Present-truth and predicting the future: have Adventists got it wrong?

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In Adventism today numerous voices analyse the latest developments in the religious and political worlds. Everything is viewed through the prism of what Adventists have long expected to take place in the end. This is often referred to as proclaiming “present truth”.  

When our Adventist pioneers, James and Ellen White started the publication The Present Truth, they stated, “Present truth is present truth, and not future truth, and the Word as a lamp shines brightly where we stand, and not so plainly on the path in the distance” (RH, 31/12/1857). To them, present truth was not about predicting what is to take place in the world but the sharing of their faith in Jesus. This is in harmony with what the apostle Peter refers to as present truth–the moral growth that takes place in the Christian experience which culminates in selfless love (2 Peter 1:4-12).

This attitude of having everything figured out about what will take place in the end times and making these things the main focus requires further examination.

In May of 1856, while at a church meeting in Michigan, Ellen White made the following prediction: “I was shown the company present at the Conference. Said the angel: ‘Some food for worms, some subjects of the seven last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus’” (1T, 132). She made a similar statement in Review and Herald on July 31, 1888. Regarding a death decree arising out of Sunday Laws, Ellen White claimed that “some who today are living on the earth will see these words fulfilled”. This is because, “Even now preparations are being made for this last great conflict” (PK, 605,606). It has been well over a century since these predictions were made. Not one of the people it concerns remains alive. Concluding that Ellen White was a false prophet from this failed prediction does not consider the conditional element of prophecy. This is clearly stated in places like Jeremiah 18:7-10 and there are many examples of this in the Bible. Perhaps the most famous of these is Jonah’s message from God to Nineveh: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” Jonah 3:4 (NLT). Nineveh was not destroyed 40 days from when this proclamation was made because as the text tells us, the people repented and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them (Jonah 3:10).  

Conditionality is an important principle to consider when examining predictions. Some predictions depend on human response while others are independent of them. In the case of the Advent movement, which was raised to herald the soon return of Jesus, God first had to lead them to a fuller understanding of Himself. It was His character that was to lighten the earth with His glory and draw the world to Him before His return (COL, 69,228; John 12:32). Unfortunately, many lost sight of Jesus by rejecting this “most precious message” of the “uplifted Saviour” (TM, 91,92). It set Adventism on a legalistic course which we are only now beginning to come out from. Ellen White lamented at the failure of accepting Jesus in favour of legalism. In 1913 she said, “By giving the gospel to the world, it is in our power to hasten the coming of the day of God. Had the church of Christ done her appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would before this have been warned, and the Lord Jesus would have come to the earth in power and great glory” (RH, 13/11/1913). 

This raises an important point regarding how we should read Ellen White. Given that her outlook on the last days was based on conditions that were clearly not met, we need to factor this in when reading what she said regarding the end times. The question is not whether Ellen White’s eschatology was conditional, but rather, how much of it was? Things were lining up in a particular way in the late 1800s to bring about the final conflict described in Revelation. Back then the world was largely Christian, at least in name, through colonialism and missionary movements. Should the end have come then, Ellen White saw that it would take place by freedom of conscience being removed through a legislated day of worship. Various alliances would be made, and indeed started to solidify in the late 1800s, whereby—had they continued in this course—everything would have been set up for the final global conflict over worship. 

When the character of Christ is presented to the world, we should expect the powers opposed to God to rise up in opposition. The way these powers manifest themselves, however, might be different to the way they were starting to manifest in Ellen White’s day. It would go against both the guidance of Scripture and Ellen White herself if we were to suppress our study of Bible prophecy based on a conditional 19th century end-game and feel that we have it all figured out. We must always approach the Bible with a willingness to learn. 

Revelation 13 describes a composite beast that comes up out of the sea. This beast has seven heads, one of which has a healed wound. The heads of the beast have 10 horns on them. Revelation 17 depicts a harlot who is Babylon sitting on a red beast. Babylon sits on the waters which represent many people and languages. The seven heads are seven mountains and seven kings. The 10 horns are 10 kings which briefly appear in power at the end. 

