Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Refuting Adventism's so-called "Three Angels' Message," Part I

The following is a response to a challenge by a Seventh-Day Adventist to refute their (anti-Biblical) doctrine of the ‘Three Angels’ Message’—a pet belief within that religious system.
            My method is to provide, first, an exegesis of Apocalypse 14:6-13 in three parts (6-7, 8, then 9-13), each with a subsequent comparison with Adventism’s official pronouncements on this same text’s interpretation.  I have consciously set aside any comparison to Adventist doctrine during the exegesis itself so as to maintain academic honesty in the hermeneutical exploration of the Sacred Text before contrasting it with Adventism.  The intention is to refute Adventism’s ‘Three Angels’ Message’ angel-by-angel, so to speak, and to highlight why the same Sacred Text cannot be invoked as a critique of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ.
            Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful, and enkindle in them the Fire of Thy Love!

Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.

Unlike the ‘angels of the Churches’ in Apoc 1:20 et al., “angel” here refers to the supernatural beings created by God prior to the creation of the human race; we derive this from the description that this angel is “flying in midheaven”—Scripture often describes angels as ‘flying’ and this particular text is reminiscent of Apoc 8:13 in which an “eagle crying with a loud voice, as it flew in midheaven, ‘Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.”  The comparison here highlights the fact that an angelic being is traversing the skies so as to have a vantage point to announce something to those on earth who hear the angel’s message.  And the message is addressed, like “to those who dwell on earth” [πετόμενον  ἐν  μεσουρανήματι] 8:13, 14:6—highlighted by the exact same Greek pattern—as well as by the fact that it is addressed to “every nation and tribe and tongue and people.”  In other words, the angel proclaims something catholic—‘universal’ or ‘according to the whole’ of humanity.
     This follows upon the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus just prior to His Ascension:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28:19); “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation…” (Mk 16:15); “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His Name to all nations” (Lk 24:46-47).  Similarly, St Paul commends the Roman Christians for their “faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom 1:8).
            What about this “eternal Gospel”?  Gospel, εὐαγγέλιον, is an imperial term, from ‘good’ [εὐ-] and ‘message’ or ‘tidings’ [ἀναγγέλλω], which in its Latin form (evangelium) was used to describe a victory of the Romans after battle or the accession of the Roman emperor.  Its usage in Mk 1:1, given its Roman provenance, is intended to be a slap-in-the-face to Caesar:  Christ, not Caesar, is the ‘good news’; Christ, not Caesar is the ‘Son of God’ (as the Roman emperors were considered to be divi filius, ‘son of the divinity.’
            And this Gospel remains unchanged and unchangeable, as St Paul insists in Gal 1:6-9.  But what is the content of the Gospel?  It is, above all, the glad tidings that the Lord Jesus, by His Death and Resurrection, has conquered sin and death.  “[T]he Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh [i.e., His Davidic royalty and His Incarnation] and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead [Easter], Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3-4).  He is named “Lord” because of the Easter event:  “[F]or to this end [εἰς  τοῦτο] Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living!” (Rom 14:9); “And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him a Name that is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:8-11).  This, by the way, is why we call the First Day of the week ‘The Lord’s Day’—as it is the anniversary of the resurrection when Christ was exalted as ‘Lord.’  Again, “God has made [ἐποίησεν] Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified!” (Acts 2:36).
            The content of the apostolic preaching, the Gospel, can be found in the eight kerygmatic sermons of the Acts of the Apostles:  2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31.
            One more thing.  Speaking of the “eternal Gospel,” we must take into account Jude 1:3, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints [ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ].”  The Greek clause ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ can be translated as “once traditioned”—that is to say, handed over once and only once for all time.  This is to say that St Jude Thaddeus here precludes the idea—harboured by the assemblies of the heretics—that the Gospel somehow was obscured as the Church’s history moved on and, at one point, resurfaced thanks to the teachings of a sect’s founder, whether it be Charles Russell, Ellen White, or any heresiarch.  The Gospel, as St Thaddeus tells us—and the Greek text makes this plain—is delivered once.  It will not be delivered again, which also precludes the idea that the Gospel could ever be lost or obscured.
            In addition to the “eternal Gospel,” the angel exhorts all to “worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.”  This is not unlike the preaching of Sts Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:15.  But what of the “hour of judgment”?  We have already spoken of the centrality of the Cross in the Gospel.  The Fourth Gospel describes the ‘Hour of Jesus’ as an hour of “judgment”:  “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31; cf. 16:11).  The Apocalypse of St John shows the ‘heavenly side’ of Good Friday, of the Lamb’s Passion (cf. 5:6, 12; 14:1).
            The last question we must address is this:  When does this episode of Apoc 14:6f take place?  As we will see, it took place in the first century of the Church, as evidenced by the fact that it follows the showing of the two “Beasts”—the second of which is described thus:  “This calls for wisdom:  let him who has understanding reckon [] the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty six” (Apoc 13:18).  Curiously, the Vetus Latina or the Italic manuscripts has a different number:  616.
            Recall that the Greeks invented the article.  The RSV’s “a human number,” in Greek is  ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν; the absence of the direct article means that the indirect article is intended, ‘a’ or ‘an’; the fact that ἀνθρώπου is in the genitive singular means it is one human person, and precisely a human being.  It refers to some-one.  Who is this someone?  The answer is crucial, because it will put the next episode of chapter 14 into its proper historical context:  The ‘Three Angels’ announced their tidings in the first century, not later.

