Embarrassing Failed Prophecies

By Brother Anderson

Questions Answered

Wasn't Ellen White's prophecy conditional like Jonah's prophecy?

The failure of Mrs. White's 1856 prophecy regarding the return of Christ during the lifetime of some present at a conference had failed by the time all those attending the conference had died in the early 1900s. This presented a dilemma for the SDA sect. What kind of mental gymnastics would need to be performed to now explain it away?

A theory was soon formulated. The failure was not Ellen White's fault. It was the Adventist people's fault. They failed in their mission, so God had to postpone Christ's return. Ellen White wrote in 1883:

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)

So, Jesus had to delay his return because the SDAs had flawed characters. Let us pretend for a moment that is true. God intended to come shortly after 1856. He told it to His angel. The angel told His prophet. She told it to the church. But then the SDA people got lazy, didn't give enough tithes and offerings to spread the word, began to doubt Ellen White, and utterly failed in their mission. Question: Didn't God already know in 1856 that the SDA people would fail? Didn't He already know they wouldn't give enough tithes and offerings? Didn't He know they would doubt Ellen White? Of course He knew! That means that God knew for a fact He was not coming in the lifetime of those attending the 1856 conference, but He went ahead and told the SDA people a lie in order to try to motivate them to work harder! That theory is preposterous!

In order to support this preposterous theory, SDAs pointed to the story of Jonah. Jonah was sent to Nineveh with the message:

"Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown." (Jonah 3:4)

SDAs point to this verse as evidence that God changes His mind and prophetic predictions can be nullified. Is this true? Was Jonah's prophetic message given as an absolute statement of destruction?

First of all, we know only eight words of Jonah's message. It seems unlikely that Jonah spent days or weeks preaching only eight words to the Ninevites. We do not know if any conditions were laid out to the Ninevites. However, since we have no Biblical evidence of such, let us assume these were the only eight words Jonah spoke. Now, let us take a closer look at the words.

Jonah said Nineveh would be "overthrown". The Hebrew word he used is haphak. Of the 93 times it appears in the Old Testament it is rendered as "turn" or "change" 66 times.1 In one instance, in Isaiah 60:5, haphak is translated "converted". So, now we see that this word does not necessarily imply total destruction. It carries the connotation of a "change of course" instead of annihilation. Contrast this word to the Hebrew word used by Abraham to describe the destruction of Sodom, caphah, which literally means "to sweep or snatch away, catch up, destroy, consume."2

So, the Hebrew word used by Jonah hints that perhaps God's intent was to change Nineveh rather than destroy it. This is further validated by the fact that a 40-day probationary period was given to Nineveh. No such period was given to Sodom. If God had wanted to destroy Nineveh, He could easily have destroyed it without warning, as Sodom was destroyed. However, His apparent purpose was to lead the city to repentance, which is why Jonah was sent to preach there. What other purpose could there be for this 40-day delay? Was it so that the Ninevites could be tormented with fear for 40 days about losing their families and homes? Were the destroying angels busy elsewhere and could not get over to Nineveh for 40 days? Was it so that they could have time to put together one last wild party? Was it so they had time to pack up and move to a safer locale? No, no, no! God provided enough time for the Ninevites to hear and consider Jonah's message and repent and change their ways. Obviously the Ninevites themselves understood that there may be some conditions to this prophecy, because they repented in sackcloth and ashes. If they understood this as an unconditional prophecy, they no doubt would have fled the city as quickly as possible! Therefore, while we may not know Jonah's entire message, it would appear the Ninevites held out great hope that that message was conditional.

Jonah was well aware that God's prophecies against nations were to be understood as conditional. God promised Abraham his descendants would occupy all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates (Gen. 15:18). That prophecy, never came to complete fruition for the Hebrews. However, Moses, himself a prophet, made it abundantly clear that national prosperity was directly related to the obedience of the people of that nation to God's will (Deut. 28). Therefore, the concept of conditional prophecy in dealing with the Hebrew nation was familiar to Jonah, and it would be logical for him to assume God would apply the same standards to other nations. The prophet Jeremiah's writings were no doubt familiar to Jonah, and Jeremiah clarified God's dealings with nations:

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. (Jer. 18:7,8)

This verse shows that when God sent his prophecy against Nineveh, it was conditional. If the Ninevites repented of their evil, then God would relent and not inflict the planned punishment. As it turns out, instead of being "overthrown", the Ninevites "repented", and "turned" from their evil. There is absolutely no reason to suggest this prophecy was ever intended or understood to be unconditional.

