By Loren Seibold | 11 July 2020 |
When I published an article about the close of probation back in April, a pastor wrote me, in high dudgeon. He described my writing that article—he used what I thought was an unnecessarily vulgar metaphor—as something gross that I had done in the Adventist living room.
I prefer to think that I identified the elephant in the living room, and that that’s where the smell is coming from. We Adventists have a number of eschatological teachings that can only be defended by attacking any messenger who notices how weak, cruel and contradictory they are. These include vile accusations against Roman Catholics, who have never actually done us the slightest harm; that something akin to perfection is necessary for us to be saved; and that increasingly horrible things are about to happen to us, including being persecuted—even by friends and family—for being Sabbath-keepers. Then all of this followed by a surprise withdrawal of both the possibility of salvation and the Lord’s presence.
These notions have with the passage of time become irrelevant, even counterproductive. But we find it very difficult to revisit our doctrines and look at them in light of changing circumstances. The Great Controversy hangs over our heads and keeps us from discovering an eschatology that is sensible, realistic, and actual “good news.”
I’ll go farther: what the church has done with these doctrines amounts to spiritual abuse.
The Gospel of Fear
Many readers were terribly upset with me for saying that the close of probation should be consigned to the doctrinal scrap heap. Some called me an unbeliever and a heretic, and confidently prophesied my doom in the final judgment.
Others, kinder, tried to say that I was singularly affected by this—due, no doubt, to unusually tactless parents and teachers—and that no one else in the church had been thus affrighted. The dozens of people who wrote me to say that they, too, grew up terrified of time-of-the-end stories, give the lie to that theory. Most disturbing was how many added that it was these fears that had pushed them out of the church altogether. A sampling:
- I haven’t been an Adventist for decades. I was surprised to feel the bodily response I had as I read the article. It took me right back to the fears of my childhood and youth. I have come a long way, but obviously those buttons are still there to be pushed.
- For years after I was baptized, I was in training. Running many kilometres without shoes (who knew if we’d have shoes in the time of trouble?), sleeping through winter with a single blanket and without a pillow (who knew if we would even have beds?). When I look back on that child, I’m heartbroken for her. So sincere, so frightened.
- I was taught that after the close of probation there would be a calendar year where we were on our own and in despair believing we were lost, with God unable to be with us. After reading your refutation, I thought, I wish I could believe in the kind of God you describe.
- I had a terrifying childhood. When Kennedy was president, we were sure that this was the beginning of the end. My little country church handed out the book Preparation for the Final Crisis. My mother read it to us each Friday night and it was pretty terrifying. To this day I struggle and pray for God’s comfort.
- My mother was born in 1911. She would tell the story of how she feared her probation might end at any time. She was 10 or 11 years old and would crawl inside a haystack so Jesus couldn’t find her. How sad to have that idea of Jesus!
- There were some big hills near our farm, and I sketched out in a notebook how I could dig a cave into the hillside, like an animal, and maybe the Catholics wouldn’t find me. But that didn’t help with the close of probation problem, because God just cut off salvation at the source.
- My father was a pastor. In 1945 he held meetings in Spokane, Washington, in the Masonic Temple. There was a big grate in the foyer and I asked what it was for. Another pastor told me that was where the Catholics were going to throw us. That stuck with me.
- My husband is a retired counselor. He did spiritual abuse counseling for people in many denominations. The biggest issues were with Mormons and Adventists.
- Thanks for this piece. I am almost 80 years old, and I have feared many of these teachings since childhood.
- Born in 1936, I lived through a very legalistic period of the church, and agonized over the close of probation much as Loren described. As a very “good” child, who longed to please my parents, my church, and Jesus, I wasn’t able to consider what kind of God these things described, but believed what I was taught. While mentally I have come a long way since then, and believe in a God of love and mercy, I fear that when the time comes for me to die, I will be tortured by these beliefs I grew up with. I believe this is spiritual abuse.
- As a refugee from this distorted eschatological system, I can attest to the stressful anxiety described. I can even date it to a Week of Prayer at Mt. Pisgah Academy when I was 16. I had nightmares of running and hiding, of “them” coming to get us in the Time of Trouble. Those nightmares abruptly stopped the week of my first psychology class (not at Southern Missionary College) at age 32. I have been a licensed psychologist for 31 years, a member of the Disciples of Christ church for 23 years. “Free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last!”
