Statements of Ellen G. White concerning the heathen’s destiny reveal four intertwined themes.
During the lifetime of Ellen G. White (1827–1915), the question of the eternal destiny of the heathen became a major discussion issue in the wider Protestant world. Earlier, it was also an issue that John Wesley had addressed on a few different occasions in his sermons. The Wesleyan approach to the issue is mirrored in many ways in the writings of Ellen White. For Seventh-day Adventists, the question of the unevangelized has not always been clearly answered either from Scripture or the writings of Ellen White.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, the Protestant missionary movement sent missionaries around the world. As a result, North American and European missionaries encountered people from vastly different cultural and religious backgrounds. While these encounters resulted in a wide variety of new types of questions for missionaries and theologians to grapple with, one particular question challenged the theological constructs of many. This was the question of the “unevangelized” millions who had never heard of Jesus or the Bible. Not only were the missionaries encountering such people, but it was clear that many millions had died before having the opportunity to hear of Jesus. Had they all gone to hell? Were some of them saved, and if so, how?
Literature on this issue began to proliferate, expressing with a variety of views and understandings. While there was no one clear consensus on the issue of the destiny of the unevangelized, one thing was clear. This issue had become a front-and-center question during the late 19th and early 20th century. The proof of this lies in the Edinburgh mission conference of 1910 in which a consensus statement was drafted, known as Commission IV, on how to understand the theological significance of the unevangelized. Prior to the era of Protestant missions, those outside of Christendom had been labeled heathens (with the exceptions of Muslims and Jews). After the great century of missions, this was no longer a fitting term. The issues were more complex than many had imagined.
Ellen White also dealt with the issue of the unevangelized in her writings. She dealt with it from a different context than that of most of the missionaries who were dealing with the question. She did not have much experience in dealing with people who had not heard of Jesus or who were from outside of Christendom. For Ellen White, the issue arose in the setting of careful Bible study and making sense of the realities she was hearing about in the mission field within the framework of her Wesleyan Methodist theological background. She did not quote the major authors who were dealing with the issue of the unevangelized during her lifetime. A careful review of the books that we know were in her library does not reveal any works by these authors, yet the issue was still something Ellen White dealt with, often in an indirect way, in the midst of writing on major theological or biblical issues.
What does become clear is that Ellen White was thoroughly Wesleyan and Arminian in her theology. This is not new to most who have given careful study to her writings. However, a careful review of her statements on the heathen within her Wesleyan theological context is still needed.
John Wesley, in several of his sermons, spoke concerning the eternal destiny of the unevangelized. For Wesley, the idea that all humanity had the ability to make an intelligent choice for or against God was essential to his theology. This is known as the “work of prevenient grace,” which, according to Wesley, is essential for all humanity to be “moral agents.”1 Wesley preached that “Yea, I am persuaded every child of God has at some time ‘life and death set before him,’ eternal life and eternal death, and has in himself the casting voice.”2 In the same sermon, however, Wesley described a day that he hoped was coming when Christians would live temperate lives, which would break down barriers to those who viewed Christian habits as uncouth and to be avoided. Many Muslims and Hindus of India had made such statements about Christians during Wesley’s life, comments that much vexed him. Wesley felt that the actions of Christians were vital in sharing God with the heathen. There was a tension in Wesley between the idea that all people have a chance to hear about God and the need for human agents to take the message out to save the world. His freewill theology demanded the former while his missional understanding of Scripture required the latter. Ellen White had a similar tension in her writings.
In another sermon entitled “On Living Without God,” Wesley discussed the worthlessness of morality outside the grace of God and made the following comment: “Let it be observed, I purposely add, ‘to those that are under the Christian dispensation,’ because I have no authority from the Word of God ‘to judge those that are without.’ Nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to him that made them, and who is ‘the Father of the spirits of all flesh,’ who is the God of the heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that he hath made.”3
Wesley’s understanding of freewill and prevenient grace made possible a statement like the one above. He strongly believed in going out in mission to the heathen, but this did not mean the heathen were outside the possibility of salvation simply because they were heathen.
