The week that was . . .

I was somewhat hesitant to start on this blog, because my laptop is not behaving as it should. From time to time there are days or weeks when the letter “r” does not appear on the screen. The only way I can write something during such a period is to copy the letter “r” and then keep pasting it where it is needed. It’s tremendously annoying. By the way, it seems that Apple knows about the problem and is fixing this flaw for free for part of their MacBook Air production. My device is eligible for it, but then I’ll be without my computer for a week. That has kept me from availing me of this service until now. However, just when I am about ready to throw my laptop out of the window, the problem suddenly stops, only to reappear a few weeks later. And that’s the situation right now . . . I think it is really time to go to an Apple-store and trade in my computer. Especially since the quality of the battery has also seriously deteriorated

However, life is not all doom and gloom. Earlier than I expected, the Dutch version of my book on the Second Coming of Christ appeared last week. In a few days it will be available through the webshop of the Dutch Adventist Church: https://www.servicecentrum-adventist.nl. I hope it will get a good reception and that many readers may find answers to questions they have about this subject. The original English version was published last year by Stanborough Press, the Adventist publishing house in the United Kingdom. It is available through their webshop: https://lifesourcebookshop.co.uk/about/.

Unfortunately, the books of Stanborough Press are not available through Amazon and other online stores. Normally, Pacific Press in the United States distributes, through the Adventist Book Center network, the books published by Stanborough Press. However, I am getting the impression that, somewhere, someone is blocking the promotion of my book in the US. Too bad. The good news is that there are a number of Adventist publishers in other countries who want to translate the book and release an edition.

Anyone who writes books knows the feeling of euphoria when you finally have the ready-made product in your hands. And even though this is by no means my first book–the total now stands at about thirty–that feeling of satisfaction does not diminish! But satisfaction is also still there when I see an article appear on a popular website. This week Spectrum posted on their website my review of Michael Campbell’s latest book: 1922–the Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism. I hope we will see many more books from his hand. Campbell is developing into a new George Knight, who led the way in Adventist historiography in recent decades.

But, as we stand at the eve of the 61st World Congress of the Church, which will be held in St. Louis (USA) starting June 6, there are omens that are not at all positive. A few days ago an article appeared in the Review, the official journal of the Church, in which Laurel Damsteegt defends the principle of “male headship” as biblical. Laurel is the wife of Gerard Damsteegt, a theologian hails from the Netherlands, who recently retired and is one of the most ardent opponents of ordaining women to the ministry. His wife fully agrees with him. Why this article appears so shortly before the start of the General Conference sessions raises many questions. Is it a regrettable decision on the part of the editor-in-chief? Or has he been pushed by higher powers to publish this article just now?

Something else that raised my eyebrows–to put it carefully–was the announcement that staffers traveling to St. Louis are being called upon to hand out, led by Ted Wilson, 90,000 copies of The Great Controversy to the public in St., Louis just before they begin their work. Well, . . . the members of the nominating committee, and then the delegates, must decide whether they want this kind of activity to continue . . .

Some thoughts about St. Louis

In 1966, I attended a World Congress (a so-called “General Conference”) of our church for the first time. I was a student at Andrews University (Michigan, USA) and drove the 200 miles to Detroit in my rickety Pontiac Tempest on Sabbath to attend a massive meeting of delegates and guests. In 1975, the Dutch Adventist Church arranged for me to attend the General Conference as a guest in Vienna. After that I was, because of my job in the church, five times an official delegate to a world congress: New Orleans (1985); Indianapolis (1990); Utrecht (1995); Toronto (2000) and St. Louis (2005). And in 2010 I was in Atlanta at the invitation of our church journal Review and Herald, to assist in the daily reporting of the proceedings. It was always a pleasure to be part of our quinquennial international celebration.

Two weeks from now, the 61st World Congress, postponed by Covid for two years, will take place in St. Louis, in the American state of Missouri–albeit in a slimmed-down form. I won’t be there, and actually I don’t mind at all. To be honest, I don’t expect much from this General Conference session. And communicating about it with friends and others in my network, I get the feeling that my lack of enthusiasm is shared by many. Why? I think mainly of the following two reasons.

