Symbol illiteracy

David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry

In chapter 17 of his book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers Alden Thompson points out the difficulty of determining where the literal leaves off and the symbolic begins in some passages of Scripture. He notes that Adventists, particularly American Adventists, have a hard time with the symbolic. We tend to be more comfortable thinking of truth in terms of the literal rather than the symbolic, of the concrete rather than the abstract.

The editors of Ministry have learned this truth through hard experience! In August 1990, almost a year ago now, we published an issue focusing on Christ's second advent and the mission of the church. On the cover we featured a painting that we had commissioned depicting the Advent. That cover proved to be controversial. One of the rags that make their living slinging mud at the church had a field day, somehow seeing it to be simultaneously New Age and "medieval Catholic, ""riddled with. . . most terrible errors"!

Many of those who wrote us criticizing the cover were concerned that we hadn't accurately pictured Christ's return. Some noted that the painting apparently portrayed the fires of hell as simultaneous with the Second Advent, while others objected that it depicted Christ much too near the earth.

The painting pictures the Advent in a symbolic way rather than attempting to reproduce it literally. In contemporary visual terms, it powerfully confronts the viewer with the biblical truth of Christ's return, and makes it clear that one must decide whether he or she will be among those who have accepted Jesus as Lord or among those who have turned from Him. To convey this message, it condenses reality, bringing together in one picture people and events that might in actuality be separated by time and space.

Other Adventist portrayals of end-time events have also used the mode of symbolism. One type of illustration I re member seeing as a child depicted the judgment. In these paintings, typically a man stands on trial in a heavenly court room (apparently plucked from earth in his Sabbath best!). An angel holds the open record book from which the defendant will be judged, while the gallery is filled with the rest of the heavenly host. Sometimes the painting pictured Christ standing beside the man, ready to plead his case; sometimes Christ was on the bench. Often with the painting there appeared a quotation from Romans 14:10: "We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ."

Now, we believe in a literal judgment that will examine everyone who has pro fessed Christ. But no one will actually, literally stand in a heavenly courtroom while his case is being considered. We believe that the investigative judgment takes place before Christ returns, and Scripture nowhere indicates that the saints will be raptured to heaven, individually or as a group, to stand judgment and then be returned to earth for the close of probation and the events that lead up to the Second Advent.

Obviously, then, this genre of illustrations is symbolic. It represents something that will actually happen but not in the manner portrayed. The portrayal focuses on what will happen and not on how it will happen. It intends to cause viewers to reflect on their spiritual state.

Scripture is full of symbolism. Its use in apocalyptic passages is well known. The sanctuary and its services, so central to our beliefs, were also symbolic illustrations of the truths of God's plan for our salvation. Most of us realize that these illustrations are significant for the truths that they convey, and that they shouldn't be pushed too far literally. (For example, to receive forgiveness in the sanctuary system, the sinner must liter ally slit the throat of the sacrifice with his own hands. We recognize this as meaning that our sins are responsible for Jesus' death; we don't go so far as to say that to be forgiven we must literally slit Jesus' throat.)

Symbolism is a form of illustration. As one of my college teachers used to warn us, you oughtn't try to make illustrations walk on all fours--that is, try to push them too far, to make every detail significant.

That we have been able to accept the use of symbolism regarding the judgment and the sanctuary is good. We need to recognize that its use is just as legitimate in other portrayals.

*It seems to me that Alden may have misconstrued
the situation a bit. From his narration I gathered
that it was actually the German Adventists
who were uncomfortable with the use of symbol
ism. They would have preferred that abstract
concepts be talked about in abstract terms.
As for American Adventists, it wasn't so much that
they were uncomfortable with symbolism; they just
didn't recognize it for what it is they tended to
consider the descriptions literal rather than symbolic.

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David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry

June 1991

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