“There was a young man who said though, ‘it seems that I know that I know, but what I would like to see is the I that knows me when I know that I know that I know.’” – Alan Watts
“I know that I know that I know” was faith’s badge of honor where I come from. An exclamation of ownership over Truth in the complete absence of doubt. That’s what I always believed.
That’s what we always said: “I know that I know that I know that I know.”
I’m something called a Seventh Day Adventist, and I was born, raised, and still reside, deep inside the Bible Belt. As such, I was raised in a fundamentalist, Biblical literalist, sort of way, where “knowing” is everything. I have no intention on insulting these paths with anything I’m going to say here, especially if either is a path you currently derive great value from. I derived great value from them as well. I bring them up as they are the lenses through which I’ve spent my life viewing the world, but if you share these lenses, there’s a chance they’re about to read some uncomfortable things. I mean no harm, and I am in no way attempting to be controversial, but I think it is past time for us to be honest about some things. I have some real issues with the fundamentalist paradigm in general, as I understand it, and particularly with the Adventist paradigm, that if held too closely, leads to ominous results.
My issue was not the strictures or discipline; not the schedule or the style of service. No, actually all of that was home in a weird way. Not even necessarily the judgmental attitudes or sometimes nonsensical politics were enough. While I do not care for those things, and deeply regret any input I may have had in perpetuating any of them, I’ve come to understand, they are symptoms and side effects, not the ultimate problem. No, the problem for me had come from one of the “good parts” – something, I believed to be a foundational cornerstone of any relationship with God, yet the very thing I felt divinely inspired to let go in a time I thought I’d need it the most: The “I” that knows me when I know that I know that I know.
Now when this phrase comes up it usually is meant in the abstract, like “I know I’m saved,” “I know God is real,” “God is a deliverer,” etc. It is typically an expression of faith – statements so common in my religious culture that they eventually fade into empty platitudes. But the truth of it is, true certainty in our spiritual, religious, existential lives requires true certainty in all the biblical, theological, doctrinally dogmatic steps and requirements along the path. I “know” because I follow the path.
How does one obtain absolute confidence and certainty in the Great Mystery? By discovering all of the Mystery’s answers in a magical Book. As a fundamentalist; as a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian, I was taught to believe we had all the answers or at least all the relevant salvific answers from our thorough exegesis (and some prophetic visions.) I did not grow up necessarily believing that we knew all there was to know about God. That would be impossible; a fool’s errand. I believed that all that could be known about God and the Divine Will was known and was easily determined from a straightforward, plain-word reading of the Judeo-Christian Bible (and preferably the King James Version) and that the founders of the SDA church had discovered the final Truths.
The “objective clarity” of scripture, through careful and prayerful study, provided a pathway to certainty in my religious beliefs and “biblical worldview” that, if followed, could stand in the face of any and all attacks from the spirit of sin and evil. It was an absolute imperative in my formative years to obtain and maintain this certainty that our Adventist hermeneutic provided, but it was also something gifted to me without having to work for it at all. There was no long drawn out debate over this theological ethic or another where I finally saw the light. My parents endured those struggles. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was grateful to have the Truth and my Certainty in it, but I was essentially born into this. Adventism was not presented to me as “a” religious view or “a” pathway to God, reconciliation, eternal life, or what have you, it was “the” view; “the” path. My venture down that path was secured by the virtue of my circumstances.
My parents converted to Adventism when I was two years old. It is important, for context, to note that they had been card-carrying Christians already. Both were raised in Christian homes. My mother was a preacher’s kid. It was not a discovery of the gospel message or the life and death of a first-century carpenter for the purpose of absolving their sins that grabbed them. They were there already. Something about the Adventist message, the chronological breakdown of Biblical prophecy in Daniel and Revelation, emphasis on the entirety of Scripture instead of just the New Testament really connected with my mother profoundly, first, and eventually my father. Adventism was seemingly the first message that weaved a singular through-line from Genesis to Revelation, unlocking for them both the magic contained within the pages and, a clear certain path of escaping the looming hellfire and brimstone they’d been raised to fear. After decades of life and living with the Good News of the salvific nature of Christ on the cross, they had now found the rest of the Truth; the priestly nature of Christ in the court. the Everlasting Gospel – “fear God for the hour of His Judgement is come.”
