[The following is reproduced with the permission of Coleen Tinker and Life Assurance Ministries It is a major study which we reproduce in two parts. Here in part one we ask What is the ‘great controversy?’ while in part two we will look at Who is Jesus?]
The fall of 2015 has proven to be historic in unexpected ways. One of the most surprising unfolding events has been the campaign of retired Seventh-day Adventist neurosurgeon Ben Carson for the Republican nomination for the United States presidential election to be held in 2016. News outlets have been attempting to explain Adventism to the American public, and while they have revealed many facts about Adventist practices, they have largely been ignorant of the core beliefs that shape the Adventist world-view.
The Adventist world-view might normally be of little interest to the general public; however, with an Adventist campaigning for the presidency, his world-view inevitably affects the way he understands the world and reality. In spite of Carson’s (and most reporters’) statements that Adventism is an evangelical Protestant denomination, its fundamental understanding of Jesus, of man, and of salvation are not Christian. Although the words the organization uses to explain itself to “outsiders” are the familiar words of Christianity, Adventists’ definitions are based on the visionary interpretations of their co-founder and prophet Ellen G. White rather than on a biblical hermeneutic.
The key to understanding Adventism is to understand its “great controversy” world-view. Because the great controversy paradigm is so important in understanding how Adventists think and believe, in these next pages we are re-running an article which we first printed in 2011 explaining this foundational Adventist doctrine. As former Adventists, we at Life Assurance Ministries believe that this truth needs to be known.
What is the “great controversy”?
Ellen G. White (EGW) Adventism’s ongoing prophetic voice and their “continuing and authoritative source of truth”,(19) had her famous, two-hour “great controversy vision” in Lovett’s Grove, Ohio, in mid-March, 1858. This vision is described in her book, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. The Great Controversy describes Adventist reality like this:
Before time began, God the Father exalted Jesus to be equal to Himself.
When Adam and Eve sinned, the Father took Jesus into His inner council and allowed Him to become the sacrifice for sin.
God’s exaltation of Jesus over Lucifer made Lucifer jealous.
Lucifer rebelled and turned one-third of heaven’s angels against God.
He accused God of unfairness, of giving a law too difficult to keep, yet demanding obedience.
God banished Lucifer/Satan and his angels to earth.
Satan deceived Eve, thus causing humanity to sin.i
Ever since, Satan and Jesus have been battling each other for the souls of men.
God gave the written transcript of His character on Mt. Sinai so we would know how to live.
Jesus came with sinful flesh like Mary’s to show us we can keep the law as He did.
Jesus’ death vindicates and exalts God’s law.
Ultimately God’s people will become free of sin and prove God’s law is fair and attainable.
When God’s people perfectly reproduce the character of Christ, they will vindicate God’s character, prove Satan to be a liar, and thus help Jesus win the conflict with Satan.ii
Jesus will place all confessed sins on Satan who will carry them into the lake of fire where he, Satan, “will bear the final penalty” for them.iii
Finally, God’s people have the power to “hasten [their] Lord’s return” by throwing themselves into carrying the Adventist message to the world and keeping the law perfectly.iv
The mark demarcating the saved from the lost is the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, while worshiping on Sunday is the mark of the beast.v
When the early Adventists accepted the Lovett’s Grove vision as truth, they cemented their position outside the Christian faith, interpreting Scripture through the lens of this new revelation. The investigative judgement—the notion that in 1844 Jesus began the work of investigating the records of professed believers to determine whether all their sins had been confessed and to ascertain whether or not they were perfectly keeping the law, especially the seventh-day Sabbathvi—had already gutted Jesus’ completed atonement. From 1858 on, however, Adventists finally had a complete story in which to frame their view of reality. They would use the same words and the same Bible all Christians use, but they would mean different things than Christians mean when discussing the Scriptures.
Today, nothing has changed. Their Fundamental Belief #8 says,
All humanity is now involved in a great controversy between Christ and Satan regarding the character of God, His law, and His sovereignty over the universe…[Satan] introduced the spirit of rebellion into this world when he led Adam and Eve into sin. This human sin resulted in the distortion of the image of God in humanity, the disordering of the created world, and its eventual devastation at the time of the worldwide flood. Observed by the whole creation, this world became the arena of the universal conflict, out of which the God of love will ultimately be vindicated.vii
Adventists Affirm the Centrality of the Great Controversy
In this post-modern age, Adventist leaders and authors are finding the great controversy to be an effective way to share Adventism with people who don’t believe in “absolute truth”.
