Apr 26, 2016

Schools of millenarianism

How end-of-days beliefs clash with one another, and with art
The Economist
April 24, 2016

THERE are two religious movements, both much concerned with eschatology or the end times for humanity and the earth, which have attracted a spike of interest in recent days: the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That is because Prince, the rock star who died this week, was brought up in the first faith and then converted to the second.

So what’s the difference between the two faiths? Both have much to say about a battle between God and Satan which is already in progress and will come to a head soon. Both have their ultimate origins in the teachings of William Miller, an American preacher who after an intensive study of the Hebrew prophet Daniel concluded that Jesus Christ would make a second coming or “advent” on earth between 1843 and 1844. When this failed to materialise, some followers fell away but others (the forefathers of today's Adventists) insisted that something cosmologically important did happen around that time: the second and final part of Christ’s mission on earth, and a period of judgement for humanity, began, albeit in a way invisible to most people.

It was a man influenced by this ongoing movement, Charles Taze Russell who founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses and moved their base to Brooklyn, New York in 1909. Millions of tracts in all the world's main languages have been issued from that headquarters. Witnesses believe that Armageddon, a final cosmic battle, will occur in the near future, allowing those faithful to God to travel to heaven and rule along with Christ. Generally, the Witnesses, who proselytise relentlessly, are further from the political, social and theological mainstream than are the Adventists. They avoid voting and refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any governmental authority, believing that all earthly power is of Satan.

Unlike the Witnesses, the Adventists accept the traditional Christian teaching of a God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But the two faiths do have some common features; they reject the idea, espoused by some traditionalist Christians, of “eternal torment” for those not saved by God, arguing instead that such people will simply be destroyed.

America’s best-known Adventist is probably the black presidential runner Ben Carson, who pulled out of the Republican race last month. He has said he isn’t sure whether (as many fundamentalists believe) the earth is 6,000 years old, but he is absolutely convinced that the world was created in six days and that the scientific narrative of life’s evolution over hundreds of millions of years is simply wrong. Like Jews but unlike most Christians, Adventists observe Saturday as a holy day with no secular work.

Both Adventists and Witnesses attach huge importance to winkling out the meaning of God’s written word, and hence they have not been much concerned with pursuing meaning or inspiration in music, art or in literature other than the Bible. That's what makes Prince an outlier; he dedicated a song to the Jehovah's Witness belief that Jesus died not on a cross (ie a wooden pole with a crossbeam) but on a single wooden stake. (In ancient Greek, the word stauros was first used in the latter sense but was later applied to the Roman method of crucifixion.)

Although some Adventists have done fine humanitarian work, it is generally true that people focused on the end-times are less concerned with beautifying the world than with escaping it with a handful of fellow believers. All that makes it rather surprising that such beliefs were espoused by a rock singer for whom sensuality itself seemed (in a very broad sense) to be a form of spiritual expression.


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