This week’s lesson focuses on the end of time. My initial intention was to address the differences between the Old Testament and New Testament perspectives. In short, the Old Testament envisions a gradual end to evil, as in Isaiah 65:21, rather than a sudden and more thorough eradication of evil and suffering, as depicted in Revelation 21:3–4:
Isa. 65:21: No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
Rev. 21:3–4: See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away (NRSV).
For those who want to pursue that topic further, read the significant but generally overlooked article from the SDA Bible Commentary, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy.”
For this online commentary, however, I have decided to take a step back and address the prior question of how we can “safely” deal with change between the testaments and between the Bible and our day. “Safe” is probably a vain dream. From my experience with devout conservatives, “change” and “diversity” are the most difficult issues to address, and when the topic is “eschatology” we have jumped from the pot into the fire. Eschatology is the most divisive of all biblical topics. For the first edition of Inspiration: Hard Question, Honest Answers (1991), the chapters on diversity and eschatology were quickly dropped from the proposed manuscript. Even my friends said those chapters were “too much” for that book and they are not included in the 2nd edition (2016) either. You can check out both topics, however, in my book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (2009).
After tussling a fair bit with the question of how to deal with all that in a single article, I’ve gotten cold feet and decided to deal with the crucial prior question. A major factor in my decision is the memory of how two bright and thoughtful students reacted to my question on eschatology in a 1985 version of my “Inspiration and Revelation” class at Walla Walla College (now University).
I tell part of that story in chapter 21 of Inspiration, “It’s All So Very Plain.” Gratefully, it was “plain” in the end, but began on a much scarier note: scary at least for a teacher who wants to strengthen faith and for the two students who discovered that their faith was being tested.
In any event, here is the question I posed as a homework assignment. Their responses follow: “Compare the Old Testament eschatological passages, Isaiah 65, 66 and Zechariah 14, with the New Testament passages, Revelation 21, 22, and comment on how one determines which elements from the Old Testament have permanent value.”
Their responses were included in a stack of papers which I first read in bed before breakfast on a Sunday morning after a very encouraging weekend seminar on “Inspiration.” With the expressed gratitude of the members still ringing in my ears, I cracked open the stack of papers. The first few responses were unexceptional. But all of a sudden, I was wide awake, jarred by this response:
In Zechariah it seems like the day of the Lord is an establishing of an earthly kingdom, not a heavenly one so much and it also seems like the people of that time looked for its soon fulfillment in their day. The question I have is why Adventists have taken some texts and left others to suit their own interpretation. It is the same in Isaiah, too. Can you be justified in taking some and leaving the rest? How do you really tell if there is a permanent or lasting value in them? I’m really mixed up and my faith in Adventism dwindles a bit here, because it seems we have misused the Scriptures or have greatly misunderstood them and used them in the wrong way. So many things have been uprooted that I need some stable evidence that I can trust. What do we have to stand on?
Then came a break in the handwritten copy; a question mark and a single word cried out from the middle of the page:
The text resumed:
If we can’t trust in a prophet’s words because they aren’t direct or directed word-for-word inspired and we can’t tell whether something has lasting value for us today, how do we personally apply the Bible to us if we don’t know? Are the promises for others, with no thought of today? Has the Adventist tradition simply pulled texts out of context so that we have a totally made-up theology? Please bring back our confidence or explain why.
Hardly a ringing confirmation of my course objectives! I picked up the next paper. More of the same (the students were roommates):
As I read the passages listed I was almost shocked to find those texts that our church has always believed to be about the kingdom/heaven. . . . Somehow over these past weeks of this quarter, I’ve come up with the idea that the Holy Bible isn’t all that I had it cracked up to be. Ideas have been presented in this class that have made me wonder—is there any validity in what “the inspired men of old” have written? And yet this is probably not what I was supposed to learn from this class (hopefully).
Continuing, the student admitted to being “frightened” at some of her thoughts. “Maybe I’m not the kind who can handle the real truth,” she wrote. But then came a postscript with a ray of hope:
After reading what I had written above, I noticed quite a sharp note to it, maybe too sharp. This class has been a real strength to my overall view of the Bible, helping me to realize that the men of the Scripture were humans like we are and not so infallible. This may seem a contradiction to what I just wrote above. I guess I’m just a little confused. I have enjoyed this class immensely and would hope that the views stated above would not necessarily reflect any fault on the teacher.”
