Revisioning Prophecy

This is a repost of something I’ve published here and elsewhere before.

Revisioning Prophecy
By John McLarty
For October, 2015, Gazette
The recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States occasioned a flurry of Adventist commentary. Some saw the visit as evidence of the looming end of time. A representative example of this thinking was published on the web site, Advendicate. This article gave particular attention to the pope’s statement about climate change. Since President Obama and other world leaders also think climate change is a serious issue this is supposed to prove the pope is now wielding increased global power. The article also quoted a number of statements by the pope advocating Sunday-keeping. These were cited as evidence that the United States is moving toward the enactment of a National Sunday Law. The article can be readily summarized in these sentences:
Prophecy is being fulfilled. Pope Francis represents the first beast of Revelation 13:1, whereas President Obama represents the second beast (13:11). Revelation 13:11-17 informs us that in the closing moments of time, the second beast (USA) will promote the first beast (the Papacy), and finally enforce its “mark.”
Other Adventist commentary has discussed the mass mailing of 170,000 copies of The Great Controversy by Ellen White to addresses in the Philadelphia area. Some argued Adventists should similarly blanket every city in the United States with the book. Others express embarrassment because the book is very blunt in its telling of the documented abuses by the Catholic Church in the past and its assertion that the Catholic Church will again act as a persecuting power. Many of these Adventists who are embarrassed by the book nevertheless believe Last Day Events will play out just as the book describes—a union of Protestants and the papacy will foist a National Sunday Law on America that will ultimately impose the death penalty on anyone who opposes this Sunday law. But they think we should keep this belief secret.
I largely ignored the hubbub until a student asked me about a sermon preached at Andrews University detailing “The Pope’s Agenda for America.” The sermon talked about the “leopard beast” of Revelation. What did I think? Here is my response to all the commotion:
Adventist concern about the pope flows from the End Time Scenario found in chapters 35-39 of The Great Controversy. The scenario outlined in The Great Controversy is in turn rooted in the interpretation of Revelation 12-13 worked out by the Reformers, especially Martin Luther. Most Adventists believe that questioning any detail of the prophecy in The Great Controversy is tantamount to rejecting the prophetic gift of Ellen White.
The specific predictions in the book assume that Protestant churches will have irresistible influence in American political life and that those churches will partner with the Roman Catholic Church in persuading the American government to enact a National Sunday Law. Ellen White believed all these events would happen within her life time. (She died in 1915.) Given the steady decline in church attendance and church influence in American life and the passage of a hundred years of American history that Ellen White did not envision, some Adventist theologians are questioning whether the scenario mapped out in The Great Controversy will ever happen. Perhaps, the enduring relevance of the prophecies in these chapters will come from the principles of spiritual life and theology elucidated through the narrative. These principles are relevant in every historical setting, in every political environment, in every religious conflict. These principles continue to offer godly wisdom even as the world described by Ellen White morphs beyond recognition.
Curiously, one of the Bible prophets, Ezekiel, also wrote a detailed End Time Scenario. Just like Ellen White in The Great Controversy, Ezekiel names the enemies of God’s people, talks about the work of the Holy Spirit to purify God’s people, and outlines the stratagems of the wicked. The grand climax of his prophecy is an overwhelming, supernatural intervention by God. God blasts the armies of the wicked and establishes his people in safety and righteousness forever. The final chapters of Ezekiel provide dizzying detail of the architecture of the new temple—storage rooms and worship areas. The prophet details the clothing and scheduling of the priests. He writes about the specific liturgical practices. There is even a description of land distribution for the priests and the tribes.
But none of it ever happened.
What are we to do with this? The New Testament, especially the book of Revelation, reinterprets the vision of Ezekiel. In the book of Revelation, Ezekiel’s earthly Jerusalem constructed of stone in Palestine becomes the New Jerusalem which will descend from heaven. The chief enemy of God’s people in Ezekiel—a local figure, “Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal”–becomes in Revelation “Gog and Magog, the nations in the four corners of the earth.” Ezekiel writes about a river that flows from the stone temple in the earthly Jerusalem. In Revelation, the river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Ezekiel writes about a fusion of the Nation of Judah and the Ten Lost Tribes which had become extinct as distinct people groups two hundred years before Ezekiel’s day. In Revelation this fusion is echoed in the vision of the 144,000–12,000 from every tribe (including the Lost Tribes)–which then morphs into the international multitude so immense it cannot be counted. Every detail of Ezekiel’s vision is reinterpreted. No detail is fulfilled in a literal, historical sense. It turns out that it is the spiritual heart of the vision that matters.
