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Single-Minded Adventist Mistakes


Growing up Adventist, I heard a few warnings about the “pagan” origins of various fun things. Sometime during my preteen years, I recall our local church pastor preaching a sermon that had a pretty big focus on how each of the pips, or symbols, on a deck of cards connects to the dark arts. He said the Joker represented Satan. At that church, our Pathfinder club collected cans on October 31, which served to keep me from getting in the Halloween spirit too much.

The concerned Adventist argument seemed to have a three-prongs approach (the metaphor of a pitchfork comes to mind for several reasons): Specific thing was not in the Bible. Ignore all the things modern people do daily without ancient Near-Eastern roots. State that something has a link to Roman and Catholic history as evidence of its demonic power. (The fact that these were two of the main cultural forces that shaped the Western world makes this less than rocket science. The [New, Illustrated] Great Controversy that came out in 1990 is a good example of this approach.)

As anyone who has attended a Daniel and Revelation seminar knows, this historical anti-tradition point forms the kicker in many arguments for Saturday Sabbath worship. But what happens is that some folks get inspired to loosely comb through history looking for more evidence of what they often call other perversions. Christmas is about worshipping the sun or Halloween is about worshipping Satan.

Here is Gerhard Pfandl, former associate director of the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute (BRI), modeling this approach in the Adventist Review:

Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church has not taken an official position specifically against Halloween, the church’s opposition to the occult and the demonic preclude any support for this type of festival.

Halloween and its customs have no roots in Scripture or in the Christian church. They are firmly rooted in the occult and in pagan practices. These connections, however, are today forgotten or made light of. Nevertheless, any practice derived from the occult is incompatible with the teachings of Scripture (Leviticus 20:6).

. . .

Participation in Halloween customs may seem innocent fun for children and adults, but it is one more way Satan can use to deceive people into thinking there is no harm in playing a little bit with the world of spirits and demons.

BRI just named their library after Pfandl. The article was actually reprinted in the Review after appearing in a publication by the Adventist Theological Society.

This week, I’ve been in Oaxaca, México, participating in the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities. That may sound strange for an Adventist to do, but I’ve found it to be a deeply spiritual experience. The family altars, the offerings, and even the omnipresence of music and marigolds create ways of connecting death, memory, love, and joy in ways that I find missing in my current experience. The idea that our departed loved ones come back to spend a day with us creates beautiful moments of shared tears and happy connections for family and friends observing this sacred tradition.

I could hear the Pfandls in our midst arguing that this is a Catholic tradition. But they’d only be half right. Much of this current syncretism between Zapotec and Euro-Christian beliefs actually predates Columbus. Does that make it worse? The Zapotec people who have invited me into their homes date their origins to about the same era (6th century BCE) that the Jews were beginning their own syncretistic exile in Babylon. All too often calling something “pagan” is really just sloppy shorthand for forgetting the varieties in human history, especially the ancient and Indigenous.

Here is a video from the British Museum that explains some of the practices and meanings around the Día de Muertos celebration of death and life.

With Halloween and Día de Muertos, death has been on my mind this week. As I turned again to this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide on “Death, Dying and the Future Hope,” I found little comfort. As I’ve mentioned before, the primary contributor is Alberto Timm, also an associate director at BRI. This week, the lesson continues this quarter’s didactic apologetic onslaught but with random topic selection to reinforce the penal substitutionary theory of Jesus’s death on the cross. “Substitutionary” is deployed on Sunday, Wednesday, and in the Teacher Comments with no mention of alternatives.

Unfortunately, the lesson does a major disservice to Adventists around the world on soteriology. This monophonic approach under-educates Sabbath school members by creating an unfortunate elision of Christian history and the rich variety of meanings that this supreme moment represents. Just a reminder that the Adventist Theological Society requires that its members only believe this one theory.  

Arguing that there’s only one way to view the cross seems as misguided as saying there’s only one way (or day) to grieve the loss of a loved one.  As we try to understand the meanings around death—of Jesus and our own experience with it— variety gets closer to reality. Single-minded approaches smack of solipsism. BRI, let us all reason together.

Here is a pretty good video summarizing seven main theories of the atonement.


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Altar in a Zapotec home with ofrenda (offerings) from family and friends in memory of their father who died recently (photo by the author).

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