One spring afternoon I was cleaning out my garage and came across an aging roll of evangelistic placards, posters, broadsheets, and banners propped in the corner tied loosely by a rope. The motley bundle had the appearance of an ancient scroll from dust and water damage and mice nibbling at the edges. This bundle caught my eye and I unrolled the group spreading each poster out on the garage floor using a rock or stray piece of wood to hold down the corners. The posters and placards highlighted favored Adventist eschatological themes during World War II.
Is Hitler the Antichrist in the Bible?
Armageddon War…Is it Here?
The Great Red Dragon…
Is it Russia in Prophecy?
Mussolini Heals the Deadly Wound.
Do You Have the Mark of Beast on Your Forehead?
All the World under One Flag.
A Thousand Years of Peace.
How near is the End the World?
Hard-boiled Texts for Discovering the End of Time.
These objects belonged to my father. He’d been an Adventist evangelist during the 1940’s, traveling along the Oregon Coast and around Astoria saving as many souls as one man could—a warrior for God. Looking at them spread out on the floor gave me an idea and so I called him up. “I have something to show you,” I said, “Can you come up to the house?”
Dad was retired, living in Loma Linda and working part-time in the Adventist Heritage Room at the Loma Linda University Library. Driving up in his pickup he got out and came walking into the garage telling me all excited about Hank Aaron’s latest home run hit off of Dodger’s pitcher Al Downing in the Braves Stadium. Dad loved baseball. Aaron had just broken Babe Ruth’s record and his mother came out on the field and ran the bases with him. Dad was halfway into telling the terrible unsportsmanlike insults Aaron had received after overtaking Ruth’s record. Suddenly he stopped talking, looked down at his feet and began scanning the floor studying the ancient posters and broadsheets. He walked around each sensational proclamation used to attract infidels to Adventist evangelism. I knew in those times most evangelists did not advertise they were Seventh-day Adventists, instead they soft-stroked the “nondenominational” label if they were asked, “What church do you represent?” For quite awhile he said nothing, but I could tell something festered in his mind as he bent over to look at one and then another. Some headlines wrinkled his face and I guessed that he was starting to live backwards as he scrutinized the advertising. The largest, which I placed in the center of the floor, had bold red letters across the top with a menacing picture of the devil sitting on a rock with his legs tuck up under his chin in the upper half of the placard with lightening and dark clouds storming in the background. The poster read …
The Devil Boycotts These Meetings!!!
At this point with him standing next to the poster my curiosity got to me and I broke into his silence and asked, “How did you use this one, Pops?” He just stood there gathering up bits of strewn memory in his mind and then cocked his head to one side like a Raven does that has just seen its image in a mirror.
“We rented a bright red devil suit with horns and a long-curved tail from a Halloween costume store downtown,” he said. “The deacon in the church put on this devil suit and walked back and forth in front of the tent carrying this sign over his shoulder. He had a pitch fork in his other hand. People would drive by, slow down, gawk, but then most sped away. At first, the deacon got to jumping up and down on the sidewalk, shaking his fist, and frightening people away. We had to subdue his ardor at being a devil.” Some did come in, though and attended the meeting. If they listened to ten sermons we gave them a free Bible.
Standing there among the posters we continued talking about how an evangelist gathers precious souls for the kingdom of God using shifting prophetic headlines. After a time, I jokingly asked him; “Pops, I know you never meant to scare anyone using fictitious prophecies, but have you ever thought about taking out a full-page ad in Newsweek or Time magazine and apologizing to the public for frightening potential church goers years ago in trying to get them to accept false and troublesome prophecies that were so readily replaced by a new canvases of eschatological artworks after the war?”
He was the kind of man who enjoyed a ribbing and he put his hands in his pockets and looked at me firmly with his jaw set. “I need to explain something to you—young man,” he said, using a quaint Scandinavian accent he liked to mimic. “Prophesy cannot fail and does not fail for the committed! Prophecy is used to show that the world is governed by Providence. The bows and arrows found in Ezekiel are changed in modern times to tanks, rockets and atom bombs. When people start believing that prophecy fails or they lose their prophetic enthusiasm sects or cults are either forgotten or they become institutions with many layers of management. Viewed this way, an institution likes long-term commitment but not the perspective of imminent danger or end of the world. A church like ours has to straddle these two possibilities.”
