What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Dark Side of Christian History

There have been and are many who wish Jesus had never been born. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous 19th Century philosopher had this to say: “(Jesus) died too early; he himself would have revoked his doctrine had he reached greater maturity. . . . (The Christian church) is, to me, the greatest of all imaginable corruptions. . . .” Nietzsche had explored the history of philosophy and found the philosophy of Jesus to have fallen short as a path to a better life in this world.

Charles Markmann, an author and New York Times journalist in the mid-20th Century wrote: “If the otherwise admirably civilized pagans of Greece and their Roman successors had had the wit to laugh Judaism into desuetude, the world would have been spared the 2000-year sickness of Christendom.” Markmann clearly thought that Judaism itself was not worthy of consideration and that Jesus had not only added nothing useful to it, but, if anything, had developed a religion that, in his mind, was even worse.

Not to be outdone, Christopher Hitchens, recently deceased author of 30 plus books and a well-known atheistic orator and debater, wrote a book entitled “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” One does not need to go far into the book to understand that when he speaks of religion he means the religion of Jesus and Christianity. Writers like the above have had a consideration impact in prejudicing a whole generation of Western youth against the religion of Jesus.

We live at a time today when the world’s primary influencers are generally hostile to the religion of Christianity. The news media, the film industry, and academia have leveled repeated barrages of criticism at Christian faith and its most unpopular positions in today’s world. Whether you are watching the news, or the way Christian faith is often portrayed in Hollywood, or at seeking a college or university education, you cannot avoid learning about the following blemishes on Christian history (see next blog). No portrayal of the positives of Jesus’ legacy would have any historical credibility without an honest assessment of the “dark side” of Christian history. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has never been shy about admitting the flaws of Christendom in the past, and it won’t do to ignore them in this series either. So we won’t.

What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?

I was having dinner a couple of years ago with Ted Baehr, founder of Movieguide and the Christian Film and Television Commission. I consider him the single most effective Christian influencer in Hollywood. His web site (movieguide.org) get tens of millions of hits every month and has helped a whole generation “learn to discern” when it comes to the media and the entertainment industry. He urged me as a historical religions scholar to consider a question I had not thought about much before. What difference did the life and teachings of Jesus make in the world, as evidenced by history? How is today’s world different because Jesus lived? It stands to reason that if Jesus was who He claimed to be, a member of the godhead come to earth to show us what God is like, He would be expected to have had an outsized impact on history beyond his brief recorded life. If a historian traced the impact of Jesus’ life on the world today, what would he or she find?

I decided to take on that task and spent about six months exploring the work of others who had asked such a question, and the evidence of history that could either back or refute their findings. For your convenience, I list the major book-length sources I found. 1) The first major book-length attempt to answer the Jesus question was by Edward Ryan, The History of the Effects of Religion on Mankind (London: J. F. and C. Rivington, 1788). It was reprinted in 2018 by a London-based book publisher names Forgotten Books. 2) In the following century came a major two-volume work by William Edward Hartpole Lecky entitled History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. The first volume was published in 1876 and the second in 1869 by the New York publisher Appleton. The first volume is available in the Leopold Classic Library collection and both are accessible online. This Irish historian was considered significant enough in his time to be awarded honorary doctoral degrees by the Universities of Dublin, St. Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge.

This theme has received much more attention in the last several decades. 3) In 1994 there appeared a book whose title inspired the title this blog series: D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? The Positive Impact of Christianity in History (Nashville: Nelson Books, 1994). Kennedy at the time was senior pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He earned a PhD in world religions from New York University. Newcombe was a documentary filmmaker and often served as a co-author of books. The book was specifically written to counter the charges against Christianity that were mounting at the time. 4) Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001). Schmidt, at the time, was a retired professor of sociology at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. While the first two works written by historian, the books by Kennedy and Schmidt are deliberately apologetic for Christianity.

