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Time for a Day of Adventist Atonement

Time for Adventist Atonement

October 22, 1844 – October 22, 2024. Almost 180 years already! Adventist will experience this anniversary differently. Disappointment, first of all: 180 years and we are still here on earth. 180 years of singing ‘Jesus is coming again,’ but he still has not come. Or guilt: how can we improve our performance to hasten the coming of the kingdom of God? Or pompous celebration: look how much the Adventist Church has grown in almost every country worldwide! We are on our way to completing our mission! Or theological justification: the Lord is busy in his sanctuary putting the registers of heaven in order and removing from the book of life those who no longer belong there. But has the time not come to look back at the events of 180 years ago? Are there lessons to be learned from those events? 

William Miller: the Man who Knew 

Adventist forebear William Miller died in 1849. Miller was not a farmer isolated in his pastures as some suppose. He visited the libraries of his time. Self-educated, he researched alongside a large cohort of Bible readers fascinated by the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Like Manuel de Lacunza, Isaac Newton, Charles Wesley, and others, Miller concluded the world would soon end, and one could determine the date. Miller invented nothing; he simply swam in the flood of apocalyptic imaginings of his time, learning nothing from the failures of colleagues. 

Had Charles Wesley not predicted Christ would return in 1794? That the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary would take place in 1761 or 1762, coinciding with the judgement and the Jewish reclamation of their homeland?  

These unfulfilled predictions should have attracted his attention. Nothing did. He, William Miller, knew. He knew better than the others. So did his epigones. They knew what God’s son, himself, does not: “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). They knew as much as the Father. This stubbornness brought condemnation, and Miller’s assumptions were quickly put to the test. The initial, approximate prediction—Jesus would return around 1843—shifted to March 21, 1844. Then, after much prevaricating, Miller settled upon midnight of October 22, 1844 (time zone not specified). 

In this way, Miller reduced the good news of salvation to a specific calendar event, but that date told only part of the story. The totality of human history could be summed up in roughly thirty dates, according to one famous, illustrated chart that circulated widely and that Ellen G. White confirmed. 

Underpinning this obsession with calendars, Miller and others believed that the Bible was so inherently logical, rational, and incontrovertible that its message could be summed up in a series of numbers. The Millerites never dreamed their mathematical approach could fail, but it did—the fruit contained a worm.

The disappointment of October 22, 1844, came not because the Millerites miscalculated but because they misunderstood. Instead of recognizing the fatal error that impacted tens of thousands, they chose obstinance. But lest we throw the first stone at William Miller and his faithful, we should recall that stubbornness is part of human experience; it is also our lot. At Sinai, the Lord remarked, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are” (Exodus 32:9). 

Without human obstinacy would salvation’s history have been shorter and much less painful? Would we have already entered the kingdom of God? Adventism suffered from obstinacy then, and still suffers from its resulting cascade of errors.

The Heavenly Sanctuary Needs to be Purified

Hiram Edson, previously known for miraculous powers and his claim to communicate with the beyond, walked through his cornfield on October 23, 1844 when the solution fell from heaven like a vision: not the earth, but the heavenly sanctuary needed cleansing. 

Reimagined, October 22, 1844 now marked Jesus’ entry into the most holy place as high priest on the antitypical Day of Atonement to cleanse his people’s sins. 

Face-saving obstinacy and a new perspective cast as a heavenly vision birthed the doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary’s cleansing, which had never before inspired even the lowliest theologian or the humblest church. The idea had no self-evident credibility. While it derived from study of the apocalyptic texts, particularly in the book of Daniel, it took a coherent interpretive methodology to concretize the heavenly sanctuary message.

Historicism as the Key to the Apocalypse   

In order to authenticate October 22, 1844, the accompanying calculations used to confirm the date, and the concomitant historical events (for example, the succession of the great empires), and in order to unequivocally identify the papacy as Christianity’s great enemy, it was necessary to find a robust system for interpreting the apocalyptic prophecies. 

So the Adventists decided to perpetuate the complicated and fantastical method of calculation used here and there by interpreters—often self-taught or mystical—based essentially on the following principles: 

  • one prophetic day equals one literal year
  • the history of humanity from its origin to its predicted end is revealed in detail in the prophecies of the book of Daniel and the Apocalypse
  • This history can be summed up in a single phrase: the Great Conflict between the forces of evil and the forces of good. 

This so-called historicist methodology proved extremely fragile. To take just one of many examples, William Miller predicted the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1839-1840, but in fact 1918 marked the first time fell out of Ottoman hands since 1453, and the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist in the early 1920s.

Today, the historicist system of interpreting apocalyptic texts is the only method the Adventist Church accepts. But did Jesus not establish that such texts only have value a posteriori?  “I have told you these things now, before they happen, so that when they do happen you may believe” (John 14:29). 

Historicism would definitively consolidate prophetic interpretation, the relevant dates, and the calendar. However, Millerite obstinacy was not self-sufficient. It needed powerful, divine attestation.

