by Lewis R. Walton
Author, Morning's Trumpet
In the aftermath of September's terrorism, how should God's people live?
Alas, alas, that great city . . . . For in one hour so great riches is come to nought. Revelation 18:16, 17
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Adventist law student Richard Walton was in his apartment just a few blocks from the Pentagon. Suddenly an airliner filled his top-floor window, crashed through a tree just outside, and roared eastward.1
Dropping the telephone on which he had been talking to a persistent telemarketer, Richard raced to the window. The airliner turned to evade a high rise hotel and disappeared behind the low hill on which is located a row of government buildings known as the Navy Annex. Moments later there was a fireball.
Racing down seven flights of stairs, Richard hurried down Columbia Pike toward the Pentagonjoined, as he ran, by a crowd of Marines from nearby Henderson Halland the impromptu rescue party arrived to find dazed survivors straggling out of the burning building. In a single hour the world had changed forever.
Everybody seemed to sense that we had reached a mysterious turning point in history. Sales of Bibles soared by over 20 percent, and books on prophecy sold out. Voices everywhere spontaneously seemed to proclaim an end-time message.
Suddenly it was time to take the Advent very seriously.
The Adventist Connection
During the Watergate crisis, someone coined a phrase that became a litmus test for Richard Nixons presidency: what did the President know, and when did he know it? Apply the same question to Adventism, and one comes up with some startling insights.
Changes. For decades we have known, or should have known, that we are living in the time of the endthat great changes are soon to take place in our world, and the final movements will be rapid ones (Testimonies for the Church, 9:11). As early as 1904 Gods people were warned that the world would see cruel, evil working against the rich who have exalted themselves against the poor (ibid., 8:50)a class struggle, in other words, in which the wealthy suffer some kind of terrible attack. We have also known that the final crisis will involve religion, and that liberty will be imperiled as frightened people seek stability.
But for those who took the time to read, there was even more detail. In 1904the same year Einstein was working on his special theory of relativityEllen White also revealed that human agents were developing such powerful machinery of destruction that those without Gods protection would find no safety in any place or position (ibid.). At almost the same time she penned a warning of tragic eventsdestruction of tall buildingsshe had been shown while in New York City.
Calamities Likely. In other words, calamities such as befell the World Trade Center were not just a possibility, they were likely. We were told that such events would increase as human history nears its close, and that our job was to warn the world in advance. A great terror is soon to come upon human beings. . . . We who know the truth should be preparing for what is soon to break upon the world as an overwhelming surprise (ibid., 8:28).
More importantly, we were given the spiritual reason why such startling calamities would occur: because of evil, the Holy Spirit is being withdrawn from the earth, and when Gods restraint disappears we can expect to see turmoil. The restraining Spirit of God is even now being withdrawn, Ellen White warned, and when that happens there will be such a scene of strife as no pen can picture. She cautioned that travel from place to place would soon be hedged with dangersa prediction now quite recognizableand that there would be no security in anything that is human or earthly (ibid., 6:408, 22; The Desire of Ages, p. 636).
Ominous Trend. More, we knew that this turmoil would lead to a world in which the majority seeks some form of global religious accord, enforced by economic and military coercion. In the hours following September 11 one could almost sense the onset of such a trend in America. People were rediscovering the importance of religion. Public officials were openly suggesting that in order to maintain order we may have to surrender some liberties guaranteed in our Constitution. The Fourth Amendment faces immense challenges, as privacy is eroded for the sake of public security. One wonders whether the First Amendment, guaranteeing religious liberty and freedom of speech, may face a similar challenge.
In short, the world we have long expected seems to be materializing with each passing day.
The Adventist Mission
Terrorism threatens our vital infrastructure. Action in Afghanistan inflames Muslim riots from Asia to Africa. Israeli-Palestinian tensions teeter on the brink of open combatthis mix of events is entirely capable of producing a world war. Seasoned military officers admit they have never faced anything remotely like it.
Faced with a crisis that could lead to the end of the world, what should Adventists do?
Our Messages. First, we should reaffirm who we are and what we have been put here to do. Revelation 14:6-12 clearly describes an end-time people with a series of specific messages to give. These begin with the everlasting gospelwhich means we need to be clear on what the gospel is, and what it isnt. Does the gospel save people in their sins or from their sins? Wed better know.