As was usual with him, now that he was retired, he sidestepped giving a direct answer to my perplexing moral question about employing scare tactics that were used to create emotions around sudden and complete termination of earth history, but which failed without qualification. Despite this I probably could not have gotten a better short answer about the psychology of Adventist prophecy than what he’d just explained. I noticed that as he got older many of his religious views changed over time as he’d had to deal with prophecy disconfirmation throughout his preaching career. If you asked him—the amateur astronomy that he was—where he thought the appearance of Christ would be at the Second Coming. He was reluctant to tell what he’d learned when he took astronomy at Union College in the 30’s from Professor Harold Shilling, an intelligent, Godly physics teacher. As a young beginning evangelist, he had it all figured out. He believed Christ was coming down through a hole in the Great Nebula of Orion. Later it was unsettling to him when he learned that the Hubble telescope revealed large quantities of ionizing and destructive ultraviolet radiation in this Nebula. If a traveler passed through this space he or she would be like the proverbial poodle in the microwave oven. Since he had to accommodate his prophetic wisdom after the war he modified his convictions searching for a better thoroughfare in and out of the cosmos than the Orion space. There wasn’t any hole in the Nebula anyway. Also, he’d given up preaching that God would never permit sinful man to place his swollen evil foot on another planet without purification and redemption from the second coming. When Armstrong stepped on the Moon he stopped preaching that little nugget.
The strident voices of the sure word of prophecy in my dad’s time had “God’s timepiece” ticking off the remaining minutes until the end-time, outlined in some cases by amazingly detailed prophetic books, seminars, roadmaps and charts. The Millerite movement was certainly a spectacular manifestation of prophetic end of time with a disappointment. These prophetic expositions have remained deeply embedded in Adventist eschatology and are an organizing principle in the Church’s teachings. Believers want to see the soaring vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from God out of Heaven even though the fiery arrival may not actually be through the hole in Orion. A belief in prophecy is a way of ordering experience and serves overarching complex psychological needs. Consequently, as I listened to my dad talk about his past preaching certain prophetic beliefs were difficult to adjudicate in Adventist theology, although with time some proclamations that support certain prophetic speculations like my father’s World War II-era banners have in a new direction.
In a benchmark study published in 1956, Leon Festinger and colleagues set the research standards for investigating the sociological consequences of prophecy failure. This theory challenged the then-popular behavior theory that people’s actions are mainly governed by rewards and punishment. These new ideas became known as dissonance theory. (Leon Festinger, H. Riecken, and S. Schachter. When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 1956.) Dissonance theory reveals more contours about the myth that humans process information logically. In fact, the overwhelming evidence is that they don’t. People use mental tools to assure themselves that their own decisions arise from ordered accuracy and enlightenment. They avoid making mistakes because they think mistakes mean they are stupid. So when a mistake occurs it is difficult to admit it. Telemarketers and spammers from Nairobi know a thing or two about the theory of dissonance and the self-justification and rationalization rules that shadow the mind. Nearly forty-billion dollars is taken each year in telemarketing scams or frauds of one kind or another. (Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). Orlando, FL: Harcourt. 2007. p. 230.)
Festinger discovered that when believers experience a prophecy disconfirmation they respond in ways that generally follow a predictable pattern. The pattern flies against observer’s expectations and common sense. Instead of abandoning the failed prophecy the disconfirmation strengthens the believer’s original notions, which is to say, the prophecy is essentially incorruptible by failure? At first one might guess that the best course of action would be to abandon the discredited belief (as one would expect from the punishment that follows a failure) and remove the cognitive dissonance or psychological tension that disconfirmation creates in the believer’s mind. But more often than not the reverse occurs. It is less painful to tolerate the dissonance than to discard the belief and admit a mistake. (Alden Thompson. What’s Up With 1844? Adventist Today. 12:3. 2004.) Not always, but Festinger found believers sought to reduce failed prophecy dissonance by actively proselytizing (enlisting others to believe in the same thing). That is one of the fascinating explanations of the evangelist’s zest in creating new placards that fit contemporary political conditions or adjusting to new “signs of the times” to fit modernity. Also, Festinger found that believers were likely to rationalize the prophecy or seek only confirming evidence. Afterwards, the reaction is to dismiss the historians. That was surely the case with many of the Millerites. It was difficult to admit the wrong or that a terrible mistake was made. In fact, Festinger discovered in this connection, “The higher the stakes—emotional, financial, moral—the greater the difficulty” to admit an error. (Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. p. 2.)
Of course you can see the problem here. The American evangelist Dwight L. Moody explained it this way: “I know of no better way to wake people up to religion than to set the Church to looking for the return of our Lord.” This probably excuses why Adventists have stuffed themselves at the potluck table of prophecies intent on arousing converts and spreading the message to the entire world. But after partaking of so many dishes it is most likely now that prophecy has lost some of its charm and attraction. According to dissonance theory, anyone who attempts to correct or make adjustments on certain will meet head on self-correcting penalties for dissention within the group. (Seven Questions for Marvin Moore. Adventist Today. Jan-Feb., 2008. p. 26.) The debris field of fallen ministers and scholars in the church bears witness to that consequence. War-time prophetic messages fell on hard times and lost its compelling resolution. Even the lock-safe Armageddon seems to have lost some of its luster because of overuse. But the struggle between good and evil remains and believers still hope to see God’s anointed son, the Messiah revealed just as strong as ever and sin and sorrow will be no more.
