by Jack Hoehn  |  January 16, 2019  |

Do visions and holy dreams come with an expiration date? If dreams inspire and motivate, retained too long can they slow or hinder spiritual growth?

As we awaken from a dream, we usually understand dreams to be fantastic. Although connected with reality, dreams are usually more emotional than factual. We dream fears or hopes. Sometimes we awake crying, laughing, or even yelling, but rarely with new facts or information.

What about holy dreams or visions? Are visions God’s way of sharing factual information? I don’t know anyone who suggests that St. John was telling us that there is an actual bleeding lamb walking about in heaven (Revelation 4:6). Should we be on the lookout for a literal red seven-headed dragon on the earth (Revelation 12:7)?

How about Ellen White’s visions? Was the 17-year-old girl who rescued the Advent community from dissolution after October 22, 1844, giving her community a dreamed travelogue of heaven or divine encouragements on earth? Was an inspired vision giving the prophetess information or motivation?

Better than Reality

Ellen White’s first published vision came as a teenager and is told in detail in her book Early Writings, pages 14-20. As I look at it again, it is very much a young person’s dream, unbounded by reality; it is imaginative, and likely should be taken as figurative. Look at it again with me.

“I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world…a voice said, “Look again, and look a little higher.” At this I raised my eyes, and saw a straight and narrow path, cast up high above the world. On this path the Advent people were traveling to the city, which was at the farther end of the path…”

This was clearly not realism


This is clearly not realism; this is a parable, an illustration. It has a message, but the message is not “This is what Heaven looks like”; it was, “Don’t give up; Jesus is still with us.” Jesus was leading. Sadly, some believers “stumbled and lost sight of the mark and of Jesus and fell off the path down into the dark and wicked world below.” To our surprise, instead of abandoning the recent painful error in Advent time-setting,  she hears “a voice like many waters” repeat yet another “day and hour of Jesus’ coming.”

A long, narrow, Heaven-bound path. Jesus waving a “glorious arm.” Slipping, falling off the path down, down, down. A second precise day and hour for Jesus’ coming (details not shared with us). Thunder. Earthquakes. Sealing stars on foreheads. Enemies falling helpless. Rainbows over clouds. As in Revelation Ellen sees Jesus with white hair, but adds a detail that it is curly! Ellen’s Jesus holds a silver trumpet and a sharp sickle. A 10,000-angel choir singing a “most lovely song.” Palm branches. Crowns. A sea of glass. Heavenly arches. Golden shelves. Fadeless flowers. Pillared houses seemingly Rococo in style because they were “set with pearls.” Harps. A river of purity spanned by a twin-trunked tree of life. Fantastic fruits gilded like “gold mixed with silver.” Even heaven’s forests were made of fantastic trees, “not like we have here.”

In fact, nothing in this holy dreamworld was exactly “like we have here.” It took all the language a 17-year-old could muster to share this dreamed world. It was all higher, richer, purer, happier, stronger, braver, holier, younger, dreamier, less practical, more theoretical and wishful than what any of them had there in Portland, Maine. Tied to her Bible’s Revelation, but very much unreal from actual 1844 existence, discouraged Adventists in 1844 were drawn beyond their depression towards a dream.

The teenager wept after her vision. It was clearly very emotional for her. She also shared her dream with her group of friends in chilly Maine who she found “fully believed it to be of God.” With this encouragement this became the first of many such dreams. The Seventh-day Adventist church is largely the result of the encouragement and nudging of those visions.

What standard do we hold these dreams to? Do we demand from the visions facts, information, secret knowledge about hidden things, available to Adventists alone? Or do we understand them as illustrations, parables, encouragements, hopes, inspired but still dreams?

Dreams Start Movements

The Ellen White visions were powerful. They motivated real actions in the real world by those early Adventists. Those dreams built churches, built hospitals, built schools in Battle Creek, Avondale, Walla Walla, and Loma Linda. They eventually created a dry cereal empire[1] and promoted the vegetarian and vegan wave that is pushing into most of the restaurants of the world.[2] They took boys and girls out of California and sent them in their most productive years to places like Mapoteng and Chipata.[3]

The history of reform movements cascading through the Christian millennia may be considered as dreams motivating changes. Even establishing Christianity itself as separate from Judaism started with Saul of Tarsus’ having a vision. Twenty-five years after the Damascus Road vision, Paul explains how everything in his own life (and the history of earth) had irreparably changed. “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”[4]

