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|THE ADVENT HOPE FOR HUMAN
THE END-TIME SIGN OF DIVINE GRACE
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
Most people like to believe that their country, their life style, their achievements, their religion, their family, and the age in which they live are unique and unparalleled. To possess a custom-built automobile or an architect-designed house, or unique clothes, some persons are willing to pay a fortune. The desire for uniqueness applies to religious beliefs as well, especially to the interpretation of the Advent signs. The result of the latter is often a sensational but senseless application of End-time prophecies to specific events of our time.
Objective of Chapter. This chapter will first of all establish the legitimacy of contemporizing the Advent signs in spite of mistaken and misguided efforts. Second, an investigation will be made of the unique fulfillment in our time of the sign of divine grace, manifested in the worldwide evangelization which has taken place in an unprecedented way in our century. The following two chapters will consider, first, the signs of opposition to God, and second, the signs of divine judgment.
The conclusion that will emerge from these three chapters is that we are witnessing today a quantitative and qualitative intensification of significant Advent signs. The purpose of this study is not to prognosticate a presumable date of Christs Return, but rather to strengthen our confidence in the certainty of His imminent Coming. "When you see these things taking place," Jesus said, "you know that he is near, at the very gates" (Mark 13:29).
PART ONE: CONTEMPORIZING THE ADVENT SIGNS
1. The Danger of Sensationalism
Contemporary Happenings. We noted in the previous chapter that in every age there have been Christians who have believed they were witnessing in their time a unique fulfillment of the Advent signs. The same conviction prevails today. Among some evangelical Christians there is a widespread belief that certain contemporary development such as the establishment of the Sate of Israel, the phenomenal rise of the Soviet Union, the formation of the United Nations, and of the European Economic Community are unique, unprecedented Biblical signs of the soon-Coming of Christ.
A visit to a Christian Bookstore will suffice to confirm how extensive this belief is. Some of the best sellers carry titles such as The Late Great Planet Earth, Armageddon Now, Terminal Generation, Is this the Last Century?, Racing Toward Judgment, and WW III: Signs of the Impending Battle of Armageddon.
Ridicule of Advent Hope. Unfortunately, these and similar popular books have exposed to ridicule the Advent Hope, through their fanciful prognostications which most often are based on gratuitous application of Biblical prophecies to current events. These efforts have led some critics to challenge the whole notion of a contemporary fulfillment of the Advent signs.
Critics maintain that the present signs of the times are no more unique than the signs witnessed by believers of past generation. THus they regard as arbitrary and inappropriate any attempt to interpret present social, political, or scientific developments as unique harbingers of the soon-Return of our Lord.
2. Reasons for Studying the Advent Signs
It must be acknowledged that the determination of what constitutes a unique fulfillment of the Advent signs is largely tied to the perception of believers. As noted in the previous chapter, Paul, Peter, James, and John interpreted different religious, political, and social developments of their time as being significant signs of the imminent Parousia.
The fact that believers of past generations have seen in certain developments of their times the fulfillment of significant precursory Advent signs does not negate the right of believers today to view certain contemporary developments as climactic signs of the soon-Coming Lord. The reasons are at least three.
Constant Fulfillment. In the first place, as shown in the previous chapter, the precursory signs of the Second Advent are designed to be witnessed to some degree in every generation in order to constantly nourish the Advent Hope in the hearts of believers. Today, like yesterday, believers can gain from their perception of the unique fulfillment of the Advent signs the needed assurance that "the strife will not be long; this day the noise of battle, the next the victors song."
Progression toward Consummation. A second reason is to be found in the Biblical view of history as progression toward its consummation at the day of Christs Coming. This sense of Progression implies that every passing day brings us one day closer to the Return of Christ. This means, as Paul puts it, that "salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand" (Rom 13:11-12). This belief that every passing day brings us closer to the Day of Christs Return justifies our effort to look for the fulfillment of the precursory signs of His Return.
