John Scotram, a self-proclaimed prophet, believes that he is the angel Gabriel. And he claims that Jesus is coming again on May 6, 2019. UPDATE 5/14/19: He didn’t.
The SDA Church has spawned many small groups of terribly earnest believers, some of whom interpret their breakaway from the parent church as fulfillment of Bible prophecy. They become, to themselves if not to anyone outside their insular bubble, the One True Church. Ever since the SDA Church made this claim about itself, it has spun off innumerable tiny congregations, which then make the same claim about themselves.
Daniel 2 Doubts Wrapped Up in Daniel Book/Doctrine Doubts
The relevance of the second chapter of the book of Daniel to a believer in Seventh-day Adventist doctrine is entirely dependent upon the church’s twin doctrines, “The Sanctuary” and “The Investigative Judgment”.
Both of those doctrines depend heavily upon a view of the whole book of Daniel which has largely been abandoned by modern liberal scholarship, as noted below. Both of these doctrines build upon that abandoned interpretation of Daniel 2 which relied upon it as prophecy written before the events it predicted rather than as ‘history’, written after the events which it pretends to predict (the modern view). Both of those doctrines are unique to a single denomination within Christianity, the Seventh-day Adventist Church; but even within that church, there is no agreement as to the reliability of those very doctrines! The best summary of the controversy over those twin doctrines is found in three parts:
For whatever reason (I’m not sure I’m willing to guess), in the few years since I’ve come out atheist, I have experienced a motivation to behave ethically and morally far beyond that which two and a half decades of Christianity ever provided.
My denomination was the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was not your average pew-warmer, either. Within 18 months of my baptism at the tender age of 20, I had embarked on a year-long foreign missionary teaching assignment, been ordained a local elder in that mission’s church (at the ordination ceremony, when the pastor read to his church the biblical requirements of an elder, he literally skipped over the verse in 1 Timothy 3 which states that the elder must not be a recent convert; I swallowed hard and kept smiling), and had preached sermons and taught lessons more than many elderly members who had been Seventh-day Adventists all their lives.
I remember being convinced that the Seventh-day Adventist worldview was the only correct lens through which to judge all incoming information, including political information used to make voting decisions. For decades I perceived everything I read, heard, observed, learned, and discovered through that very narrow lens, also known as The Great Controversy:
An open letter to my former church, in which valuable advice on how to retain members is humbly offered.
The biggest problem facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church is arguably how easily they lose church members. They constantly praise one another for each new baptism, but chronically ignore established members who no longer attend.
I’ve been thinking about what it was like to be a comfortable Christian church member; remembering the soothing feelings of belonging to a morally superior movement with a great commission directly from the throne room of Almighty God.
The high I experienced from just mingling with younger generations (as teacher, supervisor, chaperone, worship leader, etc.), reveling in their energy, soaking up their contagious attitudes of earnest, idealistic hopefulness and utter confidence in the Bible and the happy future it promised us– it reinforced the superiority complex and pride because the “high” was “natural,” not from supposedly satanic substances. And it felt good to know we were superior and to be proud of that lofty status.
Those Jokes About it Being a Cult Aren’t Funny: It Is A Cult.
In at least three ways it fulfills standard cult definitions.
First: Despite official denials, one person dominated the founding years, in the same way Joseph Smith dominated the formation of the Mormon church. Ellen G. White’s career as the SDA (Seventh-day Adventist) prophet from her teen years in the 1840s to her death in 1915 shaped a major portion of early SDA history. She and her husband (and in later years, her large entourage of secretaries and servants) crisscrossed the territory of the growing church, molding the thinking of every willing follower after her own.
“What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn?
The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is ignore the new information. Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive.
We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality.
Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.”
Dr. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 46
Whatever one believes about how the human mind came to be what it is today– whether designed by a creator or evolved by selection or some other explanation– there is a fact about how the mind works which has become very powerful to me lately: Logic is important to the human mind. Maybe that’s a no-brainer (pun intended) to many readers.
