Sacred cows. We find them everywhere, a ubiquity which sometimes blinds us to the absurdities they represent. In religion they are embedded in doctrines and manifest in the hands-off approach to certain positions, warding them off as untouchables. Not because we are dedicated to their truisms but because we risk embarrassment by asking questions. So we build shrines to honor sacred cows pretending they are protected, self-evident truths.
In Adventism, we have two such beliefs that are practically non-negotiable and have enjoyed the sacred cow status throughout our history. The pioneers, esteeming these positions, enshrined them in our name: “Seventh-day Adventists”. But, as is often the case with names, while they seemed prescient at their conception, over time they gradually, inexorably, lost their original meanings and history. And with that loss sometimes their essence. In this essay I will subject the “Adventist” part of our name to scrutiny and question whether the hallowed status it has enjoyed since our founding is still warranted.
Such an examination would be offensive only if the subject is deemed sacrosanct. The name “Adventist” is not sacred in this sense. It was neither preordained nor delivered on Mosaic tablets from above. Before 1860, “Adventist” congregations had no uniform name. Facing the two pressures of incorporation and a unifying identity, 25 delegates from like-minded churches met in Battle Creek, Michigan, on October 1, 1860, to divine a name. It was at this meeting that a Battle Creek church delegate, David Hewitt, suggested “Seventh-day Adventists,” a name that perfectly captured the ethos of the nascent movement. It would be adopted by a 24-1 vote in a very human process necessitated by mundane human considerations. Some assert that the process was providential, an unassailable supposition. But if new circumstances call for newer approaches at self-definition and direction, it is unlikely that the same God will abandon the church.
I’ve met many fine Adventists who insist they have never questioned our imminent Second Coming belief, and I believe them. But I don’t understand the basis for their unflagging conviction or why they’ve never doubted. I wonder though, if the Second Coming has now become an aspirational concept, an ideal we hope and even advocate for but do not necessarily expect will truly happen soon. Or at least happen with the same literalness others before us imagined. Has the notion that Jesus will return “soon” become our afterlife desire, something that keeps us from supposing the scientists might be right: that this life might be all we have?
If we feel adrift and disillusioned in the West about the salience of the Second Coming concept, our despair is not irrational: this road is well traveled. The carcasses of earlier and arguably better Christians littering the way point to fellow sojourners who had once similarly believed, but were forced by unfulfilled hopes to adjust their thinking. The Apostle Paul is a prime example. He was an apocalyptic who believed zealously, during his younger ministry, that Jesus was unambiguously coming “soon.” For the earlier Paul, Jesus’ coming and the resultant earthly kingdom would occur in his lifetime: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thess 4: 15)
Ironically this statement, a summary of Paul’s belief that the Christ would return in his lifetime, was to reassure the aging Thessalonian congregation whose members also once believed. Now they were disheartened because fellow believers were dying, and the promised Parousia had not materialized. What do we do when death and time conspire against our youthful belief in a literal “in our lifetimes” Second Coming?
Paul’s ingenious solution was to declare that those who die in expectation of his coming would have an honored place ahead of the throng at Jesus’ return. And, although this doctrine has been buffeted and ridiculed over time, it has become the de facto response to questions about a perceived delay. But Paul himself died, and so too have all Christian leaders who made the Second Coming the centerpiece of their Christian ministries.
Though the Second Coming has always been a prominent Adventist motif, it is not exclusively ours, of course. Other Christian communities continue to sing this song, sometimes in more nuanced tones than we do. And contrary to the Adventist-bubble narrative about the Second Coming, there is nothing about this return event or its antecedent proclamation that is proprietarily Adventist, the disproportionate emphasis we give it notwithstanding. Our founding leaders never imagined that we would still be here and approaching our second century of waiting. That fact alone should generate an overdue reappraisal within our church about what we mean by “soon” in relation to Christ’s return.
Perhaps we keep repeating that Christ is coming soon because we’re wired that way. It is in our Adventist DNA and is easily traceable to our beginnings. Adventism was conceived in certainty that Jesus would return, not someday “soon”, but on a specified date: October 22, 1844. Time would prove the pioneers wrong. But like Paul, they recalibrated. The timing was right, they insisted, and they and we who have followed their footsteps would be persuaded that it was the application and location, not the calculation, that missed the mark.
So in our earliest phase, and subsequently since becoming a church, we’ve retained the same advent emphasis, albeit with chastened expectations about date-setting. But our declaration concerning the nearness of his coming has always been “soon”. We go through spasmodic periods when we are seized with manic impatience about the slow pace of “soon” and jolt into action. Awoken, we devise church-wide programs intended to speed up his coming, complete with slogans like “A Thousand Days of Reaping” and exhortation to evangelize the“10/40 corridor” in hopes of mitigating the inertia of a protracted delay. But we quickly revert to a settled state of believing disbelief, halfheartedly hoping that the advent would happen, maybe in our lifetimes. And secretly hoping nobody catches on that we’re playing games in defining “soon”.
But why do we keep doing this? Why do we maintain this perpetual Soon Coming posture? Why have we continued this disproportionate emphasis? Could the chief reason revolve around the role we have carved for ourselves in the events and environment of his coming? The word we’ve used to capture this ambience is a bold one: Remnant. We can be accused of many things but not timidity. We don’t make half measured claims. We assert in broad daylight that we are God’s choice, and God has revealed earth’s last day events to us. Then we dare the world to contradict us.