Intensification. A third reason is offered by the Biblical teaching regarding the intensification of the conflict between satanic and divine forces as the End draws near. This intensification is to become manifest in heightened tension in the political, physical, social, and religious world. Thus we feel justified in looking for an intensification of the Advent signs in our time.
PART TWO: WORLDWIDE EVANGELIZATION
1. A Most Important Sign
An Ignored Sign. Studies of the Advent signs generally center on the darker side of eschatological events: wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, apostasy, antichrists, and tribulation. The brighter sign of the evangelization of the world is often totally ignored or at best briefly mentioned.
Hal Lindsey, for example, in his book The Late Great Planet Earth, gives no consideration to this important sign. The same is true of numerous other authors who, like Lindsey, arbitrarily use the Bible as a crystal ball to make sensational forecasts of events to take place in this generation before the Return of Christ. The sign of world evangelization is generally ignored because it does not provide a clear basis for sensational prognostications.
Outstanding Advent Sign. Yet in the Olivet Discrouse, the proclamation of the Gospel to "all nations" is the only sign which is clearly linked to the End: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nation; and then the end will come" (Matt 24:14; par. Mark 13:10).1
It is noteworthy that with regard to the manifestation of antichrists and wars (Matt 24:4-6), it is said: "but the end is not yet" (v. 6). Similarly, with regard to the occurrence of conflicts among nations, famines, and earthquakes, it is said: "all this is but the beginning of the sufferings" (v. 8). But concerning the sign of worldwide Gospel proclamation, it is clearly stated: "and then the end will come" (Matt 24:14).2 What this means is that of all the given signs, the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world is the only sign connected temporally to the End.
The various signs of turmoil, apostasy, and tribulation are given in the Olivet Discourse as the context of the Gospel proclamation. In other words, by means of these various signs, Jesus is characterizing some of the unfavorable conditions that will accompany the mission of evangelizing the whole world. The latter, however, is given by Christ as the sign that will usher in His Return. Being, then, the outstanding Advent sign, it deserves priority in this study.
2. Evangelization in the Old Testament
Salvation to All the Nations. The Old Testament prophets already anticipate the proclamation of salvation to all the nations. In Isaiah 45:22, God says: "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! And also: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Is 56:7). The same prophet predicted that God would send His messianic Servant "as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is 49:6; cf. 42:6; 40:5; 45:22).3
Paul say the fulfillment of this prediction in the Christian mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47). Similarly James interpreted the Gentiles acceptance of the Gospel as the fulfillment of Amoss prophecy: "After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old" (Acts 15:16-18; cf. Amos 9:11, 12).4
Basis of Great Commission. The Old Testament anticipation of the proclamation of salvation to all the nations becomes in the New Testament Christs Great Commission to His followers: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19). The fulfillment of this Commission is presented by Christ in His Olivet Discourse as the sign or condition preceding His Parousia: "And this gospel of the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come" (Matt 24:14; par. Mark 13:10).
3. The Meaning of the Great Commission
A Decisive Witness. What does it mean that before Jesus comes the Gospel must be preached throughout the world, "as a testimony to all nations"? Evidently Jesus does not mean that every single person of every nation must be converted. The phrase "as a testimony to all nations" suggests rather that the Gospel must become a force to be reckoned with, a witness which calls for decision in every nation, so that those who reject it can be held accountable for their decisions.
Paul seems to understand this passage in this way, when he says: "From Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ" (Rom 15:19). Paul was convinced that in this rather extensive area, extending from Greece to Palestine, the Gospel had been fully preached. This is indicated by his further statement, "But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, . . . I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain" (Rom 15:23-24).5
Obviously Paul felt that he had "fully preached the gospel of Christ" in this vast territory, not because he had been able to witness to every single person, nor because most of the population had become Christian, but rather because the Good News of salvation had been proclaimed in each region, offering to all the opportunity to hear the Gospel and be saved. The actual number of converts in this vast area was relatively small.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (1982), it is estimated that by A.D. 100 there were 1 million Christians in the Roman Empire out of a population of 181 million.6 This means that by the end of the first century less than 1 percent of the population (0.6% to be exact) was Christian. Presumably the number of Christians was even less in the fifties when Paul wrote. Thus Pauls conviction of having evangelized the Eastern wing of the Roman Empire rested not on the large number of converts, but on the fact that Christian outposts had been established in crucial centers from where the light of the Gospel was being beamed to the entire region.