Back in Revelation 13 it tells us that all the world worshipped the dragon who is Satan because he gave authority to this beast. This beast blasphemed God for 42 months. Then another beast appears which rises out of the earth. This second beast forces people to worship the first beast. He does this by deceiving people into making an image of the first beast which he causes to come to life. This image then forces people to worship it and puts a mark on people who worship it. The number of this beast is a human number which is 666.

It all sounds very confusing but we can at least gather this: people will be coerced into worshipping someone other than Christ. The exact details would become apparent when the coercion begins to manifest.

There is certainly a case to be made in support of the traditional Adventist interpretation of some of these symbols. Beasts have been interpreted to represent kingdoms (Daniel 7:23). The harlot may well be the opposite of the pure woman of Revelation 12 which seems to depict pure believers. This would make the harlot impure religion. Just as ancient Babylon sat on the Euphrates River, the beast sits on water which is said to represent a multiplicity of people and languages. This beast and its horns seem to depict a pulling together of various human ideologies and empowering them politically. So, we have impure religion that is in for a ride with a combination of murky human ideologies that have political power. 

The symbol of the earth could be pointing to a geography that was sparsely populated; a place where God’s people found refuge after relentless persecution—the New World which the Christian pilgrims fled to (Revelation 12:6). This beast is then heard to speak like a dragon and ends up forcing people into worshipping an image of the first beast. This means that people will be worshipping human ideas that have been influenced by Satan through something iconic. Everyone will know what it represents when it is set up. We cannot base our interpretation of it on Ellen White’s end-time scenarios that were conditional upon developments in her day. The concept of false worship remains, but the manifestation may be different to how things began to materialise in the 1800s.

Furthermore, we should be careful not to overemphasise one aspect of any of the beasts, their heads or horns because it puts us in danger of being blindsided by another head or horn. It may also lead us to lend support to something nefarious simply because it is different from the power we expect to be dominant in the end times. All the heads of the composite sea beast are ugly, not just one of them. It is likely that the end-time power will have elements of all previous powers. The only safe course is to steer clear of anything that is in opposition to Christ and freedom of conscience.

History tells us that the enemy deceives by hiding his agenda behind one virtue or another. In this Satan appeals to our sense of what is right to fool us into doing something wrong. The virtue of knowledge was used in Eden to mask what eating of the forbidden tree really was–an act of rebellion. The virtue of piety was used to deceive people into crucifying the Messiah and persecuting His followers (John 16:2). The virtue of equality has been used to fool people into cultural revolutions that have forced people into a certain mould. The gulags of Russia and the death camps of Cambodia attest to its evil consequences. When Jesus was tempted by Satan, He did not fall into the trap of gaining one virtue at the expense of another. Jesus came to redeem the world and Satan offered it to Him, however, Jesus did not fall at Satan’s feet in order to attain it (Luke 4:5-8). 

In the end the virtue used by the enemy may or may not be a day of rest for overworked families. The commandments of God will certainly be attacked, including the Sabbath, which is indicative of our loyalty to God (Revelation 14:12). In the post-Christian world of the 21st century, the attack on it may come from labelling Sabbath-keeping as a feature of intolerant people rather than through a mandated replacement of it. As already pointed out, the scenario playing out in Ellen White’s day was conditional upon certain things that did not take place. Her prophetic voice highlights the principle that God’s law will be attacked in the final battle over worship. The form of the attack, however, may be different today than it was in Ellen White’s day. 

Revelation depicts a grand worldwide showdown in the final climax in the battle between Christ and Satan. We simply do not know all the details now and should expect surprises. When these events eventually transpire, we will recognise them as a fulfilment of God’s Word and our faith will be affirmed as a consequence (John 14:29). What is clear in the present though, is that no matter what happens, when we are with Jesus we are safely on the winning team! He is not simply waiting for us at the finish line but is with us in the thick of any challenge we may face. He invites us to draw closer to Him as we approach the final victory and fulfil our calling of lifting Him up to the world. Jesus is what Revelation is about. Jesus is our message. Jesus is ever-present truth.

Emanuel Millen pastors the Yarra Valley church, Victoria.

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