What’s the big deal about Adventism’s Investigative Judgment?

scalesofjusticeI believe the Seventh-day Adventist teaching on the Investigative Judgment (IJ) for several reasons.

The Great Controversy Narrative

The IJ makes sense as part of the over-arching Great Controversy narrative of God’s transparent interaction with His created intelligent beings and His character of love and freedom. It contributes to my appreciation of the awesomeness of God’s character of love.

It is the Logical Outcome of Soul-Sleep and Arminianism, without Compromising Assurance

The IJ is the natural outworking of our unique Adventist position on soul sleep, the Great Controversy narrative and our understanding of freewill and how that plays out in salvation.

Any attacks on the IJ as though it undermined assurance are really fundamentally an attack on our Arminian understanding of salvation – appealing to either Calvinism or a hybrid form where we have some freewill of once saved always saved. Or they are a straw man attack.

A common criticism is that the IJ doctrine undermines assurance. “You have a 7 year old wake up with nightmares about the judgment and wondering if he is going to be with his Saviour in heaven.”

The theology change necessary to remove this criticism is not changing the timing or manner of any judgment, but a change in basic understanding of salvation and/or freewill. Either the child needs to understand that salvation is not dependent on his own keeping of the commandments (legalism) but on Christ’s righteousness, or salvation needs to be independent of freewill altogether.

The Adventist church has always taught that salvation is by grace through faith. Christ is our righteousness. The part we play in our own salvation is to choose whether or not to believe in the good news of Jesus. This belief is not contradicted by the Adventist teaching on the Investigative judgment; although many have misunderstood salvation and/or judgment and become confused as to the significance, implications and interrelationship of the teachings.

Adventists have not always presented our doctrines in a Christ-centred way; so the misunderstanding is somewhat understandable and definitely unfortunate.

But if our salvation is understood as being dependent on Christ’s righteousness and not our own, then the next logical option for the above 7 year old is not to question the doctrine of the investigative judgment but to question our basic understanding of human freewill. We should soon realise that any doctrine of the investigative judgment has little to do with the question of assurance. Any lack of assurance is because we either misunderstand Christ’s role in our salvation and take our eyes off Him, or because we can’t accept that our role of choosing our destiny, based on human freewill, remains. This is independent of any doctrine of timing or transparency of pre-Advent judgment.

If we remove freewill, then there are two broad options. Salvation would either not depend on one’s choices but on an arbitrary decree of God (Calvinism) or be applied to everyone regardless of their preference (universalism). Or some hybrid (e.g., once saved always saved).

The hybrid is an interesting one. In attempting to provide assurance by providing the “best” of both Calvinism and Arminianism, ‘once saved always saved’ actually delivers the worst. It removes freewill without satisfactorily improving assurance. Assurance isn’t guaranteed because it is always humanly possible to doubt whether you’ve ever crossed the line into salvation. Even in Calvinism, the nightmares should really become worse because we can never quite be sure whether we are among the predestined elect or not.

A useful analogy here is a high school student having nightmares about whether her exam scores are good enough to get her into studying medicine. The solution to removing the nightmares is not a change of the method, transparency or timing of the marking process. The solution would have to be one of changing or relaxing the entry requirements to remove the anxiety. The equivalent of simply removing the IJ doctrine but keep every other doctrine the same is to do instantaneous exam marking by a super-computer in the split-second before ATAR scores are published. It should be obvious that such a change would actually do nothing to prevent the anxious student’s nightmares.

It Resonates with Human Experience

A lot of the internal critics of the IJ complain that people who have questioned the teaching of the IJ have been silenced without a proper hearing. Their ideas and questions, they feel, were not given the light of day they deserved.

I resonate with their desire for open, transparent dealings with contradictory ideas and the people who hold them. That seems like a better application of the Golden Rule than simply shutting down dissent and excluding dissidents.

The interesting thing is that the IJ under question is actually all about providing just what the human heart desires: open, transparent and fair dealing. From the God of the universe, no less. He could simply annihilate all opposition. Instantaneously. But the beauty of His character is that He takes time to allow rebellion to demonstrate its true character and results for all to see. He also takes His time in investigation and judgment.

You may ask how and why does an open and transparent process that’s happening entirely outside of my present observations resonate with me? Let me go back to the above illustration of a high school student and exam marking. Does she have any visibility of the exam marking process between when it starts and when the ATAR scores are announced? No. Does she care that the process is open, transparent and auditable? Yes; she would be far less satisfied if the marking was done instantaneously by a ‘black-box’ supercomputer immediately before ATAR scores are announced. Especially if there was a background of accusations about the fairness of the supercomputer.

