What do you mean, “Jesus Is Coming Soon”?
by Ervin Taylor, April 5, 2016: “Is Jesus Coming Soon?” was the online tag on the Adventist Review (AR) website for an article appearing in the March 2016 issue of the AR with a different title. The author of the article is Dwight Nelson. Dr. Nelson has a DMin degree from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University (AU) and is the senior pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church on the Andrews University campus.
He begins his article by noting that he is a “fifth-generation Seventh-day Adventist . . . who [has] always lived with the pronouncement, ‘Jesus is coming soon.’” When asked “if [he] still believe[s] in that imminence [he states that] . . . I choose to respond as the apostles did.” He quotes several New Testament texts which he suggests carry the theme of a passage in 1 Peter 4:7 that “the end of all things is near.” These “confessions of imminence” are what Nelson says are a “declaration of the Lord Himself,” contained in the closing statement of the Book of Revelation: “Yes, ‘I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21). If we consult the Cambridge English Dictionary, a meaning listed for imminence is “likely to happen very soon.”
Dr. Nelson then asks, “Were those ancient texts ever intended to teach that Christ is returning really soon?” [His emphasis]. His answer: “It is my pastoral sense that the Spirit of God, who inspired the spirit of imminence in the New Testament, in fact does intend for His message to be taken quite literally.” Then another question is posed: “Does that mean then we are doomed to live out our days in some sort of eschatological limbo, never certain, never sure when Jesus will return?” His answer: “Not at all!”
He then explains that he recently read a publication that left him “with the realization [that] the end is much nearer than it appears.” He explains that an “economic researcher and futurist” had pointed out that “in these opening years of the third millennium, earth is facing a ‘perfect storm’ of critical trends now simultaneously skyrocketing off the graphs: hemorrhaging debt; oil and energy depletion; scarcity of water and food combined with a burgeoning number of mouths to feed.” Dr. Nelson then says that while that author addresses the problems of “economic and ecological survival . . . Ellen White passionately wrote about spiritual survival.” He then quotes a statement that she wrote between 1900 and 1910, which is often quoted: “Great changes are soon to take place in our world and the final movements will be rapid ones.”
Dr. Nelson then comments: “Think about it. All it will take in this country [the United States] is a major crisis of crippling proportions—economic (a national financial collapse igniting urban violence and social meltdown), ecological (a killer quake or an errant asteroid with tens of thousands dead), political (a terrorist “dirty bomb” that destroys a city, military (a geopolitical misstep into World War III, etc. . . . One crippling crisis and suddenly the apocalyptic endgame of Revelation 13 and The Great Controversy, state-mandated false worship, is not only possible—it is probable!”
If one reads the entry for Dwight Nelson on the Wikipedia web site, in a paragraph describing the 1998 Net98 evangelistic series that featured him as the main speaker, the comment is made that “Adventists usually present last day events and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation in their evangelistic campaigns. Nelson says he intentionally chose to shift the focus from the apocalyptic to the relational because so many people lead lives of broken relationships.” It would appear that Dr. Nelson has repented from taking that position and has returned to the approach that standard Adventism has been using for over a century using the phrase, “The End Is Near.”
From its founding, one of the bedrock themes advanced by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination has been that “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” “Adventist”‒ meaning a belief in the imminent Second Advent of Jesus‒was incorporated at the beginning into the name of this new Protestant Christian sect. At this time, the “Little Flock” was made up largely, but not entirely (they would later leave), of believers in the validity of the visions of Ellen G. White (EGW), including her acceptance of an interpretation of what had happened at the time of the Great Disappointment–minus the “Shut Door” position which she had previously held.
Over the ensuing more than 150 years, the leadership of the denomination that EGW co-founded has had to periodically point out to members that “The Signs of the Times” clearly showed that “The End” was near. Of course, the specific “Signs of the End” had to be continuously updated to reflect evolving social, economic, political, and military conditions in the world. Thus, Dr. Nelson’s list of elements in the contemporary world purporting to demonstrate that “Jesus Is Coming Soon” may be viewed by some as yet another illustration in the relatively short history of Adventism of an effort to support a belief first adopted in the 1840s when the Adventist movement began. For some, the arguments supporting the conventional Adventist understanding on this point are completely unconvincing.
On the other hand, we today can understand that any attempt to raise a question about the validity of this position must obviously be strenuously opposed by church officials. Clearly, a belief so foundational that it is included in the name of our denomination must be defended with great vigor and with all of the resources at the command of those charged with maintaining the viability of traditional Adventism.