As Revelation 14 also points out, we are also a judgment-hour people with a judgment-hour messagewhich means we had better understand why the pre-Advent judgment is biblical. It wouldnt hurt if we also realized that it offers some of the best news in the whole Bible: according to Scripture, Jesus is both our judge and our defense attorney (Jn 5:22, 1 Jn 2:1). As long as we retain Him to handle our cases, we are assured of vindication, not condemnation.
We need to rediscover the timeliness of warnings such as the fall of Babylon, and understand why the biblical reference to Babylon is so filled with end-time meaning. We should also realize how rapidly technology is propelling us toward a world in which the mysterious mark could be so easily enforced. For example, one of the terrorists mechanisms to avoid detection is to make purchases entirely with cash, so as not to leave electronic trails. Could this lead to calls for a cashless society? Already the nation is discussing whether to issue national identity cards. What implications do these things suggest to people who know a time is coming when buying and selling will be controlled? We should become serious observers of our world, relating what we see to the prophetic pictures painted by books such as Revelation and The Great Controversy.
Our Lifestyle. And we should explore in prayerful depth the promise found in Revelation 14:12. There will be a generation of Gods people who keep the commandments. That is a promise some people dismiss as impossible: after all, never before has a generation of believers done it. But the holy and true One saw it happen. That should be assurance enough that it is possible.
A gospel message. A judgment hour message. End-time warnings about the fall of Babylon and the danger of surrendering ones religious convictions in the face of economic coercion. The law of God and the faith of Jesusall of this is what Revelation describes as the message of Gods last church. Wed better be sure we understand it. More importantly, wed better be sure that we are living what we preach.
If our task is to preach the gospel to the world, and if the gospel we preach must be the same one by which our own souls are saved, then are we really ready to deliver that message? To put it another way, are we ready for the coming of Jesus?
THE ADVENTIST CHALLENGE
On September 11, 2001, all the things for which we have so often been tempted to sell our souls disappeared. Money, power, and professional glamor all came down in a tragic cloud of dust and debris, leaving a few acres of New York looking like the post-millennial world. You no longer had to be an Adventist to see it; everyone could, and people everywhere agreed that something very fundamental had changed. Nearly everyone realized that we had reached one of those mysterious bends in the river of time, when the whole course of world events changes. Things will never be the same was a remark one heard repeatedly.
Personal values changed instantly as well. Ive got kids, and were getting out of the city, one man said, sounding just a little like the sort of Adventist many would have snickered at the week before. Ball games were called off and even Hollywood showed restraint, canceling the release of violent films people no longer wanted to see. Meanwhile books on prophecy sold out and people prayed unashamedly in public. The stones were crying out, and their message was impossible to misunderstand.
Wake-Up Call. Let me say it plainly: we have heard a wake-up call for the Advent, and the time has come to take inventory of our livesto think about how we spend our money and our time, about how we eat and dress and keep the Sabbath, about the places we go and what we look atand, yes, even about the videos that burden our shelves, and the message we convey by having them there.
What are we telling our neighbors about our sense of mission?
What are we telling ourselves?
What are we telling our children?
Entertainment. So long ago that some people conveniently dismiss her remarks as outmoded Victorian rhetoric, Ellen White specifically warned about amusements that could, with subtle power, change us into persons we never dreamed of becoming. At the head of the list was the theater. There was, she declared, no influence in our land more powerful to poison the imagination (Testimonies for the Church, 4:653).
Her words have the ring of old-fashioned Adventism, an absolute couched in terms that allow for no shades of grey, and in recent years people have had an increasingly hard time taking her seriously on the subject. Indeed, some Adventist college newspapers publish movie reviews, and right next to their listing of New Movie Releases one such collegiate paper even did a satirical list of movie titles that one might expect to see if Adventists ran Hollywood.2 Shown as they appeared in the paper, some of these were:
10. Friday the 13th: Sabbath is Coming
9. Splash 2: Baptism by Immersion
8. Latter Rain: Starring the prophetess formerly known as Ellen Gould Harmon
7. Holy Ghostbusters
6. Dead Prophets Society, and:
1. 144,000 Dalmatians.
Comment on the above seems unnecessaryexcept, perhaps, to remember what Jesus said about insulting the Holy Ghost.
