Thoughtful believers live with a tension. On the one hand, believers, by definition, feel like they have enough evidence to make serious commitments regarding the Bible, theological positions, or a particular denomination. At the same time, thoughtful believers have a scholarly side that recognizes that they have a lot to learn and that on some points they could be wrong. It is very difficult to be true to both sides of this tension at one and the same time, yet I, for one, feel that a truth-based belief is never totally settled and that in eternity we will continue learning and growing (for those who appreciate Ellen White, the last chapter of the book Education is an instructive read on this). If that is true in eternity, why wouldn’t it be true now?
When it comes to the fate of sinners, there are three main options, universalism, annihilationism and eternal torment. The more carefully one examines these options, the more it seems clear that none of them is exegetically compelling in the sense that any honest reader would see that the biblical data is perfectly clear, no questions asked. The “slam dunk” texts offered up by each position, when examined with care, require choices and assumptions that adherents of the other two views will find far from compelling. On the other hand, all three approaches are exegetically defensible, in the sense that one can select and order texts in a way that the position could be claimed as the biblical one and garner adherents in large numbers. In such a context, the believer/scholar is free to make theological commitments, guided the by Holy Spirit (at least in one’s own perceptions). But it would be unwise to be so committed that one ignores evidence to the contrary. In the words of one of my mentors, Robert M. Johnston, “It isn’t hard to have strong opinions on any topic as long as you are willing to ignore some of the evidence.” So while I have my own theological commitments on this issue, I choose to treat those who disagree with respect and deference, sharing together in the hope that at least one of us might learn something. When minds close and neither side is learning, conversation is pointless.
When it comes to the issue before us, I am least attracted to the eternal torment position. To me, the concept of eternal torment, with or without literal flames, is repugnant and paints an awful picture of what God is like. I would never want to be the agent or eternal torment for my parents, my wife, or any of my kids or grandkids). Yet I am to believe that God has the capacity in His character to do exactly that to children of His that He knows far more deeply than we know each other. Am I more moral and gracious than God? I cannot believe that. And such a view does not seem compatible with Hosea 11:8-9, ESV: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” God’s compassion is far greater than mine. Far be it from Him to torture His own children for eternity (cf. Gen 18:25)! God, like us, must avoid the appearance of evil. At the same time, many of the Nursing students in my Christian Beliefs class this quarter have a rock-solid commitment to eternal torment, which they support by many texts. Shall I treat them as ignorant fools? Or shall I recognize that they and I are on a journey together where there is the wonderful possibility that at least one of us might learn something? What kind of conversation might leave open the possibility that any of us might learn something? For those who appreciate Ellen White, 6T 121-123 is very instructive. So is 2 Timothy 2:24-26.
I am much more attracted to universalism and very interested in an aspect of it that claims not to undermine free will. But I have not committed to that perspective for at least two reasons. First, I have difficulty getting my head around the idea of people having to deny who they have become in order to fit into a universe they never wanted. I would prefer that a God who loves me would allow me to determine my own future and accept the consequences of that choice. The idea of a free-will universalism is intriguing and I hope to study up on that option in the future. But at this point I find it hard to imagine that, given genuine freedom, everyone would end up choosing the same thing. But that’s just me. I’ll continue listening. Second, and much more important for me, is a practical issue. If we have three options and none of them is a slam dunk, which option has the least potential for damage. The eternal torment approach has driven many people away from God on the very face of it. Dangerous choice. Promoting universalism has many attractive features. But what if, in the end, it turns out to be wrong? What it cause some people to relax in their pursuit of holiness because in the end it won’t matter anyway? It would be tragic to arrive at St. Peter’s gate (or more likely the great, white throne—Rev 20:11) and discover only then that you had one chance and you blew it off because you were counting on having some fun first and then fixing it later. Perhaps this argument is more trivial than I realize, but that is where I am today.
This leaves me with the annihilation perspective, in which God desires earnestly that all be saved (2 Pet 3:9), and waits so that as many as possible might be saved. But when all are satisfied that God has done all He can to change minds, and yet many are hardened in their opposition and rebellion, God puts/allows them to sleep in a way that has no waking up. On that day He will weep and so will the saved. But for all it will be the best possible outcome under the circumstances. I do find some challenges in the annihilationist perspective, and I am working through some of them as I study Rev 20. But of the three options it seems to me the one with the least potential downside.