In our postmodern society (which has also greatly impacted on Adventist church life), interest in the church as an institution has gradually significantly declined. This is especially true of the role of the higher echelons of the church’s administration. Especially in the Western world, a large proportion of church members increasingly feel that the church is primarily about the local congregation, and perhaps also somewhat about elements in the church’s organization that have a direct influence on what happens lovally (“conferences” and-sometimes-”unions”). But “divisions” and the “general conference” are a “far from my bed”-show. This tendency, I believe, was clearly reinforced during the Corona period. Therefore, the upcoming World Congress “lives” much less among “ordinary” church members than previous congresses did.

But there is, I think, also another reason why interest in what is about to happen in St. Louis is very limited. Of course, the election of leaders in the church headquarters in Silver Spring and in the regional offices (divisions) is an important item. But, quite generally, there is an expectation (or concern?) that there will be no major personnel shifts, and that therefore the direction of the church will remain largely the same over the next few years. (I hope I am a poor prophet on this point and that we will be faced with pleasant surprises, but I am not very optimistic on that point.)

Other than the elections, the agenda (which has been publicly released) is extremely boring. No major new initiatives are announced, as far as I can see. Perhaps that is, however, a reason to be grateful. I’m glad I don’t find a separate item on the agenda about the ill-fated idea of distributing hundreds of millions of copies of the Great Controversy worldwide, although I do wonder what is hidden under the cryptic agenda item no. 123: Three Angels’ Messages Report.

Unfortunately, there are also hints in the agenda document that the current church leaders do want to give us another push in the orthodox direction Traditionally, delegates are asked to express their confidence in the Bible and in the “spirit of prophecy.” Why this has to be done every five years is beyond me, but aside from that, it is interesting to see how the accompanying documents sometimes undergo changes.

In 2015, the Bible was described as a “reliable record of God’s acts in history from creation to re-creation,” but now the wording is being tightened considerably: “The Bible is reliable in what it affirms. Its record of creation in six literal days, the fall of human beings, a global flood to destroy wickedness and preserve a remnant, Christ’s earthly life, death, and resurrection, as well as God’s numerous interventions in history for the salvation of human beings are trustworthy reports of God’s acts in history (Luke 24:27; Heb 1:1,17 2; 2 Pet 1:21). Prophetically, the fulfillment of predicted events in accordance with prophetic time periods establishes confidence in the Bible as a unique witness to divine truth unlike any other religious book (Isa 46:9, 10; Dan 2, 7, 8; Luke 24:44; 2 Pet 1:19, 20).” (Italics added by me).

Apparently, it is found necessary to make clear at every opportunity exactly what we are to believe regarding the inspiration of the Bible, and which interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis is “truth.”

The statement about the value of the “spirit of prophecy” (read: of the writings of Ellen White) is very disappointing. Not a word is said about the problems surrounding the person and work of Ellen White that have been raised by researchers over the last few decades. When is the church going to get serious about responding to these?

Of course, I will be following the deliberations in St. Louis. For I hope and pray, in spite of everything, that I will see signs of a new momentum in my church and of efforts to make what the church says and does more relevant to the world of today and also to my everyday life.

Finding Jesus in the book of Revelation

This week I am intensely engaged with the book of Revelation. The Adventist Church in Utrecht has organized a series of seminars on the theme: Finding Jesus in the Book of Revelation. The speaker is Dr. Steve Case, the leader of an independent Adventist organization in the United States that focuses primarily on youth activities. But Steve is versatile. He also teaches in the DMin program at Andrews University (Berrien Springs, USA), and, in addition, he conducts at least 3 or 4 times a year a seminar of 8 to 10 lectures on the last book of the Bible. This week such a lecture series takes place in Utrecht. People can attend the lectures physically in the Adventist church building in Utrecht, but the lectures are also streamed and they can be seen afterwards on YouTube. I have translated the material that Steve Case uses into Dutch, and have also been asked to translate the speaker simultaneously during all the sessions. A tough job, I can assure the reader of this blog, because the speaker keeps up a good pace, and each lecture takes at least an hour and a half.