As a final evidence, Jonah admits that the whole reason he fled and refused to go to Nineveh in the first place was because he "knew" the prophecy was indeed conditional:

That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people. (Jonah 4:2 NLT)

Was Ellen White's Prophecy Conditional?

There are two types of prophecy in the Bible, conditional and unconditional.

A conditional prophecy is one in which the prediction is predicated upon a condition, such as...

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

An unconditional prophecy is one in which there is no condition predicated. For example, the promise of Jesus' return is an unconditional prediction. There is no question it will happen:

I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:3)

A review of Mrs. White's 1856 statement indicates there are no conditions stated explicitly or even implied in the prophecy. Unlike Jonah's prophecy, whose conditional nature had already been spelled out by the prophet Jeremiah's statement regarding how God deals with nations, we have no precedent for conditionality set forth in any prior communication from God on the subject of the date of His return. Mrs. White simply says that some of those at the conference will be alive when Christ returns. There is no condition such as...

"If you work hard, and give lots of offerings, then Christ will return..."

The prophecy was never understood as conditional during Mrs. White's lifetime. It was only after the last person attending the conference died that church apologists started to say the prophecy was conditional.

SDAs point to Jonah as an example of a prophecy whose conditions were not known, but as already shown above, God Himself said that prophecies against nations were conditional, Jonah "knew" it was conditional, and the people of Nineveh reacted as if it were conditional. It was so obvious, that even Sister White herself said so:

"Yet Nineveh, wicked though it had become, was not wholly given over to evil. He who 'beholdeth all the sons of men' (Psalm 33:13) and 'seeth every precious thing' (Job 28:10) perceived in that city many who were reaching out after something better and higher, and who, if granted opportunity to learn of the living God, would put away their evil deeds and worship Him. And so in His wisdom God revealed Himself to them in an unmistakable manner, to lead them, if possible, to repentance." (Prophets and Kings, pp. 255,256)

Therefore, while it is abundantly evident that Jonah's prophecy was conditional, the same cannot be said for Mrs. White's prophecy. There is no evidence that anyone believed it to be conditional until after it failed. There is no precedent in prophetic history for such a statement about an upcoming event to be conditional.

What good is a prophecy if, after it fails, the prophet can then say "it was conditional on such and such a condition..." when those conditions were never spelled out or understood before it failed? If this kind of manipulation were permitted, any self-proclaimed prophet could make a prophecy, and then when it failed, invent some conditions which were never before communicated as being a part of the prophecy, and then claim its failure was based upon those heretofore-unknown conditions!

Didn't the Apostles make false predictions about the imminent return of Christ?

Some SDAs have claimed that the Apostles also made misleading statements about the return of Christ, teaching that it was imminent and would happen in their lifetimes. Therefore, according to them, Ellen White is no worse than the Apostles at predicting Christ's return. Is that true?

For the background of those who do not know me, I am a Bible-believing Christian, who believes God delivered the inerrant Word to his apostles and others who accurately recorded it with the assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe the Apostles were deluded in the slightest degree about the return of Christ, nor do I believe there is the least degree of falsehood in their inspired writings, nor do I believe that the Holy Ghost would permit falsehood to be written into the New Testament Scriptures to deceive Christians down through the ages. Therefore, whenever a Bible dilemma is present, I seek for a Biblical answer based upon my understanding of the inerrancy of the originally-delivered Scriptures.

In this case, much of the problem is due to confusion over something that is easily resolved. First, we need to understand the dualistic nature of Christ's prophecy of His return in Matthew 24 (and Luke 17). The disciples came to Jesus one evening and asked Him:

Tell us, (1) when shall these things be? and (2) what [shall be] the sign of thy coming, and (3) of the end of the world? (Matt. 24:3)

Notice the disciples asked for three things:

  1. When "these things" would happen. "These things" refers to Christ's earlier statement about the destruction of the Temple.
  2. What is the "sign of thy coming."
  3. What is the sign "of the end of the world."

