by Colleen Tinker
Last week the liberal-leaning online Slate magazine ran an article by its staff writer Joshua Keating comparing the failed apocalyptic prophecies that have driven ISIS with those of other apocalyptic groups including Seventh-day Adventists.
The independent Adventist magazine Spectrum ran a review of the article on the same day. Not surprisingly, juxtaposing the driving force of ISIS with the driving force of Adventism is a comparison too good to ignore.
In fact, Keating’s analysis makes some very good points. He explains that ISIS stands out from previous terrorist groups because of its “emphasis on controlling and administering territory, and the grand apocalyptic vision of its propaganda. ISIS’s followers aren’t just fighting to cleanse the Muslim world of nonbelievers, defeat Western powers, or even to build a ‘state.’ They believe that the re-establishment of the caliphate will lead to a final battle that hastens the end of days. The message has been a critical recruiting tool of the group.”
Keating further explains that “many of ISIS’s end-times predictions are based on collections of prophecies attributed to the Prophet Mohammed. “These prophecies, now centuries old, predicted that Mosul would become the home of the new caliphate in 2014. Additionally, another prophecy claims that Syria (al-Sham) would become a gathering place for the Day of Judgment, and still another prophecy predicts that before the Day of Judgment, the “Romans” will land in Dabiq. After a victorious battle against the Romans in Dabiq, Mohammed’s followers would be “conquerers of Constantinople” and then of Rome.
In October, 2016, however, ISIS lost Dabiq to the Turks, and ISIS’ excitement that a major end-time event might be about to occur lost some steam. In fact, not only have they lost Dabiq, but they have also lost Mosul—“the Iraqi city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph in 2014”—and “most of the territory that was once under its control.”
ISIS is having to adjust its propaganda, but it is not alone. Furthermore, the failure of its prophecies to materialize according to plan does not necessarily mean ISIS is history. It just means it has to redefine and revise its rhetoric. It has to recalculate its time line.
Other modern apocalyptic groups have had to reinterpret their prophecies as well. The Hasidic Jewish movement Chabad, for example, still has members who believe their founder, Rabbi Manachem Schneerson, is the Messiah, even though he died in 1994. Keating also cites Seventh-day Adventism as a well-known modern organization that has grown out of the failed Millerite prediction that Jesus would return in 1844.
Keating refers to a study done in the 1950’s by Leon Festinger and some colleagues which concluded that when apocalyptic movements fail to realize their prophecies, the failure can actually have a counter-intuitive effect: “it can actually make their adherents more devoted to the cause.” “An adherent is likely to stay true if he or she has deep conviction in such beliefs, has taken actions that are difficult to do in the name of them (like selling all of your earthly belongings), and has social support for those beliefs.”
Jon R. Stone is a professor of religion at California State University Long Beach. He has edited a work called Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, and he says, “If people invest their livelihoods, their reputations, their time and their money to one cause, if the cause fails, they don’t just say, ‘Oh well, that was fun.’ The response is to try to convince other people that they were actually right.”
Significantly to us who share an Adventist background, Stone says a common way to try to justify one’s organization’s failed prophecies is to “spiritualize” them, claiming that the prophecies didn’t fail but actually came true “in a spiritual way.”
This response is completely familiar to us who know of Hiram Edson’s cornfield vision following the Great Disappointment. Edson’s vision revealed that Jesus’s predicted 1844 cleansing of the sanctuary was really not a prediction that He would come to earth but that He would enter the Most Holy Place in Heaven and begin his investigative judgment to see which professed believers in Jesus were actually perfected and worthy of salvation. It was a heavenly, spiritual fulfillment, not a physical one. It was simply a misunderstanding on the part of the Millerites. Of course, Adventist prophetess Ellen White followed Edson’s visionary report with a vision of her own—the Great Controversy vision which incorporated this face-saving explanation into an entire worldview which shapes Adventist life, thought, and worship.
Writer and cult/totalitarian movement researcher Alexandra Stein, who used to be a member of an extreme political group called “The Organization”, explains that one of the powerful ways people stay entrenched in failed movements is through the support of others who validate their quirky beliefs. “Even if what you’re seeing with your own eyes is contradictory, you’re going to have the whole system telling you you’re not seeing it,” she says.