4. Can Christian Outreach be Measured?
Today, nineteen centuries later, we may ask, Are we closer to or further away from the completion of the Great Commission of evangelizing the world? How is this important Advent sign being fulfilled in our time? A logical way to answer this question is by surveying the evangelization of the world in our time.
Legitimacy of Statistics. Some may question the legitimacy of using statistical surveys to determine the extent to which the Christian commission of evangelizing the world is being fulfilled. One reason is that the invisible work of the Holy Spirit upon human hearts cannot be measured by numbers. A second reason is that statistics of church memberships may be misleading because there are registered members who are not practicing Christians, and there are people who are not affiliated with any particular church and yet they profess and practice the Christian faith.
Obviously any statistical survey of Christianity in its world mission has its limitations and is open to the danger either of excessive optimism or of undue pessimism. The recognition of this fact does not, however, negate the value of statistical surveys which can give us a general overview of the growth of Christianity as well as of the magnitude of the unfinished task. The New Testament shows a healthy interest in numbers and their relation to the growth of the Church.
A Sign of Divine Grace. The book of Acts records the progress of the Gospel in numbers and statistics: "there were added that day about three thousand souls" (2:41); "many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about five thousand" (4:4); "And the word of the Lord increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem" (6:7; cf. 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:23, 31).
These numbers and quantifications given in Acts serve as signs of divine grace manifested in the growth of the Christian mission. By the same token, contemporary statistics of a specific church or of Christianity as a whole can help believers to perceive the progress or regress of the Christian mission. With this in mind we will look briefly at the status of Christianity at this point in history. Our aim is not to calculate the nearness of the Second Advent on the basis of how much of the world has been evangelized or of how much still remains unevangelized, but rather to verify how this important Advent sign is being fulfilled in our time.
5. Christian Expansion Over 20 Centuries
To put in proper perspective the status of Christianity today, it helps to take a global overview of its growth over the past twenty centuries. The data used for this report are drawn mostly from the World Christian Encyclopedia, a major research project produced by competent scholars and newly released (1982) by Oxford University Press.
Past Growth. During the past nineteen centuries Christianity has gradually grown in size and influence. At the end of the first century (A.D. 100), as already mentioned, Christians numbered about 1 million in a population of 181 million, thus representing less than 1 percent of mankind (0.6%). A thousand years later (A.D. 1000) there were 50 million Christians in a population of 269 million, thus representing 18 percent of the population. Nine centuries later, by the year 1900, one third of humanity (34.4%) were Christians, that is, 558 million Christians in a population of 1,619 million.
Present Growth. During the twentieth century Christianity has grown enormously from 558 million in 1900 to 1,433 million by 1980. The latter, however, represents only 32.8 percent of the world population estimated in 1980 at 4, 374 million. What this means is that in spite of Christianitys phenomenal expansion, the actual percentage of profession Christians has declined in proportion to the world population from 34.4 percent in 1900 to 32.8 percent in 1980.8
This decline has been caused primarily by defections from Christianity due to secularism in Western Europe, Communism in Eastern Europe, and materialism in the Americas and elsewhere. The massive apostasies of our century themselves constitute a significant Advent sign, to be considered shortly.
