Seventh-day Adventists, above all people, should share a concern for what is happening in the world today. Moreover, we believe we have a general insight into not only what will happen (though certainly not most specific events), but also why many things happen. Below I want to reflect on the significance of the biblical concept of the “cup of iniquity” (e.g., Gen 15:16, Rev 17:4, Rev 16:19, Rev 18:5-6), particularly as it is used in Ellen G. White’s writings, and draw some lessons we may learn from it for Seventh-day Adventists living in the 21st century. This is important, because now more than ever, we seem to be living in a time when many are struggling to understand why the Lord is waiting so long to return again.
I believe, however, that the concept of the cup of iniquity may open up some new ways of understanding what we see happening today, as we relate our beliefs to an ever more complex world, full of different cultures and perspectives, both inside and outside Adventism; secular America, and American Christianity at large, is undergoing a complicated “identity crisis” today between “progressives / liberals” (think->Left, Emergent Church) and “conservatives” (think->Right Fundamentalists), amongst many other labels, which is “functionally” replicated within Adventist circles. It seems there is a philosophical, even psychological, warfare accompanying our best efforts to do sound, relevant, theology. Why this might be so, and how it relates to the cup of iniquity, is something I’ll work my way back to at the end.
White makes reference to the cup of iniquity in many different contexts. These include several references to the those living prior to the flood, the inhabitants living in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt in the time of Moses, and several of the tribes and nations the Israelites encountered during their time in the wilderness and later as an established kingdom. White also includes the Jewish priests during the time of Christ, apostate Roman/Papal Christianity, and the United States and the modern world in her use of the concept; they each “filled their cup” until it overflowed, and God judged them. The question this article wishes to reflect on is what specific lessons can be learned from White’s usage of the concept of the cup of iniquity?
Of course, what initially stands out to most is that the cup of iniquity seems to refer to a cumulative weight of sins, even if specific sins are mentioned. I’m sure the “cumulative” part of this picture may appear obvious: a cup is filled until it overflows. But I think it’s interesting how White points toward specific sins in their relationship to the cumulative weight of sin. The overall picture may be a little more complex and worth a closer look.
The First Drop in the Cup of Iniquity
For example, with the antideluvians, or those living before the flood, White makes a point of emphasizing their eating of animal flesh without having yet received permission from God to do so, and connects this to her use of the cup of iniquity.  (Permission to eat meat was only first given after the flood when there were no plants to eat; see Gen 9:3-5.) Of course, those living before the flood also committed many others sins much worse than meat-eating, even if White indicates that meat-eating was one initial factor that led them to commit other worse sins. In other words, indulging their appetites with frequent meat-eating was one of the first widespread minor sins by the people that led society on a downward path of grosser sins.  So, although many different sins are connected to the cup of iniquity that the antideluvians filled, White goes out of her way to point out the first sin poured into their cup, that of indulging their appetites with frequent meat-eating and the relationship that minor sin had in encouraging them toward grosser sins. 
The Last Drop in the Cup of Iniquity
However, another later example illustrates a different perspective on the relationship between specific sins and the cup of iniquity. After Israel had left Egypt, on their way toward the promised land, the people of Israel peaceably passed by or through the lands of Edom, Moab, and Ammon. Israel showed no hostility toward any of these people or their property. However, upon reaching the land of the Amorites, the Amorite king refused Israel’s polite solicitation to cross their land. Despite Israel’s promise to cross the Amorite’s land peaceably, just as they had with the other nations, the king refused permission. White comments about this: “when the Amorite king refused this courteous solicitation, and defiantly gathered his hosts for battle, their cup of iniquity was full, and God would now exercise His power for their overthrow.” 
The Amorites has long been practicing evil, but it was only at this time that their cup became full. White explains, in connection with Gen 15:16, that
the Amorites were inhabitants of Canaan, and the Lord had promised the land of Canaan to the Israelites; but a long interval must pass before His people should possess the land. He stated the reason why this interval must pass. He told them that the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full, and their expulsion and extermination could not be justified until they had filled up the cup of their iniquity. Idolatry and sin marked their course, but the measure of their guilt was not such that they could be devoted to destruction. In His love and pity God would let light shine upon them in more distinct rays; He would give them opportunity to behold the working of His wondrous power, that there might be no excuse for their course of evil. It is thus that God deals with the nations. 
(Interestingly, in Gen 15:16, God had predicted the very time the Amorite’s cup would be filled to the point of overflowing, but did not specify their final sin.) Thus, in the case of the Amorites, it was simply the relatively minor sin of denying Israelites passage through their land that filled their cup to the point of overflowing. Seemingly a minor sin, but it was on top of a cup filled with many worse sins. Thus, interestingly, White emphasizes the Amorites’ last minor sin in contrast to the antideluvians, where she emphasized their first sin.
