by Loren Seibold | 7 December 2023 |
The year was 1844; the date, October 22—a Tuesday. A group of Millerite believers had been having a prayer service in a barn in western New York. Their sincere expectation—that Jesus would return that night—had been thus far disappointed.
One member of the group, a farmer named Hiram Edson, left the barn and wandered out across an adjacent field of corn. As he stood there wondering why Jesus hadn’t returned, he suddenly saw an enormous, blindingly bright angel flying across the sky in front of him. The angel said, in a voice so loud that he could hear it—along with millions of others all over the world:
Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.
Hiram Edson immediately knew that this was the beginning of a judgment. He, and all of those who heard the angel’s announcement, began to preach the commencement of the investigative judgment in heaven’s Most Holy Place.
Of course, billions of people heard the voice, and were converted instantly!
Wait a minute—that never happened!
In fact, no one—not one person across the face of the earth—reported seeing or hearing a flying, shouting angel that night!
But why didn’t they? Revelation 14:6-7 says it happened, and Adventists are convinced that the date was correct. Then why did no one report this visible, audible sign?
In fact, contrary to the popular story of Hiram Edson, the doctrine of the investigative judgment so beloved by traditional Adventists wasn’t arrived at in that cornfield; it took decades to develop.
Things we take literally
Adventists take a great many things from the Bible quite literally.
Creation, for example. In recent years creation was much discussed at a General Conference session. Not about God’s being the creator—concerning that, we agree—but advocating a rigidly literal reading of Genesis 1. The earth was declared, by a vote of a group made up mostly of Seventh-day Adventist clergymen, to have been created in seven actual 24-hour days. (Though it didn’t make it into the final draft, some had advocated for voting that it happened 6,000 years ago—because they take the Ussher chronology literally, too.)
Another interesting literalism is the notion that the sanctuary on earth, the tent that the Hebrew wanderers carried across the desert with them, has a precise copy (animal skin curtains and all) in heaven. It isn’t clear which structure came first, but probably the one in heaven, since Moses was given his blueprints by God.
So if these words describe something real and actual, it isn’t at all unreasonable to ask: did a real angel fly through the sky announcing the investigative judgment one night in 1844, followed by another loud angel when the Millerite believers left their apostate churches the following year, and then another angelic announcement at the acceptance of the Sabbath around 1847?
Please don’t dismiss the question. We need to explore why we take some images in the Bible—in the prophecies in particular—as actual descriptions of real events, and others as symbols.
Revelation is a mishmash of pictures, some of which we say are real and others that we insist are merely metaphors.
No Adventist has ever expressed doubt about Revelation 1:7: “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “Every eye will see him.” But what of the description of Jesus that accompanies it? I can picture the white-robed white-haired Jesus until we get to
His eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.
Literal or symbolic? I have seen this rendered by artists as though Jesus, when he is ministering in heaven, looks just like this, right down to the sword tongue—and who can say for sure that he doesn’t?
Revelation 2 and 3, the messages to the seven churches, sound historical, and I assume they are, more or less. But starting in chapter 4, we again encounter bizarre heavenly creatures: 24 thrones with 24 undescribed “elders,” next to four “living creatures”—a lion, an ox, a man, a flying eagle—“covered with eyes, in front and in back” each with “six wings… covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.”
Is this really how the throne room in heaven looks? Because it is not entirely dissimilar to the vision Ezekiel saw centuries earlier, should it be considered an actual description?
The book proceeds in similar surrealistic fashion through seven seals and seven trumpets (this last of which Ellen White never addresses, and no Adventist eschatologist, for all they expound on other chapters in the book, has offered a satisfying explanation).
Of the seals, we Adventists acknowledge the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which we say represent early evangelism, followed by periods of war, famine, and death. We say they are symbols of historical eras. Yet why couldn’t there have been actual horsemen thundering across the sky—apart from that no one claimed to have seen them at the historical pivot points?