5) More recently came a book by David Bentley Hart, an American philosopher and Orthodox theologian. Hart has taught at a number of American universities, including Virginia, Duke and St. Louis. In 2015 he was appointed as Templeton Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Notre Dame. His most relevant work for this topic is entitled Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). 6) And finally, there is the work of John S. Dickerson, an award-winning journalist, entitled Jesus Skeptic: A Journalist Explores the Credibility and Impact of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019). Each of these six books contributed to the insights I will share in the course of this blog series.

I will begin this series by considering the arguments that Jesus had a net negative effect on history. We will look honestly at the “dark side” of Christianity’s legacy. We will also explore some of the reasons the followers of Jesus had such a negative effect on the world. We will then take up the positive legacy of Jesus on education, science, health care, slavery and race relations, government and economics. In historical terms, the legacy of Jesus and His teachings is complicated.

Isa 66:22-23: Will There Be New Moons, Sabbaths and Voyeurism in the New Earth?

Text

“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. Isa 66:22-23, NIV.


Statement of the Problem

This text in Isaiah has been popular with Sabbath-keepers, since it seems to suggest that Sabbath-keeping will continue in the New Earth. If that is so, it strengthens the argument that Sabbath-keeping is valid for Christians today. There are a couple of serious problems with that interpretation, however.

First, not only is the Sabbath practiced in this “new earth,” but also “New Moons,” a concept unfamiliar to most Sabbath-keepers. Can this text be understood to affirm the one without affirming the other? Second, according to the very next verse (Isa 66:24), the redeemed will take Sabbath-afternoon walks to gaze upon the dead bodies of the wicked, which will remain nearby in a loathsome, smoldering condition. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

The Exile and the Return

As was noted in the previous article on Isa 65:20, the solution to these problems is found in the larger context of the Scriptures. The central theme of Isaiah through Malachi is the exile of God’s people to Babylon followed by their eventual return to the land promised to Abraham. The return from Babylon would be accompanied by a three-fold transformation of reality. God would transform human society by restoring Israel to her land and to her witness to the nations, He would transform human nature with a new heart and a new spirit, and He would eventually transform the natural world itself, banishing hunger and violence (see references in previous article).

Unlike the Flood story and the Book of Revelation, where the end of the world means the full, physical destruction of the planet, the End of the prophets would come within history and geography as they understood it. God would intervene mightily within history to transform society, human nature and the natural world. This End is usually described in the context of the exile to and return from Babylon.

Readers of the Bible today, therefore, should not expect every detail of such texts to be fulfilled at some time in the future. Instead we should allow later revelation (such as the New Testament) to guide us through the Old Testament material to a clearer picture of the End than was possible earlier. Isaiah 66:22-24 describes what would have happened had the End come in the context of the return from Babylon at the end of the exile (6th Century BC).

Isaiah 66 in Later Revelation

According to the parallels cited in the 27th Edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text, Isaiah’s concept of a new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17; 66:22) is most clearly alluded to in 2 Pet 3:13. The heavens and earth that now exist are to be destroyed at the Second Coming (2 Pet 3:7-12), just as the original world was destroyed in the time of the Flood (2 Pet 3:5-6). After its destruction, the world is to be replaced with a new heaven and a new earth (verse 13).

This brief picture of a new heaven and a new earth in 2 Pet 3:13 is elaborated in considerable detail in Rev 21:1, which also alludes to the Isaiah texts, according to Nestle-Aland. This elaborated picture includes a description of the tree of life (22:2), which yields its fruits on a monthly basis. It could be argued that the monthly cycle of the tree of life in the new earth bears some resemblance to the New Moons mentioned in Isa 66:22-23, but Revelation does not explicitly say this.

While the New Testament nowhere explicitly describes Sabbath-keeping in the New Earth either, Revelation does affirm the importance of the Sabbath in the final stages of earth’s history with a clear allusion to the fourth commandment in Rev 14:7. So Sabbath-keeping today does not need the support of a problematic text like Isa 66:23.

