by Rich Hannon | 2 August 2022 |
Adventism has, in its basic DNA, a deep fascination with having The Truth. That is, a correct understanding of what God is revealing to mankind. Historically the church has evangelized from this posture, comparing other denominations’ theology to our doctrinal distillations and finding the competition wanting. This somewhat combative approach has moderated a lot in my lifetime, and there is certainly nothing wrong with aspiring to truth. But it can be discomfiting if and when this potentially hubristic infatuation struggles to tell a coherent story about some important Christian belief.
One of the two key doctrines enshrined in the name Seventh-day Adventist is the Second Coming—the Advent. But there’s an obvious problem here. Jesus hasn’t come back. And the question of why there is a delay is seriously vexing. I will label this the Delay Question. As eschatology is more than a cottage industry within Adventism one might think the church has thought this through. But frankly, I have not heard convincing reasons given – at all. So, in this essay, I wish to consider the Delay Question and the problems I perceive the various proposed answers have. Indeed, I think these “answers” are too problematic for anyone to be adequately satisfied by them.
2 Peter 3
A good place to begin is by examining 2 Peter 3:2-9. This passage is likely to be referenced whenever someone tries to answer the Delay Question. Here are the relevant verses:
3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” … 8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:3-4, 8–9 NIV)
There are three points made here: 1) scoffers, 2) God’s timeframe, 3) God’s patience.
Scoffers will come
Peter notes (v. 3-4) that there are people who will deride the Christian’s Second Coming hope, as it hasn’t been realized and significant time has elapsed. But here’s what Peter does not say – that critiquing the subject of delay automatically makes someone a scoffer. Yet too frequently these verses are taken this way and weaponized to stifle scrutiny of the Delay Question (or indeed, any cherished doctrinal viewpoint).
For example, a few years back I wrote an article examining some Christians’ tendency to “cherry pick” evidence to support their belief that we were on the verge of the Second Coming. One commenter on my article claimed I was a scoffer for doing this, writing: “The author has unwittingly done just what Peter said skeptics would do in II Pet. 3: 3, 4.” Then he quoted those verses.
Such knee-jerk labeling undercuts principled criticism in an attempt to examine potentially weak theology. But if, from within the Christian community, we cannot evaluate current orthodoxy without getting ad hominem pushback, there is a severe faith-risk that believers will be unprepared when possible argumentative problems are called out by those who do wish to take shots at Christianity.
Is that preferable? Seems to me that the sort of reaction illustrated above is all too frequent. And often driven by a subliminal, slippery-slope fear that if any aspect of one’s beliefs are questioned then the entirety might come apart. The believer would then be overwhelmed with doubt and the complete ideological structure could crash. So the defensive action is to shoot the messenger. If you successfully attack the motives of any investigator you can, at least for a while, fend off uncomfortable questions. But they may well return from unfriendly sources. And you still have no answers.
There is an argumentative problem when Peter says: “… a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise … Instead he is patient with you …” Now, it’s not that Peter’s statement is incorrect, but it does not specifically answer the Delay Question. It’s a generic statement about God which, in the philosophy of religion, would be called the Argument from Transcendence. This essentially says: God is God, and you’re not. So you cannot always understand God’s actions because: a) you’re lacking some information (don’t have a “God’s Eye View”), and/or b) you are not capable of understanding, because some things are beyond human capacity. Like trying to teach French to a poodle.
Appealing to God’s transcendence when faced with a dilemma is never disprovable, but it also doesn’t directly speak to any specific problem. Consider a rough analogy. Suppose you are a kid and your dad is supposed to pick you up from school and he doesn’t show. You walk home and later that evening you ask him why he didn’t come. He replies, “Well, my idea of time and yours are different.” And that’s it. Now I understand dads and God are not the same. But my point is that such a response doesn’t directly answer the question. And neither does Peter.
This third point actually does address the issue. Peter says: “The Lord is not slow … Instead he is patient … not wanting anyone to perish.” Again, it’s not that what Peter said is false, but it’s problematic if this is to be the answer for the Delay Question. Because, by this criteria alone, it seems to me that the Second Coming would never happen! There will always be someone(s) in the throes of a decision, across the planet, throughout time. So, Uncle George hasn’t yet decided for Christ? At some point in his life God sees that he has made an irrevocable decision.
Ok, now he’s categorized and Jesus can come, right? But wait! Our friend Susan over there (or Omar, or Tang Li, or …) is still undecided. So, per Peter’s criteria, God would seemingly wait some more. The cutoff would actually need to be arbitrary to get around this. But if it’s arbitrary then the “close of probation” could have happened in 538, 1066, 1492 CE, etc. The Delay Question is not really fully answered via this argument. It seems more of a side-effect of the delay. Meanwhile, a great amount of evil and suffering has occurred.