Again, we who have been Adventist understand this phenomenon. Although Adventists widely recognize that their prophetess Ellen White plagiarized and said unsupportable things, the fraternity and loyalty within the structure shaped by the incredible prophetic utterances is stronger than the facts. Unwilling to break ranks with all those “brighter minds than mine that believe”, most Adventists refuse to admit the implications of the false and even inhumane prophecies and dictums that came from Ellen White. The internal social and political pressure to stay quiet and be loyal is greater than the reality that her words contradict truth. The threats of the loss of status, friends, influence, and even income cause most members to remain quiet and to rationalize their internal dissonance.
As Stein says, “It’s a hell of a thing to come out of something like that and say I was wrong for 10 years, and utterly manipulated…How do you say you’ve wasted your life and given it up to a psychopath? Especially if you’ve done terrible things.”
While this extreme dynamic overstates the average Adventists’ experience, it does apply to those who have fought for the apocalyptic prophecies ISIS has dedicated itself to realizing. On the other hand, however, Adventists who realize their organization’s beliefs are not supportable do face being ostracized and cut off from the social dynamics that shaped them if they actually admit they can’t support the organization any longer.
Ironically, however, although the original end-time expectancies fail and the organization must reinterpret them, these failures do not mark the end of these groups. As we have seen within Adventism, we find new ways to talk about our eschatological convictions, and we find many other reasons to be loyal to our group.
The confusing fact of persistent loyalty to beliefs that are false is a continuing conundrum. Whether we look at the unwavering loyalty of ISIS followers or at the stubborn entrenchment of Adventists who know their beliefs are unbiblical, we see that the the power of the group and its goals often outweighs the power of personal doubt.
A questions that emerges from this dissonance is this: how can we know what is actually true?
It is politically correct, currently, to say that truth is relative. What you believe is good for you; what I believe is good for me. Yet as we look at situations like the persistent beliefs of cults and organizations with radically different agendas, we realize that “relative truth” ultimately leaves people without a way to resolve conflict or to stand with certainty on anything.
The fact is that truth is real, not relative. Each of us must come face-to-face with our source of authority. Ultimately, we either trust One greater than ourselves who has historically proven His divine nature and eternal power, or we trust the reasoning of a human.
Adventists, for example, say they trust the Bible alone, yet they concurrently hold to a non-negotiable belief that Ellen White was a prophetic voice with direction from God, and they cannot completely dismiss her as a false prophet or throw out her writings. Thus, no matter how much they claim to believe the Bible only, they ultimately believe what Ellen White said about the Bible, and this interpretation shapes their worldview.
Yet Scripture says that it is “the word of God”. It is “living and active and sharper than any two—edged sword.” It pierces even to the division of our “soul and spirit” and “judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Furthermore, “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:12-13).
Sometimes our doubt and confusion is such that all we can do is to put God’s word to the test. Since He says that “His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” have been clearly seen through what has been made “so that [all people] are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20), then the responsibility lies on Him to reveal Himself.
If there is a question of what is actually true, put the Bible to the test. Ask the Lord to reveal truth to you, and take Him at His word. Submit yourself to reading it in context, praying for the Lord to direct and teach you.
Begin with Galatians, and read it every day for a month. Add in the book of John, and after Galatians go to Hebrews.
Here’s the thing you need to know as you read: God will not trick you. Unlike the God we understood from Ellen White, the true God of the Bible would never hold His hand over a mistake in the calculations of a supposed date for Jesus’ return, as EGW said God did when William Miller calculated first that Jesus would come in 1843. The real God would never deceive people into believing a wrong date for the goal of having them get ready for the right date.
The true God, the One who wrote the Bible and from whose eyes we are unable to hide, will not trick us. He will reveal Himself, and if we desire to know what is actually true, He will show us. He will reveal Himself and His love and salvation of us through His own word.
Doomsday cults are powerfully deceptive and promise special treatment if its members remain faithful. The triune God, on the other hand, promises us Himself. He gives us salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of God the Son when we place our faith and trust in Him. He will never leave us nor forsake us, and when we believe and are made alive, He seals us with His Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14) and causes us to pass from death to life (Jn. 5:24).
There is absolute truth, and we can know it in the person of the Lord Jesus as He has been revealed through His own living word.