“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” — Victor Frankl
In the previous article, I introduced a possible reframing of the Pre-Advent Investigative Judgment (PAIJ). This reframe provides relevance by interacting with the universal primary idea of suffering through a simple explanatory mechanic that in turn produces a perspective that has applicatory power. The combination of these three elements, I suggested, provides a “first layer” of depth for understanding the PAIJ that can then be enhanced through further study into what I referred to as the second and third layers.
The challenge for Adventism is that we tend to explore the doctrine at the third layer of depth from the onset and this, in turn, forces us to introduce the doctrine in a framework that is disconnected from universal primary ideas and difficult to comprehend due to its complex anatomy. This, in turn, results in the near impossibility of finding applicatory power in the doctrine as is evidenced by the high number of Seventh-day Adventists who can hardly explain it, let alone enact it in everyday life.
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However, as already mentioned, this does not mean that the doctrinal formulation is wrong. It simply means it’s too much too soon. The solution, therefore, is not to get rid of what we have built but to simplify it into a process of learning that ranges from the simple to the complex. In truth, every doctrine in scripture functions this way. For example, justification by faith can be explained in a few simple sentences but can also be explored in volumes ranging over 600 pages. We would never dream of using that volume while trying to reach the culture because of its complexity. Instead, we would stick to the simple models to help people grasp the core of the message to which they can build on as the years go by. Likewise, my proposal is that our current approach to the PAIJ tends itself toward the complex and must be replaced by a simpler approach which new believers can easily grasp and then add to throughout their discipleship journey in the years to come.
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Thus, in this article, I want to explore, in a bit more detail, what the three layers of depth can look like when teaching the PAIJ in a way that provides meaning to the culture.
The First Layer
By way of review, the first layer of the doctrine is the layer which introduces the broad themes addressed by the PAIJ. This is also the level at which we frame the concept in universal primary ideas so that our exploration remains relevant to society and culture at large. There are no charts, calculations or diagrams in this layer. In a sense, this layer is more like a story where the exploration centers on a narrative plot line of conflict, complication and resolution.
Here is a brief outline of how this approach can be explored in Bible studies or evangelistic sermons. This outline is the step by step approach that I personally use when studying the Bible with seekers and unchurched contacts:
1. Conflict: Introduce the book of Daniel as a war between two kingdoms – God’s and man’s – with Satan working to induce eternal separation between us and God.
2. Complication: Identify suffering as the collateral effect of this separation. This includes both the presence of suffering as well as the perpetuation of suffering via the human will.
3. Resolution: Introduce the question of Daniel 8:13 in the context of suffering. Explore the sanctuary in its broad themes: “withness” of God in the gospel. It’s trampling or defiling simply means God’s withness and gospel (the things that reverse suffering) are under attack. This attack is led by human empire, including the church itself, and results in the perpetuation of suffering. (Avoid complicated charts and elongated explanations of furniture, architecture, etc.) Daniel 8:14 then becomes a resolution to the universal primary idea of suffering. The restoration of the sanctuary can now be easily explained as a reversal of suffering, without complex deliberations on the Day of Atonement or having to go into Hebrew terminology or historical analyses (this can be reserved for future 2nd and 3rd layer studies).
As you can see, reframing the PAIJ doesn’t simply impact the way we approach Daniel 8:14 but rather the way we approach our entire message, to begin with. Daniel must be approached from the perspective of suffering. But more so, the Great Controversy and indeed the totality of the Adventist narrative needs to be reframed to speak life to this universal primary idea. After all, the PAIJ is simply one chapter in the story that is Adventist theology and it must be treated as such. If you attempt to reframe the PAIJ while leaving the rest of your theological framework untouched it won’t work. But if your entire framework is redesigned to speak like to the universal primary idea of suffering and separation, then reteaching the PAIJ becomes a surprisingly simple task.
