Last year I read an online article titled “An Even Greater Controversy,”1 a revisionist spin on the Seventh-day Adventist “traditional” interpretation of last-day events, particularly America in prophecy. The argument was that the Adventist interpretation of the second beast in Revelation 13, the lamblike beast who speaks like a dragon (Revelation 13:11), arose in a social, political, and religious context radically different than today and, therefore, needs to be reconsidered.
How valid is this argument?
A Different World?
The world of early Adventism, the 1840-1880s, was different from our world today, no question. But our world today is different from that of 40 or even 100 years ago. The Bible itself was written in a world inconceivably different from ours, as well. What, then, is his point?
That our pioneers, like the Bible writers, were influenced by their time and culture is a no-brainer. But are there not certain transcendent truths—however much filtered through the vagaries and contingencies of the human mind impacted by culture and epoch—that remain true? If the lamblike beast of Revelation 13 is really America, and God has known all through time that it is America—who cares about whatever prejudices or limits or weaknesses impacted how our pioneers came to that truth?
Of course, that’s the immediate issue: were the pioneers right?
The author writes about the Adventist pioneers’ depiction of America as coming up out of the earth, in contrast to waters, a symbol of multitudes of people (see Revelation 17:15). The idea of it arising, not amid the masses, meant that these Adventists, he claims, “deliberately ignored the millions of native communities that were violently displaced.”
Ellen White wrote that the second beast “could not, then, arise among the crowded and struggling nationalities of the Old World.” (GC 440). In contrast to the old-world powers, the American continent was relatively uninhabited. If there were 100 Native Americans here would that have counted as “inhabited”? A thousand? Twenty thousand? His argument misses the point.
The author stressed how the idea of “Manifest Destiny” could have impacted their interpretation of the lamblike beast as the United States. “Manifest Destiny” was this fuzzy and inchoate idea of White Americans as a chosen nation (or as Abe Lincoln called them “an almost chosen people”) brought forth by God, not only to conquer the American continent but to spread its values around the world. “As they expanded westward around the 1840s,” he wrote, “they saw it as a divine obligation to stretch the boundaries of their noble republic from sea to sea.” This idea, that of America as a “shining city upon a hill” had, he implied, influenced the early Adventists and their interpretation of America.
One inconvenient truth, however: for these early Adventists, the city on the hill would be lobbing 120 mm shells on everything below. This "noble republic," they believed, would speak like a dragon and "cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed" (Revelation 13:15). The early Adventists' view of America was, it seems, about as opposite the concept of “Manifest Destiny” as possible. So, this argument, too, falls apart.
The Decrepit Navy
The author makes another assertion, now regarding the United States and Sunday laws, which were much more prevalent in America in the mid-1800s than now. That's true, and some Adventists were even jailed over the issue back then, something that probably hasn't happened in America in a hundred years. He argued, therefore, that America fulfilling its prophetic role was, in the mid-1880s, much more likely than it is today, where Sunday laws have, at least for now, gone the way of rotary phones.
Fair enough. However, because “we have been taking conditions in the late 1880s and applying them to our day, where conditions for Sunday laws are questionable,” he wrote that “perhaps we should now be open to exploring the equivalent of a Sunday law in our age.”
The equivalent of a Sunday law in our age?
First, let’s deal with mid-nineteenth-century America fulfilling its prophetic role. It's very hard to see how America, when first identified by Adventists as the second beast, in 1851, could have caused all the world to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed (Revelation 13:12). In 1876, 25 years after that first identification, indigenous tribes butchered General George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. And this was the behemoth that would enforce “the mark of the beast” on the world? What were we going to do? Send our Navy, which in the 1880s consisted of 48 decrepit ships, to make everyone around the world keep Sunday?
Today, especially since the collapse of the Cold War, no power comes close to the United States, at least militarily. In 2020, the United States military spending matched the next seven largest spenders (China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil) combined. Whatever the present obstacles, the prophecy seems much more likely today than it did in 1851, or 1880 for that matter.
And, for what it’s worth, when I first heard, in the fall of 1979, about America in prophecy, I struggled to see how this prophetic role could ever be fulfilled with the Soviet Union as our nemesis. To use a riposte that I’ve employed for years in this context: “What, was the Soviet Union going to just disappear or something?”
The Equivalent of a Sunday Law?
