The book The Great Controversy constructs a particular eschatological vision—unique and persuasive—but which is not the only conceivable one. Different possibilities would, of course, accent special insights but also leave omissions. And that’s good because if one version tried to say everything, it would become unnecessarily verbose and without specific clarity. The uniquely Adventist version of “end times” is more apocalyptic than messianic, more based on judgment than on life, more about exclusion than inclusion. And this Christian plurality of eschatological perspective is possible because the Bible itself is pluri-vocal and not some sort of mathematical description. Therein lies its literary and theological greatness. But The Great Controversy tends instead to be more unambiguous and partisan. Our conscience—not only religious but also anthropological—convinces us that important and complex issues necessarily have various possible options. And it’s true as well for eschatology. There are many perspectives, noble and legitimate, that must learn to coexist and dialogue together.
Any view of “end times” that arises from a fair reading of the Bible and a comparison with historical reality is going to be both legitimate but also somewhat one-sided. Legitimate because it derives from and relates to life and pain, to God and our conscience in a truthful and specific existential way. One-sided because it takes seriously only a part of life, not all the experiences people can have of life and eschatological scenarios.
It is, therefore, not necessarily desirable for everyone to adopt an Adventist perspective, to think and believe as we do about the “last days.” This would be an eschatological impoverishment. We do not need to convert everyone to Adventism, partly because many are already converted to the Lord and his kingdom, but we do need to dialogue with everyone about these ideas. Therefore, it is not necessary for everyone to read The Great Controversy to understand eschatology. An Adventist reading of the end does not improve by handing out more copies of the book, nor by repeating what we already know, but by refining what we know through respectful contact and sincere and circumspect dialogue with other understandings. Certainly, there is erroneous eschatology, but even then, we should dialogue with its proponents because, while they may be wrong in their final formulation, they may be insightful in their introduction of the problem in play. More importantly, error is not only found in others but also in our understandings. Perhaps there is a hidden and nefarious complicity between the belief that we have gotten everything right and the disdain some Adventists have for others as the source of errors. It is the realization that we perhaps have understood some things wrongly that can not only give us a healthy touch of anthropological humility but also make us more open to others.
Every confessional eschatology is thus one that is possible but is in no way the unique, final, and ultimate understanding. It’s always relative and partial. There is no universal and objective "zero point,” as Adventism historically has sometimes claimed—with both hubristic militancy and a large dose of theological and human naiveté. Any eschatology is always qualified and conditioned by its theological and historical context. It may be medieval, modern, or postmodern, just as it may be Catholic, Pentecostal, or Adventist. But always partial. This is what I allude to by this article’s title of "Suma Qamaña Eschatology." It is one possible look at the end. Not the only one, perhaps not even the best, but it is mine as a South American, Peruvian Adventist. It is an experiential look at the end as every confessional look must be, with conviction but without the overreach of certainty. Every confession needs to effect moderation. A testimony, not a proof.
Modern ethics, and the culture associated with it, is (perhaps against appearances) an ethics of order and duty. Beyond the subjectivism that characterizes some of today's ethics, the end result and overall profile is of a society obsessed with order and duty. It is not for nothing that the matrices of a deontological ethics (Kant) and a utilitarian ethics (Bentham / Stuart Mill) are the personal choices of so many of today's modern and postmodern individuals. These patterns of order are also transversally present in our political, social, and scientific institutions.
And yes, even contemporary eschatology has become infused with order. It could hardly be otherwise. Every phenomenon, secular or religious, finally bears the traces of the period in which it was born. Like ethics and culture, eschatology—whether religious or secular, Catholic or Adventist—has also, unbeknownst to itself, become an eschatology of order.
Indeed, the Adventist eschatology in The Great Controversy is also one of order. It’s focused strongly on clarity, difference, functionality, and outcome. But the most problematic aspect is that it tends to be exclusionary of people. Through its obsessive attention to order, it easily becomes an eschatology of procedures, strategies, and plans. One that easily sacrifices people and their complexity.
Paul Ricoeur tries to correct this sort of procedural imbalance at the ethical level. He notes that moral duty and moral good are not disjunctive. The good grounds the duty, not the other way around, if we want to have a generative and not a procedural perspective of life. But the benefit of this cultural shift does not stop there. It is realized, above all, in the priority given to people over procedures.
The same thing must happen with Adventist eschatology. It is too focused on strategies, functionalities, and outcomes. Hence the strong exclusive and exclusionary character of our end-time vision. From an eschatology of Order, we should move to an eschatology of Good. And this shifts its emphasis from procedures to people. Where people are placed first there is unavoidably more disorder because exceptions, differentiations, and particularities automatically emerge. An eschatology of the Good is complex and heterogeneous because it is linked to the “messiness” of people who cannot be neatly classified. In an eschatology of Order, there are only the saved and the damned. In an eschatology of Good, there are the saved, the alternative saved, the unexpected saved, etc. And judgment, which there certainly will be, is a subordinate, not a primary, category.
An eschatology of Good must precede judgment. And it will necessarily be an eschatology of disorder because it has to do with people, with life. And the protagonist is the Holy Spirit, the source of life. This is what can be called a "pneumatological turn." The centrality of the Holy Spirit in end-time events underpins the legitimacy of refocusing from an eschatology of Order to the real lives of people.
This is the difference between a "Futurum" eschatology and an "Adventus" eschatology. "Futurum" is focused on events and procedures. "Adventum," on the other hand, is related to the person. It is always someone who “comes.” Events simply happen. But the advent and its unpredictability (Christ returning in a time we do not control) can overshadow people, whom we sometimes have instead made completely predictable and classifiable. But the Spirit instead puts the sequence back in the right rhythm—first people, then procedures. Even for the “plan of salvation,” salvation comes first, then the plan. This eschatology of Good cannot be triumphalist. It is kenotic and anti-systemic. It is a “Slow Eschatology.”
This is what Suma Qamaña means in Aymara, one of the languages of ancient Peru, in the so-called Tahuantinsuyo. Suma Qamaña means “good life,” and as such it is claimed today as a corrective to a life that has become excessively linear and mechanical, individualistic, and self-referential. For life to be good it is not enough to order it. On the contrary, it needs disorder. If it is a good life then it is relational, made up of interdependencies that necessarily include a certain beneficial disorder and unpredictability. Suma Qamaña doesn’t mean “live well” but “live with others” because only with others can we live well. This is the eschatological reminder and contribution of a culture, the Inca culture, which is a chronological cyclic culture in opposition to biblical and Western cultures that are quite linear. It includes mystery, just as unpredictability shapes the essence of eschatology. Even if it is true that there will be a future regardless of people, it is also true that without people there cannot be a meaningful future, at least one with a human and benevolent face. The true future of Christian eschatology is fashioned not only by the grace of God but also by the persons who will be graced.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.
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