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Wait! Let’s Look at That Again: Investigative Judgment

Investigative Judgment - Jesus as Judge with Large 10 Commandments

(Part of a sporadic series that takes another look at aspects of Adventism.)

We have a divide in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It is seldom acknowledged or openly discussed, but has been the source of intermittent drama. The divide is between those who believe and those who don’t believe in the theory of an investigative judgment. 

The divide is perhaps typified by the two following quotes:

“So in the great day of final atonement and investigative judgment, the only cases considered are those of the professed people of God” (Ellen White, The Great Controversy, page 480, emphasis added).

“Truly, Truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life”  (John 5:24, emphasis added).

With a few simple, powerful words in John’s gospel, Jesus puts the Adventist concept of an investigative judgment in serious question. 

Jesus says, If you are a believer, you will not be judged. Adventist theology says, if you are a believer, you specifically will be judged. These two ideas are irreconcilable. 

Have you ever heard a sermon on John 5:24 in your Adventist Church or an evangelistic meeting? I would suspect not.

Here is a scene familiar to the Adventist imagination: Jesus is turning through the pages of a giant book in a special space in heaven, a space he walked into from some other space. (My wife Janelle refers to it as Jesus going “on a walkabout.”) The pages are sequential by date and have recorded on them the life stories of professed believers. Jesus began with the ancients and pretty soon he will get to the pages of living people. Then he will get to . . . my page. And he is going to judge me. Will I be saved or lost?  

This is the stuff of childhood nightmares. The uncertainty. The terror at the possibility of eternal loss and burning hellfire. The fear of blowing it all with one sinful slip. The inescapable-but-unknown moment of determination. And it’s all out there somewhere—invisible, shrouded in mystery and suspense. Individuals won’t know the outcome until later. In the meantime, they walk around wondering and fearing and not knowing. Uncertainty!

And as the illustration above indicates, the ten commandments figure into the process prominently. 

And the fateful determination was really up to you. Had you made your robe clean? Had you sinned since you last asked for forgiveness? Had you forgotten that one sin and not consciously confessed it? What if you died in an auto accident with an unconfessed sin? Had you reached the moral/behavioral point where you could stand on your own without Jesus? Were you safe to save?

That’s the way the investigative judgment was presented in my childhood years and for some time thereafter. And the tale was buttressed by copious scary quotations from Ellen White’s writings. Perhaps you had this experience too. There may have been different wrinkles in your version. 

I must have been nine or ten when I realized I was living in fear about this stuff and made a conscious decision to reject fear, no matter the consequences. It wasn’t a theological decision, it was a psychological preservation decision. 

The investigative judgment motif gets worse. 

“It is those who by faith follow Jesus in the great work of the atonement who receive the benefits of His mediation in their behalf, while those who reject the light which brings to view this work of ministration are not benefited thereby . . . How much more essential in the antitypical Day of Atonement that we understand the work of our High Priest and know what duties are required of us” (The Great Controversy, page 430, 431, emphasis added).

This quote infers that you will not be saved if you don’t believe in and “follow” the mediation of Jesus. I don’t know how you follow that invisible process. I don’t know the duties required of me, or even what they are. Does this quote imply that since only Adventists hold this doctrinal theory that only Adventists will be saved? And then only if they follow the opaque process?

This Adventist-only doctrine has been the cause of much terror, uncertainty, consternation, trouble and conflict within the Adventist denomination, not to mention skepticism from other Christians. 

And yet, the official line of the administrative wing of the church is to cling fiercely to this theory because it makes us unique, “distinctive.” You’ve heard it. “We have no reason to exist without the investigative judgment.” In my opinion, that attitude is just nuts.

This “doctrine” rests upon one single verse—Daniel 8:14. The reality is that you have to create content for Daniel 8:14 that is not actually present in the text. I would challenge anybody to read Daniel 8:14 and assess how much information that constitutes the investigative judgment actually exists in the text. It is all externally supplied by way of theory. It is a construction project that contradicts the words of Jesus in John 5:24. In my opinion, one would have to torture both verses to arrive at the investigative judgment theory.

