How will it happen?

At the end of the service in the church where I had preached last Saturday, I was greeting the people at the door. An elderly man in a wheelchair held back and waited till he was the last person in line. When I wanted to simply greet him and then move on, he told me he had a question for me. I had told him, he said, that I did not believe in a literal six-day creation some 6.000 years ago. I vaguely remembered that a year or so ago I had also met him and he had asked me questions about this.

Here was his new question: ‘Do you believe that many people will be saved and will be resurrected when Jesus comes?  Could there be billions of people who will be resurrected? Do you believe this can all happen in one day?  You told me that you believe that a long time was needed to bring everything into existence. Or do you also believe that God will need a long time to bring us back from death and to make the new world that we are waiting for?

I assured him that I firmly believe that God is the Creator, even though I do not know how and when exactly he created, and that I also believe in a life after this life and in a new creation, even though I have no precise idea how God is going to do this.

My brother in the wheelchair quoted 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:52.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. . . .

In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

So, what did I think of this? Are these texts not crystal clear? At first sight they seem straightforward but I must admit that I have many questions. How is this going to happen? OK, somehow God knows all those who are his, and somehow they will one day be re-created and live eternally in a totally new world. But what about those who do not belong to those who will “rise first”.  According to Revelation 20 they rise a thousand years later. Is “thousand” here a symbolic number? What do the trumpet and the voice of the archangel stand for? And why does God want those who rejected him to rise before they are annihilated in a second death? And what does it mean that the saints will have a role in the divine judgment? And why do those who are saved first go to heaven before they return to this planet?

I must admit: just as I have tons of questions about the creation of our world and the origin of the human race, I also have lots of questions about the future new creation. But these questions no longer worry me. I do not know how and when God made everything, and how he may have used the evolutionary process, but he is the Creator and I am a creature who owes him worship and loyalty. To know that is enough is for me.

And even though I cannot visualize and conceptualize how God is going “to make all things new”, I believe that at a given point in time God will intervene in the affairs of this world through Christ’s second coming, and because of his love and omnipotence I can entrust myself to him. It is enough to know that he is my God and that he will somehow take care of me. Being saved, I am safe with him.

My interlocutor was not totally satisfied. He clearly reads the Bible in a more literal way than I do. I have difficulty understanding the various texts as they read, and in linking them together in such a way that I can even begin to understand how God will recreate the world and bring his children back to life. But in faith I want to hold on to assurance that there is eternal life and that somehow, by his grace, that is what God also has in store for me. That conviction should be enough for me.

 

New Year’s Messages

For most people the entrance into a new year is accompanied by certain rituals. We watch the television clock and wait for the moment it strikes twelve and then wish one another “a happy new year.” In many countries the start of a new year is accompanied by fireworks displays. In the Netherlands the standard treat is oliebollen and appelbeignets.[1] But standard features of the first day of the year are also the new year’s messages of heads of state, political leaders and religious leaders. In our home we usually make sure that we hear the messages of the Dutch king Willem Alexander and also that of the British Queen Elisabeth. Both have usually something worthwhile to say to their ‘subjects’.  King Willem Alexander’s messages was a little more somber than in past years, but I found his emphasis on the we-focus rather than the I-focus very meaningful.

One could, of course, not miss the comments of the American President who, from his golf-resort in Florida, promised the world that the process of making America great again is even ahead of schedule!

My wife and I always make sure to watch the pope’s address on New Year’s day, followed by his blessing urbi et orbi (for the city and for the world).  As we might expect, Pope Francis spoke about the people in this world who are in need, especially the migrants and the refugees. And he touched upon one of his favorite themes—peace—pointing in particular to the plight of the Palestinians and the Syrians.

I admire the personality and the leadership qualities of Justin Welby, the current archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Anglican faith community. He has a difficult job, somewhat comparable to that of the president of the Adventist world church. Both are leaders of a denomination that is present in many countries of the world, with a host of different cultures and traditions. Both must deal with some of the same issues, such as homosexuality and the role of women clergy. In his short televised message the archbishop spoke of the comforting role of faith when calamity strikes. He referred to the various terrorist attacks in Great Britain in 2016 and the disastrous fire in the Greenfell Tower apartment building.

What struck me in the messages of the pope as well as of the archbishop that they connected their faith and their church with the world in which we live and with the events of everyday life. I very much missed that in the message of Pastor Ted Wilson, the head of the Adventist Church. Although he briefly alluded to some of the good and the bad things that 2017 brought us, his main wish for 2018 is that the Adventist believers will continue to focus on Jesus as their High Priest, who is interceding for us in the heavenly sanctuary. He quoted a paragraph from Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy in which Mrs. White urges the believers to make the topics of the heavenly sanctuary and of the investigative judgement their main themes of study.

