The Eschatological Day of Atonement
Scripture: Daniel 8-9
Leading Question: How can Jesus help us address the issues in Daniel 8?
In addressing the multiple issues connected with Daniel 8, let’s start with the answers instead of the questions, and here Jesus should be our guide. First, it’s clear that in Daniel 8, God’s enemies are polluting his sanctuary. Even the two beasts, the ram and the goat are “religious” symbols, clean animals suitable for sacrifice – in contrast with the wild and vicious animals of Daniel 7, for example. God’s enemies must be confronted because they are destroying people and undermining the principles of God’s kingdom. But how do we confront God’s enemies according to Jesus? Jesus himself taught us that we should love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) and on the cross he prayed to the Father to forgive his enemies (Luke 23:34). But Jesus wasn’t just gentle. When faced with those who were destroying other people he could flash with anger. And there was something special about his anger, for when he cleansed the temple, the evil people fled and the children came running (Matt. 21:12-17). That is a blessed kind of anger that we could all covet. And it is interesting to note that nowhere in the Gospels is there any record that Jesus ever struck anyone. Yet Jesus told stories with violent endings and punishments. Clearly one shouldn’t just shrug at evil. But how we approach it requires careful thinking and much praying. In the New Testament epistles there are numerous virtue lists. Anger doesn’t appear on any of them and patience appears in them all. Yet holy anger still has its place.
When Jesus summarized his message, it was very simple. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). In other words, in its simplest form, Jesus focused on the second great command, not the first. With reference to Daniel 8, that means we should deal gently with opposing views, seeking whenever possible to develop a both/and approach. We will take up the various issues in turn.
1. Multiple Applications. In a sense, this issue is the easiest one to address from a biblical point of view, but one of the hardest for devout believers to accept. Two examples are crucial here:
2. Applied Historicism: Broadening the Possibilities. The phrase “applied historicism” is one that seeks to retain the basic “historicist” application while allowing for other applications in light of the characteristics of the original “historicist” application. [See Alden Thompson, Beyond Common Ground (PPPA 2009), 194-220.] The book of Revelation already seems to have adopted such an approach by referring to Babylon as a “code” name for Rome. Rome is never mentioned in the book of Revelation. It would not have been safe. But the readers could make the application as needed.
If events and characters in Scripture can be seen as types, then the types can be applied as needed. Such an approach has another advantage of allowing “historical” applications without requiring the application be locked in concrete forever. This correlates well with the biblical presentation of conditional prophecy. Jonah, for example, preached to Ninevah – and Ninevah repented; by contrast, the Prophet Nahum preached a strong condemnation of Ninevah; but by contrast once again, Isaiah 19:24-25 promises that the Assyrians will be part of a restored kingdom with Israel and Egypt. Something like that approach allows Garry Wills, a devout American Catholic, to write a scathing rebuke of his own Catholic tradition under the title, Papal Sin (Doubleday, 2000). As one thoughtful Adventist commented, “We don’t have to give away the book The Great Controversy; we can just give the people Papal Sin!”
3. Advantages of a Both/And Approach. A simple reading of Daniel 8 without an array of scholarly resources yields a straightforward result: God’s enemies have desecrated his sanctuary, and God promises that it will be restored. And when God gives Daniel the interpretation of the vision, Scripture clearly states that the vision applies to the “time of the end” (Dan. 8:17, 19). That is not in the past as preterist interpreters would argue, applying the vision only to the time of Antiochus Ephiphanes; that is not a one-time event in the future as the dispensationalist futurists would argue; it is not even a specific time period beginning in 1798 as strict historicists would argue. The “time of the end” will be a great surprise and we simply must be ready for it at any time. One of the clearest statements of that truth is from the pen of C. S. Lewis, and it would apply to our understanding of Daniel 8:
4. The Link between Daniel 8 and 9. In the official study guide, just one day’s study is assigned to the link between 8 and 9. A host of important issues lurk there. Establishing the link between the 2300 days of Daniel 8 and the 70 weeks of Daniel is an important exercise and the traditional arguments are sound. What is so striking from the standpoint of our place in history is that Adventists are almost alone in seeing Jesus as the “anointed one” in Daniel 9 – all the more reason to explore a both/and approach to our prophetic heritage. After the article on Daniel 8, another one follows on Daniel 9.
