How Healthy Is Adventist Eschatology? An Endogenous Imbalance (Part 1)

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Eschatology is a major branch of study within Christian theology dealing with “last things." Eschatology, from two Greek words meaning "last" (ἔσχατος) and "study" (λογία), is the study of “end things,” whether the end of an individual life, the end of the age, the end of the world, or the nature of God’s coming Kingdom. Christianity is unintelligible without eschatology because Christ (Messiah), the center of it, is thoroughly an eschatological character. And Adventism is even more eschatological than most other Christian communities because it has integrated eschatology, not merely as a part but, as its load-bearing structure. Everything in Adventism is fashioned by eschatology: Sabbath, lifestyle, vegetarianism, mission, ecology, anthropology, philanthropy. This fact is visible in the very name: Adventism, which means “coming,” “arrival,” to earnestly wait for Jesus’ second coming. But unfortunately, to have an eschatology does not mean to get it right. I will try to describe Adventism’s eschatological imbalance “genotypically"1 (this month) and “phenotypically"2 (next month), in relation also to this quarter’s Sabbath School theme of eschatology. The Sabbath School booklet “Preparation for the End Time” for Adventists all over the world has been prepared by Norman Gulley.

Eschatology, in a broad sense, is inseparable from anthropology because every human culture has articulated a particular attitude and understanding of the future. No human has ever resisted trying to forsee the future. “Mythical eschatology,” for instance, can be defined in terms of the “myth of the eternal return,” which posits a cyclic view of history. In religious festivals, the lost time of history is regenerated and eternity is represented. Through a repeated, ritualistic creation of the cosmos, the impression of transience is proved wrong. Everything is shown to remain in place, hope is inherent in memory, and future salvation is depicted as a return to the primordial origin or to an original golden age. In mythical eschatology, the meaning of history is found in a celebration of the eternity of the cosmos and the repeatability of the origin of the world.

“Historical eschatology,” on the contrary, is not grounded in a mythical primal happening but in events in time which provides a structure to history that is essential to its progress. Biblical and biblically influenced eschatologies are historical and directed toward the future. The future of history is final because history is unique and unrepeateable. Understood in this context, history is not chaos but a field of both danger and salvation. The meaning of history is thus found in its future fulfillment. 

In a more specific sense, therefore, “mythical eschatology” is not really an eschatology because it speaks, refers, and deals with an overly “domesticated future.” For this reason eschatology, understood as a “readiness,” “eagerness,” and “desire” for the future, is introduced only by Hebrew thinking. While the Greeks gave world culture the category of “Being,” it is the Hebrews who have given human culture the category of “Future.” And true future starts only with the Old Testament.

1. The Biblical Balanced Eschatology

In fact, the origin of “historical eschatology” can be traced back in Hebrew thinking. With the Old Testament, the circle of time, as typically understood by Israel’s surrounding cultures—becomes a “line.” Dissimilar to all others, every event is unique. One of the best examples of this is incarnated in Abraham’s life and call. He is asked to leave his country and to go forward. His life cannot and must not be a repetition. There is no other direction to follow, no other way to go, but into the future. He faces a starting point to leave and an arrival point to reach. Only by following this line forward can he find meaning and fulfillment. Hebrew eschatology is a future-oriented eschatology while Christian eschatology is, at least in part, also a realized eschatology. But both are expressions of a historical eschatology concentrated on the future.

But what is foundational with the Old Testament is not only this opening to the future but also the “way” of describing it. In fact, eschatology in the Old Testament has two versions: Apocalypticism and Messianism.

“Apocalypticism,” or the apocalyptic worldview, is a distinctive combination of several core axioms, including a conviction in the imminent end of history related to the central category of “Judgment.” The first great explosion of apocalypticism dates from the Hellenistic era and includes, for instance, the early Enochic literature, but the apocalyptic worldview in reality is antecedent to this period. The major completed expression of it is found already in the biblical book of Daniel and even before in the Prophets. All the Prophets have built partial Apocalypsis through the categories of “the Day of the Lord,” “Judgment,” or “God’s Wrath.” That is the case for instance with Isaiah’s so-called “little apocalypse” (Chapters 24-27). 