As an extreme example, we have a book written by the “safe” semi-official historian of Adventism, Dr. George Knight. In a previous commentary, it was noted that Dr. Knight had, in 2009, published The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism. In that book, he argued that if contemporary Adventism does not emphasize its classic prophetic interpretations and apocalyptic message, it might as well disband. To again quote Dr. Knight, “If Adventism’s apocalyptic big picture isn’t valid, the most sensible thing is to shut up shop, go home, and do something meaningful with our lives.”
However, several questions might be asked about the position that the “End Is Near” and “Jesus Is Coming Soon.”
We might, for example, ask if this idea is biblical. This question might seem odd in light of all of the attention given it in traditional Adventism. But may I suggest that we first need to ask: “To what part of the Bible are you directing your attention to answer that question?” I might be corrected, but I can’t recall reading anywhere in the Old Testament where there is an indication of a concern with an “End Is Near” theme. Hebrew thinking on a number of topics evolved over time, but I’ve been told by a distinguished Old Testament scholar that there was little, if any, development of what we would call eschatological thinking in Hebrew thought until the Intertestamental Period which ran from about 400 BC until the events recorded in the New Testament. During this period, significant changes occurred in Jewish religion as well in the cultural and political environment of Jewish life. In the middle of the 1st Century AD, Paul of Tarsus and other early Christian leaders built on those elements when they constructed the earliest forms of Christianity. (Please note the plural forms, because there was more than one type of early Christianity.) Thus, the question of biblical support for an imminent return of Jesus theme is exclusively an issue raised in the context of the development of New Testament theology.
I have read several New Testament scholars who argue that it is clear that many first-generation Christian believers were convinced that Jesus would return very quickly—certainly within their own lifetimes. When this did not happen, several New Testament passages were written by several leaders of the early Christian church late in the 1st Century who sought to reassure Christian adherents that while there was a delay in the return, it was a sure thing. Dr. Nelson’s article quoted several of these passages.
Later, many of the Post-Apostolic Church Fathers backed away from highlighting a soon return of Jesus, developing a series of from simple to very sophisticated explanations of why “The Delay“ was occurring. Much later, when Christianity was granted first legal and then paramount religious status in the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine, there was no longer any need to focus on some future eschatological event as being the hope of the Church unless some major crisis occurred and there was an upswing among some Christians of proclaiming that the “End Is Near.” The leadership of the institutional Christian Church of the Middle Ages typically sought to dampen down such developments in the interest of maintaining their dominant position as arbiters of sanctioned religious practice. Sometimes things got out of hand and strenuous measures were taken.
One thing we can be sure about. There are many examples of failed predictions and prophecies to choose from in the 2000-year history of the Christian Church, when different individuals proclaimed that “the Bible says” that “The End is Near.” We can confidently conclude that all of these proclamations and prophecies were mistaken.
In 1843-1844, yet another of these false alarms eventually led to the creation of the Seventh-day Adventist faith tradition which adopted a very creative, if theologically convoluted, explanation of what “really happened” in 1844, an explanation that would have probably greatly puzzled early Christians. This, of course, was the view that in 1844 Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in the Temple in Heaven and an Investigative Judgment was underway. This was and is the only unique doctrine that was adopted in early Adventism, unless one would consider the belief that EGW received special instructions from God as an Adventist doctrine. The other theological beliefs that Adventism adopted, including its views on the proper day of Christian worship, had been borrowed from other contemporary faith traditions in America. This included their rejection of the concept of the Trinity in Christian thought and the adoption of an Arian understanding of the status of Jesus in relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. It took some time for EGW to align her views with the majority of other Christians and even longer for her to convince her followers to do the same.
Since the small Sabbatarian Adventist group that coalesced around EGW had just been through a wrenching experience of the “Great Disappointment” due to a failed prediction concerning the timing of the return of Jesus, one might have expected that this group would have avoided immediately recommitting to a belief in an imminent Second Coming. So why did they then almost immediately do this? One might argue that the principal reason was the belief that Ellen White was receiving direct communications from God. She stated, and her followers accept her statements, that the “Great Disappointment” was caused not by an error in the calculation of a date, but in the understanding of what happened on that date. That understanding was validated by EGW’s referring to her vision from God on that subject.
In 2016, in light of the fact that all previous predictions of the timing of the return of Jesus have proven to be erroneous, perhaps we need to ask whether the traditional Adventist teaching that “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” first proclaimed both by early Christians, many times repeated in Christian history, and adopted by the founders of Sabbatarian Adventism in the 1840’s, needs to be completely rethought. When is “soon” not “soon”? Have we been reduced to arguing about the definition of a word to validate a traditional piece of Adventist theology? Is there a way forward to get corporate Adventism beyond periodic dramatic upswings in convictions on this point as illustrated by Dr. Nelson’s article and Dr. Knight’s book? Creative solutions are solicited.