The heart of the plan of salvation and the turning point of history was the cross and resurrection of Christ. The blessed hope of Old Testament saints, it was the joyous reality of New Testament Chris tians. Without the mighty acts of Christ at His first advent there could be no Second Advent. Without the divine seed sowing there could be no harvest.
So convinced was the early church of the infinite value of the cross and the resurrection that they believed the last days had begun at Calvary and that it could be only a short time until Christ would return. They believed that God had spoken to them through His Son "in these last days" (Heb. 1:2). Peter quoted Joel's last-day prophecy and said it was being fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17ff). He also said Jesus was manifested "in these last times" (1 Peter 1:20). Paul listed nineteen sins as signs of the last days, but warned his readers against them in his own day as well (2 Tim. 3:1-6). He said that the night was far gone and the day was at hand (Rom. 13:12). John described the times in which he was living as "the last hour" (1 John 2:18, R.S.V.).' Christ promised him that He would come quickly (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20; see also 1:1-3).
When we read the words "near" and "soon" in the New Testament and then glance at the 1983 calendar, we naturally wonder what it means. Can "soon" be stretched over nearly two thousand years? In the past century this has become one of the major problems of theology.
During the past century Biblical scholars have given a great deal of thought to the supposed delay of Christ's advent. Albert Schweitzer concluded that Jesus believed the kingdom of heaven would come by harvest time in the same year He spoke. He saw Jesus predicting His own glorious coming in Matthew 10:23 (R.S.V.)—"You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes." But Christ was wrong, Schweitzer said.1
About thirty years later, C. H. Dodd defended Christ by blaming the church. Statements describing a literal Second Advent were not spoken by Christ, Dodd said, but were put in His mouth by the early church. He decided from his studies of the Gospel of John and the parables that the Second Coming was Christ's coming to each individual at conversion. 2
Rudolf Bultmann interpreted the coming of Christ in existential terms; he said that the predictions of the kingdom tell us simply that Christ confronts every man in each moment of decision. Christ is continually calling us to better things. 3 His idea seems to be a development of Dodd's.
Oscar Cullmann described the Second Coming in more traditional terms. With an illustration taken from World War II, he wrote that the cross was D-Day and the second coming will be V-Day. In other words, at the cross the decisive battle was fought. The Lord is now engaged in mopping-up operations, and the final victory will occur momentarily. The issues have been settled, so the outcome is not in doubt. 4 The only problem with Cullmann's illustration is that it fails to explain why the mopping up should take so long.
How do Seventh-day Adventists understand the texts indicating that the last days began with the first advent of Christ and that the Second Advent would be very soon? It must be admitted at the outset that we have not given them the attention they deserve. It is likely that Schweitzer was one of the first to bring them to our attention. Can we take them seriously and still believe that Christ's coming is nearer now than it was in the days of John the Revelator? I believe we can.
Seventh-day Adventists agree that the kingdom of heaven came with the first advent of Christ, but that it was the kingdom of grace; the kingdom of glory is still to come (The Desire of Ages, p. 234). The last days did indeed begin at that time, but Matthew 24:14 shows that the end was yet in the future. Paul explained in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4 that the Lord would not come until after the suprem acy of the man of sin, and Daniel 7:25 shows that that supremacy must endure until 1798. Daniel spoke of the "time of the end" dating from the end of the time prophecies (see Dan. 8:17; 11:35, 40; 12:4, 6, 7, 13). Adventists therefore do not see a problem in the eighteen centuries since Christ, for that time was all foreseen in the time periods of Daniel and Revelation, which are based on the year-day principle. Adventists can believe that the last days began in the time of Christ, and they also hold that in a unique sense they are living in the "time of the end." The time of the end seems to be the final portion of the "last days." When Adventists speak of a delayed advent, they are concerned only with the 139 years since 1844.
Our faith in the nearness of Christ's coming is founded on the time prophecies that have already been fulfilled. Because the 2300-year prophecy of Daniel 8:14 announced the beginning of Christ's final work in heaven and because there is no other time prophecy that extends beyond that time, the end is truly near. We are living on borrowed time.
Even the signs of the times are closely tied to the time prophecies. Wars, famines, pestilences, increasing wickedness, natural disasters, and disobedience to parents are ordinary events which have marked the entire history of sin on earth, but they take on the quality of signs when they occur in the time of the end. 5 Predicted in Mark 13:24, the dark day of May 19, 1780, was a sign, not because it was a dark day, but because it came at the right time—"in those days, after that tribulation."
