The Great Controversy

The fellow is a not-very-close relative (half-brother of the wife of my nephew) but he said he carefully chose his denomination after reviewing their theology of eschatology, and having found no deviations from Scripture. I thought that a curious basis for choosing one's faith, given that there are so many different frameworks in which to construct an eschatology that appears consistent when seen within that framework, but can neither contradict nor be contradicted by a similarly consistent eschatology built into a very different framework, that is to say that there's no basis for comparing them to decide which is correct or more Biblical.

Myself, after puzzling through Calvinism for a while a long time ago, I decided that all systematic theologies are necessarily Wrong somewhere, and that if we understood everything there is to know about theology we would be God, which we are not. The best we can do is, as an early proponent of a different denomination put it, "Where Scripture speaks, we speak, and where Scripture is silent, there we must also remain silent." I spent some time in his denomination, and it seems his followers are not so careful in their own handling of Scripture (see my review "Muscle and a Shovel" four years ago).

Perhaps a decade ago or so, I heard some guy describe his own eschatology as "pan-Millennialist: it will all pan out in the end," and liked his description. So that's what I now say of myself. Eschatology has no significant effect on my personal life (see "1+2C"), but I suppose it could affect other people. For example, an annihilationist might suppose that the cost of atheism and/or debauchery is minimal (everything stops at death) and therefore be unmotivated toward repentance. None of us are any good at imagining in a positive way the joys of Heaven, so there is no pull; without the push of eternal damnation, who would even consider a life of virtue? But that's an argument built on reason alone, Pascal's wager in reverse; I find no hint of it in Scripture.

Anyway, I know almost nothing about this particular denomination, and being somewhat of an information junkie, when the guy offered me a book explaining (some part of) it, I accepted. From the cover it appears to be a re-interpretation of the Protestant Reformation and how this particular denomination arose during the explosion of new religions (the 1800s, mostly in America). Glancing through it, I see it seems to be dense and anecdotal rather than expository, with no index nor footnotes. Already it is off-putting. So I skimmed through the Contents, and the first half was apparently, as I had been informed, historical. I wasn't sure I wanted to read a church history written from a denominational perspective until I knew more about what that perspective entailed.

Farther down, one of the chapter titles caught my eye: "The First Great Deception." Ah, this might be a good place to see what they consider deceptive. It started off as a homily or devotion on the Fall of Adam. The first deviation from Scripture was when the author began imagining (without reference to Scripture or other source materials) what might be the meaning of God's warning to Adam, which Satan explicitly contradicted. "In the day you eat of the Tree you will surely die," God said, and Satan rebutted, "You will not die." One of them was wrong, but this author did not address that issue.

That's unfortunate, because this is an important insight into the nature of God. Satan is described explicitly in John's Gospel, and implicitly everywhere else in the Bible as "a liar and the father of all lies," and in contrast we are told "it is impossible for God to lie," and elsewhere that God is not ignorant of anything, past, present, or future (so He could not have been mistaken). Therefore we are forced to conclude that Adam died on that day, although obviously not the way we normally understand death, or else the Bible is worthless as a guide to faith and practice (which this author evidently does not believe). Revelation speaks of a "second death," and John elsewhere tells of being "born again" into a second kind of life, so the conservative theology I grew up in quite reasonably explains this incident as spiritual death, which is consistent with the rest of the story in that chapter of Genesis. I did not see any evidence that this author did anything like that analysis in the rest of the chapter, but continued a focus on the presumed error in a topic not covered here in this chapter. That's probably significant.

Then I looked to see who the author was: E.G.White, the founder of the denomination, but not mentioned on the cover. If I'd seen her name on the cover, I probably would have taken a pass on the book. If you read very much of my weblog, you know what I think of female authors, yet I was almost surprised to see E.G.White with the same failings. sigh Her argument against the eternal damnation of the wicked seems to rest mostly on "How repugnant" it is "to every emotion of love and mercy." There is far too much that is clearly taught in Scripture but seems "repugnant" to our modern sensibilities for this to be a compelling argument. Basically it is an appeal to emotions no more valid than my appeal to logic and reason four paragraphs back. It matters not one whit whether our reason or emotions are offended or satisfied; what matters is, Did God say it? With no index, I have no way of knowing whether she deals (or not) with the Scriptures -- for example, Matt.18:34,35, 25:30,41; Luke 16:23-26; Rev.20:10,15 -- that clearly teach eternal damnation, short of reading her whole book and building my own index, which is becoming quite unlikely after this encounter with her non-logic. In just over two pages she turned me off to everything in her denomination (see my "BS Detector"). Not only is her eschatological framework different from anything I am familiar with, her basis of argumentation is utterly repugnant both to me and to my understanding of Scripture.

It seems to me that if the denominational leaders wanted -- as so many theologians in mainstream Christianity do -- to present their theology as a logical inference from Scripture, they might have put a little more effort into editing a centennial reprinting of this tract to include at least an index of cited Scriptures, and hopefully also an index of topics. Perhaps they were afraid that opening up the text to closer scrutiny might expose more errors than they wanted to defend. A different sect born in the same century subsequently divided, and one branch (with less material property to protect) migrated back closer to the Biblical mainstream after seeing how far their founder had wandered. That's significant.

I will point the guy at this quasi-review and maybe he will come back with something more substantial. Or not.

Tom Pittman
2020 May 22

Postscript, I got some feedback questioning how little I read in this book. I gave the book back, so I cannot reconfirm my findings, but I did skim the rest of the chapter I started, and saw nothing other than additional arguments in favor of annihilationism. Apparently the notion of eternal damnation is "The First Great Deception" of the chapter title.

I gave some more thought to my approach to this book, and decided that my words at another time in another context were still relevant here: We have some very good historical documents, which describe a remarkable person, who said some remarkable things and did some remarkable things. One of the things he said was that he would be executed (killed) and in three days he'd be back up and walking around again, and by God he did! That's rather remarkable, and I need to pay attention to the other things he said. That other time I went on to point out that this guy (Jesus) taught that the Jewish Scriptures -- which we now today have very good contemporaneous copies, so we know exactly what he was referring to -- are absolutely reliable and the standard against which all truth claims must be measured, but I think is is sufficient today to stop with what Jesus himself taught, and he said more about eternal damnation, and on more different occasions, than any other teacher in the Bible. Who are we (and who is E.G.White) to contradict Jesus himself on this topic that she seems to consider so important?

If the Seventh-Day Adventists (or anybody else) has an answer to this question, I'd like to see it, but they need to address the teachings of Jesus himself, and they need to present their best argument in less than a 250-page book. Perhaps it is buried in that book somewhere, and if this guy (or anybody else) wants to point me to where, I will give it due diligence. I Googled the book title and it seems to be online (encrypted, not open to the public, but I'm a professional, I can do these things), just give me a URL and I'll go look.