Why We Can No Longer Defend a Fearful Urgency about Jesus’ Return
By Loren Seibold | 9 April 2021 |
Recently I read about the retirement of one of the church’s most beloved leaders, Dr. G.T. Ng, Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Ng has served as the warmer, more comedic sidekick to the sincere but charisma-challenged Ted Wilson. People looked forward to G.T’s jokes, even though they were a sugar coating over his agreement with his boss’s hard line on, well, almost everything.
But this isn’t about G.T., or really about any particular person in that office. It is an observation that applies to every Seventh-day Adventist administrative office everywhere, as well as to every pastor—indeed, to every believer across the denomination:
Every retirement reminds us that the thing we Adventists have built our brand on hasn’t happened.
Please understand, before you read on, that I’m not saying Jesus isn’t returning. What I am saying is that we can no longer defend the fearful urgency with which we have promoted the second coming.
And furthermore, had we read what Jesus said about his coming, we should never have gone down that road in the first place.
I grew up on a North Dakota farm in a German community. One of our neighbors, about two miles away, was an immigrant named Karl. Karl embodied all of the qualities I associate with the German Adventists of that generation: a stern rigidity; absolute certainty of his beliefs and even greater certainty that his neighbors were wrong; no hesitation about condemning others by his standards; and a generally pessimistic view of the world. My mother (who grew up in the same few square miles where I did, and where Karl and his family lived) said that when she was a child and they were invited over to the home of Karl and his family, Karl would insist that all the adults and children sit bolt upright on chairs in the living room while he read them stories of gruesome martyrdom. (This may sound shocking to you, but from growing up in that world it doesn’t surprise me. The people who taught me in Sabbath School—some of Karl’s family—were only a short remove from what Karl did.)
In the 1950s, most of the farmers went from the labor-intensive process of cutting their grain and moving it to a stationary threshing machine, to using the much more convenient combine harvester. But not Karl. My grandpa asked him, “Karl, why don’t you get a combine like the rest of us?” Karl was appalled by the question. “With Jesus coming any day now, why should I spend the money?”
Karl retired, then died. All of Karl’s sons worked for the church at one time or another, two as pastors. Recently his youngest son, a lifelong church administrator, passed away at the age of 97.
This isn’t an uncommon story. If you are, like me, a multi-generational Adventist, you have parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, uncles and aunts, who believed Jesus was coming in their lifetimes and were shocked that they got old and it didn’t happen.
And why did they think that Jesus would come in their lifetimes? Because it was pounded into their heads at every church service, every camp meeting, in articles and books and Sabbath School quarterlies. The entire Seventh-day Adventist enterprise was based on a theology of urgency, fear, and sacrificial giving—even while we were building new buildings and churches, hiring and training more people, and setting up retirement funds for people like G.T. Ng and me.
This is not the first time this observation has been made, of course. It is not even the first time I’ve made it. So why keep saying it?
The obvious answer it because no one else seems willing to. Why have the leaders and theologians of the Seventh-day Adventist Church refused to reckon with the failure of the founding prophecy? No one can argue that two millennia have passed since the apostles said Jesus was about to return, or that it’s been almost two centuries since Adventists renewed the claim. Yet our leaders trumpet the word “soon” as enthusiastically as they did two centuries ago.
Eventually we Adventists quit setting precise dates. But what we did was arguably worse: we began to use words and phrases that express all the anxiety and expectancy, all the urgency and fear, but with no possibility for closure. Words like “soon,” “imminent,” and “at any time.” We’re at the edge of a precipice, but can neither walk back from it, nor fall over it. We true believers are to live in existential vertigo.
For almost two centuries we have twisted people’s arms to respond to the altar call because “Jesus is coming soon.” We have asked them to leave all their money to the church when they die (even though Jesus had failed to return in their lifetimes as we’d promised them) because “Jesus is coming soon.” We have urged young men and, now, women, into the ministry because “Jesus is coming soon.”
For 180 years my denomination has purported to be in a state of emergency, all while carrying on business as usual in the organization.
The misuse of 2 Peter 3:3-4
Yet if you point this out you are met with an angry accusation from 2 Peter 3:3-4:
Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
That’s regarded by some as an airtight answer. But is it?
No, it’s actually a cheap shot at common sense. Because the person who points out the obvious isn’t a scoffer. He’s an observer.
A man in AD 200 said, “Jesus hasn’t returned, and it’s been 200 years since he came the first time, and I’m starting to wonder if we know when Jesus is coming back.” He was accused by church leaders of being a scoffer, per 2 Peter 3:3.
A man in AD 500 said, “Jesus hasn’t returned, and it’s been 500 years since he came the first time, and I’m starting to wonder if we know when Jesus is coming back.” He was accused by church leaders of being a scoffer, per 2 Peter 3:3.
