An Apostate Like Me
This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of the Adventist Today magazine.
Dear Reader (especially Adventist readers),
When I thought about which photo should accompany this essay, I chose to place myself squarely in front of you. For your judgement, perhaps. I was first called an 'apostate' (hence the title) by someone I love and it was deeply painful because it's reserved by Adventists for the worst of sinners. It has the effect of warning people away from your ideas. But although I am still fearful of your rejection, I must embrace it.
This essay was not fun to write. Although it came easily and quickly, I did not approach this account of my personal wrestle with Adventism cavalierly, with relish, or with any level of self-satisfaction. I'm sorry if this brings you pain but, in the telling of it, I also hope to promote healing.
I raised my hand and said aloud what I had been thinking: that I found the overly complicated explanations of Adventist prophecy frustrating to understand and difficult to accept. The Avondale College professor, who had been about to launch into another explanation of another end time prophecy, seemed to me to wince.
But I had to say it. I was at a low point in my Christian experience, tired of withholding my questions and hiding my spiritual struggles, and I thought I deserved an answer.
He moved on without replying.
My emotional disconnection from Adventist prophecy occurred long before I came to a final, intellectual one.
I was born in the mission fields of Papua New Guinea. My family returned to Australia, where my father was a pastor and evangelist, and some of my most vivid childhood memories are of the evangelistic programs my father presented there. When I was 11, traveling evangelist Billy Bain came to run a crusade in an outback border town where we were living. I was so deeply affected by the joy and kindness of this gentle man that I asked him to baptise me.
I was a dedicated pastor’s kid (PK) and a true believer—a secondary but hardworking character in a story arc not of my devising, a minor subplot in the rising action of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the apocalyptic denouement affecting us all.
I would trudge miles to deposit flyers into letterboxes, set up and pack down audiovisual equipment, and carry towers of Bibles from car to registration desk and back again. My sisters and I ate warm, squashed sandwiches backstage and on the sticky vinyl backseats of our ’70s-era cars.
The people who came through the doors of the theatres and town halls of my youth were, in actual fact, mostly already converted Adventists. Ushers carefully filled empty seats with them so that visitors would not feel alone on this epic journey. Occasionally the Bibles I handed out like half-time snacks landed in the hands of non-Adventists, and we’d earmark those people for our most earnest hellos and cheek-splitting smiles. Practically glowing with sincerity and love for each newcomer, we hoped they would be thinking that whatever it was we had, could they have it too?
Why So Complex?
As the years passed, though, it all began to weigh heavily on me. Bible prophecy was meant to be a well-lighted path to Christ’s second coming, a tool to help us be ready and help others be ready. It troubled me that something so core to my Adventist identity was convoluted—practically inaccessible without a comprehensive explanation from someone in the know.
Something in me rejected its labyrinthine complexity, but I also blamed myself. Was something wrong with me?
If everyone else could grasp and accept it, was I just too stupid? Had I allowed Satan to stop my ears? Had I hardened my heart against the truth?
Even as a PK who’d heard it many times, the whole messy thing was fragmented in my mind, like tiny pieces of iron and clay from the statue’s shattered feet hastily stuck back together. Those feet might look okay from the outside, but they would never take a step on their own. I hoped that if I could just get through another retelling—without allowing my mind to wander or doubts to creep in—it would finally click for me, too.
By my university years, an intense weariness would descend on me every time I encountered Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, the day-year principle, or a prophetic timeline with 1844 highlighted as a pivotal moment for believers.
After taking that Bible Prophecy course at Avondale College and faithfully reproducing its key points in my final exam, I felt no less spiritually fatigued or alone in my struggles.
My intellectual disconnection from Adventist prophecy began in earnest when I was in my 40s, but now I see that it was inevitable; it was always going to end like this.
“History is written by the victors” is famously attributed to Winston Churchill, and witty versions of it were trotted out by him numerous times over the years. Yet, it would appear that the phrase can actually be traced back to a relatively unknown Scottish biographer in the mid1700s! That we’d prefer to attribute it to Churchill is, well, because he’s one of our victors. Needless to say, this illustrates the problem of bias: the winners (the survivors, or at least those in power) select the details that suit them and apply their own interpretation of events, decisions, and actions of the past. The lesson: if we want an account that is closer to the truth, we should rely upon primary sources, rigorous research, and data.
