Food for Worms: Failure or Conditional Prophecy?
by Edwin M. Cotto
In May of 1856 Ellen White made a false prediction when she said, “I was shown the company present at the Conference. Said the angel: ‘Some food for worms, some subjects of the seven last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus.’” (Testimonies to the Church, v.1, page 132). It has been over 160 years since this prediction was made and everyone present when Ellen said this is now dead!
THE SHORT ANSWER
Critics of Ellen White assert that “It has been over 160 years since this prediction was made and everyone present is now dead!” and therefore she made a “false prediction.” On the other hand, critics of the Bible read verses such as 1 Thessalonians 4:17, 1 Corinthians 7:29, 30, Revelation 1:3, 22:6-7 and assert that “It has been over 2000 years and everyone present when Paul and John wrote this are now dead!” and therefore they made a “false prediction.” If we are to remain logically consistent then we must accuse Paul and John of falsehood as well. However, the difficulty disappears when we understand that “all of God’s promises are alike conditional” and in this way both are held guiltless. For example, Jonah prophesied that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4) but it wasn’t destroyed, though he made a prediction. Why? Because conditions among the Ninevites changed (verses 5-10)! God’s promises can be reversed depending on the actions taken by the people. Ellen White understood the conditional nature of her “food for worms” prophecy when two pages later, on page 134, she said that some of those people “may in a few days be food for worms.” Because conditions among God’s people changed, and “doubt and uncertainty” came in among God’s people causing them to “yield their faith” (see Manuscript Release 4, 1883, paragraphs 46-50), God placed his promise on hold. Just as conditions among the Ninevites changed which caused Jonah’s prophecy to be reversed, in a similar fashion conditions among the Adventists in the mid-1800s changed causing Ellen’s prophecy to be reversed. If they had kept the faith, and finished the work, the prophecy would not have been reversed, and the plan of redemption would have reached its fulfillment. This is why the prophecy was not fulfilled. It wasn’t because it was false. It was because conditions changed the outcome. God “is not slack concerning his promises,” but he is “long-suffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NKJV).
THE LONG ANSWER
This prophecy is often quoted as absolute proof that Ellen White was not inspired by God. The claim is that since the people to whom she was talking to all passed away and Jesus has not yet returned, therefore her prediction failed. Following the accusation, critics will often point to Jeremiah 28:9 and Deuteronomy 18:20-22, the former which you quoted as well. Before examining the actual quote itself, let’s examine these two bible references.
Notice what else God says in the same context of the two aforementioned references. Jeremiah 28:9 reads, “The prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the LORD hath truly sent him.” And yet this same book, only ten chapters before this test is given, tells us the following:“At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.”1
The conjunction “if” introduces a conditional clause. What this means is that all of God’s blessings and threatenings are conditional, and may change depending upon man’s free will response and actions. If God speaks a prophecy, but the nation or person threatened has a change of heart, God will reverse the threat, and bring about a blessing.
Deuteronomy 18:22, another biblical test of a true prophet, is pretty much the same test as Jeremiah 28:9 but in a more negative light. It reads, “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” Yet the same conditional element we read about in Jeremiah is also found here, just ten chapters later:“ And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God… But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee.”2
Let’s see a few bible examples of God’s prophecies that were not fulfilled because conditions changed among the people involved:
|Jonah says Nineveh will be destroyed:|
“And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:1-4 KJV)
|Nineveh was not destroyed:|
“So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes [saying]… ‘let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?’ And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”
(Jonah 3:5-6, 8-10 KJV)
|The “man of God” said that every priest’s house will endure forever:|
“I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy Father, should walk before me for ever…” (1 Samuel 2:27-30)
|Eli the priest’s house did not endure forever:|
“… but now the LORD saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father’s house, that there shall not be an old man in thine house. (1 Samual 2:30-31)
|Moses tells the people they will enter the land:|
“Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the LORD… And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage: I am the LORD.” (Exodus 6:6, 8)
|The people did not enter the land:|
“Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the LORD… Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness… Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun… And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness… ye shall know my breach of promise.” (Numbers 14:28-30, 33)
Apparently, when it comes to prophecies regarding threats or blessings, they come under conditional terms. The prophetic threat of Jonah is probably the best example. Critics will often denounce Ellen’s prophecy, but are they prepared to denounce Jonah just as vehemently because he made a prediction that was not fulfilled?3
The problem of the critics is that they don’t see how God’s promises are conditional and may indeed change based on the response of the people involved. In the Bible, the apostles Paul (1 Thess. 4:15-17),4 and John (Revelation 1:3, 22:6-7), and many other authors constantly said that Jesus was coming quickly, but a lack of godliness and a laziness to respond to Jesus’ calling caused God to delay his promise based on his love and “longsuffering to us-ward.” (2 Peter 3:9). His desire for all to be saved changes the timing of his return. Indeed, everyone has since been dead since the apostles made these predictions. While it has been over 160 years since Ellen’s prediction, it’s been over 2000 years since Paul and John’s predictions! But are Paul, John, and the rest of the New Testament believers liars because of that? No! “All of God’s threatenings and blessings are alike conditional.” As a matter of fact, while worldliness delays his return, we can actually “hasten” his return by living a holy life (see 2 Peter 3:11-12). “God is not slack concerning his promises,” but nevertheless, those promises depend on the free will choices of the people: “The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you” (2 Chronicles 15:2).