Statements like these found in the sermons of John Wesley may have influenced Ellen White’s writings on the issue. There is no evidence of a direct tracing of Ellen White’s statement to John Wesley or any other author on this issue. But Ellen White made clear statements on her understanding of God’s ability to save the heathen even before they hear about Jesus using similar language to that utilized by John Wesley. Ellen White’s thoughts on this issue fall within the Wesleyan Arminian thought, and fit well with the rest of her teachings on salvation.
Ellen G. White’s Statements on the “Heathen”
Probably the most often-quoted statement written by Ellen White on the salvation of the heathen is found in The Desire of Ages, page 638. This is quoted in full here to guide discussion on this topic. As will be shown, the elements that make up the chapter surrounding this quote are similar to other portions of her writings and will help guide the discussion of some of the more relevant quotations and chapters that are connected to the concept of the heathen and their possible salvation as they appear in the writings of Ellen White.
The following is a direct quotation from Chapter 70 of The Desire of Ages entitled “The Least of These My Brethren”:
“Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.”4
Several portions of this quotation are relevant to the overall question of what Ellen White understood would happen to those who had not explicitly heard about Jesus or the Bible. This quotation is offered in full because it is the most often-used by Adventist authors discussing the destiny of the heathen. The quotation also leaves little room for doubt that Ellen White did believe that some heathen, who did not hear about Christ or know God’s law, will be saved.
To look more closely at the challenges this quotation raises necessitates close study of Chapter 70 of The Desire of Ages, an exposition on Matthew 25:31 to 46. Ellen White worked off Matthew’s emphasis on righteous works to develop a way of understanding how God is working all over the world all the time, as seen through the actions of people. The chapter in Christ’s Object Lessons entitled “Who Is My Neighbour?” is similar to Chapter 70 of The Desire of Ages, although it works off a different narrative from the life of Jesus. Another chapter, in Prophets and Kings entitled “Hope for the Heathen” offers enough information in the title to suggest its relevance. In this chapter, Ellen White primarily dealt with the prophetic utterances of the Old Testament regarding nations outside of Israel.
Christ’s Light for All Human Beings
The Desire of Ages, Chapter 70:
Ellen White developed the concept in her writings that no human being who has ever lived is without some sort of connection to God. She stated this in a few different ways in Chapter 70 of The Desire of Ages. On page 638, she wrote regarding Christ and His love: “He identifies Himself with every child of humanity. . . . He is the Son of man, and thus a brother to every son and daughter of Adam.”5 Commenting on the work of the angels who are “sent forth to minister” on earth she said, “Not one is neglected or passed by. God is no respecter of persons, and He has an equal care for all the souls He has created.”6 Finally in the last paragraph of the chapter, she writes, “To every soul a trust is given.”7
Ellen White made clear that all human beings are given an opportunity to know God in some form or another. This was founded on her strong theological conviction that equality and fairness are a part of God’s character. If God were not to somehow reach out to all humanity, He would not be who He claims He is. Therefore, the heathen have to receive some sort of revelation from God, even if they do not know it comes from God, or else God is not fair. John Wesley had developed a very similar sort of theological framework. Both Wesley and White cited John 1:9 as a key text in their understanding on the issue of God sending His light to all people.
Christ’s Object Lessons, Chapter 27:
As seen in the chapter quoted above, it was common for Ellen G. White to emphasize God’s all-penetrating love toward every single human being who has ever existed. This is true of Chapter 27 in Christ’s Object Lessons as well.
In relation to mission, Ellen White set the tone of this chapter by reminding the reader that Jesus made clear that our neighbors are not only those within our faith community or part of our ethnic group. Instead, our neighbor is “every soul who is wounded and bruised by the adversary. Our neighbor is every one who is the property of God.”8 In other words, everyone is our neighbor.
This is a theme she hammered home in other parts of the same chapter. She stated that “No distinction on account of nationality, race, or caste, is recognized by God. He is the Maker of all mankind. All men are of one family by creation, and all are one through redemption.”9 This kind of inclusive statement is common in the writings of Ellen White and was often used when discussing the fate of the heathen. It was of the utmost importance to Ellen White that the reader understand that God was fair in reaching out to all humanity in some form or another. In this particular chapter, she used this theological concept to inspire humanity to reach out to one another, because this is what God was already doing, and we are to follow His example.
