by Dan Appel
by Dan Appel, October 11, 2014
It has been said that there would be no Seventh-day Adventist Church without the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment. That is true. Our purpose, our mission, is to proclaim the judgment-centered messages of Revelation 14:8-12 within the larger context of the Gospel. It is our unique piece of the larger puzzle put together by the Christian church. Theologically, it is our bi-optic focus on the judgment, even as we center on the cross, that more than any other doctrine sets us apart from the rest of Christianity.
I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who loves and appreciates my church. I have spent years and countless hours studying the theme of the pre-advent judgment. I have lived through all of the controversy of the 70s and 80s which centered on this topic. I have spent countless hours in conversation and study on the subject with colleagues who love the church as I do. My library has a whole shelf filled with books dedicated to the subject. I have packed files with the results of my study in an ongoing quest to understand the truth about the judgment.
It has been a rich and very disconcerting experience. Rich, in that I have gained a greater appreciation for God, the plan of salvation, and my church every time I have studied the subject. Disconcerting because, hard as I have tried to rationalize certain aspects of our beliefs on the subject of judgment, there are nagging questions which I have never been able to find answers for; things which just make no sense to me theologically or philosophically.
My concerns circle around several basic questions that are not about the fundamental truths of the pre-advent judgment. They are rather about issues which I am increasingly convinced are peripheral and have sidetracked us from what really matters.
That said, there are certain things which are abundantly clear when one opens the Bible – things upon which we should all be able to agree.
1. The concept of a last judgment is foundational to everything else in the Bible – one finds it clearly stated from Genesis through Revelation. While, as I have shown in previous essays, that judgment is centered on God’s judgment of Satan as the Great Controversy draws to a close, there are still elements of the judgment which involve us and our eternal destiny.
2. The idea of a pre-advent judgment makes sense logically and biblically. Unless one takes a universalist position and believes that all humanity is going to be saved no matter their choices vis-a-vis loyalty to the God of the Bible, then at some point God is going to have to decide – judge, in other words – who is going to be saved and who is going to be lost. We may argue over where, when and how that decision takes place, but it has to take place at some point. Since the Bible clearly states that God is going to bring our “reward” with Him when He returns to earth at the end, then that judgment has to be made prior to the advent. To state that the Bible assumes this is to state the obvious to any Bible student and is clearly logical.
3. It is clear that the Bible views the judgment as a process beginning at the Cross and ending with the Great White Throne administration of justice found in the book of Revelation. At the same time, it is clear from Daniel 7 that a particular phase of that process begins sometime after the year 1798 and before Jesus returns to earth the second time.
4. The announcement of the end of this judgment process is an integral part of last day events as portrayed in Revelation – most notably in Revelation 14:8-10. It has been the most common theme in our self-identity since our inception – often eclipsing even, tragically, the Cross when it came to identifying ourselves to others. (Think back and compare the triads of angels which flew across church signs and traditionally graced our buildings, stationary and calling cards with the numbers of crosses that figured prominently on those same spaces.) As will be seen later, the announcement of the end of any human opportunity to choose sides in the war between good and evil is integral to the whole Day of Atonement theology of the Old Testament. Again, Seventh-day Adventists are on solid ground when we see ourselves as messengers of that close of human probation.
It has been said that “the devil is in the details.” It is in our understanding of some of the details of what occurs in that period after 1798 that we begin to stray from clear Bible teaching. Even among conservative Adventists there have often been questions which lurk at the edge of consciousness when ministers and laymen candidly discuss some details of certain of our beliefs concerning the judgment. (I am aware of a very conservative Bible scholar in one of our colleges who, during the foment over the Judgment in the 70s, told a relative who is a close friend of mine, “I have a whole file drawer full of material on the subject that I don’t know what to do with and for which I would probably be fired if it became common knowledge that I had it!” He subsequently, not long before his death, burned it all.)
What are some of those questions that concern me?
1. Even assuming for a minute that the whole 1844 experience is important, how important
is it relative to other important subjects in the Bible?
The specific 1844 initiation of a pre-advent judgment takes up just one verse in one book of the Bible. Compared with other subjects, it just doesn't merit that much attention in Scripture – even when you include the other 26 surrounding verses of the context of Daniel 8. We skewer our Mormon friends for basing their whole doctrine of baptism for the dead on one Pauline passage, yet choose to do the same with one verse in Daniel for our position on the beginning of the “investigative” phase of the Judgment.
Important subjects receive repeated, extensive treatment in Scripture, and really important topics appear everywhere. They recur, they are emphasized. re-emphasized and stated in different ways from different perspectives. For instance, the whole idea of Sabbath is a thread that is woven through both the Old and New Testaments, as is the state of humanity in death. The 1260-day prophecy of Daniel occurs several times in the book of Daniel, then receives additional treatment in Revelation.