In A.D. 315 the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity as its official religion is said to have come after Constantine’s dream—a dream of victory by putting Christ’s initials on his soldiers’ shields.[5]

During the centuries many Christian reforms, schisms, and heresies have arisen from visionaries. They dreamed of a different, better, purer, holier, higher, idealistic vision of what religion was not, but could perhaps become. Idealistic communities often foundered on political, economic, social or sometimes biological realities. But that did not prevent the rise and spread of consequential doctrinal and behavioral reform movements such as Bulgars, Cathars, Lollards, Waldensians, Franciscans, Dominicans, Wycliffites, Hussites, Lutherans, Mennonites, Quakers, Puritans, Pilgrims, or Adventists. Like Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech that drove the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, many of these movements began like Seventh-day Adventism with “I have a dream.

Dreamer’s Danger

Are there dangers in holy dreams and the movements they inspired? Listen now to this warning from German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at that time writing from Stettin, Prussia, about dream-based Christian communities:[6]

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream.”[7]

Why was Pastor Bonhoeffer warning against “wish dreams?” He explains,

“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.”

This sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? But he continues,

“God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. God will not permit us to live for even a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both…  

“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the matter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

He loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself

Ever so honestly, earnestly, and sacrificially motivated as today’s Adventist leaders are, isn’t Adventism now suffering at the hands of “wish dreamers?” It seems that our present leaders have brought to their positions of influence their holy dreams. They have come clinging onto beloved versions of Ellen White’s alluring visions of the past. These leaders cherish the dreams that motivated a world very unlike our present world and the church they are trying to lead. Bonhoeffer explains:

“God hates visionary dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary idea of community demands that it be realized [not only by himself, but by others, and by God]. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.

“He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dreams bind men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community is going to smash. So, he becomes first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.  When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself…  As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can only be saved by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other needs to retain his independence of me… I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s…”

Pastor Bonhoeffer himself was regulated, coerced, and finally dominated to death by a German government whose leaders were guilty of imposing their own sweet dreams of a glorious, triumphant, dominant Germanic Empire with “Arbeit, Brot, und Ehre” (jobs, bread, and honor) for all compliant Germans.  Those sweet dreams, however, became hard cold fanaticism, torture, and World War II’s terrible destruction when their leader could admit no opposition from humans unable or unwilling to bend to his wish dreams.

Bonhoeffer was not, however, writing about Nazis. He was writing about Christian brothers and their relationships with their congregations. Has he correctly pointed us to the problem in holding too tightly to holy dreams of the past, no longer motivating for the church at large in the world of the present?

Dreaming Beyond our Past

I am suggesting that the Seventh-day Adventist church today needs to be left free to become not the dreams and visions of even inspired leaders in 1844, 1863, 1888, Battle Creek, Takoma Park, or San Antonio, but what Christ himself shall make us become with new dreams, new illustrations, new motivations. As he has given dreams to humans in the past to make Christians out of Jews, Protestants out of Catholics, Adventists out of Protestants, now he may wish to create 21st century Seventh-day Adventists from 19th century ones.

Some dreams may have to quietly die


Some past inspired dreams will have to die as quietly as Ezekiel’s visioned temple has.[8]  Or drop away as authoritative after a brief struggle in the church the way obligatory circumcision did.[9] The dreamed 19th century political details of White’s Great Controversy visions could be honestly replaced by more plausible 21st century outcomes of the continuing cosmic battle. Terrible Roman pagan, then papal, evils of their day are surely eclipsed by subsequent totalitarian outrages. Depending on if you were Cambodian under Pol Pot, Chinese under Mao, Hungarians under Stalin, Nazarenes in Mosul, or Hondurans trying to escape for their lives into the U.S., your “anti-Christs” will not all be the same.

We may expand or revise old dreams without denying the validity or usefulness of the past visions. Sabbath, for example, will always retain its beautiful significance as a personal blessing and as a symbol of belief in the adequacy of Creation and the wisdom of the Creator. But is believing in Creation and honoring the Creator better testified to by changing the worship day back from Sunday to Saturday, or by stopping oil spills, removing mountains of garbage plastic from the oceans, or halting the sexual trafficking of little girls? I can assure you, not in the dreams of today’s teenage Adventists in Portland, Maine, or anyplace else. They will have no problem with seventh-day worship, as long as the symbol is part of a parcel of serious Creation care.