I don’t claim to be an expert in this particular issue, so I won’t mind if you take all of this with a grain of salt. But the crucial thing for me is not so much the outcome (we’ll know in the end anyway), but the way we go about studying the Word and sharing what we’ve learned so far. When people get too confident in their own view of things, even biblical things, they tend to stop leaning and growing and they may no longer be worth listening to.
It is often assumed that when Ellen White makes a “clear” statement about either the meaning of the Bible or about the unfulfilled future, all issues are settled and discussion on the topic should be closed. And statements are often produced that seem to imply that as well. But I would humbly suggest that such statements should be balanced by her own expressions of uncertainty. These are not often given their full weight in the discussion. One example is found in Testimonies for the Church, volume 6, page 17: “The mark of the beast is exactly what it has been proclaimed to be. Not all in regard to this matter is yet understood nor will it be understood until the unrolling of the scroll.” This statement was published in 1900, twelve years after the two key Sunday law statements of 1888. I understand her to be saying that one can have confidence in the broad outline of the mark of the beast, yet allow God freedom of action at the time of fulfillment. Prophecies are most clearly understood at or after the time of fulfillment (John 14:29). What is a little unclear to me in this statement is whether or not she includes herself in the admission “Not all in regard to this matter is yet understood. . . .”
Perhaps clearer is a statement she wrote a year later: “We are not now able to describe with accuracy the scenes to be enacted in our world in the future, but this we do know, that this is a time when we must watch unto prayer, for the great day of the Lord is at hand.” Selected Messages, volume 2, page 35. In describing the great day of the Lord as being at hand, I would understand her to be speaking of the future in the classical sense rather than the apocalyptic sense. In classical prophecy “the Day of the Lord” was always portrayed as near, to motivate earnest faithfulness among those awaiting the End. It seems to me that in using the pronoun “we”, Ellen White is explicitly including herself among those who are not able to describe the future “with accuracy”, as she puts it, or as I have been saying, in every detail. While God is consistent, He is not always predictable, and she seems to allow for that here. The broad outlines are clear enough to live by, especially where they have explicit exegetical support in Scripture, but there are things about the future it would not be good for us to know (Acts 1:6-7) and we should not presume to know them ahead of the fulfillment.
There is one further statement from 1901 that seems pertinent to the principles being outlined here. “It is not (God’s) will that (believers) shall get into controversy over questions which will not help them spiritually, such as, Who is to compose the hundred and forty-four thousand? This those who are the elect of God will in a short time know without question.” Selected Messages, volume one, page 174. In developing a series on the mark of the beast I was seeking to be helpful to those who are confused about the issue. But in responding to requests to present this issue, the topic seems to have produced more heat than light. The details of just how the mark of the beast will work out is not the crucial issue in our walk with God. I believe it is wise for us to become familiar with the way God works in the world, to understand Revelation 13 as far as we can, and to become familiar with what Ellen White has to say about the mark of the beast. But if debating about the exact outcome of these predictions becomes the central focus and divides people into opposing camps, this topic may do more harm than good.
Adventist interpreters of Revelation share a deep appreciation of the writings of Ellen G. White. Her comments on the book of Revelation stimulate much productive insight, particularly with regard to the “big picture;” namely how the symbolic visions of Revelation contribute to the cosmic perspective often known as the “Great Controversy.” She was well aware that Revelation brings together language, ideas, and types from throughout Scripture; forming a consummate conclusion to the Bible as a whole (AA 585). Thus, Adventist scholarship would be remiss to ignore her perspective on the symbols and theology of the Book of Revelation.