So far, the overflowing of a nation’s cup of iniquity clearly represents a cumulative weight of sin that requires God’s judgment. White sometimes highlights the first sin that leads a people on a downward path; at times she focuses on the final sin, both of which may in fact be seemingly minor sins. Of course, sometimes the final sin was a major one indeed, as it was when the priests and rulers rejected Christ and maneuvered to have Jesus crucified,  or the evil crowds in the city of Sodom attempted to assault Lot’s house and his guests.
The Cumulative Weight of Sin
The story of Lot is another interesting example, however, as such a major sin (the intent to sexually assault and murder Lot’s disguised angelic guests) was in this case merely the continuation of previous sins, and was no worse than what the people had previously done. White remarks: “That night the evil doers added the last drop to their cup of iniquity, and the wrath of God could no longer be delayed. The night of the destruction of Sodom the inhabitants of the city were doing that which they had been doing through all their past life. They were no more base and dissolute and corrupt than on other nights when strangers had entered their city; but there is a point beyond which there is no reprieve, and that night the inhabitants of Sodom passed the mystic boundary that decided their destiny.” 
In summary thus far, any and all sins do contribute to the cup of iniquity that a people accumulate. Sometimes, White felt that highlighting specific sins in relation to a cup of iniquity was important, emphasizing both the first sin, the last sin, and describing how sometimes the last sin may or may not be worse in relation to previous sins; it was simply the last one God would allow.
The Final Two Overflowings
But now it’s time to turn toward “21st century times” and carefully reflect on what White says about the world’s final cup of iniquity. First, it is interesting to note that many non-Adventist Christians have talked about “America’s” cup of iniquity, or other specific nations, and pondered when they will be filled. I will not review them here, but two things stand out in the contemporary discussions: First, one part of the Christian crowd will point toward sins like the high prevalence of divorce and marital infidelity, violent Hollywood movies and video games, abortion, and societal approval of homosexuality, as the primary sins filling America’s cup of iniquity (e.g., the Religious Right). Second, another crowd will point toward sins like unequal wealth distribution and a lack of concern for the poor, the intolerance toward homosexuals and an emphasis on other social justices, climate change and environmental issues (sinning against the earth), and questionable foreign military actions, as the primary sins filling America’s cup of iniquity (e.g., the Emerging Church).
I am, broadly speaking, concerned about both of the above types of issues; how best to deal with or respond to them in a secular civil society and within the church is something for another article. What is worth mentioning here, however, is that White was also concerned with both kinds of issues, by and large. It’s important to highlight her thoughts on this. She shared many, but just limiting myself to occasions when she specifically referenced our cup of iniquity is sufficient. For example:
Among worldlings in this generation the greatest crimes are perpetrated through the love of money. If wealth cannot be secured by honest industry, men will resort to fraud, deception, and crime in order to obtain it. The cup of iniquity is nearly filled, and the retributive justice of God is about to descend upon the guilty. Widows are robbed of their scanty pittance by lawyers and professedly interested friends, and poor men are made to suffer for the necessaries of life because of the dishonesty which is practiced in order to gratify extravagance. The terrible record of crime in our world is enough to chill the blood and fill the soul with horror; but the fact that even among those who profess to believe the truth the same evils are creeping in, the same sins indulged to a greater or less degree, calls for deep humiliation of soul.
A man who sincerely fears God would rather toil day and night, suffer privation, and eat the bread of poverty than to indulge a passion for gain which would oppress the widow and the fatherless or turn the stranger from his right. 
Again, from a more general perspective,
I was shown the state of the world, that it is fast filling up its cup of iniquity. Violence and crime of every description are filling our world, and Satan is using every means to make crime and debasing vice popular. The youth who walk the streets are surrounded with handbills and notices of crime and sin, presented in some novel or to be acted at some theater. Their minds are educated into familiarity with sin. The course pursued by the base and vile is kept before them in the periodicals of the day, and everything which can excite curiosity and arouse the animal passions is brought before them in thrilling and exciting stories. 
Here’s the interesting point I see here. All sin contributes to the cup of iniquity that we are filling for ourselves as a modern society. That much appears clear. But is our cup of iniquity one of merely accumulated weight, wherein any sin could be our last? The answer appears to be yes and no, as we shall see! And I see many interesting consequences to this. But first, we need to be clear about something. White indicates that our cup of iniquity, as the final cup, is allowed to be filled twice! That’s how gracious our God is with us, in the last days, to warn us of our impending crisis. Let me explain.
White wrote that
God keeps a reckoning with the nations. . . . Men have reached a point in insolence and disobedience which shows that their cup of iniquity is almost full. Many have well-nigh passed the boundary of mercy. Soon God will show that He is indeed the living God. He will say to the angels, ‘No longer combat Satan in his efforts to destroy. Let him work out his malignity upon the children of disobedience; for the cup of their iniquity is full. They have advanced from one degree of wickedness to another, adding daily to their lawlessness. I will no longer interfere to prevent the destroyer from doing his work. 
Thus, when our cup is filled beyond a certain indefinite point (in White’s language, passed the “mystic boundary”), our cup of general sins is filled to overflowing, and Satan will exercise great power over the world. This means the world’s first round of calamities actually come from Satan, not God. Natural disasters, war and bloodshed, etc., will come upon the earth then, during the opening phase of the “time of trouble.”