In the November, 2008 issue of Ministry magazine, Erman Norman addressed evangelizing a post-modern culture with the great controversy story. In his article entitled “Reaching the Secular World”, Norman refers to an article entitled “Reaching post-modern Society” which was published in the September, 2006 edition of the Mid-America Outlook and was written by Outlook editor Martin Weber. Norman wrote:
We do hold, however, a very important key—the great controversy. This God-given narrative…which entails the story of Eden lost to Eden restored in the earth made new, synchronizes well every Adventist belief, characterizing it as uniquely Adventist in both content and scope.…[and answers] many of the questions of the post-modern mind (Christ and His high priestly ministry, heaven and hell, the Sabbath, the state of the dead, etc.).viii
Norm Gulley makes an even more far-reaching statement. In his article “The Cosmic Controversy” published in the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, Autumn, 1996, Gulley states,
Theology needs to break beyond the man-centered world view about human salvation to the cosmic world view about the great controversy. Seventh-day Adventists have an opportunity to lead out in this Einsteinian-like breakthrough into the broader world view.ix
Gulley develops the idea that not only humans but inhabitants on other planets must vote to vindicate either God’s fairness or Satan’s accusations. He says,
It is necessary that the truth about God, Christ and Satan be made manifest. The real story of all three is involved in the cosmic controversy. The revelation of who they really are must be made so that all created beings, angelic (fallen and unfallen), humans (redeemed and lost) and the unfallen inhabitants of worlds afar, may all vote unanimously on who is right and who is wrong. Only one side can win, yet all from both sides must vote, and vote the same. This is done with complete freedom, and is done purely on the evidence given by both sides.x
Importantly, the idea of “unfallen inhabitants of worlds afar” is found in EGW’s works, never in the Bible. Moreover, this assumption cannot stand the scrutiny of modern science.xi
In 2010 Adventist publishing house Pacific Press released a book compiled by Herbert E. Douglass entitled, The Heartbeat of Adventism: The Great Controversy Theme in the writings of Ellen G. White. This book, organized into 21 sections plus an index, collects quotations from Ellen White’s writings without Scriptural support and arranges them in themes.
The following endorsement on the back cover of the book confirms that the great controversy theme shapes the Adventist world-view. Written by Fernando Canale, professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, these words summarize the Adventist world-view:
Understanding…the great controversy theme will provide honest seekers with the indispensable big picture from which to frame their quest after truth. Many will find this work to be useful also as a tool to find the real God of Scripture hidden behind the maze of conflicting theological and ministerial traditions accumulated through the history of the Christian church.xii
Three more endorsements on Douglass’s book emphasize the great controversy’s necessity for Adventist doctrine, proselytizing, and infiltration into Christian theology. Jack Blanco, professor emeritus of Southern Adventist University and the author of the Adventist “expanded paraphrase” of the Bible, The Clear Word, says:
An invaluable resource for…understanding of the great controversy theme that permeates our system of beliefs—from how we view God, sin, and salvation, to the cosmic issues that impact our future. It is a volume that ought to be in every school and personal library.xiii
Jim Pedersen, president of the Northern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, says this:
The great controversy theme is one of the special contributions of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, particularly as it is unfolded through the prophetic ministry and writings of Ellen G. White.xiv
The former director of education for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Humberto M. Rasi, writes this:
This metanarrative [the great controversy] provides a comprehensive framework that allows all the major themes of the Bible to fit into an integrated whole…The rapid growth of the Adventist Church around the world, the need to strengthen unity and mission focus among its members across different cultures…are all factors that in my view make this…book both compelling and timely.xv
Why is this Important?
In 2010 Life Assurance Ministries had a booth at a national leadership conference for a well-known evangelical denomination. We passed out Proclamation! magazines to the pastors and other leaders there, and while many were eager to learn the truth about Adventism, several let us know they were convinced Adventism was not a serious problem.
That lack of concern is not surprising because Adventists say the “right words” about the Christian faith. Inside Adventism, in fact, members vary widely in what they claim to believe personally. Some say they don’t believe in Ellen White; others say they don’t have to keep the Sabbath to be saved, and many claim that salvation is by grace through faith alone. These words, however, mean something different to Adventists than they mean to Christians who hear them. For example, “salvation is by grace through faith alone” for an Adventist means God saves them by grace which includes giving them the faith in Christ’s power to help them overcome sin and keep the law so they can help prove that God’s law is fair, that God is a good God, that Satan is a liar, and that they themselves are safe to save.