So by the age of two, the truth was not something that we were searching for. I was certain that we’d found all of it already. We weren’t seeking to understand This, we were preparing for That. I was too young to understand what had happened, but you are never too young to notice your parents making foundational shifts. They had found the denomination with the most accurate, most complete interpretation of all of Scripture, and we were all in.
A common refrain in Adventism is “If you can find a denomination more right than this one, I’ll switch. Until then…”as for me and my house…” The flaws and arrogance such a stance requires alluded me for an embarrassingly long time. It was not that other (Christian) denominations were wrong, per se, but what they were right about we were right about as well – plus our Extra Credit. If we disagreed on something, they were wrong. If they had scripture to support their argument, they were using it wrong. Sowing confusion. Because of this, an Adventist is deemed wise to approach all non-Adventists with caution when it comes to theological/moral questions, values, and stances.
You see, Adventism is a little more James than Paul (though, of course, a good Adventist would probably not concede that there was any conflict between the two, as two divinely inspired writers can’t contradict each other.) Paul’s emphasis on faith in what had been done for us through Christ and the popularity of John 3:16 have been interpreted to show that God requires only belief for the dispensation of His saving Grace. But Adventists are more “James” in that, for us, Faith in no way stops or even really begins at Belief. “Even the Devil believes.” A legion of demons recognized and respected the commands of Jesus before possessing pigs and diving off a cliff. No, “Belief” is not the measuring stick. “Knowing” is. Certainty is. But again, this, at its core, is also not an “amount of faith” thing. Certainty is not obtained simply by knowledge, but knowledge in action: “By this we know that we have to come to know Him, if we keep his Commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him.” 1 Jn 2: 3-4.
This is the aspect of Adventism where being an Adventist in a Bible Belt full of non-Adventist Christians presents an interesting problem:
If Kev goes to a church that thinks it’s okay to _____, no telling what else they think.
I’m sure many little fundamentalist kids out there have heard that sentence. Fill in the blank with whatever works for you: “play guitar”, “vote for democrats”, “drink wine,” “get divorced”, “ordain women,” “conduct same-sex marriages.” But for many Adventist kids, the mad-lib fill could simply be “go to church on Sunday.”
The bible may be full of many things that could be considered “commandments.” The Torah contains some 600+ mandates itself. But we can all agree (well I guess Catholics and protestants can’t) but we can largely agree that the Ten Commandments probably count as Commandments. If your church can’t get the “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it Holy” part right; if they can’t keep the 10 general rules, how much truth is in there?
It’s not just about the day you go to church either. That is a common misconception. Seventh-Day Adventism isn’t about church on Saturday; it’s about how and why Sabbath is observed in general (among other things.) Church is a few hours. Sabbath is an entire day and a good chunk of Thursday and Friday spent cleaning, cooking, and otherwise preparing yourselves and your house before the Sabbath arrives. On the day most people around here slept in and watched college football, we got up at the crack of dawn and traveled 90 miles away to attend church until the sun went down. Literally. Sabbath school, morning service, potluck or lunch at a church member’s house, maybe pass out some literature in neighborhoods around the church, Adventist Youth programs, youth choir practice, then vespers service. Whatever it took to keep our minds, conversations, and activities Christ-centered from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.
Even without Sabbath, everything we did was different than everyone else I knew. We followed the Levitical diets. We avoided even touching seafood, “bottom feeders”, and pork. (Which, if you live in Oklahoma and don’t watch college football, don’t eat bacon, pepperoni, or catfish, you might as well be wearing a foil hat.) My house was vegetarians for years. We believe meat isn’t meant for the original human diet and is ultimately unhealthy, so we created “fake meats,” ranging from delicious to hardly eatable things, regardless of the insane sodium contents which, as it turns out, are also unhealthy. We fasted on Wednesdays for a while. We did our best to mimic what diet we perceived Adam and Eve had in the Garden until Mom left town too long and Dad brought home cheeseburgers instead of cooking (hallelujah!). No drinking or smoking, of course. No dancing. The first time my future in-laws came to a service at my parents’ church, essentially half of the sermon was about the sin of consuming caffeine. We took “being in but not of the world” very seriously. “Shunning the appearance of evil” meant no Halloween (Satan related), no Santa (whose name could be rearranged into Satan), no attending parties where any shenanigans might be. We “guarded the avenues of our hearts” by never going to the movie theaters, avoiding worldly literature, philosophies, ideologies, and music.