Having said this, interpreters need to be reminded that the writings of Ellen White can be used in such a way as to obscure the meaning of the Biblical text and make it serve the agenda of the interpreter. “Those who are not walking in the light of the message, may gather up statements from my writings that happen to please them, and that agree with their human judgment, and, by separating these statements from their connection, and placing them beside human reasonings, make it appear that my writings uphold that which they condemn.” Letter 208, 1906. Off-hand comments in various contexts can be universalized or applied in ways that run counter to the implications of the biblical text itself. Such use is really abuse and results in diminishing her authority rather than enhancing it. That she was aware of this possibility is clear from the following instruction:
“Many from among our own people are writing to me, asking with earnest determination the privilege of using my writings to give force to certain subjects which they wish to present to the people in such a way as to leave a deep impression upon them. It is true that there is a reason why some of these matters should be presented; but I would not venture to give my approval in using the testimonies in this way, or to sanction the placing of matter which is good in itself in the way which they propose.
“The persons who make these propositions, for aught I know, may be able to conduct the enterprise of which they write in a wise manner; but nevertheless I dare not give the least license for using my writings in the manner which they propose. In taking account of such an enterprise, there are many things that must come into consideration; for in using the testimonies to bolster up some subject which may impress the mind of the author, the extracts may give a different impression than that which they would were they read in their original connection.”
“The Writing and Sending Out of the Testimonies for the Church,” p. 26. Quoted in Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant, by Arthur White, p. 86.
Inspiration is truly handled with respect when the intention of an inspired writer is permitted to emerge from the text in its original context (exegesis). We must avoid reading into the text our own interests and presuppositions (eisegesis). Messages from living prophets can easily be clarified upon request. But once the prophet has passed from the scene, we are on safest ground when the intent of each inspired text is allowed to emerge by means of careful exegesis. The interpreter’s need to establish a particular position offers no license to do with the text whatever one wants.
For Seventh-day Adventists the study of the book of Revelation always comes with a unique challenge. “The Bible and the Bible only” provides a call to exegete the Bible as God’s final authority on all matters of faith and practice. Yet Adventists value very highly the prophetic gift of Ellen G. White (1827-1915). What impact should her comments on a subject like the mark of the beast (Rev 13:15-17) or the three angel’s message (Rev 14:6-12) have on the way one reads these passages? What does one do if what Ellen White says about a biblical passage does not square with the plain meaning of the text?
This is the first in a series of blogs on the use of Ellen White’s writings in relation to the Bible. Before I share my own research, I want you to be aware of the finest explanation of this topic from the Ellen G. White Estate, the authoritative custodian of her writings. In 1982, White Estate directors from all over the world met for an extended conference and drafted the following statement on the respective roles of the Bible and Ellen White in Adventist faith. The words that follow are from this consensus statement of the 1982 conference without any further comment from me:
“In the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at Dallas in April, 1980, the Preamble states: “Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.” Paragraph one reflects the church’s understanding of the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, while paragraph seventeen reflects the church’s understanding of the writings of Ellen White in relation to the Scriptures. These paragraphs read as follows:
1. The Holy Scriptures
The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration through holy men of God who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. In this Word, God has committed to man the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history. Support is found in these Bible passages: 2 Peter 1:20,21; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; Psalms 119:105; Proverbs 30:5,6; Isaiah 8:20; John 17:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 4:12.
17. The Gift Of Prophecy
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. Support is found in these Bible passages: Joel 2:28,29; Acts 2:14-21; Hebrews 1:1-3; Revelation 12:17; Revelation 19:10.
The following affirmations and denials speak to the issues which have been raised about the inspiration and authority of the Ellen White writings and their relation to the Bible. These clarifications should be taken as a whole. They are an attempt to express the present understanding of Seventh-day Adventists. They are not to be construed as a substitute for, or a part of, the two doctrinal statements quoted above.
1. We believe that Scripture is the divinely revealed word of God and is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
2. We believe that the canon of Scripture is composed only of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.
3. We believe that Scripture is the foundation of faith and the final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice.
4. We believe that Scripture is the Word of God in human language.
5. We believe that Scripture teaches that the gift of prophecy will be manifest in the Christian church after New Testament times.
6. We believe that the ministry and writings of Ellen White were a manifestation of the gift of prophecy.
7. We believe that Ellen White was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that her writings, the product of that inspiration, are applicable and authoritative, especially to Seventh-day Adventists.
