by Dan Appel, September 2, 2014: (October, 1960ish, Portland, Oregon) You settle back into the plush mohair upholstery of your theater seat and sniff the faint odor of popcorn and a potpourri of perfumes and colognes left by generations of previous patrons of the Oriental Theater. A gentle fall rain has washed the Portland air and the humidity lifts the scents off of the upholstery and mixes them with the tangy odor of wet wool and shoe leather and the sweet earthy musk of the leaves you and your parents walked through on your way to the theater.
As you lean back and wait for the service to begin, you wonder about the quandary your angel is in right now. He is supposed to leave you at the door of places such as this – at least, that is what your grandmother wrote from her post as a faraway missionary. Your teacher at church school confirmed that angels do not go into theaters under any circumstances, so it must be true. “But it must be very frustrating,” you muse, “to miss out on the program you are about to enjoy – especially when the people stream down to the front and accept Jesus as their personal savior.”
Soon the singing evangelist with the powerful tenor voice finishes his solo, and the silver- tongued, blond-haired fireball who played the drums in a jazz band before his conversion begins to pace the stage. He reviews the powerful truths from the Bible he has taught you from night to night for over six long weeks and tells you that he is going to miss these evenings with you and your friends. Now, he announces, on this last night he has come to the most important topic of the whole series.
Opening his Bible, and pointing to carefully crafted diagrams projected onto the screen, he begins to talk about the responsibility that we all have to act on the truths we know. Urgency making his voice tremble as he shouts so loudly that the teenagers making out in the back row of the balcony can’t help but hear, he begins to recount the message of Daniel 8. As he thunders like God Himself about the judgment which began in the year 1844, he reminds us that the Trinity, even as he is speaking this very moment, may be looking at the record of our life, pondering whether to allow us into heaven. Now that we know the truth, he urges us, we must act on it – to fail to do so would be sin. We could die this very night on the way home and, if we have not completely surrendered our lives to everything God asks of us, be eternally lost.
Now, a picture fades onto the screen above the young evangelist’s leonine head. A coliseum larger than Dodger Stadium comes into view, filled with myriads of angels all focused on one point on the floor of the building. A throne, faced with a facsimile of the Ten Commandments, white with blazing nuclear light, is discernable to one side, while a man – every man in the form of one man’s experience frozen in a moment of Technicolor time – stands alone looking up towards that awesome dais where God Himself sits enthroned.
“It’s time to decide!” the evangelist begs, pulling a white handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe the tears from his eyes and the sweat from his brow. “God doesn’t want you to be lost. The judgment has begun, it is going on right now. Come, come to the front and signify your decision to become a loyal follower of God; come, come before it is too late! This may be your last chance. Don’t gamble with eternity! This very evening may be the moment Jesus comes for you. You could die tonight. Don’t die a rebel. The time is now to surrender to obedience to God’s law and to become a Sabbath keeper,. Come, come, there are pastors waiting here at the front to greet you and tell you how to become a part of God’s only last-day, true, Bible believing people.
There are those who, reading thus far, might be tempted to think that I look back on those times with something less than fondness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Those halcyon times were good and innocent. Nor do I question the sincerity of my parents or the evangelist or the thousands of other loyal Adventists and their friends and neighbors packed into the Oriental Theater in downtown Portland, Oregon. Some of those who became part of the church I love are my friends to this day. Rebel souls were added to the Kingdom of God, sins were confessed and lives were turned over to God for eternity.
What I question is not the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary or the blessing and place of the Sabbath or what happens to a person when he dies. I still choke up every time I lower someone into the waters of baptism and believe that it is very necessary for those of us who love God to honor Him enough that we are not only willing, but anxious to keep His law – for the right reasons. I am not even adverse to traditional public evangelism – although in today’s sophisticated world it is decreasingly effective. And, I am too much a spiritual descendent of Charles Finney to be adverse or offended by emotion and drama in the service of God.
No, what I question are some impressions about God and His ways that many were left with that night, and thousands of other similar nights around the world, as we have attempted to explain our faith to those in our communities. I believe it has skewed, in the eyes of church members and onlookers alike, the picture of the judgment portrayed in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
Think back to that picture burned into our minds by my evangelist and thousands like him through the years. Reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards’ vivid picture of sinners in the hands of an angry God, it forever seared into the hearts of countless people a picture of God as our adversary. That prototypical man, trembling before God’s throne, wildly trying to recall any unconfessed sin that might possible show up in the evidence against him and keep him out of heaven, was not excited to be in the presence of his Heavenly Father at that moment. He was terrified to be in His presence. And, this was not the “great white throne” judgment when God executes judgment on rebels at the end of world time and those unrepentant rebels will cower in terror; it was now, today, and the One he stood before was the One the Bible describes as our loving Father, the Gracious One, slow to get angry, kind and patient, who is doing everything in His power to woo and draw people out of the darkness into His Kingdom of Light.
While it is true that the whole point of the picture was to scare people in “the valley of decision” into making a decision to do what was right, it left a distinctly skewed picture in the minds of many, if not most, of the viewers of God and the judgment, and it left a decidedly warped picture of what God is doing today in his interactions with humanity.
After a while, thinking Adventists who read their Bible became concerned. So, a new picture began to appear in our publications and on the screens at our public meetings. The same huge amphitheater filled with angels and unfallen onlookers, with the same fiery throne where the Father was seated, now confronted the observer. Only now, Jesus, His eyes filled with love and tenderness stood by the side of Everyman, His arms comforting him, the holes in His hands raised in pleading. The irony of this attempt to portray a kinder and gentler God was that their attempts to fix what had become a theological travesty only made matters worse. Now the kind and gentle Jesus stood protecting His people from the Father – an illustration hardly destined to instill confidence in the good will and grace of the presiding officer of the Godhead and the judgment.
