For the three of you who have read any of my previous articles, you may have noticed that I’ve been hard on Adventism. To be fair, I am critical of all organized religious groups and if I were a Lutheran or Hindu or Wiccan, I’d be writing articles that were hard on whichever of those groups I was a part of.
It’s because I believe we can do better. It’s because I believe we haven’t been honest with ourselves about who we are as a people and what good we contribute to the world around us. Because, if we are not contributing in a helpful and positive way and are merely existing to sustain our own group, then there is no point to the group. Creating new ways to be isolated and exclusionary is not a great way to help and love our neighbors.
An important question might be, “Do our beliefs make us better people?” As opposed to another equally important follow up question:
“Do our beliefs only serve to make us believe we are better than other people?”
Growing up in Adventism, I remember being taught that we had the best theology, and we were the only ones who were right and that made us better than everyone else. I don’t pretend that my experience was everyone else’s experience. But I also don’t pretend that I was the only one who grew up believing that because of attending Adventist church and school.
There is a lot of evidence past and present that suggests our organizational goal is that second question. So, let’s focus on the first question.
Do our Adventist beliefs make us better people?
Let’s set aside the details of some of the dubious theology still taught from Adventist pulpits and simply focus on the human experience. What do we teach people that makes those people better?
Well, we do believe in the love of Jesus. You might not know it sometimes, but we do. We believe in grace and forgiveness. Not just coming from God but going from us to others. Those are all pretty good things and, when embraced by an individual, could certainly serve to make them a better person.
The only problem is—those beliefs aren’t exclusively Adventist. Literally, every Christian denomination believes those things. And, believe it or not, most Pagan religions have a variation of those beliefs that encourage them to be kind, forgiving, loving, and to care for their fellow people.
So, in the end, not only are those beliefs not unique to Adventism, but the end results of those beliefs aren’t, also, even unique to Christianity.
What else? Does the concept of the Trinity make one a better human? It really does not. And some of the fights I’ve seen take place surrounding that one belief suggests it just might make us worse. But perhaps that’s a false correlation on my part.
Oh, Adventism believes we have at least one prophet in our history. And no, that belief has not made us better people. The people who believe that the hardest tend to be the ones most likely to cause you spiritual harm in the name of that same prophet. They very much need you to believe it with the same fervor and in the same detail as they do. Those people might also be kind at times, but not because of that belief.
We believe in healthy living and good health care. And this is probably as close as we get to a belief that could make us better people, except, again, we are not the only or first people to believe in such things. And for those who have become healthier people by becoming Adventist, healthier is not the same as better in character and does not equate to treating others better. A lot of damage has been done in the name of health reform.
In fact, as I reflected on our beliefs, I couldn’t find one that actually makes us better people as a whole. Oh, sure. Some of you probably know a story of some person who was just an awful human, and then they met Jesus and became a genuinely amazing and loving human and takes care of their community with zest and zeal.
But that isn’t an Adventist thing. That’s a Jesus thing. The spirit of God transformed that person’s life. Adventism didn’t change them even if the change happened in an Adventist community. That community just happened to be one of the tools God used to make it happen.
It could have happened anywhere.
Some Adventist church communities are beautiful and amazing places, full of God’s spirit and love. And I fear just as many, if not more, are not. And, just as many, if not more, loving and amazing spirit filled communities exist outside of Adventism and do way more amazing things than ours generally do within their communities.
Some of you are going to point out that, “doesn’t being saved make you a better person?” My response would be, that may depend on what you believe that means? A pretty standard line in Adventist evangelism is that “… there are many loving and sincere people who are sincerely wrong.” Which is not only an idiotic statement masking as cleverness, but it also doesn’t seem to have a clear grasp of what it is God has been trying to do to humanity.
What it does suggest is that it doesn’t matter how much love you have for people and how much you do to care for your neighbor, the actual things Jesus suggests separates the saved from the lost (see Matt. 25:31-46) if you don’t agree on theological things exactly as the evangelist you will be damned. Especially when you consider those evangelists are rarely evangelizing atheists.
The problems in that last sentence could fill books.
So, Jesus and the Spirit of God can make us better people. Both things are not exclusive to Adventism, and no one is required to be “Christian” to benefit there.
Perhaps this isn’t something I can answer. Perhaps you need to wrestle with this. What is it about Adventism that has made you a better person? And be honest. Don’t attribute things to Adventism that aren’t exclusive to Adventism or aren’t about the beliefs.
So, has it? Has Adventism made you better? Or has simply being in a community of loving people rubbed off on you? Or has having a practice of seeking God regularly with the desire to be a better person changed you?
I have known way too many non-Adventists who have made it their life’s work to help others and live a life of love and forgiveness and compassion for me to believe Adventism alone has anything to do with these things. That’s my position.
But what is yours? You don’t have to agree with me. I’m wrong all the time. Do Adventist beliefs make you a better person? Or do Adventist beliefs just make you believe you are better than other people?
The answer to those questions might just be a little important.
Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Gateway Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony, his wife Nirma, and daughter Amryn live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]