The saddest thing that could have happened to us, will be the saddest thing that could happen to us, and that is to become irrelevant. ― S. H. Khan
Welcome back to part two of the series, “The Death and Rebirth of the Investigative Judgment”. In the introduction, I asked the overarching question, “Does the Investigative Judgment Matter?” in which I demonstrated that even among those who support the doctrine, the question of its utility remains unsettled. In this second installment, I will demonstrate how the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment is, indeed, dead and how our greatest defenses of the subject repeatedly come short. In doing so, I aim to lay the necessary foundation for its rebirth.
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In his book, “Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions,” comedian Russell Brand asks the thought-provoking question, “What is a belief really?” And his answer is awfully uncomfortable. A belief, he says, is “a thought in your mind that you like having.” He then makes matters worse by adding, “If you like having it, it must be of benefit, it either improves your life or helps you to rationalize how bad your life is.”
From an epistemic perspective, I find his definition facile. But from a practical, day to day point of view, it’s spot on. People tend to believe what they believe because the belief adds something of value. When a belief does not add value we either ignore it, minimize it, or get rid of it. Therefore, when discussing the utility of a belief like the Pre-Advent Investigative Judgment (PAIJ) I am forced to ask, Why do I believe this?
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However, the answers to this question are surprisingly complex. On the one hand, the PAIJ benefits me academically. Once I understood its mechanics I found it provided me with a coherent systematic theology, unlike anything I had encountered before. Because I was aware of the intricacies and discontinuities present in the Arminian and Calvinist theological debates, Adventism, with its sanctuary, PAIJ, and 1844 doctrines, ironed out wrinkles and brought the narrative of scripture together in a way those other systems could not. However, despite its academic usefulness, I cannot say it has ever held any defining status in my personal life.
Consequently, the question that has haunted me for years is—what if I wasn’t into theology? What if I was just a simple guy wandering through the balefulness of existence hoping to scoop up a few crumbs of meaning from whatever sensory experience I found next? Or what if I was just a simple Christian navigating the maze of life via the promise and power of the gospel? No theology. No background in dizzying church debates. No knowledge of how Plato and Aristotle impacted the development of classical Christian thought. No investment in the war between free will and sovereignty and zero concern for denominational propaganda. And what if, as either of these persons, I was approached by an Adventist and asked to join their church? Perhaps I would lean towards a “yes” because of Adventist doctrines like annihilationism, Sabbath or the holistic view of man, but what significant role would the PAIJ play? For a doctrine that is supposed to be intricately woven into our identity, I struggle to see how it would tip the scales for me in terms of choosing to join the Adventist church.
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But that’s not to say I haven’t tried answering the question. In fact, I have historically offered three key perspectives when it comes to the question of the PAIJ’s relevance. These three key perspectives are not original to me but represent, after mountains of research, the absolute best I could gather from the scholars and theologians.
The Transparency Argument
The first is that the PAIJ makes no sense outside of an Arminian-Wesleyan metanarrative. This system of thought is the foundation for Adventism’s “Great Controversy”. When we consider, as clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson often affirms, that “life is suffering”, or to quote the first noble truth of Buddhism, “existence is suffering”, then the Great Controversy theme emerges as a compelling solution to the apparent contradiction between God’s love and our present, wretched experience. Such is life in a reality deconstructed by the presence of the absence of God. There is hope, yes. But the hope must be held before us, a light at the end of the tunnel to guide us, for the truth is we are still in the tunnel and it is cold and dark and the ground beneath soaked in the blood and tears of God and men. This is the Great Controversy.
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And as the Great Controversy draws to a close, God must author the epilogue, preceded by judgment. For his people, this judgment is bathed in enthusiastic and romantic expectation. For his enemies, it is a portend of inexorable ruin. But how does this God of love conduct his judgment? The PAIJ reveals that he does so with transparency. And this transparency is, in and of itself, incalculably meaningful.
Does such an idea provide relevance to the doctrine of the PAIJ? To a certain degree, yes. Only an ideologue with a chip on his shoulder, unable to suspend his own preconceived antithesis, would deny this. But while this may be the case in a theological sense, the truth is very few people stay awake at night wondering if God is transparent. Most people are content to accept his love and leave the rest in his hands. Various theological systems may deny this love and transparency of God but few people are navigating theology at the depth necessary to make understanding a theme like divine transparency vital. So while the PAIJ finds a certain degree of relevance in the way in which it celebrates the transparency of God, the very theme of God’s transparency is not one a person is likely to explore unless they are a theological pundit of some sort.