What Happened? Perhaps it is proper to ask what has happened to uswe whose forebears preached a soon-coming Lord, and whose children now play word games with the Holy Spirits name. One of the most obvious answers can be found in the topic that produced this attempt at collegiate wit: we have obviously spent a great deal of time with Hollywood.
A couple of generations ago most Adventists made at least some effort to stay away from the theater. But they soon encountered a new challenge: if they wouldnt go to Hollywood, then Hollywood obligingly came to them through the new medium of television. At first the device seemed harmless enough, delivering up fuzzy black and white images of Howdy Doody and Leave It to Beaver. But that was an era when the worst you might expect even from a movie was a plunging neckline, not full frontal nudity, and a moviegoer did not hear street language fit for a waterfront bar. Back then, television was protected by the Federal Communications Act of 1934, in which profanity on the air could be punished (as I recall it from my law school days) with a ten-year prison term or $10,000 fine. As television became an accepted part of Adventist family life, few people wondered what might happen if all this changed.
But change it did. Little by little the content of programming became more explicit, more profane, more overtly violent and sexual, until we learned to tolerate things we never dreamed we would accept in our living rooms. The dangers foreseen by Ellen White had come into the heart of our homes through a window we ourselves had opened, and the effects showed in our spiritual lives. We read less in the Word, allowed popular culture to mold our priorities, andwithout realizing what was happeningbecame more and more like the world we were put here to warn.
Worse, it was happening to our children. It is easy to criticize our colleges, but it is also important to remember that our colleges must contend with the attitudes our children bring to school. If we have left Hollywood as their baby-sitter, it is not surprising if they sometimes prove inept at distinguishing between what is sacred and what is profane.
Two Roads. Something was happening to us that Ellen White had described with dreadful clarity. There were two roads, she said, one leading to heaven and the other to eternal night, and in the latter road she saw many . . . who had the words written upon them: Dead to the world. The end of all things is at hand. Be ye also ready. This group of Adventists looked just like all the vain ones around them, except a shade of sadness which I noticed upon their countenances. Their conversation was just like that of the gay, thoughtless ones around them; but they would occasionally point with great satisfaction to the letters on their garments, calling for the others to have the same upon theirs.
And the worlds reaction? Those around them would say: There is no distinction between us. We are all alike; we dress and talk and act alike (Messages to Young People, pp. 126, 127).
How can one successfully preach the gospel to a world he or she is imitating?
Out of Date? There may be a reason why prophets are almost universally unpopular: they speak too plainly to be misunderstood. Throughout history, whenever they rebuked sin in the language and idiom of their era, people wished them dead. And so the temptation is strong to hush the echo of their voices in our soulsto attack them personally, to explain them away, or, in Mrs. Whites case, to say that her messages were, after all, for another era and are hopelessly out of date.
But are they really? Take a look at what else she had to say about theatrical amusements. Among the most dangerous resorts for pleasure is the theater. Instead of being a school of morality and virtue, as is so often claimed, it is the very hotbed of immorality (Testimonies for the Church, pp. 652, 653).
Out of date and out of touch? Hardly. Even those who profess no religion could recognize, when terrorism wrote its ugly message across the New York sky, that much of what Hollywood produces is unfit for serious people in a serious time. By the time he or she graduates, the average high school student will have seen 15,000 hours of television, witnessed 18,000 murders, seen 800 suicides, and viewed enough illicit sex to explain why marriage is no longer considered necessary by half of the new couples in the country.
Vicious habits and sinful propensities are strengthened and confirmed, Mrs. White went on to say. Low songs, lewd gestures . . . deprave the imagination and debase the morals. Antiquated Victorian rhetoric? Get real: it is as if she saw todays worldand indeed, there are ample indications that she did, even to what we accept as our nightly entertainment.
For those who care about their children, she warned, there is a special danger here: Every youth who habitually attends such exhibitions will be corrupted in principle (ibid., p. 653, emphasis mine).
Symptoms. What might be the symptoms of such corruption? Inability to distinguish between right and wrong? Between the sacred and the profane? Between eternal life and eternal night? Inability to sense what it means to be an Adventist?
