By Loren Seibold | 17 April 2020 |
Given the difficult circumstances we’re all in right now, I’m trying to be a bit more forgiving about the things I receive in email or on social media. But alas, so much is nonsense. No, you can’t cure COVID-19 by blowing your hair dryer up your nose, contrary to a video that I’ve received about a dozen times—and I hope you won’t try it unless you want to damage your nasal mucosa. Nor will following NEWSTART eliminate your COVID-19 risk, though I can understand why it would make Adventists feel better to think so.
But the other day I got a meme that made me angry. It was a picture of Elder Ted Wilson with the words, “Time on this earth is short. Probation is closing soon. Preparation to see God face to face by repentance and forsaking of sin needs to be done now.”
It was the part about “probation is closing soon” that pushed my buttons. Oh, the memories! The terrifying days in my childhood after our Sabbath School teacher told us that God would suddenly, without warning, eliminate our chance for salvation—and since we were living on the cusp of Christ’s return, it could happen to any of us children at any moment!
I was a sensitive and well-intentioned child. I wanted to love God, but this shook my trust in him. At that age it didn’t occur to me to wonder if God was really like that. My teachers had told me, and I believed them. I blamed myself: clearly, if I had been as good as I was supposed to be, I wouldn’t be so frightened right now!
The close of probation kept coming up, all the way through academy and even into college. The details varied depending on which preacher or teacher we heard it from. One told us that God was doing something with our records up in heaven, and when he was finished—bam!—the divine gavel came down and “he that is filthy, let him be filthy still.”
We wouldn’t even know it had happened, some said. Perhaps it was already too late!—which led one of my friends of my teen years to say, “Well, hell, then what’s the point of trying? Might as well have fun.”
Perfectly logical—but his courage exceeded mine. I kept trying, just in case. Be good, and get better, because you never know! It was meant as a threat and an incentive to behave, and it worked on me, though with a terrible side effect of intense guilt and anxiety.
But it was clear to me that salvation was a gamble, and there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it. The part that depended on my being good was iffy, because I wasn’t sufficiently temptation-resistant. But even worse: God was up there doing something out of sight, for reasons of his own, that could end my salvation prospects instantly.
The Wilson Quote
I spent years working through all that, and in the end I couldn’t but wholly reject it. Indeed, I had begun to imagine that in our more grace-oriented denomination, the whole notion of God unexpectedly withdrawing his mercy from human beings was gone. Silly me! Turns out a top leader of my denomination makes this a keystone of his message—and he even knows when it will happen!
The earliest I can find this statement is at the Autumn 2014 GC Executive Committee Meeting, though I doubt it’s the first time he said it. He’s used the line again and again, though. You can read it in an answer to the question, “Could you please refresh us about the near coming of Jesus and as a Seventh-day Adventist how can we best be prepared?” Part of the response:
Time on this earth is short. Probation is closing soon. Preparation to see God face to face by repentance and forsaking of sin needs to be done now. This doesn’t mean, however, that by our own works we will gain salvation. As Seventh-day Adventists we believe that only through the grace and righteousness of Christ do we have eternal life. But when probation closes, the work of mediation is over. Your character will be set and your destiny eternally decided. This is why every day we need to be revived and reformed through our Bible study and prayer connection with Christ. We must receive His all-encompassing righteousness through justification and sanctification as daily, through His power, we become more and more like Him.
Exegete this passage and you’ll find that we’re right back to the perfectionist theology of the 1950s. It seems that the righteousness of Christ saves us in a sort of technical sense, but most of the emphasis is on “forsaking of sin.” When probation closes, it’s your character that matters. In other words, when “we shall be changed… in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” we may no longer be stuck in these dying bodies, but our characters will have already been perfected by our diligent will power and hard work.
Yet Wilson’s most arrogant flourish is asserting that “probation is closing soon.” How does he know? And how soon is soon? Not in the six years since he said it in 2014, apparently, because he’s still warning us about it, still asking us to invite people to join the church.
What the Bible Doesn’t Say
We needn’t bother to look too closely in scripture for the close of probation, because it isn’t there. Believers cite one passage, taken out of context:
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Revelation 22:11).