The truth in Ezekiel that the New Testament reaffirms is the rich promise that God will finally turn the world. He will supernaturally give us new hearts that are reliably pure and holy. He will vanquish the enemies of God’s people. He will save all his people—including the lost Ten Tribes, that is the people who are utterly invisible to any human system of accounting. God will visit the Valley of Dry Bones and recreate a living people. The “take away” message of Ezekiel is God wins. Righteousness wins. God carries his people to victory. The details of Gog, the architecture of the temple, the assignments of the priests and the liturgical practices of the temple prove to be unnecessary for the accomplishment of God’s purposes. And so, we let them go.
Similarly with The Great Controversy. There are eternal principles in chapters 35-39. Note these quotations:
God never forces the will or the conscience; but Satan’s constant resort–to gain control of those whom he cannot otherwise seduce–is compulsion by cruelty. Through fear or force he endeavors to rule the conscience and to secure homage to himself. GC 591
A religion of externals is attractive to the unrenewed heart. The pomp and ceremony of the Catholic worship has a seductive, bewitching power, by which many are deceived; and they come to look upon the Roman Church as the very gate of heaven. GC 567 (To state the obvious: “pomp and ceremony” are not copyrighted by the Roman Catholic Church. They are not even copyrighted by religion.)
It is Satan’s constant effort to misrepresent the character of God, the nature of sin, and the real issues at stake in the great controversy. His sophistry lessens the obligation of the divine law and gives men license to sin. At the same time he causes them to cherish false conceptions of God so that they regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love. The cruelty inherent in his own character is attributed to the Creator; it is embodied in systems of religion and expressed in modes of worship. GC 569
These quotations articulate principles that are relevant in every era and in every political situation. To evaluate the continued applicability of Ellen White’s prophecy, it’s helpful to understand her historical setting. The doctrine of papal infallibility was voted at the First Vatican Council while she was at work on the book. America was in turmoil over the mass immigration to the U. S. of people from Ireland and Italy and other Catholic countries. Protestants were afraid that through these immigrants the Catholic Church would acquire in America the kind of political clout it had exercised for centuries in Europe. Given the power of Protestant churches in America and the potential power of the Catholic Church, Ellen White’s caution about the dangers of a union of churches was entirely reasonable. If the Protestant churches had united with the papacy in support of an agenda for the nation, the agenda would have passed. At the time she was writing, there was legislation being pushed in Congress for a National Sunday Law. If the end had come at that time, Ellen White’s scenario would have played out.
But the end did not come. The nation changed. Churches changed. Atheism has become a far greater challenge to our faith than any conceivable challenge from other Christian groups. In today’s America, if the leaders of Protestant churches issued a proclamation, would it make any difference? If the pope issued an encyclical, would Americans obey?
There are contemporary threats to the integrity and authenticity of Christianity. But the pope and the errors of Catholic theology are hardly leading candidates for the greatest threats to faith. It’s time for us to let go of the details of Ellen White’s prophecy and give attention instead to the principles—a true understanding of the character of God, a radical commitment to religious liberty, a deep recognition of the seductive potential of pomp and ceremony, status and stardom. These principles are relevant always.
The final sentence of Ezekiel is this: “And the name of the city from then on will be: The Lord is there.” The final sentence of The Great Controversy is, “From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love.”
In both cases, the grand final vision transcends every imaginable outcome that could be reached through natural historical process. You can’t get there from here—except by a magnificent singularity, a grand divine interruption. The ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy is possible only through the direct, miraculous creative work of God. And he will do it. It is this conviction that turns up in every vision and in every reinterpretation of the vision. What the American Congress votes or the pope says is not ultimately determinative of the course of history or the fulfillment of God’s dream.