Recently, I sat with a friend who lost two close friends this year and listened as he told me how he has been reengaging with the Adventist doctrine of the soul (specifically what is called psychopannychism, or soul-sleep): “Do we really expect to throw a few verses at people and expect them to happily accept that mom and dad aren’t in heaven, playing golf with Jesus?” My friend wasn’t abandoning the church’s teaching, but asking: “Is this all we have to say about death?”
It seems so. Amazing Facts’ popular “Storacles of Prophecy” Bible study series approaches the subject of death from the story of King Saul at Endor in 1 Samuel 28. The first substantial question the study asks is: “Do the dead come back to converse with or to haunt the living?” Of course, the student cannot be trusted to answer that question without a little steering: “No! The Bible is clear. A dead person does nothing and knows nothing about what is happening on earth.” The author seems more interested in slamming doors than opening them. To anyone grieving or laboring under the screaming shadow of death, this is cold counsel.
Adventists do offer the full, palliative line of Christian hopes on tap during times of duress, but when it comes to the “inner-city” of our theology—those “distinctive” doctrines which define us—we have become remarkably incurious. That “Storacles” lesson is typical of a legion of popular Adventist studies which are entirely concerned with debunking spiritualism and not about exploring what the Bible has to say on the subject of death or the soul.
This concern about spiritualism stems from the Millerite movement of the 1840s and waves of spirit-interest that waxed and waned over the American public in subsequent decades. By exploring the nature of the soul, those early Adventists were addressing a question of general interest in America; they were joining an ongoing cultural conversation. We’ve never stopped to ask if the conversation has changed.
Our obliviousness to the ultimate questions being asked by our present culture is why I question whether Adventism has anything interesting to say. We simply haven’t kept up with the conversation. Mark Finley’s 2008 “Discoveries in Revelation” sermon on death generally makes the same points from the same texts as Ellen White’s chapter on death in The Spirit of Prophecy vol. 4, published in 1884. The same could be said for Adventist thought on Sabbath and the second coming of Jesus. (Even our social critiques, which once included blistering indictments of Abraham Lincoln’s slavery policy, have largely devolved into a rather damp whining about “Hollywood” and immodesty.)
The popular teachers in Adventism have, for a hundred years, largely contented themselves to offer the same answers to the same questions—which is incredible considering how much our world has changed in the past century. Every year, new books on the sanctuary or Sabbath roll off denominational presses. Often enough, the only new thing about these books is the paper they are printed on. The once-great Adventist Book Center has long since ceased to be a place where interesting things were being said.
Let me pause and say that we are all well aware of individual Adventists who are saying interesting things; who are trying to deepen our understanding of the Scriptures; who are wanting to keep Adventism engaged in conversation with the world. But I am taking the drones-eye view of Adventism here, and the story of the past hundred-plus years is one of a lack of popular interest, both in our own theological development and in our desire to listen to the world around us.
Given the rate of growth in the twentieth century (164% per decade), this liturgy of repetition seems to have served the church just fine. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, right? But I suspect the denomination’s success in the twentieth century has only masked something of a hollowing out of Adventism in America where members continue to pay lip service to a theology they no longer bother to understand. I would wager my rookie Ellen White trading card that most members of a typical Adventist church couldn’t tell you what the sanctuary doctrine is, but they’d still tie the noose for anyone who dares challenge it.
Conservative Adventists believe this theological disability is due to an infection of “worldliness” and that the solution is simply to recommit ourselves to these traditional beliefs and their attendant practices. While it is true that we are all secular now, I believe that Adventists have been hollowed out because the theological questions we ask no longer meet many minds at this moment.
I’ll make up an example here by pretending I have a normal job. At work, few of my agnostic friends are bothered by the question of whether or not the dead can speak to us. They don’t believe in an afterlife, after all, let alone an immortal soul. But then I get to church, and the pastor talks about the immense importance of this truth of soul-sleep. I am convinced, but I feel like I live in two worlds: one where this theological question feels incredibly relevant and one where it doesn’t. And so, Adventists, like many other Christians, maintain an intellectual friendship to doctrines which have very shallow roots in their lived experience.