A man in AD 1000 said, “Jesus hasn’t returned, and it’s been 1,000 years since he came the first time, and I’m starting to wonder if we know when Jesus is coming back.” He was accused by church leaders of being a scoffer, per 2 Peter 3:3.
A man in AD 1844 said, “Jesus hasn’t returned, and it’s been 1,844 years since he came the first time, and I’m starting to wonder if we know when Jesus is coming back.” He was accused by church leaders of being a scoffer, per 2 Peter 3:3.
A man in AD 1950 said, “Jesus hasn’t returned, and it’s been 1,950 years since he came the first time, and I’m starting to wonder if we know when Jesus is coming back.” He was accused by church leaders of being a scoffer, per 2 Peter 3:3.
A man in AD 2021 says, “Jesus hasn’t returned, and it’s been 2,021 years since he came the first time, and I’m starting to wonder if we know when Jesus is coming back.” He is called by church leaders a scoffer, per 2 Peter 3:3.
How about some honesty?
Yet who was the most honest? Clearly, the guy who kept pointing out the obvious: Jesus hasn’t returned, and 2000 years of failed predictions proves we don’t know when he’s going to.
Who, the other hand, made unkind accusations of “scoffer” against sincere Christians for telling the truth? Who frightened generation after generation of Adventists, hiding the love and grace of God behind stories of imminent persecution by our Catholic neighbors? Our leaders, preachers, writers and evangelists.
Ἐπιθυμίας, the Greek word translated “lusts” in the KJV of 2 Peter 3:3, means “inordinate desire,” “eagerness,” or “longing.” It’s a wonderful thing to have a longing for Jesus. Yet who has twisted people’s love for Jesus into fearful expectancy? Who has ignored 2,000 years of a no-show Jesus, pretending that his return is still right around the corner? Our leaders, preachers, writers and evangelists.
The person who says, “Hey, it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m beginning to wonder if you’re interpreting the Bible correctly when you say that the return of Jesus is imminent” isn’t a scoffer. That’s a smart person making a common sense observation.
Stop it now. There is no longer any justification for this fearful urgency.
The rhetoric of urgency
I know a woman who waited her whole life for her boyfriend to marry her. He promised he would. That was his plan, he said. Sometime. Soon. He kept her hope alive with endless excuses. He has relationship issues, he said, but he’s working on them. He wants to pop the question, but he’s afraid of commitment. He’s still grieving his mother. And on and on and on. She died unmarried.
You’d think by now it would also be dead obvious that to keep saying Jesus’ return is about to happen soon, whether or not it’s true, isn’t helpful or kind.
Again: I am not saying that Jesus won’t return. I am saying that we cannot justify the rhetoric of immediacy. Jesus never told us to live on the edge of a continuous emergency. He said, “Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.” That’s not urgency. That’s living for Jesus every day, trying to be like him, and trusting his power to save. Just as you do as you think about death.
It is too late to say that Jesus is returning soon. We’ve burned that word out to the point of meaninglessness. “Soon,” after two centuries, is a husk. A cinder. A falsehood. A word with no logical content. It’s time to replace “Jesus is returning soon” with “Jesus is returning someday, and I’m ready whenever he returns—or when I die—because of God’s saving grace.”
Manipulation and cruelty
Let me distill it down: the language of the urgency is the way that the Seventh-day Adventist Church—possibly without malevolence, but clearly with organizational intent—has manipulated its members. To pound this into people’s heads has been dishonest. To embroider it with stories of Roman Catholic enemies and persecution has been cruel.
Yes, it’s kept the church going. It’s kept the coffers full. But it’s chased away millions, too, who couldn’t live under a narrative of fear. It’s made it necessary for those who remain to be either quiet doubters, or conspiratorial nuts.
Meanwhile we keep hiring, retiring, and consigning to the grave generation after generation of people who believed with all their hearts that Jesus was hiding behind the next cloud to appear in the east half the size of a man’s hand. We keep building buildings. Our leaders travel the world. Our assets keep accumulating.
But surely our leaders are learning, aren’t they? I don’t think they are. At the last 2015 GC session, the now-retiring G.T. Ng rose to his feet and said, with a shout of authority, “We do not have five more years… There will not be another [GC session].”
Now another GC session is scheduled, and will undoubtedly happen. G.T. is retiring. We’re already beyond five years since he made that prediction. Even after the certainty with which he spoke in 2015, I’d be surprised if G.T. had canceled his retirement savings plan and put it all into missions and evangelism; he is still counting on the church continuing, and people giving offerings. As for his position, someone else will fill his place. G.T.’s replacement, too, may well grow old and retire while telling the church, “Jesus is coming soon!”
All that Seventh-day Adventists have done for 180 years is show that we don’t know when Jesus is returning. We need a new strategy: let’s live for Jesus every day, not in a state of fearful emergency.
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Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.