Here is a segment from Michael Moore’s TV Nation (1994) in which correspondent Louis Theroux investigates the religious groups known as “Millennialists” (the most infamous being the Branch Davidians), most of which believe the world was to end in the year 2000.
Yes, it is particularly humorous in retrospect. But beyond the lesson — which most Adventists know well — of not setting dates lies a deeper pattern that deserves attention. To wit: the way that the hopeful weave together their fantasies, their prejudices and strands of scripture.
Especially since we come from an at times disappointing proof-texting lineage, I think that the church, particularly the Sabbath School Lesson, should focus more on hermeneutics. Not to defend the past, but rather to prepare Adventists for future challenges. For how we read scripture influences not just our eschatology, but also our morality and social hope.
One reason for our lack of serious conversation as a church lies in our DNA. We started with picking dates out of the air. We’ve quit that. Yet the deeper cause — what still plagues our debates from the sanctuary to homosexuality — is our habit of stripping texts of their literary and cultural context. Most Adventists know better than to predict the end; but the Numbers-to-Hebrews-to-Daniel-to-Revelation structure of weaving together old cultural threads with current questions cannot continue as more and more of international Adventism moves from 1844 to 2008.