There’s a unique doctrine to the Seventh Day Adventist church that other Christian denominations and groups don’t share.
Well, technically, they don’t, whereas the principles are arguably the same, and this is just a different way to organise and time things.
This does appear strange and complicated at first. After first seriously finding out about the Seventh Day Adventist church a while ago, it took nearly a couple of years to slowly digest what this particular doctrine is and how it is arrived at from scripture.
The Traffic Light Moment
And then, one day, the penny dropped, and I began to see what this was all about through three different stages.
I imagined these as the three colours in a set of traffic lights, with things becoming increasingly harder and more challenging as you go from green to red where you really have to stop and consider things.
Here go the three traffic-light stages to understanding what the investigative judgment and heavenly sanctuary are all about.
1. The Green ‘What’ Question
So, the first green stage was the easy one once you take a serious look at scripture, and in fact, acknowledged by other denominations and Christians. The Seventh Day Adventist places a higher emphasis on this and then what’s happening there.
This is a sanctuary or temple; based in heaven that God and Christ inhabit.
Jesus Christ, in his position at the right-hand side of God the Father in heaven, after he ascended from earth 2,000 years ago, now ministers in a specific ‘place’ in heaven.
The book of Hebrews, a New Testament post-resurrection and New Covenant part of the Bible, clearly states that Jesus is the High Priest in God’s temple in heaven called a Sanctuary:
“Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.” – Hebrews 8:1-2
Back in Exodus, God gave Moses specific instructions to replicate a Tabernacle copy of this on earth that the Israelites would transport with them as they wandered to the promised land.
“And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it” – Exodus 25:8-9
There were also two permanent temple versions of this constructed. The first was in Jerusalem by King Soloman, which was then attacked and finally destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
The second was when this was rebuilt decades later by people sent back from Babylon and was finally destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans.
These are mirror images and copies of an actual real heavenly one that God resides in.
There are basically three main rooms, or sections, to this sanctuary. Firstly, the outer court, secondly, the Holy Place's main room, and thirdly the smaller end-room called the Most Holy Place.
These all have seven pieces of furniture between them that resemble Christ's different roles during the process of salvation and redeeming us humans from sin and death.
Revelation also provides a snapshot of these items in heaven. Christ is not only in heaven Himself but also provides these revelations to John directly.
It’s also interesting to note Christ preparing a place for us in heaven. He implies that rooms are already there in heaven, and therefore He is completing ‘something’ to prepare us to be with Him when he returns to earth.
“In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” – John 14:2
2. The Orange ‘When’ Question
We then come to something more difficult to understand; however, once you see the scriptural references to this, it does begin to make more sense, even though it goes against what modern Christianity now teaches.
This is the timing of this judgment, which is usually assumed to be on a one-on-one basis with Christ after we die for us to hear those encouraging words “good and faithful servant” before spending eternity with Christ in heaven.
Well, bottom line, this judgment is identified by the Seventh Day Adventists to be timed well before that point of meeting Christ. It’s still in heaven, but we are actually still here on earth at that point.
Let’s begin with Daniel's book and two key references to this judgment activity in the heavenly sanctuary.
Firstly, chapter seven has the most detailed biblical description of judgment in heaven.
Applying a Historicism perspective to this as per all the old Reformers, this must begin after 1798 and take place before Christ’s coming when His kingdom is then given to the true saints.
“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened…I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” – Daniel 7:9-10 & 13-14
Check out part four of the Daniel study here for more details on this.
Secondly, chapter eight says a ‘cleansing’ of this sanctuary will happen after a set period of time, which again, applying the same Historicism perspective, dates this as from the year 1844 (and therefore a key date for Seventh Day Adventists).
“And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” – Daniel 8:14
Check out part five of the Daniel study here for more details.
Interestingly, two spiritual beings emphasise this particular date-line as important and need interpretation, not just Daniel himself.
On a practical note, this ‘cleaning’ and ‘judgment’ are believed to occur in the third and most serious part of the heavenly sanctuary, the Most Holy Place. In the Old Testament, the pattern provided by God was a yearly visit here by the High Priest to remove the sins from people that had already been ‘dealt with’ in the previous Holy Place section.
"But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people" - Hebrews 9:7
So, a clean-up of these already-forgiven sins takes place.
This is where Seventh-day Adventists have the doctrine that Christ Himself (the only true High Priest who can do any of these things in the heavenly temple) therefore went into the final ‘room’ to start this process.
Although this room-change is not specifically referred to in scripture, there are scriptural references in the New Testament that identify how this and the whole pre-advent judgment are possible.
1. Judgement in Revelation
There is a reference to God’s judgment happening in Revelation. No matter how you organise the timing of all the weird happenings in this book, this is referred to before Christ’s Second Coming (notice reference here to 'is come').
