Some Reflections on the Investigative Judgment
The unique contribution of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to theology is the doctrine of the investigative judgment. Perhaps it is also true to say that no teaching of this church has endured more critical scrutiny than this one. For these reasons it is imperative that with complete frankness we should inquire: What is the basis for our belief in a preliminary invisible judgment prior to Christ's return?
First, it might be expected a priori that a latter-day movement, raised up of God to stress the denouement of the ages, would be entrusted with some special light regarding eschatological events. Special tasks often require added light, and it is entirely appropriate that the messengers of the Second Advent should be entrusted with a more complete understanding of the events preceding that momentous occasion than any previous gospel movement.
Second, it might also be expected that such special light would have reference to the unfolding fulfillment of prophecy, and therefore not clearly perceived until after the beginning of such a fulfillment. Is it not a cardinal principle of prophecy that the foretold events can never be traced with entire clarity before they take place?
The basic principle of contemporary perception of the progressive fulfillment of prophecy was enunciated by Jesus on the night of the last supper: "I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe." John 14:29. Three times, in varying forms, Jesus repeated this basic principle, so there can be no question as to, His fundamental intent. The other two declarations are: "I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am He" (John 13:19), and, "These things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them" (John 16:4).
This primary function of interpretation—the recognition of fulfillment at the very time of fulfillment—was evidently intended to:
(a) create assurance as to the divine inspiration of the prophecy itself;
(b) establish confidence in the infinite foreknowledge and power of performance on the part of the Author of prophecy;
(c) reveal one's own time and place in the fulfilling prophecy, and therefore the particular relationship, message, and emphasis due at each stage of development'
We would draw particular attention to section (c) of this quotation, which stresses the relationship between unfolding light and the special emphasis required for the particular time.
Anticipated Rather Than Surprising
If this principle be true, it is not strange that special prophetic truth relative to the last days should be previously unrecognized. This point should be stressed, for it is apparent to every Seventh-day Adventist worker that the doctrine of the investigative judgment is part of the sure word of prophecy, rather than a segment of that apostolic teaching which is found in the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament. In the book of Daniel it was foretold that those things which had reference to the "time of the end" would remain sealed up till the era came that would witness their fulfillment. We have no evidence for believing that Paul or any other of the apostles was given special light unsealing the prophetic symbols relative to the special events preceding the close of probation. The fact therefore, that neither Paul or any other New Testament writer specifically sets forth the tenet of the investigative judgment, might be anticipated rather than be found surprising.
Another principle should be emphasized as we consider this matter. This refers to the fact of progressive revelation. Almost all evangelical scholars accept such a principle.' For example, few would pretend that the doctrine of the Trinity can be clearly found in the Old Testament. Again, we find Paul declaring that the "mystery of Christ" "in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed" (Eph. 3:4, 5). As the New Testament unveils more clearly than the Old the mystery of the gospel, so the later books of the New Testament describe more completely than the earlier books many significant divine teachings.' For example, nowhere in the Gospels is the doctrine of Christ's priesthood expounded. Similarly, the complete exposition of justification by faith was reserved for the book of Romans.
We would now draw attention to another illustration of this principle of progressive revelation. The doctrine of the two resurrections separated by a thousand-year period was reserved for the closing chapters of Scripture. Had our Bible closed at Revelation 19 it is unlikely that there would be any Christians today who believed such a teaching. Once contemplated, as found in Revelation 20, the doctrine becomes a key unlocking other passages which without it have been obscure. (See Acts 24:15 and John 5:29.) The failure to recognize that Revelation 20 is another example of the principle of progressive revelation led many in past centuries to reject the literality of the events there described. In recent years, however, a gradually increasing number of non-Adventist scholars have taken their stand on the position of two literal resurrections separated by 1,000 years. J. A. Seiss, who wrote what Dr. Wilbur M. Smith described as "the most famous expository work on Revelation in our language" sums up "the second thoughts" of prophetic interpreters when he says on Revelation 20:6:
My conviction is clear and positive that the resurrection here spoken of is the resurrection of the saints from their graves. ... With the distinguished Dean of Canterbury, Dr. Alford, to whose critical labors the Christian world is much indebted, "I cannot consent to distort words from their plain sense and chronological place in the prophecy, on account of any considerations of difficulty. . . ." With Paul, "I can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." (2 Cor. 13:8.) The word here rendered Resurrection is more than forty times used in the New Testament and four times in the Apocrypha, and always in the one only sense of a rising again of the body after it has fallen under the power of death. The emphasizing of it as The Resurrection cannot, with any degree of propriety, be understood of any mere metaphorical or symbolic rising. The placing of it as the first in a category of two resurrections, the second of which is specifically stated to be the literal rising again of such as were not raised in the first, fixes the sense to be a literal resurrection.'