Isa 66:22-23 made perfect sense in the setting of what might have been after the return from Babylonian Exile. God would intervene in spectacular fashion. True worship would be restored to Jerusalem, along the lines of the situation during the previous monarchy, including a renewed role for the priests and the Levites as well as Sabbaths and New Moons (Isa 66:21). The fullness of paradise would only be restored a little at a time. In the meantime the redeemed would occupy a land that contained reminders of what had been before (verse 24).

Isaiah 66:23 makes an intriguing and powerful proof-text for Sabbath-keeping when used in isolation from its context. But if “Bereans” study the Scriptures for themselves, the use of such a text is likely to do more harm than good. Revelation’s use of Isaiah language allows the possibility of Sabbaths and New Moons (tree of life) in the New Earth, and Ellen White takes up the language of Isa 66:23 in a positive sense (6T 368). But Isa 66:23, by itself, should not be used as proof of the concept. Weak arguments can do more harm sometimes than no arguments at all.

Isa 65:20: Will There Be Death in the New Earth?

Text

Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. Isa 65:20, NIV.

Statement of the Problem

The problem with this text is the context, Isaiah 65:17-25. The whole passage contains one of the most beloved descriptions of what life in the new earth will be like. God will create a new heavens and a new earth (verse 17). There will be no more weeping and crying there (19). God’s people will build houses and live in them, they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit (21). Then there is the glorious climax, “‘The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the LORD” (25).

What troubles people about this text is the presence of death in paradise (verse 20). God’s people will live long in this new earth, “as the days of a tree” (22), but they will not live forever. How can this be harmonized with the “forever” of other biblical texts (Daniel 7:18; Joel 3:20; Micah 4:5; 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 22:5)? The key to resolving this problem is to explore briefly the historical context in which the prophecy of Isaiah 65 was given.

The Exile and the Return

The central theme of Isaiah through Malachi is the exile of God’s people to Babylon followed by their eventual return to the land promised to Abraham. This “Exile and Return Theme” is dominant in the writing prophets whether they wrote before, during, or after the Exile. They prophesy that the return from Babylon would be accompanied by a three-fold transformation of reality. In Ezekiel 36, for example, God planned to transform human society by restoring Israel to her land and to her witness to the nations (Ezek 36:24,28,33-36, see also Mic 4:1-5, Isa 2:2-5; 11:2-5). He would transform human nature with a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek 36:25-27, see also Jer 31:31-34; Joel 2:28-29; Isa 35:5-6). And He would eventually transform the natural world itself, banishing hunger and violence (Ezek 36:30,35, see also Isa 11:6-9; 35:1,2,7; Ezek 47:1-12).

Unlike the Flood story and the Book of Revelation, where the end of the world means the full, physical destruction of the planet, the End of the prophets would come within history and geography as they understood it. God would intervene mightily within history to transform society, human nature and the natural world. This End is usually described in the context of the exile to and return from Babylon.

There is no question that the view of the End in the Old Testament was a developing one. God always meets people where they are. As they are able, He reveals more and more of His purpose. This principle is clearly stated by Jesus in John 16:12: “I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.”

The danger in this is that later readers would try to universalize these early prophecies and expect every detail to be fulfilled at some time in the future. Instead we should allow later revelation (such as the New Testament) to guide us through the Old Testament material to a clearer picture of the End than was possible earlier. Each stage of Biblical history offers a fresh window into the mind of a God who meets people where they are, yet knows all along where He is going!

Isaiah 65:20 in its Context

Isaiah 65:20 needs to be understood in light of the triple transformation of reality that was promised at the time when God’s people would return from Babylon. This triple transformation would take place within history, within the time, place, and circumstances of the prophetic writers. The “new heavens and new earth” of Isa 65:17, at first glance, sound very much like the book of Revelation, where God destroys the earth before creating it anew. But in Isaiah, it is Jerusalem that is created and the life span is far short of eternity (Isa 65:18-20). “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” Isa 65:20, NIV.