6. Global Christianity Today
Massive Gains. The massive losses Christianity has experienced in the Western and Communist worlds over the last sixty yearsprimarily due to secularism, materialism, and ideological totalitarianismhave been offset by massive gains in other parts of the world. In the Third World Christianity has surged from 83 million in 1900 to 643 million by 1980.9
In Africa, Christians have mushroomed from 9.9 million in 1900 to 203 million in 1980. The present net increase in Africa is 6 million new Christians a year, of which 1.5 million are new converts. In South Asia also there is a sizable net increase of over 3 million per year, of whom 447,000 are new converts. Significant increases are also taking place in Latin America (8 million per year), and in East Asia (636,000 per year of whom 360,000 are new converts).10
Internationalization. These statistics point to a significant aspect of the growth of Christianity in the twentieth century, namely, its internationalization. Jesus had predicted that the "gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations," yet by 1900 Christianity was still predominantly a Western religion. Eighty-five percent of its member (470 million) lived in the Western World and only 15 percent (87 million) lived in the Third World. During the course of our century a radical change has occurred: Christianity has truly become a global religion. In 1980 only 32.8 percent of Christians lived in the Western World, while 44.1 percent lived in the Third World, and 17.7 percent lived in the Communist World.11
It can no longer be said that Christianity is a white mans religion. This was still largely true at the turn of the century when 81 percent of Christians were white, but it is no longer true today when the whites have become a minority (48%) and the non-whites a majority (52%).
Today for the first time the Gospel is being proclaimed to practically "every nation and tribe and tongue and people" (Rev 14:6). The World Christian Encyclopedia notes in this regard: "During the 20th century, Christianity has become the most extensive and universal religion in history. There are today Christians and organized Christian churches in every inhabited country on earth. The church is therefore now, for the first time in history, ecumenical in the literal meaning of the word: its boundaries are coextensive with the oikumene, the whole inhabited world."12
7. Availability of the Scriptures
Bible Translations. The unique expansion of Christianity in the twentieth century is reflected also in the number of Bible translations produced during this century. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are today some 7,010 different languages, two-thirds of which are spoken by relatively few people. By 1900 the Bible had become available, in whole or in part, in 537 languages. During the course of our century prodigious efforts have been made to translate the Bible into many new languages. The result of this effort has been impressive. By 1980 the Scriptures had been translated into a total of 1,811 languages which are spoken by 96 percent of the world population.13
Christianity still faces the staggering challenge of translating the Scriptures into the remaining 5,200 languages. It must be noted, however, that the total number of people speaking these languages is today some 185 million, a number which, though impressive, in actual fact represents only 4.2 percent of the world population.
To meet this challenge at present there are 986 translation projects in progress. Though the task of translating the Scriptures into every distinct language is still formidable, the fact remains that the Scriptures are available today for the first time in languages spoken by 96 percent of the world population. This global availability of Scriptures is an indispensable prerequisite for worldwide evangelization.
Bible Distribution. Not only the translation but also the annual distribution of Scriptures has risen enormously during this century. From a total of 5.4 million whole Bibles sold or distributed in the year 1900, the number has risen to a total of 36.8 million in 1980. In this same year the United Bible Societies distributed also over 432 million Scripture selections.14
Certain modern translations of the Bible have been best sellers. The Living Bible, for example, for several years has outsold all other books in the United States, with current sales of over 20 million copies. The global availability and widespread distribution of the Scriptures represent a significant indication of the way the Advent sign of worldwide evangelization is being fulfilled in our time.
8. The Unfinished Mission
Someone may ask: "Is the sign of the evangelization of the world truly being fulfilled in our time when professing Christians today still account for only one third (32.8%) of the world population?" We noted earlier that the Great Commission to evangelize all the nations requires not a global conversion of every person, but a global proclamation of the Gospel to every nation.
The question then is, What is the extent of the Gospel proclamation today? How many persons still remain unevangelized, that is, unaware of the Christian message, out of the world population estimated at 4,374 million in 1980?
