Decades ago, evangelists, preachers and Bible teachers loved to assert that the clock of this earth’s time was past 11:59pm and that time was very, very short for probation to end and Jesus to return. The second hand on the clock was described as positioned at just seconds to midnight.
I haven’t heard that illustration lately. As a matter of fact, I don’t hear many sermons at all on the second coming these days, although our new Conference President recently said he was sure Jesus is “coming very soon. Amen?”
It has been 170 years since 1844. It has been half of that time, 85 years, since my dad was certain he would not finish high school or get married before Jesus came. You know the drill.
The early Seventh-day Adventists felt that time was short because they were convicted that something of significance happened at a specific point in time in their day: the end of prophetic time. They had the time marker of 1844, and given what they believed was happening on and after 1844, surely it would not be long before the end of all things. Truthfully, we have no such time markers today, no matter how we grasp for them. We just have continuing time that stretches beyond the last known marker. We look for events, world conditions, the state of humanity, the state of the church, anything that could be markers, but so far nothing has panned out. So we ponder and wonder.
As a denomination, I don’t believe we have come to terms with the impact upon us of this continued extension of the timeline of our expectations. Make no mistake. It has had an impact on us. I believe it influences our personal attitudes. I believe it has an impact on our messaging, internally and to the public. I believe it influences how we view Scripture and prophecy.
What does the impact look like? Are we, for example, hesitant to assert that Jesus is coming very soon when we have been saying precisely that for 170 years? Are we fearful of being alarmists? Have we grown more savvy about world events and understand that it is not a smart thing for each international crisis, each economic catastrophe, every display of extreme wickedness, and each natural disaster to prompt us to say it is a sign of the end? Have we grown weary of perpetually pointing at events and circumstances that turn out not to be meaningful signs?
What if we continue to say the clock is at 11:59pm and ticking and time goes on another 170 years? How will we be viewed by thinking people? Crackpots? Delusional readers of scripture? Poor interpreters of prophecy? Strange sect?
And so we hesitate. We are uncertain, given the inescapable reality that time has stretched well beyond our expectations.
I know there will be those who will cite that God does not view time as we do. I’m certain that is true. But the 170 years is bound to have an impact on humans who live in this dimension, in spite of knowing there are differences in God’s perspective and ours. There will be those who will say that for the individual, time is always short and when we die it is over. There will be those that say God waits for people, not wanting any to be lost. (This ignores the implications regarding the morality of a “loving” God who would accept the inevitability of the future sufferings and eternal deaths of a great many humans in new generations in the hopes of getting a few of them into the kingdom.) We’ve all heard the usual nostrums. I confess I personally find them less than satisfying. I admit that for me, it is all a mystery.
So, what to do now? What is our strategy regarding continuing time?
Are we to tighten our apocalyptic messages and go back to asserting it is 11:59pm and ticking, just seconds before midnight? Do we step out in faith that surely now it will be a true statement? Is our reading of the current times such we can confidently assert that time is very, very short? Do we begin pronouncing that message loudly and broadly? George Knight took this general view in his 2008 book, “The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism.” He took the posture that there is no reason for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to exist otherwise.
Do we turn our thoughts to organizational culpability and say that the fault for the delay is our Church’s ineffectiveness? Do we then redouble our efforts toward making sure we spread the gospel to every conceivable people group and person on the globe so that the end can come more quickly?
Do we take to heart the Last Generation Theology posture based on the belief that a critical mass of Christians must achieve perfection so that Jesus can come? Do we launch a mass perfection initiative in hopes of getting the requisite number quickly? And do we preach that message to the public? Or is that just an insider deal?
Do we make some adjustments in our belief system? Should we, for example, be more focused on creating many small-but-growing patches of the Kingdom of God here on earth as illustrations of what it means to “love one another as I have loved you?” Should we be more focused on making “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” more visible right now? (I’m reminded of a recording I have by an obscure gospel quartet titled, “You’re So Heavenly Minded You’re No Earthly Good.”) Would this focus on the kingdom-here-and-now, combined with a theological posture that Jesus could come at any time – maybe sooner, maybe later – be more effective than our old messages of the immediate imminence of His coming?
Something needs to give. We are currently in a state of non-animated suspension. We need to move off the dime. We need a way to view this question of “soon” within our body. We need to settle on an effective and realistic “end time” message in our efforts to reach other people with the gospel of Jesus. The current state of play is not healthy.
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He is President of The Reifsnyder Group and Senior Vice President of FaithSearch Partners. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, is married to Janelle, and has two daughters. He spends time thinking about how the Adventist church needs to change to be more effective in the 21st century.