If whatever happened on October 22, 1844, was really that important, wouldn't one expect it to be repeated in Daniel and the Revelation in concept and specifics? Again, we are not talking about the concept of a pre-advent judgment, but of a starting point in 1844. Even within Daniel it receives scarce billing. If a single mention merits great importance, would not the 1290 days and the 1335 days of Daniel 12:11,12 be equally important? In the grand scheme of things, from a biblical perspective, October 22, 1844 as a starting date for the pre-advent judgment is a minor bump in the road at best – if that is even the point of Daniel 8:14.
2. If the happenings of 1844 are so important, why are they so difficult to understand, prove and explain?
It has been said that a theologian is often a person committed to finding meaning in the Bible's structure who ends up needlessly structuring its meaning in order to give meaning to the theologian. Excessive complexity is often a red flag when it comes to definitions of scriptural truth. It generally points to an attempt to make something seem more important than it actually is.
Issues which are important to God are relatively easy to understand in the Bible. Granted, the details can engender considerable discussion, but the basics are simply stated. While there are undoubtedly those who find the arcane calculations necessary to understand and establish the beginning and ending points of the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 easy to fathom, it is beyond the ken of most. When the summer 2006 quarter's Sabbath School lessons which focused on this subject were finished and the quarterlies were filed carefully away for reference, I would wager that most Adventist members, and even most Adventist pastors, still could not give a clear, easy to fathom, presentation of Daniel 8 to an adult, much less to a child. Most evangelistic presentations on the subject are convoluted at best. People leave thinking, “This must be true. The speaker seems very intelligent and informed and said it is so. I don't understand a word he just said, but it must be true if he says it is.”
The very complexity of the whole 2300-day schema belies its importance. If the 2300-day prophecy portion of the pre-advent judgment doctrine were as vital as we wish to make it, don't you think that God could have stated it clearly and succinctly, the way He did with every other one of our doctrines?
If it is not important, why do we cling to it so tenaciously? There are several reasons. The first is all of the emotional baggage which accompanies this concept.
We have a love/hate relationship with 1844 for precisely the same reasons we have warm fuzzy feelings in the United States for Thanksgiving Day. The original “thanksgiving” did not occur on the last Thursday in November. The participants most probably did not eat turkey but rather venison and “wild fowl,” and the rest of the meal was apparently dried corn and fruit. The pilgrims didn't wear black and starched white and it is likely that most who ate, Indian and Pilgrim, consumed their food with their fingers rather than the tableware pictured in most of our paintings. Much of the Thanksgiving myth is just that, a warm fuzzy story that we love because it shows something positive and warm about what was in actuality a horrible and often tragic year for the Pilgrims. It is about our beginnings, and we are glad that we began and that there were good things that grew out of the difficult times, so we hold on to the legends because it feels right – even when most of the details we learned in elementary school are not true.
The same can be said of our memories of the experience surrounding 1844. Whether it was a mistake on William Miller's part or not, God used what happened in 1844 as a means to shake people out of their spiritual complacency and to move them to become passionate about the second coming of Jesus. The story of the gentleman farmer preaching about his understanding of a very difficult passage of scripture that predicted the soon coming of Jesus, and the persecution of the preacher’s followers for their beliefs, has a heroic quality that draws us even when we don't want to be drawn. The men and women who sacrificed everything in their passion for Jesus’ return, the ascension robes and the potatoes rotting in the fields, the expulsion from their churches, the “vision in a cornfield” and a thousand and one other bits and pieces of the story all resonate in our spirits. Listening to the old church family stories, we viscerally know that we are here for a reason, that God intervened in human history and birthed a movement that is transforming society in many good and wonderful ways, and that we are a part of that movement.
The second reason we are loathe to let go of the 1844 part of the investigative judgment might be a matter of pride. Is it remotely possible that we love Daniel 8:14 so much because we are proud that we understand something no one else can comprehend, and that makes us feel important and special and gives some kind of meaning to our existence? Are we guilty of a 20th-century form of subtle gnosticism where we know the secret arcane truths that no one else can know unless we initiate them into the inside information? Other people are the “speaking in tongues people,” or the “mass people,” or the “holy-living people,” but we are the prophecy people, and there is one prophecy that only we understand.
While that view feeds our egos, we must ask whether in the long term it serves to enhance our ability to accomplish our mission or detracts from it. Or, to ask the question a different way, is the return we get really worth the price we pay in isolating ourselves from the very people we wish to reach by our stubborn insistence on holding on to a belief that is very difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate biblically?