8. We believe that the purposes of the Ellen White writings include guidance in understanding the teaching of Scripture and application of these teachings, with prophetic urgency, to the spiritual and moral life.
9. We believe that the acceptance of the prophetic gift of Ellen White is important to the nurture and unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
10. We believe that Ellen White’s use of literary sources and assistants finds parallels in some of the writings of the Bible.
1. We do not believe that the quality or degree of inspiration in the writings of Ellen White is different from that of Scripture.
2. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White are an addition to the canon of Sacred Scripture.
3. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White function as the foundation and final authority of Christian faith as does Scripture.
4. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White may be used as the basis of doctrine.
5. We do not believe that the study of the writings of Ellen White may be used to replace the study of Scripture.
6. We do not believe that Scripture can be understood only through the writings of Ellen White.
7. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White exhaust the meaning of Scripture.
8. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White are essential for the proclamation of the truths of Scripture to society at large.
9. We do not believe that the writings of Ellen White are the product of mere Christian piety.
10. We do not believe that Ellen White’s use of literary sources and assistants negates the inspiration of her writings.
We conclude, therefore, that a correct understanding of the inspiration and authority of the writings of Ellen White will avoid two extremes: (1) regarding these writings as functioning on a canonical level identical with Scripture, or (2) considering them as ordinary Christian literature.”
Recently wildfires raged in the relatively Adventist communities of Angwin, Deer Park and St. Helena, California. These communities include Pacific Union College, St. Helena Adventist Hospital, Deer Park Elementary School, and Elmshaven, the last home of Ellen G. White, Adventist visionary and one of the church’s founders. General Conference president, Ted Wilson, tweeted his concern and particularly requested prayer that Elmshaven would be spared from the flames on account of its historical and spiritual value. With the exception of a couple of secondary buildings at the elementary school and the hospital area church, the above institutions were spared. The Ellen G. White Estate in Silver Spring, Maryland tweeted its gratitude for the “miracle” that flames burned all around Elmshaven, but did not harm the property itself.
We, of course, do not know for sure whether the survival of Elmshaven was due to direct divine intervention, but it is certainly a possibility. But many Adventists expressed outrage at this claim in the face of so many Adventists losing their homes in the area. At the time of writing, no member has lost their life, but the loss of property is reported to be significant. The claim that God has acted to spare a historical building while not acting in response to many heartfelt prayers elsewhere was painful to many. What do we make of this reality? Did God answer only a relatively trivial prayer? Was Elmshaven spared primarily because of the courageous work of many firefighters? Or was this a coincidence that should simply have been accepted as such? It is hard to know. But it is likely that many members in the area, praying out of genuine need, were questioning why their prayers were not answered.
A young pastor in his first month of ministry re-connected with a newly baptized member of his church at camp meeting. She had walked in the door of the church without warning a few months before. Being raised in a broken, alcoholic Adventist home, she was not a novice to the Adventist Church, but had had no connection with it for a number of years. As her life apart from God spiraled into chaos she remembered church as a child being a relatively safe and happy place. So one day, in a place far from home, she had made the decision to return.
A couple of weeks before camp meeting, the young pastor was assigned to the church as an intern pastor and got to witness Susan’s baptism. So when she approached him at camp meeting with a request to talk, it was not a surprise. They walked down to the boat dock at the camp and sat down to talk. After some generalities, she suddenly turned the subject to her baptism.
“I need to be baptized again,” Susan said.
“Why would you say that?” the young pastor replied.
“Because there are things in my past I didn’t tell the senior pastor,” she responded.
Realizing that this was not a conversation to have in a public place, the young pastor suggested that they walk down a nearby trail along the wooded shores of the lake to a large rock where they could be away from prying ears. In years past he had actually built that trail as a teen-age summer camp worker. When they arrived at the rock she began a tale of woe; there were many things that she had done and that had been done to her. Whether or not she needed to be baptized again, it was clear that she had rejoined the church, but had no idea about personal salvation or a living relationship with God.
While he had had college training in theology, the young pastor had never led anyone to Christ. In his mind he turned over the various strategies that he had learned in class and in church seminars. Doing the best he could to lay out a biblical approach to connecting with God he led her into the “sinner’s prayer.”
