Skip to content

How Most Adventist Interpreters of Revelation 11 Get It Wrong

Uriah Smith and Biblical Interpretation

For the second quarter of 2024, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Adult Sabbath School study guide deals with the great controversy. While the lesson is ostensibly grounded in the Bible, Ellen White’s The Great Controversy sets the tone. Lesson six for the quarter covers the same ground as chapter 15 of Great Controversy—the narrative of the two witnesses in Revelation 11. The quarterly follows the traditional Adventist interpretation of the witnesses and Revelation’s 11th chapter. According to this interpretation, the two witnesses are symbols of the Old and New Testaments, and the chapter foretells the fate of the scriptures during Europe’s Middle Ages, during the chaos of the French Revolution and afterwards. This traditional view is found in the Revelation commentaries of Uriah Smith and C. Mervyn Maxwell.1 More recently, Ekkehardt Müller has offered an exegetical defense of the traditional identification of the two witnesses, although not going into all the details of Revelation 11. 2

In my dissertation research and afterwards, I have interacted with hundreds of expositions of Revelation 11. From that perspective, the traditional Adventist view of the text has several problems. First is the identification of the two witnesses as the Old and New Testaments. Several indications in the text of Revelation 11 point to the witnesses as symbols for the people of God. 

For example, note the parallels in language between 11:7; 12:17; and 13:7 (“make war with” in all three cases, “conquer,” in two cases), which suggest that in each case, the people of God face attack. To be more specific, after the witnesses complete their testimony, the beast from the abyss “will make war on them and conquer them and kill them” (Revelation 11:7). This is the same language used in 12:17 for the war against the children of the woman and in 13:7 for the war against the saints. Moreover, Revelation 11:7 involves a beast that, according to chapter 17, looks similar to the beast at war in 13:7. 

Revelation 12:17 mentions the children of the women as the target of the war, while 13:7 mentions the “saints” as the target of the war. There is not a problem in linking these two verses. Comparing 12:17 to 14:12 confirms that the children of the woman are in fact the saints. Revelation 12:17 says that the rest of the woman’s children are “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” The only other verse in Revelation, according to the best manuscripts, that has these same highlighted words is Revelation 14:12: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” In 14:12, the attribute of the children of the woman is made the attribute of the saints—usually a reference to believers in general. 

So Revelation 12:17 and 13:7 involves a war against believers in general. Consequently, parallels in language between Revelation 11:7, 12:17, and 13:7 suggest that the two witnesses, the object of the war in Revelation 11, also refer to the people of God.

The second problem for the typical Adventist interpretation of Revelation 11 lies in the understanding of verse 7. The beginning of Revelation 11:7 is rendered in English by modern translations as “when they finish their testimony” (Christian Standard Bible) or the more precise “when they have finished their testimony” (New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, and others). The impression is that once this happens, the rest of the action will follow. This clause at the beginning of verse 7 is usually understood to refer to the witnesses having reached the end of their prophesying activity of 1,260 days. 

Adventists typically interpret the 1,260 days of Revelation 11:3, along with the time references of 11:2, 12:6, 14, and 13:5, as all referring to a single period of symbolic time, with additional references to the period in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7. Adventists then take the time period to refer to 1,260 years, stretching from 538 C.E. to 1798 C.E. 

If one applies this understanding of the period to Revelation 11:7 as described above, then the attack on the witnesses should come in the year 1798. Yet, no one looks for an attack on the scriptures in the year 1798. Instead, the traditional Adventist interpretation of the verse locates the attack on the witnesses a few years prior, in 1793, during the French Revolution.3 The traditional approach appears to ignore what Revelation 11:3–7 is saying about the timing of the witnesses’ activity in order to have a seemingly viable historical fulfillment. However, the interpretive move was not originally made with a full realization that the text was actually being violated. Early Adventists adopted an erroneous reading of Revelation 11:7 from their Millerite predecessors that allowed them to put the end of the witnesses’ testimony in 1793, not 1798.

The third problem for the traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation 11 is the fact that the beast from the abyss in 11:7 appears again in Revelation 17, and the beast of chapter 17 shares key characteristics with the sea beast of chapter 13. To complete the circle, the language of the beast’s warfare in 13:7 resembles the language of the beast’s warfare in 11:7. Revelation appears to have in mind the same beast in all three chapters. But Advocates of the traditional Adventist view of Revelation 11 draw a distinction at least between the beast in chapter 11 and the beast in chapter 13. This sets aside the parallels in the text of Revelation that link all three beasts.