Evangelized. According to the statistical report compiled by the World Christian Encyclopedia, "the global total of evangelized populations in 1980 is 2,993 million. The evangelized can be further divided into 1,433 million Christians, who by definition either profess Christ or are part of his church; and 1,561 million whom we here term evangelized non-Christianspersons who are not Christians in any recognized sense, but who have become aware of Christianity, Christ and the gospel, and yet have not, or not yet, responded positively by accepting them."15
Unevangelized. This means that by 1980, 68 percent of the world population had been evangelized while 32 percent (1,381 million) still remained unevangelized, unaware of Christianity and the Gospel. Though the percentage of unevangelized persons is still very largeabout one third of the world populationin comparison to previous periods of history, it is the smallest it has ever been. For example, the percentage of the evangelized population of the world was 28 percent by the year 100, 25 percent by the year 1000, 50 percent by 1900, 68 percent by 1980 and is projected to reach 80 percent by the year 2000.16
Evangelistic Resources. Moreover, Christianity possesses today an unprecedented quantity and variety of resources such as service agencies, educational and medical institution, national and foreign workers, books and periodicals, the Scriptures in over 1800 languages, radio and television broadcasting, and impressive financial means. Resources such as these, utilized by committed Christians under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, make the task of evangelizing the whole world a realistic possibility in our time.
Perhaps one of the most far-reaching evangelistic resources available today is Christian broadcasting. At the turn of this century radio broadcasting did not yet exist, since it came into existence in 1921. By 1980 Christian radio and TV programs had reached a staggering monthly audience of over 990 million persons. In the light of these human and technical resources available today, "the dimensions of the unfinished task of world evangelization," as pointed out by the World Christian Encyclopedia, "are in fact very much smaller than contemporary Protestant and Catholic missionary organizations realize."17
Obviously the task of finishing the evangelization of the world depends not merely upon human resources but primarily upon divine enablings. The unparalleled human and technical resources available today can be used effectively by the Holy Spirit to fulfill the divine mandate to evangelize the whole world.
9. Seventh-Day Adventist Evangelization
Seventh-day Adventists see their movement as one of the instruments used by God to fulfill the prominent Advent sign of the evangelization of the world. They perceive themselves as one of the folds of Gods universal flock of believers (John 10:16), called into existence to announce to the whole world the saving good news of a soon-Coming Savior and inviting all to prepare to meet Him.
As suggested by their churchs name, Seveth-day Adventists believe that an important aspect of the preparation to meet the Lord in space on the Day of His Coming is the weekly preparation to meet the Lord in time on His Holy Sabbath day. To put it differently, the weekly Lords Day is theologically and existentially interrelated to the final Day of the Lord.
Pattern of Growth. The pattern of growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church resembles, at least in one way, that of global Christianity. Like the latter, the Seventh-day Adventist Church at the turn of the century was still predominantly a Western religion. According to the General Conference Statistical Report, at the turn of the century (1902), 93 percent of the Seventh-day Adventist membership (72,156) lived in North America and Europe, whereas only 7 percent of its members (5,396) lived in the rest of the world.18
A radical change has occurred during the twentieth century as the Seventh-day Adventist Church has expanded not only numerically from a total membership of 77,000 in the year 1902 to 4 million members by July, 1983, but also geographically. In fact, by the end of 1982 only 21 percent of SDA believers lived in North America and Europe while 79 percent lived in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, Australia, and New Zealand.19
If the present trend continues, two decades from now the SDA membership in the Western world will represent barely 10 percent of its world membership. This means that in less than a century the SDA Church has grown from an American-based church to a universal church which today is well established in 90 percent of all the countries of the world and embraces people of many different cultures, races, languages groups, and political systems.