Taking the two assignments to breakfast, I read them to my hosts. The contrast between Saturday night gratitude and Sunday morning panic was almost more than I could handle. We discussed the challenge of educating the church. And we prayed. How can we build a faith that endures? I knew the two young women who had expressed their alarm. They were committed Christians and a positive influence on campus. Why was their house of faith in trouble?
Gratefully, by the time I got home and read their next assignment, their ship of faith was again on course—helped mightily by some encouraging words from Ellen White.
But rather than risk another experience like that, I’ve decided to step back and address the urgent “prior issue” of how God meets people where they are. And we can go back to square one: 1) How did God reach Israel where they were? 2) How did God reach Ellen White where she was? 3) How can I use all that to meet the needs of my students and Spectrum readers?
At least four polysyllabic words can be used to describe the issue: adaptation, accommodation, contextualization, and condescension. And those are scary words, too. When my little book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? was on the verge of being published by Paternoster in the UK and Zondervan in the US, David Wright, the left-of-center professor of church history at the University of Edinburgh (who helped get the book published) told me candidly that InterVarsity Britain would never touch the book because the “note of accommodation in the book is far too strong.”
Why such fear? Because “accommodation” scatters our favorite key texts all over the hillside. If the Bible does not give us pure, unadapted truth, how can it be trusted?
So what I am going to do here is first to work through the “violent” Old Testament custom of blood vengeance, and show how God “adapted” to the people’s understanding in the Old Testament context.
I should also note that the custom of “blood vengeance” is not just an ancient phenomenon. It is with us still. Three vivid memories are rooted in my soul. A paramedic serving in an American inner city once told me that in certain ethnic enclaves, one killing often triggers another, then another. Before the night is over, the toll can be sobering. A missionary in Papua New Guinea told me that during tribal feuds he has seen Adventist elders wait until after sundown on Sabbath, then slip away to join the mayhem.
But by far the most vivid memory is from a scholarly convention where I heard Professor James Robinson tell how the gnostic scrolls of Nag Hammadi were discovered in Egypt in 1945. The cemetery where the scrolls had been discovered lay between two feuding villages, making it unwise for the scholars to attempt further work. This is Robinson’s version of how it happened:
A night watchman guarding irrigation equipment in the fields had killed an intruder; by mid-morning, in turn, he had been murdered by blood vengeance. A neighbor told the son of the murdered man that the one who had killed his father had fallen asleep by the side of the road. The son hurried home, returning with his mother and seven brothers, each with a sharpened mattock. They dismembered the man bit by bit, and cut out his heart, eating it raw on the spot, the ultimate in blood vengeance.
The turmoil between the villages lasted for a decade, until the youngest son of the murdered man, now a teenager, secretly slipped into the other village during a funeral procession at dusk. With an automatic weapon, he mowed down the participants, killing or injuring twenty people.
How can God reverse such deeply rooted hatred and violence?
Gradually. Only gradually. Numbers 35 tells how it happened in ancient Israel.
God commanded Moses to designate six cities as “Cities of Refuge,” so that anyone who had killed someone could flee to the city of refuge and be safe until the congregation determined guilt or innocence. But he had to run faster than the avenger. Otherwise, the avenger could kill him without penalty. If the congregation found the refugee guilty of premeditated murder, they would hand him over to the kinsman-avenger who would carry out the execution. But if judged innocent by the community, the killer would be safe from the avenger, but only if he stayed inside the city of refuge. If he ventured outside the city walls before the death of the high priest, the avenger could confront him and kill him without penalty.
How does such an approach to “justice” compare with ours? Our short list could start with the following: 1) family members are excluded from the entire legal process; 2) the accused does not have to run faster than the avenger in order to find refuge; 3) if granted bail, the accused is granted some freedom and is not at risk while waiting trial; 4) those judged innocent are free; they don’t have to wait for the death of a holy man.
But the specter of the 1950s Nag Hammadi dismemberment by eight members of one family (including the mother), and eating of a man’s heart raw, on the spot, is a horrific reminder of how great the gulf can be, even in recent decades of our era.