Programs on the book of Revelation are a regular part of the church menu in the Adventist denomination. But Steve Case’s approach differs significantly from what you’ll hear in a typical “Revelation seminar.” This is immediately apparent from the title. The goal is to learn more about Jesus Christ through a study of Revelation. Usually, Revelation seminars focus on explaining how the prophecies of this last book of the Bible have been fulfilled over 20 centuries of history–since the first coming of Christ–and on what the period shortly before Christ’s return will be like. But Steve Case chooses a different angle. He maintains one should first try to understand what Revelation meant to Christians in the first century, when John, under inspiration, wrote down the message he had received from God and sent it to seven Christian congregations in Asia Minor. From that starting point, one must then try to discover what this message might mean for us personally, and for the community of faith of which we are members in the 21st century. Those who come to listen to Case, expecting to hear mostly about the significance of the scary beasts that are portrayed in Revelation, and who want to know more about spectacular predictions for the time of the end, may be disappointed. The next few days will not be about the misdeeds and theological errors of the Roman Catholic Church, nor about America’s role in the end times. Case keeps pointing out that the title of the book of Revelation indicates very clearly what its core is: The last book of the Bible, according to the first verse of the first chapter, is the “revelation of Jesus Christ.” Thereby the word “of” can indicate both that this Revelation comes from Christ, but very definitely also that it is a Revelation about Christ. Hence, the title of this week’s series of lectures is: FINDING JESUS IN THE BOOK OF OPENBARING.

Does Steve Case thereby deviate from the traditional Adventist interpretation of the book of Revelation? Yes, definitely! But he does not do so by shooting at that traditional interpretation. He simply looks at the text. What did it mean to the people at the end of the first century AD and how do those words have meaning for us? It is not primarily about knowing more about history or being able to construct a detailed timeline for the end times, but about whether we may gain a closer relationship with Christ.

I feel very comfortable with this approach. In the course of my working life in the Adventist Church, I have shifted quite a bit with respect to the interpretation of the books of Daniel and Revelation. This is true of many Adventist ministers, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere. In order not to cause too much of a stir, many prefer to remain silent rather than continue to defend all kinds of aspects of the traditional explanation that they have since left behind.

A number of years ago I took an extensive look at the developments in Adventism with regard to the interpretation of Daniel and Revelation . This resulted in a lecture at a meeting of the European Association of Adventist Theologians in Rumania in April 2011, which I edited into an article for the theological journal SPES CHRISTIANA last year (vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 5-24). I concluded that there is certainly a shift in the interpretation of the two books of the Bible, which from the beginning had such a special place in Adventist thinking and the Church’s proclamation of the faith. While it is true that the official church continues to insist on the so-called historical explanation, and that this approach can still be found in recent church publications, most authors have become much more cautious in their direct applications to historical persons and organizations. (Unfortunately, this is not true of several speakers and organizations on the fringes of the church. Their publications and the power points of their lectures can be immediately recognized by depictions of papal tiaras and hideous many-headed monsters.)

Steve Case has taken an approach with which I wholeheartedly agree. No doubt, however, some will raise an eyebrow. Was everything we said about the book of Revelation in the past wrong? Isn’t there more to say about Revelation than we will hear in the lectures being held this week in Utrecht? Perhaps there is. But finding Jesus in the book of Revelation is the most important thing of all. I hope that many participants this week will discover things in Revelation that will enrich them spiritually. To that goal I am happy to contribute.

Optimism, positivity and hope

Optimism and positivity are important qualities. But are these concepts fully synonymous? And do they, in fact, mean the same as hope? In publications of the Dutch Adventist Church one finds, in the last decade or so, many articles on optimism and positivity. This was also the case in the most recent issue of ADVENT, which had positivity as its over-all theme. Browsing through recent issues of ADVENT I noticed that optimism and positivity were repeatedly emphasized.

I guess I can place myself in the category of optimists. Whether that optimism is always justified is another matter. A pessimistic attitude toward life does us no good, nor is it pleasant for others around us. Optimism reflects a tendency to see things in a positive light, expecting most things to turn out well. Optimism helps us to be, and remain, motivated.

Positivity may go a step further than optimism. Not everything that defines our lives is positive, but fortunately a lot is not negative either. A predominantly positive outlook undoubtedly promotes happiness in life. However, many people, unfortunately, see everything in a negative light and this feeds dissatisfaction and unhappiness. On the other hand, there are many who often close their eyes to reality. They tend to be “cherry-picking”-i.e., taking into account only the things that fit their positive pictures. (Oddly enough, in the Corona era the term “positive” took on a different connotation: a positive test is, in fact, negative news and indicates that the virus has struck!)