Daniel 8: Let’s Not Lose Our Nerve
In recent decades the traditional Adventist interpretation of Daniel 8 has been under steady attack. I’ll be candid: I’m not eager to defend the “traditional” Adventist interpretation, at least not in the way that it typically has been defended, but I am even less eager to capitulate to critics who often ignore great chunks of biblical material in their eagerness to jettison the Adventist position. The objections generally fall under three major headings:
1. Historicism. Since the historicist approach to apocalyptic is virtually ignored in today’s religious world, Adventists are judged to be out of date if not just plain wrong in continuing to adhere to it.
2. Context. In Daniel 8, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is said to be a much better candidate for the little horn than is papal Rome. Antiochus polluted the Jerusalem sanctuary for three years (168/67 to 165/64 BCE), among other things, offering pig to Zeus on an altar erected in the temple court.
3. Assurance. It is claimed that the Adventist doctrine of the “investigative judgment,” which owes its existence to the1844 experience, robs believers of security in the Lord, and therefore, declare its detractors, should be abandoned.
There are counter observations with reference to these objections. As I see it, they contain important kernels of truth, but usually are developed in ways which could jeopardize key features of the Christian faith. Here are some comments relative to each.
1. Historicism. In its thorough-going mode, historicism is indeed dated. No one today would simply pick up a Bible and interpret the parable of the 10 virgins in Matthew 25 as a road-map of the 1844 experience, the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 as seven successive eras of history, or the bittersweet little book of Revelation 10 as reflecting the Disappointment and its aftermath. Our Adventist forebears saw the historicist pattern in places where their heirs and descendants do not.
But let us not be too quick to snicker. Indeed, we would do well to ponder Norman Porteous’s comment on the link between “the contemporary climate of thought” and methods of interpreting Scripture. In a preface justifying the exceptional reprinting of a 1928 book in 1955, he said: “Books of Biblical exposition tend to date very rapidly, and eventually to become almost unreadable; so close is the connection between such writing and the contemporary climate of thought” (preface to Adam Welch, Jeremiah: His Time and Work, Oxford, 1955, p vi). In short, the “wisdom” which tempts us to laugh at yesterday, could make us the laughingstocks of tomorrow. A modicum of humility is in order.
Furthermore, in a more moderate form, historicism is still the obvious interpretation for the book of Daniel. The successive kingdoms in Daniel 2 and 7 move toward climax and the establishment of divine rule; the sanctuary in Daniel 8 and 9 moves toward restoration; and history flows toward the resurrection in Daniel 10-12. These are all examples of “historicism” at work. The book of Revelation may be another matter, but historicism is alive and well in Daniel.
The other clear point is the historical fact, confirmed by 1 and 2 Maccabees, that Jews in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes applied the language of Daniel to the abominations practiced by that evil king. Yet Jesus spoke of the abomination “spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (Matt. 24:15) as still being future in his day. In short, taking the full sweep of Scripture into account, we are looking at multiple applications: Babylon the desolator in 586, Antiochus in 168/67, Rome in 70 CE. And in our day? Anything that diminishes the effects of Christ’s heavenly ministry is yet another desolating sacrilege.
3. Assurance. This may be the crux of the matter, for we live in an age that craves assurance. If our Adventist forebears over-emphasized human responsibility (and I think they did), the spirit of our age overemphasizes assurance. But my New Testament reminds me that it is possible to live with assurance and still be lost: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus (Matt. 7:21). The painful truth is that some of us are too easily frightened, others too readily assured. That’s why Paul gave the believers in Corinth a choice: “Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” Quite frankly, I don’t think Adventists do a good job preaching Romans and Galatians. We can do better. But dumping the doctrine of judgment is not the right cure for our disease.
In sum, our Adventist heritage enables us to be consistent with the entire book of Daniel, for each major line of prophecy points to restoration: In Daniel 2 the mighty rock fills the whole earth; in Daniel 7, the saints receive the kingdom; in Daniel 8-9, the sanctuary is restored; and in Daniel 10-12, Michael stands up for his people. Let’s not lose our nerve now....