In order to simplify this web of assumptions that Adventists understand as “truth”, I will discuss how the great controversy paradigm changes the truth about God, Jesus, man, and the gospel, and then I will summarize the implications of these changed identities and definitions.
God and Satan: Who is Obligated to Whom?
The cornerstone of the great controversy is its limitation of God—His sovereignty, responsibility, and identity. The Bible teaches that God is One (Deu. 6:4; Mk. 12:29-31; Js. 2:19). He is all-powerful, sovereign, and has authority over everything, including Satan, who cannot make a move apart from God’s sovereign permission (Job 1:12; 2:6), and who must flee when commanded by God’s authority (Matt. 8:28-34).
Furthermore, God cursed the serpent in Eden, and from that earliest record of human history, God decreed Satan’s defeat through Eve’s seed (Gen. 3:15). Scripture identifies Satan as the “accuser of our brethren” (Rev. 12:10), but never of God. In fact, Satan and his demons know full well that they are subject to the One God and have no claim against Him. They know who God is—and they “shudder” because they are in rebellion against Him (Jas. 2:19).
Adventism, on the other hand, limits the power God can exercise over Satan and gives Satan illegitimate power. According to Adventism, God is obligated to protect Satan’s “free will” as well as the free will of the supposed inhabitants of other planets and is obligated to prove that Satan’s supposed accusations are unfair. In the great controversy, God limits His power so His creatures are free to accuse, question, and scrutinize His dealings and to pass judgement on His character. Furthermore, on the authority of EGW, Adventism teaches that God must allow Satan to inflict suffering, hardships, and death in order to convince humans and other worlds that he is evil:
[A certain] woman had not been possessed in spirit, but the Lord had suffered Satan to exercise his will in bringing disease upon her; for God was demonstrating the character of his kingdom before the whole universe of heaven. This opportunity must be given him to reveal the character of apostasy. The inhabitants of worlds unfallen could view in this case the attributes of Satan and the character of God.xvi
Scripture however, says this:
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you [Cyrus] by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. …I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things…Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, “What are you making?”…I made the earth and created man on it…I have stirred him [Cyrus] up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward,” says the LORD of hosts (Is. 45:4-13).
Paul says the same things about God’s position as sovereign over all creation in Romans 9:17-21. Quoting from the above Isaiah passage and also from Exodus 9:16, Paul says,
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”…
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
Satan is not an independent agent of evil whose freewill God must protect. Evil is not an equal-but-opposite force opposing God’s goodness. Rather, Satan is a fallen, sinful creation who is in rebellion toward His sovereign Creator. He has already been disarmed and humiliated at the cross of the Lord Jesus (Col. 2:15).
Satan does oppose God’s people, and he does inflict suffering, but Scripture tells us that this suffering comes only with God’s permission and for His—not Satan’s—purposes (Job 1:12; 2:6; 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor 12:7). God is not on trial, and Satan has already been judged (Jn. 12:31; 16:8-11).
At the heart of the great controversy world-view is a god who must allow Satan to torment humans so they will see that the non-defensive, permissive god who loves his enemies is preferable to the assertive, deceptive Satan. Mankind is expected to see that God’s kingdom is kinder and gentler than Satan’s and thus choose to be on His side. EGW says this:
And for the sake of man, Satan’s existence must be continued. Man as well as angels must see the contrast between the Prince of light and the prince of darkness. He must choose whom he will serve.xvii
In a nutshell, the great controversy offers salvation on the basis of the knowledge of good and evil—the echo of the original temptation that plunged us into spiritual death.
Scripture, however, says God sent His Son to save us (Jn. 3:16-17) so that He could rescue us from the domain of darkness and transfer us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13). We are born dead in sin and objects of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3), by nature citizens of the domain of darkness. We have no choice about our natural citizenship. Jesus even said those who do not believe in the name of God’s only begotten Son are “condemned already” (Jn. 3:18).
When Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, Israelites were not being given a choice between Satan’s kingdom and God’s. They were already bitten by deadly poison, and God gave them one provision: the bronze serpent. By simply believing God’s command and looking they could be saved. Jesus revealed that He was the fulfillment of the bronze serpent’s foreshadowing; all who believed in Him when He was lifted up would have eternal life in Him (Jn. 3:14-15) because He became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21) and paid the price God demanded for our sin (Rom. 3:25-26).
Satan has not accused God of unfairness, nor must God prove He is superior to Satan. There is no question in the universe about God’s sovereignty. All creation—even Satan—is subject to Him and answers to Him.
The “transcript of God’s character”
The great controversy not only limits God’s sovereign authority and power over all suffering and evil, but it also diminishes His character into something that can be summarized in the law.