This quotation refers to the difficulties former expositors had encountered when interpreting Revelation 20. The literal wording of the prophecy seemed to call for a doctrine that hitherto had not been elaborated in Scripture and therefore many writers for centuries tried every exegetical stratagem to avoid the plain significance of this passage in the Apocalypse. The situation affords somewhat of a parallel to that of the Seventh-day Adventist teaching regarding the investigative judgment, which is also chiefly based on prophetic passages such as Daniel 7:9, 10; 8:14. The latter verses picture a judgment before the second advent of Christ, and yet other clear didactic passages regarding the same are lacking. However, Adventists are in a preferable position to the group of expositors previously referred to, because that which is pictured in Daniel is also implicit in a later Revelation.
Investigative Judgment Implicit in Doctrine of Two Resurrections
One of the main purposes of the present article is to emphasize that the doctrine of the investigative judgment is implicit in the doctrine of the two resurrections and it is not clearly set forth in Bible passages other than Daniel because it is part and parcel of the later revelation of events connected with the millennium. The very fact that two resurrections are to take place as shown by Revelation 20 implies that a distinction must be made between the two groups of the dead before the first are raised.
Non-Adventist scholars who have perceived the truth of the teaching of the two resurrections have, in some cases, also seen the necessity for an investigative judgment. The following quotation is from the author previously referred to and it is given at length because of its worth, and because it may not be available to most of our readers. Note particularly how Seiss points out that the popular concept of the judgment is an erroneous one because of the failure to realize the significance of the two resurrections.
The common idea is, that all men, those that have died, and those who are found living at the time, shall be judged alike, and in one and the same great congregation. It is conceived that the dead will all be simultaneously resurrected, and all the living simultaneously changed, and that only then the judgment will sit for the adjudication of the eternal destiny of each. Painters and poets have outdone themselves in their efforts to portray the overwhelming majesty and terror of so grand and universal an assize. But it is not according to the plain letter of the Scriptures. , . .
And even as respects the judgment of "the dead," there lurks in the popular idea a mischievous and confusing error. People take the resurrection as a mere preliminary of the judgment, and view the judgment itself as something distinct from the resurrection, and coming after it. The language of the last trump they conceive to be: "Awake, ye dead, and come to judgment." They consider that the dead are to be awakened for the purpose of being judged. . .
These distinctions [between the righteous and the wicked] are very plainly drawn, and embrace the very highest things of our faith. Nothing that comes after the realization of them can add anything not already substantially included. The estate and destiny on both sides is thus effectually and irreversibly settled in advance. We accordingly [if the popular view is correct] would have the anomaly of the chief work and result of the judgment accomplished and concluded, before the judgment itself sits! The truth is, that the resurrection, and the changes which pass "in the twinkling of an eye" upon the living, are themselves the fruits and embodiments of antecedent judgment. They are the consequences of adjudications then already made. Strictly speaking, men are neither raised nor translated, in order to come to judgment. Resurrections and translations are products of judgment previously passed, upon the dead as dead, and upon the quick as quick. . . . And the rest of the dead live not again until the thousand years are finished.
. . Whatever, in the line of increased blessedness or enhanced damnation, may come after, is only the further carrying into effect of what was already predecided, before there could be either resurrection or translation. . . . The judgment is not a sham formality, or a solemn farce; it is something real; and the substance of it is the award to every man according to his works. And when we see
The Judgment Reveals God's Character
It is evident that a Judgment is certainly not for the benefit of the Omniscient One. It is rather to make His justice public. In fact, this seems to be the only reason why the Lord has permitted sin at all—in order that His beings might worship Him in love as a result of beholding His true character. Thus the oft-repeated paean in Revelation: "Just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. . . . For thou only art holy . . . for thy judgments are made manifest" (Rev. 15:3, 4). "Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments" (Rev. 16:7). The great controversy has been permitted to last 6,000 years in order that God might be justified and overcome when He is judged (Rom. 3:4). That period of time alone could permit the controversy to extend to the whole of this world and give adequate demonstration of all that is involved in the conflict between the principles of good and evil.