Another quotation, repeated in Prophets and Kings reads: “His love is so broad, so deep, so full, that it penetrates everywhere.”10 This chapter emphasizes that “Whatever the difference in religious belief, a call from suffering humanity must be heard and answered.”11
Prophets and Kings, Chapter 31:
In this chapter on the heathen in the Old Testament, Ellen White made some statements that are very similar to some of those found in the Christ’s Object Lessons chapter noted above. After briefly discussing some of the peoples surrounding Israel, Ellen White had this to say, “No distinction on account of nationality, race, or caste, is recognized by God. . . . All men are of one family by creation, and all are one through redemption.”12 This is quickly followed by another quotation concerning God: “His love is so broad, so deep, so full, that it penetrates everywhere.”13 She reiterated that God’s love, in some way, touches every person who lives on earth.
Later in the same chapter, she stated, “Heaven's plan of salvation is broad enough to embrace the whole world. God longs to breathe into prostrate humanity the breath of life. And He will not permit any soul to be disappointed who is sincere in his longing for something higher and nobler than anything the world can offer.”14 No one slips past God’s ever-seeing eyes, He is interested in all humanity and is ready to reach out to anyone who shows the slightest inclination toward Him.
Other relevant passages from Ellen White’s writings:
Commenting on the case of Naaman, she noted that “Today in every land there are those who are honest in heart, and upon these the light of heaven is shining.”15 “Every land” is pretty clear language to suggest that there is no place on earth where the light of God is completely absent. The life of Naaman is proof of this, to a certain extent. Although the maid who lived with Naaman’s family was part of the light given to Naaman, the work of the Spirit was also active. In the following paragraph, Ellen White wrote that “To every sincere soul ‘that walketh in darkness, and hath no light,’ is given the invitation, ‘Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.’”16 This is a reminder that Ellen White felt all humanity had a chance to hear about God or experience Him in some fashion and that they then had to make a choice to follow God or not.
The idea that God’s light has shown on all humanity in some capacity is very similar to John Wesley’s concept of prevenient grace. While neither White nor Wesley used this exact terminology, it seems to define accurately what both of them believed. For Ellen White, that was most clearly seen in her firm belief that every human being who has ever lived has received some amount of light from God.
Some Who Have Not Heard of Jesus or His Law Will Be Saved
Each of the chapters from The Desire of Ages, Christ’s Object Lessons, and Prophets and Kings contains material that deals with the issue of those who have not heard of Jesus or the law of God but who still live up to the requirements of Jesus.
The Desire of Ages, Chapter 70:
There are clear statements in this chapter that there are people who display kindness and even minister to others as Jesus would have them to do without knowing about Jesus. She even goes so far as to state that these heathen are actually worshipping “God ignorantly.”17 She also made clear that they “will not perish,”18 which is a reference to an eternal state, not their temporal life on earth.
The last part of this chapter in The Desire of Ages is extremely important in understanding why Ellen White made the comments she did concerning the heathen. First, she noted that while they have not had access to the written Word of God, these heathen have “heard His voice speaking to them in nature.”19 Ellen White was a firm believer in the power of nature to witness to God, as this quotation shows. It may, however, be the last sentence that is the most important in this context. The comment she made on nature, if taken alone, sounds much like a natural approach to theology. The last sentence disabuses the reader of this. She made it clear that it is not just the natural surroundings that draw people to God, but the active work of the Holy Spirit, which the rest of the chapter in The Desire of Ages illuminates.
The overall thrust of this chapter is similar to portions of John Wesley’s sermon “On Living Without God.” Wesley stated plainly that he could not say for sure would be the fate of those who had not heard about Jesus. He did feel, however, that God “respects the goodness of the heart rather than the clearness of the head” and that this meant some would not be thrown into hell even though they had not explicitly put their faith in Jesus.20
Christ’s Object Lessons, Chapter 27:
This chapter, entitled “Who Is My Neighbour?” contains quotations similar to those in The Desire of Ages. It is focused on interpreting the work of the Samaritan as an outsider of Israel who would not have had the knowledge of God possessed by an Israelite insider. In relation to the sympathy and love shown by the Samaritan, Ellen White stated, “The Holy Spirit has implanted the grace of Christ in the heart of the savage, quickening his sympathies contrary to his nature, contrary to his education. The ‘Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ (John 1:9), is shining in his soul; and this light, if heeded, will guide his feet to the kingdom of God.”21
In this chapter, Ellen White also wrote, “Wherever there is an impulse of love and sympathy, wherever the heart reaches out to bless and uplift others, there is revealed the working of God’s Holy Spirit. In the depths of heathenism, men who have had no knowledge of the written law of God, who have never even heard the name of Christ, have been kind to His servants.”22 She leaves no doubt in the mind of her readers that she was referring to people who do not have knowledge of God’s law nor of Christ. This does not keep them from living lives that show they are being influenced by the Holy Spirit. This seems to imply that they are saved people.