In new dreams Jesus may still raise a right arm to encourage us. But instead of seeing Jesus’ holding silver trumpets and sickles, we may vision Jesus communicating with a best-ever internet microphone while driving an ecologically sustainable threshing machine designed by a heavenly Porsche. Crowns, harps, golden shelves, and unfading flowers may be displaced by micro-machined, flawlessly computerized Marvel-hero or Spielberg-like heavens. Even if the symbols need to change, the principles remain. Goodness will still overcome evil.  Selfless heroes martyred in the struggle will still need the resurrection. Following an upward path away from sin’s darkness still motivates healthy moral changes in the lives of real church members. But we need to recognized inspired visions as holy dreams intended to motivate behaviors and illustrate truths, not to restrict the church’s ability to progress and adapt eternal principles to today’s needs.

Realized Dreams

This is not a call for unbounded congregationalism. Dreamers need non-dreamers to make the difficult transaction from dreams to reality.

Dreamers need non-dreamers

Ellen White could not have given the world the Seventh-day Adventist church without a James White. James listened with admiration to Ellen’s fantastic dreams and then took practical actions. He bought a printing press, wrote editorials, opened an office, chaired boards, wrote contracts, purchased things. Dreamer and doer balanced each other.

Adventists must continue to have an organization, offices, lines of communication, health insurance, pension plans, and their administrators. Yet a freshly dreamed church administration would not major in legislation, coercion, or domination. These administrators would motivate, encourage, and cooperate. They would devise new ways of doing this more economically and less ostentatiously. Adventists could then remain united by goals and aspirations, not restricted by methods and mechanisms devised by one culture imposed on other cultures.

Nineteenth-century Adventist believers motivated by heavenly visions met real needs on the earth—they purified doctrines, improved health, opposed slavery, permitted female voices to be heard, and focused on a Jesus who not only had been here but who was expected back once again.

I have a dream–if Adventists can pension off individuals ensnared into enforcing yesterday’s dreams on today’s church, reinstate administrators with authority to streamline our organizations, who knows?  Perhaps Jesus’ working through this church would once again align our visions and dreams with earth’s present and future needs, not her past ones.

After all, as the ancient prophet Joel visioned, “your old men will dream dreams.[10]

FOOTNOTES:

[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/secret-ingredient-kelloggs-corn-flakes-seventh-day-adventism-180964247/

[2] Global influence of the SDA church on diet.   https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/9/9/251

[3] Jack and Deanne Hoehn spent 13 years working with many other wonderful Adventist young people from many countries besides California on behalf of the Adventist church in rural mission hospital in both Lesotho and Zambia.

[4] Acts 26:19

[5] According to “Eusebius of Caesarea, a Christian biblical scholar and historian who wrote the first biography of Constantine soon after the emperor’s death. He knew Constantine well and said he had the story from the emperor himself. Constantine was a pagan monotheist, a devotee of the sun god Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. However, before the Milvian Bridge battle he and his army saw a cross of light in the sky above the sun with words in Greek that are generally translated into Latin as In hoc signo vinces (‘In this sign conquer’). That night Constantine had a dream in which Christ told him he should use the sign of the cross against his enemies. He was so impressed that he had the Christian symbol marked on his soldiers’ shields and when the Milvian Bridge battle gave him an overwhelming victory he attributed it to the god of the Christians.”   From https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/battle-milvian-bridge

[6] I have visited Stettin, Prussia, where famed German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught other pastors. It is a beautiful city, now again part of Poland and called Szczecin. He wrote the following after he was forced to close this teaching seminary by the Nazis.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Life Together. https://www.biblio.com/9780060608521  The following extracts are all taken from an English translation of this work, and I have slightly adapted that translation for this article in one or two places. The original was published in 1939 as Gemeinsames Leben.

[8] SDA Bible Commentary, Volume 4, page 34. “Owing to the failure of the Jews as God’s chosen people, many of the prophecies of the Old Testament…have never been and can never be fulfilled to them as a nation.”

[9] After the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 about AD 48, even though controversies continued, by the late 1st or early 2nd century, the so-called Epistle of Barnabas was already widely circulating claiming that “circumcision and the entire Jewish sacrificial and ceremonial system have been abolished in favor of “the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (See  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split_of_Christianity_and_Judaism)

[10] Joel 2:28,29


Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa. 

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