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About a week ago, I met with one of the secular contacts I have been studying the Bible with throughout the year. He is a young man who recently got out of rehab for drug addiction. During the previous year, many Christians have poured into him and tried to help him understand the message of scripture using old, religio-centric frameworks. This young man has been so weirded out and overwhelmed that he told me he was about ready to give up on the entire faith thing. During the time we were together I explained the message of Adventism to him using the framework of suffering and its applicatory call for God’s people to be agents of reversal during the judgment phase of the redemption story. His eyes shot open. “Well, when you put it like that it makes total sense!” He said. “People have been telling me God is going to use me to be an evangelist, spread his word, cast out demons, etc. and I always reply, ‘Nah man, that’s not for me’ because it makes no sense to me. But if you are telling me that what God actually wants is to turn me into an agent of reversal that perpetuates love in the world instead of selfishness, I can totally get down with that!”
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We have yet to discuss Yom Kippur, the sanctuary rituals, furniture or any of the other complex elements Adventists often bring to the table in this study but already he is excited about the thing that matters most – God’s desire to metamorph a drug addict into an agent of his love in the world. That’s what the PAIJ is all about.
The Second Layer
In the second layer of the PAIJ we can dig deeper into the narrative of reversal and ask – why is this story so important for the culture? Although the answer is already evident, this second layer amplifies it even more. This is the section in which I introduce the timeline leading to 1844 and explore the meaning of the final judgment in the earthly sanctuary. In doing so, I introduce the centrality of Jesus both in the timeline and in the sanctuary ritual. The main objective at this juncture is to amplify the withness of God in the narrative of redemption and the flow of human history.
The following outline is the one I use to explore this second layer:
1. First, I focus on the 2300 day prophecy as an answer to the question, “How long?” In the first layer, we explored the thematic answer to this question meaning we looked at God’s overall goal to reverse suffering and restore humanity to its Edenic other-centered state. In this layer, we add to the thematic view by focusing on its historical flow which places the message within the arc of the human story. How long will suffering and injustice continue unchecked? According to the vision, the beginning of the end is 1844 when the final phase of the redemption story began. I then explore the cleansing of the sanctuary as the “final phase” of the ritual narrative in the OT and explore the idea that God is right now engaged in his final act to restore the world. This amplifies the relevance of the doctrine by placing it in the flow of human time.
One of the challenges I have had over the years when it comes to exploring 1844 is that people simply check out. It’s boring and tedious. But what I have found is that when a person is already excited about the narrative explored in the first layer, the doctrine now means something to them and as a result exploring its timeline goes from a seemingly pointless exercise in biblical arithmetic to an exciting puzzle into the heart and work of God.
2. Nevertheless, I don’t get hung up on the date itself. Instead, I make sure to refocus on the centrality of Jesus in the 70 weeks and also on his centrality through the totality of the 2300 years, especially in its conclusion. Jesus is the central theme all the way through and, during the judgment phase itself, he remains the absolute center. This is also a good time to revisit the narrative of salvation that was lost during the age of the church.
3. The centrality of Jesus is then the foundation for amplifying the “agents of reversal” motif in which it is via a relationship with Jesus – not a religion – that his other-centered love flows through us to a world increasingly lost in injustice, oppression, and self-preservation. This idea is then further amplified by the apocalyptic theme of religio-political oppression resurging in the final days of history.
The Third Layer
Finally, the third layer emerges as the most in-depth exploration of the doctrine. In this phase, the student explores the place of the PAIJ in the continuum of Christian theology. Here they can learn how the Adventist approach to theology differs from other systems of thought and provides it with a deep logic on suffering and the reversal of suffering not only as a protest of religio-political injustice but as a cleansing of the very heart of the sinner from self-centered to other-centered love. This process is connected to the Hebrew ritual of “afflicting the soul” (also known as fasting) during Yom Kippur – not as a religio-centric and ascetic expression of faith but as an identification with the suffering that is perpetuated in the world via our own self-centered human will. This then results in an exploration of how our authentic self is part of the history of evil which God reverses in us and consequently, in the world around us.
