“Case by Casebolt” is a recurring series examining the prophetic interpretations that Ellen White appropriated from William Miller.
In my previous cases of prophetic interpretation, I have detailed specific examples of William Miller’s 15 prophetic proofs, which he thought confirmed that the second coming of Christ was predicted to occur in 1843. These cases demonstrated that Millerite interpretations were not plain, literal, or common sense but rather “fanciful” and “far-fetched,” as Adventist apologist F. D. Nichol stated. I have also documented that, as a teenager, Ellen White accepted Miller’s conclusions because she saw, through direct revelation, that God sent Miller regular angelic instructions and provided him with the interpretive ability to explain obscure time prophecies. She also claimed she was “shown” that S. S. Snow’s paper, “The True Midnight Cry,” was the “glorious light” coming from Christ’s “glorious” right hand. Her visions, she believed, were also supported by non-contextual (allegorical-typological-historicist) eisegesis of Bible texts.
But some readers may be thinking, “You have pointed out weaknesses in White’s reasoning, but what better alternative do you have to replace Miller’s/White’s interpretations?” So, I pause in dissecting a series of specific Millerite prophetic proofs to provide a broader, canonical perspective. It will demonstrate that the Millerites conflated a crucial dissimilarity between the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation.
To begin, I must first briefly survey Revelation’s history of interpretation. In the apostolic age, what became known as the preterist mode of interpretation predominated. This school believed that the bulk of events described in John of Patmos’s Apocalypse were previously fulfilled within a generation (or perhaps two) of its composition. These generations also believed that the second coming of Christ would be literal. However, when a literal and imminent second coming did not occur, they—like the later Millerites—considered other interpretations. When Nicene Christianity became the Roman Empire’s state church in 380, some said that God’s kingdom had come to earth in the guise of the church’s influential presence. Later in the 18th century, an interpretative school called futurism—originally developed by Jesuits—asserted that most of the events in Revelation would be fulfilled in a future immediately prior to the second advent.
In reality, both preterism and futurism are true. By definition, some events will only take place when a literal second coming occurs, while others have already happened. Some of the events described in Revelation certainly occurred in the apostolic and immediate post-apostolic age. If this were not the case, Revelation would have been unintelligible to its original recipients. In short, preterism and futurism are telescoped. This can be seen in the synoptic apocalypses, the description of the desolating sacrilege, and Christ’s description of the destruction of Herod’s temple (In Matthew 24:1–22; Mark 13:1–20; Luke 21:5–24). Christ’s “generation” believed the end of the world began with the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and its people. It is inconceivable that Revelation’s author intended to predict a long sequence of distinct chronological episodes. The message's recipients in the seven churches of the Apocalypse certainly expected Christ’s return in an extremely near future.
Long before the Millerite movement, interpreters identified various past and present entities with the symbolic language of prophetic literature. Miller remodeled historicism with once again contemporaneous meaning.
Although Revelation is inextricably linked with Daniel in Adventist history and eschatology, there are major differences in the two books' perspectives. Most critically, Daniel ends with a note of incomprehension. Daniel says, "I heard but I understood not," to which his interlocutor replies, "Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" (Daniel 12:8–9). Revelation has just the opposite perspective. Jesus says, "Behold, I come quickly; blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book,” and “He saith unto me, Seal not the saying of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand" (Rev. 22:7, 10).
The crux of both books lies in the existential question posed by the suffering of God's people. Both books want to know how long the tribulation of God’s people must last before they experience his justice. Daniel 8:13 plaintively inquires, "How long shall be the vision?" Daniel envisages a delay of 2,300 time units before the vision is unsealed. Revelation 6:10 asks, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"In contrast to Daniel, who is informed of the delay of 2,300 time units, John is told that "the time is at hand." Revelation 22:10, 12 states, "Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be." The book climaxes with a note of extreme imminence: "He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20).
Imminence permeates the entire book of Revelation. In fact, the imminence of the second advent is the main theme of the book. Revelation begins with the critical good news that God is announcing the "things which must shortly come to pass." Revelation 1:1, 3 states, "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand." Revelation begins and ends with the trumpets announcing, "Surely, I come quickly, Amen." In the middle of the book, the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:5 is promised, “I will come unto thee quickly.” In the center of the body of the letters to the seven churches, this theme is restated (Rev. 3:11). Again, the mighty angel with "his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth" swears that "there should be time no longer" (Revelation 10:2,6).
To the central question of “how long?” The answer throughout Revelation is “no longer.” In Revelation 16, two announcements are made: "Behold, I come as a thief" and “A Great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done." Revelation 21:6 repeats this refrain, stating, “It is done.” Similarly, Revelation 1:1 announces the things “which must shortly come to pass” and Revelation 22:6 states, “The Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done,” bookending the entire work with extreme imminence! These declarations cover the entire span of the Apocalypse and refer explicitly to things that were to take place almost immediately. Revelation 22:7, 12, and 20 reiterate three times the speedy coming of the Lord: “Behold, I come quickly,” “Behold, I come quickly,” and “Surely I come quickly.” It makes no sense to treat the Apocalypse as a revelation of a distant future when it expressly reiterates events that “must shortly come to pass.”
In contrast, Daniel is told to expect a lengthy wait: "Blessed is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and five and thirty days. But go thou thy way till the end be" (Daniel 12:12-13). This contrasts sharply with Revelation, in which an extremely imminent advent is unmistakably stressed, particularly to any Adventist exegete who purports to believe in a literal interpretation. Revelation’s "Behold, I come quickly" cannot be interpreted literally to say, “I am coming in 1,800 years!”