As attractive as these numbers sound in our degenerate age, they fall far short of the text “there will be no more death” (Rev 21:4). Isa 65:20 is a “problem text” when read from a New Testament mind-set, but it made perfect sense in the setting of what might have been after the return from Babylonian Exile. Although God would intervene in spectacular fashion, according to the prophets, the fullness of paradise would only be restored a little at a time. In the wake of the Christ event, the book of Revelation portrays a much more radical picture of the End.

Thoughts on “White Supremacy”


This is a work in progress. I can’t say I’ve thought it through enough yet, but I’d like to get feedback and I think it is potentially very important, so let me share what I am thinking. The fundamental foundation of geopolitics is the concept of “love of one’s own”. Every human being is born helpless and needs others to survive. A very precocious child might perhaps be able to take care of himself or herself by the age of eight, but for many years all humans are totally dependent on those close to them for survival. So “love of one’s own,” the immediate and extended family, is the glue that holds society together. As families interact with the wider world, this principle expands to include the village, the tribe, and at many points in history, the nation. Conflict among such entities is common to humanity. Abuse and attempts to dominate others are fairly universal. Hurt people hurt people. Injustice leads to more injustice. People and groups hurt other people and groups out of fear and the struggle for survival.

When people who look like me hear of things like the 1619 Project or they are accused of white supremacy, therefore, it is natural for them to feel mis-characterized or even discriminated against. After all, slavery of one kind or another has been the norm through most of human history, so why should the American slave-trade or the mistreatment of native Americans and others be treated as if it were uniquely evil? Isn’t one group dominating others the natural result of “love of one’s own?”

For me, the crucial piece that I believe helped me understand what is driving the current anti-Christian and anti-American trends in society is a fresh look at the history and philosophy of colonialism. There have been many empires in the past; the Roman Empire, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Mongols. Each of these felt that they were strong because they were superior to those they conquered (and their gods superior to the gods of others). But these were all relatively regional affairs, neighbors fighting neighbors. The European colonial project was the first time in recorded history of a truly world-wide attempt at dominance based on a sense of social and moral superiority. Europeans considered themselves superior because of their superior science, education, technology and, yes, religion. A sense of supremacy was grounded in a sense of superiority on many fronts. And the political side of the colonial project often went hand in hand with the mission to redeem the “benighted savages.” That project often was meant well. The “white man’s burden” was to lift up those who were inferior, those who had been been left behind on all these western advances in science and religion.

What is often overlooked in the history of Europe is that the sense of Euro-superiority was grounded in the blessings of the gospel. The gospel was so transformative over the centuries that if Jesus had never been born, it is likely that science, education, healthcare, freedom and equality under law, as we know them, would never have happened (for details on the above view the following: https://llu.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=e056aa66-ab73-48ec-abf8-ab69017a7fd0). Neither would the abolition of slavery have happened. It’s no wonder that Europeans felt “Enlightened.” But the gospel was not given to feed a sense of superiority. Pride and superiority are anathema to the gospel. In feeling and acting superior, Europeans were unfaithful to the gospel that had brought them so many blessings and so much prosperity. And like it or not, most of us born and raised in the European heritage were trained in a subtle sense of superiority. In most cases, I believe it was not intentional. It was much more caught than taught. But it was, nevertheless, very real.