The great outline prophecies of Daniel and Revelation picture human history marching inexorably to its climax. They underline the sovereignty of God; He is in control, and His will will not be thwarted. Commenting on Daniel 9:24- 27 in connection with the first advent of Christ, Ellen G. White wrote, "Like the stars in the vast circuit of their appointed path, God's purposes know no haste and no delay."—The Desire of Ages, p. 32. In recording her first vision, she said she heard the day and hour of Jesus' coming, and while she later explained that she had no memory of the date after coming out of the vision, it is clear that, in her mind God certainly knows when it will be, and the time prophecies already fulfilled show it will be soon (see Early Writings, pp. 15, 34; Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 75, 76).
We cannot set a date for the Second Advent, however, for Jesus warned the disciples that the times and seasons remain in the Father's hands (Acts 1:6-8). The Bible gives us no information about a date, beyond insisting that it is always near. This means that we have an open-ended expectation, which need not be disturbed by the passage of 139 years since 1844. One hundred years, after all, is very short when compared with the millenniums that have elapsed since Adam and Eve.
Both the Bible and the writings of Ellen White are much more interested in preparing men for the final day than in telling when it will be. We are to watch and pray always, because we know not the hour. The near coming of Christ exerts a continual pressure toward holy living and diligent witnessing. Because He is coming soon, we must exhibit the goodness of God and call the world to prepare to meet Him. Even our institutions—sanitariums, schools, publishing houses, and food factories—are motivated by our belief in the soon coming of Christ. These institutions help give standing to the message as they give men an example of what God has in mind for men (see Ellen G. White, "Let the Trumpet Give a Certain Sound," Review and Herald, Dec. 6, 1892, p. 754).
Since we must believe that the coming of Christ is always near, the Bible warns against saying it is delayed, for those who do this begin to beat their fellow servants and to eat and drink with the drunken (Matt. 24:48-51; Luke 12:45). In her comments on these verses, Ellen White observed that because Christ had not come as soon as they expected, some were turning after riches and love of the world (Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 306; vol. 5, pp. 9, 99). A worker's wife was warned that her sins showed she did not make the coming of Christ near enough: "I saw that for some time past, Sister] has had a rebellious spirit, has been self-willed. ... I saw that she did not bring the coming of the Lord as near as she should, and that her mind, instead of being at Rochester, should be all swallowed in the work of God, and she should be seeking opportunities to help her husband, to hold up his hands, and to labor wherever there was an opportunity." 6 By their actions such people were saying the Lord was delayed. Those who kept His coming near were those who lived dedicated lives.
On the other hand, there is some evidence that the time of Christ's coming actually has been delayed and that such a delay was foretold. In the parable of the ten virgins the bridegroom was delayed (Matt. 25:5). In the parable of the talents the master came back after a long time (verse 19). Peter indicated that the Lord was not slow, but patient, not willing that any should perish (2 Peter3:9). Revelation 7:1-4 teaches that God is restraining the winds of the final trouble until God's servants are sealed in their foreheads. Probably the strongest reason for a possible delay is suggested by Matthew 24:14 and Revelation 14:6-12. The gospel must be preached before the Lord can come. It appears that the same gospel that must be preached because the Lord is coming soon must also be preached so that the Lord can come soon.
Ellen White agreed with this concept in a statement first written in 1883, and often repeated afterward. 7 Answering a critic from Marion, Iowa, who con demned her for speaking of the soon coming of Christ as early as 1849, 8 she replied that the coming of Christ had been delayed by the failure of early Adventists to accept the third angel's message and by the sins of Seventh-day Adventists in her own time who had not carried out the commission of the three angels of Revelation 14. She compared the delay to that of Israel in the wilderness; the necessary conditions were holy living and diligent witnessing.
So seriously did Ellen White regard the church's failure to fulfill the gospel commission that when Adventists were persecuted for Sunday work in the 1880s and 1890s and the time of tribulation predicted by the third angel seemed to be starting, she said she did not believe the time had yet come when liberties were to be restricted. She asked the church to pray for a respite so Adventists would have time to take the message to the world. 9 When the persecution faded a few years later, she wrote that the respite had been granted; 10 now it was time to build institutions and send missionaries to all the world.