However, it is the second time the cup overflows that is of special interest. White is very clear that “when it shall have become a law that the transgression of the first day of the week shall be met with punishment, then their cup will be full.”  Again, “This is the great issue. Rome and all the churches that have drunk of her cup of iniquity, in thinking to change times and laws, have exalted themselves above God, and torn down God’s great memorial, the seventh-day Sabbath.” 
What will be the circumstance of the world when this happens? White gives us some direction: It is at this time, “when the angel of mercy folds her wings and departs, Satan will do the evil deeds he has long wished to do. . . . And so completely will men be deceived by him that they will declare that these calamities are the result of the desecration of the first day of the week. From the pulpits of the popular churches will be heard the statement that the world is being punished because Sunday is not honored as it should be.” 
Interestingly, this means that the world will not be “getting better” when the Sunday law is agitated in strength. In conclusion, when the United States enacts a Sunday law, then, and only then, will the world’s final cup of iniquity be filled to overflowing, triggering the final events of earth’s history and the time of Jacob’s trouble preceding the second coming of Christ.
What It All Means for Us Today
The significance of the “first” and “second” overflowing of our world’s cup of iniquity gives one pause for thought for several reasons that I think are important for understanding the divisions within Christianity in today’s world. I will list a few of them:
1. Many evils do contribute to the world’s cup of iniquity, but only one specific sin can ultimately overflow it, the Sunday law. This means, no matter how evil the world is, it will not receive its final punishment until after a Sunday law. This creates a stark separation between Adventist views of cumulative evil and other Christian views of cumulative evil and the end of time, and gives us confidence that God will empower us through the Holy Spirit to reach those whom he has called, but are now beyond our church’s walls, when the time is appropriate and the Sunday issue has been agitated. After the first overflowing and in conjunction with efforts to create the second, a window will be created where our evangelistic efforts will work with renewed power.
2. This second overflowing, however, does follow after a first overflowing, in which the more traditional “cumulative weight” principle appears valid. The efforts of the Emergent Church on the Left and the Religious Right will both have failed; sins of all kinds will abound.
3. Therefore, some observations might be made: all the world’s efforts to “better itself” before the first overflowing are ultimately futile. Hollywood violence, abortion, wealth distribution, poverty, climate change, social justice–secondary issues in the grand scheme. Both the Religious Right and the Emergent Church are deeply misguided. Efforts to solve worldly problems neglect the cause–human sinfulness and the agency of demons, which includes at the societal level even ignorant disobedience of the Sabbath. Social justice or incomplete emphases on the moral law are both deficient at their core. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intelligently engage these other issues and try to improve society (an article for another time), but they are all secondary issues, and this point is very important to remember.
4. This means the competing visions of Christianity, and Adventism when it replicates the broader divisions, are missing the point when it comes to how we view the world. Whether the world will “get better” is actually an open question. We may improve poverty in some countries, temporarily. But never permanently. We may cease fighting wars for a little while. But never permanently. So long as even one of God’s moral commandments is not obeyed in society, society can never really improve, globally and permanently, on any issue.
5. A careful reading of White’s sequence of events is also revealing. While Sunday laws may or may not be agitated prior to their final enactment, promoting religious liberty and social justice can actually be counterproductive, if by promoting them we encourage society to engage in other sins, or through them keep society ignorant of the higher moral law . The Sunday law will not be the crowning achievement of apostate Christianity in its efforts to perfect itself here on earth. Quite the opposite. It will be a final desperate attempt to put some reins on society’s immorality, which will be manifested in many different ways.
1. Ellen White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, 373-374. Ellen White, Testimony Studies on Diet and Foods, 62.
2. Ellen White, Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, 43. Alternately, “they became violent . . . and so corrupt that God could bear with them no longer. Their cup of iniquity was full, and God cleansed the earth of its moral pollution by a flood,” Ellen White, Selected Messages, Book 2, 412.
3. “Indulgence of appetite was the foundation of all their sins,” Ellen White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, 163.
4. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 435.
5. Ellen White, “Results of Casting Away the Law of God,” in Review and Herald (May 2, 1893).
6. Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, 618-619. “The sin of the priests and rulers was greater than that of any preceding generation. By their rejection of the Saviour, they were making themselves responsible for the blood of all the righteous men slain from Abel to Christ. They were about to fill to overflowing their cup of iniquity. And soon it was to be poured upon their heads in retributive justice,” Ibid.
7. Ellen White, “Sodom’s Last Warning,” in The Signs of the Times (Oct 9, 1893).
8. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church Vol. 4, 489-490.
9. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church Vol. 3, 471-472.
10. Ellen White, “A Time of Trouble,” in Review and Herald (Sept 17, 1901).
11. Ellen White, “The Government of God,” in Review and Herald (Mar 9, 1886).
12. Ellen White, GCB, Mar 4, 1895.
14. Ellen White, Spalding and Magan Collection (1893, letter to A.T. Jones), 8.