If people would view Ellen White’s prophecy in the same light, and understand that inspiration depends upon human choices, the difficulty they are having will soon disappear. Now, let us examine the prophecy of 1856 and find further evidence of its conditional nature.
THE CONDITIONAL PROPHECY OF 1856
In Testimonies to the Church volume 1, the surrounding context of the quotation in question deals with conformity, worldliness, and the pride that has crept into the church during her days. On page 132 we read that some of those present at the conference that day would be “food for worms.” Others would be, “subjects of the seven last plagues,” and others would be “alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus.” Two pages later, however, on page 134, she wrote:
“While you make yourselves appear like the world, and as beautiful as you can, remember that the same body may in a few days be food for worms.”
The verb “may” expresses that something is possible or allowed. If this tells me anything, it reveals that Ellen White understood the conditional nature of her “food for worms” prophecy. What about the rest of the prophecy? Those “subject to the seven last plagues” and those who would be “alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus?” Note what else Ellen White said:“It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional.”6
The prophecies the Lord gave her were “conditional” upon the actions of the people, just like the prophecies of the scriptures were conditional.
Further on in this same document she also said that it was 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.”7 Yet, did you know that Ellen White actually prayed that the judgments of God be placed on hold to give the people time to repent?
“A great crisis awaits the people of God. A crisis awaits the world. The most momentous struggle of all the ages is just before us. Events which for more than forty years we have upon the authority of the prophetic word declared to be impending are now taking place before our eyes… Fervent, effectual prayer should be ascending to heaven that this calamity may be deferred until we can accomplish the work which has so long been neglected… It may be that a respite may yet be granted for God’s people to awake and let their light shine. If the presence of ten righteous persons would have saved the wicked cities of the plain, is it not possible that God will yet, in answer to the prayers of His people, hold in check the workings of those who are making void His law?… A vast responsibility is devolving upon men and women of prayer throughout the land to petition that God will sweep back the cloud of evil and give a few more years of grace in which to work for the Master. Let us cry to God that the angels may hold the four winds until missionaries shall be sent to all parts of the world and shall proclaim the warning against disobeying the law of Jehovah.”8
We could either say that she failed a prophecy or that God answered her prayers. Based on the biblical concept of conditional prophecy, I believe the latter is the most logical and consistent conclusion we should arrive to. It would not be consistent to accuse her of falsehood and not the prophets of the bible when the prophecies of those prophets were “alike conditional.”
DID CONDITIONS AMONG EARLY ADVENTISTS CHANGE?
Yes, conditions changed among the Adventist believers, causing God to reverse his promise and grant the people more time to repent. In a response to criticisms against her prophecies she eloquently defended herself against such accusations and then explained what took place among the people that caused the prophecies to be placed on hold:
“As the subject was presented before me, the period of Christ’s ministration seemed almost accomplished. Am I accused of falsehood because time has continued longer than my testimony seemed to indicate? How is it with the testimonies of Christ and His disciples? Were they deceived? Paul writes to the Corinthians: “But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not.” (1 Corinthians 7:29, 30). Again, in his epistle to the Romans, he says, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12).And from Patmos, Christ speaks to us by the beloved John: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” (Revelation 1:3.) “The Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show unto His servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly; blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:6, 7).The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional… Now she will explain why Jesus had not yet come:“Had Adventists as a body, after the great disappointment in 1844, held fast their faith and followed on unitedly in the opening providence of God, receiving the message of the third angel and in the power of the Holy Spirit proclaiming it to the world, they would have seen the salvation of God, the Lord would have wrought mightily with their efforts, the work would have been completed, and Christ would have come ere this  to receive His people to their reward. But in the period of doubt and uncertainty that followed the disappointment, many of the advent believers yielded their faith… Thus the work was hindered, and the world was left in darkness. Had the whole Adventist body united upon the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, how widely different would have been our history!”…“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, unconsecrationand strife among the Lord’s professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and sorrow so many years.”9
Just as conditions among the Ninevites changed which caused Jonah’s prophecy to be reverted, in a similar fashion conditions among the Adventists in the mid-1800s changed causing Ellen’s prophecy to be reverted. The believers lost a great deal of their faith and allowed sin to take control of their lives. God in his mercy halted the promise that they may have time to repent and the world may have time to hear the message. If they had kept the faith, and finished the work, the prophecy would not have been reverted, and the plan of redemption would have reached its fulfillment. This is why the prophecy was not fulfilled. It wasn’t because it was false. It was because conditions changed the outcome.10
To conclude, we have learned three important details. First, God’s prophetic threats and blessings are conditional by nature, which permits change when people either repent or forsake the Lord. Examples in the bible include Jonah, the story of the “man of God” and Moses as well. Though these prophecies were unfulfilled, it was due to their conditional nature, which no more proves bible prophets false than Ellen White’s unfulfilled prophecy prove her false. The decisions of the people involved have and still can cause the threat or the blessing to be reversed.11
Second, writing to the people in her days and hoping they repent, Ellen White hinted at her own understanding of the conditional nature of her “food for worms” prophecy when she said that it “may” be fulfilled. Later on, she cleared herself of any future accusations by directly saying that “It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional,” which is, after all, a biblically accurate statement to make. With this understanding, she actually prayed that circumstances changed to “give a few more years of grace in which to work for the Master.”
