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“The End of the World” or “The End of a World”?


The Great Controversy describes "the end of the world." But it may, instead, be the end of a world—the one imagined by our Adventist pioneers. The appeal of eschatological literalism is strong and continues today. But ours is only a fallible understanding of the end, not a photograph. And the Adventist pioneers' understanding, as embodied in the book The Great Controversy, no longer corresponds to what the end represents for religious and secular communities in the 21st century. The end will certainly come, as Scripture attests. But in this regard, it is less a record of those who have denied the end of the world than a stern record of those who have misunderstood it and who, with zeal and consistency, tenaciously preached that understanding while sublimating wisdom and dialogue. Many communities throughout history have believed in the end but misunderstood its nature and scope. It happened with the people of Israel, with the disciples, with early Christianity. And there is little doubt that it happens with the Adventist Church as well. Adventism believes in the end of the world but, unfortunately, often misunderstands it.

The end of the world is a fact, not only of proclamation but first and foremost of understanding. Forgetting this could lead to confusion, as it's important to realize that eschatology necessarily involves understanding one's cultural context. Throughout history, the end has been compressed in various ways. Around the end of the first millennium, when apocalyptic fever flared up in a cosmocentric, corporatist, and vertically-oriented culture, the signs of the end were related to the collapse of those specific certainties. But by the end of the second millennium continuing through the present, culture has become strongly anthropocentric, individualistic, and horizontally oriented. Now the widespread apocalyptic angst no longer tends to be religious but secular, and the signs of the end concern the collapse of these modern certainties.

In this sense, The Great Controversy carries an ambivalence. On the one hand, it is a typically modern book, but on the other hand, it describes the end in a medieval way. No one is certain about the future, and the end may take unexpected forms from past understandings. It's not just an experience of awareness and prediction. Most of the time, the end "of a world" happens gradually and unconsciously, without us being much aware of it.

Modernity According to Charles Taylor

Philosopher Charles Taylor called our attention to the end of the medieval world that passed away almost unnoticed in its essential and structural features. He describes the end of this medieval world with the emergence of a new historical perspective he calls the "immanent frame."[1] This marks the end of what he calls the "porous self," a typical embodiment of pre-modern man. Until about 500 years ago, man felt confronted with external events having mysterious dimensions that were beyond him: natural disasters, good or bad spirits, miraculous formulas and potions, various miracles, vital fluids, and relics. It was a colorful, enchanted world that easily penetrated that porous self and was nurtured from the outside and identified with it. Between self and the external world, there was absolute continuity. The natural world represented the self well, just as the self was also perfectly describable in natural terms. Meaning automatically filtered from the world outside us.

But as Max Weber suggests, everything changes with the arrival of modernity, helped by Christianity in its Latin-Western version, and especially by Protestantism. What now counts is inwardness, personal faith, and living prayer—all hidden in the heart. Soon after, with the Enlightenment, the same rejection takes on a new face. The world, which had been obvious to porous man for centuries, is condemned as a false world. The external world, as described by the pre-modernists, is the enchanted and illusory production of a world that is not there and is forged by an interiority that is still immature. Such a diagnosis marks the victory of a new anthropological form Taylor calls "buffered self." This is a self that is critical and distrustful of all exteriority. Thus, individualism is born, which carries with it the idea, obvious to us, of history as development or progress. Western man perceives himself as superior to that of other ages and cultures and declares himself autonomous and finally free from the ancient fears that bound him to nature. One of the great differences between us and our precursors is that we live with a much firmer perception of the boundary separating our self from the rest (the non-self). We are shielded selves. The perception of both ourselves and the world has totally changed.

And essentially, the end of the medieval world and the porous self occurred on three levels. First, on an anthropological level, when the human corporatism and relationality of the porous self were replaced by the typical modern and postmodern individualism—the self shielded in its autonomy. Second, on a religious level, when the belief of the porous self has been replaced by the secularized and rational soul of the shielded self. Third, on an ecological level, when the immediate and enchanted relationship with nature of the porous self is replaced by the mediated and disenchanted relationship to nature, as promoted by technology and modern science.

