Seventh-day Adventism and Eschatology (Part I)

by Desmond Ford



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THE name Adventist intimates an eschatological thrust, and such a thrust was never more relevant than in 1971. This is, theologically and otherwise, the eschatological era. To speak of eschatology is to speak of hope in a hopeless world, it is to assert purpose and meaning in an age of ideological nihilism. It is a presentation of a viable theodicy to an age of deicide— that is, it justifies God to a world so suspicious of Him as to declare Him dead.

No purgatory or hell conceived by the human mind could exceed in awfulness our own sick world in unending existence, and such a concept cherished by the individual acts as a moral depressant. An ailing and lost society can find healing for its ills only in acceptance of the Bible's eschatological hope, and the Laodicean church is to find revival from the same source.

Because our unique contribution to theology is not primarily Christology or pneumatology but rather eschatology, to fail to view this theme aright would be to betray our trust. It is an understanding of the latter-day prophecies presented in Daniel and Revelation and the Olivet sermon, which, when interpreted in the setting of the everlasting gospel, will turn many to righteousness (Dan. 12:10; Matt. 24:15; Rev. 1:3; Dan. 12:3, 4). Concerning these "last things" we are specifically told that the wicked shall not understand, "but the wise shall understand" (Dan. 12:10). It is the proclamation of the imminence of the coming kingdom that hastens the return of our Lord (Matt. 24:14; 2 Peter 3:12, margin).

The Doctrine of Creation—A Basic Consideration

Our denominational name, as it points to the termini of time—Creation and the Second Advent—enshrines the special truths entrusted to -us. The beginning and end of this world constitute the particular perspective within which we proclaim the offer of salvation, and the latter has meaning only in view of the former. If humanity originated from flux and by chance, and will eventually be denigrated to nothingness by the same process, then there can be no such thing as "the good news," and no such hope as everlasting life in the kingdom of God. Thus stress upon eschatology is primarily dependent upon the prior truth of Creation. If in the beginning there was no impression of the image of the Creator upon the creature, then in the future there can be no judgment concerning the adequate reflection of that entrusted image, and therefore ultimately no man has need of forgiveness, regeneration, or sanctification. The existence of all churches, including our own, would be invalidated.

It is apparent that no one can rightly be gin a study of eschatology today who has not first settled the matter of human origins. We do not mean by this that he has settled all the problems—scientific, historical, and theological—connected with the arrival of the first man on this planet, but rather he has settled the matter of whether human existence is the result of the prior divine existence, and the creative activity of a personal God. The doctrine of Creation alone can give sense to all other matters. In our age of meaninglessness, evangelicals and liberals alike testify to the truthfulness of this fact.

Creation means that God is the true home of man's spirit. When man loses this knowledge, he is a lost man, unable to take bearings to determine where he is, or where he should go.

With the loss of this knowledge, man also loses the knowledge of self. Not knowing of whom he is the son, he knows not who he is. Like Socrates, he thinks himself now divine, now demonic. Estranged from his father, he is a stranger to himself.

That God is Creator means also that beyond the universe is a reality rightly called Father; that behind all the loneliness of lost man is a transcendent, seeking love. By creating the world, God reveals that he is fatherly, an out-going, self-giving God, who willed that there be another alongside him, with whom he wills to share his divine existence and life, his divine joy and beatitude. Knowing that he was created to participate in the life of God, man regards existence as an expression of the mercy of God. Existence is no longer a curse, the universe unfriendly. The child knowing his origin declares, "This is my Father's world," and sings, "It is good to be here, it is great to be alive, and the best is yet to be!" . . .

If this doctrine is not central, nonetheless it is basic to the Christian faith, and stands there fore first in the Apostles' Creed. It is so basic that neither the Cross nor the Resurrection have meaning without it, for the Cross means the end of the old creation, and the Resurrection means the regeneration of all things, the recreation of the old into a new heaven and a new earth.