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Benefit for the Angels
The second perspective I have historically offered is that, given the Great Controversy, the PAIJ becomes indispensable to the angelic realm. It is not simply us that God is transparent with but all of his sentient creation. In the PAIJ, the angels are able to see for themselves that God’s judgments are just and true. This idea is then tied in to the overarching theme of the Great Controversy and the uncertainties the struggle between good and evil is rooted in. A traditional perspective proposes that the angels, emotionally and cognitively impacted by the initial rebellion and its aftermath, would be within their rights to demand an assurance that this rebellion will not happen again. This involves God celebrating the character of his redeemed whom he is bringing into eternity. By putting them on display before the angels through the process of the PAIJ, he assures them that all who are entering his kingdom are authentic beings who, through imperfect and damaged by sin, have no allegiance to its regime and are, indeed, reborn into the new humanity of which Christ is head.
This conceptualization of the PAIJ also gives the doctrine a level of relevance. It paints a picture of God’s government as driven by open discussion instead of coercive power. The angels are postulated in a deliberative and potentially representative symposium. We can confidently assert a level of debate, inquisitive dialogue and autonomous exploration. There is no room for anecdotes or conjecture. God’s own judgment is dissected, not with incredulous skepticism but with a sacred consciousness and awe. Some find this idea appalling given the loving nature of God. Why would the angels be engaged in such a process? Don’t they trust the love of the Father? The answer to this question is simple and complex. Complex because we don’t understand the layers upon which angelic society functions. Simple because, despite this ignorance, we need only look at ourselves to know that love, while foundationally sufficient, must be expressed in tangible ways that transcend romantic platitudes. To this end, I find the words of the anti-totalitarian novelist George Orwell insightful when he wrote, “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
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Though the setting in which these words were written differ from our present topic, nevertheless they capture something beautiful that can be appropriated for this moment. In keeping with Orwells contrast between the act of being loved and being understood, we can see how the PAIJ leaps forth with meaning, particularly against the backdrop of the 20th century’s political legacy, marred by the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong. By way of variance, the PAIJ reveals that God doesn’t simply love his intelligent creation but nurtures an anti-totalitarian process in which they can feel heard, their sufferings acknowledged, and their concerns intentionally understood. Revelation 20:4 depicts the Great White throne judgment the same way–as transparent and meaningful for the created order and not just a process that takes place within God’s enigmatic and inscrutable consciousness.
However, as we will explore in more detail in the next article, the problem is if this perspective is true then at best it demonstrates why the PAIJ is relevant for heavenly beings. It does less to demonstrate why it is relevant for us. A person would first have to wonder about the angelic perspective on judgment before this perspective has any value, and sadly, no one outside of theological circles ever does. Thus, in a sense, this position answers a question no one is really asking.
Vindication of God’s Character
Finally, the third answer I have offered is in reference to the character of God. Because the Great Controversy understands the war between good and evil as a war that is fundamentally rooted in lies about God then the judgment, we understand, is part of what exonerates God’s character before the universe. Those from a reformed/Calvinist background would find this idea disturbing. In this system of thought, God does whatever he pleases without any need to explain himself. However, outside of this system of thought, the idea of God vindicating his character has the potentiality for spiritual and emotional healing as has been documented by Adventist psychiatrist Timothy Jennings and physician Neil Nedley. Likewise, the idea of God vindicating himself was brought into the micro-level of human experience in William P. Young’s classic novel The Shack. Despite its theological challenges, one particularly insightful and touching scene in the story is when the main character sits in judgment over God only to discover the goodness of God as a result.
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The PAIJ is part of this vindication narrative. And like the above novel’s protagonist, humanity lives in a perpetual state of judgment over God. We question his motives, dissect his decisions and, as was cleverly expressed in the 2003 film “Bruce Almighty”, we think ourselves capable of doing a much better job. Therefore, the idea of God being vindicated before the universe is one that has theological and, as already expressed, psychological benefits. Following on from this, the relevance of the PAIJ as it relates to the vindication of God’s character becomes extraordinarily significant.
However, the doctrine once again runs into problems that, while not denying its validity add to its struggle for utility. The first is that it’s just too complicated a doctrine. A person first has to swim through miles of charts, dates and ancient cultic metaphors before they can arrive at the vindication narrative. As a result, while the doctrine certainly amplifies the goodness of God’s character, it does so at such a complex level that the amplification gets lost in translation. The end result I have seen is pastors who emphasize the overarching themes of God’s character and goodness but avoid the PAIJ in the process. The second is that the goodness of God’s character is mere ideological noise if not accompanied by practical, on the ground application. Sadly, the greatest argument against the PAIJ is its apparent silence in terms of meaningful, social effect both within our church and in the communities our movement inhabits.