This does not mean, however, that we can use Matthew 24:14 to date Jesus' coming. The "world" that must hear the message includes not only the nations, but also every kindred, tongue, and people (Rev. 14:6). There are still some two thousand tongues in which the message of Christ's coming has never been spoken, and there are probably some sixteen thousand "kindreds" (cultural groups, tribes, and subgroups) that have never heard the call of the three angels. Somehow the message must reach the thousands of villages and scores of language groups in India, as well as the great communes of Russia, China, and Vietnam.
Another reason we cannot use Mat thew 24:14 to date the end is that the "world" is a dynamic organism that exists in time as well as space. It is not standing still for us to preach to it. The population keeps dying and being replaced. Even if we could reach every living person this year, we could not reach the dead who died last year. What then does it mean to preach the gospel to all the world, and then shall the end come? It means that the church's assignment is without boundaries and that it must obey the commission until the Lord says, "It is done." Only He can say when the task is finished.
Thus in the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy we find evidence for both the fixed nature and a delay of Christ's coining. In fact, we can find both in the single book of Revelation. In chapter 22 the Lord said He would come quickly (verses 7, 12, 20), but also the time prophecies outline a course of history extending over many centuries. In Ellen White also we find statements speaking of the nearness of Christ's coming and others speaking of delay. How can we harmonize the opposing ideas?
Two answers seem possible. One is that we are dealing with Biblical modes of thought, and the Bible is not overly concerned about apparent contradictions. Isaiah wrote that God dwells in the high and holy place, and also with him who "is of a contrite and humble spirit" (Isa. 57:15). Both God and Satan were said to tempt David to number Israel (2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1). Jesus promised that He and the Father would make their home with the obedient (John 14:23), yet He also said He would come and take them to the place He had prepared for them (verses 1-3). Bible writers sometimes lay contradictory statements alongside each other, letting one balance the other. We find this to be true of the Second Coming passages as well. Perhaps there is no need for us to harmonize the two streams of thought, for the Bible itself does not.
Another possible answer is that there is no delay when we see it from God's standpoint. Ellen White wrote in 1888, "The apparent tarry is not so in reality, for at the appointed time our Lord will come, and we will if faithful exclaim, 'Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us.'" 11
On the other hand, we need both sides. Either one without the other leads to dangerous positions. If we look only at the sovereignty of God, it can lead to passivity on our part. But to speak only of the responsibility of man can lead to despair, for if no earlier generation succeeded in the holy living and diligent witnessing that was required, what hope is there for this Laodicean church? We need the responsibility of man to urge us to cooperate with God; we need the sovereignty of God to give us assurance of final triumph.
Ellen White was far more interested in telling us how to prepare for the end than in telling the time. She never spoke of the coming of Christ as a matter of bare information; she always used it for a moral purpose: to comfort, to call to repentance, or to give, or witness, or serve, or preach. For this reason we misuse her writings when we use them to construct charts of final events. She never made such a chart herself, and it would be far better to take her writings just as they stand without abstracting and compiling statements in order to set dates. Her purpose was evangelistic, not chronological. The end is near—more than this we are not authorized to say. But that nearness must influence every decision of our lives.
As we look at the task of reaching the world we need not be overwhelmed. In the first place the Lord has made Himself responsible for the success of the church. Ellen White wrote, "It is divine power that gives success. Those whom God employs as His messengers are not to feel that His work is dependent on them. Finite beings are not left to carry this burden of responsibility. He who slumbers not, who is continually at work for the accomplishment of His designs, will carry forward His work."—Prophets and Kings, p. 176. She also wrote that Christ "made full provision for the prosecution of the work, and took upon Himself the responsibility for its success. So long as they obeyed His word, and worked in connection with Him, they could not fail."—The Desire of Ages, p. 822.
In the second place, while we have the last warning message for the world, we can also recognize the contribution of other churches, many of whom are also preaching much of the everlasting gospel. Their prayers are also answered by our loving heavenly Father; they, too, are concerned about a world lying in sin. Among them are multitudes of God's true servants who are shepherding His flock where they are, and who will doubtless accept the entire message of the three angels in God's own time.