Then in the 1970s, Morris Venden, Graham Maxwell and Jack Provonsha, in one of the few things they ever appeared to agree on, again attempted to rectify the horrific portrayal of God we had been foisting on the world for almost 100 years. We are not on trial, they opined, but God has placed Himself on trial in the judgment. The whole Great Controversy is about the character of God and His plan of saving humanity and the universe. While we play a part – we are the evidence in the trial, after all – it is God’s whole kingdom and person which is being scrutinized in this cosmic courtroom scene. The God who created and sustained the universe has stepped down, as it were, into the dock and placed all of our future – His and ours – into the hands of a jury made up of every created loyal subject in the cosmos.
While one cannot help but admire their temerity in the face of the backlash which followed their introduction of this idea, and while it is a major step in the right direction, it still misses the main point of the Bible’s picture of God’s judgment. To understand why, you have to go back to a dusty outcropping on the edge of a desert in Palestine where two of the most powerful beings in the universe are locked in the early stages of mortal combat. On the way, it behooves us to make a brief stop at one of the most beloved passages in the Bible for most Adventists – in fact, this passage has defined our reason for existence for almost 160 years.
Good News, the Judgment has Begun
Revelation 14:6-7 – Then I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water” (RSV).
Whatever else one may believe about this passage, you cannot help but note the irony when you look at these verses through traditional Adventist eyes. The juxtaposition of the words “judgment” and “good news” seems contradictory at best. We are forced to admit that something does not add up, because the process of judgment as we have understood it is definitely not good news! If we can leave our preconceptions behind for just a few moments, just what does the Bible say about what is going on in the pre-advent stage of the judgment?
We will find a clue in the interaction of those two figures on that hillside in Palestine.
Satan has just finished tempting Jesus with something He is, literally, dying to receive. And Jesus has not taken the bait. Now, Satan takes Him by the hand and flies with Him up to a vantage point overlooking the whole then-known world. “There’s everything you came for,” he says, his hand sweeping from horizon to horizon in a grand gesture. “The only way you’re going to get it, you know, is to die – the most horrible, grisly death I can cook up for you. You made me, so you know just how creative I can be when I set my mind to it. The physical pain will just be the hors d’oeuvres. I have things prepared for you that even you can’t imagine. They are going to be so bad that even God will turn His back on you.
“But . . . ,” and Satan the snake pauses for dramatic effect, “there is a win-win way around all of this. Jesus, we know each other too well to let our relationship end like it will when you fail. We stood by the Father’s throne for millennia as covering cherubs. Next to God Himself, we were the two most important and powerful beings in the whole heavenly government. When I chose to exercise my right of choice and rebel, you led the armies of heaven and defeated me and threw me and my followers down from our lofty position out into the darkness of the cosmos. You won round one – fair and square. But, I will win round two – you can count on it!
“When Adam and Eve listened to the voice of reason and chose to join my rebellion, I became the rightful ruler of this little cesspool some call earth. It’s not much, but it doesn’t belong to you. You know that every time there is a council in heaven, I appear, by right, as its lawful representative. And, it’s a toehold which I am going to exploit to bring down the rest of God’s government. So, you have a choice. You can bow down to me as the future ruler of everything and be on the winning side, or you can choose to pursue this little crusade you are on and prepare to suffer as no one ever has before. What do you say? we can be partners in this. To show my good faith, I will give you everything you came for – without the price. Just bow down and acknowledge me as the winner, and it’s all yours.”
We strain forward to hear Jesus’ next words – and they surprise us. “And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”Jesus never disputes Satan’s right to offer him this world – because for the time being it belongs to him (Satan). He is the rightful ruler of this world – ever since Adam and Eve ceded their dominion to him.
Wait a minute, you say, God is the owner and ruler of this world. You are right, and you are very wrong. Ultimately, God is the owner of the earth. But, the Trinity chose to bestow the rule of it, as a wedding present, to Adam and Eve and their progeny when Jesus created them. They were the rightful monarchs until they abdicated their position and transferred it to Satan. And, God cannot it take back by force without besmirching His own character and violating everything His Kingdom of Light is all about. So, someone else controls, for now, what He owns.
An illustration might help: Suppose for a minute that a pickpocket stole your cell phone. In one very real sense, it is still your phone – even though someone else controls, you might say rules, in the context of this article, your phone for the time being. Scripture and human experience make it abundantly clear who rules this world now. In Job 1:6 Satan appears in heaven as the rightful ruler/representative of this world. In John 12:31, 14:30 and 16:11, Jesus Himself describes Satan as the “ruler of this world.” John, in 1 John 5:19, tells us that the whole world is in the power of the evil one.
But wait you say, doesn’t Colossians 2:13-15 tell us that Jesus won back the right to rule this earth on the cross? He won the right, and in that sense delivered us from the power of darkness according to Colossians 1:12-14, 19-23; but according to Hebrews 2:7-9 we do not yet see the world in subjection to Him. That is why good little girls are still molested by their fathers, and godly women are raped, and nice little boys are killed by their playmates, and teenagers in the beginning of adulthood die of cancer. It’s why good husbands are divorced by their wives, and loyal spouses die of AIDS brought home by their husbands. And it’s why terrorists fly airplanes into buildings filled with innocent people, and young and old people die, and why Ethiopians starve and Sudanese are killed in wars, and on and on and on. Either God isn’t big enough to stop it, or He chooses not to if you believe that He controls this world. Either option is not what the Bible teaches. And, in that realization comes the good news of the judgment if we just listen to the message of the Bible.
There is one individual on trial in the judgment, and it is not you or me or God.
In our next article, we will look at some of the exciting Bible evidence on this view of the Judgment.