What many people don’t realize is that the United States of America is the greatest and most powerful empire in recorded history. American economic and military might dominate every corner of the globe. I don’t get the sense that America ever intended to become an empire. It was the natural consequence of its economic heft and a vacuum in the world power dynamics after World War II and then the fall of the Soviet Union. So the American empire has unwittingly become the successor to the British Empire and the European project.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I love my country and I love its Christian heritage. And it is a strength of that heritage that Americans are capable of critiquing their own history and their own “love of one’s own.” The American project is in many ways the best of all options in the course of human history, as Ellen White has pointed out in The Great Controversy. But it is for that very reason that the sins of slavery and the extermination of native peoples is all the more reprehensible. “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.” Luke 12:48, NKJV. That slavery and the lynching tree so often had the blessing of Protestant pulpits in the south is hard for me to grasp. How could those who were taught to love even their enemies do such things to their neighbors? It goes to show how a sense of superiority can distort one’s thinking. After all, many of the guards in Hitler’s concentration camps were committed Christians.

The term “White supremacy” comes across as rather harsh, especially when those being accused of this were neither slavemasters nor concentration camp guards. But it is a way of communicating that the legacy of the “Enlightenment” and colonialism continues to impact the world today. And I have experienced the reality of that. Wherever I travel in the world I get a deference that I don’t deserve, even when people don’t know me personally. It seems that many have been unconsciously trained to see me as superior, to put me on a pedestal, simply because of the color of my skin. And that is really not good for me, because it subtly encourages me to think of myself as superior. And that is contrary to the gospel, where we are all equal at the foot of the cross.

The sense of superiority (which often leads to a desire for supremacy) is a delusion brought on to the human race by sin. And that delusion has serious consequences for perpetrator as much as the victim. One of the consequences of a sense of superiority is performance addictions. If we think we are better than others, we are required to out-perform them. And that is a different kind of “white man’s burden,” often leading to burnout and despair. Whites are not inherently prone to sins distortions, nor are others immune to them. The distortions of sin are common to us all. But in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and colonialism, the world is still recovering from a global supremacy project grounded in such distorted thinking. I have been less aware of that reality than I should have been.

The answer to white supremacy is not black supremacy or brown supremacy, it is the gospel. When we meet each other at the foot of the cross, we begin to see each other the way God sees us. The cross frees us from delusions of supremacy and its consequences. The cross frees us from the need to feel superior and from the need to live up to that feeling. The cross frees us from prejudice.

In Old Testament times Israel imbibed the delusion of superiority. They thought that God had chosen them because they were superior. But they were wrong. “The Lord did not set His affection upon you because you were more numerous than other people, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” Deut. 7:7. The call to Israel was not about them. They were called to connect the other nations to God (Exod 19:5-6). When they felt superior they neglected that mission and became the center of their own ambitions. Institutional Christianity has followed the same trajectory. I pray for a revival of primitive godliness that leads the church everywhere to repentance and authentic humility. In the meantime, let us right what wrongs we can in the circle of influence God has given each one of us.

Ellen White and the Time of the Seventh Trumpet (EWB 20)

Ellen White’s perspective on the seventh trumpet is problematic for exegesis at first glance. In EW 36 she alludes to Rev 11:18 as follows: “I saw that the anger of the nations, the wrath of God, and the time to judge the dead were separate and distinct, one following the other, also that Michael had not stood up, and that the time of trouble, such as never was, had not yet commenced. The nations are now getting angry, but when our High Priest has finished His work in the sanctuary, He will stand up, put on the garments of vengeance, and then the seven last plagues will be poured out.”

In this passage she “saw” that the anger of the nations is a developing process climaxing at the close of probation, which is followed by the seven last plagues (wrath of God) and the judgment of the dead. This statement appears to reject equating the “judgment of the dead” with the investigative judgment that begins in 1844. It is in harmony with her usual practice of placing the seventh trumpet in the future from her perspective (EW 85-86, 279-280). While the nations “are getting angry,” they are restrained by the four angels who hold the four winds in Rev 7:1-3 (EW 85-86, RH Jan 28, 1909, RH Nov 17, 1910, 1SM 221-222, 6T 14).