Jesus spends the next few minutes answering question one, telling about the destruction of Jerusalem, an event which foreshadowed the "end of the world." Most Bible commentators agree that Jesus inter-twined the two events in one discussion. The trap many Christians fall into is that they believe the "sign of thy coming" refers exclusively to the Second Return of Christ in glory. They ignore the fact that there was a "coming" in judgment upon Israel that took place in 70 AD, just as Jesus prophesied. When one looks at all the verses in the Bible announcing an imminent coming, there are some that can readily be understood as Jesus' return in judgment in 70 AD. To prove this theory, let us take a look at the Bible verses regarding an imminent return.

Many Christians fail to grasp the meaning of the term "last days" because we do not think like first century Jews. We think like 21st century Christians. When the gospels were written, it was well understood that the "last days" referred to the "last days" of the Jewish nation and God's special covenant with the Jews. Therefore, the term "last days" has a dualistic meaning, referring at times to the "last days" of Israel, and also to the "last days" of human history. New Testament writers understood themselves to be living in the "last days" of Israel. For example, Peter said the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy:

But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit...". (Acts 2:16,17, Joel 2:28-32)

Here the term "last days" is not a reference to the last days of human history. Peter is addressing the Jews, and he is making a reference to the last days of the old covenantal relationship of God with the nation of Israel.3 The "last days" of Israel were soon to end at the end of the forty-year "generation" (Matt. 24:34) between the Ascension of Christ (A.D. 33) and the Fall of Jerusalem to the Romans (A.D. 70).

The following is a list of some New Testament verses that indicate the "last days" were in the first century:   (All Scripture taken from the NASB.)

Jesus to His twelve apostles:

...you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes. (Mt. 10:23)

This verse is an obvious reference to the Son of Man coming in judgment at the end of the 40-year generation.

Jesus to His disciples:

...there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. (Mt.16:27,28)

Again, this refers to Jesus' return to judge and punish Israel in 70 AD, putting an end to the kingdom of Israel and further establishing His own kingdom, fulfilling Christ's words to the Jews: "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you" (Matt. 21:43). Notice that Jesus said "some" of his disciples would still be alive at the time. Obviously, not all of them were alive in 70 AD, as James and perhaps others were martyred earlier.

Jesus said to His disciples:

...this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Mt. 24:34, see Lk. 21:32)

In this passage the "all these things" is a reference to the prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Yes, these prophecies foreshadowed his literal coming at the end of the age, but they also had a very real fulfillment in 70 AD.

Paul to all who were beloved of God in Rome:

...it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. (Ro. 13:11,12)

This is not even a reference to the Second Coming, but merely a statement that the day of salvation has come, and that the night of darkness, a world without the knowledge of Christ, is passing away.

To the Hebrews:

God...in these last days has spoken to us in His Son... (Heb. 1:1,2)

These "last days" are the "last days" of the Hebrews. In Heb. 8:13 the author says the Old Covenant "decayeth and waxeth old [is] ready to vanish away." When the book of Hebrews was written (~65 AD), the 40-year generation was almost complete, and the destruction of Israel would signal the final end to the Hebrews and their covenant with God.

James to the "twelve tribes" who were dispersed abroad:

...the coming of the Lord is at hand. ...the Judge is standing right at the door. (James 5:7-9)

James, writing to the Jews in approximately 60 AD, warns them of an imminent coming of the "Judge". This would come to pass shortly afterward when Jesus returned to judge Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Peter to those who resided as aliens:

...according to His great mercy has caused us...who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet. 1:3,5)
The end of all things is at hand...(1 Pet. 4:7)
For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God... (1 Pet. 4:17)

Peter's letter was most likely written between 60 AD and 65 AD. Again, these are references to the "last time" of Israel, and the "end of all things" is a reference to the coming termination of the kingdom of Israel, and the destruction of the nation and the temple. The "judgment" is to begin with the "household of God". The context of this passage suggests a persecution, and Christians suffered a horrible persecution under Nero for 42 months, beginning in 66 AD and ending in 70 AD. This judgment upon the "household of God" was followed in 70 AD with God's final judgment upon Israel.