Daniel 9: Putting the Focus on Jesus
For those who worry about the loss of traditional “Adventist” interpretations, Daniel 9 is at least as scary as Daniel 8. The 1844 movement was born out of the conviction that the time for the cleansing or renewal of the sanctuary (October 22, 1844) is established by linking the 70-weeks prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27) with the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:14. While we have always stood alone in our interpretation of Daniel 8, we once had lots of good company in our interpretation of Daniel 9. Now most of those friends have vanished.
While the interpretation of Daniel 8 and 9 presents numerous puzzling challenges, Adventists have never been alone in linking the two chapters together. And the linkage is based on solid arguments from the text. In both chapters Gabriel is the angelic interpreter; 9:21 and 9:23 refer to an antecedent “vision,” logically the vision of chapter 8; the sanctuary is the focal point of both chapters; and finally, the time period in 8:14, the 2300 days, is the only feature left unexplained in chapter 8.
But if scholars from every school of interpretation agree in linking the two chapters together, they quickly part company when interpreting the 70-week prophecy itself. And that diversity is even reflected in modern translations of the Bible. In so-called “mainstream” Protestant communities, that is, in the more “liberal” churches which are less inclined to talk about the return of Jesus and the end of the world, Daniel 9:24-27 is interpreted as focusing on Antiochus Epiphanes and his desecration of the Jerusalem temple (168/67 BCE). On such a view, the text has no application whatsoever to Jesus Christ. That is the interpretation suggested (dictated?) by the New Revised Standard Version.
Dispensationalist evangelical communities take quite a different approach, typically interpreting the first 69 weeks as extending to Christ’s triumphal entry, but moving the 70th week to the end of time where it is marked off at the beginning by the secret coming of Christ (rapture) and at the end by Jesus’ public return. During that 70th week, Palestine is the focal point of the political and religious turmoil described in 9:24-27.
Meanwhile, supporters of the traditional Reformation view (our fellow-travelers in Daniel 9) are becoming ever more scarce. Sir Isaac Newton, in his commentary on Daniel, described the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-47 as “the foundation stone of the Christian religion.” Very few Christians would now agree with him on that point; at least very few would see any reference to the death of Christ in Daniel 9. In the standard dispensationalist interpretation, the classic KJV phrase, “in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and oblation to cease,” is no longer applied to the death of Christ, but to the cessation of sacrifice in the restored Jerusalem temple.
Even if one holds to the traditional Reformation interpretation of Daniel 9, the complications multiply. Adventists begin the 70 weeks in 458/57 BCE and end them in 34 CE. But those particular dates were first proposed (apparently) by Johann Funck (d. 1566) in the Reformation era. Today, commentators are far from unanimous in their choice of starting dates. There are at least three popular alternatives for the restoration “decree” of Daniel 9:25: 538 (Cyrus), 458/57 (Artaxerxes), and 445 (Artaxerxes). What may be even more troubling for traditionalists is the fact that it is virtually impossible to find a modern reference work which dates the crucifixion at 31 CE. Most scholars, regardless of their theological assumptions, place it somewhere between 27 and 32 CE and leave it at that.
So now let’s be “practical” in the light of all those “technical” challenges to the traditional interpretation. What is likely to happen in Adventist churches around the world? What is already happening? Here are some “facts of life”:
1. Lack of Interest. The detailed study of the prophecy of Daniel 9 is virtually ignored by the vast majority of Adventists and interest in the traditional interpretation will continue to wane. Every week thousands join the church with only the barest knowledge of Daniel 9 if they know anything at all.
2. Lack of Competence. A few years ago the US Department of Education literacy survey showed that 47% of all adults in the United States “cannot read dense, continuous text.” If half the adults in America can’t handle Romans or Matthew, what will they do with Daniel 9? William Miller took his Bible and concordance and immersed himself in the study of Scripture for two years. For his day, he developed admirable competence in Bible study, even if we might part company with him in some of his methods. But even if there were a comparable level of interest today combined with good reading skills, the question still remains: who has the ability to master the Hebrew of Daniel 9 and to mount a convincing argument for a particular interpretation? The Hebrew of Daniel 9 is some of the most difficult in all of the Old Testament. Any way you look at it, very few Adventists could study it out for themselves. Should the rest of us simply adopt the conclusions of the few and have the church mandate that all Adventists “believe” them? That might work for Roman Catholics, but that’s not the Adventist way.