Indeed the doctrine of creation is so basic as to be the indispensable foundation for any tolerable, viable human existence. The proof of this is being spelled out in the progressive disintegration of the spirit and life of modern, homeless man. When the truth of this is clearly seen, the Church will speak about God the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth with a new relevance to today's growing crowd of lonely men, to its lost and nameless, to its homeless and hopeless men.—CARL F. H. HENRY, in Christianity Today, Jan. 5, 1962, p. 3.

The idea that God is the Creator of all things is the indispensable foundation on which the other beliefs of the Christian faith are based. It affirms what the Christian believes about the status of God in the whole realm of reality: He is the Creator of everything else. On this affirmation logically depends all that Christians say about God, about the world they live in, and about their own history, destiny, and hope. The most fundamental question of religious thought is: who is God—He in whom we put our trust? And the primary answer in both Bible and creed is: "He is the maker of the heavens and the earth." Of course this fundamental assertion about God is accompanied by others of equal importance: that God has redeemed Israel, that He sent His son into the world to reconcile the world to Himself, that He loves His children and promises them eternal life if they return to Him, and so on. These are the crucially significant actions God has undertaken for us, and so they are the center of the devoted concern of Christians. But we learn who has done these things through the all-important affirmation that the Creator of all has done them.

In this sense the doctrine of creation provides that primary definition of God which gives meaning and significance to all else that is said about God. That God is a righteous judge, a loving Saviour, and the promiser of an eternal destiny, is certainly the central message of the Gospel. But the importance and meaning of these very affirmations depend on the belief that this judgment, this saving love, and this promise come to us from our Creator—He who has brought us and all else into being, and so He who claims us and rules over us with an essential and eternal power. For there are many judges, many "lovers," many promisers in life; each of them may have importance to us, some more and some less, but none of them has an ultimate claim on us, an ultimate power over us, and so an ultimate significance for us. The good news of the Gospel is not just that we are judged and loved. It is rather that He who is "the maker of the ends of the earth," and therefore He on whom we are totally dependent, judges and loves us. In this way the idea of creation gives meaning and significance to all else in the Christian faith.—LANODON GILKEY, Maker of Heaven and Earth, pp. 4, 5.

Eschatology Gives "Meaning"

When man accepts "meaning" at the beginning of existence he automatically looks also for "meaning" at the end of time. It is not coincidence that the people entrusted with the memorial of Creation have also been entrusted with special light regarding the end of all things. The Sabbath itself is not only a memorial of Creation in the past but it is a promise of the new creation to come. It points forward as well as backward as it guarantees that Eden will one day be restored, and then "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying" (Rev. 21:4).

At times Seventh-day Adventists are so concerned regarding the "trees" of latter-day events, the twenty-three hundred days, the cleansing of the sanctuary, and the investigative judgment that we miss the "wood" of our over-all eschatological view. Some non-Adventists have seen the significance of eschatology with more clarity than we ourselves express. For example, James Denney expressed the issue clearly more than fifty years ago when he wrote:

Those who take a materialistic or naturalistic view of the world do not need to raise any questions about its end; it is an essentially meaningless affair for them, and it does not matter whether or how it ends. But if we take an ethical view of the world and of history, we must have an eschatology; we must have the moral order exhibited, vindicated, brought out in perfect clearness as what it is. It is because the Bible is so intensely ethical in spirit that it is so rich in eschatological elements —in visions of the final and universal triumph of God, of the final and universal defeat of evil. It is not ethical to suppose that the moral condition of the world is that of an endless suspense, in which the good and the evil permanently balance each other, and contest with each other the right to inherit the earth. Such a dualistic conception is virtually atheistic, and the whole Bible could be read as a protest against it. Neither is it ethical to suppose that the moral history of the world consists of cycles in which the good and the evil are alternately victorious. There are, indeed, times when that is the impression which history makes upon us, but these are times when the senses are too strong for the spirit; and as the moral consciousness recovers its vigour, we see how inconsistent such a view is with its postulate, that the good alone has the right to reign. The Christian doctrine of a final judgment is not the putting of an arbitrary term to the course of history; it is a doctrine without which history ceases to be capable of moral construction.—JAMES DENNEY, Studies in Theology, pp. 239, 240.