So in the context of Satan’s accusations about God’s fairness, the transparency of God’s judgments matters to us personally, even if our access to that transparency is not until after the judgment is pronounced.

Circumstantial & Prophetic Corroborating Evidence

There are too many serendipitous features regarding the way that the understanding of the IJ came about for me to regard it as a convenient cover-up of human devising for mistaken date-setting of the Millerite Adventists. These include:

  1. The prophecy of Revelation 10-11.
  2. The typology of the Old Testament feasts and what they represent. No better fit for the fulfillment of the Old Testament Day of Atonement has been put forward.
  3. An understanding of early SDA church history, and the characters involved.
  4. Overwhelming evidence that Ellen White was given special revelation from God, and her inspired corroboration of our pioneer’s conclusions from Bible study as to what was signified by the prophecy of Daniel 8. There are numerous pieces of evidence that Ellen White had special revelation. Any cursory study of her life story is sufficient to reveal that. But lest anyone accuse her ‘believers’ of rewriting history to paint her in a favourable light, there is one area alone that settles it for me: her amazingly accurate insights on healthful living over 100 years ahead of her times.

What the Bible Actually Says

My own understanding of the relevant Bible texts leads me to believe the Adventist teaching on the IJ. Now I don’t have personal in-depth understanding of the original languages, nor all the Hebrew culture and meaning attached to the Sanctuary. But from my limited knowledge, the traditional SDA teaching on the IJ does make more sense than alternatives that I’ve investigated.

Nonetheless, some of the alternative ideas do appear to have some grounding; thus their conclusions appear to have some legitimacy. However, they don’t have enough of a ‘smoking gun’ for me to decide to either reject our teaching and follow the ‘majority’ view (of Christianity at large), nor to motivate me to become enough of an expert in linguistics or systematic theology to be able to decide what the teaching should be for myself from first principles.

I happily trust the Bible’s promise of God’s Spirit to lead me into all truth (John 16:13) as I follow His leading (John 7:17).

Going back to the in-depth theological evidence, however, as it is also important to be true to the text (Acts 17:11). While we need not all become world-leading experts on every question (that would be impossible), there is a time and place to defer to experts.

For example, we’re not all experts on global warming. Yet we’ve decided, using a mixture of our understanding of the facts and our personal values, which “experts” to believe. Ditto for vaccination. Ditto for, let’s face it, most things that we believe in, or choose not to believe in. This includes electricity, CT scans, evolution, the age of the earth, etc. I don’t know anyone who refuses to believe something until they personally become an expert in that particular field. Most of us even choose to believe something other than the majority of experts in the field for at least one of their beliefs. None of us are strict slaves to empirical epistemology as revealed in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

So I’m happy to look at what the relevant experts have to say about the Investigative Judgment. Which experts do I choose? I let both my existing knowledge and values, guided by the Bible and the Holy Spirit, determine which experts are worth consideration. My Dad is one of those whom I consult in this particular field, although we see things differently in a number of fields. In this case, I do believe his arguments on Daniel 8 are worthy of consideration. His doctoral dissertation was on Daniel 8:14 (from UNE) and he has since deepened his appreciation of the case for the Investigative Judgment by broadening the hermeneutical undergirding through principles from degrees in Linguistics and Philosophy. I have posted a recent article which shares some of his insights in a more lay-readable, or at least educated lay-readable, format.

The Implications of the Choice

The implications of giving up my belief in the Adventist teaching on the investigative judgment would be profound. I would necessarily need to give up my belief in Ellen White, and in the Divine origin of the SDA movement. To avoid being hypocritical, I would also need to not regard our church or our teachings as any more valuable than the rest of Protestant Christianity except that in some areas we may happen to be more biblical than some others. But that would be true for any group.

To be fair to the church, I would have to declare these significant deviations in my belief system before taking up any leadership or teaching/preaching appointment.

This “risk” or “cost” cannot be justification for holding onto a weak or errant belief system; but I believe counting the cost is important and requires full consideration of the implications. Sitting on the fence and trying to have the best of both worlds is not fair to either one’s self or to others.

But the benefits of holding onto this teaching are that it gives us certainty of the nearness of the Second Coming and thus focus for our message and mission. The first angel’s message makes sense: “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come” (Rev 14:7).

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