Revelation’s emphasis on extreme imminence is reinforced by other Bible texts addressing the second advent. In some texts, the same unambiguous language is used to describe an imminent “coming.” In other passages, equivalent expressions are used. For example, it is written in Hebrews that the day of the Lord is imminent and occurs with the second advent. In other texts, the advent is described as “the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1).
Additionally, one must consider when the New Testament books were written and the knowledge their writers had about the second advent at that time. During Christ’s ministry, the disciples struggled to comprehend the objective of Christ’s first advent, much less a second advent. They imagined that as Christ’s supporters, they would be given seats at the right hand of a triumphant Davidic earthly king. They understood nothing about a suffering and dying messiah! They were clueless about a second coming because Christ’s first coming had not yet ended. The gospels were not written until about 4 to 5 decades after the conversations within them took place. This later perspective undoubtedly altered the writers’ recollection of their original conversations with Christ.
Typically in the Synoptic Gospels, the language is as unambiguously imminent as the texts from Revelation. For example, in one such passage, the twelve apostles are commanded to evangelize Judea, Samaria, and other local Jewish areas. They are informed that they will not have time to reach even this local geographical territory before the Son of Man will come again (Matthew 10:23). In Mark 8:38–9:1 unmistakable imminence is present. When Jesus “cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” some of the twelve disciples are told they will still be alive: “And he said unto them [the twelve], Verily I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power!” Matthew and Luke both echo Mark’s imminence. They say that some of the twelve “shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God.” The language shows that the “kingdom of God” will not come so quickly that all of Christ’s listeners will still be living, but rather when most of them would be expected to die. Only a small, exceptional minority might become eighty or ninety years old.
Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 comprise the Synoptic Apocalypse. Jesus states: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven” (Matthew 24:34–36). And what is the obvious, commonsense, literal interpretation of “this generation” and “all” these things? Is it not indisputably the generation living during Christ’s ministry? Does not “all” mean “all” the signs which Christ has just described? “This generation” always refers exclusively to Christ’s contemporaries, the Jewish people of his own lifetime.
This passage is followed by a series of parables that stress unfailing watchfulness and readiness. The same instruction recurs repeatedly in the pericopes of Noah’s flood, the watchful householder, the wise servant, the ten virgins, and the parable of the talents. There will be a sudden and speedy return. The moral of these parables is, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Precisely because of the impossibility of knowing “the time,” it was mandatory that Christians be ready at “any time.”
Furthermore, the parousia is described as occurring “immediately” after the great tribulation, as outlined by Jesus. According to Matthew 24:29–31, “Immediately [not centuries later] after the tribulation of those days [ending in 1798?] the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light [1780?], and the stars will fall from heaven [1833?].” The parallel in Mark 13:26 continues: “And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”
Neither William Miller nor Ellen White seemed to comprehend this foundational principle. To the typical Millerite reader of the Synoptic Gospels, the cosmic signs impacting the sun, moon, and stars seemed to require historically literal heavenly phenomena. However, this is not the case. Instead, Christ is describing the fate of the city of Jerusalem based on the type of the literal Old Testament city of Babylon in Isaiah 13 which is described in the following cosmic terms:
Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate. . . . For the stars of heaven  and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun  shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. . . . Therefore I will shake the heavens and the earth shall remove out of her place , in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.
But cosmic events impacting the literal sun, moon, and stars did not occur when the Medes destroyed Babylon. Neither did a literal earthquake cause its walls to tumble down.
Similarly, the fate of Edom and its capital Bozrah is described in cosmic terms in Isaiah 34:4–10: “And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.” Certainly no one claims that when Bozrah was destroyed, the actual sun, moon, and stars were supernaturally impacted. Nor did a literal earthquake occur. The Synoptic Apocalypse and the Apocalypse are using poetic hyperbole to describe the destruction of Jerusalem, Bozrah, and Babylon. This language is not to be taken literally.
The preceding concludes the first part of my demonstration that the imminence of Revelation cannot be conflated with the past reality of Daniel. This conclusion is supported by a direct comparison of the language and setting of these two books as well as by their larger canonical context. This practice rules out usage of the historicist hypothesis.
In the next “Case by Casebolt,” I will examine imminence in the Epistles. This will provide additional proof that any literal interpretation of Revelation is incompatible with the historicist method, which presumes that the book was intended to provide a centuries-long sequence of geo-religio-politico-historical events. This, in turn, will invalidate Ellen White’s lifelong belief that Miller had a valid scriptural foundation for promulgating an exact date for the second coming. In consequence of this, her blanket condemnation of anyone doubting “the day” is wrong. Otherwise, Miller, Himes, Fitch, Litch, Hale, and virtually the entire Millerite leadership would have to be branded as “scoffers” as well.
Donald E. Casebolt studied in the MDiv program at Andrews University, studied Semitic languages and Protestant theology at Karl Eberhard Universitat Tubingen, Germany, and spent two years in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. He published Child of the Apocalypse: Ellen G. White in 2021. A second book, Father Miller’s Daughter, was published by Wipf & Stock in 2022. He is a retired nurse practitioner.
Title image: The Cloisters Apocalypse (c. 1330), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons Zero (CC0) License.
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