That the top Adventist church leader would refer to some specific Adventists beliefs was to be expected. But I was quite disillusioned that he made so little effort to connect the Adventist faith and the Adventist faith community with the world of 2018. Yes, Adventists believe in the coming, eternal kingdom. But the gospel is clear that the kingdom is also, in some ways, already among us and that the most crucial aspect of our calling as Christian believers is to live and promote the values of that kingdom in our daily lives.



[1]  For non-Dutch readers a few lines from Wikepedia: Oliebollen are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve[1] and at funfairs. In wintertime, they are also sold in the street at mobile stalls. The dough is made from floureggsyeast, some saltmilkbaking powder and usually sultanascurrantsraisins and sometimes zest or succade (candied fruit). A notable variety is the appelbeignet which contains only a slice of apple, but different from oliebollen, the dough should not rise for at least an hour. Oliebollen are usually served with powdered sugar.

 

The mystery of Alabama

The fascinating race for the senate seat of the American state Alabama finished on December 12 with the Democrat Doug Jones as the winner. He beat the Republican Roy Moore with a tiny difference. Alabama had long been a Republican bulwark, but Roy Moore had gotten himself into so much trouble, because of the accusations of sexual misconduct, that he lost the election. Jones received massive support from the black population, and especially from the black women! However, remarkably enough, Moore got the votes of no less than 80 (eighty!) percent of the evangelicals.

How in the world can it be explained that four out of every five people in Alabama who call themselves ‘born-again Christians’ continued to support Moore? (And, of course, there also remains the enigma why Donald Trump still has so much sympathy with the evangelicals.) A few days ago I read an article on the website of the Harvard University Divinity School, which addressed this same question.[1] The article was written by a certain Dudley Rose, whose name I had never heard before: an academic and a minister in the United Church of Christ.

Rose points to recent trends among the Southern Baptists, the largest Baptist denomination in the United States and very numerous in Alabama. In many countries, as for instance in the Netherlands, the Baptists are only a very small minority. Many Dutch people would be amazed to learn that this denomination has over 15  million members in the southern states of the US. Rose argues that towards the end of the last century many Southern Baptist church leaders became more and more concerned about what they perceived as the growing liberalism in their church. They were determined to take counter measures. The result of their reaction became evident in the new statement of their faith that appeared in 2000. In the past the faith and life of the Southern Baptists was emphatically anchored in the teachings and the example of Christ, but now the emphasis shifted to the authority of the Bible, combined with an explicit condemnation of some specific sins.

As a result of this trend we now see that many evangelicals stress the importance of condemning certain sins (in particular abortion!) and a strict adherence to the doctrines of the church, while the question whether one actually lives as a true follower of Christ has been relegated to second place. This may explain why most evangelicals in Alabama are willing to still favor a man as Moore, with his inflexible standpoint on abortion, and to turn a blind eye to his sexual escapades. Undoubtedly, other factors also come into play, but I found this short article quite illuminating.

Could it be that a somewhat similar trend is present in the Adventist Church? Is there a trend to emphasize orthodox doctrine in order to combat the liberalism that some (or many?) church leaders fear is on the rise, and that Christ, and the example He gave, are more and more in the shadow of a rigid ‘plain’ reading of the Scriptures, which is mostly interested in defining what is (in their view) correct and orthodox, rather than focusing first of all on what is good and merciful?



[1] https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2017/12/14/evangelical-support-roy-moore-explained#

Christmas in Kuwait

One of my last official assignments as the executive secretary of the Trans-European Division of the Adventist Church was a trip to Kuwait. At the time (2001) the office in Britain, where I worked, had the oversight not only over  church organization in parts of Europe and Pakistan, but also in Kuwait and a series of other countries of the Middle East. Kuwait is, of course, an Islamic state, but the authorities have a much more relaxed attitude towards Christians than most other nations in the region. When I went to Kuwait, our church had a few hundred members in the country. There was a pastors but he had no official status and had entered the country as an employee of an Adventist businessman who owned a factory in Kuwait. This was an undesirable situation and my task was to meet with the authorities in an effort to regularize the situation.

When meeting with representatives of the  Ministry of Justice, I was told that a few Christian communities did indeed have official permission to invite pastors or priests. This was a ‘historic’ arrangement, and it would be difficult to also get that privilege for the Kuwaiti Adventist Church. But, I was told, if I could come to some understanding with another Christian group, there was no objection to bringing a pastor to Kuwait under their umbrella.

