Adventist Revelation Scholar Reflects on Pope’s Visit to the U.S.
September 28, 2015: The audience required extra rooms and some were standing after all the seats were taken on Sabbath afternoon (September 26) at Loma Linda University when Dr. Jon Paulien, a top Adventist expert on the Book of Revelation and dean of the university’s School of Religion, spoke on “Bible Prophecy and the Pope’s Visit.” The presentation was held in Damazo Amphitheater in the Centennial Complex and seen live on line in both Australia and Europe. It was part of a lecture series on “Adventism and the World in 2015.”
In the introduction, Dr. David Larson, a religion faculty member, referred to Paulien’s extensive writings, including more than 25 books, much of which has dealt with interpretations of the New Testament Book of Revelation. Larson also noted that Paulien is well known as a bridge builder among Seventh-day Adventists with credibility among many of the contending theological camps.
Paulien’s presentation ranged over a number of issues, at least some of which are difficult to describe in a brief news report. This summary includes what Adventist Today reporters at the lecture took to be the most salient points, including some comments from the audience during the question time.
Paulien began by noting that the Adventist movement in its formative years positioned itself “in contrast” to other Christian bodies, particularly in how it viewed the Roman Catholic Church. He observed that an unfortunate result in some cases was “Catholic bashing” which often had the effect of “closing minds” not opening ears to the Adventist message. This approach was contrasted with those advocated at Adventist institutions which in “the ministry of healing” try to be “inclusive” in relating to other Christian bodies.
He summarized the traditional “Adventist scenario” of Revelation Chapter 13. This interpretation understands the beast from the sea as representing the medieval papal institution and the beast coming from the earth as the United States. The speaker commented on the “great irony” of a prediction that a combination of American and Papal power at the “end of time” will represent “the face of Christianity.” In other words, from a conventional Adventist perspective, “Babylon” will have a “Christian face.” He then asked the question that if this understanding is correct, “what do we do with such information?”
Several in the audience told an Adventist Today reporter that they were surprised and disappointed that Paulien did not mention widely-discussed objections to the conventional Adventist interpretation that have come from a number of Adventist commentators. At different places during his lecture and in the question period, he made it clear that he agreed with the historic Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13. He proposed no substantive change in the Adventist interpretation, stating that he agrees with the “larger picture of Revolution 13 as taught by the Adventist Church.” He advocated saying what Adventists have always believed, but in a more respectful, courteous and vulnerable manner.
The focus of Paulien’s concern was, if the standard Adventist interpretation of this chapter is correct, how should Adventists communicate that understanding? He expressed concern that some Adventists make their prophetic understanding of Revelation the “center and focus” of their faith and outreach to the world. Revelation 13 must be viewed in the context of a larger, balanced approach to Scripture, he stated. He cautioned that when there is an unbalanced focus, it results in gathering other unbalanced people.
An example of this he mentioned is mass mailing the Ellen White volume, The Great Controversy to Philadelphia households prior to the arrival of the Pope last week. He also mentioned the “infamous” billboard campaign by an Adventist splinter group denouncing the Catholic faith. He said actions of this type counterproductive, causing “more anger than curiosity.” He noted that the anti-Catholic stance in some Adventist evangelism is not—and repeated “not” twice —part of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist denomination. It does not represent the core of Adventist faith, he said.
Paulien suggested that the function of this traditional approach to evangelism is to erect a “boundary marker” for those who need “clarity” and “no ambiguity” in their understanding of the Bible. It has proved to be successful in public evangelism, but only in other times and today in places outside the United States, Europe and other developed nations.
He also stated his regret that unrepresentative, non-authoritative statements of Catholic beliefs have been used in Adventist evangelism which undercuts the integrity of the Adventist message. The only sources that should be used to present an accurate understanding of Catholic belief and practice are the decisions of the major Councils and ex Cathedra statements of the Popes. This standard would exclude the use of various catechisms that have been quoted.
Why has the traditional understanding of prophecy and particularly its identification of the “Mark of the Beast” with the Catholic Church become so widely used in Adventist evangelism? To answer this question, Paulien reviewed the historic and sociological contexts of the rise of anti-Catholic views in the United States. He began by noting that Protestant faith has been the dominant religion in America from the colonial era. The first immigrants came from Northern Europe where Protestants are dominate. Very few were from other religions.