Ellen White, the Lesser Light Transformed into a Prophet

Ellen White’s ministry is astonishing. Young and frail at age thirteen, Ellen heard William Miller preaching Christ’s return. Barely seventeen in 1844, she played an indisputably decisive role in the Adventist Church’s early history. 

Surprisingly, Ellen never accepted the title “prophetess,” a posture completely unprecedented in scripture. Which biblical prophet ever refused to be called such? On that basis alone, her position should have been respected. Ellen declared herself a “lesser light” directing people toward the “greater light”—the Bible. 

Unfortunately, Adventists converted the “lesser light” into the veritable greatest light—a spotlight so powerful it blinds more than it illuminates. The more time passed, the more watts and lumens her words gained, until she became the supreme reference—the privileged, if not the only, interpreter of the Bible. Yet, one might vainly search Ellen White’s vast literary output for notable and innovative prophetic contributions. The lesser light confirms rather than it initiates or innovates. Did she receive a clear and precise indication concerning the interpretation of biblical prophecies? Did she have a vision of Jesus entering the heavenly sanctuary that confirmed 1844? Was she given a revelation about the Sabbath? Did she make a clear statement in 1888 during the Minneapolis crisis about the meaning of the word law in Galatians? No, she did not.  

Nevertheless, Adventists conferred upon the lesser light normative status, applying the apocalyptic appellation “the Spirit of prophecy.” Through juxtaposition rather than sound exegesis, “testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17) was superimposed on ‘the spirit of prophecy’ (Revelation 19:11) to arrive at Ellen White. More than a lesser light—more even than a prophetess—Ellen White became the very embodiment of prophecy. 

The frail teenager, her health so fragile she was taken out of school, became the prophetic rock, the cornerstone of Adventism. Successive generations edited, published, translated, disseminated, and sometimes triturated in post-mortem compilations the luxuriant writings of the lesser light, and Ellen White unwillingly, unwittingly became the breeding ground for paranoid apocalyptic obsessions. One always ends up discovering in her writings what one seeks—above all something to cut through, accuse, denounce, and point the finger at the church’s sworn enemy, the papal “beast,” (now Francis I). The lesser light turned into a laser that cuts, carves, and dissolves foreign bodies. What initially blessed the church became, in time, its interpretative norm, an instrument of control, and a fount of judgement and exclusion.

A Single Method for Interpreting the Bible

The historicist method based on dates is, by nature, not open to debate. One plus one equals two. No other result works. The historicist obsession—the history of salvation conceived as a mathematical tractate—could only lead to a unique, rigid interpretive system. With it, the Adventist Church inevitably moved towards a fundamentalist reading of scripture. The church will not acknowledge this fact. Officially, the church proclaims loudly and clearly that its only method of interpreting the Bible is the so-called historical-grammatical method. In reality, and especially since the disastrous Rio de Janiero declaration that confines Adventist interpreters to restrictive norms, the door is double, even triple locked. The advocated Bible reading is not even historical-grammatical, contrary to its claim. Ted Wilson’s  2023 Annual Council sermon confirmed this in a dramatic way. He offered no consideration for the historical context of biblical texts, no grammatical analysis, only a pile of unrelated verses, taken out of context, followed by quotations from Ellen White, also taken out of context. Only proof texts read flat, taken for what they literally say, not for what they mean constitute proper biblical interpretation.

Strict interpretive standards cannot have any effect without their inevitable counterpart: the establishment of a system of control. Enter the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), resembling Communist newspaper Pravda that single-handedly provided the totalitarian regime’s truth. Behold a clique of mainly central-European gentlemen, appointed from above, endlessly co-opted, responsible for establishing correct biblical interpretation. This clique presides over and controls the Adventist Biblical Commentary’s current production. It controls official publications including the International Dictionary of Adventist Theology. The group upholds indefensible positions like headship theology, which denies women ordination to pastoral ministry, whether or not the group has consensus.

In addition to the BRI, there is another coercive structure: the International Board for Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTI). This relatively new General Conference committee is divided into regional sections within each of the church’s divisions. It primarily oversees teaching endorsements of all theological staff in Adventist institutions. It is Adventist theology’s watchdog, the equivalent of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith responsible for defending Catholicism against all heresies. Just recently, the IBMTE of the Inter-European Division (Berne) disciplined Professor Hanz Gutierrez (Adventist Faculty of Theology, Florence – Villa Aurora, Italy), depriving him of his teaching credential for a very pastoral text concerning the LGBTQIA+ community.

Teachers, intellectuals by nature, are dangerous. To perfect its system of control, the Adventist Church threw itself into conservative evangelical arms, accepting a tendentious version of the universal priesthood that confuses priesthood with ministry. It argues that all Christ’s disciples are priests, all have the right to speak, and that all can preach and teach. No need for complicated, tortuous, rebellious intellectuals. A three-day training course in the basement of a church will do. Behind this approach lies visceral anti-intellectualism that elevates amateurism and mediocrity to the highest rank, where the essential thing is to repeat over and over again even what you have not understood, as long as it corresponds with the expectations of the people who already have supreme knowledge. 