Worse, she said there is something addictive about the entertainment process: The love for these scenes increases with every indulgence, as the desire for intoxicating drink strengthens with its use. It is hard to laugh this warning off: how do people react when the power (or the cable connection) goes out, and they cannot receive television?
The only safe course is to shun the theater, she concluded. There is no influence in our land more powerful to poison the imagination, to destroy religious impressions, and to blunt the relish for the tranquil pleasures and sober realities of life . . . (ibid.).
Used rightly, television is a force for good. It can spread the Advent message and keep us informed about what is happening around us. And broadcast news (as imperfect as it is) does provide a window on the world. But it is time for us to be discriminating about what we allow into our lives. Perhaps we have reached a moment when we ought to do a thorough housecleaning, starting with videos and other programs that give the enemy an arguable right to possess our homes and our souls. In ancient Israel Gods people experienced occasional revivals in which idols were thrown out and their lives were cleaned up. It may be time for something similar in Adventism.
Danger Signs. And while were at it, what about the things we eat and drink? Buying lunch at an Adventist hospital recently I tried to find some fruit juice, and found it difficult to locate anything without caffeine in it. Why? Do we have the truth, or dont we? Did God give this church the Spirit of Prophecy, or not? And if He did, why dont we do what we know is right?
The very first Sabbath after the tragedies in New York and Washington I attended church where a visiting pastor was speaking. As the senior pastor of a major institutional church he was an experienced minister, yet his sermon started out with a bad joke about people on an airplane that was about to crashthis while fires still burned in the Pentagon and World Trade Center, when the bodies of American heroes lay in the wreckage of an airliner in Pennsylvania, when thousands in New York and Washington were brokenhearted at the loss of loved ones, when we were aching to hear the good old Advent message, with its comforting promise that Jesus is coming.
Only a few days later an Adventist youth group in Southern California was invited by a youth pastor to a social gathering. A disc jockey was present to spin the latest rock songs, wine bottles were in evidence, the kids danced, and the young woman who related this story walked out in bewildermentthis, too, when smoke still drifted upward from Lower Manhattan, and when our kids deserved better than a pastoral blessing on entertamment that could cost their souls.
It is easy, in a crisis, to be too critical, but someone has to say something. What has happened to us? In this kind of condition, how can we preach the gospel to the world?
I have often urged people to stay loyal to Gods organized church. I still believe in it with all my heart. But sometimes the best sign of loyalty is to say something when someone (or something) you love is in danger.
Scripture. But let us first and foremost examine our own lives. It is time to improve the hours we have wasted and spend our time in the Word of God. How many of us even know the weekly memory verselet alone an entire chapter of Scripture from memory? If not, is it any wonder we have come to doubt that sin can be overcome?
Thy word have I hid in my heart, said the Psalmist, that I might not sin . . . . It is worth remembering that when He met Lucifer one-on-one, Jesus did not dignify him with theological debate. In response to temptation He simply quoted Scripture. If the Son of God used Bible truth to defeat temptation, is there a possibility we might need to do the same?
None but those who have fortified the mind with the truths of the Bible will stand through the last great conflict (The Great Controversy, pp. 593, 594). Implicit in that warning is the need to study now, before the last great conflict arrivesan event that, following the World Trade Center attack, may not be as comfortably distant as we have supposed.
In that time of stress, the Lord foretells that His followers will be called before judicial tribunals to answer for their faith. But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost (Mk 13:11). One of the functions of the Holy Spirit will be to give people clarity of thought and recollectionto bring to their minds just the right passages of Scripture that speak to the questions raised by a judge, or senator, or member of parliament. But how can the Holy Spirit help you remember something you never learned?
Those who have only a superficial understanding of truth will not be able clearly to expound the Scriptures, we are warned. They will become confused, and . . . ashamed (Review and Herald, Feb. 14, 1893).
By Memory. But why make that mistake? Why not follow the example of Rear Admiral Barry Black, an Adventist minister who is head of Navy chaplains? At the Pentagon memorial ceremony he was asked to participate. Instead of delivering a prepared speech he simply stood and quoted Scripture from memory, capturing the attention of 20,000 onlookers and an international television audience with verses that called attention to the return of Christ. In the presence of the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States, he witnessed to his faith in a way that calls to mind the promise of Mark 13:11, and so moved was the audience that they gave him an ovation. There is simply nothing so powerful as the Word of God, delivered with familiarity and conviction, and Admiral Black illustrated the eloquence with which truth can be delivered simply by knowing the Bible.