Into All the World
Matthew 24:14 says: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world … and then the end will come.” This seems reasonable. God wants to give everyone in the world a chance to hear the message. But what does “the whole world” mean? Working backward from modern knowledge it’s tempting to equate “world” with the entire globe. Christians already make that problematic move regarding the flood. And historically, missionaries were motivated to dedicate their lives serving in foreign lands, often driven by such a viewpoint. But it’s likely that Matthew had no such conception. And his immediate readers surely would view “world” as that “Roman lake” – the Mediterranean Sea – with perhaps some vague additional recognition that Persia, Germania, etc., existed way out there. But if Planet Earth had been the actual meaning, it would be evident to us that the Second Coming wasn’t going to happen in the lifetime of Matthew’s original audience. Yet the New Testament posture is that the Second Coming was coming “soon” (Hebrews 3:37; James 5:7-8; Romans 13:12; and more).
Further, even by today’s meaning of “earth,” what does “will be preached” entail? I once got a pitch from Adventist World Radio to the effect that donating would help them hasten the Second Coming since the earth could soon be blanketed with their signal (assisted by my donations). The thought was that access to the evangelistic message might satisfy the Matthew 24 criteria. All this seems silly to me, makes God legalistic, and still begs a lot of questions. Such as, what would God consider an adequate hearing? The word “preach” is a vague criterion. Everyone has different backgrounds and experiences. Someone could conceivably live on a street having a dozen different churches, but their negative growing-up experience with religion might produce a visceral rejection of them all. Life circumstances could have them lacking the “ears to hear” an evangelization as packaged by those proximate churches. And thus that hypothetical conversion-candidate might not be at fault, despite such ready physical access. So how would such a person get satisfactorily preached to? You see, it’s complicated.
Another reason sometimes given is that the surrounding universe of unfallen beings is watching Earth and the unfolding Great Controversy to decide whether Satan’s charges against God have any merit. But frankly, the heinousness of sin ought to have been so blatantly obvious, long before now, that it’s hard to believe they would need all this extra history to make a decision – including the 20th century’s holocaust, gulag, killing fields, etc. If they really need more proof before God wraps things up, then they must be morons. And since they surely aren’t that dumb, then how does such an argument have any potency, and what’s the point of all the extra suffering?
Last Generation Theology
The unique, Adventist-rooted ideology known as Last Generation Theology also provides a rationale for answering the Delay Question. Wikipedia notes:
One of the general principles of Last Generation Theology which is not written in the church Fundament Beliefs, is a belief that believers can affect the coming of Christ. … It is claimed that Last Generation Theology adherents hold that the ultimate defeat of Satan would only be finally effected through the sinlessly perfected remnant of the “Last Generation” of “sealed” saints.
An adequate discussion of Last Generation Theology and its theological difficulties far exceeds my available space. I will, therefore, just briefly list some objections I have:
- The Second Coming becomes constrained by human performance, specifically the necessity of free-willed beings to achieve perfection. Continued failure would then forever preclude Jesus’ return.
- While perfection perhaps can be achieved unwittingly, it obviously helps to understand the goal. And I defy anyone to define sin with algorithmic precision, so its commission – in all cases – is knowable to the ones striving for perfection. While much sin is easily recognizable, correctly categorizing every possibility is (I contend) impossible for humans to do.
- Last Generation Theology turns inward, as sinlessness is the goal. But evangelism involves “rubbing shoulders” with the unsaved, thus possibly polluting the perfection-striver. So evangelism is risky, dangerous to one’s own salvation. To me, this makes God’s mandates schizophrenic.
- What’s the point of demonstrating sinlessness? Some have suggested its achievement somehow makes one “safe to save.” So admitting such ones to heaven would then preclude sin’s future reappearance. But since this has presumably not been the criterion until the last days, heaven is going to have a lot of saved people who are, shall we say, justified but not fully sanctified. Like the thief on the cross. If safety is God’s overriding concern, then there will be plenty of “risky” people in heaven.
What I see here is the likelihood that the Delay Problem is intertwined with God’s addressing the Problem of Evil. And the Problem of Evil is a deep, vexing difficulty for Christians. The best theodicies are partial and it’s obviously uncomfortable to have an incomplete or problematic belief-structure. We want certainty, but we aren’t going to get it. Instead we are called upon to have faith. Not blind faith, but one that, regrettably, involves a fair amount of seeing through that glass darkly. (1 Cor. 13:12)
This incomplete understanding does not mean a Christian’s faith is unwarranted. There are other responsible and satisfying reasons upon which to base belief. We don’t have to jettison Adventism, or foundational Christianity, in the face of the uncertainty here under discussion. Yet Adventism can increase the discomfort when the church wants to present itself – to the world and its members – as the place that has answers. So it’s humbling to face ambiguity, with its potential to undermine faith. But we ought to have humility and candor about what we do not understand. There are times when admitting we simply do not know is the most honest, and thus best, option.
Rich Hannon is a retired software engineer. His long-standing avocations include philosophy, geology, and medieval history.