It has been a while since the church devoted a whole quarter to studying the Three Angels’ Messages in a Sabbath School setting. I looked forward with some anticipation to the 2023 second quarter Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, which was dedicated to this topic. But in many respects, over the thirteen weeks, it proved to be a disappointing read. Maybe this was to be expected. Ellen White introduced The Three Angels’ Messages concept in an 1848 vision. Since then, the subject has devolved into a denominational truism that has assumed sacred cow status. A belief better left alone than questioned.
Though I wasn’t expecting a breakthrough, the reactionary nature of the study guide quite surprised me. Its principal contributor, Mark Finley, is a veteran Adventist evangelist and current General Conference administrator. I do not envy the position he found himself in, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He had to navigate between the denomination’s progressives, who advocate a near-complete reimagination of this seminal “message,” and the ultra-conservatives who want more of the same 19th century-type approach that has, in their estimation, served the church very well. In the end, Finley appears to have cast his lot with the conservatives, doubling down on key positions of the doctrine that, over the last several decades, seem to have lost salience in the church. Or, perhaps he succumbed to Clifford Goldstein, Study Guide editor, who has not veered an inch from the “truths” our pioneer leaders bequeathed to us.
Finley faithfully covered the old, familiar outlines of this “message,” reminding us of our remnant status. We were raised up to warn the world of an impending judgment, brought about by its refusal to worship God on the Sabbath and keep his commandments as we do. Sabbath-keeping Adventists will be bitterly persecuted by a cabal of ecclesiastical and governmental operatives—led by the Catholic Church—after Sunday worship becomes a universal law. But if we are patient and trust God to the end, we will prevail and be rewarded with heaven. Our adversaries, on the other hand, will incur God’s full wrath, as outlined in the third angel’s message:
God will punish all those who worship the beast and the beast’s idol. . . . They will drink the wine of God’s anger. This wine is prepared with all its strength in the cup of God’s anger. They will be tortured with burning sulfur before the holy angels and the Lamb. And the smoke from their burning pain will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest, day or night, for those who worship the beast and its idol or who wear the mark of its name. (Revelation 14:9-11 ERV)
Many, like me, wonder why our pioneers settled on such disturbing biblical imagery as definitional Adventism. It may be for the same reason that some in our community today point to The Great Controversy as the one book (of the many Ellen White wrote) to use as our evangelistic tool, despite its substantial baggage. If we must use an Ellen White book to point others to Jesus, why not Steps to Christ? One is left wondering if there is something in our Adventist DNA that gravitates toward horrific images. Our interpretation of the third angel’s message, as outlined in The Great Controversy, is steeped in dogmatic anti-Catholic stereotypes.
This might have resonated in the 1800s, the temporal and cultural world of our origins. But times have changed, and we are better informed today than our founders were. Therefore it shouldn’t be too soon in our development to begin reassessing our identity in a twenty-first century context, instead of our reflexive habit of remaining in the nineteenth century. If we at least tried to engage our accepted fundamental beliefs, that exercise alone might cure us of some excess in our leanings toward certainty. We should be mindful of what history teaches us—that some who are certain of their beliefs are also very good at following orders, even when senseless. What they are not good at is embracing the inevitable change that is the very definition of life.
I have also wondered why seven verses (6-12) from Revelation 14 became the quintessential Adventist message. It’s not as though the Bible has a limited supply of positive themes to pick from. The gospels alone have more than enough uplifting Christ-centered stories and ideas available. The Beatitudes are gem-packed, as are the Parables. So are the many teachings of Jesus focused on helping others. And the Pauline epistles are infused with love discourses, any of which could be adopted to represent us to the world. Imagine centering the Adventist message on this notion: Love never gives up on people. It never stops trusting, never loses hope, and never quits (1 Corinthians 13:7 ERV).
If we prefer a judgment theme to explain what we’re about, 1 John 4:16-18 provides an example:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (NIV)
Or, we could turn to my personal favorite judgment passage, Matthew 25:31-46. Here, those invited into the kingdom were surprised, as they had no idea what they did to get the invitation. Their fidelity, the king explained, rested on recognizing others’ basic needs—hunger, thirst, clothing, shelter, companionship—and acting on them. They showed kindness to their neighbors without expecting anything in return. It is not what they believed but what they did. As this scene shows, we can warn about judgment without scapegoating, fear-mongering, or flashing images of a god who delights to “torture in burning sulfur before the holy angels” (Rev. 14:10). In the presence of better alternative judgment models in scripture, showcasing the gory to get people to worship God says something more about us than about God.
If we insist on maintaining our current posture vis-a-vis the Three Angels’ Messages, we should be cognizant of some negative implications, derived from such a choice, that affect us daily. Consider just one consequence of how our interpretation of Revelation 14:6-12 adversely influences our self-image and mission to the world. We have created, albeit somewhat unconsciously, an us vs. them attitude, in which we—presumed custodians of God’s oracles—are suspicious of almost every other entity in the world. So we embody an eschatology that predicts a near-impossibility: the alliance of all world governmental and ecclesiastical powers under the umbrella of the beast’s image, against us, those who have God’s seal emblazoned on our foreheads. The question is—and it has been asked for a long time—when does this scenario begin? When do Baptists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims etc. with America, China, Iran, Russia etc. start joining forces to come after us? Or, in our case, when do we know it’s time to head for the mountains?
We have invested so much theological capital in separating ourselves from everyone else that by default we rebuff any attempt at ecumenism. The Tower of Babel story could be interpreted positively if we desired, but we cloak it darkly. Consequently, any attempt at dialoguing with those outside our camp is too often viewed with suspicion. And the result is that—in our jangled moods—we present an incoherent posture to the world. Should we come out or stay engaged? What does it mean to stay engaged? To convince outsiders to become like us, or help them live better lives?
After 180 years of warning against Babylon, when does it begin to sound like we’re crying wolf? Well, this much is clear. We risk being perceived by non-Adventists as arrogant in our insistence that we alone have the truth. At times, it feels as though we have constructed our own paper tigers and are determined to shoot them down with every weapon within reach. It is exhausting to go from one generation to another, warning our children and all who will listen that the world is coming after us—which is what Finley’s Three Cosmic Messages boiled down to.
But what if they are not coming after us?
Maybe those not of our persuasion are just living their lives, oblivious to their supposed roles as our persecutors. Couldn’t our time be better spent getting to know our neighbors, enjoying a meal together, and finding out how much we have in common? If we are honest with ourselves—although maybe we’ve decided not to be—we might concede that we shouldn’t delight in seeing anyone, however bad, burn in a lake of sulfur, even for a second.
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 by clicking here.
Title image: Wikimedia Commons
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