality (1 Tim. 3:4-5). House churches were not much bigger than an extended family.

In developing offices and titles, the earliest churches had three major models of leadership to choose from in defining their own patterns of leadership: 1) what they had experienced  in Judaism and the synagogue, 2) those displayed in the Greco-Roman family system, and 3) patterns of governance observed in the Greco-Roman state and society. We have observed evidence that the New Testament writers deliberately avoided the leadership language and titles associated with the Greco-Roman political and social environment. Such titles and language were considered inappropriate to the servant model they had observed in Jesus Christ.

The Ignatian pattern, therefore, seems to have resulted from a somewhat awkward  merging of the other two models of leadership, those found in the synagogue and the home. The well-to-do Greco-Roman household had an overseer, usually the patriarch of the family and it also had a number of servants, who cared for the physical needs of the household. In a spiritual context, this could have given rise to the positions of overseer and deacon in a typical house church. From Judaism and the synagogue, the church inherited the concept of “elder” and a council of elders, although, as we have seen, there were analogies to the positions of overseer and deacon as well.

Andrew Clarke, building on the work of R. Alastair Campbell, surmises that each house church might have come to be run by an overseer/elder. Over time, cities with multiple house churches would have developed a council of elders made up of the overseers of all the house churches. Eventually, in the absence of apostles, the council would select one of its members to be the overseer of the whole group of churches in a given city or region. This hypothesis is supported by 1 Timothy 5:17, which indicates that all elders had a ruling role, but not all elders were teachers.

Since Paul does not use the title “elder” in his earlier letters, only in the later letters to Timothy and Titus, the household model seems to have held sway at first in the Pauline churches, linking up with the synagogue model only toward the end of Paul’s lifetime. By the time of Ignatius, some forty years later, the process seems to have reached a settled conclusion.

The kind of structure the church developed by the beginning of the second century was not the result of perverse decisions, it was the natural development of a process where one decision leads to another and the outcome is often unforseen. The question that remains is how those who know the New Testament today should do leadership differently as a result of that knowledge.