by Admiral Ncube | 27 October 2022
A unique feature about Adventism has always been our eschatological view of the world and our nuanced understanding of the sin problem.
Because we relate to the world through eschatological lenses, we have an inherent mistrust of ecumenism, and an indifference towards politics and social justice issues—unless, of course, these things threaten or validate our eschatological position. In a sense, we are constantly on edge, looking forward to escaping this world that we believe will never get better.
While consistency is often construed as faithfulness, our danger lies in becoming oblivious to changing conditions around us and how they impact mission. Post-COVID-19, we are now facing a different world, one in which attitudes towards religion have significantly altered. How do we remain relevant in a world where religious exclusivism is not tolerated; a world where Christianity is dying in areas we have regarded as definitive in the fulfilment of Bible prophecy while growing in areas regarded as less significant (global South); a world where apocalyptic themes are no longer captivating; an audience that expects a gospel that equips us to lead meaningful lives today rather than merely inform us of a distant future?
These questions represent a changing landscape that confronts missional Adventism. They are a call not merely for new methods, but for a more significant reframing for a generation that is asking a whole different set of questions.
Two great errors
For Adventists, the two doctrines strongly connected with our understanding of eschatology are the seventh-day Sabbath and the non-immortality of the soul. It is unsurprising that these two doctrines form part of an essential package in our evangelistic endeavors. Highlighting their importance, Ellen White wrote,
Through the two great errors, the immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness, Satan will bring the people under his deceptions. While the former lays the foundation of spiritualism, the latter creates a bond of sympathy with Rome. The Protestants of the United States will be foremost in stretching their hands across the gulf to grasp the hand of spiritualism; they will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power; and under the influence of this threefold union, this country will follow in the steps of Rome in trampling on the rights of conscience. The Great Controversy, p.588.
Unsurprisingly we have grown sensitive to these two “great errors,” given the eschatological importance attached to them by Ellen White. For almost two centuries we continue to publicly challenge other religious groups with attitudes borrowed from the 19th century. We feel it is our urgent mission to correct these errors which we have conflated with the everlasting gospel.
However, we usually haven’t bothered to ask what conditions in the 19th century made our pioneers identify these as consequential. Our position on these might be biblically accurate, but are we sure that our world today is still strongly interested in the questions we are answering, such as “who changed the day?” or “what happens when a person dies?”
This is not a call for us to do away with our doctrines but rather to dig deeper into ways in which they can answer the questions the world is asking. Adventism, after identifying these two great errors, has also fallen into two great errors herself, namely:
- A failure to contextualize our beliefs to our changing world and,
- Excessively attaching them to eschatological and apocalyptic themes, which robs them of their present utility.
This is important if indeed we want to remain relevant to our self-defined mission as the remnant. Let’s start with our doctrine on the state of the dead and how we may need to reframe it to speak meaningfully to our world.
The Hydesville rappings
Spiritualism has to do with the a belief in the continuity of consciousness after death, and the possibility of communication between the dead and the living. It became a phenomenon in America in the mid-19th century with the Fox sisters—Kate, Leah, and Margaret—from Hydesville, New York. The sisters claimed the house they lived in was haunted by a spirit with whom they communicated by asking it questions which it would answer with knocking sounds—what came to be called “rappings”. They said that they were communicating with the spirit of a peddler named Charles Rossum who had been murdered five years before and was now buried in their cellar.
This explains why Adventist references to spiritualism during this time (include those in Ellen White) used the word “rappings” when implying that a wrong doctrine the state of the dead leaves one open to direct communication with the dead. (When Adventists tell this story, is also not mentioned that Margaret Fox later confessed that the “rappings” were a youthful hoax, perpetrated by the sisters loudly popping their foot joints or bouncing an apple on the floor.)
Because the Rochester “rappings” made headline news during the 1850s, the writings of our pioneers on spiritualism were framed by this context: they described spiritualism according to what they had been exposed to. The question now is whether we should still assume that those holding what Adventists consider to be the wrong belief about the state of humans in death believe as they do so that they can communicate with the dead. Do contemporary Christians attach the same importance to consulting the dead that the 19th century spiritualists did? Hardly.
