When I was about 12 years old I accompanied my mother one evening to midweek prayer meeting—a rarity in our church, since farm people don’t generally come out to evening meetings because of chores—but our pastor was conscientious and determined to try. There were only six of us there, all women, and me. We each received a copy of a newly-released book called Preparation for the Final Crisis, with Pacific Press book editor Fernando Chaij’s name on the cover.
I think it’s the only time I attended that midweek meeting series, because the way Jesus’ imminent return was presented, not as a blessed hope but an ordeal of suffering, betrayal, torture, and Divine abandonment, frightened me—and still does. But even without my buy-in, Preparation for the Final Crisis has been a phenomenal success for Adventist publishing houses around the world. It has even been used as a textbook for students in academies and Bible schools. A friend at an Adventist press told me that it’s difficult to get exact figures on the number printed of a denominational book, because any publishing house in another division can translate and print it, too, and Chaij’s name on the book made it a big seller in Latin countries. That it is still listed as in print in catalogs of our published writings after 45 years says something about our spiritual appetite.
Unlike some of my friends here, I respect the writings of Ellen White. Yes, there are a few odd bits, which get a lot of play in this forum, but they trouble us mostly because we were taught (erroneously, it seems) that Ellen White was virtually flawless. We were taught to read her in a word-literal way with little regard for historical context, or allowance for humanness, mistakes, personal opinions, editors, or borrowed passages—things which we have long admitted about the Bible but still find difficult to do with Ellen White. As Elder A.G. Daniells warned at the 1919 Bible Conference, the failure to deal with those questions when they should have been addressed are bearing fruit in the current skepticism.
Yet Ellen White at her best is marvelous: Steps to Christ, The Ministry of Healing, and The Desire of Ages have done me immeasurable good, and make up for some odd Victorian notions and borrowed passages.
With one exception—her choosing during her lifetime to publish letters that were meant to be private—most of what I object to about Ellen White’s writings was done not by her, but by those who took control of her reputation and writings after her death. They assembled a byzantine system to edit and control all she'd ever written, for over a century choosing to withhold significant portions of it, even while telling us every word was necessary for our end-time instruction. Given their own testimony of her as nearly inerrant, it surprises me that these folks didn’t realize they were doing precisely what Adventists accuse the papacy of doing: holding ascendency over inspired writings. So it’s no wonder they were also responsible for the now-ubiquitous compilation, which tells loads about their, and our, hermeneutic of Ellen White.
Preparation for the Final Crisis is a compilation, but one that eclipses the usual red book compilation in nearly every way. The first thing that strikes you when you open the book is paragraph after paragraph printed in red ink. You think you’re looking at a red-letter Bible, until you realize that the red passages aren’t the words of Jesus, but the words of Ellen White! The Bible passages are in black, blending in with the ordinary text. Whether the editors understood it not, it’s hard to dodge the implication.
Not to worry, though, because there’s little enough Scripture here. Chaij says the Bible is only a general map of the future, but Mrs. White’s writings are “a precise itinerary.” This is a book devoted to a systematic scheduling of end time events from fractured, reassembled bits of Mrs. White’s writings. Chapter headings tell the story: “The Sealing”; “The Latter Rain”; “The Shaking”; “The Loud Cry”; “Persecution—The Confederated Powers”; “The Work of Deception: Spiritualism”; “The Early Time of Trouble”; “The Time of Trouble”; “The Plagues”; “The End of the Seventh Plague: Deliverance”. Preparation for Jesus' return, in Chaij's scheme, is merely knowing history before it happens. The Second Coming is God's initiative, but it's up to us to survive the mayhem by relying on the notes we took.
Preparation for the Final Crisisis a perfect example of what not to do with Ellen White. To take bits and pieces from the thousands of pages she wrote and assemble them into a topical pastiche changes everything. The context is gone. The narrative is gone. What may not have been meant to be specific becomes painfully so, and vice versa. The historical setting in which she wrote disappears. Only the fear remains. It is like killing live birds and stripping their skins to make a grand feather mosaic of a bird. It is certainly easier to study, but life, variety and richness are gone. The dynamic message becomes static and controlled. In Preparation for the Final Crisis, thousands of pages of writings are distilled into one intense, alarming volume which leaves the impression that our faith is about only one event in the whole history of salvation—as it happens, one Jesus warned us against speculating overmuch about.
I defy you to find in the gospels anything that says we should be trying to put the time of the end on a calendar, or even a time line. It simply isn’t there. The signs that we were warned about—earthquakes, wars, famines, signs in the heavenly bodies—are not klaxons of his return, but indications of business as usual. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” is followed by “See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places,” is concluded with, “All these are the beginning of sorrows.” The darkened sun and moon and falling stars are explicitly stated as happening not until “Immediately after the tribulation” and immediately before “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven”—not 200 years or more earlier. And directly to the point: “But of that day and hourno one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only… For if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:6-8, 29-30, 36, 43-44)
That Jesus has waited 2000 years since he said it, and another 200 since we were reminded of it, can only mean that he meant what he said: that we should be ready for his return at any moment, whether in a kaleidoscopic cloud explosion tomorrow, or a thousand years from now, or you or me keeling over dead from a heart attack some time in the next few years.
That strife should increase the closer we get to Jesus’ coming—one of Ellen White’s primary messages—makes sense, though we don’t know if strife means it’s a year off, or a hundred. What does “soon” mean? Next week? Next year? Within ten years? And for how many centuries can people hear that it is all happening “soon” before the word becomes meaningless? Chaij quotes Paul in Romans 13:11 in defense of assembling this “precise itinerary”. Yet the text only says that we should be awake because “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” Obviously. But how much nearer? Who knows? For Jesus says he will return precisely when we're most likely to be off guard. So rather than cramming for Jesus' anticipated return, this suggests a less dramatic, less stressful kind of faith: cultivating security of salvation and goodness of heart as a way of life.
This is a temptation that we Seventh-day Adventists have stumbled into time and again, if, indeed, we ever really left it. From our first disappointments in the 1840s, we keep letting our eschatology slip back into being too specific for Scripture. And I renew my observation that when people get too passionate about what may or may not happen to the world in the prophetic future, they’re trying to avoid dealing with what’s happening in their lives right now.
Yes, I want to be ready whenever Jesus returns. But to the point here, I can see absolutely no advantage in knowing the difference between the little loud cry and the loud cry, the time of Jacob’s trouble and the time of trouble (if indeed these distinctions have any Biblical merit at all). I believe that the only worthwhile preparation for the final crisis is being a thoughtful disciple of Jesus, the kind he described in his picture of the last judgment in Matthew 25 as one who would treat any needy person with sacrificial kindness.