Now, you may be thinking that these are somewhat insignificant issues to take hard stances on, but that’s kind of my point. We seemed to have a “church stance” on pretty much everything. The Adventist thing to do (a/k/a the right thing to do, a/k/a God’s clear Will), and the thing other people are okay with (even if other professed Christians). So as much as we acted in these ways, as much as we attempted to dot every “i” and cross every “t” to please God by “living right,” I began to notice the growing sense of “us” and “them”, and the heir of superiority it inherently created. It was hard for me to spot since mine was buried beneath a False Humility, which turned out to just be an incredibly low sense of self-esteem and self-worth, but that superiority gives way to fear and sadness eventually…or at least, it should.
Let me unpack that: You see, a lot of these Adventist practices aren’t an attempt to go above and beyond (I mean maybe the caffeine thing is). Most are “supposed tos” culled from a singular flowing translation of the Biblical text. My family, my denomination discovered the way to read and interpret the Bible perfectly, accurately and completely, what all the rules are, all the doctrine, all the signs, and all the prophecies.
Ironically (which doesn’t seem like a strong enough adverb, considering) the denomination only exists because of the absolute certainty of its founders back in 1830s that the exact day of Jesus’ literal return to earth was right there in Scripture, hidden in plain sight, even though the same singular flowing translation of Scripture would suggest knowing the day and time was purposely impossible in the first place. After ten years of preaching the same biblical scripture day in and day out, when Jesus did not return, these founders spent the next ten years pivoting the same translation of scripture not only into an entirely new prophecy of Jesus’ imminent return, but also an entirely new concept of salvation that was unique to themselves and lies outside of Christian Orthodoxy. We Adventists really don’t process that experience deeply enough or often enough, in my opinion.
But anyway, where there are multiple possible interpretations of a scripture, ours was the right one, not because it was “ours” or because it was “Adventist” but because it was the “plain reading of the text” or “Inspiration has made it clear” through the church’s own prophetess, Ellen G. White, a chief pivoter. Speaking of, her writings also warn us not to go anywhere where “error” is taught unless your purpose in going is fishing and winning those souls back for the Lord. Otherwise, their error may become your error. So if Sunday worship is error and you’re a member of a “Sunday worshipping church,” what really do you have to add in a discussion about Truth with an Adventist? Adventists aren’t about open religious conversations, we’re strictly about conversions. No matter where you are in your spiritual walk with The Divine, Adventism will get you closer.
Recently, I listened to a series of sermons on Adventism’s Sanctuary Doctrine, and the speaker gave a statistic that, on average, most people within 5 years of converting to Adventism, no longer have close friendships with people outside of the church. Their inner-circles transition from the people they knew before the church to almost solely members of their new church. He seemed to be truly surprised by this statistic, disgusted really. He used it to show how complacent Adventists quickly become in that they don’t want to try hard enough to bring those former friends in to the fold. It’s easier to just be church member than a soldier for the Lord.
Honestly, who knows, he may have made the statistic up, but it seems like a fairly obvious result. Carol didn’t give up witnessing about the Three Angels’ Messages to her friends and colleagues, they got tired of Carol telling them that they and their friends, even the devout Christian ones who love God/Jesus as much as Carol does, are standing in line to receive the Mark of the Beast and are going to hell. Some calls just start getting sent to voicemail.