In Revelation, the issue boils down to worship: worship of the Creator, the one “who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Revelation 14:7), language straight from the fourth commandment; or worship of the beast and its image, the beast being Rome—the power that sought to change the Sabbath commandments (Daniel 7:25)—and admits it, too. “We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Catholic Church transferred the solemnity from Saturday to Sunday.” 2
As I have written earlier on this topic. “For an earthly power to try to change, in a sense to usurp, the most basic sign of the most basic doctrine, creation, is to attempt to usurp the Lord’s authority at the most basic level possible: God as Creator. The only level more basic is God Himself, and because no entity, heavenly or earthly, can get to Him, it instead gets as close as possible: to the foundation sign of Him as Creator—the seventh-day Sabbath.” 3
And because God’s people are depicted as, among other things, keeping the “commandments of God” (Revelation 14:12), which would include the fourth commandment, it’s hard to see how the issue of worshipping either the Creator or worshipping the beast and its image, won’t be over the one commandment that points to God as Creator; that reveals why we should worship Him; and that the beast power, Rome, tried to usurp.
Though mentioning the need to look for “an equivalent of a Sunday law,” the writer never did come up with any specific option in its place. And that’s because there isn’t one.
A Bigger and Better Beast?
In what was, perhaps, the most revealing lines, he writes that in our condemnation of the beasts we need to think more broadly than we have been regarding their identity, writing that “wherever there is a spirit of coercion or the expectation that we can win God's favor in exchange for anything we might do, the spirit of the papacy reigns.”
That sounds profound, but not sure what it’s supposed to mean in terms of last-day events. The spirit of coercion? Like everything from Czarist Russia to the Teamsters Union. Anything to win God's favor through our works? Like Lubavitcher Hasidism or legalistic Adventism. His revisionist alternatives to America and Rome are so broad and wide as to be vacuous.
A few years ago, a right-wing Adventist posted a video about the Pope’s address to the U.S. Congress in 2015. The Adventist made some grand prophetic pronouncements about what this address meant and vaguely set dates that I'm sure have passed. I call this kind of stuff “headline eschatology.”
But the left, as revealed in the article, does the same. While the right looks around for headlines that affirm our prophetic scenario, the left looks for headlines that deny it.
Neither works because the Bible paints last-day events in very broad strokes; the Spirit of Prophecy, though filling in some detail, paints in broad strokes as well. Once you get between the strokes, between the lines, into headline stuff, you are speculating, and that has not worked out well for us in the past, as seen with that charlatan and the Pope’s address; nor now, as this revisionist reveals.
More than Ever, Thank You
I need faith to believe that Jesus is going to raise the dead. I need faith to believe, in fact, in the Second Coming. But I don’t need a modicum of faith to believe in the role of Rome in prophecy. In Daniel 2, 7, and 8, one power arises after ancient Greece and exists until the end of the world, and that one power is solely, totally, and only Rome, which appears again in Revelation 13, along with the second beast, “Protestant America,” and their appearances all unfold in the context of persecution in the last days.
And though the author touched on this only lightly, the change in Protestants’, particularly American Protestants’, attitude toward Rome is a phenomenal and stunning fulfillment of prophecy that Adventists first started proclaiming at a time when this reconciliation seemed about as likely as Hezbollah kissing and making up with Israel. It’s not talked about anymore because it’s over and done, so common now that we forget just how astounding, and prophetic, this change is—exactly as Ellen White in the Great Controversy had told us would happen. And it is also what would help America fulfill its prophet role as the end-time goon, pushing Rome’s false Sabbath on the world.
Sure, it’s still hard to see how our prophetic scenario could play out now. But it was hard to see how it could have played out in the mid-1800s, the late 1800s, or the early and late 1900s. It has never been easy to envision, but so what? It wasn’t easy to see the Messiah nailed to a cross, however much it had been predicted by prophecy.
And yet it’s easier to see America fulfilling its prophetic role today than it was in the time of early Adventism, or at the writing of Great Controversy. America remains the world’s greatest superpower, something it was not back then; in the past few years, her democracy seems fragile in ways most people could not have imagined; Protestant Americans know almost nothing about its historical antipathy to Rome; and, finally, for those who—doing headline theology—are trapped in the narrow thinking expressed by this article, I have one word: Covid. If that didn’t show how rapidly, and radically, our world can change, what does?
This alternative to “traditional” Adventism—which proposes things like the beasts of Revelation 13 as being, really, “a corporate manifestation of the universal human inclination to exalt self in the place of God, and to control our fellow human beings rather than grant liberty of conscience”—tells us nothing prophetically and, in fact, leaves us with even less.
Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. His latest book is Risen: Finding Hope on the Empty Tomb.
2 (Peter Geiermann, The Convert’s Catechism of Catholic Doctrine, Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1977, p. 50).