Now the second step: Ellen White and blood vengeance. Inter-Varsity Britain would not allow accommodation in the 1980s, but Ellen White did in the 1890s. But it did not come easily, quickly, or cleanly. Note her 1890 comment on blood vengeance in Patriarch’s and Prophets:
The appointment of these cities had been commanded by Moses, “that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge,” he said, “that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.” [Num. 35:11–12] This merciful provision was rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance, by which the punishment of the murderer devolved on the nearest relative or the next heir of the deceased. In cases where guilt was clearly evident, it was not necessary to wait for a trial by the magistrates. The avenger might pursue the criminal anywhere, and put him to death wherever he should be found. The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time; but he made provision to insure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally.
I have kept my eye open for traces of an accommodationist approach in Ellen White’s writings, especially in connection with violent passages. This is the only explicit one I have found in her published works. She says nothing about the worst ones: bloodguilt for Saul in 2 Samuel 21, the dismembered concubine in Judges 19–21. But she does tackle the custom of blood vengeance. What is particularly interesting in this case is that she interpreted the same passage in 1881, taking quite a different approach than the one in 1890.
A comparison of the two passages reveals her struggles with the story. Her concern that murder be properly punished, prominent in 1881, disappears in 1890. The importance of protecting the innocent is affirmed in both.
In 1890 she focuses exclusively on safety for the accused and refers to the appointment of these cities as a “merciful provision” that was “rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance.” Her conclusion: “The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time.” But neither account is a clean accommodation. In 1881, the avenger may act “in extreme cases”; in 1890, “where guilt was clearly evident.” But Scripture offers no such qualifications. If the accused could not outrun his pursuer, the avenger was free to kill him without penalty.
In the end, however, the crucial point is clear: Ellen White has adopted the position that God was not directly responsible for the ancient custom, but chose to work within the framework of what was considered to be just at that time.
While a comparison of the 1881 and the 1890 quotes allows us to glimpse her inner struggle with the issue, an astonishing quote from 1872 articulates the accommodation process with remarkable clarity, even though she was still struggling with the issue up to and including her 1890 “resolution.” In 1872, she is addressing the issue of health reform:
We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are. Some of us have been many years in arriving at our present position in health reform. It is slow work to obtain a reform in diet. We have powerful appetites to meet; for the world is given to gluttony. If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people.
I now return to the question of how far and how fast we should press the eschatology question now. How might we apply Ellen White’s statement: “If there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people?”
If a secular person—a person without a religious axe to grind—were to pick up the Bible and the writings of Ellen White, they would be puzzled by two things: 1) the prediction of a worldwide Sunday law that includes the death penalty; 2) the claim that the Bible is without error. I will comment on both:
1. A universal Sunday law carrying the death penalty. Where did Adventists find that idea in the Bible? From Revelation 13 and 14. But it is not stated explicitly in the Bible itself. It is an interpretation and application of those chapters within the context of nineteenth century American culture. These are the key factors that contributed to the Adventist perspective.
A. A strident anti-Roman Catholic impulse, inherited from the Protestant era. Identifying the first beast of Revelation 13 as the papacy was thus almost automatic. Adventists believed the scary Catholic rhetoric that Rome never changes. Here is Ellen White’s observation from 1881:
This is the religion which Protestants are beginning to look upon with so much favor, and which will eventually be united with Protestantism. This union will not, however, be effected by a change in Catholicism; for Rome never changes. She claims infallibility. It is Protestantism that will change. The adoption of liberal ideas on its part will bring it where it can clasp the hand of Catholicism.
Thus, a recurrence of the persecution which Protestants suffered under Catholicism during the Reformation was quite believable. Indeed, The Great Controversy itself quotes a nineteenth-century pope as saying: “The absurd and erroneous doctrines or ravings in defense of liberty of conscience are a most pestilential error”
B. A wave of Sunday legislation in the 1880s and 1890s. In the 1890s, a small window opened (briefly!) for American Adventists to address eschatological issues. It happened when anti-Roman Catholic billboards sprang up in several locations in America, particularly in Florida and in the states of Washington and Oregon. My NPUC Gleaner series, “Beast Bashing Has to Stop,” was published in several union papers. Here is a crucial paragraph from that series:
In 1870 the First Vatican Council declared papal infallibility. The national Sunday law movement was born in 1879; Congress debated Sunday laws in 1888 and 1889. Senator Blair, author of the 1888 bill declared, “Only a homogeneous people can be great. No nation can exist with more than one religion.” Between 1885 and 1896 Adventists spent a total of 1438 days in jail and 455 days on chain gangs for working on Sunday.