So what is the Adventist way? First, it must be biblical, rooted in Scripture. Second, it must be simple, yet capable of sophisticated development. All that is there in our heritage, just waiting to be applied. And in that connection, I have two specific suggestions.
1. Focus on Jesus and His Ministry, Rather than on Dates. In the traditional Adventist interpretation of Daniel 8 and 9, the 2300-day prophecy directs our attention to the heavenly sanctuary and to Jesus’ ministry on our behalf; the 70-weeks prophecy points to Jesus’ sacrificial death. The reality of those events is now much more important than the dates themselves. While keeping our primary focus on Jesus’ sacrifice and ministry, we can also recognize that the prophecies of the 2300 days and 70 weeks lie at the heart of our birth story. And when telling our story, we should use the Bible of our pioneers (KJV) and show how they came to their conclusions. We would use their texts, their dates, not moving a pin. It’s the story of our birth and we don’t need to be ashamed of it. But our primary focus must always be on what Jesus has done and continues to do for his people.
2. The Covenant. My second suggestion is just as important: a call for the rediscovery of the original covenant used when Adventists organized our first local conference (Michigan) in 1861. Apparently the covenant was also recommended for use in the formation of local churches. Normally I’m not keen on signed statements of belief. Adventists have always been opposed to any creed other than the Bible. But that first “covenant” is a statement I would gladly sign: “We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ [Rev. 14:12].”
Throughout the world, the bond which holds Adventists together consists of God’s law which gives us structure, and Jesus who gives us hope. At the practical level of day-to-day living, dates and time prophecies are virtually irrelevant. When I first became seriously interested in messianic prophecy, I was startled to discover a similar reality in the New Testament era. Here are my conclusions:
A. The messianic hope in Jesus’ day apparently was not based on time prophecies. Given our interest in time prophecies, we have too readily assumed that they are implied in the New Testament by such phrases as “the time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15) and “when the fullness of the time had come” (Gal. 4:4). But there is virtually no evidence in the New Testament itself or in early literature outside the Bible, that the time prophecies (including the 70 weeks of Daniel 9) were a key factor in the messianic hope.
B. Jesus exploded popular views of the Messiah – and was rejected as a result. The New Testament clearly shows that Jesus’ message flew in the face of popular messianic expectations. And Jesus’ opponents had good Scriptural support for their hopes of a conquering hero: Balaam’s “star” would crush every enemy in sight (Num. 24:17); Isaiah’s “shoot” from the stump of Jesse would “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth” and “kill the wicked” with the “breath of his lips” (Isa. 11:4). And there’s plenty more where those came from. When Jesus declared that he had come, not to kill his enemies, but to die, the people rejected him; even his own disciples deserted him. In short, Jesus’ first coming was a “Great Disappointment.” Everyone had expected the messiah; the real question was not if, whether, or when. No, the real question was: What kind of Messiah? Only after the resurrection did the truth of the Suffering One break through to their hearts. I suspect a truth is lurking there which we need to hear.
In conclusion, one more word about birthdays, anniversaries, and other such events. The first coming of Christ as God incarnate and the birth of our own Advent movement are both crucial events for those of us who call ourselves Adventists. As I suggested above, however, the reality of the events is now much more important than the dates. And I have an example close to home that helps me keep such priorities straight. You see, because the records in Buckley Washington are not clear, my Dad was never sure whether he was born in 1914 or 1915. I’m quite certain of the fact of my Dad’s birth. We celebrated his birthday regularly. But none of us ever knew for sure when it actually happened. I look at prophetic dates in somewhat the same way: the realities are clear even if the dates are not.
I now live in hope of another event, a future one, resting on the good promises of one who lived among us, died, rose from the dead and said he would come back to take us home. That’s precious stuff. You can’t take it away from me.