Christians certainly have reason to be optimistic and positive, but optimism and positivity are not uniquely Christian virtues. They have more to do with character than with faith. That is why I rather dislike the heavy emphasis on optimism and positivity in our denominational publications. For Christians, these are rather superficial concepts, and hope is much more meaningful. Optimism and positivity have their roots in ourselves. Christian hope, on the other hand, has Jesus Christ, and what He does for us, as its reference point.

Even when there is no reason for optimism, and we are surrounded by negative circumstances, there is hope. This is the Christian assurance of the gospel that must not be diluted into optimism and positivity–however praiseworthy and pleasant these qualities may be. The hope God gives us goes far beyond this. It is not anchored in our own character traits, in who and what we are ourselves, or in people around us, but in the Person of Christ (Heb. 6:19). Biblical hope is not synonymous with the optimistic notion that everything will eventually work out, but is based on the belief that God will fulfill his promises to us–now and beyond this life. Let us never forget, in our emphasis on optimism and positivity, that Christian hope must prevail.

The “mother of all facts”

Christ’s resurrection is a fact of irrefutable historicity: a group of people, who were totally exasperated after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, became convinced that Jesus had risen and that they should no longer seek the Living One among the dead (Luke 24:5). Some might say, as we mentioned earlier, that this conviction was based on a cleverly concocted conspiracy or a collective hallucination. But another explanation, namely that the resurrection actually happened, sounds far more reasonable and credible. Let me quote a few lines from a book about Jesus by the evangelical author Philip Yancey, who catches the amazing development in a few powerful sentences: “That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted him at death now went into martyrs’ graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome fierce opposition, first in Jerusalem and then in Rome—this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection.”

N.T. (Tom) Wright put it succinctly in these words: “The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that was not firmly anchored in fact.” Many other authors have stressed the same point. What made a man like Peter who, in Jesus’ darkest hour had avowed that he did not even know the man who was arrested and tried by the Jewish elite, change into the apostle who, only a few weeks later, told a large multinational, multicultural crowd in Jerusalem that Christ was alive? What convinced the doubting Thomas that the Lord was truly risen and gave him the courage to become a missionary to India, where even today some four million “Thomas Christians” are a testimony to his radical conversion? Not all ancient traditions are reliable, but there is good reason to think that most, if not all, of the original apostles, except John (who for a number of years was banished to the Greek isle of Patmos, which in Roman days certainly was not a holiday resort), met a martyr’s death. What propelled them to pursue a career that would end in opposition, torture and ignominious death? How do we explain that James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, became a prominent leader in the early church, while a little earlier he had flatly rejected Jesus’ ministry? (John 7: 5; Acts 15:14-21). The explanation lies in the extraordinary, undeniable Easter event.

This is echoed by a rather unexpected voice, namely that of the Jewish theologian and Israeli historian Pinchas Lapide (1922-1997). He did not become a Christian, but he did firmly believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. It is, he said, the only explanation for the origin and further rise of Christianity. He confronts his readers with these pressing questions: “How can it be explained that, against all plausibility, his adherents did not finally scatter, were not forgotten, and that the cause of Jesus did not reach its infamous end at the cross?” In other words: “How did it nevertheless come about that the adherents of Jesus were able to conquer the most horrible of disappointments, that Jesus, despite everything, became the Savior of the Church, although the predictions were not fulfilled and the longed-for Parousia did not take place?”

Lapide concluded that the explanations of many resurrection-denying theologians fail miserably to explain “the fact that the solid hillbillies from Galilee . . . were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.” He continued: “When this scared, frightened band of the apostles, which was just about to throw everything away in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when the shepherds, peasants, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their Master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”

Philip Yancey totally agrees: “Surely the disciples would not lay down their lives for the sake of a cobble-together conspiracy theory.”

The above paragraphs are talken from my book about the resurrection: I Have a Future: Christo’s resurrection and mine (Grantham, UK: Stanborough Press,2019, pp. 79-81.