Our Conspiracists, and Why We Love Them
By Loren Seibold | 18 July 2020 |
As one who once dreamed of writing fiction, I’m always astonished at the creativity of the plots and twists that fiction writers come up with. Particularly those who write what is called “speculative fiction” have delightfully imaginative ideas, ones that no one has ever thought of before.
But the old truism holds true: truth is stranger. No one can beat the beliefs of real people who believe what their brains have concocted. And because they really believe it, they often manage to get others to believe it, too.
The most creative ideas appear on the fringes of apocalyptic movements. And there is, it turns out, one apocalyptic movement that I follow closely. I remain sincerely impressed by the plots that my own Seventh-day Adventist people have managed to squeeze out of our primary sources.
If you read the gospels, what would you conclude should be the most important things for godly, compassionate Jesus-followers to concentrate upon as they look at our troubled, hurting world? It has always seemed to me that diminishing human suffering would be at the top of the list. Jesus’ last apocalyptic parable in Matthew 25 said that what qualifies one for heaven is being extravagantly good to those in need. Going along with that is telling people about Jesus, and the eternal salvation he won for us at the cross.
And yet for certain of us Adventists, our faith sometimes takes us in quite different directions. We push to the top of our list of priorities some rather conspiratorial notions—stuff that most people would strain their brains to see as anything but unnecessary.
Please understand that I’m not talking about Doug Batchelor or Danny Shelton. Apocalyptic Adventism has given them successful careers, but they’ve mostly built those careers with orthodox Adventist materials. Doug, using generally-accepted-in-the-1950s Adventist teachings, went from living in a cave to a Granite Bay estate, and now flies his own private plane (in a delightful irony) to a time-of-trouble mountain hideaway. Danny has enjoyed more than his share of wealth and good-looking women, not to mention ministry-owned jet airplanes—but that hasn’t discouraged generous gifts from Adventists, and church leaders don’t hesitate when invited to appear on his programs and at his camp meetings.
But these are merely a case of charismatic preaching and doctrinal correctness edging out Christian ethics. That’s familiar stuff in the modern evangelical world. (Both 3ABN and Amazing Facts, you should know, took government PPP money, in contradiction to their conservative views on separation of church and state.)
On the other end of the scale, in a category quite their own, are David Koresh and Wayne Bent. These monsters were adept at entrapping and controlling gullible people, and enjoyed sex with young girls. But that isn’t really new, either: religious power over weak-minded people, and sexual self-indulgence in God’s name, has deep roots. It appears unethical to us in this century, but it is modelled in the behavior of some of our Old Testament heroes.
Though he didn’t do anything especially novel, Jan Marcussen, author of The National Sunday Law, deserves special mention. His ability to leverage a small morsel of Adventist paranoia into 41.7 million books in 70 languages is an achievement of merit. He’s lived on this one book for decades, without ever having to leave the house if he doesn’t want to. (Seriously: who has seen him lately? Is he even a Seventh-day Adventist anymore?)
One Sabbath morning I opened a newspaper in Washington state to look for a place to attend church. A listing in the church section said “The TRUE Seventh-day Adventist Church: NO PUPPETS, NO WEDDING RINGS, NO BOBBED HAIR, NO PANTS, NO RHYTHMIC MUSIC, ONLY THE TRUE GOSPEL. The implication was that the “good news” was the elimination of all of the aforementioned. I thought the combination was interesting, but none of the elements was new. Still, I think they deserve a participation trophy, at least for the capital letters.
After consideration, I decided not to attend. I have no strong feelings about puppets one way or the other, but I insist on wearing pants to religious meetings.
The Bomb Prophecy
Jeff Pippenger is a special case, and the reason I’m writing on this particular topic in this particular week. In a stroke of genius, he took an obscure reference by Ellen White and interpreted it into a prophecy that on July 18, 2020, a nuclear bomb will fall on Nashville.
In 1905 Ellen White wrote,
When I was at Nashville, I had been speaking to the people, and in the night season, there was an immense ball of fire that came right from heaven and settled in Nashville. There were flames going out like arrows from that ball; houses were being consumed; houses were tottering and falling. Some of our people were standing there. (Manuscript 188, 1905.)
What she meant by this, I don’t know. But Jeff Pippenger has figured it out, and has followers who believe him.
I was going to study Pippenger’s argument carefully and explain to you how he got to this date, and how he discovered that this fireball would be a bomb set off by Muslims. But alas, dear readers, I failed you. A few minutes into it I gave up. Either the math is far too advanced for my weak old brain, or it is utter mind-numbing rubbish.
While I admit to being an inadequate mathematician, I lean towards the latter explanation.
Still, watching him at work at his whiteboard, you can’t help but admire his intensity. Lines and numbers and dates, and then you take this, which connects to this, derived from this passage over here, and you subtract the number we got over here from this, and move it over here, and combine these two with this and put the result on the timeline over here, and then you have the fulfillment of this passage and voila! A nuclear bomb falls on Nashville on July 18, 2020.
