BY SCOTT CHRISTIANSEN, communication and trust services director, Northern New England Conference
Last week Pope Francis released his second encyclical, “Laudato Si” (“Praise Be”), to worldwide media attention. It is an amazing document—amazing for its scope, vision and detail, and for its departure from the norm. Most significantly, it is amazing in its prophetic implications.
Let us begin by reviewing some of the document's many admirable elements.
Pope Francis projects no minor vision—his revolutionary encyclical is addressed to “every person living on this planet” (par. 3). The pope and his advisors call for massive changes in almost every area of human activity. The encyclical asserts that the way our global, complex society goes about our industrial, financial, and resource allocation activities is reflective of selfishness and greed. Pressing his case, the pope says that this selfishness and greed, and the resulting massive (and growing) gap between rich and poor around the world, inflict tremendous and disproportionate suffering on the poor—which is immoral. The pope further asserts that this same greed and selfishness drive industrial production and societal consumption practices that in turn are causing profound and accelerating global environmental decline. As a result the poor of the world, who are most at risk, suffer more sickness, dramatically increased food prices, decreased access to water, and hardships of every kind. Having framed his premise, Pope Francis lays out his vision of a radically changed world where we no longer consume obscene amounts of resources, where there is social justice and material equity, where there is dramatically decreased pollution, and where thoughtful policy and a God-centered morality drive all these changes.
I share a great deal of common ground with the pope in regard to his premise. Having worked among the poor and downtrodden as a country director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), I’ve experienced first-hand the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged in the developing world. I know that it is indeed sin, in the form of greed and selfishness among all humans, that is the root cause of the suffering of billions in this world. From my time in ADRA and from my years of focused study and research, I also know that the pope is quite correct in linking sin with our global industrial and production patterns, and in connecting those with environmental decay and human suffering. I made the same connections in my book Planet In Distress (R&H 2012).
I largely agree with the pope’s analysis, and am encouraged that he does more than merely criticize. But I find myself shaking my head in wonder at his proposed solutions. His noble and biblical desire to serve and comfort the poor and downtrodden focus him on fixing this world with no apparent grasp of Scripture’s focus on preparation for the personal, visible, bodily, saving return of Christ to destroy sin and Satan, and set up again His perfect kingdom. My years of studying environmental issues and their impact on human society have given me a good understanding of the pope’s concerns. But I have a hard time reconciling his thinking with what he surely ought to know. Sadly, he seems to miss where prophecy tells us we are in human history. The Bible clearly speaks of a natural world in spectacular decline in its final days: the earth will grow old like a garment does (Isa. 51:6). This picture of a threadbare rag perfectly describes what is happening to God’s world and the life webs He created. Christ’s description of the final days in Matthew 24 (and its parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 21) reveal a dysfunctional natural world prior to the falling of the seven last plagues that will specifically punish those who have rejected God’s love and chosen evil living instead. Revelation 11:18 speaks of God’s anger directed at “those who destroy the world.” Prophecy’s information about God’s anger directed against destroyers speaks both to the fact of their guilt for this pernicious action, and to how God feels about it.
As sin is destroying both humans and the world itself those who study Scripture recognize that the rapid and accelerating decline of natural systems of the earth means that very little time is left for the present order. Pope Francis may be focused on Matthew 25 in his care for the earth’s downtrodden, but he has missed the thrust of all Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 24:1-25:46 if he cannot see that earth’s time is winding down. Just now the Lord’s servants should be putting all possible energy and resources into proclaiming salvation through Christ and His soon coming to bring in new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). The fundamental question must be: is the pope’s re-visioning of human society and his prescription for global management what the Bible calls for at this time?