Some fifty years later, however, she seems to suggest that the “nations are angry, and the time of the dead has come, that they should be judged.” (6T 14) Since the onset of the Investigative Judgment precedes both statements, they appear to be in tension with each other. The problem can be resolved, however, by a number of considerations. 1) The language of the first statement is more directly exegetical (she is unfolding the meaning of the text), while the latter is more an echo of the language of Rev 11:18. 2) The former statement clearly harmonizes with the close of probation language of Rev 10:7. 3) The context of 6T 14 expresses her expectation of an imminent conclusion of history. She uses such statements as, “We are standing upon the threshold of great and solemn events. . . . Only a moment of time, as it were, yet remains.” Thus, an exegetical statement such as EW 36, describing events which are future in fulfillment, will naturally appear to be in tension with a statement of imminent expectation, where those events are described as “at hand.”

Conclusion to the series of blogs on Ellen White and the Seven Trumpets of Revelation:

The examination of these few occasions when Ellen White seems to engage the seven trumpets of Revelation well demonstrates the problem of ambiguity in dealing with the writings of a dead prophet. From our perspective it would have been extremely helpful had she clarified the issues regarding the timing and meaning of the trumpets which are of such interest today. But assuming that she had the kind of direct line to God that I don’t have, the Lord did not see fit to provide such information through her writings. If she had a view on the exegetical meaning of the seven trumpets, she has left no clear, unambiguous evidence of it. As has always been the case, revelation comes to a prophet within his/her time, place, circumstances, interests, and concerns. When the questions of a later period are addressed to an inspired text, the text is often silent or ambiguous regarding those matters. At such times the soundest approach is to avoid the use of ambiguous texts as “missiles” to confuse or confound the “enemy” (those holding a different view). With regard to the meaning of the seven trumpets of Revelation, most of her relevant statements are less than crystal-clear with regard to the issues that emerge from the biblical text. The meaning of the trumpets must be established on the basis of careful exegesis of the biblical text. Somehow, I get the feeling that Ellen White would have wanted it that way.

Ellen White and the Beast from the Abyss (EWB 19)

In The Great Controversy, pages 265-288 Ellen White identifies the power which opposed the two witnesses as revolutionary France. She also believed that the ideological forces which shaped the revolution would have a powerful impact again at the end of time: “. . . the world-wide dissemination of the same teachings that led to the French Revolution–all are tending to involve the whole world in a struggle similar to that which convulsed France.” Ed 228.

Since the power that opposed the two witnesses in Revelation is identified as the “beast which comes up out of the abyss” (Rev 11:7), it is intriguing to suspect that the fifth trumpet, which is concerned with the opening of the abyss and the tormenting powers that are thereby unleashed, may shed some light on the end-time manifestation of teachings that convulsed France some 200 years ago. While this pair of statements provided the intellectual stimulus for the historical application of the fifth trumpet that I currently favor, I must admit that the connections among all these are too tenuous to argue that Ellen White herself held that view.

But since a radical secularism interpretation of the fifth trumpet is plausible, based on the text of Revelation 9:1-11 in its larger context, it is very possible that the secular and post-modern developments of our time can be used by God to further His purposes. So-called post-moderism and related developments offer intriguing possibilities for rethinking how to frame ideas like gospel and church to meet the needs of a new generation. See my book Everlasting Gospel, Everchanging World for an elaboration of these ideas.

Ellen White and the Sealing of Revelation 9:4 II (EWB 18)

The reality is that, in spite of Ellen White’s overwhelming interest in the end-time concept of the sealing, in places she is quite capable of using the concept of sealing more along the lines of Paul than of Revelation 7. In CT 459 the seal is an ongoing mark of God’s approval of the message that Adventists were preaching: “Who among our teachers are awake, and as faithful stewards of the grace of God are giving the trumpet a certain sound? Who are voicing the message of the third angel, calling upon the world to make ready for the great day of God? The message we bear has the seal of the living God (compare with John 3:33; 6:27; Rom 15:28; 1 Cor 9:2.).