Let’s admit it, it's hard for any of us to admit we have been wrong. The more energy and time we have invested in trying to defend something, the harder it is to admit our mistake. Our pride makes it very difficult to admit to our critics or ourselves that we may have been in error. But there are times when we must admit our mistakes, put them behind us, and get on with life. Admission and confession can be a renewing and invigorating experience when it frees us and others to go forward.
But, there is always the issue of the slippery slope. Once you admit you were in error in one point, there is the fear that you may discover other mistakes and that our whole system of belief will be determined to be a house of cards and will come crashing down around us. The Seventh-day Adventist system of beliefs is too well-grounded in scriptures for that to happen. Discovering a rotten board or two in a well-built house does not mean that the whole house will fall apart – unless the rotten boards are ignored and the problem is allowed to fester and grow.
Finally, we want, we need the 1844 date to be true! When we compare our often mundane spiritual lives with the stories of the Acts of the Apostles or the Exodus we all secretly cry: “God, why don't you work in the same concrete, dramatic ways today?” We all have a desperate need to believe that God is alive and well and working in modern times, that He is injecting Himself into human history today in the same way that He did 2,000 or 4,000 years ago. So, a prophecy whose specific fulfillment falls in modern times gives us hope and lends credibility to our dreams. It assures us that the God who acted in the past acts today – that supernatural events are not the stuff of myth and legend, that they are reality. The 1844 experience bolsters our faith and gives us renewed reason to believe.
Unfortunately, the very things that initially sustain our faith can undermine and destroy it if we are not careful. If, after discovering that some small aspect of our belief system is not built on solid ground, we continue to defend it, we undermine confidence in the rest of our beliefs in the eyes of others and, subtly, often in ourselves. We become inwardly cynical and outwardly hypocritical, and it destroys both our witness in the eyes of thinking observers and our inner conviction in what we ourselves believe.
In the words of the old country-western song, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” Maybe it's time to fold on what does not bear the scrutiny of careful Bible study and get on with what we have been called to accomplish as a church.
3. Why can we not persuade any other Christians to accept our interpretation of Daniel 8?
While it can be disastrous to our faith to judge the merits of our beliefs by their acceptance by others not of our religious persuasion, it is smart to at least listen carefully to the objections of others and to ask why they cannot see things as we do. Every other doctrine of Adventism finds its proponents among other conservative Bible students. Martin Luther espoused the same position we do on the state of humans in death in his small, or shorter, catechism. So does Tony Campolo. People may not like what we believe happens at death; they may even reject it; but at least they can understand how we got there Biblically. Many New Testament Christians celebrate the Sabbath. Baptism by immersion is practiced widely in conservative Christianity. More and more followers of Christ are becoming convicted, based on the message of the Bible, that their bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, deserving care and preservation. There are many believers in spiritual gifts who acknowledge that prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit promised to Christians – even if they choose not to believe that Ellen White is one who exercised that gift. The same thing could be said for every one of our doctrinal positions – except for our belief that the pre-advent judgment began in 1844. No current, credible non-Adventist scholar accepts this idea!
It would seem that almost 170 years of persuasion would have convinced someone that we are right about 1844.
4. Is an appreciation of the 1844 date necessary for an appreciation of either the types of the Old Testament sanctuary services or the antitypical events in the stream of earth-time that they point to?
One of the things most students of the Old Testament sanctuary economy appreciate is the way God used simple “sandbox” illustrations to powerfully demonstrate the plan of salvation to His people. A child could participate in the various celebrations and gain a grasp of God's love for His people. Today, many New Testament Christians enjoy celebrating the Old Testament holy days, even when they do not believe that they are required of Christians, because of the multi-sensory approach they use to teaching eternal truths.
The Old Testament sanctuary economy has much it can teach us. Seventh-day Adventists have correctly pointed out the correlation between New Testament era events and the various festivals of the Old Testament. But, we have erred in believing and teaching that the major point of the message of the biblical Day of Atonement for Old Testament followers of God was an A.D. 19th-century date.
The ten “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, were a time of deep soul-searching introspection and repentance, when committed citizens of God's kingdom asked themselves if their hearts and lives were truly committed to God.
Yom Kippur, the Jewish festival at the end of the Days of Awe, pictured the time when the records are “sealed” at the very close of human probation. It provided a final quick chance to repent. The times of soul-searching were over, and the persons whose hearts and actions were holy would remain so, as would the person who was in rebellion against God. This day portrayed a last appeal from a loving God, a last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate your
repentance and make amends before your fate was forever set. Yom Kippur theology fits perfectly with Revelation 14:8-12 theology, where a final call goes out to humanity to repent and give glory to God while there is still a chance.