When I was young, I found logical thinking came naturally to me, and yet I possessed many interests in the creative arts, far outside the disciplines of logic. I think I too quickly took logic as a given and failed to give it any further attention. Perhaps bored with the work required to become proficient in thinking logically, I found refuge in artistic endeavors like music, fiction writing, and humor, where one is allowed and even encouraged to be illogical. But now, in my late 40’s, I am returning to the logic of my youth.
Beyond disciplines which make heavy and obvious use of logic, such as philosophy, computers, mathematics, and science, it has come to my attention that logic is also used in less obvious areas, like morality, beliefs, ethics, and values. This is leading me in some interesting directions, including a quest to build a personal system of morality and ethics which is free from any religious influences. Please note that I am not in search of a morality which is the opposite of that found within religions; in fact, I am already finding the significant overlap of specific values, even if the beliefs underlying those values are very different.
My former fellow Christians probably think that morality is impossible outside of the religious context. I used to believe this myself, but now I am finding it very interesting that this is not, in fact, true. Even more surprising: a better source of beliefs and values is found outside religion. Before going further in this direction, a bit of history will be helpful.
For most of my religious life, which was my entire young adulthood, I trained my mind to perceive the world from the viewpoint of Christianity. The denomination I chose to join at age twenty calls itself the Seventh-day Adventist Church (abbreviated SDA). The SDA Church is friendly to intellectuals– up to a point. Their foundations are rooted in prophetic calculations which relied heavily upon the use of historical research. Fervent study of ancient languages, textual criticism, chronology, archaeology, and even astronomy informed the Bible interpretations of the founders of Adventism, all the way back to William Miller and the off-shoots who formed the core doctrines.
Early in the church’s development, these studious pioneers established a school system. It ultimately grew into a globe-spanning network, drawing students of all ages: K-12, college and graduate school. To me, getting a Bachelor’s Degree in Religion at an SDA college seemed like an intellectual exercise; at least it required very little of the passion or emotion usually associated with Christianity. I enjoyed the challenge of mastering the art and science of teaching SDA doctrine to secondary students.
The SDA devotion to health-related education and health-care delivery, including a world-class medical school at Loma Linda University, makes it seem like a modern church that welcomes intellectual development for its own sake. I believed it was, anyway– up to a point.
Why No Advent Yet?
From the beginning of my life as an Adventist I had asked a question: Why hasn’t God “advented” yet? Where is this Second Advent He promised so long ago? Why the delay? Why the increasingly awkward and unnecessary delay? I never did get an answer which made any logical sense. Oh, I got answers, but no good ones. Answers I got included: “The character of Christ hasn’t been perfectly reproduced in His people yet;” “A day with the Lord is like a thousand years;” “Be patient and keep working– He has perfect timing and after it all finally happens we’ll look back and see how perfect His timing was.” In other words, a lot of bullshit.
Every year in every Bible class I taught some bright young Adventist would look me in the eye with that seriousness only found in the young and ask ME a version of the same question: “Why hasn’t Jesus come back yet, Mr. Miles?” With every year that went by and my own research on that question only turned up more ridiculous versions of the same answers, I could only offer what I was finding, and pretend that the answers made sense. In more courageous moments, I would sadly admit that I really didn’t know why He hasn’t come back.
I ask you, dear reader (and invite your comments and replies below): What possible greater good is achieved by delaying Jesus’ second advent, and allowing evil to pile up higher and higher as if what we’ve already seen isn’t a sufficient display of “The Results of Sin”? Is the divine jury box loaded with the most skeptical beings in the entire universe? Is God somehow interested in seeing the final outcome of global greed, global warming, human trafficking, child slavery, the poisoning of the air, water, and food supplies, terrorism? Is He disappointed that World War III hasn’t happened yet?
Why Is God Not Leading The Church?
