“We have this hope that burns within our hearts/Hope in the coming of the Lord.”1 The soon coming of Christ, the end of evil, the death of death; no more crying, mourning or pain; a new heaven and a new earth—these are the angelic trumpet blasts of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. More than one Adventist leader has said that when we lose sight of Christ’s second coming and the promise of the new earth, we’ll lose our energy and drive. We will be a church without a mission. We will have lost our reason for our existence. Our eschatological DNA was birthed in the Millerite mistake of date-setting Christ’s return, self-named and self-identified as last-day people when we organized as a denomination, and passed on from generation to generation as we evangelized the world in our desire to get as many people right with God so they will greet the return of Jesus with joy instead of terror.
As we have discussed in the last few weeks, it is clear that our society has lost interest in understanding what the scriptures say, let alone what the beasts of Daniel and Revelation represent. Our neighbors are not going to give us a chance to tell them that Jesus is coming soon. And before you tell me that we just need to change our beastly evangelistic marketing to images of a Caucasian Jesus and happy, well-adjusted, modestly-dressed and unadorned people in sensible shoes, our professional evangelists will tell you that those attract even less attenders. No matter how we advertise our expert explanation of bible prophecy, fewer and fewer people are interested.
But on a deeper level, do I need to remind you what this eschatological DNA created in many of us who grew up Adventist? Did you have the vivid nightmares of being “left behind” as Jesus, the angels and the saints all leave for heaven, and we’re still on earth? How many times did you hear the cries of, “Well this is it! This [insert news story here] proves the end is near! The mortal wound has been healed! The papacy is rising up and uniting with America to usher in the universal Sunday law.” We were told that the coming persecution was good news and our watchful conspiracy-making was a crucial spiritual discipline to help us get ready for Christ’s soon return. The constant work of reminding ourselves and warning others of this imminence was so that we would maintain and grow our relationship with God so we would be ready. So we kept working on our faith. And we did it for one reason: we wanted to be with Jesus in heaven. We wanted to make it to the time and place that will no longer be ravaged by Evil and its nasty offspring named War, Famine, Disease, Violence, Hatred, and Death. It was the promise of a magnificent future that kept us going in the present and preparing for the horrific events of the final persecution.
But constantly crying wolf and remaining vigilant for signs of impending doom did not make most of us healthier in the long run. Instead of growing our confidence in the love of God and the salvation of Jesus, this end-time DNA developed within us a deeply-rooted insecurity about our eternal destiny, a mostly-latent-but-sometimes-very-real fear of God’s wrath and an obsession with becoming like Jesus by whipping our personal morality into shape. Our never-ending struggle to get our acts together left many of us without the energy to love ourselves, to love life in this world, or to love the others with whom we share this life.
If our beastly evangelism is increasingly ineffective in bringing people to an Adventist congregation and our emphasis on an imminent second advent has been more effective at instilling guilt, fear, and depression in our members, what do we do? Is there a way to continue proclaiming and placing our hope in the promise of a new earth but in a way that does not keep our members in a living purgatory and might connect with our neighbors with whom we want to share the new earth?
My suggestion: what if we were to bring some of the new earth into the old earth? Using scriptures like the last six chapters of Isaiah and the final two chapters of Revelation to start our imagination of what the new earth will be like, how could we bring a little bit of the hereafter into the here and now?
One of the important shifts that took place in my understanding of eschatology as a young theology student was when I started taking to heart Jesus’ proclamations that “the Kingdom of God/heaven is near/here.” Jesus acted as if God’s kingdom had already arrived on earth when he was here the first time. And maybe it was more than an act. Maybe the kingdom of God was here. Maybe wherever Jesus is, there is the kingdom.2 It seems that when Jesus began his public ministry, he got busy raising the dead, healing physical illnesses, and restoring people to good mental health—and/or casting out demons—whichever you prefer. For those who were given some of the worst that this world could dish out, Jesus gave them some of the best of God’s kingdom.