No, this “5-year” statistic isn’t about an overwhelming lack of urgency spreading like a disease throughout an entire denomination (definitely caused by the power of evil), it is a symptom of something else. All Christian denominations seem to have a hard-line, right or not, beyond which it seems accepted that God’s Grace won’t reach (whether or not the denominations agree on what that looks like. We generally accept the Hitlers and Bin Laden’s of the world were so evil and deluded that they likely had no regret in their hearts nor felt need for forgiveness so they are likely lost causes. They orchestrated such horrific history that the majority of us and our belief systems feel quite comfortable with them “losing the game.” However, the more fundamentalist your denomination postures itself – the stricter and more rule-based its preferred interpretation is – the circumference of that hard-line of Grace’s reach shrinks. The more that is required of you to satisfy your standard (phrased as God’s standard), the more groups of people, believers and nonbelievers alike, fail to meet that standard. The tighter your circle becomes; the more people are left outside of it.
Depending on how seriously an Adventist takes Adventism, that circle can get pretty tight. There really is no mainstream Christian church, just commonly held ideas across many different Christian churches; however, Adventism, is a denomination with some more tangible differences, such as adherence to the “Biblical Sabbath” as a global test for the current and future generations to determine loyalty and worthiness of salvation that adds a level of religious tension, or rather it brings a common, ominous result to the surface.
Anytime your group is based on something unique, everyone else ends up outside. Seeing a church and religious standard as being this different presents an interesting perspective: If what I believe and what I’m doing is different than everyone around me, including other Christians, and I’m doing these things because I believe that God requires them of all of His followers, what is going to happen to the rest of you? What about the 70.6% of Americans that identify as some other brand of Christian, other lovers of and believers in the “same” God and Messiah I claim, who fit the description of believers in John 3:16, but by my definition, my chosen hermeneutic, are doing it wrong, are “believing” wrong?
I don’t know how other denominations handle these questions, I’ve never been anything else but an Adventist. I don’t believe that we are inherently more exclusive, per se. I think our specific oddities make our exclusivity more obvious. However, each denomination exists because it split from some other branch of Christianity on some fundamental facet of belief or worship held in high enough regard to cause a splinter. “We” are all doing something “they” are failing to do, or we’d all be Orthodox or Catholic. So that being said, for the Adventists I grew up around, which may or may not be an accurate representation of the group as a whole, so don’t @ me, the rule as explained to me seems to be this:
“Belief in Jesus” works to cover your sins up until the point you come to “know the Truth” and then once you know the Truth, you have to alter and re-align yourself with this Truth with every fiber of yourself or your belief in Christ will not carry you into eternal life.”
That’s a very crude oversimplification of course, but not an inaccurate one. I suppose it would be better worded as:
“if you really believed in Jesus you would have accepted this new Truth. If you don’t, your belief wasn’t really belief.”
That sounds more palpable, as it removes the idea that there are levels to Truth, just levels to your acceptance, but that doesn’t make it any more correct. Yet it is our way. The matriarch of Adventism informs us that God requires Perfect Obedience.
Under the New Testament, no less is required than was required under the Old Testament. Let no one take up with the delusion so pleasant to the natural heart, that God will accept of sincerity, no matter what may be the faith, no matter how imperfect may be the life. God requires of His child perfect obedience. 1sm 373.1
This is not perfect obedience to whatever you happen to believe, but perfect obedience to the one true Will of God. If you can’t properly observe the fulness of the simplest list of God’s laws, being all ten commandments, particularly the Sabbath commandment, you are not particularly close to Perfect Obedience, are you?
Here is the rub: we Adventists believe we have the most tools to allow ourselves to be “doing it right,” but we make up only .5% of the adult population in America – one in every 200 adults. But, if those are the numbers, what is going to happen to the other 199 that are “doing it wrong?” Let alone what happens to the billions of people that are not Christian, not because they “rejected the Good Word” but because the corner of the globe they were born in precluded it, and the belief system they were born into, hadn’t failed them like maybe yours hasn’t, or it helped them tap into the Divine Mystery in some way, like maybe yours has?
What about the people that did reject it? How does God really feel about them given they are His images too? Does it matter what they rejected and why? What if they have rejected Christianity at-large or Adventism or your denominational standards, not because of the self-exalting reasons many of us insiders say like “there’s some sin in their life they don’t want to give up” but because they’ve run into many self-important people like me, expressing baseless, judgmental opinions like that? People like me comparing my self-imposed checklist of things I’ve chosen to follow (whether I’m perfectly following them or not) against theirs, or more accurately: what I perceive theirs to be from the view atop my pedestal? What if they have turned from Spirit because of those of us who continuously find caveats, loopholes, and exceptions to “love one another?” Those of us who limit “neighbors” to people who look like us, dress like us, believe like us, speak our language, or fly our flags?