If you’ve ever watched the film A Beautiful Mind, about paranoid schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, you’ll recognize something very like it in Jeff’s insistence that every little thing connects, that it’s all part of a big picture, even if you come up with a result that cannot but end with an embarrassing thud.
Yet Jeff has followers. He and others in this ministry have traveled the world with this message. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was getting more in contributions than Adventist Today does.
And Jeff will still have followers even if you’re reading this after the bomb prophecy has passed. We Adventists don’t like to admit the failure of a prophetic interpretation. Jeff can either recalculate his date, or he can say, “I got the date right, but the event wrong”—in which case we may hear that the fireball was spiritual rather than nuclear, or that it happened in an exact replica of Nashville up in heaven.
The Cosmic Week
Walter Veith will go down in history as one of Adventism’s most creative thinkers. Walt has been blessed with the ability to find conspiracies in nearly everything he looks at. I’m especially impressed with his skill at discerning demonic symbols in trademarks, on money, in advertisements, in politicians’ photo ops—the world is permeated with Satanism, hiding in plain sight, and we would be unaware of it were it not for Walt’s sharp eye.
His most recent achievement was a revival of the cosmic week theory to explain when Jesus is going to return.
The cosmic week theory is, I am forced to admit, just downright beautiful, and I doff my hat to the guy who thought it up. It starts with the notion that it has been just about exactly 6000 years since creation, if you use Archbishop James Ussher’s 18th-century chronology that says the earth was created 4000 years before Christ. We are told that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). And we also know that “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God” (Exodus 20:9-10). So if the first six days/millennia are over, it stands to reason that the millennial Sabbath—the thousand years that we’ll spend in heaven—is about to begin.
This notion was very popular around the year 2000. When it didn’t happen right then, folks tried to set the date a few years later, believing that the calendar year didn’t accurately reflect the year of Jesus’ birth. People were still donning ascension robes well into the first decade of the new millennium.
But Veith and his friend found a much larger discrepancy, one that allowed them to move the date up to 2027—still in the future, which means they can fundraise on it for a good seven more years.
Again, I confess my limited ability to understand either their mathematics or their paranoid meanderings. Yet you would be astonished by the number of people who defended this presentation to me, who told me that Veith hadn’t given a date for Jesus’ return because he said he hadn’t given a date for Jesus’ return, even as they were telling me the date he’d given for Jesus’ return. That’s an impressive feat of mental engineering, and I thank Walt for showing how it’s done.
Adventists and Conspiracies
A friend who’d noticed how many Adventists share conspiracy theories on social media asked me, “Why are Adventists so inclined to fall for this stuff?” The answer is simple: it’s because conspiracy theories play a major role in our denominational origin and growth.
To anyone who wants to understand us, you must begin with a book that is rarely read anymore: Uriah Smith’s Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation. Smith invented a method of study that has served us well: interpret obscure Bible texts with some arithmetic and a smattering of world history, buttressed with endless quotes from obscure old books whose authors may or may not have known what they were talking about, to create a narrative that speaks to the fears of the culture you’re writing to.
It was Smith who, during a period of intense anti-Catholicism in mid-1800s America, popularized vicarius filii dei as a gematric code for Revelation 13:17-18’s “number of the beast.” It has long been known by scholars that the phrase vicarius filii dei appears on no papal tiara except in illustrations in Adventist books and evangelistic series. Nor does the pope use that title. Adventist scholar LeRoy Froom refuted the vicarius filii dei interpretation back in 1948 in Ministry magazine. Yet so strong is the course of conspiracy that Smith set us upon, that it continues to be employed by Adventist apologists to this day.
Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation might have faded away had it not been that Ellen White endorsed it, saying, “The light given was that Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation, The Great Controversy, and Patriarchs and Prophets … contain the very message the people must have, the special light God had given his people.” Letter 43, 1899. These books wove together anti-Catholicism, fear of spiritualism, and rejection by other Protestants for keeping the Saturday Sabbath, and came up with a message that has worked for us beautifully for over a century—without a single prediction coming to pass, nor anticipating a single one of the important events of the 20th century.
Yet much of the evangelism we have done continues to be conspiratorial in tone. We still win people mostly by means of those esoteric secrets the pioneers decoded from Daniel and Revelation, so it’s no wonder our people’s ears itch to hear more. Yet the “fulfillments”—such as that the pope is about to unleash Sunday laws on the world as a pretense to persecute us—remain unfulfilled.
My Suggestion for a New Adventist Eschatology
Jesus said he was going to return. That’s it. He did not say we should spend centuries weaving terrifying, easily falsifiable predictions about when it would happen. He said, “Be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 24:44). How to get ready? Jesus was exceptionally clear on this point: feed the hungry, do justice, care for those in need, for “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
After a lifetime as a Seventh-day Adventist, I now no longer feel the need to go one bit farther than that.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.