When they were done, Susan said, “That’s it?”
“That’s it, God loves us and is very merciful. He accepts every sincere soul that reaches out to him. He has cleaned the slate and this is the first day of the rest of your life, a life of walking with God,” he assured her.
Susan did not seem sure whether to believe him or not. Just then, they were startled by a sudden clap of thunder. This was unexpected. It had been a sunny and pleasant day up to that point. A moment later a total downpour ensued. Susan and the young pastor retreated under the largest available tree, but it was to no avail. In a couple of minutes they were totally soaked. But instead of being miserable, Susan’s face was shining with joy.
She looked at the young pastor and said, with delight, “I’m being baptized again!” Any doubts she may have had a moment before were gone. The arrival of the rain shower was just the sign she need to truly believe.
What do you make of a story like that? I know that it is true, because I was that young pastor and that was my first “lead someone to Christ moment”. Did God actually bring about that rain shower or was it just a coincidence? When I think about all He would have had to do in order to make that happen, one wonders why He would do it for a relatively trivial result. And what about all the people who might have been inconvenienced by rain shower? Which brings me to the question that is also the title of this blog: “Does God Answer Only Trivial Prayers?” Stay tuned.
The portion of Scripture that is widely cited as predicting Sunday laws at the end of time is Revelation 13:13-17. I will take a fresh look at the passage with Adventist beliefs about this element of the future in mind. Let me say first, that a church’s beliefs on a topic should be exegetically defensible, but do not need to be exegetically compelling. Doctrine comes under the heading of systematic theology, where Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all play a role. Not all Adventist and Christian beliefs are grounded in biblical exegesis alone. For Adventists, insights from the pioneers, current understandings, and the teachings of Ellen White all play a role in formulating doctrine. But, in Adventist understanding, doctrine must not contradict Scripture, it must at least be defensible in light of Scripture.
Since Revelation never uses the words Sabbath or Sunday, it is possible that exegetical certainty in the matter of Sunday laws at the End is not available from Scripture alone. But such lack of exegetical clarity is true of many doctrines. For example, the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible, and nowhere does the Bible contain many of the Chalcedonian formulas with regard to Jesus Christ. But while they go beyond the specific data of Scripture, these doctrines can be defended from the evidence of Scripture. They are a contextualization of Scripture in light of the questions and issues raised in the centuries after the New Testament. And that is sufficient for believers to make a commitment to such teachings, even if we “see through a glass darkly.” We will find that the concept of Sunday laws at the end of time does not contradict Scripture, it is compatible with the evidence, even if the evidence is not compelling.
The key text is Revelation 13:13-17 (my translation): “And he [the land beast] does great signs, so much so that he causes fire to come down out of heaven to earth in the presence of men. And he deceives those who live on the earth because of the signs which he was given to do . . . saying to those who live on the earth that they should make an image to the beast. . . . And he [the land beast] was permitted to give breath to the image of the beast, in order that the image of the beast might speak and might cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed. And he [the land beast] controls everyone . . . so that he might place a mark upon their right hands or upon their foreheads, so that no one might be able to buy or sell except the one who has the mark, the name of the beast or the number of his name.
This passage exhibits the two outstanding characteristics of Satan’s method for persuading people at the end of time. In Revelation 13:13-14 there is the method of deception. Satan brings fire down from heaven in a false Pentecost or a counterfeit Mount Carmel showdown. He uses great signs to persuade the people of earth that he is the true God, the one worthy of worship. He is not so in fact, but he uses “signs and lying wonder” to deceive (see also 2 Thess 2:9) those who live on the earth. In Revelation 13:15-17, however, he uses the method of intimidation or force. Those who refuse to worship the image of the beast are to be killed. Those who refuse to receive the mark of the beast will not be able to buy or sell. So Satan’s methods are force and deception. This is in direct contrast with God’s methods. God always speaks the truth, and never forces anyone to follow or worship him. The final crisis is a showdown between rival claims to be God and two different methods of persuasion.