Adventism doesn’t actually teach that only Adventists “will be saved”, but paradoxically, we, in my opinion, do regard adherence to our teachings as a requirement for salvation, or we wouldn’t be Adventists. If we really thought other denominational teachings were accurate or “good enough,” we wouldn’t have our own, would we? You can keep the Sabbath and still be a Baptist or a Methodist or even an Agnostic for that matter. No, we do what we do for a reason. We can say it is loyalty, appreciation, love, or any other word we want other than “obligation,” but ask us what the penalty would be if we stopped?
Let’s take the Adventist hermeneutic globally: there are like 25 million of us in the world of 7.5 billion people. 25 million sounds like a lot, but that’s only 1/3rd of one percent of the human population. Plus, ask any Adventist and we will be the first to tell you that we aren’t all going to “make it.” So let’s say, for the sake of optimism, that for every Adventist lost, someone else isn’t, and let’s say the church is blessed to double in size before the (imminent) end of the world, God’s still going to have to torch 99.33% of the current earthly population? And we will see that as a victory? The Devil and Evil, having claimed almost the entire population of the planet, is somehow defeated?
I don’t know that Religion requires this, but my certainty placed a massive number of people in the lost column. It positioned The Divine Source of all things, Love Itself, as having somehow incarnated, taking on humanity, living a perfect, sinless life, shouldering the sins of the entire world, defeating “Death, the Grave, and Hades,” to victoriously pour out just enough Grace to save what amounts to essentially a rounding error? That math doesn’t add up. The problem is, for a lot of us, those low salvation numbers don’t seem to be a problem. “It just is what it is.”
Even with Christianity as a whole, regardless of denomination, the numbers still aren’t ideal. It’s estimated that Christianity accounts for approximately 2.4 billion people, which is, admittedly, a lot of people. One-third of the population is a solid market share, for sure, even if it is a shrinking one. But is that good enough considering what is being sold? Is it enough in an in-or-out paradigm? A Heaven or Hell paradigm? Unfortunate? Yes. Sad, even, but all part of The Plan?
You see, the more you believe the goal of all of this religion stuff is the “vindication of God’s character” the more people can die without it bothering you – in chess, you can sacrifice all your pieces except the king without losing the game. The king is still king. However, the more you believe the goal of all this is “the reconciliation of creation with the Creator,” that’s where things get sticky – a lone king can only reach a stalemate. He might not lose, but He cannot win.
It’s easy for the weight of this result to get lost on a kid growing up in the ’80s and 90’s Midwest. When everyone you knew went to church, entire towns came together to pray at football games, and even the most brazenly sinful of the coastal elite thanked God and Mom in their acceptance speeches. One out of three doesn’t feel as bad when the other two are on the other side of the planet with a different book, or they’re in prison, or they exhibit some kind of outwardly identifying characteristic that differs from the currently culturally accepted norm, but that’s not how statistics work. They don’t skip towns, states, countries, belief systems, or our friends. Most Christians believe in Hell, but ask one to name someone they know they are willing to put in it. How many funerals have you attended where a preacher said, “well, if we live right, we won’t be seeing that guy again?” I’d guess most of us would never put anyone in Hell from fear that our own skeletons would one day lend the same result.
It occurred to me: If I’m uncomfortable with a biblical hermeneutic, wherein God will succeed in the “salvation” and “reconciliation” (whatever those terms ultimately mean) of, at the optimistic best, 1 out of every 3 of his children, but perhaps more likely, less than 1 in 250, and will, in His infinite mercy, burn the others “forever” (whatever that term ultimately means), how must God feel about such an interpretation of Itself? Is it weird for God that this is what its images decided “Love” looks like? Does it make God feel better to hear “God doesn’t send people to Hell? That they, by their own free will choose to go,” when “they” is effectively everybody?