Modernity According to The Great Controversy

Ellen White's cultural perspicacity in describing the end of the medieval world and birth of the modern world is hidden in a narrative form when she describes and criticizes the differentiated rejection of the Bible. She writes:

Each of these opposing elements was in its own way setting aside the Holy Scriptures and exalting human wisdom as the source of religious truth and knowledge. Rationalism idolizes reason and makes this the criterion for religion. Romanism, claiming for her sovereign pontiff an inspiration descended in unbroken line from the apostles, and unchangeable through all time, gives ample opportunity for every species of extravagance and corruption to be concealed under the sanctity of the apostolic commission. The inspiration claimed by Munzer and his associates proceeded from no higher source than the vagaries of the imagination, and its influence was subversive of all authority, human or divine. True Christianity receives the word of God as the great treasure house of inspired truth and the test of all inspiration. (The Great Controversy, 193)

Beyond the threefold description she makes regarding the Bible, White is implicitly describing a cultural transition of considerable importance. This is essentially the same transition described by Taylor—from a medieval world to the modern world. But she does so not from an anthropological point of view (from the porous self to the buffered self) but from the point of view of a relationship to the Bible. The typical medieval Catholic form of persecuting and killing those who read the Bible faithfully (mechanism from the outside) is replaced by the modern mechanism (internal to the individual) of extreme rationality or emotionality arising in an individual. There is no longer a need for outside armies or inquisitions to take the Bible away from us. The neutralization of the Bible, in this new context of ours, does not depend on the Catholic Church or the pope but on ourselves, through our own fanaticisms: institutional, rational, emotional, missionary, moral.

There is not a unique mode to fight against the Bible. The entire first part of The Great Controversy describes how this threefold mode of attack on the Bible is articulated in history. To identify the medieval Catholic mode as the only way of attacking the Bible, even in the present, is reductive and improper. The crude medieval Catholic mode of taking the Bible from the people by force was in some ways less dangerous than a second way that arose in the very bosom of Protestantism. We see, in the following paragraph, that White does not care about defending Protestants against Catholics or Adventists against Protestants. She cares about describing the strategies deployed in every age and by every religious group to neutralize the Bible and its reach. In fact, she writes about Luther and Protestant Germany:

The opposition of the pope and the emperor had not caused him so great perplexity and distress as he now experienced. From the professed friends of the Reformation had risen its worst enemies. The very truths which had brought him so great joy and consolation were being employed to stir up strife and create confusion in the church. (The Great Controversy, 187)

In White, we find an appreciation of modernity. It is in modernity that she writes, and it is for modernity that she reflects on the end of the world. The valorization of modernity, as her own cultural perspective, is discernible throughout the book. More specifically, in chapter 16, where she speaks of Roger Williams as the first true modern believer (by virtue of his defense of religious freedom), she identifies a trait of modernity that was not yet present even in the Pilgrim Fathers fleeing persecution. But while defending modernity and individual self-determination, she is still able to criticize it. This can be seen in chapter 15, where she talks about the fate of the Bible in revolutionary France, where reason became hyperbolized and absolutized.

Modernity and Adventism

The fate of Adventism is ambivalent with respect to modernity. This is particularly visible in reading The Great Controversy. On the one hand, we are a modern church because of our accent on pragmatic rationality, individualism, and efficiency. But we struggle to perceive and respect human religious internal freedom, diversity, heterogeneity, and complexity. We often take the worst of modernity and the worst of the Middle Ages.

The paradox is that the Catholicism we criticize so often has been better able to align itself with modernity. Acceptance of modernity is evidenced in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II. Evidence of a tight critique of modernity is found in Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si' and all the church's social thought since the Rerum Novarum of 1891.

Unfortunately, distracted by the mission to distribute millions of copies of The Great Controversy, we are unable to produce something similar or equivalent either to Dignitatis Humanae or Laudato Si'. So, we remain in an eschatological literalism, which is an extension of that biblical literalism that we have with difficulty left behind, but which, like a shadow, still haunts us under its apocalyptic guise.


Notes & References:

[1] Charles Taylor, "The Immanent Frame," in, A Secular Age, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 539-593.


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.

Photo by Aleksandar Popovski on Unsplash

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