In the previous two blogs I noted six important principles of prophetic interpretation gleaned from fulfilled prophecies. Taken together, these three principles caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction and encourage us to be very attentive to the prophet’s original time and place. I will share the final two principles here:
Principle Seven (7): Prophetic Fulfillments Are Most Clearly Understood As or After They Occur. The record of future predictions on the basis of prophecy has not been a good one. The earlier six principles help explain that sorry track record. Part of the problem is the very purpose of prophecy. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future (although that is the way many approach prophecy), it is given to teach us how to live today and to strengthen our faith at the time of fulfillment. Jesus says essentially this in John 14:29: “I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” As or after a prophetic fulfillment, it will become evident what God was doing and faith will be strengthened. The same principle should caution us not to expect crystal clarity regarding the future in advance of the fulfillment.
Principle Eight (8): There Are Two Types of Prophecy, Classical and Apocalyptic. The way prophecy is fulfilled is impacted by this distinction. Apocalyptic prophecy is seen in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7 and in passages like Revelation 12. It tends to involve a series of historical events running one after another from the prophet’s day until the End. Dual or multiple fulfillments should not be expected, because the prophecy covers the whole period from the prophet’s day until the End. Apocalyptic prophecies tend to be unconditional, God sharing the large strokes of history that He foresees will take place. In contrast, classical prophecy is seen in books like Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah. There is a strong focus on the immediate situation, and if the end of all things is in view, it is a natural extension of the prophet’s situation, time and place. There are strong conditional elements, the fulfillment is dependent on human response.
The writings of Ellen White fit the classical style of prophecy. She speaks to her immediate situation, encouraging fidelity to God and to Scripture. Where she speaks of the future, she speaks in terms of a natural extension of the immediate situation, rather than clear predictions of things that don’t exist in her day. For example, she does not foresee nuclear war or power, she doesn’t speak of cell phones, computers, the internet, Islamic terrorism, space travel, World Wars I and II, or the rise of secularism and post-modernism. When she describes police action at the end of time, the police are wearing swords, something more common in her day than today! It does not mean God was incapable of sharing our future with her, only that such a revelation was not central to her prophetic purpose, encouraging faithfulness to God and careful attention to the Scriptures. And regarding prophecy she says, “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” Last-Day Events, 38. A good example of conditional prophecy was her declaration in 1856 that some with her that day would live to see Jesus come. Obviously, the conditions for that prophecy were never met and we are still here in 2020.
In the next blog we will begin to take a closer look at Revelation 13:13-17, the passage in the Bible that is most often cited in relation to the possibility of Sunday laws in earth’s future. After a fresh exploration of Revelation 13, we will turn to Ellen White’s key statements on the subject.
In the previous blog I noted three important principles of prophetic interpretation gleaned from fulfilled prophecies. God is consistent, God is not always predictable, and God is creative. Taken together, these three principles should caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction before the fulfillment arrives. I will share three more principles here:
Principle Four (4): God Meets People Where They Are. Whenever God reveals Himself to a prophet, He does so within the prophet’s time, place and circumstances. All language is based on the sum total of a people’s experience. So God communicates to the prophets in their vocabulary, not His, for His language would not be understood. This is probably the most biblical principle that is not stated in so many words in the Bible. It is demonstrated, for example, by the four gospels. The one story is told in four different ways to reach a wide variety of minds. And it is demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to earth as a First-Century Jew, accustomed to the ways of Galilee. To understand the fulfillment of a prophecy, one must first understand the language, time and place of the prophet. This is true of Ellen White as much as anyone else God has communicated with.
Principle Five (5): God Often Spiritualizes History. Beginning with the Exodus story, we see a spiritualization of God’s historical actions in creation and the Flood (Exod 14:21-22). The basic scenario and language is repeated, but God uses that vocabulary in a figurative or spiritualized way; moving from Adam to Israel, Eden to Canaan, and a chaotic, water-covered world to the spiritual chaos of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. In the prophets, the Exodus story becomes the model for God’s spiritual transformation of His people in the future. The same kind of thing happens in Revelation 13, where Pentecost, Pharaoh’s magicians, Mount Carmel, the creation of Adam, Nebuchanezzar’s image and Solomon’s apostasy provide context for the great spiritual conflict at the end of time. In the New Testament generally, the things of Israel are applied to the spiritual community of the church and the language of Israel’s geography is applied to the whole world. To miss the spiritualization of a prophecy’s roots is to miss the point of the prophecy.