I should also note here that right in the 1890s, Ellen White began to soften her anti-Catholic stance. In 1896, right in the middle of the Sunday law agitation, she wrote to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, gently shifting the focus away from end-time worries. I have italicized the key sentence:
There is need of a much closer study of the Word of God. Especially should Daniel and the Revelation have attention as never before in the history of our work. We may have less to say in some lines, in regard to the Roman power and the papacy, but we should call attention to what the prophets and the apostles have written under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit has so shaped matters, both in the giving of the prophecy, and in the events portrayed, as to teach that the human agent is to be kept out of sight, hid in Christ, and the Lord God of heaven and His law are to be exalted.
2. The claim that the Bible is without error. As we turn to the second issue, that of “inerrancy,” to use the technical term, we could again ask our secularist friends to assess that claim. Again, if they have no axe to grind, they will notice immediately that the four Gospels differ in many ways, both large and small. Matthew 4 and Luke 4 don’t even follow the same order in telling the story of Jesus’s wilderness temptations.
The problem is that in the mind of many devout believers, God must do everything exactly right. If he doesn’t, he is not worthy to be called God. If I attempt to set the record straight, I may be scorned for talking about “all the errors in the Bible.”
The recourse is to back way up, and go way down, to the rock-solid foundation that Jesus gives us in Matthew 7:12. We can follow his teaching and example: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (NRSV).
That’s what I have attempted to do in this commentary on the end of time. But it’s scary stuff—almost as scary as the end of the world itself. . . .
Notes & References:
. “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” in Francis D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Commentary, Vol. 4 (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald, 1955), 25–38.
. Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Question, Honest Answers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1991).
. Thompson, Inspiration, 2nd ed. (Gonzalez, FL: Energion, 2016).
. Alden Thompson, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2009).
. “It’s All So Very Plain,” chapter 21 of Inspiration in both the 1991 and 2016 editions.
. The seminar was held at the Adventist Church in Bellevue, Washington in February 1985.
. “Introduction” to The Great Controversy, v–xii; Selected Messages, Bk. 1, 15–23. I have called these two passages, “Adventism’s Classic Statements on Inspiration.” After the experience described above, I revamped my approach and moved the reading of those passages to the beginning of the course. They are included in both editions of Inspiration and in Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White Grew from Fear to Joy and Helped Me Do It Too (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2005).
. The title of chapter 2 gives a little of the flavor: “Behold it was very good—and then it all turned sour.”
. For believers, the alternative explanation for Old Testament violence is the “theocracy” argument, i.e., a sovereign and holy God was directly in control and had the right to be violent.
I find that approach highly problematic, for when God became man, it was a non-violent God that he revealed: Jesus never killed anyone, never even struck anyone. As Reynolds Price notes, when Jesus cleansed the temple, he attacked the furniture, not the people. Reynolds Price, Three Gospels (New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1996), 44–45. If we can find a way to support an accommodations approach that is both biblical and believable, we should be much better able to sleep nights.
. See James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), 21–25. At the time the book was published, Robinson was director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California.
. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mt. View, CA: Pacific Press, 1890), 515.
. Ellen White, Signs of the Times, Jan. 20, 1881.
. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church 3 (1872), 20–21.
. Ellen White, Review and Herald, June 1, 1886.
. Ellen White, The Great Controversy, 564, citing Pope Pius IX, in his Encyclical Letter of August 15, 1854.
. NPUC Gleaner, August 2, 1993. See Dennis Pettibone, “The Sunday Law Movement,” in The World of Ellen G. White, Gary Land, ed. (Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1987), 113–28.
. Ellen White, Letter to John Harvey Kellogg, May 27, 1896.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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