Inspiration/Revelation: What It Is and How It Works


A. Unfulfilled Prophecies

Some time ago I was holding a series of class lectures and public meetings at one of our educational institutions on the Atlantic seaboard. At the close of the Thursday evening presentation a denominational worker at this school asked if he might speak with me privately. I invited him to my guest room where we conversed for more than an hour. IRWHW 62.18

As soon as he was seated, he began, “I really want to believe in Ellen White as a legitimate, authentic prophet of the Lord.” I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was not only deeply sincere, but also deeply concerned as well. IRWHW 63.1

“Fine,” I responded. “Is there any impediment to the fulfillment of your wish?” IRWHW 63.2

Without answering my question directly, he went on, “Isn’t the fulfillment of predictions one of the Bible’s tests of a true prophet?” IRWHW 63.3

“Oh, yes,” I smiled. “When I used to teach college prophetic-guidance classes in California and Nigeria, we examined four such tests (1) the words of the ‘prophet’ under scrutiny must agree with earlier inspired revelations known to have come from the Lord (Isaiah 8:20); (2) the fruitage test must be applied, both the prophet’s own life and the lives of those who follow the prophet (Matthew 7:16, 20); (3) the prophet must testify that Jesus was the divine-human incarnate Son of God (1 John 4:1-3); and (4) the predictions of the prophet must come to pass.” IRWHW 63.4

“This last test,” I told my inquirer, “is twice mentioned in the Old Testament. Jeremiah (chap. 28:9) presents it from the positive perspective: ‘When the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the Lord hath truly sent him.’ And Moses presents it from the negative perspective; ‘When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him’ (Deuteronomy 18:22).” IRWHW 63.5

“I thought so,” my friend said quietly. Then he went on, “Well, what do we do, then, with Ellen White’s predictions that never came to pass? For example, I understand that in 1856 she said she was shown a group of our church members at a meeting somewhere. She said that some of them would be ‘food for worms,’ some would be subjects of the seven last plagues, and some would be alive and translated at the second coming of Christ. Are any of the persons who attended that meeting still alive?” IRWHW 63.6

“Not to my knowledge,” I replied. “In fact, the last known survivor died in 1937 at the age of 83. His name was William C. White, and he was a babe in arms at the time. His mother, Ellen White, made the prediction.” IRWHW 63.7

“That is what I have heard. Well, how do you handle it—in the light of this Biblical test of a prophet—that his prediction must come to pass, and if it doesn’t this is evidence that the Lord has not spoken through him?” IRWHW 63.8

“I handle it the same way I handle other unfulfilled prophecies of genuine prophets that appear in the Bible,” I replied. “Incidentally, I will deal with this in substantial detail in just a moment. But my policy, when people raise questions about Ellen White’s prophetic role, is to go first to the Bible, to see how the situation is resolved there, before I examine Ellen White. You see, I want to see her in the light of the Bible, not the other way around.” IRWHW 63.9

And so we began a most interesting study of unfulfilled prophecies by authentic, acknowledged prophets in the Bible. Probably the best known example is Jonah. IRWHW 63.10

After finishing his celebrated “submarine” ride in the belly of the great fish, Jonah went to Nineveh to do the Lord’s bidding. Nineveh was a large city; it would take Jonah three days to cover it entirely. His message was as simple as it was stark: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). No hope was offered, no compromise, no conditional element. IRWHW 63.11

After delivering the message, Jonah went out of town and found a vantage place where he could witness (and relish) the massacre of his nation’s most hated enemies. Jonah despised these people with a passion, for the Assyrians were the most warlike and fearsome of Israel’s pagan foes. When they captured Jewish prisoners of war, they flayed them—skinned them alive—to extract every ounce of trauma in torture that they could before they killed the victim. In such instances death, when it came, was a welcome, merciful release. The Jews quite understandably had no love for the Ninevites. IRWHW 63.12

Although there was no hope explicit in the message of Jonah, the Ninevites (who may have had some prior knowledge about Jehovah from hearing other Jewish prophets, or from reading Jewish prophetic writings) decided to mend their ways. They expressed their repentance in the cultural manifestation appropriate to the times—they put on sackcloth and covered themselves with ashes. God beheld it all, and in love and mercy granted them a stay of execution. IRWHW 63.13

Meanwhile, the prophet was becoming more angry by the moment. One suspects that the real cause of this growing irritation was not merely his narrow chauvinistic Jewish loyalty, but rather a fear that word of this new development might get back to Jerusalem before he did. IRWHW 63.14

Jonah may have been more concerned about his professional reputation as a prophet than about the fate of his 120,000 “converts.” Instead of wishing them baptized by water, he wanted them incinerated by fire! Perhaps he was afraid that when he got back to Jerusalem the little children playing in the street would chant after him, “Jonah’s a false prophet; Jonah’s a false prophet.” Why? Because his prediction didn’t come to pass. IRWHW 63.15

Interestingly, in a footnote to history, we learn that several centuries after this event the Ninevites “repented” of their former repentance (see 2 Corinthians 7:10) and went back to their former ways. God then “repented” of His reprieve, and sent the threatened destruction that Jonah had originally foretold. IRWHW 63.16

But was Jonah proved a “true” prophet 200 years ex post facto? No, not at all. If the Ninevites had never subsequently been destroyed, Jonah would still have been deemed a true prophet, even though his prediction did not come to pass. IRWHW 63.17

How? By the conditional element that exists in some prophecies, either explicitly or implicitly. A clue to this is found as early as 950 B.C. when the prophet Azariah instructed King Asa, “The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you” (2 Chr 15:2). IRWHW 64.1

More to the point, however, is the interesting (and significant) fact, that in both of the biblical books where the test of fulfillment is mandated, this conditional element is also explicitly stated. IRWHW 64.2

Ten chapters before giving the test of fulfillment, Jeremiah mentions this conditional element: IRWHW 64.3

At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that is obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them (Jeremiah 18:7-10).

