Does God answer only trivial prayers?

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 need 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?”

The Bible tells us that our God is a God of love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8, etc.). He is more willing to give good gifts to His “children” than even the most loving earthly father is (Matt 7:7-11). To put it in other words, God enjoys showering His beloved ones with little gifts. Just to say “I love you.” And I believe He loves to do this in some of the most personal and practical ways imaginable. Perhaps you’ve just lost hope of finding a parking spot in time to meet a critical appointment. You send up a desperate prayer and suddenly a space appears. A worried mother wonders where her boy is and sends up a quick prayer. Just then the phone rings and she discovers all is well. Or you survive a harrowing experience and discover later that several friends felt impressed to pray for you at exactly that time. Millions of believers around the world have experiences just like this every day. It is reasonable to suggest from this that God is real and that He loves to make His presence known to those who are open to it.

But just now the skeptic in you is saying, Wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me that God manages the comings and goings in every parking lot around the world just in case one of His followers needs a spot at the last minute? If prayer is sometimes timed to remarkable events, what about all the times when people pray and “nothing” happens? What about all the real heartaches in this world that are met with silence? What about women who are raped and their cries for help go unheeded? What about men who contract terminal cancer in the prime of their life and feel as if their prayers go no higher than the ceiling? What about parents who pray for wayward children and go to their graves without a clear response from God?

These objections have serious weight. Believers often fail to realize how trivial their experience of God’s presence may seem to others who have suffered deeply in this life. Our glib expressions of how God is working in our everyday lives can be like a knife in the heart to someone experiencing the absence of God. We must never forget that the absence of God in everyday experience can seem the norm to most people. It is even something Jesus experienced when He was on the cross (see Matt 27:46 and parallels). In spite of the deep intimacy with God that characterized every day of Jesus’ ministry, in the 24 hours before His death Jesus experienced increasing darkness to the point where He could no longer see the Father’s reconciling face. The withdrawal of a sense of God’s approving presence caused Jesus the deepest anguish (see Desire of Ages, page 753). To experience the silence of God, then, is no indication that a person is actually forsaken by God or is an incorrigible sinner. But at times like that it can feel as if God answers only trivial prayers.

The story of Job may also be instructive here. Job’s experience makes it clear that there is no answer to most of the specific objections raised above, at least in this life. The tragedies in Job’s life were certainly unexplainable in earthly terms. They came from “nowhere” and made no sense to him. They had to do with complexities in the larger universe that Job never came to understand. The fascinating thing is that even when God came down in person to talk with Job about these issues (Job 38:1 – 41:34), He never mentions the real reason for Job’s suffering, a reason the reader of the story is allowed into (1:6-12; 2:1-7).

From the book of Job we discern that there is a cosmic conflict in the universe that affects all that we do and all that we experience. God’s actions are sometimes limited by larger considerations in that conflict, things we may never understand until eternity. Perhaps God’s intervention in Job’s situation would have upset the whole space-time continuum of the universe in a way even quantum physicists could not understand. In other words, God cannot explain what we cannot understand. What we do understand is that larger divine interventions can change things in a way that causes collateral damage at unspecified times in the future. Major actions of God have ripple effects in the lives of many people and their descendants over decades and even centuries. As those ripples play out in the course of history, they can have consequences that we cannot foresee but God in His infinite wisdom can. He may understand that the good we hope God will do in the present could cause even greater harm than His silence in answer to our prayers.

There is an interesting biblical illustration of this. It is the story of Hezekiah as told in Isaiah 36-39. Hezekiah was one of the most faithful kings in the history of Judah (2 Kings 18:5-6; 2 Chr 31:20-21). He was faithful to God in his personal life and devotions. He expanded the borders of the country. He restored the temple that had fallen into ruins. He restored the priests and Levites to their regular services. He restored the feast days. He removed the rival altars around Jerusalem. He ordered the “high places” of rival worship all around the country to be destroyed. He destroyed the idols and images that the people had come to rely on. His prayers protected Jerusalem when it was surrounding by overwhelming Assyrian forces. It would be understandable, therefore, for people to think that Hezekiah’s premature death would be a tragic thing for the nation and a mistake for God to allow. I can almost see the ancient bloggers and pundits questioning God’s character in relation to this development. But it was not to be.