Ellen White said,
The law of God is a transcript of his character. The rebel leader was in opposition to the law of God, and revealed the fact that his principles were those that actuated one who is lawless, disobedient, unholy, an accuser, a liar, and a murderer.xviii
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “transcript” thus: “A: a written, printed, or typed copy: a usually typed copy of dictated or recorded material; B: an official or legal and often published copy: an official copy of a student’s educational record.”
A transcript is an exact duplication or replica. It contains all the information found in the original document or experience. The law (and when Ellen White uses the term “law” she usually refers to the Ten Commandments) cannot contain all the information of God’s character nor was it intended to do so. Even if we look at the full Torah with the detailed applications of the law included throughout the books of Moses, the fullness of God’s mercy, grace, love, and provision is not and cannot be fully captured.
The only time God’s character was fully revealed to humanity in material form was when the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, became incarnate in a mortal body and lived among men. Only in Jesus do we find a “transcript” of God’s character (Heb. 1:1-3).
Ellen White’s choice of the word “transcript” is subtly deceptive. Christians may say that the law was a “revelation of God’s character”—and that would be true. Every word God has spoken reveals Himself to mankind, but a revelation is not the same thing as a transcript. The revelation of God on Mt. Sinai in fire, thunder, and earthquakes was only a partial glimpse of God’s holiness, a clear sign that men could not approach Him on their own terms without a mediator. The Sinai revelation of God’s holiness, however, was completely different from His revelation of Himself to Elijah at the same mountain in a still, small voice. “Revelations” God gives of Himself are only partial glimpses into His eternal, unfathomable greatness.
Adventism, under the authority of EGW deceptively establishes the great controversy world-view by equating the law with the character of God rather than acknowledging it is a revelation of Him. This subtle assumption shifts the identity of God, the purpose of Christ’s ministry, and man’s duty.
Ellen White narrowed the focus of Satan’s rebellion in heaven and of the great controversy itself to the law:
The law of God was the great subject of controversy in heaven. It is the great subject of controversy ever since the fall of Satan and will continue to be the great test question showing the loyal and the transgressors in two parties.xix
By equating the law with the character of God, the great controversy world-view makes law, not the Lord Jesus or the Triune God, the object of humans’ and angels’ loyalty or rebellion. Adventists believe that the law is the highest authority in the universe and is the necessary factor in avoiding sin and in perfecting their characters. EGW said,
In God’s moral government, which is a government based upon a distinction between right and wrong, law is essential to secure right action. God’s law is the expression of His character….to require less from His creatures than obedience to His law would be to abandon them to ruin. To fail to punish transgression of His law would be to place the universe in confusion. The moral law is God’s barrier between the human agent and sin.xx
Yet it is God Himself, not the law, that is the One we must serve. Adventists, because of EGW’s claims, say that Adam and Eve’s sin was the transgression of God’s law. To be sure, they disobeyed God’s clear command to them—but it was God against whom they transgressed, not the law.
When Nathan confronted David about his sin against Bathsheba and his arranged murder of her husband Uriah, David responded in Psalm 51 with these words, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4).
Like David, Adam and Eve sinned by not trusting and obeying God; their sins were not against the inanimate law but against God whom they knew. Scripture is clear, in fact, that the law did not exist until Sinai (Gal. 3:17; Rom. 4:13-14).
Moreover, Scripture states that the righteousness that we need is not perfect law-keeping. What we need—and what God has provided in Jesus—is “the righteousness of God” which is “apart from the law” (Rom. 3:21). It is not “a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9).
In other words, EGW is wrong; the law is not “God’s barrier between the human agent and sin,” nor is law “essential to secure right action.” Jesus is the barrier between us and sin; He is the One essential for righteousness.
