The delay of the Advent

Adventists have traditionally taught that the coming of Jesus is very near. But how long can the end of time be very near? Passing time causes us to ask, Is there not a delay, and what should be our reaction to it?

Jonathan Gallagher is presently studying for the Ph.D. degree at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

How long, O Lord?" has been a persistent question ever since John recorded his heavenly vision. When will the final fulfillment of God's promises occur? When will Christ return? The church has been preaching the Lord's coming for two thousand years now; perhaps the Lord is delaying His coming. Yet every passing moment is an affront to the waiting community, every second extends the curse of sin, every instant prolongs the agony of God in dealing with an evil and unrepentant world. So where is the end? Where is Christ's coming? Why the delay?

Adventism in its early years, while understanding the reason for the 1844 disappointment, remained expectant. All the signs had been fulfilled; Jesus would come very soon. Ellen White was writing in 1850 that "time can last but a very little longer," and recording the words of her angel: "'Time is almost finished.'"—Early Writings, pp. 58, 64. In 1875 she repeated, "We are near the close of time" (Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 407), and in 1882, "Time is drawing to a close. Eternity is near."—Ibid., vol. 5, pp. 11, 12. By 1889 she wrote, "Time is very short" (ibid., p. 573), and later still remarked that "we are nearing the end of time" (ibid., vol. 6, p. 209). The question comes with increasing force as the years go by: How long can the end of time be very near? How can Christ's coming still be very soon? Is there not a delay?

This problem became more and more acute as the pioneers, who so fervently expected Christ's coming within their lifetime, did not see Him come and as the "signs of the times" receded further into history. Coupled with these factors was the slogan used by various writers and evangelists, "The generation that saw the signs will see Christ come." After the first few decades of this century it was becoming increasingly clear that such a prediction was not going to be fulfilled. The questions associated with such evidences of a "delay" came to be asked with greater frequency and occupied the minds of many, including A. G. Daniells, at one time a General Conference president. Writing in the November, 1930, MINISTRY, he asked: "Is that great event, the second coming of Christ, being delayed? ... If it is being delayed, what is causing the delay?" (p. 5). His understanding of the Adventist dilemma is profound, his proposed solutions and scriptural exegesis of consider able help. 1 Yet the questions that troubled Daniells in 1930 have taken an even greater urgency today. Now, more than 136 years from 1844 (and some 50 years from 1930), how do we explain these questions ourselves? What do we say? Were the early Adventists right to expect a proximate Advent? Are the "signs" still relevant? Is the message still valid? Above all, can we speak of a "delay," and how can this delay be resolved, both in a theological and a practical sense?

Some problems of meaning

The modern use of the term delay overlays its basic concept of extended or exceeded time with other, less fortunate meanings. The notion of imperfection or fallibility on the part of God is not tenable without destroying the concept of a supreme, all-powerful God. Yet the mention of the word delay is often associated in a human context, with such negative meanings, and consequently colors our understanding of God's actions. The feeling that God has had to make some unforeseen adjustment to His plans, or that He has miscalculated, cannot be avoided if the usual idea of delay is stressed.

Similarly delay, in human terms, is often a result of reluctance to carry out the specified act at the specified time: "I delayed going to the dentist, because I know he will want to pull my tooth." Second Peter, chapter 3, makes it very plain that we cannot attribute such an attitude to God. In fact, the very reverse is true. Jesus is more willing to come than we are to await and to receive Him. We cannot in any sense "blame" God, and the word delay must be disassociated from any such assertions. 2

Another set of problems arises with the word delay when used in the context of the Second Coming. Delay is normally taken to mean the nonfulfillment of a deadline, the missing of an appointment. Yet God has never stated the time of the Second Advent, so how can we logically speak of a delay? If such a term must be used, the context must make it very clear that God has not failed to keep His appointed time. Indeed, in many ways it is meaningless to speak of a delay when God's point of view is considered. If he really is the Eternal One, the great I AM, with whom "there is no past, no future; all things are eternally present" (SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 615), then to speak of a "delay" in connection with God has no real validity. God and His relationship to time is really meaningful only when considered from man's position; it is we who see the "delay," not God, whose "purposes know no haste and no delay" (The Desire of Ages, p. 32).

A third group of unfortunate associations with the term delay are more specific. They result from its use by various modern theologians who have applied it in a confusing number of ways. Schweitzer was the first to popularize the term; for him it was indicative of the mistakes of Jesus first that the parousia (the coming of the Son of man) would arrive before the disciples finished their preaching tour (see Matt. 10:23), and ultimately that His death would initiate the parousia. Thus the modern theological use of the term delay is heavily impregnated with the idea of an error on the part of Jesus—hardly a pleasant concept for Adventists.