After this quotation, Ellen White wrote the following, “The glory of heaven is in lifting up the fallen, comforting the distressed. And wherever Christ abides in human hearts, He will be revealed in the same way. Wherever it acts, the religion of Christ will bless. Wherever it works, there is brightness.”23 The use of the term wherever is important here because it implies that these things happen all over the place and often outside the person having explicit knowledge of the law of God or of Jesus. These works are never done outside the influence of the Holy Spirit, but rather display proof of the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people around the world who act in ways of service toward those around them.
Prophets and Kings, Chapter 31:
Speaking in the present tense, but commenting on the prophecies concerning the heathen in the Old Testament, Ellen White gave the following example: “Among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, He sees men and women who are praying for light and knowledge. Their souls are unsatisfied; long have they fed on ashes. See Isaiah 44:20. The enemy of all righteousness has turned them aside, and they grope as blind men. But they are honest in heart and desire to learn a better way. Although in the depths of heathenism, with no knowledge of the written law of God nor of His Son Jesus, they have revealed in manifold ways the working of a divine power on mind and character.”24
This sounds much like the language in The Desire of Ages passage quoted above. Based on the “manifold ways,” which can be loosely understood as “works,” these people show that the Spirit of God has been at work in their lives, even though they do not explicitly realize it.
The very next paragraph states this in even clearer language: “At times those who have no knowledge of God aside from that which they have received under the operations of divine grace have been kind to His servants, protecting them at the risk of their own lives. The Holy Spirit is implanting the grace of Christ in the heart of many a noble seeker after truth, quickening his sympathies contrary to his nature, contrary to his former education. The ‘Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ (John 1:9), is shining in his soul; and this Light, if heeded, will guide his feet to the kingdom of God.”25
The reference to John 1:9 is used by Ellen White to strengthen her argument that God reaches out to all humanity. This act of “divine grace” can probably be understood on a salvific level, although this is again not explicitly stated in the quotation. Ellen White is again clear that God is working among those who have never heard His name, and that this is evident through the actions of people in varying circumstances.
Other relevant passages from Ellen White’s writings:
Manuscript 130 written in 1899 contains a very strong statement regarding those who have not known Christ. “God’s test of heathen, who have not the light, and of those living where the knowledge of truth and light has been abundant, is altogether different. He accepts from those in heathen lands a phase of righteousness which does not satisfy Him when offered by those of Christian lands. He does not require much where much has not been bestowed.”26
The context of this quotation, as found in its original form in Manuscript 130, is very different from the passages discussed above. The focus is not actually on the heathen (for most of the manuscript), rather it is on the use of our bodies for God. Within this discussion, Ellen White felt it necessary to include this quotation on the heathen, probably to show how God was fair to all humanity in His requirements. This statement makes more sense when read within the theme of the great controversy over God’s character that is found in much of Ellen White’s writings.
In The Desire of Ages, Ellen White made a similar point when she wrote: “Our standing before God depends, not upon the amount of light we have received, but upon the use we make of what we have. Thus even the heathen who choose the right as far as they can distinguish it are in a more favorable condition than are those who have had great light, and profess to serve God, but who disregard the light, and by their daily life contradict their profession.”27
This makes much more sense when read with the understanding that Ellen White wrote on many occasions that God has not left Himself without witness to any person who has ever lived. Therefore, all have had some sort of light shining on them, and they are responsible for living up to this light.
Those Who Have Not Heard the Gospel Are Perishing
Though it is true Ellen White believed that God had given enough light to all humanity to make a decision to follow Him, she also felt that some would be lost. Not only would they be lost, but it may actually be the fault of God’s believers who do not go out among the masses that they are lost.
