Seventh Day Adventism holds to unorthodox theological views, but is it a cult? Kenneth Boa explains the difficulty of this question for Evangelical thinkers: “Evangelical scholars differ over the question of whether Seventh-Day Adventism should be classed as a cult or as a Christian denomination.” In many ways, the Adventists hold to core Christian doctrine (e.g. the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.), which leads many to be conflicted on how to understand this group. Cult expert Walter Martin writes,
Such Christian leaders as Louis T. Talbot, M. R. DeHaan, John R. Rice, Anthony A. Hoekema, J. K. Van Baalen, Herbert Bird, and John R. Gerstner have taken the position that Adventism is in fact a cult system; whereas, the late Donald Grey Barnhouse, myself, E. Schuyler English, and quite a few others have concluded the opposite.
Where should Bible believers stand on Seventh-Day Adventism? We begin by surveying the history of this group:
History of Seventh Day Adventism
How did Seventh Day Adventism (SDA) begin? What is the history of SDA?
William Miller (1782-1849)
William Miller was a Baptist minister who never joined the SDA. In fact, he died before it was ever formed. However, he is credited as playing an important role in the forming of this group. Miller predicted the return of Christ on March 21, 1844. He famously wrote,
I believe the time can be known by all who desire to understand and to be ready for His coming. And I am fully convinced that some time between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844, according to the Jewish method of computation of time, Christ will come and bring all His saints with Him; and that then He will reward every man as His work shall be.
Boa writes, “Taking the ‘2,300 evenings and mornings’ of Daniel 8:14 to mean 2,300 years, he concluded that Christ would return sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.” He had opened up a periodical called The Signs of the Times, where he espoused his views. After this prediction (obviously) failed, one of Miller’s followers (often called “Millerites”) renewed hopes for the return of Christ on October 22, 1844. Boa writes,
A number of Adventists gave up their jobs in the ‘last days’ and spent their time attending church meetings. Some writers say that the Millerites wore white ascension robes and climbed mountains at this time, but the historical evidence is to the contrary. When October 22 passed, the Adventists’ hopes were again crushed. This came to be known as the Great Disappointment of 1844.
After these crushing disappointments, William Miller stopped his bizarre speculations, and he was a devout Christian until his death.
Hiram Edson (1806-1882)
Edson was one of Miller’s followers. After the “Great Disappointment” on October 22, 1844, Edson had a vision that Christ wasn’t supposed to return to Earth on this date; rather, he was supposed to enter the Most Holy Place in heaven. When Christ came into the Most Holy Place in heaven, he would perform the “investigative judgment.”
Joseph Bates (1792-1872)
Bates was a major player in the establishment of SDA. He wrote The Seventh-day Sabbath, a Perpetual Sign in which he argued that “the Saturday Sabbath was a perpetual ordinance which the church should practice today.” He convinced James White and Ellen G. White of the necessity of Saturday Sabbath-keeping. Bates believed that keeping the Saturday Sabbath was a true mark of true believers.
However, Walter Martin claims that this isn’t a strict SDA belief. He writes, “The statement, then, that Seventh-day Adventists believe that anyone who is a Sunday-keeper has the mark of the beast or the mark of apostasy is made without regard to the facts. Why do these critics attempt to make it appear that Adventists believe that their fellow Christians are lost? The authoritative statements of this denomination are available for all to read. Doubtless some Seventh-day Adventist writers have gone contrary to the teaching of the denomination, but to indict the entire denomination for the excesses of a few is neither ethical nor Christian.”
Ellen G. White (1827-1915)
White is really the high priestess of SDA. In 1855, she established the SDA headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, naming the group in 1860. Modern SDA denies that White had inspired interpretations of the Bible. They write, “We do not regard the writings of Ellen G. White as an addition to the sacred canon of Scripture. That we do not think of them as of universal application, as is the Bible, but particularly for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That we do not regard them in the same sense as the Holy Scriptures, which stand alone and unique as the standard by which all other writings must be judged. Seventh-day Adventists uniformly believe that the canon of Scripture closed with the book of Revelation. We hold that all other writings and teachings, from whatever source, are to be judged by, and are subject to, the Bible, which is the spring and norm of the Christian faith. We test the writings of Ellen G. White by the Bible, but in no sense do we test the Bible by her writings. Ellen G. White and others of our writers have gone on record again and again on this point.”
Aberrant Beliefs of SDA
What does SDA teach, and how does this compare with the Bible’s teaching?
1. Investigative Judgment
The investigative judgment is the doctrine that there has been a judgment of believers since 1844. Christ is in the heavenly tabernacle discerning true believers from false ones. Those who do not persevere to the end are not truly believers. This doctrine is based on Hiram Edison’s vision. SDA believes (see “The Doctrine of the Last Things: Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Ministry: Chapter 23”):
There is a sanctuary in heaven, the true tabernacle, which the Lord set up and not man. In it Christ ministers on our behalf, making available to believers the benefits of His atoning sacrifice offered once for all on the cross. He was inaugurated as our great high priest and began His intercessory ministry at the time of His ascension. In 1844, at the end of the prophetic period of 2300 days, He entered the second and last phase of His atoning ministry. It is a work of investigative judgment, which is part of the ultimate disposition of all sin, typified by the cleansing of the ancient Hebrew sanctuary on the Day of Atonement. In that typical service the sanctuary was cleansed with the blood of animal sacrifices, but the heavenly things are purified with the perfect sacrifice of the blood of Jesus. The investigative judgment reveals to heavenly intelligences who among the dead are asleep in Christ and therefore, in Him, are deemed worthy to have a part in the first resurrection. It also makes manifest who among the living are abiding in Christ, keeping the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, and in Him, therefore, are ready for translation into His everlasting kingdom. This judgment vindicates the justice of God in saving those who believe in Jesus. It declares that those who have remained loyal to God shall receive the kingdom.