Of the sixth seal, there was agreement among our pioneers that the great earthquake, the sun’s turning dark, the moon’s turning to blood and the stars’ falling, were real events. But the same passage also speaks of the heavens “receding like a scroll being rolled up,” with “every mountain and island removed from its place.” Here, within a single sentence, we slip out of the historical, for no such catastrophe happened in conjunction with the preceding signs—which signs are by now two centuries past.
Uriah Smith, who to this day is rarely contradicted, declared the 144,000 of Revelation 7 to be precisely 144,000 actual people, “gathered from the last generation before Christ comes.” Though he danced rather daintily around precisely how they would show up, he did anticipate seeing
Elder James White, Elder J. N. Andrews, and Elder Joseph Bates, who led out in the beginning of this work, who identified themselves as fully as men could with this message, whose whole souls were absorbed in the grand thought of helping to call out a sufficient number to join them in the work to make up the privileged and happy company of 144,000….
As for Revelation 13, I don’t know anyone who thinks that God crafted a beast somewhere with seven leopard heads, a bear’s feet, and ten horns with ten crowns to represent the papacy. Of course, Adventist artists eagerly paint pictures of Daniel’s and Revelation’s beasts, and in some cases even make statues, because even if the beasts aren’t literal we find some satisfaction in thinking of them with dimensionality.
Interestingly, that second beast of Revelation 13, the one with a lamb’s horns but who spoke like a lion and represented the United States of America? Some Adventist interpreters pictured it as an American bison. Yes, it was a symbol, but a rather on-the-nose one; because while traveling across Wyoming by train at the time you could see the second beast of Revelation 13 out of your coach window!
Real or symbolic?
So we circle back to Revelation 14. What was the point of the loud voices if it wasn’t for people to hear? Certainly God isn’t hard of hearing. And why fly “in the midst of heaven” if it was not for the earth’s inhabitants to see?
I ask again: why did no one down here see and hear them?
Many are going to say that it’s obvious in apocalyptic literature which pictures are real and which are metaphorical: the wild and crazy ones that don’t need to be real or that we can’t quite imagine being real are, ergo, metaphorical or symbolic. The beasts, for example: there is no convincing reason for them to have ever actually existed, for all that we Adventists have rendered them in living color.
But is a mile-tall city with mile-high gates made of precious stones coming down out of heaven, with the wicked dead resurrected and gathered about trying to take down the holy city with Satan as their commanding general, any more realistic than an angel streaking across the night sky in 1844 proclaiming judgment in a loud voice?
Which leads to another very important distinction: whether the biblical descriptions are meant for the future, the past, or a historical present. The panorama of creation is far enough in the past that we find it easy to say it was called forth ex nihilo by the voice of God. The descent of the New Jerusalem is reserved for a far distant future.
But in the present, we have a hard time claiming anything so spectacular, because we can’t produce witnesses. The best argument for there not being three actual Adventist angels crying forth with loud voices (or, for that matter, four actual horsemen of the apocalypse) is that no one, to my knowledge, saw or heard any of them. The first angel’s announcement was a metaphor for something rather more mundane: a group of people with a fresh eschatological teaching.
A needed distinction
Take this lesson only as seriously as needed for the purpose of understanding how we interpret the prophecies—how we divide the literal and actual from the metaphorical and symbolic. It appears to me that we interpret the prophecies, literal or metaphorical, not on their own merits, but to confirm what our pioneers and Ellen White said.
I’m also suggesting that if the angels aren’t real—if they are metaphors for Adventists’ proclaiming an apocalyptic message—then perhaps other biblical descriptions, such as a literal six-day creation 6,000 years ago, needn’t be real, either. Perhaps even the return of Christ and the events leading up to it could be something other than the terrifying spectacle our evangelists have led us to fear. Perhaps a great many of the Bible’s pictures aren’t meant to be real, but should be studied for their spiritual import. A quote from the Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan,
My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.