Moses also mentions the conditional element repeatedly in Deuteronomy. 26 IRWHW 64.4

Some have felt that this was a face-saving means of maintaining a prophet’s professional reputation in the face of adverse evidence such as nonfulfillment of predictions, 27 but it is not. It is a biblical principle. One does not need an advanced degree in theology to be able to figure out what kind of prophecies are amendable to the conditional element and which are not. IRWHW 64.5

One could cite other biblical examples of unfulfilled prophecies given by authentic, legitimate prophets. The category that comes most quickly to mind is that of a host of predictions made by a half-dozen Old Testament prophets about Israel’s national honor and glory—predictions about the worldwide mission of Israel and the ingathering of the Gentiles, eternal rest in Canaan, and deliverance from political enemies. IRWHW 64.6

A few of these predictions were fulfilled, secondarily, through “spiritual Israel” (the Christian church); and some may be fulfilled to Christians ultimately, after sin and sinners are destroyed following the last judgment. Despite these exceptions, the majority of these prophecies were not fulfilled in Bible times, are not being fulfilled today, and never will be fulfilled. 28 IRWHW 64.7

Then do we say that the prophets who made these predictions—notably Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zephaniah, and Zechariah—were false prophets? No. Nor do we say, as do the Secret Rapture theorists, that these prophecies will be fulfilled in our own time. Indeed, these latter expositors have built a whole theology on the misunderstanding of the conditional element in prophecy, and they posit a last-day fulfillment in order that these Old Testament writers may be proved to be reliable, authentic prophets of the Lord! 29 IRWHW 64.8

A Look at the “Food for Worms” Vision

Let us now come back to Ellen White and the “Food for Worms” vision, to discover the facts in that case. During the latter part of May 1856, a conference in Battle Creek was attended by members and denominational workers of a church which was still four years away from assuming a corporate name. Attendees came to the conference from various parts of the eastern and midwestern parts of the United States and from Canada. The conference opened on Friday afternoon, May 23, and closed on Monday, May 26. On Sabbath the attendance was so large that it was necessary to leave the modest chapel that then served the Adventists and go across the street to a large tent pitched to accommodate the crowd. IRWHW 64.9

On Tuesday morning, May 27, another meeting was held, this time back in the chapel, attended largely by workers who were still in Battle Creek. It was at this service that Mrs. White was taken off in vision, and was shown some of those attending the May 23-26 conference. IRWHW 64.10

The report of this vision is found in Testimonies for the Church 1:127-137, and is still published by the church, although some critics claim that the church tries to hide Mrs. White’s unfulfilled predictions. IRWHW 64.11

Incidentally, carefully drawn lists of the names of those in attendance at that conference were compiled by a number of interested parties. Some of these lists still survive in the archives of the Ellen G. White Estate in the General Conference office. The lists were actively circulated among Adventists in earlier days, and J. N. Loughborough tells, in a letter written in 1918, about two ministers, a “Brother Nelson” and George Amadon, who took such a roster to Ellen White in 1905 to see if she could add any names that they had overlooked. IRWHW 64.12

Mrs. White is reported to have said, “What are you doing?” When told the purpose of the list—to show the nearness of Jesus’ coming because very few of those attending still survived—Mrs. White asked what use would be made of the list. Brother Nelson responded, “I am going to have copies of it printed and sent out to all of our people.” IRWHW 64.13

Mrs. White’s instant rejoinder was, “Then you stop right where you are. If they get that list, instead of working to push the Message, they will be watching the Review each week to see who is dead.” Loughborough, in telling the story, concluded with the observation that Ellen White objected to using this incident as a “sign of the times.” 30 Obviously, she recognized the conditional element in the vision, and the fact that the condition had not then been met by the Seventh-day Adventist church. IRWHW 64.14

Was the conditional element explicit in the angel’s testimony to Ellen White in the 1856 vision? No. But then, neither was the conditional element explicit in the testimony of Jonah as he trudged for three days throughout the “exceeding great” city of Nineveh. In both cases, however, the conditional element was implicit. IRWHW 64.15

From as early as 1850 to as late as 1911, 31 Ellen White’s writings repeatedly suggest that if the Seventh-day Adventist church had done its job, “the work would have been completed, and Christ would have come ere this.” 32 IRWHW 65.1

The conditional element in some prophecy is exhibited both in the Bible and in the writings of Ellen G. White. To accept it in one, but discard it in the other, is inconsistent and irrational. IRWHW 65.2

True, there are some unfulfilled prophecies by authentic, legitimate Bible prophets, but the existence of such prophecies does not necessarily discredit the prophet who made them. There are also unfulfilled prophecies in the writings of Ellen White, and the church has never denied (nor tried to hide) this fact from the public. Those studying the prophetic writings should not ask more of Mrs. White than they would of the Biblical prophets. IRWHW 65.3