Principle Six (6): God Uses the Language of the Prophet’s Past and Present to Describe the Future. This is related to principle four, but moves from the general to the specific. God meets people where they are. He speaks to prophets in the language of their times, places and circumstances. So divine predictions of the future are framed as natural extensions of the prophet’s time, place and understanding. The Flood would be an unraveling of creation followed by a new creation. The eschatology of Deuteronomy 28 would depend on Israel’s obedience or disobedience to the covenant moving forward. The return from Babylon would be a replay of the Exodus. A classic example of this is Isaiah 11:15-16. It is predicted that Israel will be delivered from Assyria when God uses a wind to dry up the Euphrates River so the Israelites can cross in their sandals. The prophecy was fulfilled in Israel’s return from Babylon, but not a single detail turned out exactly as stated. Instead of Israel, it was Judah that returned. Instead of Assyria, they returned from Babylon. Instead of a wind, it was Cyrus’ engineers that dried up the Euphrates, instead of crossing the dry river bed, God’s people crossed the bridges because Cyrus released them from captivity. The first two are explained by Isaiah’s location in time (Isaiah’s present), when Israel still existed and Assyria dominated the world. God met him where he was. The latter two are explained by the used of Exodus language (Isaiah’s past) to describe God’s future deliverance.
Understanding the original context of Ellen White’s statements regarding a national Sunday law in the US, is critical to rightly anticipating in what way such statements might or might not be fulfilled in our own future. What matters is not what we think a prophecy must mean, but how God actually works in the world, how He moves from prediction to fulfillment.
Unfulfilled prophecy has been the bane of prophetic interpreters for millennia. Even Seventh-day Adventists have a somewhat checkered history with it, as the Great Disappointment indicates. When we talk about Sunday laws in the final events of earth’s history, we are dealing with unfulfilled prophecy. There is a prophetic prediction. The fulfillment has not yet come. So you are dealing with an unfulfilled prophecy. You are projecting from the words of the prophecy to an expected outcome. But history is littered with attempts to do just that, most of which turned out to be false.
So how can or should one be able to speak with confidence about an unfulfilled prophecy? The answer seems obvious once you mention it. You assess the likely outcome of an unfulfilled prophecy on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. As you visit the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible you begin to get a sense of how God works in the world, how He moves from prediction to fulfillment, how His earlier actions project what His later actions will be like. Fulfilled prophecy gives us the needed perspective to make educated judgments about unfulfilled prophecy. I have reported on my study of fulfilled prophecy in the book What the Bible Says About the End-Time and in an updated and shortened summary in chapter 2 of my book The Deep Things of God. I will summarize the principles I discovered in that study here, with a brief proof text or two for each principle. The more detailed argument can be found in the above books. But here I will summarize just enough to address the topic at hand.
Principle One (1): God is consistent. This principle should not be controversial. If God is God, one would expect a certain consistency in His words and actions. What God says, He will do. What He does, He tends to repeat. Prophecy is grounded in God’s consistency. Because He is consistent, we anticipate that He will do what He says and repeat what He does. God’s words project how He will act in the future. God’s previous actions project how He will act in the future. Prophecy exists because God can be counted on to do what He says. But this principle needs to be balanced by a second one.
Principle Two (2): God is not always predictable. While God is consistent, sometimes He surprises us. Because God is God, we cannot expect to fully fathom His words and actions. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways are higher than our ways (Isa 55:8-9). There is a consistency in God’s actions between creation, the Flood and the Exodus, for example. But careful analysis shows that God does not repeat every detail of the earlier actions in the later actions. Fulfilled prophecy also shows that God does not always fulfill every detail of an earlier pattern or prophecy. So a certain amount of sanctified caution is called for in assessing unfulfilled prophecy. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. For who has known the mind of the Lord. . .” (Rom 11:33-34, ESV). The Spirit of God is like the wind, “You cannot tell where it is coming from or where it is going” (John 3:8, NIV). To suggest that God’s consistency requires that He fulfill our understanding of every word and detail of a prophecy is to have failed to observe the actual data of Scripture. When we assert that we have mastered the details of the future on the basis of prophecy, we have opened ourselves up to disappointment and even self-deception.
