Adventism was born in the mid-nineteenth century—the same century that saw the birth of movements and ideologies that have shaped the modern world: Romanticism, German idealism, French positivism, nationalism, Darwinism, Marxism, and Nietzscheanism. This shared chronological origin was not accidental but providential. The call to fear and worship the Creator-God (see Rev. 14:7) diametrically counters the self-deifying, heaven-storming passions, ideas, and themes at the heart of these radical ideologies.
In interpreting Daniel 8:9-14 and Revelation 14:6-12 we have often restricted ourselves to the activities of the little horn and Babylon. But we have not tried to apply the “present truth” to modern radical ideologies. Yet, if today the world is ignorant of Christ’s high-priestly ministry and despises the gospel, it is because nineteenth-century radical thinkers invented secular religions in which celebrity artists, intellectuals, scientists, and politicians are modern types of ancient pagan priests and gods.
Indeed, we cannot appreciate the bewitching grip of radical ideologies on modern thought and consciousness and their challenge to the gospel unless we grasp their distinctively religious essence. Again, if they displaced God and Christianity in Western culture, elicited religious-like devotion, it is because they were deliberately fabricated as substitute religions, to replace Christianity. As Ludwig Feuerbach, one of Karl Marx’s intellectual godfathers, declared: “We must start to be religious once again; politics must become our religion.”1 But a political religion recalls primitive society, its con-fusion of politics and religion, the divine and the human.
Ideologies and Religion
A whole primitive religiosity reappears in modern ideologies. The central figure in this reappearance was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Foremost among his ideas was that in the “state of nature” humans were naturally good, but had been corrupted by modern civilization. If this denial of human sinfulness swept away the truth of the Fall and the need of a Savior, it supplied the rationale for social sciences and the belief that education and social engineering can make us moral and whole. By shifting the source of sin from the self to society, Rousseau also shifted the theater of the great war between good and evil from the human heart to one between corrupt society and nature. In this new theater, salvation was in nature. And to restore corrupt society to pristine nature, he proposed the creation of a civil religion and a social contract, in which each person puts “all his powers under the supreme direction of the general will,” to form “an indivisible whole.”2
The adjectives he used to describe the social contract—indestructible, infallible, absolute, and sacred—evoked divinity. As Albert Camus acutely observed: “The will of the people [was] substituted for God himself.”3 In this substitution Rousseau set a precedent later pursued by radical nineteenth-century thinkers, especially in Germany. As Robert Tucker pointed out: “The movement of thought from Kant to Hegel revolved . . . around the idea of man’s self-realization as a godlike being, or alternatively, as God.”4 Indeed, the German poet Novalis bluntly declared, “Now on earth Men must become Gods.”5 And Goethe’s literary figure Faust, recalling the devil’s lie to our first parents, “dreams of godlike knowledge.” To realize these dreams, he resorts to magic in order to conjure the power of demons that rule the world. Then again, in Romanticism, a literary and artistic movement that amplified Rousseau’s ideas, demonic symbols were shifted away from evil to good, with the devil depicted as a hero and God as “an evil tyrant.”6
These deformations are rooted in occultism—a mix of Gnostic, Neoplatonic, hermetic, and Cabalistic elements—all of which originated in late antiquity and transmitted to the modern period by medieval mystics. German idealistic philosophy flowed directly from German mysticism of the Middle Ages.7 Hence, it was mythological at heart. “We must have a new mythology,” wrote Hegel, “but this mythology must be in the service of the Ideas, it must be a mythology of reason.”8 Besides rationalizing mythology, German thinkers secularized biblical themes, especially from the book of Revelation, and spiced the mix with science, so as to create “a new mythology,” forged, as Schlegel said, “out of the uttermost depth of the Spirit.”9
The driving passion behind the syncretism, this mixing of mythology and theology, was to create metaphysical systems that would restore primal unity, a con-fusion of humans and nature, of the natural and the supernatural, of the individual and society. This endeavor for primal unity directly struck at Christ’s mediatorial ministry, and Romantics knew it. “It’s only prejudice and presumption,” declared their literary journal the Athenaeum, “that maintains there is only a single mediator [namely, Christ] between God and man.”10 Artists due to their creative genius could also be mediators and prophets of God. They were gods “in human form,” intoned Lavater, or “dramatic God,” said Herder.11 Again, proclaiming himself a poet-prophet for his age with “an internal brightness” that is “shared by none,”12 Wordsworth daringly declared, “I have no need of a Redeemer.”13