- When I was a child the close of probation held terror for me. I knew that if I were to die with an unconfessed/unforgiven sin, or if probation closed when I had an unconfessed/unforgiven sin on my books, I would be lost. As a child I remember looking at the clouds to see if I saw one in the shape of a man’s hand. I was never sure how exact the shape had to be. My heart leapt (and not with joy) on many occasions when I saw the sun’s rays shining through the clouds as they did in Harry Anderson’s paintings.
- I was taught that Jesus had a book where he was keeping track of my entire life. One day, that book would be slammed shut and whether I’d been praying or masturbating, my eternal fate was sealed at that moment. As I grew older the scope of temptations opened far more broadly before me. I hoped that the book wouldn’t slam shut before I was ready.
All in the Past?
A younger Adventist acquaintance who grew up in southern California told me, “I don’t have the same experience of fearing the end times that you had.” I was sincerely happy to hear it.
It is true that these matters aren’t talked about by every pastor anymore, nor in the same terrifying terms, as they were in my childhood. Yet they haven’t gone away. There are pastors who still make this the main note in their sermons. There are members who have built their world view around the idea that other Christians are secretly conspiring to kill them.
The as-soon-as-next-week return of Christ, imminent persecution for Sabbath-keepers, the unannounced close of probation, and the Roman Catholic church as our personal bogeyman—all of these are still the official teachings of the church. Though some pastors and evangelists have softened them in the telling, these stories—not Jesus—are what drive our soul-winning. There is still a significant portion of the church for whom this fiction is the kernel of their faith experience.
We in the North American Division (NAD) don’t talk about eschatology like we used to, but neither will we denounce these stories, because that would mean admitting we don’t believe in The Great Controversy—which, I would remind you, is still such a key document that Adventists have spent millions, just in the last few years, sending copies of it to the inhabitants of major American cities.
Why I’m Angry
During the 40+ years that I spent as a pastor my thinking evolved in some key ways, in a much different direction than I had been taught.
The pastoral role is said to be about serving God. But in practice it is about serving the denomination: promoting its programs and preserving its history and doctrines, which is why so many of us spend our pastoral authority promoting, demanding, and correcting. Everything we do seems to have an ulterior purpose.
But I couldn’t get past the real things in the real lives of my parishioners, the genuine problems that caused them sadness and anguish. It dawned on me that faith shouldn’t be about building up an institution. Nor should we divert their minds with imaginary enemies. Faith should be helpful to people, rather than helpful to the church at the expense of people.
This denomination is my home, but I refuse any longer to defend it on the basis that it is somehow more doctrinally “right” than another one. What is absolutely essential to my faith is that people treat one another with kindness and graciousness, as Jesus would do. That we grow in character under the influence of the example of Jesus. That we help people be happier and filled with hope, because the Lord is with them. That we build communities that practice disinterested goodness.
A great many religious beliefs on which we spend enormous amounts of discussion are in fact just silly abstractions that matter not a whit to your salvation. But the silly, unnecessary ones don’t bother me as much as the cruel ones. The ones that fill people with guilt and fear. The ones that encourage people to criticize fellow believers harshly. The ones that make God look petty, cruel, a big bully who loves and threatens alternately, who double-talks, who has expectations He doesn’t reveal, and for whom we have to make endless excuses in order to continue to believe in him.
I am angry about teachings and practices that hurt people, and that do it in the name of God. Adventist eschatology has done that. I’m not talking about the simple belief that Jesus is returning, but the narrative of imaginary fears with which we have surrounded it.
Time for an Apology
I know church leaders and theologians who see this as clearly as I do. But they stay mostly silent. And I’m disappointed by their silence. As one pastor wrote me, our use of these fearful stories reflects “a painful absence of ethics and integrity, not only in administration and evangelism, but also in theological articulation and doctrinal claims.”
It’s no longer enough to brush these stories of frightened members aside. This denomination owes millions of people an apology for what has basically been eschatological abuse.
It is difficult for us to rethink legacy positions. Yet after nearly 200 years, it is time, dear church, to at last be honest. It is time to rethink this 19th century eschatology—none of which, I remind you, has so far proven true! It is time to see what it has done to us, and to denounce it for what it is: fearmongering. This cruel eschatology has kept us in a state of alarm, while hiding from our sight the grace and goodness of God. It has obscured the security of salvation won at the cross. It has made fearful, shallow Christians of us. We can do better.
Fortunately, the influence of Jesus is strong, and growing stronger—far too strong to keep 20 million Jesus-followers living in fear. But this is a warning, church: come clean, or we’ll just keep hemorrhaging people. In the end, what will remain is a wealthy hospital system and a few universities. But the true Jesus-followers? They’ll have found homes elsewhere.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today