The Long View of Things
A conversation with a missionary-minded theologian
We’ve called this a conversation to suggest how meaningful and satisfying was our interchange with our guest. We learned much as Jon Paulien, dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, shared with us. But it was a conversation, not a monologue. If, as you listen, you find yourself drawn into participation too, there is a way for you to do just that: send the editor your thoughts and ideas. Put our title, “The Long View of Things,” in the subject line, and send your e-mail note to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re sending it to a physical mailbox, your address would be Letters to the Editor, Adventist Review, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904-6600. —Editors
As I explained about our title, we want to share with the public a biblically enlightened perspective on yesterday, today, and tomorrow; one that is both historically aware, and informed by responsible interpretation and application of biblical principle and prediction. For starters, given our own tumultuous times, I wonder if your reading of history points you to other times that might have seemed as dramatic to those who lived through them.
One that comes to my mind is World War II, in which more than 80 million lives were lost, 20 million in the Soviet Union alone. Then we could think of the Black Death in medieval times, which took one third of Europe’s population. I also remember the imminent sense of doom during my childhood as the threat of all-out nuclear war loomed over our lives. These earlier situations were at least as dramatic in the lives of people as today’s events. But there is much greater awareness today of what is happening all over the world, because of the near-universal reach of various media.
The world is much smaller now.
Right. If much of the world were devastated by some Ebola-type virus and one third of the population died, most of us would be thinking, just as several New Testament writers did [1 Cor. 7:26-31; Col. 1:23; Rev. 1:3], that the coming of the Lord must be near.
Maybe I’m changing the focus, but the United States is grappling with a plague of obesity at the same time that there is famine in Somalia. What does that mean to the follower of Jesus?
Feast, famine, and their consequences are, to a considerable degree, the result of human choices. War, abuse, neglect, genetics, and self-indulgence all play their part. As followers of Jesus we must do all we can, socially, economically, or otherwise, to alleviate all kinds of suffering. But our efforts don’t always accomplish what we hope.
Recently I read about the experience of a man in Africa who had been the beneficiary of a microloan from a Christian organization. Microloans are usually small loans for short term, at low interest rates, that are given to small businesses or self-employed persons to alleviate extreme poverty. The loan provided the man with the ability to increase his economic resources. Five years later, though, it was found that the man and his family were still starving in the same hovel they had occupied before he received the loan: he had spent his increased resources on alcohol and prostitutes. Without the gospel, increased resources can sometimes do more harm than good.
This reminds me of an experience of a friend of mine, teaching at a state university, who was once asked if she was a Christian. Given her careful avoidance of anything that smacked of proselytizing, the question surprised her. It also gave her the opportunity to say “Yes!” and thus simply, but gladly, confess her Lord. The student’s rejoinder floored her: “Oh, that’s why you’re so pessimistic.” Tell me, how do you escape the label of ‘pessimist’ when you make comments like the one about using improved finances for alcohol and prostitutes? Are Adventists in particular, and maybe other Christians besides, too tied to the idea that the world is going from bad to worse?
My previous answer may have seemed pessimistic, but actually God has given Adventists, through the ministry of Ellen White, a very unusual perspective. While the apocalyptic side of Adventism is not optimistic about the future of the present order, we have nevertheless been encouraged to activism in behalf of the world. We advocate for religious liberty and for an end to war. We seek to alleviate poverty and hunger [ADRA]. We seek to mitigate the consequences of sin on human health [Adventist hospitals and health clinics around the world]. It is as if we want to make this world as close as possible to the heaven we anticipate before long. Apocalyptic pessimism and activism are an unusual combination, and we owe that to our unique heritage.
Some time ago Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, predicted worldwide judgment in 2011 and the end of the world in October of that year. We’re still here. What are we to make of these kinds of prophecies?
One common element I have seen in those who speculate about the timing of the end is that these schemes almost always involve one or several leaps of logic—assuming things God has not revealed, because people want to reach a certain conclusion.
I recall a particular case in which a very earnest individual kept urging me to read through some material he had put together, predicting a catastrophic event in my neighborhood on the basis of his reading of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy. I identified six leaps of logic in the first six paragraphs. So I felt obliged to tell him that if the Lord was going to reveal anything like this to my community, it would surely have to come from someone else, as the quality of his arguments had destroyed his credibility in our community.