This is from the very last chapter of Revelation, a line delivered after the saved are in the New Earth. Unless you are willing to say that Revelation has no chronological integrity, that texts can be rearranged to suit whatever time period you want to apply them to, then you cannot drag it back to today. It is most likely saying that when a new earth is established, there will be no more choices for or against salvation. But Revelation is a mish-mash and no one really understands it, as confidently as they may pretend to.
No, this strange, heartless doctrine is taken from the writings of Ellen White. What does she say about the close of probation? The White Estate has helpfully collected the relevant sources for us in a compilation called Last Day Events. Some highlights:
Ellen White and the Close of Probation
“God has not revealed to us… when probation will have an end,” but “the image of the beast [Sunday law enforcement] will be formed before probation closes.” All this happens after God has completed the work of “sealing” (whatever that is) and just before the the last plagues. “Just before we entered [the time of trouble], we all received the seal of the living God. Then … I saw famine, pestilence and sword, nation rose against nation, and the whole world was in confusion.”
I understand why some thought it linked to the progress of the investigative judgment. She writes, “When Jesus ceases to plead for man, the cases of all are forever decided…. Probation closes; Christ’s intercessions cease in heaven.” But only those who have perfected themselves will be saved. “This time finally comes suddenly upon all, and those who have neglected to purify their souls by obeying the truth are found sleeping.”
Yet—and this is important—no one will know! “The righteous and the wicked will still be living upon the earth in their mortal state—men will be planting and building, eating and drinking, all unconscious that the final, irrevocable decision has been pronounced in the sanctuary above.” But God has ceased hearing prayers. “The ministers of God will have done their last work, offered their last prayers, shed their last bitter tear for a rebellious church and an ungodly people. [People] must hunger and thirst on in vain; their thirst will never be quenched, no consolation can they get. Their cases are decided and eternally fixed. It is a fearful, awful time.”
It is then that the plagues begin. We are “left by the angel of mercy and the seven last plagues are to be poured out…. there will be no period of respite until the end.”
But remember: through all of this, no one can change his or her fate. In fact, “When He leaves the sanctuary… the righteous must live in the sight of a holy God without an intercessor.”
But God’s people will be at peace, right? You’d think so, but no. “They themselves begin to fear that the Lord has left them to fall by the hand of their enemies. It is a time of fearful agony. Day and night they cry unto God for deliverance.” Worse, they aren’t sure of their salvation! To get the full monstrosity of what she says God allows his righteous people to go through, I must quote this section at length:
As Satan accuses the people of God on account of their sins, the Lord permits him to try them to the uttermost. Their confidence in God, their faith and firmness, will be severely tested. As they review the past, their hopes sink; for in their whole lives they can see little good. They are fully conscious of their weakness and unworthiness. Satan endeavors to terrify them with the thought that their cases are hopeless, that the stain of their defilement will never be washed away. He hopes so to destroy their faith that they will yield to his temptations and turn from their allegiance to God. GC 618.3
Though God’s people will be surrounded by enemies who are bent upon their destruction, yet the anguish which they suffer is not a dread of persecution for the truth’s sake; they fear that every sin has not been repented of, and that through some fault in themselves they will fail to realize the fulfillment of the Saviour’s promise: I “will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world.” Revelation 3:10. If they could have the assurance of pardon they would not shrink from torture or death; but should they prove unworthy, and lose their lives because of their own defects of character, then God’s holy name would be reproached. GC 619.1
Please understand what is being said here. After the close of probation life continues—with everyone, the righteous and the lost, suffering like people have never suffered since homo sapiens inhabited the globe! Yet the suffering of the wicked doesn’t allow them a chance to repent. The righteous have already secured salvation, but they don’t know it, so live in horrible agony.
To what purpose all this suffering? When I asked some friends, they said that it is part of a demonstration that justifies God’s righteousness. Seriously? I thought the cross and the resurrection did that.
Someone else tossed out the notion that beings from other worlds are watching our world like a series of “Survivor”, and they need to see us suffering needlessly to understand that Satan was unfair in his accusations and God was right. Oh, please. How stupid are they if we’ve figured it out, and these perfect beings without the degradation of sin haven’t?
Enough. More than enough. This ridiculous idea has done enough damage to the spiritual lives of sincere God-seekers. It is time to put it to rest. It is time to say plainly that this is a grotesque malformation of the gospel, a hideous overlay on the blessed hope of Christ’s return, that has no justification in scripture; that it slanders God, and we denounce it utterly.