I should probably pause again to forestall my heresy trial and say that I am not arguing that these doctrines are necessarily untrue, only irrelevant. (You know, in case that makes you feel better.) Adventist doctrine becomes irrelevant when the problems it aims to solve are not the problems of the people it serves. What we preach might still be true, but only in a technical sense; like blurting out at dinner that pogonophobia is the fear of beards. It may be true that Methuselah lived to be 969 years old, but it’s not a truth we insist everyone must believe right now. Relevance matters—not the trendy, we-need-to-look-twenty-when-we’re-forty cosmetic type of mere relevance—but the more meaningful relevance of taking peoples’ deepest questions seriously and offering a heartfelt, theological response. Without this kind of relevance, we might as well be prattling on about the age of Methuselah.
Our typical explanation of the Sabbath remains focused on Sunday laws and the papacy, despite the fact that Americans have arguably never been in less danger of oppressive Sunday laws. Because Adventists formulated their understanding of the Sabbath at a time when Sunday was widely called “Sabbath,” Adventist evangelists focus their apologetic on which is the right day, despite the fact that very few Christians consider Sunday the Sabbath anymore. The questions we used to set up our understanding of the Sabbath are no longer questions people are asking and it has become difficult for us to imagine other ways of looking at these doctrines.
If Adventism were born today, our teaching about the Sabbath would address the issues of how the Sabbath contributes to social justice, the environment, and human well-being—and Sunday laws would probably seem like a silly thing to focus on. In the words of Jesus, surely we can learn to do one without leaving the other undone. That is, we can teach the Sabbath in terms of human well-being without dropping the traditional concern for religious liberty.
Adventist thought on these distinctive doctrines has stagnated because we have lost our interest in the world around us and, as a result, have stopped allowing ourselves to be challenged by the world’s questions. Those questions once propelled the pioneering generation of Adventism to dive deeply into history and theology and I believe the church as a whole was better off for it. When we had no intellectual property to protect, we had everything to learn. Recently, the sleeping dog of theological curiosity was roused to resolute interest over women’s ordination, even if that conversation more naturally fit the context of the 1920s and 30s better than 2015. (Better late than never?) Besides, it was largely an exercise in theological theater. Papers were presented, the stakes were raised, and the dog rolled over and went back to sleep.
I believe Adventism has important things to say to our world. The second coming’s emphasis on transcendence is a welcome corrective to a culture consumed by the immanent frame. I believe Sabbath-keeping is still one of the most meaning-generating disciplines a human being can take on. I believe we have more to say about death than we’ve been saying. But—to channel my secularness—if you present the Sabbath merely as the anti-Sunday and the second coming as the reason why I shouldn’t try to make the world a better place, then I’m not interested. I don’t want to become part of an Adventist answer-dispensing machine. I want to see Adventism come alive again as a responsive, social creature: to a part of our world again, listening and considering before answering.
I believe our problem is not ultimately an ear problem, but a heart problem. Do we care enough to carry on a conversation with the world? I had a family member who was obsessed with the stock market. I’m sure we talked about other things, but all I can remember are those soul-crushing conversations about corn futures. He was so caught up in his own interests that he never stopped to consider whether I, a teenage boy he seldom saw, would share that interest. It isn’t that he didn’t have anything to say, it’s just that he didn’t have anything interesting to say; that is, a shared interest in a topic. He didn’t want to hear from me; only to be heard. And who has time for people like that?
So I wonder: does Adventism have anything interesting to say?
Matthew J. Lucio is husband to a formidable wife, Laura, and together they parent two amazing girls: Aerith and Arwen. Matthew pastors in Peoria, Illinois, where he is director of their innovative digital church on YouTube, Peoria Adventists. Matthew also enjoys narrating Adventist history as the host of the Adventist History Podcast for the past 6 years.
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