At some point, I became interested in questions which were not welcome inside the official SDA Church. It began with questions related to leadership policies and practices. By then I had become a veteran teacher in the California SDA K-12 system, and toward the end of my employment there I learned of some disastrous positions and decisions that had (and will continue to have) disastrous results for good people. They deserve much better from the Church to which they have devoted their lives. I will not be any more detailed than this in describing specific cases, since the worst of it is remains wrapped tightly in the grasp of denominational lawyers, and I would not want to do anything to jeopardize the outcome of pending legal decisions concerning people I still consider my friends, even though we do not worship together anymore.
(At this point in my story, many readers who are religious will assume, incorrectly, that all that follows in my post-Christian life journey is explained by labeling me a “disgruntled former employee” who gave it all up in a rash decision after some bad treatment from a “few bad apples” in the denomination. Many have already contented themselves to close off any further questioning or information through the use of this defense mechanism. Anyone else tempted to stop reading here is referred to the quote by Dr. M. Scott Peck found at the beginning of this essay; please read it, and carefully consider what it has to say.)
I am in no way referring to any treatment I myself received from the church or its leadership, which I’ve never felt was serious enough to write about in detail. It’s not important enough for me to rehearse and relive anyway. The most I ever did was in these comments on Google+. Compared to what I saw happening to my colleagues and their families, my situation was little more than a minor inconvenience in my life as I transitioned out of a religious life into a non-religious life. The important point is what all of this did to my way of thinking about God.
Back then I truly believed– and taught my students to believe– that we can be certain that God personally built the SDA Church, guides it, and will give it a prominent place in the final events of human history. That the SDA Church is God’s One True Church. The corrupt political tricks perpetrated by the leadership of the Church set up a nagging cognitive dissonance inside my brain. It did not compute logically. How could the cream of the crop of the leadership of a God-ordained organization behave so badly toward its own employees and church members? Why were they getting away with it?
Whether or not any of the particular employees and members forgave the church for how they were treated, or rationalized it away as a necessary evil to endure, or as a character building experience, or some kind of a blessing in disguise– none of that softened the blow to my psyche. Logically, my mind was not able to ignore or justify such a great weight of evidence, and I knew that if I was not able to ignore it, then surely the just and holy God who sits on heaven’s throne can not ignore it either. He cannot ignore it and remain a just and loving God, worthy of the high praise heaped upon Him daily from my classrooms full of earnest young Christians. But how to explain logically why God was allowing bad behavior among the leaders of His church to continue for decade after decade, destroying the mental well-being of the membership?
What if the only logical conclusion is that God is not who I was teaching Him to be, and thus does not deserve that high praise and worship?
As I learned of the unforgivable and unjustifiable behavior of “God’s leaders” and church officers, I had to ask why the absentee landlord-Lord wasn’t participating in guiding and directing the One True Church. If this God we worshiped in my Bible classes every day was as all-powerful as depicted in our songs, our scriptures, and our prayers, then why the hell was he ignoring the leaders of “His Church”? Why do the slickest, most self-serving politicians climbing the ladder of power in the church end up in the highest positions? On governing boards, making critical decisions?
I get the aphorism that “everybody’s human and fallible,” but how does that explain the dismal track record of denominational leadership? Think about any and all churches, beyond the SDA Church. Church leaders seem to be much more human and fallible than the average population. I think if you literally grabbed random individuals of no particular religious persuasion off the street and traded them into every position of church leadership, you’d find that denomination suddenly behaving in a much more ethical, humane, reasonable, and compassionate manner than will ever happen at the direction of the current office-holders. Why was God tacitly approving of the slow, spiritual bankrupting of what we told ourselves was the “apple of His eye,” his own “chosen,” special people?
Again, I ask you dear readers, and invite your responses: Why does God refuse to lead His people anymore? If you believe that the One leading your church today is the same God who grabbed those reins of leadership in the days of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and in the days of Noah, and the days of Moses and the Pharaohs of Egypt, and the Babylonian Captivity and Nebuchadnezzar, and the days of Jesus and the Apostles, then why has he dropped the reins of leadership for the last two thousand years?
