In Adventist circles the pope never had a very positive press. At first it was not so bad. In the days of William Miller, the precursor of the Advent Movement, the Protestant churches received the brunt of the criticism. At the time Catholics were not yet very numerous in the United States and the pope was mostly a distant historical figure. But when the immigration from Catholic countries brought millions of adherents of ‘Rome’ to this traditionally Protestant country, Catholics were increasingly regarded as a formidable danger.
As the classical Adventist exposition of the prophecies of the Bible books of Daniel and the Revelation was taking shape, the image of the Catholic Church—and, in particular, its leadership—became ever more negative in many Protestant circles. There was no doubt: the ‘beast’ and the ‘little horn’ were symbols of Catholicism, and, more specifically, of the papal power. In most Protestant circles this idea has long been abandoned, but Adventists have (officially) never distanced themselves from it.
Nonetheless in many areas in the world Adventists do not talk as much as they used to about this prophetic tradition. Many feel quite uncomfortable with it. In our postmodern western world it is no longer ‘sexy’ to speak negatively about other religious convictions. In the past few weeks, however, those church members who faithfully attend the Bible study hour that usually precedes the worship service, have been once again confronted with the official Adventist interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel. The ‘little horn’ has done various evil things to the detriment of God’s ‘sanctuary’, they could read in their Bible study guide. But, fortunately, this is only something temporary, for after a certain period things in the ‘heavenly sanctuary’ are put in order. The traditional prophetic interpretation presents us with enough indications to work out that this process is in a decisive phase since the middle of the nineteenth century.
When visiting a number of churches in the past few weeks and attending the Bible study period, I sensed a lot of unease on the part of many participants, who felt things were far too complicated. They wanted to know what must be seen as the essence, without hearing too many accusations against other Christian believers and without being saddled with too much arithmetic. In his recently published book, that was also translated into Dutch, about this topic, dr. Jean Claude Verrecchia pointed out that the traditional viewpoints could well do with a bit more honest study.
To be honest, the current pope has not made things any easier for us. At first it seemed to mean that the fear we had inherited from the past would be confirmed. A South-American Jesuit as the new pope—could it be that at last ‘Rome’ would once again show its true colors? However, Pope Francis proved to be an enormous surprise. He appears to have a much better idea of what our world is really like and what Christian believers are looking for, than his predecessors. No, as yet we do not see any signals that the pope is about to reject the Catholic teachings that are against Protestant convictions. (Changing even a small detail of a doctrinal system is a difficult process in all denominations, as we Adventists also know too well. Usually time must do the work.) But we do see that the pope wants to create more space for people and no longer wants to emphasize mostly what cannot be done and is not allowed by the church.
Mark Twain already told us that making predictions is difficult, especially when it concerns the future. The least we can say is that we must be extremely careful when making specific historical application of Biblical prophecy. Past history has given us ample evidence that we have missed the mark repeatedly.
I am happy that our eternal salvation does not depend on our precise identification of the ‘little horn’, nor of our ability to explain the various time prophecies—however interesting it may be to devote intense study to such topics.
Maybe the time has gradually come that we no longer do out utmost to paint as negative a picture as possible of the Catholic Church, or to view the pope as the bad guy par excellence. We no longer live in the age of the Inquisition, of the Borgia’s or even at the time of the First Vatican Council. Admittedly, much should still be changed (improved) in the Catholic Church. But perhaps the moment has come not to just condemn the pope, but rather to pray for him!