Of course, there are many problems with this doctrine: First, it is completely without biblical support, and it seems to be based entirely on Ellen White’s teachings—not Scripture. Second, this doctrine arose from William Miller’s error of predicting the Second Coming of Christ in 1844. Because this prophecy was never fulfilled, SDA changed the fulfillment to Christ entering the heavenly sanctuary, rather than returning to Earth. Third, no other Christian denomination holds to this teaching. Fourth, this doctrine speaks against the omniscience of God, who “knows those who are his” (2 Tim. 2:19). Why would Christ need to perform this work, if God already knows who are true believers? Fifth, once we come to Christ, he will never reject us (see “Eternal Security”).
2. Satan as scapegoat
The “final blotting out of sin” will occur just before Christ’s return to earth, when Christ places of the sins of all men (both wicked and righteous) on Satan. Adventists derive this doctrine from their interpretation of the second goat in Leviticus 16. SDA contends:
Satan makes no atonement for our sins. But Satan will ultimately have to bear the retributive punishment for his responsibility in the sins of all men, both righteous and wicked. Seventh-day Adventists therefore repudiate en toto any idea, suggestion, or implication that Satan is in any sense or degree our sin bearer. The thought is abhorrent to us, and appallingly sacrilegious. (Questions on Doctrine, 396, 398-400)
While SDA has been recently clear about the fact that Satan does not make atonement, this is a peculiar teaching to include Satan in the work of the Cross at all. The second goat in the tabernacle ceremony was not a demon—but a scapegoat—and it bears no typological significance to Satan (see comments on Leviticus 16:8).
3. Food and beverage restrictions
Boa writes, “Like the Mormons, they prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages, coffee, tea, and tobacco. They also follow the food restrictions of the Law of Moses. This means that they abstain from foods such as pork, oysters, clams, crabs, lobsters, and rabbits. Many Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians.” However, as we have already argued, the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled (see “Tips for Interpreting the OT Law” and Romans 7:6), and we do not believe that the Bible teaches that consuming alcohol is a sin (see comments on 1 Timothy 5:23).
4. Michael is another name for Jesus
SDA does not believe that Jesus is an angel or created being, but they contend that “Michael” is a term used for Jesus. They write,
We emphatically reject the idea … and the position held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We do not believe that Christ is a created being. We as a people have not considered the identification of Michael of sufficient prominence to dwell upon it at length either in our literature or in our preaching. … We believe that the term Michael is but one of the many titles applied to the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. But such a view does not in any way conflict with our belief in His full deity and eternal preexistence, nor does it in the least disparage His person and work. (Questions on Doctrine, 71)
While we are glad to see that SDA fully endorses the deity of Christ, we believe that this view still does not square with Scripture. Jude 9 states that Michael is an angel—not Jesus Christ.
5. Keeping the Sabbath
SDA holds to the necessity of keeping the Sabbath on a Saturday. However, we cannot pick and choose which of the OT laws that we should keep. We either need to keep all of it, or we are under a curse (Gal. 3:10; see also comments on 1 Corinthians 16:2).
6. Soul sleep
SDA teaches that we “sleep” in an unconscious state until the general resurrection of the dead at the end of human history:
We as Adventists believe that, in general, the Scriptures teach that the soul of man represents the whole man, and not a particular part independent of the other component parts of man’s nature; and further, that the soul cannot exist apart from the body, for man is a unit… We, as Adventists, have reached the definite conclusion that man rests in the tomb until the resurrection morning. Then, at the first resurrection (Revelation 20:4–5), the resurrection of the just (Acts 24:15), the righteous come forth immortalized at the call of Christ, the Lifegiver, and they then enter into life everlasting in their eternal home in the kingdom of glory. Such is our understanding. (Questions on Doctrine, 515, 520)
For a critique of soul-sleep, see comments on 1 Thessalonians 4:13.
We do not believe that SDA is a cult, but they certainly hold aberrant theological views, place too high of a view on the writings of teachers (e.g. William Miller, Hiram Edison, Ellen White), and their emphasis on the Law leads to a general ethos of legalism. While SDA is not a cult, it is also not a theologically solid church, and believers would do well to leave such a group and look for a better fellowship in which to serve.
Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990. Chapter 17.
Martin, Walter, and Ravi Zacharias (General Editor). The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003. Appendix B. “The Puzzle of Seventh-day Adventism.”
Martin is sympathetic to SDA. While he vigorously disagrees with various SDA doctrines, in his chapter he recounts various ways that SDA has been misrepresented. His basic case is that SDA writers have sometimes mischaracterized the denomination’s theological position. However, evangelical authors have been guilty of twisting Scripture as well. He cites extensively from SDA’s official doctrinal state Questions on Doctrine. All of the citations from this manuscript were generously taken from Martin’s work—not our own.
 Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990. 116.
 Boa writes, “In their recent material Seventh-Day Adventists make it clear that they have an orthodox biblical position regarding the important doctrines of the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the bodily resurrection and second coming of Christ, and the way of salvation.” Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990. 119.
 Martin, Walter, and Ravi Zacharias (General Editor). The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003. 519-520.
 William Miller, Signs of the Times (January 25, 1843).
 Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990. 117.
 Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990. 117.
 Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990. 118.
 Martin, Walter, and Ravi Zacharias (General Editor). The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2003. 582-583.
 SDA. Questions on Doctrine. III. “Questions on the Relation of Ellen G. White’s Writings to the Bible.”
 Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990. 122-123.