Finally, Ellen White faced criticism of this kind during her days as well. Her demand was to be consistent. If we cannot accuse Paul or John of falsehood because their prophecies were conditional, we cannot accuse her because her prophecies were conditional as well. Had Adventists carried out their duty faithfully, the outcome would have been different, and this world would have ended a long time ago. If this is the case, and I believe it is, the very thought should cause us to reflect. We would not be here right now, having this conversation, had it not been for the existence of conditional prophecies.12
As I see it, we only have one criterion to judge a prophet… the Bible. If we judge her by the Bible’s standard of how conditional prophecies actually work, then we have nothing really to accuse her of, do we? Consider, if anything, that it might just be our lack of understanding of how inspiration works that caused all this confusion in the first place.
1) Jeremiah 18:7-11.
2) Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 15.
3) Regarding Jonah, we know from history that the Ninevites returned to their sins and Nineveh was ultimately destroyed. But, as former director of the Ellen G. White Estate Roger Coon put it, “If the Ninevites had never subsequently been destroyed, Jonah would still have been deemed a true prophet, even though his prediction did not come to pass. How? By the conditional element that exists in some prophecies, either explicitly or implicitly.” See: Glen Coon, “Inspiration/Revelation: What It Is and How It Works” page 63. His whole article is dedicated to responding to this and other accusations. I recommend it. Click here.
4) 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 is especially noteworthy because in this prophecy Paul includes himself by using the pronoun “we” three times. And yet, in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 Paul declares that the second coming will not take place in his days. Prophets often see visions as if they were themselves involved, presumably to give them a better feeling and understanding of what is at stack. Should we condemn her for this and not Paul? Or does this kind of language actually lend more credibility to her being that she is expressing herself just like the prophets of old did?
5) The reference in parenthesis regarding Clarissa M. Bonfoey is not original to Ellen White. The White Estate added it to explain that sister Bonfoey believed herself to be the one who would in a few days pass away. It may be that her death did fulfill a portion of Ellen’s prophecy. But as the context is regarding people who were dealing with worldliness in the church (and, as far as I am aware, this was not a problem of sister Bonfoey), it may be that the clause “food for worms” goes together with the rest of the sentence and was placed on hold until the final hours of earth’s history. I am open to reexamining this section if necessary.
6) Manuscript Release 4, 1883, paragraphs 46-50. See link.
7) Ibid, para. 55.
8) Testimonies to the Church, v. 5, page 711. See link.
9) Manuscript Release 4, 1883, paragraphs 46-55. I recommend reading the whole manuscript. See link here. She said something similar in the following quotation: “If all who had labored unitedly in the work in 1894 had received the third angel’s message, and proclaimed it in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord would have wrought mightily with their efforts. A flood of light would have been shed upon the world. Years ago the inhabitants of the earth would have been warned, the closing work completed, and Christ would have come for the redemption of His people… It was not the will of God that the coming of Christ should be so long delayed, and His people should remain so many years in this world of sin and sorrow… “In mercy to the world, Jesus delays His coming, that sinners may have an opportunity to hear the warning, and find in Him a shelter before the wrath of God shall be poured out.” (4SP 291-92.)
10) This may be the answer as to why Jesus did not return when the apostles were saying that he was very near. Paul was given divine insight into the falling away that was to take place in the church and for three years he warned against it (Acts 20:29-30). The church was probably not ready, and the world not sufficiently warned, for Jesus to come and take his people home.
11) For a comprehensive treatment and additional examples of conditional prophecy, see LeRoy Edwin Froom, Movement of Destiny, pp. 573, 578. Click here.
12) The White Estate has not stayed quiet over this issue and has also offered a defense. Click here. Other apologetic resources include Francis D Nichol’s book “Ellen White and Her Critics” which explains well the conditional nature of this prophecy and also offers answers to many other accusations against Ellen White. You can have it free in pdf by clicking here. Two other resources are “Ellen White Under Fire” by professor Jud Lake, and “Messenger of the Lord” by Herbert E. Douglass, both of which also form a part of my library.