Principle Three (3): God is creative. God is not limited to the words and actions of the past. The antitype doesn’t simply carry out the type in a point by point correspondence. God can transcend what He has done before, adding new elements not discernable from the prophecy or God’s prior actions. In Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV) it says, “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” This passage is in the context of God’s promise to repeat the Exodus experience in Israel’s future deliverance from Babylon. But He is clear that the fulfillment will not be limited to a repeat of the historical details of the Exodus. God will transcend the Exodus by adding unexpected new aspects to the fulfillment. Taken together, these three principles should caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction before the fulfillment arrives. Let God be God!
COVID-19 has changed many things in this world. Before COVID people who wanted your expertise invited you to get on an airplane and visit their interesting part of the world. After COVID they could invite you to address their people from the comfort of your own office or home. As a result of such invitations I have been able to interact with Seventh-day Adventist people and others in the Bahamas, Newfoundland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Europe and locations I’d rather not mention here. These events have usually involved some question and answer periods and have allowed me to take the pulse of the Seventh-day Adventist movement in ways that might not have been possible otherwise.
The one issue that seems to be on the minds of more SDAs outside the Western world than any other is the concept of future Sunday laws, particularly in the United States. This may come as a surprise to people in the West, who are well aware that Sunday laws are not on the radar in Western public conversation right now. But for many Seventh-day Adventists in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia the concept of Sunday laws is a real and imminent threat of critical importance. The narrative goes something like this: “Ellen White [special messenger to the SDA Church—1827-1915] clearly predicted, based on visions from the Lord, that before the end of time, the US Congress will pass a national Sunday law, enforcing worship on Sunday by all Americans. Laws like this will then be adopted in Europe, and ultimately by the entire world.”
The special appeal of this idea is that it would be the single, clearest, and most measurable sign of the End believers in the Second Coming of Jesus have. The idea that the gospel will be preached in the whole world as a witness to all nations is clear, but would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify. The idea that famines, earthquakes and pestilences will increase before the End still leaves open the issue of how bad these events have to be in order to qualify as apocalyptic. How massive and frequent are the earthquakes to come? How severe the pestilences? Determining that the End is at hand on the grounds of any particular earthquake, famine or pestilence has proven to be a fool’s errand through the centuries. But in contrast to these other “signs” a specific law in the halls of Congress of the United States of America, that is a specific, measurable sign of the End! When such a law is being debated in Congress and seems likely to pass, we can all know that the End is at hand. This concept is clear, simple and very attractive for people who like to know how and when things will end up. It gives them something unique to look for in the news cycle. It feels good to have “inside knowledge” in a matter of such importance.
But does this idea conform to biblical principles of prophetic interpretation? Is the purpose of such a prediction to satisfy our curiosity about the timing of the End? Or are we using the gift of prophecy in ways it was never intended to be used? One problem with fixing on a detail like this is that it can blind us to the larger picture of prophecy. We can have an unbalanced focus that causes us to forget prophetic features that are more vital to spiritual survival, like a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
In the blogs that follow, I will seek to explore three lines of evidence in relation to the topic. 1) What can we learn about unfulfilled prophecy from fulfilled prophecy? In anticipating specific Sunday laws, are we paying attention to how the Bible itself moves from prediction to fulfillment? We will review my previous study of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible, seeking guidelines that pertain to the specific prediction of a national Sunday law in the USA. 2) We will take a careful look at Revelation 13:13-17, the source passage in the Bible for the idea of a national/international Sunday law. Is that prediction as clear in the Bible as some have thought? Are there other ways that a counterfeit of the true Sabbath could occur? 3) We will take a close look at the key statements in the writings of Ellen White that are used to support the idea of a national Sunday law. How clear are those statements? What in her time and place was she referring to? Are similar conditions in play today?
I look forward to sharing this research with you and will welcome your feedback.