When the time came for Hezekiah to die, he pleaded bitterly with God on the grounds of his lifelong faithfulness (Isa 38:1-3). If anyone ever were deserving of a positive answer to prayer, it would be Hezekiah. And God came through for him in stunning fashion. God not only granted him an extension of fifteen years of life (38:5), he provided assurance that this would happen through a major astronomical token (38:7-8– how Hezekiah came to have this experience is not explained). Everyone seemed to have gotten what they wanted from God. Yet during those extra years two things happened that undid all the good that Hezekiah had done during his lifetime; the visit of the Babylonian envoys (39:1-8) and the birth of his son, who became the evil king Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-9). In the context of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan major interventions in people’s lives are very complicated. The ramifications are usually way beyond our understanding.

Having said this, I still want to argue that a believer’s experience in a parking lot is not necessarily imaginary. I cannot explain the timing and the effort involved in God’s actions. But I do believe that God would answer every prayer in a positive manner if pleasing us were the only consideration. If finding someone a parking space or timing a phone call will not upset the space-time continuum of the universe, why wouldn’t a loving God intervene? If a woman makes a full commitment to Jesus just as a rain shower happens to be passing, why wouldn’t God arrange that if the stakes were low enough? I guess what I am saying is that the lower the ultimate stakes, the lower the potential consequences of any particular divine intervention, the more likely that a loving God can use the circumstances of life as a token of his love. We serve a God who delights to please His children whenever so doing would not cause harm to anyone.

Having said that, those of us who have experienced this kind of intimacy from God need to be careful when and how we share such experiences with others. Our well-intentioned testimony can do harm even when God’s gift did not. While we should rightly acknowledge the small tokens of God’s favor in our lives and rejoice over them in the right circumstances, we need to also be aware of how often our testimonies cause pain.


Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (8): The Mark and the Seal

How shall we understand the “mark of the beast” in the context of Revelation 13? The most obvious parallel to the mark is the seal of God. The seal is placed on the foreheads of God’s servants (the 144,000) to protect them from Satan’s destructive efforts when the four winds of the earth are released (Rev 7:1-3). An evident parallel to the seal of God is the 144,000 having the Lamb’s name and His Father’s name written on their foreheads. In the Hebrew context names are associated with a person’s character. So the seal of God seems to have something to do with the character of those being sealed.

This is supported by the wider use of sealing in the New Testament. In Ephesians 1:13, sealing by the Holy Spirit is the consequence of a faith response to the gospel. It represents the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This sealing is a lifelong experience of the Spirit after conversion (Eph 4:30). It is the evidence that a person truly is known by God and belongs to Him (2 Tim 2:19). In the Second Christian Century, sealing was associated with baptism. So the seal of God has to do with the character transformation that happens as a consequence of a genuine relationship with God.

Revelation 7 and 14 place this sealing in an end-time context, as does Ellen White: ““(The seal of God) is not any seal or mark that can be seen, but a settling into the truth, both intellectually and spiritually, so they cannot be moved.” SDABC, vol. 4, 1161, Last-Day Events, 219-220. Ellen White understands the last-day sealing to be deepening of commitment and a completion of Christian maturity. Those who have to pass through the trials of the end-time cannot be the kind of believers Paul talks about in Ephesians 4:14, “Tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine. . . .” Likewise, at the End, Satan is forming his image into those committed to his side of the conflict. That makes the mark of the beast the mirror counterpart of the seal of God. The three angels (Rev 14:6-12) and the three frogs (Rev 16:13-14) both go out to the nations of the world. The end result is three types of people, as mentioned earlier. Those fully committed to God (the sealed), those fully committed in opposition to God (marked on the forehead), and those who go along with the beast and its image in order to preserve their lives and economic opportunities. Just as the seal of God provides protection to God’s people at the End (Rev 7:1-3, cf. Ezek 9:1-7), so the mark of the beast provides “protection” against the death decree and economic boycott of Revelation 13:15-17.

There is one further element to the mark of the beast. It is part of the beast’s counterfeit of the first four commandments of the Decalogue. The forehead and the hand echoes Moses’ call for Israel’s complete commitment to the commandments of God (Deut 6:4-8). In contrast, the beast and his image violate the first four commandments. The first commandment says to have no other gods before Yahweh. The dragon and the beast seek to be worshiped as gods (Rev 13:4, 8). The second commandment forbids the worship of images, the beast sets up an image to be worshiped (Rev 13:15). The third commandment forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain, the beast is full of blasphemy (Rev 13:1, 5-6). The mark of the beast is in defiance of the Sabbath, which is brought in on God’s side in Rev 14:7 (cf. Exod 20:11). If the law of God is a transcript of His character, you can see what is happening here, a rejection of God’s character and an affirmation of Satan’s. Satan’s character, in contrast with God’s, will be fully revealed in the final conflict.