I made an appointment with the leader of a community of evangelical Christians that had the benefit of the ‘historical arrangement.’ It was a very pleasant visit. However, the leader of this church could not help us. His members would not be amused if they discovered that he had assisted the Adventists. I asked him why his members would object. ‘Well,’ he said to me, ‘your members tell my people all the time that they are part of Babylon, and that does not endear the Adventists to them.’  It made me extremely sad to hear this.

As I pursued my assignment, I met with other Christian leaders. The Roman-Catholic bishop of Kuwait not only invited me for a very good meal, but also indicated his willingness to help me. After careful consideration I declined his help, since I feared that it might create more problems in our church than it would solve. In the end an arrangement could be made with another Christian church.

What I remember most vividly, however, of this visit to the Adventist church in Kuwait was the church service on Friday evening. Realizing that these members only very infrequently saw a church official from their union or division, I decided to be very brief in my worship talk, and to give them the opportunity to ask questions–about any topic they wanted to address. To my great surprise, during the hour that followed most questions were about Christmas. Should Adventists celebrate Christmas? Is it ok to have a Christmas tree?

Just imagine:  here is a group of some 200 members. They belong to the very small minority of Christians in this Islamic country. Rather than seeing other Christians as their allies–as their brothers and sisters–in their attempts to bear their witness in this non-Christian environment, they see the other Christians as their enemies (‘Babylon’) and rather than worrying about ways to present the Christian faith in the most attractive way to their Muslim neighbors, they have heated debates about the Christmas tree.

I realize that most Kuwaiti Seventh-day Adventists are families of migrant workers who have imbibed a kind of Adventism that is rather inflexible. But still . . .

Just a few more days and large parts of the world celebrate Christmas.  I hope that my fellow-Adventist believers, who are surrounded by adherents of non-Christian religions and by a secular majority, will find ways to join hands with other Christians to emphasize the Lordship of Christ in their Christmas. And as we approach a new year my wish is that Adventist Christians will not major in minors, but live their faith in such a way that it will attract people who are dissatisfied with their secular–and often empty–life.

Where do you fit?

Most denominations have various streams or ‘modalities’.  In most cases there is a segment of the membership ‘in the middle’, with a more ‘orthodox’ stream and a more ‘liberal’ stream on the ‘right’ and on the ‘left’ respectively In some denominations this causes no real problems, but in other faith communities it gives rise to considerable controversy.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is no exception. And perhaps its diversity is even more pronounced (troublesome to many), since the worldwide Adventist Church consists of people from a myriad of cultures, while insisting on unity and a major degree of uniformity. It cannot be denied that there are different streams in Adventism. Different authors have suggested definitions and descriptions of these streams.  I wrote about this in my recent book FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’ (pp. 83, 84). Very recently I was given a copy of a short editorial article that was written by Pastor Don Livesay, the president of the Lake Union (Lake Union Herald, January 2017, p. 3).

Don Livesay states that he has observed ‘five general faces of Adventism’, which he labels as follows:

  1. Radical conservative
  2. Faithful and traditional
  3. Loyal, active, gracious
  4. Relaxed Adventists
  5. Radical liberals.

Livesay realizes that there are no sharp dividing lines between these categories and that a person may feel that he belongs in some respect to one category, while in other respects feeling more at home in (an)other category(-ies).

Seeing such a list, the question presents itself: Where do I fit?  I see myself mostly in categories 3 and 4.  Let me briefly quote from Livesay’s description of these two groups:

3. Loyal, active, gracious: ‘. . . an important backbone of the church . . . a bit less traditional in styles of worship . . . wanting all that happens to be Christ-centered, and to track with both the beliefs and mission of the church. They have something good to share and are often able to reach various segments of society.’

4. Relaxed Adventists: ‘these folks tend to love the church, see themselves as progressive and are often less concerned with how carefully standards and practices are followed. Some seem to be a bit soft on some church doctrine and open to debate and challenging . . .’

To some extent I recognize myself in these descriptions, but I also feel comfortable with aspects of stream number 2 and 5. There is nothing that attracts me to number 1, the group of ‘fundamentalists who tend to interpret Scripture more by word than by core principles . . .’.

It is good to be frank about the issues that cause debate (and even controversy) in the church, and nothing is gained by covering up and denying these differences. And yet, I remain convinced that we must also continue to look at the other side. Very few people fit for 100 percent in a particular category. And, when all is said and done, all groups share in a number of important values and ideas of Adventism. That makes all of us, on whatever category we are, real Adventists.

May we, as the Christmas season draws near, and as we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, decide to also celebrate the fact that all of us have much in common, and can (in spite of our differences) together worship the One who came to save all of us.