Other theologians have used the term to describe the crisis that is presumed to have come upon the early church when its breathless expectancy of the Second Advent remained unfulfilled. This "delay" has been attributed to various causes: to the mistaken teaching of the church that Christ promised to return, to the misinterpretation of Christ's words concerning His coming, or to the erroneous belief pro pounded by Jesus that He would return. Either the church or Jesus was wrong or mistaken; there is no real return. Thus the "delay" is explained by denying the truthfulness of the event predicted or by reinterpreting the coming to mean some thing other than the event Christ described. 3

In sum, the concept of delay has some very unfortunate connections as far as Adventists are concerned, and great care must be exercised in using it in connection with Christ's second coming.

Ellen White does use the term. 4 How ever, she does so with considerable discretion. We should remember, too, that some of the more modern implications of the word as noted above were not present in her time. Significantly, she also uses some other terms that are quite enlightening and. that clarify her ideas of this continuation of time. One particularly descriptive phrase refers to the fact that "time is apparently extended," followed by references to God lengthening probation and granting time (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 306). Another relevant expression is the statement "Time has continued longer." Evangelism, p. 695. The "delay" is also associated with the "responsive" aspects of the promise: had such an activity/attitude been truly part of the believer's response, then Christ would have already come. 5

"Time extended" by God's grace is a far better attitude than "delay," with all its negative meanings. The "delay" of the Second Advent is a dangerous~designation and should be very carefully qualified. The term should be used only if it is made clear that in no way is God being associated with the derogatory ideas implied in it, and that the word is being used merely as shorthand for the apparent extension of time.

What is the problem?

Having attempted to avoid the negative associations of the "delay" concept, let us turn to the implications of this idea of an "extension of time." Granted the willingness—indeed, the intense desire of Christ to come and complete the salvation He has promised, then the question must be faced: What is preventing the fulfillment of the promise?

A variety of answers to this supremely important question have been proposed. The first is a "deterministic" approach that envisages an inexorable ticking away of time until the "parousia hour" strikes. According to this response, there is nothing preventing the coming of Christ; the time determined by God (in a chronological sense) simply has to be completed. While it must be affirmed that God does indeed know the time of the Second Advent, it does not fit the pattern of God's dealings with men to conclude that this date has been set without thought of the prevailing conditions at that time. God's actions are never arbitrary.

Another answer is an "event-centered" view that puts the Second Advent on a time line, the last of a series of events. According to this view, the answer to the problem of delay is to detail a set of "signs" that have to be fulfilled before Christ can come—spiritual wickedness must come to its full expression; the gospel must go to all the world; the antichrist must first appear, et cetera. In this scheme the Second Coming is made part of a mechanistic series. This reply is also only a partial response, since it limits the activity and will of God by subjecting Him to a rather arbitrary system of signs and events.

A third answer is to make the promise of the Second Advent a conditional prophecy and then to examine the conditions that have not so far been met. This outlook regards the Second Coming as being very much dependent upon the activity of man. Again, the problem of limiting God's omnipotence proves a major difficulty. In addition, if the Second Advent is seen totally as a conditional prophecy, the additional question arises of whether it will ever occur! If Christ's return is purely dependent on the work of man, what chance does Jesus have of ever being able to come again? When taken to such extremes, this approach is evidently unacceptable, making God dependent on man. It thus limits God and centers on man. But it can be developed further in a way that provides a much more acceptable answer. If we focus on the response and attitude of man to God, we provide a "relational" answer to the question of delay. Looking at God's previous saving activity on behalf of man can provide a solution to the question of why Christ has not come. It also makes clear that God's will is never altered by man's works.

Gathering of God's people

In the Old Testament God's gathering of His people out of bondage is a frequently repeated theme, forming part of the wider relationship of God to Israel based on promises and threats, which were in turn dependent upon Israel's attitude. These promises of gathering and their fulfillment are illustrations of God's saving activity, and they exemplify in particular the culmination of salvation that the Second Advent brings: the gathering of the elect from the four winds (see Matt. 24:31), the catching up of the saints together in the clouds (see 1 Thess. 4:17). An examination of the promises and fulfillment of God's gathering in the past sheds much light on the relation of God's great, final gathering promise to its culminative fulfillment.

The basis for one's inclusion in the gathering of God was not the meeting of legal requirements. The covenant relation was not an enactment of law; rather it was a spiritual relationship of grace. The response sought by God was willing worship and harmony with His will and purpose, as is so clearly stated in His message to Israel by Isaiah (see chapter 2 and others). The need for the right attitude to God, an inherently nonlegal demand, is made explicit in Deuteronomy 30, the promise of God to gather His people out of Babylon. The promise was to become effective, God told them, only when " 'you . . . return to the Lord your God,'" only when "'you . . . obey . . . with all your heart, and with all your soul'" (verses 1, 2, R.S.V.), only when a rightly activated spiritual desire for repentance and continued right relation to God was apparent. Only " 'then the Lord your God will . . . gather you'" (verse 3, R.S.V.).