Effectiveness of SDA Mission. Numerically the SDA Church is still small in comparison to older Christian churches, yet its evangelization of the world transcends its relatively small membership. Today, in fact, the SDA Church is the most widespread of all Protestant denomination, proclaiming the Gospel in 184 countries, supporting the largest number of missionaries in the field (ca. 3,200), and operating a worldwide chain of institutions such as 420 hospitals and clinics, 82 universities and colleges, 844 secondary schools, 50 publishing houses, nearly 3500 radio and TV stations used each week, Bible correspondence schools, etc.20
Impact on Quality of Life. The effectiveness of the world evangelization of a church cannot be determined, however, solely by its geographical expansion, institutional strength, and numerical growth, but rather by the way it helps people and societies to experience the fruits of the Gospel such as love, peace, freedom from the power and penalty of sin, joy, hope, meaning in life, healing from destructive habits, and social and moral reforms. Measured by these criteria, the SDA Church has been greatly used by Godbeyond its relatively small membershipto accomplish the mission of proclaiming the Good News of salvation to all nations.
An indication of the effectiveness of the Adventist mission is the fact that in 1982, for exmaple, various governments and international agencies have channeled through the SDA church over $16 million to help people in various countries in their programs. Another indication is the fact that in several countries of the Third World, government cewnsuses report from three to five times more poeple who regard themselves as SDA than are actually registered in the church records. Dr. Gottfried Oosterwal, the Director of the General Conference Institute of World Mission, estimates that "the number of these anonymous Seventh-day Adventists in the world today may conservatively be estimated at some ten million people."21
Global Outreach. This brief study of the outstanding Advent sign of world evangelization has shown that its fulfillment has occurred in an unprecedented way in our century. Christianity in general and Seventh-day Adventism in particular have grown spectacularly during the twentieth century, both in numbers and in geographic expansion. From a predominantly Western white mans religion, both Christianity and Adventism have become global, proclaiming the Gospel for the first time in history to practically all the nations of the world.
Unparalleled Resources. Though the mission of evangelizing all the world is still unfinishedone third of the world population is still unaware of Christianity, Christ, and the GospelChristians today are provided by God with an unparalleled quantity and variety of resources which make it possible to complete the mission sooner than many realize. This means that the prominent Advent sign of the Gospel proclamation throughout the whole world is being fulfilled in a unique way in our time. The fulfillment of this sign gives us reason to believe that "he is near, at the very gates" (Matt 24:33).
NOTES OF CHAPTER VIII
1. Anthony A. Hoekema rightly points out that "the missionary preaching of the gospel to all nations is, in fact, the outstanding and most characteristic sign of the times. It gives to the present age its primary meaning and purpose" (The Bible and the Future [Grand Rapids, 1979], p. 138). Similarly G. C. Berkouwer writes, "In the last days the preaching of the gospel is the focal point of all the signs. In it all the signs can and must be understood" (The Return of Christ [Grand Rapids, 1972], p. 251).
2. Emphasis supplied.
3. All the emphases in the paragraph are supplied.
4. Emphasis supplied.
5. Emphasis supplied.
6. David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia. A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900-2000 (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 3.
7. See Global Table 1 in World Christian Encyclopedia (n. 6), p. 3.
8. Ibid., pp. 3-5.
9. See Global Table 2 in World Christian Encyclopedia (n. 6), p. 4.
10. Ibid., p. 5.
11. Ibid., p. 6.
12. Ibid., p. 3; emphasis supplied.
13. Ibid., p. 13.
14. Ibid., p. 13; see also Global Tables 12 and 31.
15. Ibid., p. 19.
16. Ibid., p. 18; see Global Table 10.
17. Ibid., p. 19. The author continues by noting that "on average, each Christian today is reaching and evangelizing 2.4 times as many non-Christians as the average Christian in 1900."
18. Advent Reveiw and Sabbath Herald (August 18, 1904), p. 15.
19. 120th Annual Statistical Report, 1982, compiled by Office of Archives and Statistics of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, p. 1.
20. See Gottfried Oosterwal, "The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the World Today" in Servants for Christ, ed. Robert E. Firth (Berrien Springs, 1980), pp. 1-4. Also Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook 1984.
21. Gottfried Oosterwal (n. 20), p. 5.