“And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” – Revelation 14:6-7
2. Furniture in Revelation
Revelation’s strange symbols and imaginary include items like candlesticks and the ark of the covenant, which are both in the Holy Place and Most Holy Place in heaven.
Revelation is basically communicating from Jesus Christ Himself around sixty years after his ascension into heaven, shown through John, and explaining what will happen in the future.
Therefore, spiritual happenings and Christ's location in heaven in preparation for His Second coming appear to be within both parts. This is whilst he is at the right hand of the father.
3. Christ’s Entry Into Heaven
There is a verse in Hebrews in the King James Version that specifically mentions Christ entering only the first room straight away when He ascended to heaven and did not state the Most Holy Place (however, the veil here was torn at His death).
"And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent" - Matthew 27:51
Therefore, both areas are referred to in Revelation, with only the first specifically mentioned when Christ first returns to heaven from earth.
4. Dealing With Sin
There is a reference in Hebrews to Christ ‘putting away” sin before the end of the world.
The price of sin was paid at Calvary, which we receive by faith, but then these need dealing with in the heavenly sanctuary afterwards to finally rid both heaven and earth of sin before the new heaven and earth come. In other words, Jesus Christ's perfect sacrifice and spilt-blood on earth enables Him to be the High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary and finally deal with our sins.
“For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” – Hebrews 9:26
In actual fact, sin originated in heaven as well, before Adam and Eve on earth, when Satan became proud and rebelled against God.
"And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him." - Revelation 12:9
5. Believer’s First Judgement
Peter talks about judgment first happening with God’s people.
“For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?” – 1 Peter 4:17
This links with the earlier point in Daniel about the saints being vindicated and given the kingdom.
Also, the New Testament talk about there being two resurrections of people; at the end of time, the first being saved saints, and the second being those unsaved.
"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:" - 1 Thessalonians 4:16
6. Determined Rewards
There is a reference in Revelation, and from Christ Himself in the Gospels, that when He comes again, he will have rewards already with him:
“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” – Matthew 16:27
"And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be." - Revelation 22:12
Although a verse like this can be quick to read, the more you consider this, the more it clarifies this timing issue.
When Christ returns to earth, every saved person will join him in the sky, both those dead and those alive on earth at the time:
Therefore, Christ must first know who these saved saints are before he can come to collect them. It doesn’t make sense to receive whoever and then try to judge afterwards who is a legitimate Christian.
And with the nature of judgment not only about who is genuinely saved but what eternal rewards are then given to those that are, then again, these must have been first decided before Christ can come and give them at His arrival (and providing His kingdom as in Daniel earlier).
7. The High Sabbaths
A final reference is more general and linked to the Old Testament High Sabbaths given to the Israelites. These are basically seven biblical 'type' rests during a year to celebrate and point to a new similar 'anti-type' one in the future, namely:
1 - Passover - when they came out of Egypt, pointing to Christ's crucifixion
2 - Unleavened Bread - symbolising Christ's body being broken and being in the grave
3 - Firstfruits - the next day, to celebrate and point to the resurrection of Christ
4 - Feast of Weeks - pointing to Pentecost and people empowered by the Spirit to preach Christ and the Gospel
5 - Feast of Trumpets - to herald and announce judgement, which is the purpose of the trumpets
6 - Day of Atonement - the actual day of judgement and dealing with sin.
7 - Feast of Tabernacle - which is the Second Coming of Christ and the population of heaven.
Without going into detail on these, the interesting point is the order of these. The first four and last one are straight forward for any Christian; the progression of Christ through the Easter story into Acts, and then the final seventh one when He comes again.
Therefore, we're left with a judgement happening in between these, namely after Pentecost but before His Second Coming.
A Quick Re-Cap
Let’s pause and see where we’re at with this second issue about the timing of judgment in heaven.
Every person will be judged by Christ, and rather than assuming this immediately takes place when we die; the Seventh Day Adventists believe that this must happen beforehand, for Christ to know then who he collects at His Second Coming and provides eternal rewards too.
Daniel times such judgment to the saints (not just the ‘little horn’) after 1798, following a historicism interpretation of scripture as here. The actual ‘cleansing’ of already-forgiven sense then begins to happen from 1844 when Christ moves room within the heavenly sanctuary – still at the father's right hand.
Therefore, this ‘investigative judgment’ is believed to be happening from 1844 right up to Christ’s Second Coming and is actually underway now.
Some Further Details
Although these are the main points to note, it is also worth outlining a few more detailed implications about this timing of God's judgment.