By making the law the “transcript of God’s character”, the great controversy puts it on a par with God. For example, EGW attributes to the law the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit in believers and claims it is the pledge of eternal life:
God’s law is given to men as a hedge, a shield.…To the obedient it is the pledge of eternal life, for it expresses the principles that endure forever. Christ came to demonstrate the value of the divine principles by revealing their power for the regeneration of humanity. He came to teach how these principles are to be developed and applied.xxi
Moreover, Adventists believe that Jesus died to turn sinners back to honoring the law. Law-keeping is equated with being right with God:
The Majesty of heaven gave His life to make us individually His own by bringing back the transgressor to his loyalty to God’s law, by turning away the sinner from his iniquity.xxii
In the courtyard beside the Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University, the home of the Seventh-day Adventist theological seminary, a prayer garden depicts the great controversy view of reality. A plaque at the edge of the garden explains the garden’s representation of how one experiences God. The excerpts below are taken from the legend on the plaque:
Walking the garden’s edge, searching for a way in, we see the podium, an overlook where one can see across the water, through the arbor, and imagine God the Father represented in the ten commandments.…Ever narrowing, the winding path leads to the narrow gate with three crosses. Standing at the gate you are at the moment of decision to approach the foot of the cross. Between the gate and the cross is the Stair of Creation, one step for each day of creation. [Importantly, there are only six days of creation, not seven as found in this garden; God ceased from His work on the seventh.] The steps widen and were made a perfect number that it might seem easy to approach the cross. For once the decision is made for Christ, it is not so difficult….Standing at the foot of the Cross you imagine Christ…and looking up…you read the promise, “I Will Come Again”.…The Commandments beckon from across [the garden on the opposite wall]. It seems a long walk, like leaving earth, and entering the universe of the Creator. The path from the Cross leads directly to the Commandments…The Commandments stand at the center of the circle. Once within the circle, up close and intimate, we read what the hand of God wrote in millenniums past. Simple and embraced by the Father’s arms, intimate in His presence.
The Bible, however, is clear: the cross does not lead us to the commandments; Jesus’ death did not lift “the law of God to its own eternal dignity”. Paul said, “…by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (Rom. 3:20-21).
And in Galatians 3:19 he explained, “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.”
Finally, Jesus explained—contrary to Adventism’s doctrines—that being born again is what marks those who are fit for heaven. He told Nicodemus in John 3:3, 6, 14-15: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God; unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.”
It is both significant and ironic that Adventism’s focus on obedience to the Ten Commandments as the mark of being salvation-ready is interpreted primarily by whether or not a person keeps the seventh-day Sabbath. Ellen White said that the seventh-day Sabbath “is the seal of the living God.”xxiii Moreover, she further stated that “the Sabbath will be the great test of loyalty,” and that “the observance of the false Sabbath” [Sunday] is the mark of the beast.xxiv
While Adventists focus their loyalty and attention on the fourth commandment, however, they seem to rationalize away the sixth commandment, maintaining a pro-choice position regarding abortion. In fact, since 1971 the Adventist organization has maintained two sets of abortion guidelines. One is publicized and allows abortion in cases of rape, incest, serious birth defects, and danger to the mother’s life. Internally, however, Adventist hospitals and medical providers have a set of guidelines that have permitted them to perform abortions on demand since two years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion.xxv
What Adventism misses is the heart of the gospel: it is God the Son, not the law, who is the “transcript” of God’s character, and He, not the law, is the focus and Source and definition of God’s righteousness. He is our only means of salvation.
i EGW, The Great Controversy, pp. 492-504.
ii EGW, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69
iii EGW, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 358. See also The Great Controversy, p. 673.
iv EGW, The Desire of Ages, p. 633, 634.
v EGW, The Great Controversy, p. 605.
vii Seventh-day Adventists Believe, 2005 edition, p. 113.
viii Norman, Erman, “Reaching the Secular World”, Outlook, September, 2006,http://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2008/November/reaching-the-secular-world.html
ix Gulley, Norman, “The Cosmic Conflict”, Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, Autumn, 2006, p. 83.
x Ibid., p. 85.
xi Carey, Martin, “Are Other Worlds Watching Us?”, Proclamation!, Jan/Feb., 2008, pp. 6-12.
xii Canale, Fernando, endorsement on Herbert Douglass, The Heartbeat of Adventism: The Great Controversy Theme in the Writings of Ellen White.
xiii Blanco, Jack, professor emeritus, Southern Adventist University and author of The Clear Word, ibid.
xiv Pedersen, Jim, president, Northern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, ibid.
xv Rasi, Humberto M., former director of education, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, ibid.
xvi EGW, Signs of the Times, April 23, 1896.
xvii EGW, The Desire of Ages, p. 761.
xviii EGW, Signs of the Times, April 23, 1896.
xix White, E.G., Manuscript Releases, vol. 5. p. 269.
xx EGW, Signs of the Times, July 31, 1901.
xxi EGW., Education, p. 76-77.
xxii EGW, Manuscript Releases, vol. 14, p. 85.
xxiii EGW, The Great Controversy, p. 640
xxiv Ibid., p. 605.
xxv Tinker, Colleen, “Abortion In Adventism: Why Seventh-day Adventism Promotes Choice”, Proclamation!, Summer, 2014, p.