“Messianism,” instead, represents the second way of understanding the future which is not based in the category of “Judgment” but in the expectation for an end-time agent (Messiah) who plays a positive redemptive role. Therefore, the main messianic categories are “Fullness,” “Fulfilment,” and “Flourishing.” It is important to mention that the Messianic worldview does not start with Christianity. Messianism certainly explodes with Christianity because Christ is the long-awaited Messiah, but the messianic worldview is already present in all the prophets. And the most messianic Old Testament books is Isaiah (Chapter 11:1-9).

Even though Apocalyptic and Messianic traces can be found already before, it is only with the biblical prophets that we find for the first time Apocalypticism and Messinism articulated in a coherent and complete way. The explosion of Apocalypticism and Messianism in Hellenistic and Christian eras will introduce an ambivalent situation. Both worldviews will blossom but, at the same time, will tend to become unilateral and disconnected. Old Testament eschatology remains as a foundational paradigm not only for its openness to the future but above all for its extraordinary capacity to maintain connection and balance between its two forms: Apocalypticism and Messianism. For this reason, no eschatology can be balanced if it unilaterally privileges one of them. And perhaps the best example of this Old Testament balance is given by Chapter Two of Isaiah. There we find, in the first part (verses 1-5), a “Messianic” description of eschatology and in the second part (verses 6-22) an “Apocalyptic” version of it. Both coexist side by side. And the New Testament will still wisely maintain this balance. The messianic aspect of Christianity is perfectly incarnated in the fourth gospel(Luke 4:16-21), and its apocalyptic dimension, not uniquely but mainly, is perfectly visible in the book of Revelation.  

2. E. G. White’s Balanced Eschatology

Despite all appearances, this balance between Apocalipticism and Messianism is still present and visible in the work and thought of E. G. White. Her main eschatological publication is certainly the book The Great Controversy which has gone through various consistent editions and revisions (1884, 1888). The last was done in 1911.

It seems to me that this book has been twice misunderstood. First, mainline Adventist reading—institutional and community-based—makes Adventism and not God’s Kingdom the center of “Last days events”. And that is idolatrous. Second, the book has been detached from other E.G. White eschatological books, particularly from its twin, The Desire of Ages.  E.G. White’s eschatology, therefore, is still a balanced one. The “Messianic” aspect of her eschatology is perfectly incarnated in her book The Desire of Ages while the “Apocalyptic” dimension, not uniquely but mainly, is perfectly visible in her book The Great Controversy.

3. An Apocalyptic Radicalization

What then has happened with Adventism? We are tempted to say that since we follow the Bible and E. G. White; therefore, our eschatology is ipso facto balanced. That is not the case. Biblical truth is not only a matter of correct declarations but above all of correlation, balance, and coordination. Ours is certainly a ible-based eschatology, yes, but still an “interpretation” of the Bible not the bible itself. And for this reason, it does not necessarily reflect the biblical eschatological balance. Between the Bible and our eschatological reading of it there is an unbridgeable difference. The first is sacred, the second not. And if that balance exists, we must prove it.

What has happened is that our Eschatology, since the very beginning, has configured itself, for various reasons, as an “Apocalyptic” Eschatology, not as a “Messianic” one. And since our theology tends to be clear and pragmatic, it has been almost impossible to preserve and maintain this foundational biblical paradox (i.e. the coexistence of an “Apocalyptic” and a “Messianic” eschatology) together in tension. We are allergic to complexity and paradox. For us, both these categories are synonymous with compromise and unfaithfulness. We must resolve, choose, and articulate a univocal eschatology. We have not been able to preserve this foundational ambivalence. But ambivalence does not mean ambiguity. Confusing both has lead us to build up a superficial, pragmatic theology. A “healthy” and not only “true” theology instead cannot stop being ambivalent because, together with clarity, theological categories are always complex because they try to describe God, Humanity, and the Cosmos.

This is what I called the “Endogenous Imbalance” of Adventist Eschatology. Since the very beginning, our eschatology has been almost exclusively apocalyptic. With the passing of time, it has become even worse. And David Koresh and the Davidians apocalyptic holocaust twenty five years ago in 1993 is only a socio-political extreme manifestation of an “Apocalyptic Ethos,” typical of Adventism, that transversely is still cultivated and cherished in our churches and schools, very often seasoned with a naive dose of apocalyptic paranoia.

Notes & References:
1. genotype: the complete genetic constitution of an organism or group.
2. phenotype:  The observable physical characteristics of an organism, as determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences.

 

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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