1. Non-Present Judgement
Therefore, once you think about it, it can make sense that we can still be judged in heaven even though we’re not actually present there ourselves at that point.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” – 2 Corinthians 5:10
It’s like going to court, I guess, where your case can be decided even though you may not be present in the courtroom. After all, there are books in heaven recording all our deeds based on the judgment (which we’ll cover in more detail in the final point).
2. It Seems Fair
I reckon that this is actually fair and reasonable, even though it’s an unusual point to consider if you’re coming from a mainstream Christian belief background.
I have never come across any serious teaching on the whole subject of judgment in heaven anyway, and this to me now makes sense, that God would begin a programme of deciding cases and rewards to His children so that when He comes to collect them for eventual new heaven and earth, it’s all based on correctly-decided situations.
3. It’s Good News
It’s also good news by us not actually being present ourselves at this judgment! The whole thought of standing before God yourself with all your failures being read aloud can fill you with fear when you know all your downfalls.
Whereas here, it all happens without us being there, almost like a modern remote-based 'virtual judgment' rather than 'investigative judgment.'
4. Christ’s Dual Roles
Christ has a double role in this judgment scene.
Daniel and other parts of scripture talk about God passing judgment over to Jesus; therefore, Christ is our Judge.
But He is also our advocate and mediator, actually pleading our cases on our behalf before heaven and the angels.
Therefore, he’s doing all he can to defend us and clearly shows everyone that justice has been applied by His own sacrifice being received and lived by us humans on a one-on-one basis.
5. Empty Heaven
I have actually, therefore, come to understand that heaven is not actually populated with people until the Second Coming.
This is assuming our human understanding of time, of course, whereas in reality, when someone does pass away, heaven (or hell) will appear immediately for them.
This overlaps with another doctrine of the Seventh Day Adventist church called the State of Dead, which I found made immediate sense in 2017 when I first came across this.
In short, this says we are all ‘sleeping’ until our bodies are resurrected at one of two points in the future, and it is something that the great Reformers and forefathers all believed.
This means that no one is in heaven right now; however, there are cases when certain prophets and people did have a fast-track to heaven. For example, there are twenty-four elders mentioned as ministering to God in Revelation.
6. Actual Timings of Judgement
If judgment commences from 1844 and ends when Christ returns, then there is a question of who gets judged and what point during this time span.
Logically you might assume one by one, maybe beginning right back from Adam and Eve at the beginning of time and working through people afterwards before you arrive at the last one, so to speak.
Also, although for us now there is the possibility that we are judged before we actually die, for the early New Testament believers, they, of course, would die first, and therefore always referred to it being after they died way in the future.
You’ll hear references in the Seventh Day Adventist church to ‘probation’ and the ‘end of probation,’ which is basically this idea of when people’s own judgment comes to an end.
7. Being Sealed
In actual fact, this is still related to this point just about probation and is the reference to ‘sealing’ in Revelation what the Seventh-day Adventist church then emphasises.
Revelation refers to when people have made their choice, and God has judged that then this will be set in stone, so to speak, no matter what happens - their eternal destiny has been set for better or worse:
"He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still." - Revelation 22:11
This is actually good news in that when God has judged us – whether sooner or later – then we are sealed with that decision. The Holy Spirit, of course, already lives in us and first made us new born-again Christians, and in that sense sealed us as a Christian when our names went into the book of life in heaven:
Now there is a final sealing of this after judgment, ready for the turbulent times leading up to Christ’s Second Coming.
When Christ does return, there must logically be a split second or so when he leaves the heavenly sanctuary and comes to earth in a blaze of glory, and therefore for that minimal point in time is no longer in the sanctuary ministering and carrying out judgment, with cases now decided and destinies sealed up.
"Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." - Acts 1:11
He’s then coming to take His people home.
3. The Red ‘How’ Question
Now we’re at what I think is the most difficult and controversial part of the Seventh-day Adventist church's investigative judgment and sanctuary doctrine.
This can make things sound negative, with talk about being harshly judged by what we do rather than emphasising today's mainstream Christianity about God’s grace saving us straight to heaven no matter what we then do.
This can appear to assume that any sins we still do after becoming a Christian will affect our arrival in heaven, and therefore the idea that salvation is by works and not simply God’s grace.
There is a reference to this in writings like The Great Controversy written by one of the founders, Ellen White, and how any hidden sins will take away our salvation when this ‘investigative’ judgment occurs.
This is where the three-part traffic light system helped me out.
I found the previous two parts made more sense when you look at scripture. There is clearly a heavenly sanctuary, and it is logical how this judgment happens before the Second Coming of Christ.
But then we come to the how and the basis of our judgment, no matter where or when this is.
I then realised that this is, in fact, a classic debate over the centuries, not just within the Seventh-day Adventist church. And that’s whether we are ‘once saved, always saved’ as the popular phrase goes in Christianity, or not.