It seems to me that Adventist theologians tie themselves in knots to explain, support, and promote this theory. You know the drill. They pontificate on evenings and mornings, 2,300 versus 1,150 days. What is “the daily”? What is the sanctuary is referenced by the Jewish writer and where it is located? Is there an antitypical day of atonement? Is there actually a day-year principle? Or is that a weak idea? What is the meaning of scapegoat? Who is the scapegoatJesus or Satan? Who does the little horn represent? They opine on whether this was an event in Jewish antiquity or is for the end times. Is it an earthly event or a heavenly event? None of those considerations are implied by Daniel 8:14!

In reality, the raw material for creating the Adventist interpretation of Daniel 8:14 is all outside the text. It is a collection of interpretations, interpolations and extrapolations. It is a series of leaps, all devised to give credence to a thought that occurred to a distraught man in a cornfield.

If you could get 1,000 average sincere Christians off the street to deeply study Daniel 8:14, how many do you think would come up with an idea described by the words “investigation” and “judgment?” (Actually, where did the term “investigative judgment” come from?) How many of those 1,000 average Christians would emerge from their earnest study with this verse to describe a scene of Jesus moving about heaven and engaging in an investigation into professed believers? I’ll venture that the answer would be zero out of 1,000. Further, I would bet that if you could get 1,000 theologians who don’t have a prior belief in the investigative judgment to perform the same in-depth study, they wouldn’t conceive of anything like the investigative judgment either. 

Richard Winn writing in Adventist Today (“Are Adventists Doing Relevant Christianity?” 7-21-20) put it this way:

“It took much longer for it to become clear that I had been living in a bubble. I was teaching a class to advocate for a dubious doctrine about something that was asserted to have happened in an imagined heavenly “sanctuary” in 1844, without any way to verify if it had happened and what real difference it might have made to human existence.”

I don’t approach this subject as a theologian, or even a wannabe theologian. I approach and assess it as an average layperson. And I will apply reasonableness tests to the concept of the investigative judgment. I will not engage in the endless wrangling over the details and words behind the theological construction project. Discussions among most Adventist investigative judgment advocates will leave your head spinning at the complexity required to string together bits and pieces to support this theory. 

This matter is a good case for application of Occam’s Razor. 

For me, when put in the context of a multitude of texts in the New Testament, especially John 5:24 and the Book of Hebrews, the investigative judgment doctrine is unreasonable. It too many assumptions to build its shaky scaffolding. For me, the investigative judgment is not credible. 

But wait! Let’s look at that again!

Here’s the major problem. At the top, I cited two excerpts from The Great Controversy which are at odds with the words of Jesus and other thoughts presented in Scripture. What in the world do we do with that? Behind the divide on the investigative judgment is the matter of Ellen White’s ministry and inspiration. Perhaps it is White’s credibility that lays at the root of the Adventist Church’s strident defense of the theory. If you have trouble with the investigative judgment, do you necessarily have trouble with White’s prophetic mission?

I have arrived at a place where these contradictions do not trouble me. Among other things, Ellen White was a devoted churchwoman. She was fully loyal to the church, sometimes even when she disagreed with things (like going to Australia). It is my belief that her writings included repeating and reinforcing the belief system of the church to be supportive of its doctrinal development. The belief system held by the church was one several sources for Ellen White’s writings. 

But what if the church’s propositions were in error on some point, and what if White in supporting that point were also wrong? What if knowledge and insight into beliefs evolve, and further insights are gained with time and study? If you don’t think that’s possible, you must believe the whole body of her work was infallible. You must also believe that she never evolved in her views.

I personally don’t believe we should let Ellen White’s writings prevent us from further development and refinement of what we believe. Knowledge is progressive. 

I disagree heartily with those who say that without the investigative judgment, we might as well fold up our Adventist tents and disappear. No way!

We have a package of other beliefs that can be quite beautiful. Why, just the concept of a day of rest alone is beautiful and sufficient to distinguish Seventh-day Adventists. Sabbath is a restorative day, a healthful day, a day of blessings and benefits. Sabbath keeps us sane. That alone is a valuable contribution to Christianity. Our focus on health is also a desirable distinguishing characteristic.

Now let me ask you, at the level of the basic Christian ethos and pathos, which of the two thoughts do you like? Do you like Jesus going over the records to judge you according to the law? Or do you like to hear Jesus saying, “If you believe in me, there is no judgment for you?” 

Which one do you think best captures the magnanimous salvation in Jesus we read about elsewhere in Scripture?

Image: by Jared Wright for Spectrum

About the author

Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife, Janelle, live in Fort Collins, Colorado. More from Edward Reifsnyder.
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