The 21st-century culture war is over this very thing. The internet brought us into the Information Age, but that same vehicle plunged us into the Disinformation Age. Along with fake news, various actors have done their best to erode faith in objective, scientific practice. We are innovative with truth, so that “right” now seems closer to “what’s right for me.”
That’s why, when I looked at Adventist prophecy, it was the provenance of our “truth” that troubled me most.
Following the Great Disappointment of 1844, when Jesus did not return, many fell away. A few, though, saw their first interpretation as a mere miscalculation, a problem to be solved. They went back to the drawing board, recalculating and rereading. Ellen White, following a specious logic suggested by Hiram Edson, Uriah Smith, and others, joined some of the more obscure dots into what seemed to be a semicoherent picture. Hitherto unheard of, the investigative judgment let Adventists say that they hadn’t been wrong as such, just slightly mistaken. What had really occurred in 1844 was invisible to earthly eyes and, for this reason, impossible to disprove.
In this way the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, which sprang from the ashes of the Great Disappointment, distanced itself from the Millerites’ embarrassing mistake. Adventists now insist that we shouldn’t set a date for Christ’s second coming, though instances of it regularly pop up throughout our history.
Is Prophecy for Everyone?
Our prophetic scheme has, in one way, helped its believers feel more confident about their choices and justified the restraints they impose on their lives. It has enabled them to claim their gratifying place as the remnant, in lone possession of complete Truth.
This uniquely Adventist eschatology is buttressed by a myriad of supporting doctrines, such as the mark of the beast, Sunday laws, the ultimate time of trouble, the unpardonable sin, and the close of probation. Looking at this mountain of assertions, you’d expect to find high levels of confidence among believers— but you would be mistaken. In fact, many adherents are fearful and uncertain. Will they too, like “the very elect” (Matt. 24:24, KJV), be deceived?
Eschatological Adventism is essentially a complex legalism, filled with expectations and requirements. The legalistic Adventist is forever troubled by the “deep-down” place in our hearts, unknowable to anyone but God. We are the enemy of our own salvation, because we fear that our thoughts and intentions may betray us, may keep us from effectively surviving the spiritual threat posed by the trials and tribulations that lie ahead. Although the Bible promises that the full price for our salvation has been paid and that Jesus said simply to “Believe in me and you will be saved,” yet our relationship with him remains ambiguous and uncertain as we look at it in light of that tense, troubled future.
Adventist eschatology may, in fact, be perfectly designed for destroying confidence in eternal salvation.
A Conversion Tool
Without a doubt, fear-based prophecy has brought people into the church. My parents-in-law joined in the late ’70s after being convinced during an evangelistic series that their own Methodist beliefs were not as biblically sound as Adventist doctrines. For some audiences, Adventist prophecy still carries a lot of weight. But does it still motivate contemporary audiences? Some point out that, at best, prophecy seems to draw people who are already converted Christians and already churched, not those without an established faith base.
In her research about similar end-times prophecies, author Amy Frykholm found something quite revelatory (pun intended). She researched the conversion effect of the widely published Left Behind series, a fictional rendering of the evangelical rapture doctrine wherein true believers suddenly and without warning (in the “twinkling of an eye”) are taken heavenward.
In the 16 novels published between 1995 and 2007, Left Behind focused on the terrifying experiences of bewildered believers marooned on Earth during a tribulation period of seven years. This was the ultimate, grueling test in which they had to prove themselves finally and fully worthy of salvation. Their experiences mirror much of what Adventists expect during the dreaded time of trouble: arrest, murder, persecution, separation.
With more than 80 million copies sold, independent Christian publisher Tyndale House claimed that the Left Behind series has been a highly successful evangelistic tool. At first glance, this would seem a valid claim: 80 million is a lot of copies! However, when Frykholm asked Tyndale House if she could review evidence of the large numbers of conversions, they forwarded a few emails that had tenuous, mostly second-hand accountings of the impact of the books on nonbelieving readers. Attempting to follow up the rumours circulating among evangelicals, of people converted as a result of reading the books, she was unable to track down a single individual. In digging deeper, she discovered that a large proportion of the 80 million sold books were, in fact, purchased by churches for their own congregations to read—or to give away, letterbox, or hand out for evangelistic purposes.