John to those who believed in the name of the Son of God:

Children, it is the last hour...from this we know that it is the last hour. (1 Jn. 2:18)

Most likely written shortly before 70 AD, this describes the "last hour" of Israel, not the world.

John in Revelation:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must shortly take place... (Rv. 1:1)
...for the time is near. (Rv. 1:3)
I am coming quickly...(Rv. 3:11)
...I am coming quickly. (Rv. 22:7)
...Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. (Rv. 22:10)
Behold, I am coming quickly...(Rv. 22:12)
Yes, I am coming quickly. (Rv. 22:20)

Many Bible scholars agree that the book of Revelation contains stark and accurate descriptions of the events which transpired during the first century prior to the symbolic "return" of Jesus in 70 AD to punish the nation of Israel and terminate His covenant with that people. In fact, the descriptions are so accurate, that some atheists and agnostics have suggested the book of Revelation was written after 70 AD.

Now, just as with Matthew 24, this does not mean the book of Revelation has no future relevance. However, what it does mean, is that the "last days" of the Jewish nation ended in 70 AD. This is not to be confused with the "last days" of human history.

Daniel Predicts the "end" would come in 70 AD

While SDAs teach God's covenant with Israel ended with the stoning of Stephen (~34 AD?), the reality is that God's covenant terminated with the destruction of Jerusalem, the nation's capital, and the destruction of the temple, the nation's foremost religious symbol of their connection with God. The "times of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24) began after the dispersion of the Jews. This happened in 70 AD when the Jews were scattered throughout the world and many were taken hostage by the Romans.4 At this point in time Jesus says "Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles." (Luke 21:24) This is exactly what the Bible teaches in Daniel 9:24:

Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.

Notice that the "holy city" is to be protected until the end of the 70 weeks. Continuing in verse 26:

And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof [shall be] with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.

There can be no doubt verse 26 is referring to the Roman General Titus, who would later (after 70 AD) rise to be the emperor of Rome. Titus' armies destroyed Jerusalem and the Sanctuary in 70 AD. This event closes the 70-week prophecy and terminates God's covenant relationship with Israel. Therefore, the "end" spoken of by Daniel is not the "end of time" but the end of God's covenant with Israel.

Evidence the Apostles Did NOT teach an imminent end of the world

The Apostles were well-informed on the progress of the gospel message. They talked with angels, and even with Jesus (as per John's accounts found in the book of Revelation). While the disciples may have been ignorant of their mission when they first linked up with Jesus, He faithfully instructed them. Every Apostle knew and believed the words of Jesus:

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)

Neither Jesus, nor the Apostles, nor the prophets ever said anything about Jesus' second literal coming being "imminent" or within the lifespans of certain people. Jesus clearly stated the gospel shall go into ALL the World and to EVERY nation before His Return. At His ascension, Jesus instructed the Apostles to go "unto the uttermost part of the earth." (Acts 1:8) The Apostle John said the gospel must go to "them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." (Rev. 14:6)

Jesus and the Apostles were not idiots, neither were they fools. They knew for a fact that the gospel had only reached a small fraction of the world when they made their statements about the last days. They no doubt knew it would take decades, if not centuries of effort to reach every language and every person living on the entire planet.5

Did Paul say he would be alive when Jesus returned?

Paul said that "we which are alive and remain shall be caught up...to meet the Lord in the air." (1 Thes. 4:17) Is Paul making the statement that he believed that he personally was going to see Jesus return, or was he just using common vernacular?

Paul makes it clear, just a few sentences later that he did not know when the return of Christ would be:

Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thess 5:1-2 NIV)

While Paul knew not when Christ would come, if he was familiar with Christ's statement in Matthew 24, then he did know when it would NOT come. It would not come until Christ's words about the gospel going to "all nations" was fulfilled.

Paul's letter in 2nd Thessalonians refutes the idea that Paul thought the Second Coming was imminent, because Paul starts it out by saying not to fear that the day of Christ is at hand:

"That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand." (2 Thes. 2:2)

Paul goes on to indicate that there are events that need to transpire before Christ can return:

"Let no man deceive you by any means: for [that day shall not come], except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;" (2:3)

Now, if, as Adventism claims, the Man of Sin is the papacy, then this event was at least 500 years in the future! While God may not have revealed to Paul the exact timing of the rise of the papacy, Paul surely did NOT teach or believe that it was imminent in his day.

To summarize, here are reasons the Apostles did not believe the literal return of Christ was imminent:

  1. As just indicated above, Paul said that first there would be a "falling away" and the revealing of the "man of sin", events that were many years in the future.
  2. The New Testament teaches that there will be many "signs" that take place prior to Christ's return.
  3. Events in the book of Revelation, such as Rev. 14, were yet to be fulfilled.
  4. The gospel must go to "all nations" to "every kindred, tongue, people". Even today, over 2 billion people have not been reached with Christianity.


Some SDAs choose to portray the Apostles as rather ignorant folks, who had little idea of what the gospel commission entailed and misunderstood both the scope of their work and Christ's statement that "all" nations must hear the gospel before His return. They claim the New Testament is full of uninspired statements about Christ's immediate return. While I can understand their reasons for arriving at this conclusion--so that they can prop of the claims of their prophet--I would have to respectfully disagree.

A second literal coming is the great hope of humanity, an event that all Christians look forward to with joy and anticipation, and the Apostles' statements regarding the second coming are accurate and do not mislead in the least degree. As already noted above, the Apostles did indeed make statements about the "last days" of the nation of Israel, but they clearly understood the events of Christ's literal return were yet far in the future. Paul described a "falling away" and the revealing of the "man of sin", events that were centuries in the future. The Apostle John, in Revelation 14, said the gospel would go to every nation. Matthew wrote that Jesus would not return until "all" nations heard the gospel.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the disciples were not ignorant of the scope of their mission is this statement by Jesus:

No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15 NKJV)

The Apostles were "friends" of Jesus. There were in on the game plan. They knew what was going on. They knew the task set out before them, and they knew the scope of their work. The New Testament prophecies of Jesus' imminent coming in judgment against Israel to officially terminate His covenant with that people were fulfilled with precision in 70 AD, and that fulfillment gives us confidence that the prophecies of His less-imminent literal second coming are accurate and trustworthy.

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1. The Hebrew word is in the Niphal tense. According to Strong's:
    1) to turn oneself, turn, turn back
    2) to change oneself
    3) to be perverse
    4) to be turned, be turned over, be changed, be turned against
    5) to be reversed
    6) to be overturned, be overthrown
    7) to be upturned

2. Strong's.

3. Much of this reasoning is taken from David Chilton, Days of Vengeance.

4. Josephus, Flavius, The Complete Works of Josephus (1987), p. 749. (Wars of the Jews 6.9.3. (Book 6, chapter 9, verse 3).

5. Paul states the gospel was "preached to every creature which is under heaven" (KJV). Or, according to the earliest manuscripts, the gospel was preached "in all creation" (NASB).

While the gospel had penetrated deeply into the Roman empire by the middle of the first century, there is no doubt it had not penetrated even half of the world by then. So, was Paul delusional, or was he merely using a common saying when he referred to "all creation"?

It was not uncommon for writers of that era to refer to the Roman Empire as the world. Let's look at some examples:

  1) Luke said that Caesar sent out a decree to tax "all the world" (Luke 1:2). Obviously, this tax only affected the Roman Empire.

  2) Agabus' prophesy of a great dearth that would take place "throughout all the world" (Acts 11:28) was a reference to the Roman empire "in the days of Claudius Caesar".

  3) Paul and Silas were accused of causing trouble "all over the world" (Acts 17:6), and yet we know they never travelled beyond the Mediterranean regions.

  4) Paul was accused before Felix of stirring up riots "all over the world" (Acts 24:5). Again, this is a reference to the Roman Empire.

So, the weight of the evidence is that Paul was using a colloquial expression referring to the Roman Empire not the entire planet. This is in contrast to Christ's command that the gospel would be preached in "all nations" (not just Rome), and further expounded upon by the Apostle John, who wrote under the Spirit of Prophecy, that the "everlasting gospel" will be preached to those dwelling on "earth", to "every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people." (Rev. 14:6)

Category: Visions Examined
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