Protestant faith, particularly of the Puritan variety, was practiced by a hard working, “strict and sober,” largely Anglo-Saxon population in New England where the Adventist movement began. For example, many 19th century Protestant groups prohibited alcohol and dancing. The mainline Protestant churches as late as the 1880s disapprove of wedding rings. In the mid-19th century, a relatively small wave of Irish Catholics arrived as the result of the potato famine in the 1840s, settling primarily in eastern seaboard cities. At the time, their impact on America was small because the bulk of the population lived on farms and in villages in the interior.
The large influx of Catholic immigrants occurred at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when the major source shifted to southern and eastern Europe. The culture and religion of these new immigrants was in sharp contrast to Protestant majority. It included bars, carnivals and other “pagan excesses” to the minds of the majority of Americans of the time. Bars as social gathering places for working class immigrants were considered one of the unwanted parts of the new urban landscape. To the Protestant, rural majority, these new immigrants threatened the “very fiber and culture of American faith.”
Since the dominant religion of these new immigrants was Roman Catholic, strong anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic feelings emerged in the United States. Newspapers of the time had commentary and cartoons about the “Catholic hordes.” It was widely stated that these groups practiced a “way of life” that threatened American values. Paulien suggested that the origins of anti-Catholic views could be traced to these social and political factors more than objections to Catholic doctrines. In this historical context the Adventist Church discovered that associating the Papacy with the Mark of the Beast in Revelation 13 was an effective evangelistic tool.
Paulien pointed out that the cultural landscape in the United States is quite different now in early 21st century. The contexts in which Adventist evangelism communicates today in America is vastly changed. The Protestant religion is no longer dominant. The young generations include large numbers with a post-modern cultural and religious orientation. These segments value authenticity and integrity. As a consequence, the classic Adventist evangelistic approach which had its origins in another era no longer is very productive among large portions of the public here and in other industrialized countries. When sermons, broadcasts or materials include a frontal assault that is interpreted by hearers as anti-Catholic, they view the Adventist Church as a sect and cult. It becomes self-defeating approach.
This leads to the question, when, how and where should the Adventist understanding of prophecy be expressed? What do we do with Revelation 13 in a very religiously diverse, post-modern world that values “diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance?” How do we avoid the negative stereotype of the intolerant Christian to get a hearing? Being “all things to all people is becoming harder at a time when it is more necessary.” In such an environment, Adventists must recognize that “there are all kinds of Catholics just as there are all kinds of Adventists.”
Paulien offered several reasons as to why the message of Revelation 13 is “liberating” for all Christians. First, whenever a religion places emphasizes on its institutions, this communicates a “distorted image” of the nature of God and how He operates. Revelation 13 can be interpreted as countering the belief that we can be saved by our own actions and that the only way to approach God is through a human institution. He noted that the medieval papacy may be considered a “poster-child” of how that problem has been manifested, but no Christian group has failed at one time or another by putting the welfare of its organization ahead of its mission.
“Adventists do not believe that the Mark of the Beast will only fall on other churches,” Paulien said. “We believe that it will fall on us as well.” He argued that at the end, all Christians will face the same decision. The question is will they follow the “radical faith of Jesus” or will they follow the path of easy approval. In that day, no matter what religious tradition they are following—Adventist, Catholic or other—all will face the same decision. “While Adventists may do it poorly at times, our challenge is to prepare all for that decision. At that time, we all will be operating on the same level.” It is time, he insisted, that “Adventists talk about the message of Revelation 13 in the context of its impact on us.”
During the question time, one person asked Paulien if he saw the rise of Islam in the prophesy of either Daniel or Revelation. Paulien’s response was that he saw no evidence of that but was aware that others may not agree. In response to another question, Paulien stated that Pope Francis “was doing the things that Jesus did” in many respect which is the likely key to the pope’s popularity.
This brief review cannot do justice to the many themes and issues discussed during Paulien’s presentation and the question session that followed. The event was taped and may be obtained from the Loma Linda University Church.
Following the meeting, an Adventist Today reporter was able to speak with Paulien and asked why the presentation avoided the possibility that the traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13 is not correct. “I don’t assume that Revelation 13 was written with that in mind,” he told the reporter, referring to the Papacy. “The author says that he received his information from God, but I would understand if someone does not accept this. If you follow the reasoning of the book, it is presenting what the people of God will experience from his time down to the end of time.” The book “combines a visionary experience and a lot of research…. If God is involved in the visionary process, then God is using the individual [writing the book]…. The purpose of prophecy is not to foretell the future but to effect how the reader looks at the present situation.”