What would happen if future evangelism toned down Armageddon—men’s hearts failing them, and other “imminent” events? Wouldn’t the church reduce its alluring power and essentially give up a major Adventist legacy found in the Third Angels Message? Would there be protests out of fear of losing the Advent identity. Festinger’s theory predicts decisions like this come down to which is the lesser of painful dissonances. There are some other things to consider.
Sociologist Ronald Lawson found that the disconfirmation tension in mainstream Adventism is diminishing as the church is transforming into a denomination. (Ronald Lawson. Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem. New York, NY: Routledge. 1997.) He explains this partly because Adventism’s apocalyptic urges are quieting as traditional believers pass on and younger preachers are being educated in a scaled down version of the church’s eschatology. Another reason why the apocalyptic vision has flamed out may be because the complexities of the universe (physics, cosmology, and space travel), earth (geology and paleontology) and living things (biology, medicine, and chemistry) are being illuminated and better understood. The sublimated terrors of cancers and pestilences are coming under control, although there are a host of other threats. In a more secular age many people perceive that there are natural forces at work that do not require a supernatural explanation. Both are likely to create problems for mainstream Adventists who are adjusting to denominationalism. Still, the church faces haimsucken independent ministries around its fringes who have a quiver full of prophecies armed with inflated imaginations. These conservative ministries (sects) believe that this falling away (laxity and accommodation) from traditional apocalyptic inclinations fulfills one of Ellen White’s predictions that in the last days there will be apostasy within the church over the end of the world expectations. This reaction also has the potential to create another disconfirmation since the end of the world expectations written today would likely be different if the church had a living prophet. (Malcohm Bull and Keith Lockhart. Seeking a Sanctuary. Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 2006. p. 104.)
Jesus warned that “no man knows the day;” which turned out to be an oxymoron for the Second Advent Movement. He told his disciples not to look for signs, yet provided them. Also he said, “No doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.” Adventism grew out of this very deep yearning for the fulfillment of his returning to enjoin the saints in heaven. This has still not taken place. Was Jesus speaking figuratively, or was he simply wrong? As predicted by dissonance theory this emotional bond to the past makes it difficult to step away from such prophetic origins. It would require admitting a mistake.
When prophecy fails, some sociologists claim that sects either are forgotten or they become institutions. In the case of Adventism, it can be reasonably argued that the psychological and social forces surrounding the 1844 mistake, and the mental vertigo it caused, would eventually be recognized and corrected as an inevitable aspect of maturing into denomination. Some say that this process was helped along during the debate over Questions on Doctrines in 1957 and beyond.
The Millerites learned the hard way that the millennial kingdom could not be preached into position by human effort. And in modern times the Adventist evangelist is also likely to learn that the perfectibility of humans cannot be achieved by pulling up new fears over Sunday Laws or the growing political power of the Christian Coalition or that evolution will displace Genesis. Ordinary goodness, living better, and treating others as we would want to be treated could rise to greater significance in evangelistic efforts in the future.
All was not lost that spring afternoon in the garage. Dad and I had a wonderful conversation standing there on the garage floor amongst those failed prophetic banners. We came to no firm conclusion and made no judgment about right or wrong methods of evangelism. More important I remember him telling me about the importance of resisting temptation to justify actions when mistakes are made, avoiding overconfidence because not all decisions will be right in life’s complexities. What might be right for one situation may not be right the next time. That afternoon now seems like a long time ago, and despite his own failure at writing prophecy he still remains in my memory as a great man and his mind and love treasured. And I’m certain he would have something to say about the new harbingers, the “end-of-times” we’re experiencing now with global warming, worldwide market economics, religious fundamentalism, profound discoveries in the cosmos and genetics, terrorism, geo-political oil, inappropriate wealth dispersion, universal health care, etc.
Which reminds me of another one of his aphorisms: “Man can seldom, if ever, fight a winning fight against his training.” This appears to be especially true when it comes to acknowledging religious training and education. Human nature consistently overrates its skill and generosity to predict the future based upon this profound emotional need to find meaning. To begin with, human nature is not well-suited to detect and admit mistakes, and it is resistant to disconfirming information. Of course, new believers who are not well-trained can be manipulated for a short time by prophetic ingenuity that has a limited future but many will eventually become disillusioned and leave as they become better educated. Concepts, not words, are primary in the human mind. The images that are created by prophetic formulates are the salient tokens of our religious lives. If they are false then the images are also false and discoverable even as the individual is caught up in the inevitable current of history’s stream.