Ellen G. White® Estate
Sharing the Vision
Concerning a conference in 1856 Ellen White declared: "I was shown the
company present at the conference. Said the angel, 'Some food for worms, some
subjects of the seven last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth
to be translated at the coming of Jesus.' " All who were alive then are now
dead. Does this unfulfilled prediction mean that Mrs. White is a false prophet?
We offer a more extended answer to this question because it illustrates a
fundamental misconception regarding the gift of prophecy.
Deuteronomy 18:22 reads: "If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord
but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has
not spoken” (NRSV). This text, taken alone, would indict a number of Bible
prophets. Deuteronomy 18:22 is to be understood, even as any other lone text, in
the context of all Scripture. Other scriptures reveal that there are qualifying
factors that operate in relation to a prophet's predictions, particularly where
the free will of humanity may be involved. It may come as a surprise to some to
think that God's promises of blessings and His threats of judgments are
conditional. But the Scriptures are explicit on this. Notice the words recorded
"At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I
will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning
which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the
disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare
concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does
evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about
the good that I had intended to do to it.” Jer. 18:7-10 (NRSV).
The Bible presents a number of illustrations of the application of this
principle set forth by Jeremiah. Indeed, we may be thankful for Jeremiah's
words; they help us rightly to understand some texts of Scripture that might
otherwise seem to indict the divine claims of certain prophets. Consider these
two instances that illustrate both parts of Jeremiah’s statement. The first
is a divine threat to bring judgment upon a nation. We see in parallel columns
the threat of judgment and its reversal:
"So Jonah arose, and went unto "So the people of Nineveh believed
Nineveh, according to the word of God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on
the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding sackcloth, from the greatest of them
great city of three days' journey. even to the least of them." "And God
And Jonah began to enter into the city saw their works, that they turned from
a day's journey, and he cried, and their evil way; and God repented of the
said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh evil, that he had said that he would do
shall be overthrown." Jonah 3:3, 4. unto them; and he did it not."
Jonah 3:5, 10.
Here is an example of a promise of blessing and its reversal:
"And God spake unto Moses." "Say "And the Lord spake unto Moses and
unto the children of Israel . . . unto Aaron, saying, How long shall
I will bring you out from under the I bear with this evil congregation,
burdens of the Egyptians, and . . . which murmur against me? . . . Say
ye shall know that I am the LORD unto them . . . your carcases shall
your God, which bringeth you out fall in this wilderness; and all
from under the burdens of the that were numbered of you, according
Egyptians. And I will bring you in to your whole number . . . doubtless
unto the land, concerning the which ye shall not come into the land,
I did swear to give it to Abraham, concerning which I sware to make
to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will you dwell therein. . . . And ye
give it you for an heritage." shall know my breach of promise."
Ex. 6:2, 6-8. Num. 14:26-34.
How clearly these parallel passages on the promise to Israel illuminate the
words of Jeremiah! Said the Lord to Israel, "Ye shall know my breach of
promise." Or, as stated in the alternate reading in the margin: "Ye
shall know my altering of my purpose."
Again, take the words of "a man of God" who came to Eli to declare
judgment against him because of the vile conduct of his sons. This "man of
God" asked Eli if he remembered the promise that the Lord made to his
family "when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh's house," that they should
serve as God's priests. Then he follows with this reversal of the promise:
"Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house,
and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord
saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that
despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days come, that I will cut off
thine arm, and the arm of thy father's house, that there shall not be an old man
in thine house." 1 Sam. 2:30, 31.
Have sincere Bible students been disturbed by these reversals of God's
decrees, have they in any way lost confidence in the claims of the Bible
prophets because their predictions failed of fulfillment? Why not? Because in
view of Jeremiah's words they read into each prediction an implied qualifying
If it is proper--and it is--to add to these predictions a qualifying clause,
why is it not proper to do so with Mrs. White's 1856 prediction?
The conditional character of Bible predictions may be explained on the
altogether reasonable ground that God, though sovereign, is not arbitrary. He
does not deal with people as if they were lifeless objects on a chessboard to be
moved about exclusively at His will. He mysteriously holds in check, as it were,
His own plans oftentimes, because He will not override the free will of anyone.