The Word: nothing so well prepares you to witness to your faith. In my hometown lived a pastor and his wife who took the Bible seriouslyseriously enough to commit much of it to memory (an accomplishment duplicated by such giants as J. N. Andrews and H. M. S. Richards). One day this minister entered the medical office of Dr. Barnard, my father-in-law, and in the hall encountered a pastor of another faith leaving the examining room. The doctor introduced the two clerics.
The trouble with you Adventists, the other pastor declared, bypassing amenities to get straight to his pet peeve, is that you dont understand the book of Galatians.
Perhaps youre right, brother, the Adventist pastor replied. Id appreciate your help: please tell me when I get to the part of Galatians that I dont understand. And then he began reciting the book from memory!
The other man discovered an appointment for which he was already late, and hurriedly left.
Scripture: once it was the center of our lives, the joy of every Adventist believer. So immersed were many of our pioneers in Scripture that our meetings drew interested people by the hundreds, even in small towns, and our work grew rapidly. Travel across small-town America and you can often find a village where once there was an Adventist church, and even a flourishing school. But are they still there today?
New Tools. Fortunately, the very technology that has so distracted us from the Word can be employed to make Bible study more enjoyable than ever. On my computer I have a program that makes available several translations of the Bible, along with the original Hebrew and Greek, Strongs Concordance, Vines Expository Dictionary (a wonderful tool in finding other texts that use the same word), several other Bible dictionaries, a Bible encyclopedia, even a set of colorful maps that allow you to find a place simply by clicking on its name in the textand all you have to do to get all this information is to move a mouse!
All of this is literally at your fingertips, so that a person accustomed to being entertained by a TV screen can find the Word of God displayed on the very same medium. Try it: after a few nights of serious Bible study, you will find the Word of God such delightful mental exercise that nothing Hollywood produces can compete.
Gift of Prophecy. And what about rediscovering the writings of Ellen G. White? Not only are they superb writing, they provide an illuminating second view of truths that we can never know too well. I have sometimes heard people say, Ellen White? Forget it! I want the Bible! I can heartily agree that we should get all our truths from the Bible. But try reading very far in the writings of Ellen White without getting a lot of Bible! Her books are filled with the Word, and a multitude of texts bearing on the subject are brought together in an integrated, systematic way. I have found myself memorizing much Scripture, without even realizing it at the time, simply by seeing it repeatedly in her writings.
Why be bashful about the fact that God has done what He said He would do and favored His last church with the gift of prophecy? The commandments of God and the testimony of Jesusthat is what Revelation says Gods people will have, and those are the targets the devil specifically attacks just as the war nears its end. If we dont have both, we cannot be Gods true church.
Time for Change? A celebrated English actor once was talking with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Tell me, your lordship, the Archbishop asked, why it is that you on the stage can affect people so powerfully, while we in the pulpit can affect them so little?
Begging your pardon, your grace, the actor replied, but the answer is simple. We on the stage treat things imaginary as if they were real. Too often you in the pulpit treat things real as if they were imaginary.
Have we made the same mistake? If so, isnt it time for a change?
And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come (Mt 24:14). It is a powerful challenge, but we can do it, because Jesus said so. Brethren, to whom the truths of Gods word have been opened, what part will you act in the closing scenes of this worlds history? Could the curtain be rolled back, could you discern the purposes of God and the judgments that are about to fall upon a doomed world, you would tremble. . . . Earnest prayers . . . would go up to heaven.
Watch, lest coming suddenly He find you sleeping. Mark 13:36.3
Mornings trumpet is blowing. Its time to wake up.
1. Richard is the son of the writer, and is a second-year law student at Georgetown University. His story is told in Mornings Trumpet, a new book by Lewis R. Walton, analyzing what September 11 means to Adventists. This article is adapted from that book.
2. La Sierra University Criterion, Nov. 12, 1996.
3. Assorted passages without ellipses are from Testimonies for the Church, 6:404-410.
The book Mornings Trumpet is available at Adventist Book Centers and from Lewis R. Walton, 2701 Rio Vista, Bakersfield, CA 93306.