Today out attitude toward the return of Christ should be more like that of a marathon runner whose race may be cut short at any time than that of a sprinter who uses up all his resources in a few seconds of time. Our spiritual forefathers in the Millerite movement may be compared to a sprinter running the hundred-yard dash. They put all they had into the work of preparing for Christ's coming in 1844. They had no time for building institutions, for getting college educations, or even for marriage. Everything was aimed toward the immediate goal.
But now we have had to make the necessary adjustments for running the marathon race. Institutions have been built, young people have gone to college and gotten married, and a large organization has been built up to spread the message around the world. Nevertheless, the spiritual attitudes of the sprint should be ours throughout the marathon race, no matter how long it may be. Always we must keep the coming of Christ near and let it influence every decision of our lives. With William Miller, we must say, "It is Today, and Today, and Today, until He comes."
* The Scripture quotations marked R.S.V. are
from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.
1 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical
Jesus, A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus
to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1961 [translated
by W. Montgomery from 1st Ger. ed., Von
Reimarus zu Wrede, 1906]), pp. 358, 360, 370,
2 C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, rev.
ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961 [1st
ed., 1935]), pp. 43, 44, 57, 61, 77, 81, 100, 103.
3 Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and
Mythology," Kerygma and Myth, ed. H. W.
Bartsch, pp. Iff; "Eschatology in John's Gospel,"
Faith and Understanding (1969), 1:165-183. See
also the criticism by A. L. Moore, The Parousia in
the New Testament (Leiden: E. ]. Brill, 1966), pp.
67-79; and G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ
(GrandRapids: Eerdmans, 1963), pp. 28, 44, 104,
4 Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time; The Primitive
Christian Conception of Time and History, 3d ed.
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), pp. 84,
5 In her careful exposition of Matthew 24, Ellen
White assigns the first twenty verses to the
destruction of Jerusalem, and only from verse 21
and on to the Second Advent (see The Desire of
Ages, pp. 627-636, esp. p. 631).
6 Manuscript 3, 1867, p. 1 (MSRelease #816).
See also, "Many among us put off the coming of the
Lord too far, and their works correspond with their
faith."—"To the Church," Review and Herald,
June 12, 1855, p. 246.
7 Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 66-69. For
repetitions of the idea that the Lord could have
come if conditions had been met by the church,
see: Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, pp. 291, 292; The
Great Controversy, pp. 457, 458; General Conference
Bulletin, Feb. 28, 1893, p. 9; Review and
Herald, Oct. 6, 1896, p. 629; The Desire of Ages,
pp. 633, 634; Review and Herald, Oct. 31, 1899, p.
697; Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 450; Christ's Object
Lessons, p. 69; Genera! Conference Bulletin, April 1,
1903, pp. 29-33; Evangelism, p. 694; Review and
Herald, Dec. 24, 1903, p. 8; Education, p. 271;
Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 22, 115-116; Review and
Herald, Nov. 24, 1904, p. 16; Testimonies, vol. 9,
p. 29; The Acts of the Apostles, p. Ill; Review and
Herald, Nov. 13, 1913, pp. 1110, 1111.
8 A. C. Long, Comparison of the Early Writings
of Mrs. White with Later Publications (Stanberry,
Mo: Church of God Publishing House, 1911
). He was a member of the so-called Marion
Party, a dissident Adventist group that was started
in 1866 by B. F. Snook and W. H. Brinkerhoff,
first president and secretary respectively of the
newly-formed Iowa Conference. When the conference
constituents replaced Snook with George I.
Butler in 1865, Snook established his own
headquarters at Marion, Iowa (see "Marion Party,"
SDA Encyclopedia, pp. 853, 854). The leaders of
the Adventist Church replied to Long in a
twenty-page Supplement to the Review and Herald
for Aug. 14, 1883. Butler himself wrote "A Brief
History of the 'Marion' Movement," pp. 7, 8, and
"The Visions: How They Are Held Among S. D.
Adventists," pp. 11, 12.
9 Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 714, 717, 718.
Church membership in 1888 was 25,378 in the
United States. Outside of America it was less than
2,000. See Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook of
Statistics for 1889 (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review
and Herald, 1889), p. 67.
10 "Under Which Banner?" Testimonies to Ministers,
p. 364 (Sept. 24, 1895), reprinted in "The
Time of the End," Review and Herald, Nov. 23,
1905, p. 6. Cf. Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 97, written in
connection with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
11 Letter S-38-1888, "To Dear Sister," Aug. 11,
1888, p. 5. (MS Release #816).