The previous paragraph underlines that the Sabbath is a crucial issue in the final conflict. It also suggests that some counterfeit of the Sabbath will be central to the beast’s actions in the same conflict. What is less clear in the text is exactly what form that counterfeit will take. I can think of four options: 1) Another day (as in Sunday), 2) no day is a Sabbath (abolished), 3) every day is a Sabbath (not much different than two), and 4) force work or forbid worship on Sabbath. When dealing with Revelation 13 Ellen White normally works from number 1) above, but on at least one occasion mentions number 4). In the blogs that follow we will look at the evidence of Ellen White herself in the context of American religious history.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (7): The Forehead and the Hand

The text of Revelation 13 continues with verse 16: “And he [the land beast] controls everyone . . . so that he might place a mark upon their right hands or upon their foreheads. . . .” In the biblical world the forehead represents the mind, the will, the personality. The hand is representative of action. So these symbols represent two kinds of response to the call to worship the image of the beast. There are those who are fully committed to the agenda of Satan and his allies and there are others who don’t really care, but they go along in order to preserve their jobs and their lives (Rev 13:16-17).

The central theme of Revelation, chapters 13 and 14, is worship. Revelation 13:14 alludes to the showdown over worship at Mount Carmel. This portion of the book makes reference to worship of the dragon (Rev 13:4), the beast from the sea (Rev 13:4, 8, 12; 14:9, 11) and the image of the beast (Rev 13:15; 14:9, 11). In all, there are exactly seven occurrences of the word “worship” in the central part of Revelation. In contrast is the single call to worship “Him who made the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and the fountains of water.” Rev 14:7. The call to worship the image of the beast is a universal one, it goes out to the full range of social classes. “And he [the land beast] controls everyone; the small and the great, the rich and the poor, the free and the slave; so that he might place a mark upon their right hands or upon their foreheads. . . .” Rev 13:17.

Along with a willingness to worship the image of the beast, a new element is introduced. A mark is placed on all who are willing to worship the image of the beast. The mark is defined as the name of the beast or the number of his name. These likely correspond to the forehead and the hand. Names in the Hebrew context represent character. Some are marked because of their heart and soul commitment to Satan’s agenda to mold human beings in his own image (name on forehead). Others are marked because they are willing to go along with that agenda to preserve their own lives and prosperity in this world (hand and number).

These texts reflect a sharp polarization in the world as we approach the End-time. Revelation projects three types of people in the world at the end. One group is the saints who are called by many names (the remnant, the 144,000, the great multitude, the kings of the east, the called, chosen and faithful followers of the Lamb). The second group is a worldwide alliance of religion, called Babylon, the Great City, the Great Prostitute, the woman who rides the beast, and is represented by the unholy trinity; the dragon, the beast and the false prophet (Rev 16:13). The third group are whose without a heart and soul commitment to either camp. These are the secular, political and military powers of the world, also named by many names and symbols (Euphrates River, kings of the world, many waters, kings of the earth, the beast of Rev 17, the ten horns, the cities of the nations, seven mountains and seven kings). When these secular powers agree to enforce the death decree of Revelation 13:15, they make a “hand” commitment to the beast and his image. Satan desires worship from all, but he is willing to settle for a forced worship, a self-centered worship. The contrast between his character and God’s could not be more stark. This contrast is further underlined as we explore the meaning of the mark of the beast in Revelation.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (6): The Image of the Beast

The deception of Revelation 13:13-14 results in the formation of an image to and of the beast, presumably the first beast of Revelation 13 that came up out of the sea. “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.” Rev 13:15. Typical of Jewish apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation never quotes the Old Testament, but it alludes to it very frequently, using key words, phrases, ideas and structures to signal the reading to incorporate OT knowledge into the interpretation of a passage. We saw such allusions to the OT in 13:13-14: the experience of Elijah on Mount Carmel (fire from heaven) and the deceptive miracles of Pharaoh’s magicians.

The combination of image and breath is an unmistakable allusion to the early chapters of Genesis. God created male and female in His own image (Gen 1:26-27), using His breath to install the software of life into Adam’s earthy body. More than just oxygen, God was installing the life principle, with its unique personality and traits and that life principle included the “image of God.” That phrase is not used for the creation of animals. So there was something very godlike about Adam and Eve. They reflected God’s character in their own.