How do you compare the absence of divine intervention of the past two millennia to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16) or Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? Are the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon really equivalent to God’s personal, powerful guidance he generously showered on the twelve tribes of Israel? Is the awful and embarrassing history of the papacy, the reformers, and the malaise of modern Christianity even worthy of comparison to the Acts of the Apostles personally taught by Jesus Christ?
The history of Adventism, 1844 to the present, is a microcosm of Christian church history, from the New Testament to the present; both demonstrate the truth of Proverbs: when the leaders lack vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). It’s the history of a religious movement which started with excitement and progress toward a goal which galvanized the first generation, but evolved in future generations into just another self-serving dogmatic religious institution, endlessly splintering into factions along the political spectrum, each splinter more spiritually dead than the one before. No one would look at the evidence of the last two thousand years and find a connection between the Biblical God’s leadership of people, and what happened with Christianity (and if I may be so bold, with Christianity’s sibling religions of Judaism and Islam). No one, except those who begin with the conclusion that God exists and is leading His church, and refuse to listen to any contrary evidence.
SDAs Duped By A False Prophet
The Bible teaches that God holds his leaders to a much higher standard than anyone else on earth, except for His prophets–they are held to the highest standard of all. Which leads me to another major hit on my intellectual brain, which happened a year or so after I terminated employment with the church and moved away from California: I learned the ugly truth about the SDA Prophetess, Ellen G. White.
The brazen, extensive plagiarism of Ellen White is an open sin, breaking the third, eighth, and ninth commandments, and is accepted by virtually every Seventh-day Adventist. The documentation of the plagiarism is ongoing, and decades old at this point. The Internet era has opened the facts of her sins to any and all who choose not to hide from it.
The fact of her plagiarism establishes another fact: she was a false prophet, for a true prophet of God would not say “I saw…” or “the angel told me…”, followed by the words of other writers she copied without citation or reference. Even Bible prophets point out when they are quoting other Bible prophets. We cannot claim that standards for giving credit to other authors have changed since Ellen White’s day, especially since a prophet is held to the highest standard of ethical behavior, and a modern prophet would not be held to a lower standard than that of the biblical prophets. Note that Moses didn’t get away with even one temper tantrum (Numbers 20:10-12)!
When one rejects Ellen White’s legitimacy, one has rejected the heart and soul of Seventh-day Adventism. Attempting to remain a faithful conscientious Adventist while knowing the truth about Ellen White would be like attempting to keep a person alive while extracting every bit of their nervous system from their body, starting with their brain. It won’t work and will be painful and ugly. I have elsewhere written extensively on the prophet of Seventh-day Adventism, Ellen G. White.
After comparing the Bible teachings of other churches to that of my former SDA Church’s, I gave up a short-lived quest to find a home in an alternative Christian community. Adventism convinced me that their interpretation of Christian doctrine is the most faithful to the original intent and text of the Bible (despite being deceived by Ellen White about many things). I was subsequently forced to experience another major hit to my intellectual conclusions regarding religion. I knew that to be a Biblical Christian, I had to incorporate more than just the New Testament as my Scriptural authority.
The Old Testament belongs in the authority structure of Biblical Christianity. The SDA Church has arguably the most extensive and accurate body of writings on the Old Testament from the Christian perspective. Their unique devotion to the doctrines of Creation and the Sabbath is a direct result of their tendency to treat Old and New Testaments as a balanced, connected set. It’s all one Bible to SDAs, a continuous revelation of God’s will from beginning to end.
I failed to find any other Christian denomination which treated the Old Testament with as much respect and scholarly study as did the Adventists. I remain convinced that the only believers who are treating the Bible as it should be treated are those who don’t see any practical distinction between the Old and New Testaments. I say this to the credit of the scholars of the SDA Church; they make a very convincing case that Biblical Christianity has to do with the proper interpretation of the 66 Protestant books of the Bible.
