Exodus and Deuteronomy tell the story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the promised land and are instructive of the interplay between religious faith and concomitant doubt. Because they were in perpetual servitude, slavery had become normative for Jacob’s descendants to the extent that when Moses spoke of “freedom,” it might have sounded like betrayal and threat. A betrayal for the inherent abandonment of the only benefactors they knew. And a threat to normalcy and one’s accustomed station in life. After all, what is the worth of freedom if, after attaining it, one is dispossessed of such basic necessities as food, shelter, and clothing?
So for the generationally enslaved, the idea of freedom needed to be approached with trepidation, as it promised to upend their accustomed “comforts.” Though if truth be told, in their experience, those comforts consisted of having only the bare necessities that made living semi-tolerable. Though the amenities their masters provided were paltry, they still wanted to guard against losing them.
But Moses would bend his people’s minds to believe that freedom—a concept completely alien to their thinking and worldview—had intrinsic value worth pursuing. Such was the power of Moses’s presentation. Rooted only in an idea, the entire community of desperate individuals, whose previous ties to one another were through shared suffering and not ancestry, would uproot everything and commit to a shadowy pilgrimage—one first conceived as visiting a place they did not know, to worship an unfamiliar god. The original proposal called for a brief visit. Then a quick return. But this would later be revised in their imagination to include the ephemeral concept of liberty, which gradually morphed into the more concrete vision of “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Buoyed by news from Pharaoh’s court describing Moses’s demonstrations of the miraculous powers of their newly found God, this fledgling “nation-on-the-move” would carve a path through the Red Sea in a daze of euphoria. But the sea had hardly collapsed on the pursuing enemy soldiers, entombing them in their watery grave, when doubts began to bubble to the surface. And with the doubts came the finger-pointing, fault-finding, and insatiable capacity to forget their recent history and instead remember the embellished goodness of their Egyptian overlords.
As it turned out, they had good reason to doubt they would ever arrive safely at their destination. Except Joshua, not one of the entire group would see or enter the promised land. After 40 years of desert wandering, they all died without achieving their original goal of possessing the chimeric paradise. And in their failure, they looked to their children to assume the mantle of pursuit, as if, like salvation, others could be enlisted to achieve their hopes. But as is usually the case, it is thus that we bequeath our aspirations, and often our burdens, to our unsuspecting young.
Paul would come late to Christianity, but it did not deter him as he became the nascent movement’s most prolific advocate and defender. The writer of Luke/Acts showcased Paul as probably the most impactful evangelist of all time, second only to Christ. But Paul, like many early disciples, was also an apocalyptic. In his early ministry, he firmly believed that the same Jesus who died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven would “soon” return and establish his kingdom among them.
Paul’s understanding of “soon” was not open-ended. In fact, he was so confident Jesus would return in his lifetime that he relied on that insight to rally the early Christians, who were not similarly inclined, to this view:
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–16, 18 KJV)
What we sometimes ignore about this seemingly comforting text is that it was penned in response to doubt. The Thessalonian church, which Paul singled out as the “glory of our joy,” held a special place in his heart. He was instrumental in the congregation’s formation and taught them from its inception that Jesus would return in their lifetime. But the months stretched to years, and one by one, older members of this beloved church began to die.
The epistle’s internal evidence suggests that the dwindling pioneers sought Paul’s advice concerning their master’s non-appearance, pointing to their dying members. And Paul would assuage their fears, deftly pivoting from their concerns by portraying them as leading the parade at the Parousia. Thus Paul, it appears, solved the problem of what becomes of believers who die while waiting for the Lord’s return. But he did not address the issue of imminence, which was the root cause of their apprehensions. Thus, he forestalled but did not eliminate the already creeping doubt.
It is now our turn. We are children of the Great Disappointment, nearly 200 years removed from 1844. And we continue to wait. And die still in expectation of the long-awaited return. This is why I am conflicted about the morality of continuing to preach and teach this way, saying that Jesus’s return is still imminent, echoing a refrain dating back to the 1840s.
Maybe our founding leaders, caught up in the date-setting fervor of their time, could be excused for their ardent conviction. Like Paul, they did not contemplate that future generations, after almost two centuries, would be saddled with the task of convincing a totally different and secular world of a “soon” returning savior. Maybe the mesmerizing certainty of Ellen White’s end-times visions and “prophecies” foreclosed any reflective assessment of the details of our then emerging eschatology.
But by now it seems inappropriate that we should continue to stretch the meaning of “soon” to its breaking point, just to keep faith with our 1844 founders. We have had the benefit of time and changing environments to reassess our positions. Thus, we proffer some mitigation with the halfhearted statement: “But there is a delay.” Well, so what if there is? Does the prospect of a “delay,” which has come to resemble how we define “soon,” give us good reason to continue our current course? Or is it just another convenient excuse to bury our heads in the sand in order to avoid asking difficult questions?
Undoubtedly, we have become accustomed to the delay as we comfortably sidestep our movement’s beginnings and assume the trappings of an establishment church. As we build billion-dollar institutions, are we inadvertently conceding that our founding expectations of a “soon” returning Messiah were misplaced, simplistic, or too optimistic? It seems we have worn our credibility on this issue too thin, and it is past time to begin an honest conversation around what to tell future Adventists about the never-ending delay and “soon” coming that isn’t “soon” anymore. We need to initiate this conversation so that when we are gone and our children stand where we currently are, they will have better answers than we do.
Whether it references the hapless migrating Israeli convoy seeking a sanctuary and a nation of their own, or contemporary Seventh-day Adventist Christians following our pioneers’ faith in waiting for Jesus to return, the underlying expectations are conditioned by time. Anyone who has been in the “faith” long enough would attest to relishing those occasional unguarded moments when they confide—secretly to themselves, of course—their loss of certainty that Jesus will come in their lifetime.
So, we need a good helping of faith as we aspire to that better country. But faith is meaningless if exercised in a vacuum independent of time. As we get older, we come to the realization, and even grudging acceptance, that death is a debt we pay to time. Therefore, our quarrel is not with a “delay” but time itself. For time not only outlives faith but is often the reason we doubt when there is a delay.
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.
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