            More to come.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

God in the Gallows


The following homily was preached at our Good Friday Celebration of the Lord's Passion.

In high school, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel, in which he recounted his imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  But there is only one scene that I recall from the book.

     Three prisoners were being punished with execution by hanging, including a small boy.  The SS, as was their custom, forced all the prisoners to watch the punishment in order to impress upon them their subjugation.  When the trap doors were unhinged, the two men died almost instantly.  The boy was not so fortunate because he was too light to have the weight of his body break his neck suspended in the noose.  For a half hour, the boy remained suspended, writhing with his legs.  Watching the ordeal, Elie Wiesel then heard someone behind him ask, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  “And from within me,”—this is Wiesel speaking—“I heard a voice answer:  ‘This is where—hanging here in the gallows.”

     That silence we hear in our suffering is in fact God shouting so loudly that we become deaf.

     Just four short months ago we celebrated God becoming an infant, becoming one of us—and why?  God became Man not to take away our sufferings, but to share in it.  “Ours was the sufferings He bore; ours the sorrows He carried.”  Like I said when we celebrated Jesus’ birth, Christmas is the empathy of God.  And how far does God take His empathy?  So far, in fact, that the cry from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me,” Jesus lends His voice to the tears, the grief, the anguish of all humanity.

     But why allow suffering in the first place?  What’s the point of suffering if someone concludes that an omnibenevolent God and evil cannot exist at the same time?  Because at least it’s gotten even the atheist to think about God; suffering shifts our gaze to God, even if our hearts remain closed to him.  God can deal with a closed heart later, but for now, he’s got your attention, and that’s why we’re allowed to suffer.  As C. S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

     Holy Mother Church teaches that we are made for happiness.  St Thomas Aquinas defines happiness as the “attainment of the Perfect Good”; most of us, however, confuse happiness with pleasure, and pleasure always leaves us hanging, wanting more.  Happiness makes us content.  And happiness cannot be found in anything or anyone other than God.  Why?  Because our hearts were made to be in friendship with God and the immensity of God and his love means that there can be no substitute to fill that void in our hearts.  As the Trappist monk Fr Thomas Merton said, “We are not called to pleasure; we are called to joy.”

     The sad reality is that suffering has entered the world through the collusion of our First Parents:  They—and we in them—have disobeyed and turned away from God; and when we turn away from the Only One Who can make us happy, we will be anything but happy; we will suffer.  And the turning of the human heart back to God is a painful process, even if it is only that of a pure heart already turned to God but opposed by you and me—by crucifying Jesus.  “Obedient unto death, even death on the Cross.”  Jesus’ perfect gaze and heart fixed upon His Father shows the Man of Sorrows reaching the fullest of human flourishing.  Jesus, for all His extreme humiliation and pain, on the Cross was the happiest of men.

     My friends:  There is no-one in this house of the Church that does not suffer.  But Holy Mother Church offers us no faerie-tales so that we can go on imagining that the whole wide world is our nursery.  To be Christian means to take off those ridiculous rose-coloured glasses and to see the reality around us, and the reality within us:  “Pain insists upon being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.”

     Elie Wiesel was right.  God was in the gallows that day when that boy was hanging between life and death.  Even the bad news of human suffering has its silver lining, and the Good News isn’t far off.  God will overcome suffering.  Despair does not exist in Christian vocabulary.  We now wait outside the Tomb of Jesus, the tombs of our lives, in hope.