It is also evident that if God considers it to be part of justice to permit His creatures to see the reasons for His rejection of many before His actual execution of judgment (Rev. 20:4, 5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Ps. 149:9), likewise the unfallen beings would be permitted to see the reasons for the reward involved in the first resurrection, and this would require an investigative judgment. To restate this another way—the Scriptures clearly picture a judgmental work as taking place prior to the second resurrection, i.e. created beings are permitted to see in the records the reasons for the exclusion of millions from the new world—logic suggests a parallel procedure before the first resurrection.
Early Christians Preached on Prophecy
The criticism has been made of the Adventist position that we are mainly reduced to symbolic prophecy to support our teaching on the investigative judgment. We might answer that the God fearing in the days of the first advent were likewise restricted to the words of prophecy in order to delineate the features of the Messiah and the characteristics of His kingdom. However, in addition to this, we would repeat the fact that the clearly stated truth of the millennium is also entirely dependent upon the word of prophecy. Without Revelation 20 it would be impossible to prove such a doctrine. Yet, as already pointed out, many non-Adventist scholars have been prepared to banish preconceived opinions and accept the fact that the truth regarding the literal events at the end of the age is proclaimed in this chapter. Thus there is no more basis for rejecting the doctrine of the investigative judgment because it is based chiefly on prophetic passages than there is for rejecting the teaching of the two resurrections in the Apocalypse.
Let it be noted also that others besides ourselves have seen in Daniel and Revelation an investigative judgment. In addition to Seiss already quoted, the following are offered in support of this statement. L. E. Froom summarizes the view of Adventist (but never Seventh-day Adventist) Josiah Litch on this matter:
"If there are to be two distinct resurrections of the dead, when is the general judgment to take place? Will it be at the first or second resurrection? At neither; but before either of them takes place." . . . Then Litch continues, "The judgment is here most certainly placed prior to the resurrection." The doctrine of two resurrections—the just and the unjust—he insists, renders it necessary. It is necessary in order to determine who are to be the "subjects of the first resurrection." . . .
Coming next to the "nature of the judgment before the resurrection," two ideas should be kept in mind, he states. One is the judicial character of the proceedings—"trial according to law and evidence, for the acquittal or condemnation" of the person at the bar. And the other part is the "execution" of the judgment. In human tribunals a prisoner, if innocent, is at once discharged from the hands of the executive power. If guilty, he is either taken forth to execution at once or is "kept for a season" in prison. So in the heavenly assize, the proceedings are according to law and evidence. The books are opened, and the book of life. And from these the character and doom of each is determined. When the trial judgment closes "those who are acquitted are discharged from custody at once, at the first resurrection." The other phase is that Christ has the power to "execute judgment," at the resurrection of damnation. Those wicked who remain in their graves shall hear His voice and come forth "when the sentence already passed will be executed." 6
In The Preacher's Homiletic Commentary, the note on Dan. 7:9, 10 declares:
We have before us a passage of overwhelming grandeur and sublimity; the description of a scene of awful solemnity. The passage exhibits the judgment-seat of God, with myriads of attendant angels, and the infliction of pronounced doom on a large portion of the human race. . . . It appears rather to be an invisible judgment carried on within the veil and revealed by its effects and the execution of its sentence. . . . As, however, the sentence is not yet by any means fully executed, it may be sitting now:
While the above writer does not believe this preliminary judgment to be the general judgment, he does place it just prior to the second coming of Christ.
Wordsworth, without discussing the precise time of the judgment described in Daniel 7:9, 10, affirms: "The Prophet here describes the last great Assize .. ."8 Dr. W. G. Heslop comments: "What a day of days the judgment day must be. Thus is represented the solemn assemblage of mankind awaiting their sentence from the supreme judge." a These comments are significant in view of the fact that the context in Daniel makes it quite clear that events are happening on earth at the time of this scene in heaven. While some commentators would limit this judgment in Daniel 7 to merely an investigation of the little horn, the grandeur of the scene and the reference to the books of judgment (cited in Rev. 20:12) indicate that the judicial scene comprehends much more than the papal power alone.