It appears that unchurched people were not as engaged as Tyndale had boasted. On the other hand, churched people were absorbed—and this was where Frykholm noted their lack of confidence in their own salvation. She said in an interview: “I expected readers—especially believers who were also readers—to have a very confident worldview that they would then attempt to tell me about…. And that turned out to not at all be the case. I think it points to something very interesting. Evangelicalism is based on accepting Jesus into your heart, and then you are changed, and that change happens somewhere in your being, and then nothing you can do afterwards can prove that that transformation took place… What I realised is that that uncertainty raised a huge amount of anxiety.”
Is Prophecy for Anyone?
For radicals such as David Koresh and his followers, attempting to understand enigmatic passages of Bible prophecy has proved perilous. But even for the rest of us, I have to wonder how helpful our detailed conceptualization of them really is, especially if only a few gatekeepers can make sense of them.
If prophecy works for you, gives your life meaning, and makes you excited for Christ’s return, then I say, without irony, that I am very happy for you. But if prophecy induces fear and doubt for you, as it did for me, I pose two questions:
1. Do Christians need to conclusively establish a theory of end-time events? Isn’t it enough to believe that Jesus is returning someday?
2. Is fear a helpful motivator for belief, especially in the face of so many unambiguous messages of hope and promises of salvation in the Bible?
Am I the only one who thinks that it’s worth discarding these fearful projections in favor of giving a more optimistic, hopeful version of salvation? Do we really need this negative, dread-inducing entanglement of interpretations if it potentially does more to sap confidence and joy from life and faith? I think not.
 Matthew Phelan, “The History of ‘History Is Written by the Victors,’” Slate.com (Nov. 26, 2019).  Amy Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (2004).  Interview with Amy Frykholm on With Friends Like These podcast “Scared to Believe?” (Aug. 7, 2020).
NOTE: It’s always interesting to have people engage in a topic you write about and this one generated mostly positive but also some negative responses, including this article from Marvin Moore who is Signs of the Times editor, an Adventist publication. Some of the Facebook discussion that followed is posted in screenshots below this response article.
Much of the Autumn 2020 issue of Adventist Today is devoted to questioning the traditional Adventist interpretation of prophecy, especially (though not exclusively) the prophecies of Revelation. I’ve spent much of my adult life seeking to understand the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, and they have great meaning for me. I believe they are especially relevant to our time, and I felt sad to see them dismissed so cavalierly.
The article that caused me the most sadness, and to which I’m responding here, was “An Apostate Like Me” by Debbie Hooper Cosier. Cosier rejects Adventist prophetic interpretation for three primary reasons.
Too hard to understand
“It troubled me,” she said, “that something so core to my Adventist identity was convoluted—practically inaccessible without a comprehensive explanation from someone in the know.” I’m aware, of course, that not everyone can take the time that I’ve spent over the years to study these things out, though I think anyone can find the time and exert the mental energy to understand the basics. Cosier has taken the position that “I can’t understand them; therefore I’m not even going to try.”
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that an understanding of Daniel, and especially of Revelation, is not an easy task. However, my initial response to Cosier’s dismissal of apocalyptic prophecy because it’s too hard to understand is that whatever field she chose for her life’s work, it was no doubt at least as complex as Daniel and Revelation, and it took time and effort to learn and understand the basics. But for some reason, she doesn’t find studying these prophetic books to be worth her time.
I’ve often said that Adventists are especially vulnerable to legalism. I say that because we have more rules than just about any other Protestant denomination. We have rules for diet, rules for dress, rules for decorating our bodies, rules for Sabbath observance, and rules for entertainment. My goodness! We’re sitting ducks for legalism! The result is that many of us succumb to legalism to one degree or another. And it’s easy to combine our legalism with our prophetic interpretation. Legalism easily leads to fanaticism, and there is fanaticism associated with prophetic interpretation in Adventist circles, both in the sense of extremism and in the sense of mindless enthusiasm.
However, this problem is not limited to Adventist prophetic interpretation. As I write these words, the world is struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, and I find a significant amount of extremism associated with the interpretation of how to deal with that problem. One morning I was listening to a man who called in to a radio talk-show host to complain that the mask requirement was impinging on his freedom. I had to wonder if he thought that laws against driving while intoxicated put a limit on his freedom. Laws that protect the rest of us from the foolishness of others are not an infringement on our constitutional liberties.
Legalism and extremism will exist as long as humans exist on planet Earth, and that’s as true of Adventism as it is of any other group of people. But the fact that some Adventists are legalistic and fanatical about apocalyptic prophecy is not a valid reason to ignore the topic.