That is what gives to divine predictions their conditional quality, and that is
what caused God to speak of "my breach of promise," or "my
altering of my purpose."
Well-known Bible commentators have written of this:
"God's promises are as conditional as his threats. It would be neither
just nor merciful to us for God to continue his favours unabated after we had
departed from him. The removal of them is a wholesome warning to us. It springs
naturally from the personal relation of God to his people, one which depends on
reciprocal sympathy."--The Pulpit Commentary, Notes (Homiletics) on
"The majority of the [Old Testament] prophecies, however, were of the
conditional type. They contain a suppressed 'unless' or 'if you keep my
commandments' type of conditionality. . . . It is this provisional nature to the
threat or promise delivered by the prophet that explains such a famous case as
that of the prophet Jonah."Hard Sayings of the Bible, Walter
C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manifred T. Brauch (1996).
The Scriptures reveal that one of the reasons why God seems to us to be slow
in carrying out His plan and promise to create a new earth for the righteous is
because He desires to give everyone a little longer time in which to exercise
their free will to flee from the wrath to come. Peter thus answers those who
would doubt the certainty of God's promise to bring an end to this world of evil
simply because time has tarried:
"The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count
slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish,
but that all should come to repentance." 2 Peter 3:9.
Peter also declares that the children of God may hasten the Advent by
exercising their free will. There is something that we can do about bringing the
Advent nearer. We read, "Waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of
God” 2 Peter 3:12 (NRSV). Commentators have observed on this text:
"God appoints us as instruments of accomplishing those events which
must be first before the day of God can come. By praying for His coming,
furthering the preaching of the Gospel for a witness to all nations, and
bringing in those whom 'the long-suffering of God' waits to save, we hasten
the coming of the day of God."--Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, Commentary,
Notes on 2 Peter 3:12.
That the coming of Christ is related to an action of human free will--the
preaching of the gospel by Christ's followers--is clearly revealed in our Lord's
prophecy as to the time of His coming: "And this gospel of the kingdom
shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then
shall the end come." Matt. 24:14.
Thus it is evident that if the free will of men and women is so vitally
related to the second coming of Christ, both as regards the unbeliever and the
professed children of God, any prediction concerning it would have to be
tempered and qualified by that fact.
Numerous statements made by Ellen White in the
decades following the 1856 vision demonstrate that she clearly understood that
there is an implied conditional quality to God's promises and threatenings--as
Jeremiah declared--and that the conditional feature in forecasts regarding
Christ's Advent involves the state of heart of Christ's followers. The following
statement, written in 1883, is especially relevant on this point:
"The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very
short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has
continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour
did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never!
It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike
conditional. . . .
"It was not the will of God that the coming of Christ should be thus
delayed. God did not design that His people, Israel, should wander forty years
in the wilderness. He promised to lead them directly to the land of Canaan, and
establish them there a holy, healthy, people. But those to whom it was first
preached, went not in 'because of unbelief.' Their hearts were filled with
murmuring, rebellion, and hatred, and He could not fulfill His covenant with
"For forty years did unbelief, murmuring, and rebellion shut out
ancient Israel from the land of Canaan. The same sins have delayed the entrance
of modern Israel into the heavenly Canaan. In neither case were the promises of
God at fault. It is the unbelief, the worldliness, unconsecration, and strife
among the Lord's professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and
sorrow so many years."--MS. 4, 1883. (Quoted in Evangelism, pp.
These words from Mrs. White harmonize with what we have already discovered
of the ways of God toward humanity, that free will plays an awesome part in the
operation of the plans of God for this earth. We can better understand Mrs.
White's unfulfilled prediction of 1856 when it is examined in the light of the
conditional character of prophetic promises found in the Scriptures.
[Adapted from F. D. Nichol, “The Predictions of the 1856 Vision,”
in Ellen G. White and Her Critics (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald
Publishing Association, 1951), pp. 102-111. Available from Adventist Book
Thought for the Day
All our good works are dependent on a power outside of ourselves. - COL 159