by Aidis Tomsons | 5 January 2024 |
We have ended 2023.
Whenever we near the end of a year and begin a new one, people publish reviews of the past year, and come up with predictions for the next one. Some express concerns. Others offer hopeful wishes.
In Adventist social media forums, and in many churches, believers renew their conviction of the imminent coming of Christ. They have no doubt that the signs of the times are being fulfilled, and the last events are at hand. I usually keep quiet in these discussions, because I am not God, and I do not know when the last events will take place.
Of course I would be glad to finally meet Jesus. Yet I am not comfortable with these conversations—and have to admit that I do not share their beliefs.
For a long time, I was hesitant to express my views on Adventist eschatology. But I’ve decided that some people may benefit from my public explanation of why I don’t talk about the nearness of the end times.
The truth about the texts
In the Adventist church I rarely hear preachers explaining Jesus’ statements about the signs of his return. Take for example Luke 21:8. Adventist preachers overlook, or possibly are confused, when they read, Jesus saying:
Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming. ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them!
The very first thing that Jesus warns is not to follow those who proclaim the nearness of the coming of Christ! Jesus continues (vs 9):
When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away!
Wars are raging around us. There is an ongoing war in Ukraine, and another in Israel. The noise of war is disturbing, and Adventist brothers and sisters around me call it another sign of the times—a sign of the imminent coming of Christ. Here Jesus warns against taking wars as a sign of the end times, though many Adventists read this text exactly the other way around.
In my youth I was deeply interested in Latvian Adventist periodicals from the 1930s. Two magazines—Adventes Vestnesis (Advent Herald) and Musu Laikmets (Our Time)—attracted my attention. I read in them Adventist worries about the events before World War II.
They had no doubt that there were obvious signs of the beginning of the end. In Hitler and Stalin they saw the outlines of Armageddon. “Get ready—the time is near!” was the message that came through to Latvian Adventists at the time.
Today we tend to overlook the broader history of Christianity! We think that after reading the book The Great Controversy we know all about history—even more than other people.
The reality is that the author of the book only summarizes some historical events, while overlooking the big picture of how Christ’s return was awaited over the course of 2,000 years. We know that in every generation Christians were looking at world events and were trying to interpret some as the signs of the end times. They proclaimed with more or less regularity the imminent coming of Christ.
Jesus, knowing that his followers would preach end time messages—not only by alarming them but sometimes even by deceiving them—began his explanation of the end times with the warning: “Do not follow them!”
Not learning from history
One particular text in the Bible makes us afraid to think about this subject the way I do. Peter writes (2 Peter 3:3-4):
In the last days scoffers will come who will say: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
The passage makes us afraid that we might be the sign of the end times ourselves! Perhaps that is why we uncritically accept all preaching of the end time messages, no matter how faulty those messages may be.
But perhaps we should engage in more detailed study of the Scriptures, including Peter’s warning against scoffers.
We sometimes say that we ought to learn from history: “Wise people,” we say, “learn from their mistakes.” Sadly, I fear that many Adventists aren’t learning from our mistakes. We continue to preach end time’s messages in the ways we always have. In particular, we ignore the late postmodern era, the time frame of my 50+ years, during which I’ve heard Adventists refer to Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and many other events as definitive signs of the end times. Continuously calculating prophetic end-time events seems, for some believers, to have become the measure of faith. And so it goes on, from a generation to a generation.
I have tried to read carefully and critically the signs of the times given by Jesus and by Ellen G. White, especially after I began my work as a journalist. To what extent, I asked myself, have the end time signs been fulfilled? I became discouraged as I began to realize the problem of time scale: that several generations would be needed even to begin to initiate the events Ellen White mentions in her writings.
Our anxiety about the end times comes from Adventists’ having but a superficial knowledge of and poor interpretation of the events taking place around us. We draw conclusions from our own flawed interpretations, ignoring the larger picture.
It would be enough to mention just one sign emphasized by Jesus himself: “The gospel must first be preached in all nations” (Mk 13:10). Although the Bible has been translated into many languages, there are still hundreds of languages in which the Bible isn’t available. Although the message of Christ is preached in many countries, there are countries where there is no Christian church. Of course you can analyze the data differently, but it seems obvious that billions of people still know nothing about Christ the Saviour.
Jesus’ advice to Adventists
Some say that the events will happen quickly. So be it! I would be glad to finally meet Jesus Christ in person. But I will not calculate the time of his second coming and preach about it. I prefer to follow Jesus’ warning and ignore such preachers. Instead, I will follow Jesus advice:
“Be ready, then, for the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Mt. 24:44)
For some reason we interpret this text as meaning that he will come when the world is not expecting his return. But that is not what Jesus says. Jesus is speaking to his followers. He is saying that he will come when we do not expect him. Isn’t that a paradox?
Right now we are expecting his coming—and that very thing turns out to be a sign that he is not coming yet! He will be returning when our calculations don’t indicate he is coming soon! Jesus is inviting us always to be ready to meet him, no matter what is going around us.
I recently read about a Baptist pastor in the United States conducting a survey. He asked only two questions:
First: if you knew that next Friday you would meet Christ, what would you do? Second: if God gave you a promise like that made to King Hezekiah, that you would certainly live another 15 years, how would that affect your life?
After the survey the pastor concluded that the people of his congregation are divided into two large groups: one would be greatly affected by this news, the other group almost not at all.
Which one of the two groups do you think is ready to welcome Jesus?
Aidis Tomsons works as a journalist for Latvian radio and television, leading programs on political and international events.