In the early 19th century a Baptist layman and amateur Bible scholar by the name of William Miller conducted research into what the Bible had to say about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming. According to Miller, he conclusively calculated the date of the Lord’s advent. Miller attracted quite a following from a number of different Christian groups. After setting a couple of dates which proved false, he finally settled on October 22, 1844 as the date of the Lord’s return. But that day came and went. So traumatic was this to the “Millerites” that this time came to be called the Great Disappointment.
After this, Miller basically faded into obscurity. However, there were several of his followers who attempted to recover the lost momentum of the movement. One of these was a woman named Ellen G. White. White reportedly had a vision in which she saw that Miller’s date was correct, but the significance of October 22, 1844 had been misinterpreted. According to White, this was not the date of Christ’s return, but rather of a new and different ministry for Jesus as the heavenly High Priest. On this specific date, Christ moved His priestly ministry from the Holy Place in the celestial Temple to the Most Holy Place. His work there involved a cleansing of the Sanctuary. This cleansing necessitated His examining the merits of the work of Christian believers. This priestly ministry of Christ’s is called “investigative judgment,” and entails the Lord’s determination of who does and does not merit salvation.
Many of the former Millerites began to rally around White and her teachings. They came to call themselves Adventists, because their belief in the soon appearing of Christ was still a hallmark of their faith. They formally organized as the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1863. They are now often simply called Adventists, or SDA.
The followers of White saw her as a divinely inspired prophetess of God. Consequently, her visions and writings came to be considered true revelations of God, of equal authority with the Scriptures. Based on White’s revelations, the SDA developed a number of distinctive doctrines. Chief among these is their insistence that the true day of Christian worship is the Sabbath, or Saturday. This doctrine was revealed to White when she had a vision of the Lord in heaven with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. A ray of light shone on the fourth commandment, indicating that this was God’s order for His people for all time. With this understanding of the Sabbath, the SDA Church came to believe that to worship on Sunday was completely counter to the will of God. Indeed, in the past many SDA pastors and teachers have taught that to worship on Sunday was to receive the Mark of the Beast. (Some still teach this today.)
There are other distinctive SDA teachings:
1) The Adventists believe in “soul sleep,” i.e., we do not “have” a soul, rather we are a soul. When we die, our soul ceases to exist. Hell is nothing more than death. Consequently, resurrection is actually a recreation by God of persons who used to exist.
2) Satan has a unique role in Adventist theology. They believe that during the Millennium, the Devil will be bound on the earth and experience 1000 years of torment. By doing this, he fulfills the same function as the scapegoat did in the Mosaic sacrificial system. The SDA says that there is no atoning work done by Satan, but he does bear the retribution of sin, even as the scapegoat did on the Day of Atonement.
3) There has been a strong legalistic strain within Adventism. For example, many insist that it is necessary to follow the Mosaic dietary regulations. Historically the members of the SDA have been very health conscious, and many are even vegetarians. There is nothing wrong with this. However, when they make abstinence from pork and shellfish a matter of righteousness and obedience to God, they have obviously become legalistic. (Cf. Colossian 2:16, Roman 14:2-4, Mark 7:19, Acts 10:14-15) Also, their doctrine of investigative judgment has tended to cause a works-oriented approach to spirituality.
4) There has traditionally been a strong exclusivism to the SDA. They have viewed their particular doctrines as correct, and everyone else’s as wrong. They historically also have viewed their movement as the true expression of the church. They see themselves as the “remnant church.” As a result, there is an entire religious and social subculture to be found within Adventism.
What are we to make of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Frankly, it is a puzzle. And it is difficult defining them. There is a definite tendency to aberrant belief and legalistic practice. This would seem to put them in the category of “cult.” However, when it comes to the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin, and the atonement they are very orthodox. And through the years many of their leaders and members have moved away from emphasis on Ellen G. White, their being the remnant church, legalism, and the like. They have grown up somewhat as an organization. I would say the best assessment is that they are a Christian sect, with potentially dangerous tendencies. Are there legitimate Christians within Adventism? I think so—decidedly, yes. But there are also many who take their distinctive teachings to the extreme, and become cultic in belief and practice. (It is interesting to note that many full-blown cults have arisen from within the ranks of Adventism itself, such as the Branch Davidian movement; also Adventist teaching has been a major source informing the theology of groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Armstrongism.)
A final word: If you know someone who is an Adventist and has a true born-again experience with Jesus Christ, be friends with them and enjoy Christian fellowship as you would with any other believer. However, be warned, there are spiritual and doctrinal minefields in their writings and their church teachings. It is best to avoid these completely.
Summary of Beliefs
God: Traditional orthodox Christianity, viz., the Trinity, one God, God is a spirit, etc.
Christ: A soundly biblical view; He is deity, His dual nature, His incarnation, etc.
Salvation: Belief in salvation by grace through the atoning work of Christ; however, there can be a tendency to legalistic belief and practice.
Human nature: Essentially the same as other Christians; however, they believe in soul sleep.
Sin: There is such thing as original sin. Sin is atoned for through the work of Christ.
Afterlife: Hell is the grave. The righteous will be resurrected to eternal life with God.
Scripture: The Bible is the inspired Word of God. However, there may be some Adventists who give authoritative status to the writings of Ellen G. White.
Truth: Truth is absolute, and revealed by God in His Scriptures.