The beast from the sea is in the image of the dragon (Rev 13:1, cf. 12:4), which is also defined as the ancient serpent, Satan (Rev 12:9). So the phrase “image of the beast” implies a similar relationship to Satan as Adam originally had to God. Revelation 13:15 is telling us that at the end of time Satan will seek to implant his image into the human race in contrast to the image and character of God. Just as God’s breath installed His design into the human race, Satan at the End will seek to install his own design into the human race. The contrast could not be more stark, as noted in the previous blog in this series. Satan’s character prized lies and unreality (deception—Rev 13:13-14), intimidation and force (Rev 13:12, 15-17). Both qualities are summed up by Jesus in John 8:44. In contrast, God always speaks the truth (Rev 3:14; 15:3) and prizes human freedom (Rev 22:17). God never forces anyone. So the two sides in the final conflict grow increasingly apart as they model more and more the character of the God they worship.

The ultimate outcome of the formation of an image to the beast is to exhibit the murderous character of Satan (John 8:44) in a death decree. When the image of the beast comes to life it will “cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed.” Rev 13:15. This is a clear allusion to the Plain of Dura event in Daniel 3. There an image was set up for worship. All who would not worship Nebuchanezzar’s image would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Likewise, at the end of time, a decree goes forth that all who would not worship the image of the beast, all who will not conform to the beast’s (Satan’s) character, will be killed. Two other OT death decrees may also be in mind here, the lion’s den incident of Daniel 6, and the genocidal decree of Haman in the book of Esther (3:6, 13). The final era of earth’s history will include a replay of earlier attempts to destroy God’s people. But that is not all that Satan has in mind for the End-time.

COVID-19: Fulfillment of “Men’s hearts failing them for fear” (Luke 21:26, KJV)?

One thing does seem sure at this point. Two, and perhaps three, of our major “authorities” have lost credibility in this fight. One is the news media. By vigorously promoting the lockdowns and then doing an about face and supporting public gatherings to protest, the news media shifted in many eyes from a fact-based entity to an advocacy role. While advocacy is an important function in a free society, we do not generally look to the news media for advocacy, we look for sound information and objective reporting of what is going on in the world. Advocacy can skew how one views events and also how one weights which events are worthy of the news cycle. The news media’s credibility as an “honest broker” has taken a severe hit. I am not blaming journalists as a class. It is the “advocates” on all sides that make money online, not objective fact-checkers. So you can blame the internet, at least in part. But journalists could all be more careful to put their opinions in abeyance while weighing the evidence. Even Bible scholars struggle more with that than they used to.

A second major authority to lose credibility in the public eye is the scientific community. The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that it doesn’t hurt to wash your hands, wear a mask, and watch your distance from others. But we were told at the beginning that wearing a mask made no difference, so save them for health-care workers (but why do that if it makes no difference?). Now they make a difference. It seems this virus caught even the scientific community off guard and media reporting has made the “science” seem a bit chaotic and contradictory. While great hope is placed in a vaccine, there is doubt whether such a vaccine would be more than 50% effective. And increasing numbers of people are not trusting in the whole concept of vaccination. So science has lost some of its credibility in the eyes of the public, except where current scientific opinion supports a prevailing narrative. Again, I am not blaming scientists as such, we demanded answers from the start and they were feeling their way along, doing the best they could to answer us.

The third “authority” to take a credibility hit during this crisis is government. And I say this as apolitically as I can. The federal government’s handling of this has seemed all over the map. Part of this due to relentless, knee-jerk reactions from the news media and the party out of power. At the other end of the political spectrum, there is a recall drive (the provincial level equivalent of impeachment) in California against the left-wing administration there. So no government seems to have come off well in this matter, except perhaps a few countries where the people are willing to submit to draconian measures to defeat the virus. But there is a heavy price to pay in accepting coercive government in exchange for temporary safety and peace. While the virus is a very serious matter, in the long run I suspect the loss of credibility in entities we once trusted may prove more dangerous than the virus itself.