The idea of God’s Remnant – a church which on occasion may seem to falter but will not fall – is a powerful psychological construct against change. Add to it our Three Angels’ Messages (TAM), by which we unabashedly claim exclusive ownership of Revelation 14: 6-12. Together we boast of a mandate and end time message geared to preparing the world for the Second Coming of Jesus. But a Remnant charged with a special message for an unrepentant world presents enormous challenges in evaluating how it is meeting its obligation in a modern global context. Over the years the church has struggled to manage not only expectations but the execution of its charge. If Jesus’ return is predicated on the rest of the world hearing about the TAM, then no matter how we define the goals of evangelism, the numbers are daunting and not on our side.
Now let’s assume Adventism has a 25 million global membership. That is impressive or worrisome depending on one’s reference point. At our founding in 1863 when the church population was roughly thirty-five hundred, 1.3 billion people needed to hear the Adventist Message. Today over 7 billion have no idea who Adventists are or what they stand for, let alone that the future of this earth might be dependent on how soon the Adventist Message gets to them. With the world’s population now at 7.7 billion, any discussions about our church evangelizing the world as condition for Jesus’ return is plainly unrealistic, except if we say it as self-aggrandizement, because there are no measurable ways of evaluating such a venture.
Statistical odds aside, we have a deeper problem: the message. The TAM is about judgment, a popular anti-Catholic notion at the time of our pioneers. While judgment dovetails into the Advent idea, TAM judgment-only messages invariably, at least by perception, become their own end, and bring us close to indulging in gratuitous retribution. Judgment messages don’t have a good track record. In fact, it could be argued that all judgment or punishment-focused messages going back to Noah and his flood – elicit mainly fear. Fear often gets quick results, but ultimately the actions they motivate have little lasting effect. Perhaps that is why we’re still here, Noah’s flood having achieved little.
Judgment-based messages mesmerize and seem to work, at least in the minds of the messengers who, over time, see themselves not as mere messengers, but as message givers. They gradually go from announcing judgment to pronouncing it. It is a slow process which is fed by the feeling of specialness inherent in being The Remnant. Given time, Remnants assume a prophetic role, which by virtue of this Remnant calling they cannot conceive of being wrong. It is very difficult to assume a Remnant identity without also enjoying the pride of membership, if not smugness that too often comes with it.
So preaching a message of perpetual Second Coming is not without its psychic pleasure. That’s why we ignore all the other cautionary passages in the New Testament (NT) against teaching an exclusive Second Coming message. Consequently, from generation to generation, we don’t pause to ask why the “soon coming” has dragged on for so long. Maybe we have not paused to ask why because we know the answer and don’t want to acknowledge that we’ve known the answer all along.
But continuing with a “soon” coming emphasis message is not without cost to the church. Worldwide, the church spends multiple millions of dollars annually proclaiming Jesus’ soon coming. This is money that could be used for other competing needs. Adventist Relief and Development Agency (ADRA) is by all indications one of the best and most trusted public faces of the church. But ADRA, which receives negligible financial support from the church, would fold without funding from non-Adventist sources. What if the church took a sabbatical from Second Coming related evangelism, freezing all associated spending along the way? I contend not much would be missed. The frozen money could be diverted to ADRA, for example. Its impact to the needy? Incalculable.
Another cost that we hardly ever talk about is the impact a predominately otherworldly message has on the thinking of people in developing countries where living is generally hard. It is not by accident that some of those economically difficult settings, Africa and Latin America come to mind, are also the new membership breadbaskets of our church. The message of a soon-coming Jesus, whose kingdom promises an end to the very real-life hardships, understandably finds ready reception. When disease and homelessness have, unbidden, moved in as lifelong guests, one can’t be faulted for taking John’s Jesus at his word: “In my father’s house are many mansions…I go to prepare a place for you…I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also.” So they flock to the baptismal pools in tens of thousands eagerly anticipating Jesus’ return. Consequently, in developing countries, economic conditions always make a Second Coming message appealing. However, even in this highly receptive setting, the sharp drop in 6-month and one-year post baptism figures after some of these large campaigns – is cautionary. But global Adventist evangelistic funding groups like the General Conference’s Total Member Involvement (TMI) throw caution to the wind and continue business as usual.
A still worse drawback to constantly preaching this otherworldly message is that it becomes a disincentive to finding solutions to real life problems in developing countries. If the difficult environment we find ourselves in is about to give way to a better one soon, why should those suffering under current conditions help keep the existing system afloat? The same imminent return message no longer plays well in the West because the economic picture is not so dire and some of the rosy imagery depicted in the NT about the coming kingdom is muted by the common display of affluence there.
My concern is not to abandon the second coming motif entirely, but to be proportionate in our emphasis. We have put undue stress on the physical impending return of Jesus over and above all other alternative understandings of this subject. The NT portrays images of a literal return but it also hints at a spiritual dimension: “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21) Elsewhere, (Matt 24:35-37; Mk 13:32) “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
So the perennial focus on the physical “soon” return is a conscious choice we’ve made among other choices pertaining to Jesus’ return. And if we want to continue along those same lines, the least we should do is for our leaders to encourage an open honest discussion about what we mean when preaching a “soon-coming” message. After a century and a half of preaching “soon,” don’t we see ourselves embodied in the child at the village gate crying “wolf” for the umpteenth time? And are we surprised that no one is listening?
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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