Hal Lindsey still seems to be an expert on Bible prophecy, though his predictions fizzled more than two decades before Camping. We defined “the long view of things” as a perspective on history, current events, and the future that protects us from seeing everything as proof that the world is ending next fall. Or, perhaps, tonight. How does your study of the book of Revelation—one of the areas of your expertise—teach you to relate to the long view?
I think we get a great lesson from Jesus’ response to the disciples’ questions about “When shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming?” [Matt. 24:3, KJV]. Jesus does not answer the disciples’ “When shall these things be?” questions. He warns them, instead, to watch, and points to a lifestyle rather than a timetable. Keeping the prophetic waymarks lined up is important. But what we do with our talents [Matt. 25:14-30] and how we treat people [verses 31-46] is even more important. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future; it was given to teach us how to live today.
When it comes to the book of Revelation, the title is not “The Revelation of the Papacy” or “The Revelation of Middle Eastern Oil”—it is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” [Rev. 1:1]. That means that if your expositions of Revelaton do not expose a clearer picture of Jesus, you have not truly understood the book. Prophecy is designed to motivate behavior [verse 3] and commitment [Rev. 22:16, 17] in the reader. It just uses a different kind of language to achieve that goal. This is not to minimize what Adventists have taught about Christian history, but to recognize the divine purpose of those teachings.
What about all the work you’ve been so committed to in the Muslim world? The 200 Adventists in Cairo are swallowed up in the city’s population of 9.5 million people; nationwide it’s 741 Adventists in a population of more than 90 million. How do you relate events and work in the world of Islam to what we’re calling “the long view of things”?
Well, my study of prophecy tells me that the gospel is going to reach the entire world, everybody [Matt. 24:14; Rev. 7:9-12; 14:6]. God’s eye runs to and fro throughout the whole earth in search of His children [2 Chron. 16:9]. Frontier missionaries have frequently discovered that the Holy Spirit was already working in a place before they got there. We haven’t been doing very well with the non-Christian religions, because they don’t respond to our traditional methods of evangelism. But if God is already at work among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, we need to engage them by listening and learning first, finding out what God is already doing in their lives.
After September 11, I led a group to New York City. We wanted to minister as best we could to people who had been devastated by a unique tragedy. The daughter of one of the members of my group was Muslim. At one point the young woman felt a desire to go to a mosque and pray. So we found a major one and went there. There may have been a hundred Middle Eastern-looking men there for the evening prayers, which we were allowed to observe. Just one of the hundred who were praying looked like me. As soon as the prayers were over, he came over to talk with me. Each of us wanted to know what the other one was doing there. Finding out that I was a Seventh-day Adventist, he asked me a rather direct question: “What do Adventists believe about the judgment?” I gave him a short overview, maybe about three minutes, on what the Bible teaches about the pre-Advent judgment, Christ’s coming, the millennium, and the final executive judgment. When I concluded, he stood there with his mouth open. Then he said, “That is amazing. It puts everything together; it makes so much sense. That’s what I’m going to believe from now on.” It was my turn to be amazed. God had prepared his heart for the message long before we ever met.
You see, given the Adventist view of the great controversy, God and Satan are both working to influence every person and every religion throughout the world. The mission of the gospel is to find kindred spirits everywhere, people whose hearts God has “touched” [1 Sam. 10:26]. And we must begin with Spirit-led listening and learning.
At the General Conference session in 2015, someone said, “I want to see the Lord come in the next five years.” What do you make of that? Is it still time to lift up the trumpet?
I agree. I would love it if Christ came before 2020. And if He does, it will be the most exciting three years in all of human history. But we cannot force it. God is ultimately in control, and He knows the when and the how in which this will best happen. If Jesus does not come by 2020, the long view first means my being faithful unto death [by whatever means]. Then, since the dead know nothing, the very next thing I will experience is to see Jesus face to face at the resurrection.
What’s the role of “present truth” for Adventist witness today?
If we want to reach the world with the Adventist message, we need what I like to call “double exegesis”: we need a people, generation after generation, who combine humble, earnest, and ever-fresh exploration of the Word with careful study of the culture around us, engaging the world with our questions and a listening heart, seeking to understand those we need to impact with the gospel. At the intersection of studying God’s Word and our world is “present truth” that brings the gospel home with power in surprising places. We need to share that present truth by every means possible, both by snatching out of the world everyone we can, and by seasoning the world to make it better than it would otherwise be.
Jesus compares His church to salt. Especially when it comes to non-Christian religions, God is calling for more courageous and careful students of His Word to “get out of the saltshaker and into the world.”