While COVID-19 may be a far cry from the Black Plague as a threat to human life, it is very serious for those deeply affected by it. At the same time there seems to be a growing sense of psychological dis-ease (sic) from the lockdowns, the racial unrest, and the breathless electioneering. I note then that Luke 21:25-26 offers distress, perplexity, fear and foreboding as accompanying the end-time. While these are not a measurable sign of the End in themselves, we are getting a taste of what those days might be like psychologically and emotionally. The internet and social media lend themselves to hype and over-statement. So we are constantly bombarded with messages designed to get attention by arousing the emotional brain rather than the rational brain. What some have called “professional outrage peddlers” draw out worst-case scenarios which seem inevitable yet rarely turn out as bad as predicted. When simple things like kneeling during the national anthem or refusing to wear a mask take on apocalyptic proportions, it is no wonder so many feel exhausted and depressed. Even though our eyes in most instances tell us differently at the local level, the international hype-train overtakes our rational brain and we feel overwhelmed. The “fight or flight” mechanism takes over, with serious consequences for our physical, mental and emotional health.

Here are five things I have learned that help keep me and my family sane.

1) Be open to evidence on both (all) sides of an issue. Outrage peddlers make a living on manipulating some evidence and ignoring other evidence so that their “truth” seems irrefutable. Don’t examine viewpoints solely through the eyes of opponents. Listen to both sides of the argument. The truth is likely to be somewhere between the extremes.

2) Limit your diet of news and social media to manageable doses. Suspend judgment on any particular claim until you have had a chance to examine a larger body of evidence. Take a deep breath and change the subject when you feel overwhelmed.

3) Much of the stress and anxiety we feel we do to ourselves. As we focus on the negatives and buy-in to the outrage, we are strengthening the amygdala (at the center of the brain), the emotional brain. As it gains strength, the emotional brain drowns out the logical brain (the frontal lobes). Instead of seeing the beauty in the present, we brood on the past or worry about the future. As noted above, this fight or flight mindset has serious consequences.

4) Protect the children as far as possible from the overwhelming media messages. Even innocent cartoons contain dramatic elements of peril and fear that stimulate and strengthen the amygdala. When they become teen-agers, the emotions rage and the ability to control is weakened. A “sheltered life” in the early years (harder and harder to do) protects and strengthens the logical brain for the heavy lifting needed in adulthood.

5) Repeat the words of Jesus over and over in your mind: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27, KJV. The disciples of Jesus were about to face the most distressing reality possible. The Son of God was soon to leave their physical presence for good. But He wasn’t taking his “peace” with Him. He was giving them the tools to cope with His physical absence. “Perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18. The antidote to the hype train is to spend more time with Jesus and the gospel. It is my prayer that my blogs and web sites will help point you in that direction every day.

COVID-19: How My Mind Has Changed or Stayed the Same II

In my earlier blogs on the COVID-19 virus I expressed concern that the virus could mutate into something much worse. I stated at the time that it wasn’t likely, so I hedged my bets. And, in fact, so far there is no evidence of such a mutation. Instead, there seems to be a gradual weakening of the virus, as noted above. My greater concern in March, however, was the economic fallout of the lockdowns. I feared that the widespread shutdown of business activity could result in another Great Depression. I was right about the economic fallout of the lockdowns, but the economic depression I feared has not arrived. Instead of 25% unemployment, the US topped out at less than 15% and is now closer to 10%, a depression to those who lost their job, but not an imminent end to the whole economic order. So the economy has fared better than I expected.

I was also concerned in March that a combination of the virus, the lockdowns and the economic disruption could lead to looting and rioting. A major reason for this concern was the breakdown of the social order in a post-Christian culture. I didn’t think American society had the resilience it used to have when Protestant faith was a common cultural heritage. This projection has turned out to be quite prescient, in fact, it has been much more widespread than even I could have expected. But I certainly missed that the rioting and looting would be over issues of race. Certainly, no one could have predicted the specific George Floyd incident or how it would impact the whole country. But the three things (fear of COVID, economic disruption and racial tensions) have combined with a fractious election season to keep everyone just a little on edge.

I made a number of other projections back in March. I suggested that the COVID crisis might be the end of higher education as we knew it. Until now, it has been a general perception that face to face education with expert teachers is the gold standard. But the coronavirus forced even the Harvards and Yales of this world to move to online education, blurring the difference between top-quality education and for-profit schooling. Why would students pay top dollar to study at home when they could cover many of the same subjects for much less online? The jury is still out on this one, but so far most students have stuck with the tradition powerhouse schools even though the teaching is in “Zoom” format. Why settle for second best when you can “dance with the stars”?