In a more popular vein Bruce Barton showed the necessity for eschatological faith in his What Can Man Believe?

Immortality of some sort is a necessary complement to the existence and nature of God.

For why was the universe set going in the first place? To what end is all the struggle and suffering and self-sacrifice? To produce a nobler race, a finer character? And for what? To blot it all out in the end? Where is the justice in such a plan? Would you, if you were God, create in man the conviction that life is significant, that there is an eternal difference between right and wrong, that love and self-sacrifice and devotion and loyalty are important—would you make them feel all this, and act in accordance with it, often to their own hurt, and then laugh at them in the end? You would not. . . . There must be some place hereafter where life goes on, where injustices are righted and inequalities evened up, where those who have been thwarted and disappointed and cheated are given a fairer field and a better chance. This world as we know it cannot be the whole answer. Pages 113, 114.

The Ultimate in Eschatology—The Vindication of God's Justice

Most theologians of the twentieth century recognize the fact that our age is indeed the time for eschatological emphasis. Prof. William Caven is typical of many when he speaks as follows:

If the doom of each individual is really fixed at death—fixed by Him who knows the history of every life, as He knows all things—why, it may be asked, should there be a day of judgment after wards? What further end is to be accomplished thereby? This final, public act of judgment is the complete vindication of God's justice both to those who are judged and to the moral universe. The absolute righteousness of God in all His dealings through life, and in the destiny awarded, is now brought home to those who are judged as never be fore. Those who are condemned feel in their inmost beings that the sentence passed upon them is according to their desert; and, though salvation is entirely of grace, those who are adjudged righteous would see that the reward bestowed upon them is, in every case, according to their works.

But what presents itself first to the mind when we think of the ends served by the final judgment is the public vindication of Divine justice—the vindication of God's righteousness in the sight of men and angels, of all moral beings. This certainly is a very high end. The manifestation of His own glory—i.e., of the excellency of His own perfection —is an end than which none can be higher. In the whole of His works and in the whole history of His administration God is revealing Himself, and to learn of Him as His perfections are thus manifested is the highest blessedness of the creature. To know Him is the constant aim of all holy beings, and of all who are seeking to be holy. To make known, by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God, to the principalities and powers in heavenly places, enters into the eternal purpose which God has purposed in Christ Jesus.

The righteousness of God's administration and His justice in recompensing both the righteous and the wicked have at no time and in no place been without attestation. But looking broadly over the field of human history, no one would say that complete proof of God's equity in His dealing with individual men has been presented to the eyes of His creatures. The confidence of faith can ever say: "That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee: shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" But how often in thinking of God's providence while His work was unfinished have the best men in all ages longed to see the good man freed from oppression and the proud oppressor re warded according to his wickedness—to see the aspersions cast upon God's faithful servants re moved and the hypocrite unmasked. It is not in the spirit of revenge that saints of earth have joined with the souls under the altar in crying to God that He would avenge the blood of His martyrs. But patience must have its perfect work. No shadows of iniquity will finally rest on the Divine administration. The whole creation will see that God is just in all His ways, and holy in all His works.—Quoted in WILBUR M. SMITH, Therefore Stand, pp. 458-460. (Italics supplied.)

A common expression occurring in these references to the "last things" is that of "vindication." Eschatology is essentially a theodicy, that is, a justification or vindication of God with the problem of evil in view. Such scriptural passages as the following point to this, Luke 2:35; 12:2; Psalm 51:4; Romans 2:5; Isaiah 45:23; Ephesians 3:9, 10; 1 Corinthians 4:9; Revelation 15: 3, 4.

(To be continued)