Put simply, can my salvation be taken away if I continue to sin afterwards.
Here’s a link to a long doctrinal debate on this subject on YouTube that I found helpful. Actually not a Seventh-day Adventist here, but Protestant and Catholic taking different views.
Nowadays, the default view appears to be what they call ‘eternal security,’ namely, once you are saved, you will go to heaven no matter how you live and sin afterwards. It’s only in very extreme cases of blatant blasphemy and refusal of Christ that you could lose your salvation, but other than that, you will still get to heaven no matter what.
Therefore, any kind of right living after salvation will simply affect what rewards you receive in heaven (and blessing on earth), not actual eternal salvation.
And although this sounds very plausible, the more I’ve looked into this then, the more I have discovered that this isn’t necessarily the case, particularly back in history through theologians and church leaders.
Scripture talks about us needing to walk with the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and our love for Christ being demonstrated by obedience to His Word and Commandments.
Even Revelation mentions that you can lose your salvation and rewards unless you are a clear follower of Christ - and with warnings about keeping names in the Book of Life.
"He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels" - Revelation 3:5
Even Paul in the New Testament suggests that there could be ways that even he, the great apostle, could miss the mark:
"But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" - 1 Corinthians 9:27
When you look at the book of Hebrews or Epistles like John, then one minute they appear to say that you can lose your salvation, and the other that we can have confidence before God.
If you go back to, say, the Methodists and John Wesley era, this brought in a Holiness Movement and the sense that we need to live right before God, not keep on sinning.
Or the Armenian rather than Calvinism perspective, that our actions do affect our destiny.
Taking this a step further is the Sinless Perfection stance that we should be looking to live sin-free here on earth, typically thought to be only possible in heaven.
Even some more modern bible teachers like David Pawson, who recently passed away, not only believe that you could lose your salvation but technically that we are not even saved until we get to heaven and Christ’s work in us is completed.
Arriving at the How
Therefore, going back to the original issue of ‘how’ such judgment takes place, I think the first thing to mention is that the word ‘investigative’ should not really be used.
If we keep it as just a simple ‘judgment,’ based on the early Seventh-day Adventists simply naming the same thing an ‘investigative judgment,’ this helps clear a layer of confusion and focus on the same issue straight away.
Next, let’s realise that we’re only saved by receiving Christ’s righteousness, that He paid the price for by His spilt blood and atoning sacrifice. Our works have nothing to do with this; they are like filthy rags to God.
This is bread-and-butter Protestant Christianity that we are only saved by God’s grace, which Seventh-day Adventists do completely believe.
Our names are then added into the Book of Life when we become a Christian, and we receive the Holy Spirit to enable us to become born again as new creations in Christ.
Therefore, when we come to judgment, we are looking at what actions and fruits have resulted from this change inside us.
This is on the basis that if we have been genuinely saved, then we will be different people with an increasing ability to live right without sin.
Living sin-free is a realistic goal to aim for, just like two people getting married and committing to being faithful with each other for the rest of their lives; love for each other enables them to aim to live rightly.
And when we do sin, this should be more of a slip-up than a regular trend, which causes us to confess our sin and repent to God instinctively.
After leading Sundays Schools with children over the years, this is part of classic childrens' teaching on prayer – say thank you to God, ask for help with things, and say sorry when you do wrong.
Our now Holy-Spirit led, good-conscience barometer will tell us when we need to do this and then confess our sins, ask for God’s help, humble ourselves before Him, and let the Holy Spirit then work His life and sinless-character through us.
It’s not our good deeds; it’s then His life working through us.
Therefore, this belief is based upon the basis that when our judgment does arrive, Christ is showing the whole universe just what He has done through us. Yes, there is the risk of conscious sins taking away this salvation, but that shouldn’t be an issue if we live rightly and honestly before Christ, always keeping a clean-slate of sins, so to speak.
Put another way, this boils down to good book-keeping in heaven before the rest of the universe and showing how God has done everything he can to provide a way of salvation and how messed-up humans have responded to this and been changed by Him and now ready for eternal glory.
As Christ returns to collect His people for a new heaven and earth, He’s preparing us individually for this and enabling us to navigate through end-time tribulations and live holy before God, ready for His Second Coming.
The Traffic Lights to Heaven
Hopefully, this traffic light analogy helps you to begin to understand the belief of what is happening in heaven ready for when believers arrive and the judgment before God that all Christians will receive in whatever form.
Even though this ‘investigative’ judgment within the Seventh-day Adventist church can come across as legalistic with a very specific start-time and location within heaven, I actually discovered that this makes more sense when you look further into it.
Even though this isn’t black and white in scripture, I have not found anything that says it is not true, and in fact, the best explanation of heavenly judgment that I’ve ever come across.