The spiritual force of this changed attitude is emphasized further by the terminology of "heart circumcision." Circumcision was the outward sign of the covenant relation. Heart circumcision was the necessary inward attitude for the meeting of God and man and the completion of God's promises. Outward signs, religious observance, keeping the law all were insufficient. No works of man could be the determining factor. 6

In Isaiah the gathering motif is very prominent (see chaps. 11:12; 27:12; 40:11; 43:5; 54:7; 56:8; 60:4; 66:18). God gathers Israel "one by one" (chap. 27:12), not as a national group but as individuals who respond and relate to Him in the true manner. Gathering involves willingness to enter into the right relationship with God. The whole concept of Israel as God's people is based on such ideas of relationship.

In the same way, then, as participation in the gathering depended upon the way one related to God, so too at the final gathering will the decision be based on one's attitude and response to the promises of God. In all of this it is not the works of man that permit God to gather him; rather it is the grace of God that permits us to say Yes to God's provision and enables us to have a part in that great day of salvation. If we take this attitude, then any idea that we may entertain (even subconsciously) of controlling God by our activities disappears. The second advent of the divine King of kings and Lord of lords is not the product of man's feeble efforts or of our inherent righteousness. The concept of man's relationship to God, rather than his legal, forensic state before God, returns the responsibility for the time of the Second Advent to God. The time of salvation must be God-centered, not man-centered.

Another important factor involves the foreknowledge of God. In particular, He foreknew the response of Israel in Babylon and thus could send the prophecy through Jeremiah regarding the time of their gathering from exile. This omniscience of God parallels His mercy in providing time for man to respond to His offer of salvation, and this too can be applied to the Second Advent gathering. It emphasizes the certainty of fulfillment, that the provisions of God to man do not permit an infinite time of negative response. Just as there was an Exodus and a return from exile, just as Christ did come the first time, so the final gathering will occur. Christ will come the second time. Our poor response to God can no more prevent the Second Advent than the relationship of ancient Israel to God could prevent the first advent.

Yet God provides His people with an allotted time for their response. He already knows our answer, yet still He waits for our decision. We are now in the "waiting time."

How do we respond?

Having seen that the Second Coming is the work of God and not the work of man and that yet God in His mercy waits for our response, how do we relate to this?

Do we, in a frenzy, set out to make ourselves "good people"? Do we read "When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own" (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 69) and then try to reproduce Christ's character in our selves? Do we try to fit the legal requirements so that we can be saved, to provide the "prerequisites" so that we can qualify for heaven?

The Bible and Ellen White shout No! The criteria for salvation have not changed just because we are approaching the end. The ones that are gathered are "they that are Christ's at his coming" (1 Cor. 15:23), the wheat that has been ripened by God through the latter rain (see Matt. 3:12; 13:30; James 5:7). We cannot say that Christ has not come because we have not worked hard enough, lest we focus on our works and fall into a state of frantic activity to expiate our guilt so that Jesus can come soon.

"It is the unbelief, the worldliness, unconsecration, and strife among the Lord's professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and sorrow so many years." Selected Messages, book 1, p. 69. How do we change this? By man's efforts or by the work of God? The answer is crystal clear: "I know that if the people of God had preserved a living connection with Him, if they had obeyed His Word, they would today be in the heavenly Canaan." Evangelism; p. 694. Elsewhere Ellen White speaks of "a living experience in the things of God" as the missing response and the reason why we are still here (Review and Herald, Oct. 6, 1896).

It took a long time for Israel to reach the Promised Land. If they had shown the right attitude, if they had responded in the affirmative, if they had possessed a dynamic, living relationship with God, then the promise would have been fulfilled far more rapidly and their gathering in Canaan would have been completed far sooner. The parallel with the "heavenly Canaan" is obvious; it is used in this very same sense in Hebrews 3 and 4, and by Ellen White (see The Great Controversy, p. 458).

God will fulfill His promise; Christ will return. The Israelites "could not enter in because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:19). Not because they were failing to follow the letter of the law, not because they were not "perfect," not because they had not worked hard enough. Unbelief, the lack of the right relationship to God, was the determining factor.

Unbelief is the only Biblical answer to the "delay" in the return of Christ. The central reason is that too many of His servants are believing, "My Lord delayeth his coming" (Matt. 24:48). And there is only one cure. "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).

Notes:

1 This study is particularly indebted to his remarks.

2 See especially Ellen White's comments in Evangelism, page 696: "We may have to remain here in this world because of insubordination many more years, as did the children of Israel; but for Christ's sake, His people should not add sin to sin by charging God with the consequence of their own wrong course of action."

3 Variations on this theme have been propounded by Werner, Buri, Bultmann, Glasson, Robinson, and others.

4 See Evangelism, pp. 694, 696.

5 See Counsels on Stewardship, p. 37; The Desire of Ages, pp. 633, 634; The Great Controversy, p. 458.

6 Compare similar concepts in Ezekiel 11 and 36, Psalm 51, and Jeremiah 31.


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Jonathan Gallagher is presently studying for the Ph.D. degree at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

June 1981

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