Angelina Grimke Weld, a prominent Quaker and wife of the well-known philanthropist and educator Theodore Dwight Weld, wrote as follows after the disappointment of the Millerites:
I have felt great sympathy with all true hearted Second Advent believers in their great disappointment at the non-appearance of their Lord and Master . . . [but] it was not necessary that Christ should be visible to our fleshly eyes, in order that he should reign in the world. . . . Who cannot see and feel that we have entered upon a new era. . . . Truth . . . is finding its way into the most secret recesses of Church and state and is most surely working the overthrow of both. . . . Now I can see why the judgment is antecedent to the coming of the son of Man, for it is clear that Truth must sit in judgment upon all human organizations . . . before he can triumph over all error.... Your bodies and mine will probably go down to the grave, before God's everlasting kingdom shall fill the earth. The epoch at which we live is the epoch of Judgment—a time not of triumph, but of deep trial, conflict and travail of spirit 10
As Whitney R. Cross points out: "Angelina Grimke Weld believed that a preliminary era of judgment had been inaugurated in 1844, to pave the way gradually for the millennium." "
There is another significant feature concerning Daniel 7 that becomes apparent when it is compared with the parallel prophecy of Daniel 8. Each outline follows the same sequence, but Daniel 8 does not describe the judgment scene. In the parallel position, however, it has the pronouncement "Unto two thousand three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed." The following comparison indicates that the two representations, the judgment scene and the cleansing of the sanctuary, stand for the one event.
(See PDF for summary table)
Daniel 8, by following the identical sequence but substituting an interpretative representation for the judgment scene, corroborates our interpretation of each. Also, it is not without significance that the Hebrew term here used for "cleansed" is declared by scholars to have a "forensic" significance." That is, it has reference to law and to judgment.
Literal Preceded by Spiritual
Yet another point worth considering is the fact that much which will have a concrete visible and literal fulfillment in the kingdom of glory is preceded by a spiritual fulfillment in this "dispensation of the Holy Spirit" " or the kingdom of grace. For example, Revelation 18 predicts that before the literal glory of Christ surrounds the earth, a message of spiritual glory will encompass our world. Before the literal shaking of the heavens and the earth, which will accompany the Second Advent, there is to be a spiritual shaking among the inhabitants of the world by "the hour of temptation" (see Heb. 12:26, 27; Rev. 3: 10, 11; 13:13-18). Just as spiritual resurrection (Eph. 2:1) precedes the literal, and as new spiritual creations precede the literal new earth (2 Cor. 5:17, margin)—just so before the execution of judgment pictured in Revelation 20 comes the spiritual unseen investigation in the heavenly courts above.
We would conclude these reflections by stating the conviction that it is not strange that the full delineations of this doctrine should, on the principle of progressive revelation, have been reserved for the divinely inspired messenger to the Seventh-day Adventist Church—Ellen G. White. It should be stressed however, on the basis of the preceding paragraphs, that we are not without strong Biblical grounds for our confidence in this special truth committed to us.
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1 Froom, L. E., The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1. p. 144.
2 Camel!, Edward John, The Case for Orthodox Theology, p. 52.
3 See T. D. Bernard's classic, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament.
4 Seiss, J. A., The Apocalypse, vol. 3, pp. 316, 317.
5 Ibid ., vol. 1, pp. 322-327. (Italics supplied.)
6 Froom, op. cit., vol. 4, pp. 590, 591.
7 Cited in Questions on Doctrine, p. 425.
8 Wordsworth, Christopher, Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. VI, p. 32.
9 Heslop, W. G.. Diamonds From Daniel, p. 108.
10 Cited from a MS in the Library of Congress by Whitney R. Cross in his book The Burned-over District, the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850, New York: Cornell University Press, 1950. p. 286. (Italics supplied.)
11 Ibid., p. 321.
12 See Strong's Exhaustive Concordance.
13 White, E. G., Testimonies to Ministers, p. 511.