The Desire of Ages, Chapter 70:
In this chapter, on page 640, there is a lengthy quote that at first glance seems to contradict the quote from page 638 given above. Ellen White wrote: “Millions upon millions of human souls ready to perish, bound in chains of ignorance and sin, have never so much as heard of Christ’s love for them. Were our condition and theirs to be reversed, what would we desire them to do for us? All this, so far as lies in our power, we are under the most solemn obligation to do for them. Christ’s rule of life, by which every one of us must stand or fall in the judgment, is, ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.’ Matthew 7:12.”28
Again, on the same page, “It is because this work is neglected that so many young disciples never advance beyond the mere alphabet of Christian experience.”29 Both of these quotations lead the reader to believe that it is in the power of human agents to make a major difference in whether or not someone accepts God and is able to grow in his or her faith in Him. She became even more explicit: “The great topic of interest will be, how to save the souls that are ready to perish.”30 These statements seem to put the responsibility of salvation on the shoulders of human agents.
A closer reading however, may lead in another direction. While the above quotations show that Ellen White felt that human agents have a major role to play, readers should be careful to recognize that nowhere does she state that the work of humans is the means of salvation for the heathen. Rather she was clear that human followers of God have a sacred responsibility to share with those who are perishing without a knowledge of God, that He loves them. Toward the end of the chapter, Ellen White included a paragraph that sounds like a theology of mission in a nutshell: “Love to man is the earthward manifestation of the love of God. It was to implant this love, to make us children of one family, that the King of glory became one with us. And when His parting words are fulfilled, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 15:12); when we love the world as He has loved it, then for us His mission is accomplished. We are fitted for heaven; for we have heaven in our hearts.”31
For Ellen White, the mission was God’s. This is the basic concept of the missio dei which existed decades prior to the concept of the missio dei, becoming popular in the wider Christian study of mission. What this means is that the work of humans is to spread the love of Christ that they have received and experienced in their own lives. This may even lead some who are “perishing” to be saved. A balance must be struck between the earlier statement Ellen White made on page 638 and her later statements about people perishing and about the desire of God to share His love. When these are all read together, it becomes clear that in this chapter, Ellen White was exposing the reader to God’s mission of love to all humanity, in the midst of the Great Controversy, of which it is the privilege of human followers of Jesus to be a part. Although it may lead some to accept Jesus as their Savior and to grow in faith, this work of humans is not the final determinant of who is or is not saved. As Ellen White stated early in the chapter, the Holy Spirit is active in all humanity, and this often manifests itself even among the heathen who know nothing about Jesus or God’s law and yet display character traits that are in accordance with both Jesus and His law.
Prophets and Kings, Chapter 31:
In Ellen White’s chapter entitled “Hope for the Heathen,” she is clear that Israel was specifically elected to bless the nations surrounding them who did not have a full knowledge of God. She commented on the words given to Isaiah regarding the nations as proof of this calling. Without commenting explicitly on the salvation of the nations surrounding Israel, Ellen White made it clear that in the eyes of Israel “the heathen came to be looked upon as beyond the pale of His mercy.”32 The result was that God’s love “was little known; error and superstition flourished.”33 It is interesting that in this particular sentence, Ellen White did not write that God’s love was completely unknown, but rather used the terminology “little known.” Significantly, this chapter is really about the mission task given to Israel to share the blessing of the knowledge of God, which Israel failed to do, for the most part. Its mission was to the nations who were struggling in darkness, much like the perishing heathen found in The Desire of Ages chapter above.
This chapter of Prophets and Kings makes the additional point that is not found in Chapter 70 of The Desire of Ages. Ellen White brought the prophecies given to the prophets of the Old Testament into her present-day situation. After quoting Isaiah 60:1 to 4, 10, and 11; and Isaiah 45:22, she stated, “These prophecies of a great spiritual awakening in a time of gross darkness are today meeting fulfillment in the advancing lines of mission stations that are reaching out into the benighted regions of earth. The groups of missionaries in heathen lands have been likened by the prophet to ensigns set up for the guidance of those who are looking for the light of truth.”34 This quotation makes it sound as though the great Protestant missionary movement, which was in full swing during Ellen White’s lifetime, was to her a fulfillment of the unfulfilled prophecies of the ancient prophets concerning the heathen nations around Israel. Could it be that Ellen White saw a difference in how God treated the heathen prior to the great century of Protestant missions and how He treated them thereafter?