Cosier says that her exposure to the Adventist interpretation of Daniel and Revelation has caused her a great deal of fear. This no doubt began with what she was taught in her childhood Sabbath School classes, and it continued in church school, secondary school, and she specifically mentions a class on Daniel and Revelation that she took at Avondale College in Australia that caused her much confusion and fear. I understand the fear part very well. We all understand what fear is like. Fear was the first distorted emotional result of the Fall. When God approached Adam and Eve that evening, He asked them why they ran and hid from Him, and Adam replied, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid” (Genesis 3:10). Fear, in my mind, is probably the most basic of all distorted human emotions.
In Jesus’ parable of the talents, when the master approached the one-talent man and asked him to report on the investment of his talent, the man replied, “I was afraid and went and hid your talent in the ground” (Matthew 25:25). The one-talent man’s response is a classic example of how not to deal with our distorted fears. He should have dealt with his fear and not allowed it to interfere with his responsibility to his master. And that, I propose, is how we should all deal with our fear of the end time. Yes, it’s frightening. I will be the first to acknowledge that I sometimes look forward to the final crisis with feelings of apprehension. But that is not a valid reason for hiding my head in the sand and refusing to investigate the issue.
For a number of years, I conducted week-end seminars in churches and camp meetings throughout North America, and I also accepted some invitations to speak in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Latin America. Now and then I would ask my audiences, “What if I knew that your house would burn down sometime in the next 12 months—would you want me to inform you?” Most people raised their hands when I asked for Yes answers, but sometimes a few people would raise a hand to my request for No answers. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would say No to that question. I would definitely want to know, because that way I could prepare for the inevitable.
And it’s the same with our fear of the end time. Yes, it can be frightening. The idea of persecution for my faith, including the possibility of limits being placed on my ability to buy and sell, perhaps imprisonment, and even execution, is not exactly something I find enjoyable to contemplate.
Granted that in Revelation the prediction of the end-time crisis is couched in symbolic language, but other parts of the Bible state it very literally. The prophet Daniel said that at the time of the end, “Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then” (Daniel 12:1).
Jesus echoed Daniel when He said that at the time of the end “there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect, those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21, 22). Notice that Jesus said that the end-time crisis would be so severe that it would threaten the survival of the human race! That isn’t exactly dinner-table talk.
And Luke records Jesus saying that “there will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (Luke 21:25, 26). Nothing like that happened in 1780 and 1833 with respect to the dark day and the falling of the stars. Luke’s application of Jesus’ words is still future. Clearly, the end time will be a time of great fear and anxiety, and this is from Jesus Himself in very literal language. However, Daniel and Jesus didn’t tell us these things just to frighten us. They told us so that we could be prepared spiritually in case these events should happen during our lifetime. If we know what’s coming, then rather than succumbing to fear, it should prompt us to maintain a consistent devotional life, which will help us to develop a deep trust in Jesus that will carry us through that perilous time successfully.
I know from personal experience that it is possible to deal successfully with fear and anxiety. A number of years ago I was struck with a severe case of anxiety. I knelt and prayed to Jesus, “I know this anxiety isn’t going to go away immediately, but I ask you to guide me out of it.” I kept saying that prayer for the next several years, and eventually the anxiety began to diminish. Today, most of the time, I am free of anxiety, but certain circumstances can still lead me to experience an attack. When that happens, I take it as an opportunity to work with God to give me even more victory over the problem. And I can testify that my anxiety over the final crisis has also diminished as I learn to trust my future with God.
The Bible doesn’t warn us about the time of trouble to frighten us, though the prophets certainly knew it would tend to do just that. They warned us about it so that we could prepare spiritually for that time. That’s why Jesus said, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day [the final crisis and the time of trouble] will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth [it will be global]. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).
It’s human and quite normal to feel apprehension about the future, especially when we know that it will be fraught with difficulty. The Bible warns us about the final crisis and the time of trouble so we can prepare for it spiritually. And that takes time, both to understand what is coming and to be spiritually prepared to meet it when it comes. My advice to all Seventh-day Adventists is to take the words of Jesus, the prophets, and Ellen White about the end time seriously, study it carefully, and prepare spiritually for what surely lies ahead in our world today. Even if the final crisis doesn’t occur in your lifetime and mine, we will be the better off for having developed the kind of relationship with Jesus that would carry us through those few difficult years.
Loren is editor of Adventist Today:
For more than a sample of the discussion, go here: https://www.facebook.com/AToday.org/posts/10158473799425225