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We see this reality expressed best in Isaiah 58:1-12 in which the people of Israel ask, “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’” (3). God’s answer through the rest of the chapter is that he rejects their soul-affliction because it has not led to the reversal of suffering and injustice in their communities. In other words, it is a phony and artificial affliction in which the Israelites fasted and did all the proper rituals and yet, their affliction was entirely disconnected from the alleviation and reversal of suffering. As a result, God rejects their affliction of soul as a synthetic forgery of the real thing. In other words, the Israelites were worshiping God while holding on to the impulse of self within. But in the day of Atonement, God was calling them to turn their eyes to the sacrifice and forsake the impulse of self entirely. Thus, God responds in Isaiah:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you…’ (6-8)
It is clear from Isaiah then, that the purpose of afflicting the soul is not religious austerity but the reversal of suffering through the healing of self within resulting in the perpetuation of love to those around us. And yet, how often have I heard Adventist preachers speak of the PAIJ in a puritanistic fashion in which the objective is to hyper-analyze one’s life for sin? How often have these supposed champions of the straight testimony completely missed the mark by being absorbed in surface idiosyncrasies and minor lifestyle issues while ignoring the legitimate worries that surround us? In fact, I have heard some Adventist preachers argue that the reason we should not sing joyful worship songs in our churches is that we ought to be afflicting our souls during the antitypical day of atonement. Really? Is this what our message is all about? Why have I never heard these pious men sound a radical call to step out of our religious frugality and embrace the call to be agents of life, joy, and redemption in our communities? Why have I not heard them rage against the systems of oppression in our society, against the institutional and systemic perpetuation of racial inequality, discrimination against minorities, refugees and migrants, poverty and the abuse of the vulnerable? The sad consequence in my experience is entire generations of Adventists obsessively fixated on whether they have overcome their addiction to cheese or chocolate but with seemingly zero concern for the outcast, the distress of the LGBTIQ+ community or any of the real agonizing dramas that everyday people are navigating.
In this third layer, this call to affliction is emphasized once more alongside the centrality of Jesus in the narrative. This is key because the final cleansing ritual clearly has the sacrifice as the central theme (see Leviticus 16) demonstrating an extra emphasis on God’s solution and not man’s. Thus, while we are called to recognize our own place in the perpetuation of suffering and to actively work to reverse the suffering around us we are also called to focus on Jesus who alone can reverse the impulse of self within and restore us to the image of love.
Thus, this third layer is the phase in which I introduce students to the tensions between Calvinist and Arminian theology, amplify the call to active be agents of reversal and explore how the sanctuary and PAIJ interact with those tensions providing Adventism with a unique message otherwise unheard of. This then amplifies the importance of our end-time message not as a propaganda campaign for the Seventh-day Adventist institution (which our traditional frameworks often come across as) but as a call for God’s people to abandon the systemic fabric of suffering and selfishness personified in the beast, the dragon, and Babylon itself. Even the message on the mark of the beast becomes less about what day the Sabbath is and more about the narrative of humanitarian and ecological justice that undergirds the Sabbath. This reframes our end times message as a call for humanitarian justice and a protest against the perpetuation of religious intolerance and coercion as opposed to the tired arguments over the “first day versus seventh-day.”
The outline that I use for this third layer looks like this:
1. With a foundational understanding of the sanctuary and PAIJ I introduce students to the tensions between the Calvinist and Arminian approaches to scriptures salvation story. Now exploring this is way beyond the scope of this article series bit if you are interested in more, I recommend the article, “Why the Critics of the Investigative Judgment Failed” and also my books, “Weirdventism: Adventism for a Post-Church Generation” and “The Hole in Adventism: Making Total Sense of the Old & New Covenant”.
2. One of the focuses of the tension between Calvinist and Arminian theology is how we understand the relationship of God to the world and how that relationship differs in the above systems. Because Calvinism and Arminianism constitute the stories that protestants tell the world, Adventism emerges as a unique story that resolves the tensions between the two and thus, provides the culture with a perspective that has meaning and value for contemporary tensions in the individual and collective human currency.