Other less convincing arguments I have toyed with are how the PAIJ gives Adventism a purpose and identity (this argument fails to provide any meaning to anyone who is not already an Adventist), how it protects us from both legalism and antinomianism at the same time (a person has to first care about that tension to find meaning in the doctrine), how the prophetic timeline ending in 1844 intensifies our belief in the soon coming of Jesus (while true, this idea serves only as a temporary boost to the emotion that has little lasting effect on a person’s faith), and how it reveals to us what Jesus has been up to throughout human history to this very moment (knowing all the ins-and-outs of the High Priestly ministry does not lead us, on a practical level, to a faith experience that is any different from that of other Christians who do not share this belief).
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So, do I believe in the PAIJ or do I not? The answer is simple: I believe in its validity but struggle with its utility. To this day, I have found all of our traditional arguments in favor of the PAIJ to be desperately impoverished in the realm of everyday efficacy. It’s not that the arguments are inherently bad. In fact, they each teeter on the edge of cosmic and local significance. The problem is that despite the value they bring to the conversation, it’s simply not enough. Something is still missing that we have yet to identify and explore. As a result, after years of studying the Bible with a wide diversity of students, I have never been asked a question of any kind that is conclusively or compellingly answered by the PAIJ as we know it today. To the contrary, I have taught the doctrine with an impressive knowledge of its anatomy. And yet, I have suffered at its seemingly pointless existence. In a sense, Adventism’s conceptualization of the PAIJ has become the fulfillment of Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass, in which the heroine Alice finds herself running as fast as she can only to be told by the Red Queen,
Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
I believe this “Red Queen Effect” has kept us sprinting in a theological marathon for over 170 years, but we have gone nowhere. As a result, we have collectively entered the sad state of affairs S. H. Khan refers to as “to become irrelevant.” Books, sermons and articles defending the PAIJ as a cornerstone of Adventism simply fail, over and over again, to say anything truly meaningful to anyone who is not already an “us”. Similarly, the complexity of the doctrine continues to elude any practical, world constructing influence that cannot be found in communities of faith bereft of the PAIJ. Our church members also continue to struggle with the doctrine’s meaning and, apart from a few studious book-worms, most can hardly explain it. It is this present reality that leads me to conclude that the PAIJ is a doctrine that is, despite all our efforts, dead. And what does the future then hold for us and our collective mission? Though I refrain from speculation I can affirm, in the heedful words of Chinese philosopher and poet Lao Tzu, that,
If [we] do not change direction [we] may end up where [we] are heading.
Nevertheless, I contend that a rebirth lies before us for I have found that the death of the PAIJ is not rooted in a terminal flaw in the doctrine itself, but rather in the way which we, its proponents, have framed it and defended it. Our efforts, proud as we may be of them, have fallen short and left entire generations with little to no connection with the one doctrine we claim as our contribution to the global conversation about God. And yet, beneath the dust of futile argumentation lies a potentiality yet to be realized and set free.
So then, what is the way forward? Where do we go from here? If our traditional arguments defending the relevance of the PAIJ have fallen short, then what options do we have left?
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said,
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
His point is that in order for life to have meaning it must exist in tension with what is behind and what lies ahead. By looking backward we can make sense of the complexity of self, learn from our mistakes and construct perspective. By looking forward we can journey with enthusiasm and be driven by the existential dream of redemption. This tension, is, therefore, necessary to thrive into one’s authentic self and, ironically, to live a life that is greater than that self. And it is this tension that I believe is necessary for Adventism if it wishes to speak life into the culture. We must pursue a more relevant understanding and conceptualization of the PAIJ, informed by the narrative behind and driven by a vision of the future that transcends our own corporate identity. This approach, I believe, will allow us to finally extract the hidden potential embedded in this landmark doctrine. A potential which has the capacity to speak life over the brokenness of the human story and offer a perspective that is relevant, cross-centered and captivating in its amplification of God’s relentless love.
 Russel Brand, Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions, p. 68.
 To explore how the PAIJ resolves the tensions present in the Arminian/ Calvinist theological debates see 1. Mike Manea, “Why the Critics of the Investigative Judgment Have Failed,” and 2. Mike Manea, “How Adventism Ended the Gospel Wars.”
 In fact, the only time it did hold overwhelming significance is when the doctrine was tied to perfectionism and I lived each day in fear that I had to attain absolute character perfection or be lost forever. For all the faults in this heretical line of thinking, I must admit, it gives the 1844 IJ an intensity and value that can’t be ignored. The doctrine becomes an integral part of how life is lived each day. Grant it, you might end up with an anxiety disorder, but at least you don’t have to wonder what role the doctrine is meant to play.