The Great Controversy Theme
A number of scholars have correctly recognized Ellen White’s emphasis on the ongoing conflict between Christ and Satan, which she labeled the “Great Controversy.” This theme ran through much of her writing and is especially prominent in her sweeping review of biblical and current history found in the five volumes that make up the Conflict of the Ages series.
The Desire of Ages, Chapter 70:
This theme also is a factor in the way Ellen White understood the work of God among the heathen. Chapter 70 of The Desire of Ages contains the following quotations regarding the work of Satan among those who are unacquainted with Christ and who neglect the poor and needy among them. “Satan had blinded them.”35 It was not purely ignorance but the actual work of Satan that kept some of the heathen from following God. Just as Christ, working through the Spirit, could be seen working among the heathen by their deeds, so Satan was and is also visible among the heathen. Ellen White devoted an entire paragraph to pointing out that many among the rich of the earth have purposefully neglected those around them for their own selfish reasons.36 These two points together demonstrate that while it is true that God has reached out to all humanity and that some even among the heathen have responded to the Spirit, others have imbibed in the work of Satan, which is demonstrated by their actions. It is important to note that just prior to Ellen White’s statements regarding Satan and the rich, she made it clear that the angels are sent out to all humanity to minister.37 There is an ongoing back-and-forth between God and Satan, being played out among all humanity, all the time.
Because of Ellen White’s Wesleyan approach to freewill, she was constrained to demonstrate that God has not left any person without an opportunity to know Him in some form or another. This is what has been theologically termed “prevenient grace.” For Ellen White, this grace can be salvific and is for many who demonstrate that they love Christ, even without explicitly hearing about Him or knowing Him. Ellen White’s developed understanding of the Great Controversy gives balance to the issue of the destiny of the heathen. It helps explain why so many who have not heard of Christ fail to live up to the calling of the Spirit. Satan and his followers have blinded them and led them astray.
Humanity is given a role in this ongoing conflict. This is demonstrated in Ellen White’s continual calls for mission and outreach to a “perishing world.” While there appears to be somewhat of a theological tension between her recognition that all humanity has been given enough grace to be saved and the need for missionaries to spread the gospel because people are perishing, this may be somewhat reconciled when read within the Great Controversy theme so prominent in her writings.
Christ’s Object Lessons, Chapter 27:
The two sides of the Great Controversy are discussed in this chapter as well. “It [God’s love] lifts out of Satan’s circle the poor souls who have been deluded by his deceptions.”38 Ellen White also mentioned that the “Angels of heaven were beside the Samaritan who cared for the wounded stranger. Angels from the heavenly courts stand by all who do God’s service in ministering to their fellow men.”39 Satan is busy trying to deceive people into selfish actions, while God and His angels are busy guiding and helping those who are reaching out to their fellow human beings with acts of love and kindness. The work of those on behalf of humanity is part of the Great Controversy, and there are unseen players behind the scenes, both evil and good.
Prophets and Kings, Chapter 31:
The theme of the Great Controversy is also present in this chapter. It is implied throughout, but there are a few instances in which it is explicit. One of these is found on page 370, where Ellen White described the effects of God’s love on some heathen. She wrote, “It [God’s love] lifts out of Satan’s influence those who have been deluded by his deceptions, and places them within reach of the throne of God, the throne encircled by the rainbow of promise.”40 This follows the sentence quoted above where it is stated that God’s “love is so broad, so deep, so full, that it penetrates everywhere.”41 So this snatching away from Satan is occurring among the heathen through the divine grace mentioned above.
Part of God’s mission, in the context of the Great Controversy, involves “sending His angels to those who, while surrounded by circumstances the most discouraging, pray in faith for some power higher than themselves to take possession of them and bring deliverance and peace.”42 While Satan is not directly mentioned here, it is implied that those doing the praying are under oppression and that their only hope lies in the deliverance brought to them through the angels sent by God.
Ellen White argued that from the time of Israel up to her own time, God had been calling His faithful followers to recognize their role in reaching out to all nations. This is not simply a human endeavor, however; it also involves angels. That is because the battle over the heathen is a cosmic battle that includes humans and their choices but is not limited to them or their own power.