In Defense of What?
There are those—perhaps even in the comments below—who defend this cruel teaching with a terrifying alacrity. They writhe and twist to say that it is absolutely necessary that we believe this aberration of Christian teaching. They will say it is what the Bible says (it doesn’t) and that the whole of Adventist doctrine stands or falls by it. They will say that it is actually at the heart of the gospel, that in some twisted way it shows God’s love for us.
But just remember this: they are not defending the close of probation. Nor are they defending God. They are defending the notion that every word, every idea, that Ellen White expressed is straight from the mind of God. They are willing to toss God’s good character over the balcony if they can continue to say that a 19th century mystic was sketching out a precise plan for the Seventh-day Adventist “tribe.”
I have defended Ellen White as a strong woman and church leader. I have great appreciation for what she accomplished. But I cannot defend some of the things she taught. It’s not just that many were copied from other writers. It’s not just that some of them were ridiculous, like visiting with Enoch on another planet.* Or unscientific, like the earth being a mere 6000 years old, or masturbation making children into twisted, malformed monsters. Or racist, such as that black people are amalgamations. Or contemptuous of grace, as demonstrated by her repeated forays into perfectionism.
Those are bad enough. But what offends me more than anything is when, as here, she makes God out to be just as cruel as his enemy—all in the service of some strange drama that must be played out in the ethereal realms.
There are historical reasons why Ellen White believed such things. At the time the United States was consumed in an anti-Catholic frenzy. Adventists had been pushed—in some cases laughed—out of their churches, adding rejection to their embarrassment at the failure of Jesus to show up on time. They transformed their disappointment into a persecuted remnant theology that still infuses us to this day.
But that history is behind us by over a century. We don’t need to believe such things anymore. Let me say this plainly and without compromise: the close of probation is an inhumane, ungodly and entirely unnecessary teaching. Any god who would make people suffer with no possibility of salvation as unwilling object lessons to what are apparently some rather dim space aliens, is a sadistic monster who I don’t want to spend eternity with.
Scripture has Jesus saying, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the very end of the world.” I stand by Jesus, not Ellen White. I reject her twisted tribal eschatology, and I am proud to have never repeated it through 40+ years of ministry. The blessed hope of Christ’s return will stand just fine without all the persecutory fantasies she wove around it.
A Hideous Gospel
This grotesquery is only one of the many unjustifiable eschatological notions at the core of our evangelism. We may have thought we were doing the right thing when we depended upon anti-Catholicism and imaginary threats of persecution, but using fear to bring people to Christ (if in fact that’s what we were doing) showed we understood neither the gospel nor the character of God.
While it is probably too much to expect our General Conference president to think through the close of probation critically, I wish he could at least not say that it is happening “soon.” After nearly 200 years, you can no longer use the word soon for any part of the eschaton unless you merely mean that Jesus is coming someday.
Yes, there are terrible things that have happened in the world. Some have involved religious persecution. Of most of them Adventists have had little to say beyond, “Tsk, tsk, isn’t it terrible? Jesus must be coming soon!” From beginning to end, world history has been all about us. As it turns out, we are some of the most blessed and privileged people in the world, constantly bragging about our truths and our denominational growth and our education and our hospitals and our long blue-zone lifespans—while forever immersed in a bath of imaginary persecution.
I love my church. But my faith is in the God of the Bible, not in the church. And it is certainly not in an eschatology that after nearly 200 years has decisively failed us. If, indeed, as some say, the whole of Adventism stands or falls by it, I say, let it fall.
But I don’t believe that the whole of Adventism stands or falls here. After all these years we can quit pretending that monsters are waiting to jump out of the bushes and persecute us for going to church on Sabbath morning, much less that God will abandon us in our time of need. When will we quit terrifying generations of Seventh-day Adventists with all of this nonsense, and instead teach them to trust in the goodness of God?
*Correction made 19 April 2020. I had originally identified the planet as Saturn. I changed it when someone pointed out to me that I had misunderstood it. Ellen White in Early Writings describes taking a trip to a planet with seven moons. At the time a number of her contemporaries wrote that she had seen Saturn, and she never corrected them. When someone reminded me that she hadn’t said that herself, I changed it.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today magazine and website.