3. The end focus of it all comes back to the centrality of Jesus and his plan to reverse the systems of suffering, end the struggle between love and self and cleanse the hearts of his people from the impulse of self to the impulse of other-centered love. Once again, the sources I pointed out in step one explore each of these in depth.
A Call to Discipleship
Some may be wondering, how can I do all this in an evangelistic series or Bible study set? The simple answer is, you don’t. And the reason why some of us may be tempted to do so is that Adventists are fundamentally terrible at discipleship. Our approach to spiritual life tends to revolve around dumping information on people and then leaving them to fend for themselves. But this reframed and layered approach to the PAIJ demands a completely different method. It demands a progressive step by step path to discovering the depth of the doctrine and this cannot be accomplished in an evangelistic sermon series or a seekers Bible study set. First of all, it’s too much to take in. Second of all, a person doesn’t need this level of theological depth to get baptized. But if our churches redesigned themselves around discipleship pathways in which baptism is the beginning and not the end of the journey then the slow journey toward grasping the three layers of the PAIJ would be no problem.
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My approach is that once a person understands the first layer of the doctrine they understand its important themes and, all things being equal, are ready to become members of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. From there, after baptism, a discipleship pathway that takes them deeper must form part of the local church’s strategy for spiritual growth and can empower and equip new believers over time and in manageable chunks as opposed to a giant truckload of theology being dumped onto them. I propose this approach will provide more meaning, relevance, and applicatory power to our members, new and old.
A Call to Redesign
However, one more point must be made. If we are to reframe our conceptualization of the PAIJ to speak meaning and life into the universal primary idea of suffering, we must also redesign the way our local churches operate.
The vast majority of local Adventist churches are completely disconnected from their communities and the suffering inherent in those communities. But this reframe calls us to redesign our churches to do more than preach sermons and run programs. Instead, it calls us to change our priorities and structures to facilitate the reversal of suffering in the communities in which we reside through a two-tiered approach of story-telling and active service. The story-telling portion emphasizes our need to communicate the Biblical narrative of God’s heart to our communities in clear and relevant theological thought. The active service portion emphasizes our need to put our money where our mouth is and do something more than use those mouths. To borrow from Adventist pastor Shawn Brace, when designing a vision for our churches we ought not to ask where our church will be in 10 years. Instead, we should ask – where will our community be in 10 years because we are here?
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Will there be less alcoholism? Less suicide? Less loneliness? Less poverty? Less despair? Will our church be a space of reversal for suffering in our community and preach a gospel that reverses the impulse of self in the human heart, thus perpetuating a culture of other-centeredness in our neighborhoods? It is useless to preach a message that says “God is reversing the systems and perpetuation of suffering” and then sit on our pews week after week – completely disconnected and isolated from the suffering that surrounds us. This practical involvement in our communities must also be part of our discipleship process that equips members to not only have healthy theology but practical involvement in their cities and towns.
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Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once wrote that as society advances people increasingly find themselves with the “means to live but no meaning to live for.” This perspective applies not only to society at large but to the church as well. As Adventism moved further away from its roots in disappointment, heartbreak and suffering it became an institution rich in means and yet, it appears that we too lost the meaning we were raised for. This vision must be recaptured if we wish to transcend our Laodicean state in which we rest in the safety of our structures, policies, and resources (which make us “rich and increased with goods”) while simultaneously leaving us “miserable, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3: 16-17) A reframing of our faith that celebrates the supremacy of Jesus and the call to practical impact in the spaces we occupy is the only way.
By reframing the PAIJ in a universal primary idea like suffering, simplifying its mechanics by separating its understanding into 3 layers of depth to be studied over time, and providing practical applicatory power – including redesigning our local churches to exemplify the reversal of suffering in their communities – we will sweep the world with a message so relevant and powerful that the pillars of Satans empire of self with be shaken to the core. And this, I believe, is what the Seventh-day Adventist church was called to do.
In the final article, I will address some key questions that this framework raises and conclude with some closing thoughts.