The thing is, these ideas, these conversations only really happen in rooms of likeminded people. They sound dire and tragic and terrifying, but we and our tribes speak of them while sitting in our safe spaces. Evil and destruction are all around us, but all of us, here in the sanctuary, have a protective hedge. So while we ponder the eventual eradication of “Evil” in the abstract, ignoring the billions of others our concept of the term encompasses, we feel communal safety all around us in the pews. The saved have faces. The lost don’t. Except, of course, they do.
Whenever the realization of the magnitude of “the lost” comes up, we pervert the problem into an example of God’s incredibly abundant Grace. We say things like “Even though He knows how many would still be lost, would still choose Hell, the Earth, and all its riches over following Him; even though He knew, He sent Jesus anyway. Even if to just save me and you.” I’ve sat in many a church pew in my formative years, weeping at how special I must be to God, to Jesus in particular, that He would debase His true nature to the point of the Incarnation, forever encasing Himself in human flesh, and enduring the ridicule, the blasphemy, the doubt and disbelief, the betrayal, the lashes, the nails, and the cross. That He, by choosing to “give up the ghost,” separated the eternal bond and flowing relationship of the Trinity, altering the course of humanity and perhaps the universe forever, even if only I, bearing the guilt and shame of pre-teen existence could someday be renewed, remade, and taken off to a heavenly paradise and a new creation forever.
In a universe as vast and wide as we have learned it to be, and how comparatively small and insignificant that makes us feel, to have the Source of it all feel this way about “me” seems like the ultimate depiction of Grace and Love. It appears to be a beautiful sentiment. But let me ask you a question: If your dad had to kill some of your siblings just to save you from himself, how many are you comfortable with him killing before you’d start to think something might be wrong with your dad?
I have two kids. One just showed up and the other we planned for. Whether created by chance or by will, I wouldn’t just die for either of them. I’d do it over and over again before I let anything hurt them, especially me, whether they “obey me” or not. If I gave them what they deserved based on how perfect they are, they’d have nothing at all, yet I give them everything. Where did I get that sense of love and commitment from? Why don’t I expect even a small portion of it from God? I know that that is a taboo question, but what good is a non-taboo question?
Dress it up however you want, but if God is an all-powerful, all-knowing being that exists outside of time, knowing the end from the beginning, then he knew the number of the hairs on the heads of all that He drowned in the flood and all He’ll burn in Hell when He knelt down to put breath in Adam’s nostrils, and when He created a hierarchy among the angels that Lucifer ultimately became jealous of. If this is the case, Hell isn’t the Devils realm, the Devil didn’t create it or take a mortgage on it. He’s said to be destined to be thrown into it and he won’t survive it. This means that Hell is God’s, Jesus’s actually, as He holds the keys, and most people He created are going. Maybe not most of the people you know, but still most people.
The I that knows me when I know that I know that I know is terrifying. So, what’s wrong with Dad? Could it have something to do with the fact that humanity personified “Him” (i.e. Scripture was written) at a time where the predominant political culture was Kingship and servitude, a system humanity has since all but abandoned (theoretically) because of its obvious flaws? Could it have something to do with our obsession with being in Heaven in the next life instead of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into this one? For me, these types of questions and other issues that I won’t exhaust you with came early and often, but no one wanted to answer them or had an answer for them. If they did, the answers I could get were not very satisfying, if not completely offensive: From “Don’t worry about things outside of your control,” “His ways are higher than our ways,” to “I guess someday, a bunch of people will just end up converting to Adventism;” or “Well, there were only 8 people on the ark, so…” and, “I guess heaven just won’t be very crowded.” These responses are usually sarcastic ways of getting out of a tough discussion; however, the response I got the most and that bothered me the most was “well, I have never really thought about that.”
Excuse me? The hermeneutic leads to us believing we have all Biblical Truth known to mankind and we are certain of this knowledge and the requirement of our, at least attempts at, perfect obedience, but somehow there remain unexplored questions? Did we reach the point where we individually felt “safe” and stopped looking any further? I understand having unanswered questions, but where can certainty be found in the unexplored? How can we boast such certainty when there are things we have yet to consider or are afraid to even consider because it may challenge that certainty?
What is it that we know that we know that we know?
Might we have gotten some of it wrong?