The world does not seem to be burdened with the questions I am asking. The massive global media response to the encyclical is proof that the world is wondering after the pope. He has a tremendous amount of influence and is enormously popular. And he seems destined to gain more; as the sin-induced accelerating decline of the world’s natural systems continues, he will not only have pointed to what is coming; he will have prescribed the solution—a sweeping morality-based re-visioning of human society. Note that this re-visioning is beyond the implementation capacity of national governments or even of the United Nations without the inspired human development guidelines he proposes that are found in his Christian tradition (par. 15). The pope’s encyclical recommends nothing less than a spiritual and technical approach to managing the world and its problems. His political, social, technological and economic commentary notwithstanding, none can miss the passion of his fervor for the spiritual solution he proposes. We may expect increasing demands for change all over the earth as things rapidly get worse. And Pope Francis has already eloquently and rationally, if somewhat mystically, pointed the direction in which he believes the world needs to go.
That spiritual direction involves the Sacraments, “a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life” (par. 235). The Eucharist, particularly, is “a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation” (par. 236). Participating in the Eucharist on Sunday “has special importance” (par. 237). And the celebration of Sunday itself can save us from “that unfettered greed and sense of isolation which make us seek personal gain to the detriment of all else” (ibid.).
For students of prophecy the pope’s encyclical appears at a very interesting time, as the effects of sin bring to life before our eyes Jesus’ predictions on wars, famines, earthquakes, etc., that are “the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:6-8; and see n. 1). The world is not suffering from some mere shortage of management. “It is because of man’s sin that ‘the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together’” (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 443). Simply put, no management plan, even a spiritually-based one, can reverse the effects of sin.
The evidence of the accelerating decline of the earth and its natural systems is made clear through an abundance of observations and scientific studies. Each day the news media is full of reports on such studies that include a more than tripling in natural disasters over the last 35 years (2). Prophecy specifically advises that a dramatic increase in such disasters will create an insistence for a Sunday law:
“Men in responsible positions will not only ignore and despise the Sabbath themselves, but from the sacred desk will urge upon the people the observance of the
first day of the week, . . . They will point to calamities on land and sea—to the storms of wind, the floods, the earthquakes, the destruction by fire—as judgments indicating God’s displeasure because Sunday is not sacredly observed. These calamities will increase more and more, one disaster will follow close upon the heels of another; and those who make void the law of God will point to the few who are keeping the Sabbath of the fourth commandment as the ones who are bringing wrath upon the world” (Ellen White, The Southern Watchman, June 28, 1904).
The rate of disasters has not yet reached the point where it has the attention of the world as described above. Prophecy indicates that it soon enough will. The recent encyclical, with it’s glorification of the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the divinity of Mary, and the blessedness of Sunday rest advances papal arguments that fly in the face of Scripture and God. Given his address to everyone on the planet Pope Francis may be heard as contending that if the earth is to be healed, then Sunday rest and worship, including consuming the body of Christ on Sunday, needs to become global practice. We may not yet be able to clearly connect his argument to the castigation of commandment keepers, but the light of prophecy already shines most brightly on the times in which we live and those just before us. Ultimately, Sabbath keepers will be blamed for epic disaster after epic disaster because they stubbornly insist on keeping God’s law.
With or without Francis’ letter to his bishops and the world, the signs that our Lord is coming very soon are all around us, if we will let the lamp of prophecy enlighten our souls and light the world’s darkness. With or without the encyclical, our duty is clear—to carry on Christ’s ministry of love and compassion to all, and particularly to the least of His brethren, in context of urgently announcing the nearness of His return and the salvation He is and is bringing for all who love His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8). Perhaps the encyclical will serve as a wake-up call to some Adventists, as yet one more sign that prophecies are being fulfilled now, in real time.
The pope has a sweeping and unique vision for his work. Adventists have a sweeping, unique, and prophetically ordained vision. We understand the battle between Christ and Satan and prophecy articulates the significance of our role in that battle: “Go tell the world” is our commission, and then the end will come. Disasters have their warning role, and the devil will employ them for his malicious ends. But the climax through proclamation is part of our prophetic privilege. We proclaim by words that testify to gospel truth, and by lives that are faithful to the Person of our Savior who is Truth and Way and Life. Then let us arise; let us shine; for the light of prophecy has come into our souls, and all along our road. The time is short; let us fully engage for a lost humanity, and for the Lord.
“We have a most reliable prophetic word, and you would do well to pay attention to it” (2 Pet. 1:19, CEB). Praise God for the light of prophecy!