I made two other projections in March. First, I suggested that there would be a long-term decline in tourism and international travel. So far this has been on target. I recently visited the grandkids in Hawaii and my guess is that domestic air travel is operating at about 20% right now. International travel is even less and most travel seems to be for business or family events. Tourism for tourism’s sake (as in cruise ships and adventure travel) has not come back. It will probably be a long time before tourism reaches levels we took for granted before. Second, I predicted a major decline in the restaurant industry and in-person retail. Both of these have occurred. Some restaurants and retail chains are not coming back. But the discovery that you don’t generally pass the virus with food has enabled many “take-out” establishments to survive and some even to thrive. And many of us miss strolling through the aisles of our favorite mall or department store. So all may not be lost in this area.

All in all I think I got more right than wrong. But then a stopped clock gets it right at least twice a day also, perhaps I was just lucky. Having said that, “Day ain’t over yet!” We’ll see where this adventure leads us. In the final blog of this trilogy I will talk about the heavy impact this crisis has had on us and offer a bit of biblical advice.

COVID-19: How My Mind Has Changed or Stayed the Same

I plan to continue my series of blogs on Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy. But the current situation with COVID-19, lockdowns, racial tensions, and frantic election messages call for some comment, which I will offer in three blogs this week. I am not an expert on the science and psychology of contagious disease. But for more than two decades I have been teaching people how to evaluate truth claims on the internet. So sharing a bit of my current mindset may be helpful to you in dealing with the challenges we face. I am open to correction in the following, it is a work in progress.

Back at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis I made a number of statements as to what was going on and where it might lead us. I thought it would be interesting to review some of my comments and assess where I was right and where I was wrong. A good journalist doesn’t just focus on successful projections, but seeks to learn from mistaken assessments and faulty predictions.

One of the things I predicted was that, like most viruses, it would weaken in the warmer weather, giving us a respite from its malevolence. That turned out to be completely wrong. If anything, it seemed to become more contagious in the northern summer. I should have paid more attention to the early surge of cases in Singapore, which has hot and humid weather all year long. If the virus could thrive there, summer was not likely to help us much in the temperate zone. But while there was a major surge of virus cases in the southern and western states of the USA in June and July, the number of deaths relative to cases was much lower than it had been in the northern spring. One reason could be a weakening of the virus (see below), which is a normal occurrence. But it also may reflect a larger percentage of younger people being infected. In the spring a high percentage of cases were in nursing homes, in the summer it was hitting younger and healthier populations.

I noted early on that viruses tend to weaken over time. That is a prediction that seems to be fulfilling itself at this time. Doctor friends are telling me that the cases they are seeing are not as severe as they were in spring. The reason viruses weaken over time is because they, like us, want to live. It doesn’t serve them well to kill their hosts, as they will likely die with the host. So the more deadly strains of a virus “kill themselves off” and the less deadly ones survive, as a result, over time viruses become less deadly. It is too early to be sure, but some weakening of the virus seems to be occurring as I write. While cases continue to spike in various place, death rates appear to be dropping nearly everywhere.

One thing we didn’t know at the beginning was that it would turn out to be rare that someone get infected by the coronavirus while out of doors. We were afraid every time we left the house. But exercise out of doors has not proved to be very dangerous. While even asymptomatic people can pass on the virus for a time, I understand that it requires prolonged exposure to become infected. While large crowds gathered to protest in early June, the virus spike at that time was almost nationwide, it was not confined to the places where large numbers of people gathered to protest. So the degree to which large outdoor gatherings contributed to the spike in infections in June and July is not clear. The greater danger seems to be even small gatherings of strangers indoors (as in restaurants, movie theaters, casinos, and yes, church services). It is people, not food, that enables the virus to move from one host to another.

I predicted at the beginning that the lockdowns and strong measures would prove to be an over-reaction. I think “the jury is still out” on that one. One issue is that we still don’t know how widespread COVID-19 is and was. Recent anti-body studies suggest two interesting things. 1) Perhaps ten times as many people have been exposed to the virus as the number of known cases would indicate. 2) The virus was in the western USA in the Fall of 2019 already. If both are true, the virus would be far less deadly than we thought, and we might be closer to “herd immunity” (where enough people have been exposed to halt the wide spread of a contagious disease) than we think. That would not make it any less of a tragedy for those severely affected and for those who lost loved ones, but it would mean the virus is not as severe a public health threat as we had feared. Having said that, the lockdowns made perfect sense back in March, given what little we knew at the time. It is not clear what to make of the difference between the numbers we get from testing and the numbers that turn up from anti-body studies, so the jury is still out on whether the lockdowns were necessary or were an over-reaction. We may never know for sure.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (5): Satan’s Methods in the Final Crisis

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.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (4): How God Works in the World III

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.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (3): How God Works in the World II

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.