Tied closely to the understanding of the kingdom of God already being here on earth is a needed shift in our understanding of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist prophesied that the Messiah would bring the Spirit, then Jesus stated at the beginning of his ministry that he was the evidence of God’s Spirit at work on earth and promised that his Spirit would come to the apostles, then he breathed the Spirit upon them after his resurrection and then blew them away and set them on fire with the Spirit after his ascension.3 Somehow, again unintentionally I believe, Adventism’s focus on Jesus’ second advent overshadowed the way in which he was already here with us. We failed to understand the role and work of the Holy Spirit. The second coming is not when Jesus returns to earth; it is when Jesus finishes what God’s Spirit has already started. Jesus is among and within us now through his Spirit.4 He has not left us as orphans. He has come to us.5 And that means that God’s kingdom is also near/here/with us/in us . . . right now.
If we could grasp this reality, maybe the Spirit can heal us from the dysfunctional side effects of our eschatological DNA and shift us away from an obsession with improving personal piety in order to make it to heaven when Jesus comes back. If God’s kingdom is already here, we don’t need to wonder anymore if we will “make it.” We made it. And maybe this truth can lead us toward a dynamic and active partnership with the Immanuel-God-with-us-Spirit where we get busy bringing the new earth into our existing world. There are ways we can do this in our individual lives and, I am convinced, that congregations and denominational institutions can bring larger-scale new earth initiatives into society.
You know, if we look back at the stories of our Adventist pioneers, we see our foremothers and forefathers bringing new earth into their existing world all over the place. Maybe, you would argue, they did not have the best theology and that they made many mistakes in those early days. But somehow they saw that one of the implications of living in the last days was that they needed to make the current world better while announcing and awaiting the imminent return of Jesus. They worked for the abolition of slavery, established centers that transformed the physical health of a sick America, worked to free American society from the devastation of alcoholism, and established schools that provided an innovative and holistic education for children.
In a time when our great denominational institutions have largely fulfilled their original purpose, what would the next iteration of our new earth ministry look like? Where does the old world still seem to have a hold in our communities? What systems and structures need to be uprooted and replaced with some fresh, new earth?
- What is the health reform that needs to take place today? Is it in the area of research, delivery systems, economics, or all of the above? Are Adventist health systems and institutions capable of delivering this innovation? Or does this desperately needed new earth innovation to old world medicine need to come from the grassroots? Would an all-out effort to expand people’s access to quality mental health education, counseling, and medical care be our new earth calling today?
- What would education reform look like in 2017? Who are the people in society who do not have access to quality, holistic education? Is there a calling for Adventists to create models that can be replicated for those who do not currently have access?
- Is there a need for a new vision of what a local congregation looks like and how it operates? If we believe (and I passionately do) that the work of creating supportive spiritual communities is still vital to the kingdom purposes of God, will we accomplish that by continuing to prop up our existing local churches, most of which are in decay and decline? Or, do we finally rip the bandage off the wound and begin shifting resources and personnel to try, fail, and try again to create new earth models of spiritual community that meet the needs of our neighbors today?
- What is the version of slavery that exists on our continent today? Is there need to work with others to fight for the freedom of those stuck in low-wage, no-benefit jobs? Do we need to get active in working with agricultural workers who still suffer abuse, receive illegally low pay and, in some situations, are actually enslaved? Would working to stop sex-trafficking be our next abolition movement for the kingdom of God?
When our neighbors see us actively working to bring a little bit of heaven into their old world, their eyes may begin to open to the kingdom of God that is growing in their midst and moving all of us toward its completed work at the second advent. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Todd J. Leonard is senior pastor at Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church and president of Glendale Communitas Initiative, a local non-profit organization devoted to families working their way out of poverty. He shares life with his wife, Robin, and three daughters, Halle, Abigail, and Emma.
Notes & References:
1. “We Have This Hope.” Tune and lyrics by Wayne Hooper. 1962.
2. See Matthew 10.7 and 12.28; Mark 1.15; Luke 4.18-19, 10.9-11, 11.20, and 16.16
3. See Matthew 3.11, John 16.7-15, John 20.19-23 and Acts 2.1-4
4. See 2 Corinthians 1.21-23, Ephesians 1.13-14 and 2 Timothy 1.6-7, 14
5. See John 14.15-21
Drop the Mic: Reincarnating the Adventist Faith Part 1
Drop the Mic: Reincarnating the Adventist Faith Part 2
Drop the Mic: Reincarnating the Adventist Faith Part 3
Drop the Mic: Reincarnating the Adventist Faith Part 4
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