Behind this denial of a redeemer and the self-deification was pantheism, the religion that everything in nature, including humans, is divine. In a major innovation radical thinkers extended this pantheism to their artistic works, philosophical systems, and abstract ideas. If Romantics deified art, nature, and the nation, Hegel deified history and the state, while French positivists deified science; and Nietzsche, in spite of clearly discerning the lust for power behind these impious projects, deified “the will to power” itself. Again, with his typical candor he revealed the real force behind nineteenth-century radicalism. “The world,” he wrote, “has become skilled at giving new names to things and even baptizing the devil. It is truly an hour of great danger. . . . Yet they [men] are in no way disturbed by the discovery, but proclaim that ‘egoism shall be our god.’ ”14
In the last sentence of his last work before going insane, Nietzsche declared, “Have I been understood? Dionysus against the Crucified.”15 In a noteworthy work on modern philosophy from Descartes (1596-1650) to Nietzsche (1844-1900), Michael Allen Gillespie argued that Nietzsche’s nihilism has been misunderstood. Far from pronouncing the “death of God,” it proclaimed the advent of the Greek God—Dionysus.16 This all-too-pagan trajectory of modern philosophy, “the metaphysical demand for unity, the impossibility of capturing it, and the construction of a substitute universe,”17 has all the hubris and demonic delusion of the archrebel, the devil, including his ambition to displace God as the sovereign of the universe. To be sure, there is a scarlet thread that runs from primitive paganism through medieval Christendom and mushrooms in modern radical ideologies. That thread is self-deification, humans displacing God, arrogating to themselves powers and prerogatives that belong to Him alone.
Judgment and Hubris
If this self-deification reached its apex in the nineteenth century, crowned by Nietzsche’s blasphemous declaration that “God is dead,” then the prophetic rendezvous of 1844, the beginning of judgment, as the Adventist pioneers proclaimed, makes perfect divine sense. Doom had burst forth, the rod had budded, and arrogance had blossomed (Eze. 7:10).
Again, the explicit ambition by Romantic poets and artists to install themselves as “priests of the new dispensation”18 puts in sharp relief the divine imperative of highlighting the heavenly high-priestly ministry of Jesus. The crux of Daniel 8:14 and Revelation 14:6, 7, as put succinctly in Colossians 1:17, is that “he [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Paul continues in verses 19, 20: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
The essence of “the eternal gospel” is the complete and matchless reconciliation achieved by Jesus, a reconciliation that radical ideologies impersonated. If Marxism was the most seductive, it is because it impersonated best. Its idea of primitive communism negatively mirrors the Garden of Eden; its communist utopia the New Jerusalem; its class conflict the great controversy between good and evil; and its mass killing of ideological enemies God’s end-time destruction of the wicked. All nineteenth-century radical ideologies were, in different ways, parodies of the gospel, monstrous spiritual deformations. Significantly, as Tony Judt, one of the twentieth century’s preeminent historians, pointed out, “the building blocks of the twentieth-century political world” “were all nineteenth-century artifacts.”19
These “artifacts” are crumbling before our eyes. Communism was the first to collapse in 1989 under the weight of its own contradictions; and today capitalism is tottering on the precipice, with dwindling policy remedies and political paralysis on both sides of the Atlantic. Reflecting on the twentieth-first-century global tensions and challenges and the lack of solutions, John Lukacs, a distinguished historian, recently wrote: “We are at the end of an age: but how few people know this! The sense of this has begun to appear in the hearts of many; but it has not yet swum up to the surface of their consciousness.”20
What comes after the Great Recession? Only God knows. But in the mid-nineteenth century He raised the Advent movement to tell the world: “There will be no more delay!” (Rev. 10:6). “Look, I am coming soon!” (Rev. 22:12). Is it not time for us to awake, time to trim our lamps and give the trumpet a distinct sound? n
1 In Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion, trans. George Staunton (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 30.
2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 61.
3 Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 115.
4 Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), p. 31.
5 In Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, The Emergence of Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 80.
6 Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 173-213.
7 Ernst Benz, The Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy, trans. Blair R. Reynolds and Eunice M. Paul (Eugene, Oreg.: Pickwick Publications, 1983), pp. 23-25.
8 In Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001), pp. 87, 88.
9 In M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), p. 67.
10 In Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 328.
11 In ibid., p. 336.
12 In Abrams, p. 21.
13 In ibid., p. 120.
14 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, trans. Adrian Collins (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1957), pp. 62, 63.
15 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 104.
16 Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
17 Camus, p. 255.
18 Riasanovsky, p. 54.
19 Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), p. 3.
20 John Lukacs, At the End of the Age (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 42.
Elijah Mvundura is a former history and sociology lecturer at Solusi University in Zimbabwe. He now lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and is a member of the Garden Road Seventh-day Adventist Church. This article was published October 17, 2013.