That is the meaning of the type – there is a deadline. Human probation does close. When it does, there will be no more chances. It is also the reality of the antitype! This final call to repentance is not a long drawn-out one, but rather a final quick appeal. Yom Kippur is a festival of imminence! While the 170 years spanning from 1844 to the present are short in comparison to the 6,000+ years of human existence, they are far too long for what is pictured in the Biblical Day of Atonement. It is the end, not the beginning of the end.
5. Is a belief in the 2300-day prophecy's fulfillment in 1844 necessary to be considered a committed, orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist? And, as a corollary to that question, is a belief in the 1844 experience as a fulfillment of Daniel 8:14 necessary to believe in a pre-advent judgment which commences at some point prior to Jesus’ return to earth?
I don't think so – in fact a forced marriage between the two is not necessarily a natural or a Biblical one. A pre-advent judgment is as one of the defining principles which undergird our faith along with the Sabbath, the unconscious state of man in death, baptism by immersion, and righteousness by faith alone. But the point of the Day of Atonement is not the date; it’s the activity, the process. If the calendar is the issue then it has failed, miserably, because time has dragged on – whether because of God's hesitance or our lack of diligence – for over 170 years. If, on the other hand, the issue is imminence, what is happening and will happen as we near the end, then the message is always contemporary. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that our focus on the dates we have traditionally believed surround the pre-advent judgment has kept us so involved trying to prove their validity that we have not accomplished the very thing we were placed on earth to carry out – namely, to announce to the world the very good news that Satan's kingdom of darkness has been weighed in the balances of God's justice and found wanting, and that it shortly is going to come to an end! Maybe we need to finally admit to ourselves that it is the date setting and not the concept of a pre-advent judgment that bothers many of those who most energetically reject our position on the judgment and prevents them from hearing the important things we have to say.
The 1844 fiasco looms so large when they look at the whole subject, that they cannot see the real point. And that point, after all, is our mission in life. Focusing on the minutiae of the dates has robbed us of our credibility and sapped us of our passion. In all of the senseless urgency to defend the time periods associated with Daniel 8, we have taken our eyes off of the most important thing. The countless days and dollars we have squandered on commissions and debates has robbed us of the creative energies of the very people who should have been leading us in energetically fulfilling our destiny. Maybe it is time to remove the stumbling block so that we all can carefully focus on just what is about to happen as human probation draws to a close.
6. So, was the whole 1844 experience a Satanic delusion? or just a very disappointing mistake?
We will probably not be able to answer that question until we reach heaven. But that is not the important question. If we stop there, we would miss a very important point. God was able to turn what happened in those very disappointing days to His glory. The God who promises to make all things, even the bitterly disappointing ones, work for good for those who love Him kept His promise. Out of the mire of the Millerite catastrophe of October 22, 1844, God was able to grow roses. October 22, 1844, and the depressing days which followed it were the gestation period of a very special people with a heavenly mandate to tell the world that Jesus was coming soon in triumph back to planet earth.
Seventh-day Adventists are not the only Christians in the world – as many of us thought throughout much of our history. Neither are we the only church which God is using in powerful ways in this world. But, we are a people with a purpose, raised up by God at the most crucial period in earth's history for a specific reason before Jesus returns.
The world is coming to an end. The day is approaching when the promise of Yom Kippur will find its fulfillment and each individual's eternal destiny will be set once and for all. The Day of Atonement final call to the world to repent and become loyal citizens of God's kingdom of light must go forth – and Seventh-day Adventists were raised up by God in the wake of the 1844 experience and have been given the privilege of leading the charge. God used what turned out to be a horrible, disappointing mistake by a very sincere man to raise up a people of destiny. That is the blessing of 1844. The date setting may have been faulty or a delusion, but what grew out of it is not!
I find myself as a Seventh-day Adventist on a continuum between two extremes. There are those who see the inconsistencies in some details of our understanding of the judgment and its timing, and in knee-jerk fashion wish to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath-water. On the other hand, there are some who refuse to even consider that we might have been mistaken in certain details of our understanding of the pre-advent judgment.. Both, I believe are terribly wrong.
I would submit that neither blind faith nor reactionary disbelief in the end will satisfy, and either will ultimately lead us away from an understanding of God's will. Both will result in loss of faith in the long run. Instead, we need to continue to prayerfully study God's Word and to affirm and celebrate those areas of our belief in the pre-advent judgment that can be supported by scripture while honestly admitting that in some details we have been wrong. Maybe it is time to
acknowledge the elephant in the living room that we have all been trying to ignore, to boot
him out of the room, and to get on with the mission God has given us.