Building A Religion-free Morality
The most recent revelation to come from pondering biblical religion with logical reasoning is perhaps the biggest game changer for me so far. It has to do with what happens when you construct a system of beliefs, ethics, and morality without reference to any religious text or church dogma.
One such system finds that the best basis for morality begins with human needs. What do we need to live? How do we get what we need, and what resources are available to meet those needs? These are objective questions, and we can answer them objectively, using reason and logic. While it is true that religion also offers answers to these questions, it is not necessary to consult religion to determine the best answers. We merely need to consult our commonly shared values and decide what behaviors and beliefs contribute best to the well-being of ourselves, our family and friends, and our world.
What emerges is a morality that pursues what is best for human societies in the most inclusive, fair, compassionate, and just manner possible, much more inclusive and fair than is ever possible within religion’s restrictions, which always draws unnecessary boundary lines between the saved and the lost, the saints and the world, and often very arbitrary distinctions between “good and evil.”
God Is A Terrorist
The revelation is that what is possible within a non-religious system of ethics is often MUCH BETTER than what comes out of religious systems of ethics. This is illustrated by examining Christianity’s record of God’s own behavior in the Old and New Testaments. For example, the definition of terrorism includes the targeting of innocent civilians, including children, for death and injury. Secular ethics will always protest terrorist behavior, and the only correct moral posture to take toward terrorism is to “socially, financially, and politically ostracize” it.
Christians cannot consistently adopt this correct moral posture if they consult their Bibles, however, for that would call into question the many times God called for the extermination of Israel’s enemies, including innocent children (e.g., Psalm 137:9, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”). The Old Testament God promoted the use of terrorism, an immoral practice that non-religious ethicists easily determine is not worthy of human, much less divine behavior. This means that the God of Christianity is not worthy of worship or devotion. Notice that this is a logical conclusion to reach without ever calling into question the existence of God. In fact, this value judgment is only reasonable if we assume that the Bible is a valid authority, and a real and living God inspired its account of His acts in human history.
If you would like to read more from two authors I’ve enjoyed lately, who have helped me understand how to think logically and ethically about morality, please see their blogs: Secular Ethics (to read the blog, request an invite; it’s worth the trouble), and Atheist Ethicist.
So, logic makes its demands on me lately. And it’s an interesting, challenging journey I find myself taking, every bit as fascinating as (and even more rewarding than) the twenty-five-year journey I recently completed which took me into and out of Adventism, Christianity, and religion.
Originally this was published elsewhere. The following comments are reproduced from the original location.
d.william: voted up, awesome and very interesting. Your struggle with religious teachings and logical reality is a mirror of mine in a lesser sense. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic church and went through the same brainwashing as a child that all other religions impose on their children. When i realized that what the church stood for could not be logically reconciled with common sense i decided to pursue my own spiritual awakening without all the baggage of the church. It took me many years to deprogram my mind from those abusive childhood teachings, but today i am proud to say i am a non-religious affiliated, but highly spiritual person, who has found my inner peace in the knowledge of logic, common sense, and reality. I now realize that God (or whatever we want to call the creator of our reality on this planet) has nothing to do with organized religions at all. Perhaps in the beginning when religion was created to give people a sense of belonging to something greater than our individual selves, it fulfilled that need. But with the passing of time and some people learning that they can control others with this ‘tool’ of religion it slowly morphed into nothing more than businesses that exploit its members in every extreme. The use of brainwashing, guilt, and fear became the mainstays of all religions. These are not God’s creations, they are man’s creations for use of man against man (if that makes any sense at all). Jesus was a gnostic who believed that we do not need a middle man to commune with the creator. After the Roman government created the Roman catholic church they declared gnosticism as heretic, and pronounced their newly created church as the only true religion. Everything went downhill from there. Anyway, i digress. Your article is great and i hope you can achieve the inner peace that i have with the acceptance of spirituality; and our birth right of being connected to the universal oneness without any man made constraints.
Jim Miles: d.william, Thank you very much for your generous and thoughtful response. I am looking forward to reading your writings.