Well-intentioned church members become the system’s parrots—the carbon paper of sacrosanct doctrines that become more true and authentic when merely repeating the past. This undercuts the divinely instituted teaching ministry (Ephesians 4:11 and Romans 12:7) at its core through the onslaught and triumph of naive Bible readings.

Arrogant Exclusivism

The final stage of stubbornness? The loud and clear proclamation, “we have the truth and we alone.” The remnant doctrine, a terrible manifestation of arrogant exclusivism, is the ultimate consequence of our repeated stubbornness. 

We have a relevant system for interpreting prophecy. More broadly, we have a Bible reading that respects the divine letter. We have a prophet who confirms in every respect our doctrinal affirmations and ecclesial practices. We have a system in place that watches over the grain and prevents heresy. What more is there to say? 

Prophecy tells us that Catholics are on the side of the apocalyptic beast; Protestants have fallen in love with its satanic power and pledging it their allegiance. All others—Jews, Muslims, Hindus and those who do not accept the lordship of Jesus—have no place in the kingdom of heaven, except at the price of radical conversion. 

Unfortunately, this arrogant stubbornness closes the door to entry into the World Council of Churches, softened by the observer status the church accepted in pure hypocrisy. The Adventist Church in Europe rejects participation in the Conference of European Churches, closing the door to opportunities to work with other believers; their salvation depends on their conversion. Their conversion leads to the doors of our churches.  

Time has come to recover the Adventist Church we love, that we have served and still try to serve, that we see crumbling. 

On 22 October 1844, some 50,000 believers awaited Jesus’ return. He never came. To explain the false prediction, the advent believers said he had entered the most holy place in the heavenly sanctuary to begin the judgment, comparable to the Day of Atonement. Since the great disappointment, the Adventist Church has become the authority on that day, and on the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary.

So be it. If the sanctuary of heaven needs cleansing, I leave it to Christ to take care of it and to settle all matters with the angels and his father. But why do we care about this great heavenly cleansing, except that it terrorizes us in vain?

Time for Atonement

Rather than a Day of Atonement—a time for forgiveness—up there somewhere in heaven, I advocate a day of atonement here on earth. It is time for the Adventist Church to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness for these fixed dates, these ill-considered predictions, the propensity to turn salvation into historical events and bestiaries. Forgiveness for these pseudo-prophetic positions, announcing things that never happen, or might happen some day. Forgiveness for this visceral attachment to delusional historicism, which is Western Caucasian (prophecies interpreted in light of European and U. S. events). 

Forgiveness for confining God to a human space, a building, a sanctuary in heaven. Forgiveness for forcing him into an all-human calendar—a date in October, 1844, even an hour—midnight. Forgiveness for sabotaging sanctuary theology by limiting it to a place, a day and a ritual, instead of a brilliant parable of salvation in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:9.

Forgiveness for having manipulated the Lord’s humble servant into a prescriptive, constraining system, for having turned her into a coercive instrument.

Forgiveness for confining the reading of the Bible to a literalist approach. Forgiveness for suppressing the multiplicity and diversity of interpretative voices. Forgiveness for favouring slavish repetition over creative imagination.

Forgiveness to all those excluded from Adventism. Women first of all – no less than 50% of the world’s population – excluded from pastoral ministry, even though in Northern Europe they are now ordained to this ministry. Forgiveness for all the seekers of truth, who honestly did their best to make the Gospel shine out, but who were excluded, marginalized and ostracized. Forgiveness to Desmond Ford, who was right about so many things. Forgiveness to Hanz Gutierrez, and beyond him forgiveness to all the theological exiles, terrorized by the loss of their ministry, and reduced to silence.

Forgiveness to all those on the margins, LGBTQIA+ or others, who are left at the door of churches, who have the impossible imposed on them in the name of false great biblical principles.

Forgiveness to all the brothers and sisters of other faith communities we have scorned in our arrogance, whom we still keep at a distance, rather than join forces to preach the gospel and bring the kingdom of God.

Forgiveness for our uniform administrative system, with its alienating, universalizing claims. Forgiveness for our organization, which does not allow for the emergence of local thinking that would respect social, racial and cultural particularities. Forgiveness for the structural neo-colonialism that produces kingpins in the pay of the General Conference, to ensure their own re-election.

For all this and much more, Lord, we ask your forgiveness. To all those whom we have wronged, both within and without, we also ask forgiveness.

Humility lies at the heart of Christianity. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity. Radical change is at the heart of Christianity. Confession is at the heart of Christianity. Not just for others, but for us Seventh-day Adventists, too. 

About the author

Jean-Claude Verrecchia is former principal of Campus Adventiste du Saleve and Principal Lecturer Emeritus in New Testament, Hermeneutics, and Second Temple Judaism at Newbold College of Higher Education. More from Jean-Claude Verrecchia.
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