In relation to people, Ellen White understands the seal of God to be placed on those who possess “the sign of the cross of Calvary” and are wearing the wedding garment. Letter 126, 1898 (= 7BC 968). The seal is a “passport to the Holy City” which all must have in order to enter (TM 444-445). One is not saved without the seal (Letter 80, 1898 [= 7BC 969]). It is placed on all who love God in the practice of everyday life (RH Oct 23, 1888). The seal is placed on those who make their “calling and election sure” (cf. 2 Pet 1:10). EW 58.

This brief survey indicates that with regard to the sealing, as in so many areas, Ellen White demonstrates a sensitive awareness of the full richness of the biblical language that she so readily adopts. Her grasp of the scriptural intent is far greater than that of most who quote her writings in relation to exegetical issues (including myself). Wisdom would indicate that it is unwise to assume exactly how she would have exegeted Revelation 9:4 had she availed herself of the opportunity. Her lack of comment on Revelation 9:4 may rather indicate that it does not concern her primary interest in the concept of sealing, the end-time sealing so clearly portrayed in Revelation 7 and so often quoted by her. To understand the seal of Revelation 9:4 in terms of the general New Testament usage is not contrary to her understanding.

The implications of the above is that attempts to see the seven trumpets of Revelation as entirely in the future on the basis of the sealing of Revelation 9:4 are going beyond what the evidence will bear. Ellen White herself never references Revelation 9:4 when she talks about the end-time sealing and she never references it when using sealing in the more general New Testament way as a reference to conversion. The timing of the seven trumpets should not be grounded on Ellen White’s references to end-time sealing. As she herself would encourage us to do, the seven trumpets are best understood on the basis of careful study of the text of Revelation itself.

Ellen White and the Sealing of Revelation 9:4 (EWB 17)

A major issue in the Adventist interpretation of the seven trumpets is the significance of the sealing in Revelation 9:4. Is it the end-time sealing of Revelation 7? Or is the more general sealing process typical of the rest of the New Testament? Does Ellen White have only one view of sealing in Revelation, or does she utilize the concept in the variety of ways in which New Testament writers used it? One thing is perfectly clear, she never discusses Rev 9:4, not even in GC 334-335, the only place where she mentions the fifth trumpet at all. Therefore, her view of the matter is not explicit, it can only be inferred, if at all, from her view of the sealing in Revelation 7.

It may be helpful as we begin to briefly review the variety of meanings that pertain to the New Testament concept of sealing. When a seal is placed on a document, message, or tomb, its purpose is to conceal or to confine (Matt 27:66; Rev 5:1-2, 5, 9; 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 8:1; 10:4; 20:3; 22:10.). An alternative meaning is to certify that something or someone is reliable (John 3:33; 6:27; Rom 15:28; 1 Cor 9:2). But the predominant meaning of sealing in connection with God’s people is as an indication that one has been accepted by God (“God knows them that are His”: 2 Tim 2:19 cf. 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30). In this sense, sealing was a present reality already in the time of Abraham (Rom 4:11).

Ellen White has little to say about the New Testament passages which connect sealing to acceptance with God. Her primary interest in the idea seems limited to the significance of Revelation 7, which clearly focuses on the end-time sealing. In spite of this, however, she does not limit sealing to a purely end-time setting. She repeatedly refers to her time as the time when the four angels are holding the four winds (5T 717-718, 6T 26, 61, 426, and some 18 statements in the Review and Herald from 1885-1912), and to the sealing time as a present reality (EW 43-44, Letter 270, 1907 [= 7BC 969], RH July 13, 1897, 1SM 66, and 5T 50). Therefore, while she normally refers to the sealing as a future, end-time event (See RH Sept 23, 1873 and May 28, 1889 as examples, this is in harmony with the exegesis of Revelation 7), she does not limit the process to the very end of time.