Other relevant passages from Ellen White’s writings:
In the chapter in The Desire of Ages entitled the “The Fullness of Time,” Ellen White described the work of Satan as turning people away from the worship of God toward the worship of the created order. This also led to attempts to attain salvation through works rather than through faith in the grace of God. While she did not say all humanity fell under this spell, she did make it clear that many if not most were deceived, leaving a bleak picture of humanity at the time of Christ’s incarnation. This should be read with the other quotations found above in mind, however. For Ellen White, it was not appropriate to see Satan at work throughout the world while God was left to work only within the realm of His people. On the contrary, God and Satan are both vying for all humanity at all times. She recognized that at the time of Jesus’ incarnation, Satan had done a masterful job of bringing large masses of people under his deceptive sway, but this should not be read to show humanity as a hopeless rabble in which God is not at work.43
Although brief, Ellen White’s chapter on Naaman in Prophets and Kings does mention the Great Controversy. “Truth is of God; deception in all its myriad forms is of Satan, and whoever in any way departs from the straight line of truth is betraying himself into the power of the wicked one.”44 This was in reference to the actions of Gehazi in the narrative of 2 Kings 5, but it was done in such a way as to juxtapose Gehazi’s actions with Naaman’s. This is important in light of the fact that Gehazi was an Israelite and had more light than Naaman, yet Naaman’s actions displayed the working of God’s Spirit in a much more real way than Gehazi’s actions.
Careful review of the statements of Ellen G. White concerning the heathens’ destiny within the statements’ wider literary contexts reveals four major intertwined themes. First, on numerous occasions, she wrote of God’s light and love touching all humanity. She made it clear that no human being who has been created falls outside the influence of God. This does not mean that all have equal access to a clear knowledge of God, but it does mean that all have enough light to make a decision in favor of God through His Spirit. This is what makes the first point above possible. This is reminiscent of language that Wesley used to describe God’s work among those who had not heard of Him. This has since been labeled “prevenient grace.”
Second, Ellen White made unequivocal statements that there are people who have never heard of Jesus’ name and have not learned about God’s law but have acted in accordance with the light that they have received through the Spirit. These people will not perish eternally. By their actions it is revealed that they belong to God’s people. This is also similar to the way Wesley described the destiny of the “heathen.” Some would be lost, but others would most likely be saved due to the hidden work of grace on their hearts, which results in good works.
Third, even though all have a chance to make a decision to follow God, even if they do not explicitly know it, Ellen White was adamant that God’s people must go out in mission. This has often been stated in the context of a world that is perishing and in desperate need of the love of God, which brings salvation. Some of the chapters discussed above imply that for Ellen White, mission was primarily the sharing of God’s love just as He has shared His love with those who know Him. Salvation is a prerogative of the Holy Spirit, but human beings can play a role in sharing this message with the whole world. Ellen White felt that the missionaries who were going out during her lifetime were fulfilling the call of God to share His love with the masses. In some ways this seems to contradict or be in tension with points one and two, but that does not necessarily need to be the case.
Fourth, the Great Controversy theme found throughout the writings of Ellen G. White brings these three elements together under one overarching framework. She demonstrates that among the heathen both God and Satan are at work influencing humanity to make decisions in their favor. Many have fallen into darkness because of the influence of Satan, but others have shown through their actions that they are under the Spirit’s control. The angels are constantly being sent out to every person around the world who shows an inclination to follow God. The ongoing conflict includes the work of human agents who represent Christ as His missionaries. It is God’s character that is under attack in the controversy with Satan, and this worldview is a guiding principle in Ellen White’s theology. When combined with her Wesleyan leanings, points one and two become clearer. Ellen White was concerned that God not be understood as unfair; therefore, it was necessary that no human have an excuse as to why he or she did not choose to follow God. All have received enough light to make an intelligent decision to follow God. John 1:9 was a key verse for Ellen White in this regard, because it lent strength to her argument that God has shown His light to all people. God is a fair and just God and cannot be accused of leaving anyone without some level of witness as to who He is.
Andrew Tompkins is currently Professor of Mission and Intercultural Theology in the Department of World Mission at the Seventh‑day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES