Tragic End of an Apocalyptic Sect at Waco, Texas: Lessons Learned from the Consequences of Misreading the Bible and Misusing Peoples’ Freedom
The Crisis of Crises: Racism in its Multifaceted Forms
February 28, 2023
Seventh-day Adventist Engagements with Other Churches: Compromise or Mission Imperative?
February 28, 2023
Talking Faith, Protecting Freedom
December 21, 2022
Understanding Interfaith and Interchurch Relations
November 16, 2016
30 years ago, on April 19, 1993, horrible images shocked the world. Members of an end-time Apocalyptic cult revolving around the personality and choices of one individual perished in the flames. Many, we have learned, chose to die as part of purification by fire before the advent of the kingdom of God. They read a mention of the cleansing of the sanctuary in Daniel 8:14 (according to KJV translation) as the purification of the earth by fire. One person, according to eyewitnesses, came out of the compound only to try to go back in to die, where she not prevented to do so by an FBI agent. The intensity of someone’s faith is no guarantee for the veracity of one’s belief or religion. In this reflection on the lessons learned regarding a cultic impulse and conviction, a basic premise is that there is more to reading than meets the eye. Simplistic interpretations of texts can do much harm when associated with the urge to control people.
Offshoots of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church whose successive leaders created further splinter groups took a path that led to a disaster. This tragedy represents a case study for understanding the imperative of enlightened freedom of conscience. The leaders and self-appointed prophets of these groups have each been disfellowshipped from their local Seventh-day Adventist churches. Subsequently, they set out to reform the church they thought had apostatized. These minority movements focused and still focus on recruiting seventh-day church members to form what they believed would be the future 144,000. The latter form of this belief envisioned a need for a future move to Jerusalem where the new kingdom of God would be established.
The pain this tragedy has brought to many people has been heartbreaking. Beyond the 86 who died during this tragedy, most incinerated in the fire that broke out on April 19, families and friends suffered unspeakable traumas. That their loved ones lost their lives because of following a person who claimed to have been chosen by God to reveal the end-time secrets of the seals of the book of revelation and himself not only as the seventh angel of the trumpets but also as the lamb of God himself seems excruciating and has left scars that are still in need of healing 30 years after the catastrophe.
The following lessons may function as antidotes against drifting from the genuine biblical faith which testifies of Jesus Christ as the only lord and savior who abolished all mediations to the salvation He alone can offer. No person can any longer claim to stand between God and human beings but God. Holy personnel, holy places, and holy objects are not mandatory in the New Covenant. All are priests and holy temples.
The following biblical insights are in order.
- The absolute principle that should regulate all aspects of Seventh-Day Adventist faith and hope is the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. All heresies ancient and modern have this common denominator that they diminish or usurp the absolute prerogatives of the only Lord and Savior.
- As the Bible makes it very clear: Jesus Christ is our only hope. (1 Tim. 1:1). This is the foundation of the advent movement. All messianic prophecies about the liberation of God’s people and of creation from evil and all its manifestations converged in His person.
- Freedom of conscience is part of the image of God in humans. No human being should submit his or her conscience to the control of any other person. The reason for this is that humans are created in the image of God. The human conscience is sacred. It should be inviolable just like temples or sacred sites. The human conscience is like an inner sanctuary where only God and the conscience bearer should have access. No human being should intrude in that sacred space. Consequently, we should not follow any human being. We follow God alone. God has direct access to us, and we have direct access to God.
- The era of mediation is over and obsolete. This is because in the new covenant, God came to assume all the functions of God’s representatives. God is the only king (son of David), and the only priest (son of Abraham). The only sacrifice. The only prophet, the Word of God embodied in Jesus Christ. In other words, God alone is our sufficiency. That is the essence of the New Covenant. Jesus well summed this truth by saying that He Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
- There is a profound misunderstanding of the function of leadership. The so-called reform Adventist groups who follow their leaders who claim to have been designated by God to lead God’s end-time people clearly usurp God’s unique prerogatives. Only God qualifies to lead God’s people before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
- Anyone who claims to have received from God the mandate to bring about revival and reformation ignores that only God himself can bring about revival and reformation contrary to what sectarian leaders claim. Only the Holy Spirit of life can revive those who have lost their first love or their enlightened passion for God. Again, self-appointed leaders usurp the Holy Spirit’s unique prerogatives. The book of Revelation repeatedly admonishes the following: “Let the one who has ears listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” Therefore, no human being can take the place of God. Christ is alive. The Holy Spirit is the living omnipresent Spirit of God. God cannot be replaced. Just as Jesus has an untransmissible priesthood according to Hebrews 7:24.
- Leaders of apocalyptic end-time sects misinterpret the Bible. They always use and abuse words of authority. They lord it over the people, doing exactly what Jesus said should not be done among his followers. Power over people is a corruption of the ethos of service. In fact, the word authority has been corrupted and diverted from its original root. The word “authority” comes from the Latin word “augere” which means to cause to be fruitful. In other words, one with authority causes others to bear fruit. No one should be dominated, domesticated, that is reduced to being domains. That is part of the indignity inflicted upon people who are instrumentalized to other ends than their own personal infinite worth.
- The claim to have the exclusive secret of the interpretation of apocalyptic texts is purely preposterous, anti-rational, anti-intellectual, and downright delusional.
- One of the root causes of the tragedy at Waco Tx, was the populist unscientific interpretation of the Book of Revelation. The text of the last book of the Bible has been called ‘a paradise of fanatics and sectarians.” The book of Revelation gains to be studied with all the proven tools of grammar: lexicography, morphology, syntax, philology, semantics, semiotics, stylistics, rhetoric, pragmatics, and other methodologies which that the international community of scholars explores to broaden the scope of our insights into the text of the Apocalypse of John. Ignorance of all these tools in not a virtue. But humility in engaging scholarly findings is most welcome to avoid drifting into an arrogant self-sufficient and self-confident sentiment of mastering the meaning of a text in addition to the intolerant disposition of despising other points of view.
- Reading a biblical text is an adventure in wonders of various worlds: 1. World of words, grammar concepts, word formation (morphology), and meaning of words (lexicography, philology, and semantics). 2. World of phrases. 3. World of sentences, rules that preside over the arranging of words (syntax) 4. World of paragraphs or discourse units, for thorough discursive analysis 5. World of enunciation, 6. World of rhetoric, stylistic and poetry, world of effective communication, skillful art of persuasion, literary devices, and beauty. 7. World of logic, scientific, historical, and theological investigation. 8. World of emotions, thoughts, and spiritual insights. 9. World of signs, symbols, rites, and rituals. 10. World of art and science of knowing (epistemology). 11. World of supernatural reality and cosmic issues (metaphysics). 12. World of the science of being (ontology) 13. World of divine in-breaking, revelation, and presence. 14. Foundational world of prayer to the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus, to the glory of God, the Father.
- All these discoveries equip us to live in the so-called real world to be blessings to others and fulfill God’s purposes. Our best interest is in sharpening our reading tools as hermeneuticians, exegetes, and interpreters of the signs not only of texts but also of life in all its manifestations, in language, people, or events. This is best done in community of equals in which no conscience is stifled, in which everyone’s opinion matters; even though in the end consensus based on God’s ultimate purposes is discerned by all as was the case in Acts 15.
- Populist sectarian and authoritarian self-appointed leaders ignore all these various constellations of disciplines and considerations within the world of a text and within the world of the community, that is the international community no single ethnocentric monopoly. Only pluri-disciplinary approaches to texts in multicultural contexts do justice to the richness of revelation of the God of the universe of diverse people groups.
- The worst aspect of the sectarian delusion of being the only faithful one (s), the chosen ones, with the manifest destiny of possessing the meaning of the text and end-time mandate to punish the wicked, is simply the expression of harbored violence, and hatred, whereas God wants to save even God’s enemies. Psalm 2 was indiscriminately interpreted as fulfilled in the Branch Davidians circumstances, especially during the 51-day siege. Alleged typological fulfilments centered on the experience of their leader and group are singlehandedly and arbitrarily construed without the necessary biblical and intertextual controls that the Bible provides.
- It could be that the embrace of God’s ecumenical heart, that is the One who so loved the world that He gave His unique Son so that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life, could have saved those who closed their hearts to those they considered wicked and apostates.
- Love is generally completely absent from the narratives and propaganda of people addicted to cataclysmic end-time scenarios. The main language used in their propaganda is that of fear, violence, and announcements of destruction for the wicked; whereas God does not want the wicked to perish but to repent and be saved. God wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim.2). The truth is a person Jesus Christ, a person who sacrificed for not only those who embraced him but also those who turned their back against him. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Those are the words of the Savior.
- Being saved is not equivalent to belonging to a sect, an apocalyptic cult, or even a church. Jesus is the only savior. Salvation is to the Lord.
- How one reads the Bible and the methodology one uses are critical. Misreading of the psalms, and Ps. 45 in particular, led Vernon Howell to claim he had to take his followers’ wives in order to have 24 children who would be princes in the new kingdom. Moreover, his belief to hold the key to interpreting the seven seals of the book of Revelation and him being the seventh angel led to catastrophic outcomes for those who died in the flames of the compound at Waco, as a result of trusting his messianic claims.
- Someone wrote that “when bad ideas are allowed to spread unchecked, they take on an illusion of incontrovertibility and when figures of authority are captured by dangerous ideologies, resistance becomes a fear, a courage that few will dare to attempt.
- Fear of damnation grips people who have lost their rationality and the knowledge of the character of the God who is love. They exchange the virtue of love with a religion of terror from a god of terror. They become vulnerable to superstitions and adopt similar dispositions as animistic fears of spirits.
- A powerful antidote against joining leaders of any sectarian impulses is to maintain one’s freedom of conscience. Again, a foundational principle is the fact that only God is worthy to be followed. This is expressed in apocalyptic language in Revelation 14. The 144,000 follow the lamb wherever he goes.
- The Seventh-Day Adventist Church cannot be held responsible for offshoots of all kinds who claim the name Seventh-Day Adventist and drift into extremist and sectarian delusions. No church is monolithic. A mosaic of a global diverse ethnic and cultural adherents may not be able to be immune from hermeneutical fallacies of all sorts and drifting into delusions. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is protected by the fact that the voice of the church is clearly articulated through official statements voted at the General Conference in session, the executive committee of the General Conference and the Administrative committee. The official documents include the 28 fundamental beliefs, the working policy, and the church manual. This in itself is a deterrent against any one person or group of high-jacking people’s prerogatives, by controlling their minds, and by instrumentalizing them.
- The love of God is always the most excellent way. This love of God is inseparable from the love of neighbors. The addictive passion to zero in on the destruction of the wicked seems to reconfigure the mindset of its victims into paranoiac visions of life. Ellen G. White said that the last message to be shared with the world is God’s character of love. This is a message of hope from a God who so loved the world that He gave God’s unique Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
- Love is inseparable from self-sacrifice for the sake of others, as argued the Apostle Paul in Romans 5. God demonstrates God’s love for God’s enemies in dying for them. More profoundly, God relinquished power to win us back to reciprocate God’s love. Jesus has specified that he could have called twelve legions of angels to fight for him. But he didn’t, preferring to even absorb the violence we deserve rather than inflicting it upon us. He identified so deeply with us that the words in the book of proverbs may be applied in this case. “Whoever oppresses the poor insults his maker” (Proverbs 14:31; see also Proverbs 17:5). Or Jesus’ own words: “Truly I say to you, to the extent you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even to the least of them, you did it to Me.” Matt. 25: 40.”
- There is a deep misunderstanding of the character of God when it comes to the issue of violence. It is not by chance the title of the Lamb of God is used to designate God’s incarnate in Jesus the Christ. The title Lamb is used 29 times to designate Jesus Christ, whereas Jesus Christ occurs only seven times and Christ four times. The Lamb is portrayed as standing as if slain (Rev. 5:6). God neutralizes the violence of our violence by absorbing our violence to heal us from them. The only faithful position in harmony with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is non-violence. Wishing harm to anyone could not be farther from the whole purpose of God in the Bible.
- As signs of human solidarity, we are mindful of the need to comfort those who have lost loved ones. Our message of the blessed hope includes all people to whom God looks with unfathomable love, regardless of their loss. In the end, God can make all things to work for the good of those who love God and who are called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28).
To those tempted to follow leaders who claim to represent God, may I humbly remind you, in the name of your personal infinite dignity that one of the clearest pieces of evidence of being guided by God is revealed in a person who bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control “(Galatians 5:22-23). But even the fruit of the Spirit is not license that those who demonstrate them in their lives or who display even exceptional gifts should be followed.
None of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is compatible with violence and/or control of the minds of people created in the image of God.
The image bearer should only follow the image giver, the only creator to whom we as Seventh-day Adventists give our complete homage, allegiance, worship, and complete devotion.
To all partakers of the blessed hope of the appearance of our glorious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7), our only Lord and Savior.
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D.
 Scot McKnight with Cody Matchett. Revelation for the Rest of Us: A Prophetic Call to Follow Jesus as a Dissident Disciple (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), 5.
 See” Andrew Doyle. The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World (London: Constable, 2022), 9.
 See Donald Guthrie, “The Lamb in The Structure of the Book of Revelation,” Vox Evangelica 12 (1981): 64-71.