There were also variations in spiritualism across the world which our pioneers were not exposed to or may not have bothered to understand. In the traditional African religions, for example, ancestors were believed to exist in some undefined and unknown place to which the living had no access. Their role was to look after their descendants’ welfare, and they expected cooperation from the living in return. They had power to both help and harm by withdrawing their protection when their instructions had not been carried out. Ancestors would reveal themselves mostly through dreams, but also—though less frequently—through daytime visions or the advice of diviners.
Yet in African Christian circles today there is a general rejection of the ancestor cult. Both traditional Protestant and Pentecostal churches agree that the ancestors some consult are demonic presences, evil spirits disguised in the form of a dead ancestor. So while there’s a common belief that when one dies their soul goes to some place of peace, African Christians (Protestant and Pentecostal) do not believe that the living should try to communicate with the dead.
The state of the living
Missional Adventism shouldn’t assume that an erroneous belief about the state of man in death always leads to consultation with or worship of the dead. Because of the influence of spiritualism, that may have been assumed in the time of our pioneers. But today’s world requires a more nuanced look. To associate spiritualism with the miracles, signs, and wonders of the Pentecostal movement, for example, is to be misinformed, if not disingenuous. Even in secular and post-church societies, spiritualistic phenomena aren’t the usual result of people’s beliefs about the state of the dead.
These are complexities which require us candidly to engage with our context to better understand how society now views death, so we can frame our message in ways that respond to the questions many are contending with—as opposed to outdated 19th-century narratives. In a world more interested in present utility, even apocalyptic themes linked to this doctrine become irrelevant.
We need to ask ourselves if the world today is still as interested in knowing where the dead go, as they are in dealing with the sense of loss and grief that comes with death. Should our worry hinge on how dead loved ones will return to communicate to them about Sunday sacredness? Do we then need to continue hijacking moments of grief into doctrinal lectures on correcting their views on the state of the dead? While it is important to have right doctrine, timing and sensitivity are important. If indeed we manage to convince someone in grief that the dead don’t know anything, what next?
Could it be that we also need to reflect on why Jesus in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus used a “wrong belief” to convey a divine truth without challenging it? Could it be that for Jesus, what happens to a man at death was less consequential than “the state of the living”?
There is also the point that some of our arguments on the doctrine are built on wisdom literature (such as Ecclesiastes 9:5), which can be contested. This means balance is needed, and the only way such a doctrine can make sense in our generation is when we imbue it with more empathy, compassion, and relevance to the present.
Also, to attach eschatological fears may no longer be as convincing as it was in the 19th century. Yes, we ought to be wary of the use of miracles, signs, and wonders to deceive—but this may not necessarily be linked with what one believes happens at death. If we detach apocalyptic themes from this doctrine, will it remain fundamental, possessing its relevance in the present? If not, then Adventism needs to reframe it in ways that speak more of hope and focus more on the ‘State of the Living”.
The state of Bible study
Again, my thesis is that a major problem confronting missional Adventism today is giving answers to questions that no one is asking. We use lesson guides written years in advance, lessons treated like a rigid school curriculum that cannot be disrupted. We find ourselves oblivious to the world around us as we fail to transform these lessons into a word in season to our broken world. While it is useful to have members that are well-grounded doctrinally, the challenge arises when the same members are not allowed to ask their own questions, or have a say in the answers. Both questions and answers are treated as finished products that one is supposed to memorize, because that’s the official position.
So even what we regard as Bible study is reduced to confirming the answers we already have, regardless of their relevance. As much as we are encouraged to “lay at the door of investigation your preconceived opinions and your hereditary and cultivated ideas”, we have set internal boundaries which often militate against true Bible study.
By focusing more on defending the doctrines left by our pioneers, we are in danger of dishonoring them if we also don’t emulate the spirit of inquiry that brought them to these conclusions. Adventism should not be reduced to a bunch of finished answers that force us to relate to today’s world through the eyes of the dead. More than ever before, Adventism needs to start listening. As said in a rather morbid but nonetheless apt African proverb, “Ears that do not listen to advice, accompany the head when it is chopped off.”
Admiral Ncube (PhD) is from Zimbabwe. He is a development analyst based in Botswana. He is a father of three and husband to Margret.