In terms of the meaning of sealing she once again is primarily interested in the meaning most appropriate to the situation of Revelation 7. The concept of the seal of God for her has special significance in the antitypical Day of Atonement. “Only those who, in their attitude before God, are filling the position of those who are repenting and confessing their sins in the great antitypical day of atonement, will be recognized and marked as worthy of God’s protection. The names of those who are steadfastly looking and waiting and watching for the appearing of their Saviour–more earnestly and wishfully than they who wait for the morning–will be numbered with those who are sealed.” TM 445.

This end-time seal provides protection in the time of trouble. EW 67, 71. It is placed upon those who prove loyal to the commandments of God (GC 613, Letter 76, 1900 [= 7BC 970], 2T 468) to the point of “perfection of character”(RH June 10, 1902 [= 6BC 1118], 5T 214, 216), “the likeness of Christ’s character”(EW 71, RH May 21, 1895 [= 7BC 970]) and genuine, conscientious Sabbath-keeping (including rejection of Sunday-worship– GC 605, Letter 76, 1900 [= 7BC 970], MS 27, 1899 [= 7BC 970], RH July 13, 1897, RH Apr 23, 1901, 5T 213, cf. 7BC 980 [= HS 213], GC 640, PP 307). Such definitions, of course, are not appropriate to the more general New Testament understanding of sealing exhibited in passages such Ephesians 1:13; 4:30 and 2 Timothy 2:19. Was she unaware of the more general meanings common to the NT? Would she have considered it inappropriate to apply them to Revelation 9:4, for instance, a passage that she never quoted or discussed? There are a few other statements of hers that I think will be of interest. Next time.

Ellen White and the Introduction to the Trumpets (EWB 16)

In the vision of Revelation 8:3-4 an angel stands before the golden altar, ministering incense before God. In many statements Ellen White appears to equate that angel with Christ. EW 32 (= LS 100), 252; MS 142, 1899 (= COL 156 = 7 BC 931); MS 21, 1900 (= SD 22); MS 14, 1901 (= 6 BC 1078). When she does so, she always speaks of the scene as a description of Christ’s intercession. MS 14, 1901 (= 6 BC 1078); MS 142, 1899 (= 7 BC 931 = COL 156); SD 22. Interestingly, however, in other statements she describes the scene in terms of angels offering incense, but in those cases she never uses the term “intercession,” reserving it for Christ alone. MS 15, 1897 (= 7BC 971); RH July 4, 1893; ML 29.

In her clearest allusions to Revelation 8:3-4, Ellen White relates this scene to the daily ministration in the first apartment of the heavenly sanctuary. GC 414-415; RH Nov 9, 1905; PP 353. Early in her ministry, however, she alludes to portions of the imagery with reference to the second apartment. EW 32 [= LS 100], 252, 256. In all clear allusions to Revelation 8:3-4, however, the ministration of incense is associated with Christ’s work of intercession and not with the Investigative Judgment. MS 142, 1899 (= COL 156 = 7BC 931); MS 14, 1901 (= 6BC 1078). The incense represents the “merit of Jesus” (RH July 4, 1893) or the “blood of the atonement.” MS 15, 1897 (= 7 BC 971).

In an earlier blog we made an extensive analysis of her single echo of Revelation 8:5. She appears to understand the throwing down of the censer in terms of an end to intercession, but it is not clear if she understood it as something that might happen repeatedly in the course of human history or as “the” final close of probation.

On the whole, Ellen White’s use of the language of Revelation 8:3-5 is remarkably compatible with exegesis of the passage. The basic concept of the passage is the intercession of Christ. In some sense this is brought to an end by the act of throwing down the censer. Her writings make it unclear, however, whether that act occurs before the blowing of the trumpets chronologically, whether it occurs repeatedly during the trumpets, or only at a specific point toward the end. In other words, she respects the ambiguity of the text and does not go beyond what is reasonably evident there.