The fourth problem for the traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation 11 is the setting for the events involving the death of the witnesses, the mistreatment of their corpses, and their ultimate vindication. Revelation 11:8 indicates that the bodies of the witnesses lie “on the street of the great city.” Revelation 11:9 says that those who look on the bodies of the witnesses come from “the peoples and tribes and languages and nations.” Revelation 11:10 refers to the actions of “the inhabitants of the earth” in response to the death of the witnesses. When these elements from 11:8–10 are studied in comparison with similar phrasing elsewhere in Revelation, a global dimension appears, not a local situation. In contrast, the typical Adventist interpretation of chapter 11 primarily localizes the place for the events of 11:8–10 in France, during the Revolution. Indeed, the Revolution had international ramifications, such as involving other nations in war. But in terms of what happened to the scriptures—the supposed witnesses of chapter 11—the negative outcomes, at least, appear to have been localized to France. Only when the interpretation comes to the ascension of the witnesses does it reasonably appear to have international significance. It returns to the local dimension once again with the “great earthquake.”

The fifth problem for the traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation 11 is that history does not appear to provide what Adventists have been saying fulfills the fate of the witnesses over the three and a half days, interpreted as three and a half years. Adventists have struggled to produce evidence of a meaningful “death” to the scriptures during the French Revolution, after adopting the claims of their Millerite predecessors. The problem seems to have first become apparent when Ellen White and her associates were trying to revise The Great Controversy.4 They made some minor revisions trying to obscure the fact that the traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation 11 envisions the government of France attacking the Bible during the French Revolution.

Jean Vuilleumier, an early twentieth-century Swiss Adventist pastor, studied original historical sources and had others do so on his behalf. They could find no French decree officially attacking the Bible. Vuilleumier proposes instead a decree from 1793 that attacked religion.5 Hans LaRondelle, a more recent Adventist scholar, seems to have in mind the same decree that Vuilleumier proposes and points out that this decree was made only by the Paris officials. It was indeed official atheism; however, it was not the opinion of “the Committee of Public Safety, the executive branch of the Government” or of the Convention, the legislative branch.6 Moreover, the higher-level government, according to LaRondelle, appears to have overturned these extreme measures in December of the same year. As LaRondelle states, “The whole period of war against Catholic ‘Christianity’ lasted less than a month (from November 10 [when the cathedral of Notre Dame was turned into a ‘Temple of Reason’] to December 6, 1793 [when the Convention restored freedom of worship]).”7  LaRondelle also highlights government actions taken to promote freedom of worship during 1795, which is also short of the supposed three and a half years, if starting from 1793.8 

As Vuilleumier points out in another part of his three-part study, the Bible was indeed desecrated in some instances during the Revolution as people attacked the institution of the Catholic Church in France.9 Yet, it appears that no evidence is forthcoming that the Bible was specifically under attack by the law of France. Moreover, the attempt to see official atheism as the “death” of the scriptures is also problematic.

In sum, the traditional Adventist view of Revelation 11 offers an unlikely interpretation of the two witnesses and has significant issues to overcome in order to serve as a reasonable explanation. Traditional Adventist exegetes fail to adequately address the text of Revelation 11, and lack the historical evidence to support key claims. 

The failure of this explanation raises doubts about the historicist methodology that traditional Adventism applies to the reading of Revelation. Here is a section of Revelation in which the significant time element of 1,260 days appears alongside a beast and a great city. Yet, with this passage, traditional Adventism cannot explain the narrative in a way that is faithful to the text and simultaneously consistent with other key elements of the Adventist historicist reading of Revelation.

Recognizing the failure of traditional Adventism to adequately explain Revelation 11 presents an opportunity to take a critical look at other facets of the Adventist historicist reading of Revelation. One can be open to the possibility that traditional Adventist explanations of Revelation are flawed.

The text of Revelation can become central to our examination of Revelation, even if it disagrees with William Miller and the pioneers of the Adventist church.

About the author

Ian R. Brown holds a PhD from the Adventist Seminary at Andrews University. His doctoral dissertation was “The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11:1-13: Arguments, Issues of Interpretation, and a Way Forward.” More from Ian R. Brown.
  1. C. Mervyn Maxwell, God Cares, Vol. 2: The Message of Revelation for You and Your Family (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1985), 270–273, 280–296, 299–303; Uriah Smith, The Prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation, rev ed. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1944), 533–542. ↩︎
  2. Ekkehardt Müller, Der Erste und der Letzte: Studien zum Buch der Offenbarung, Adventistica 11 (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2011; repr., St. Peter am Hart, Austria: Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen, 2011), 209–225. ↩︎
  3. This is explicit in the traditional treatment found in Smith, Prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation, 535–540; it is more implicit in Maxwell, God Cares, Vol. 2, 287–293; Müller, Der Erste und der Letzte, 230, 407. ↩︎
  4. See Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years: 1905–1915, vol. 6 of Ellen G. White (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1982), 315. ↩︎
  5. Jean Vuilleumier, “Two Witnesses in Prophecy,” Ministry 13.7 (1940): 12. ↩︎
  6. LaRondelle, How to Understand the End-Time Prophecies, 349. ↩︎
  7. Ibid. ↩︎
  8. LaRondelle, How to Understand the End-Time Prophecies, 351. ↩︎
  9. Jean Vuilleumier, “Two Witnesses in Prophecy,” Ministry 13.6 (1940): 23–24. ↩︎
Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.