Skyscrapers in the Last Days

by Robert W. Olson 
Former Director, Ellen G. White Estate 
Author, The Crisis Ahead

Is there a message for us in the World Trade Center destruction? If so, what is it?


Many of us watched in horror last September as the tragedy in New York City unfolded on our television screens. We saw the World Trade Center’s No. 2 tower collapse and then, moments later, we saw No. 1 come down as well. Each building was hit by a plane which had the capability of carrying 24,000 gallons of jet fuel. It was a dreadful sight—one we wish we could forget. September 11, 2001, has become, like December 7, 1941, a defining moment in America’s history.

Seventh-day Adventists have shown a particularly keen interest in the attack on New York because of a statement published by Ellen G. White in 1909. In the chapter titled “The Last Crisis” in her final volume of the Testimonies for the Church, she wrote, “On one occasion, when in New York City, I was in the night season called upon to behold buildings rising story after story toward heaven. . . . Higher and still higher these buildings rose” (Testimonies for the Church, 9:12).

Movement Underway. When Ellen White penned these lines in a letter in 1904, the movement for taller buildings had begun. In the building boom that followed the great Chicago fire of 1871, architects there had developed the techniques for building taller structures using steel frames, and especially in New York City these techniques were being used to raise the skyline ever higher. The New York World Building, completed in 1890, reached 309 feet. At about the same time the Madison Square Garden tower reached 304 feet. A decade later the Park Row Building topped out at 391 feet. The Flatiron Building (307 feet), completed in 1902, had been under construction when Mrs. White visited New York in 1901 and had her vision of tall buildings. The 362-foot Times Building, still featured in New York City’s Times Square celebrations on New Year’s Eve, was being erected when she wrote her letter in 1904. Before that decade was over, New York City would have the Singer Building (1906-1908) at 612 feet and the Metropolitan Life Tower (1907-1909) at 700 feet.

Competition for height—and glory—did not end there. The Woolworth building, erected in 1913 at 792 feet, was followed in 1930 by the Chrysler building (1046 feet) which was superseded in 1931 by the Empire State building (1250 feet). The World Trade Center Towers (1368 feet) came along in 1972 and 1973, only to be upstaged in 1974 by the 1450-foot Sears tower in Chicago. Not to be outdone, Malaysia erected the two Petronas towers, which rise 1483 feet, at Kuala Lumpur in 1997. And even this is not the end. On television recently we saw an architect’s drawing of a skyscraper to be built in Shanghai which will put all other skyscrapers in its shade.1

Reasons. Why do they do it? In his article, “How Skyscrapers Work,” Tom Harris gives two reasons. First, he states the obvious: “You can create a lot of real estate out of a relatively small ground area.” Then he adds what may not be so obvious: “Ego and grandeur do sometimes play a significant role in the scope of the construction. . . . The main force behind the skyscraper race might turn out to be basic vanity. Where monumental height [the pyramids] once honored gods and kings, it now glorifies corporations and cities. These structures come from a very fundamental desire—everybody wants to have the biggest building on the block.”2

Harris’s comments sound strikingly like those made by Ellen White nearly a century earlier. In the passage referred to above she declared, “As these lofty buildings went up, the owners rejoiced with ambitious pride that they had the money to use in gratifying self and provoking the envy of their neighbors.” Not only did Ellen White see skyscrapers rising “higher and still higher,” she also identified the motivation behind the erection of these buildings—human pride. Unhappily, she also saw something else:

“The scene that next passed before me was an alarm of fire. . . . These buildings were consumed as if made of pitch. The fire engines could do nothing to stay the destruction. The firemen were unable to operate the engines” (ibid., p. 13).

Foretold? Did Ellen White witness the World Trade Center destruction of September 11 a century before it happened? We cannot tell for certain. Striking similarities between what happened on that day and what she described in Testimonies, vol. 9, have led many to conclude that she was describing that very scene. But others point to significant differences, saying that the buildings were not “consumed as if made of pitch,” a description of something totally engulfed in flames. The flames—the result of burning jet fuel—were confined to a few floors, melting the steel structure there and allowing the top of each building to collapse the part below it. Also, inability to operate fire engines does not seem to have been a factor in the destruction of those buildings.

In 1906—five years after the visit to New York City in which she saw the vision of destruction—Mrs. White made the following statement, disclaiming specific knowledge of what was to come on New York City but pleading for the cities everywhere to be warned of their coming time of trouble:

“I have no light in particular in regard to what is coming on New York, only that I know that one day the great buildings there will be thrown down by the turning and overturning of God’s power. . . . Death will come in all places. This is why I am so anxious for our cities to be warned” (Last Day Events, pp. 112, 113, emphasis mine).

Last Opportunity? Currently hundreds of Christians—Adventist and non-Adventist alike—are making exceptional efforts to bring a knowledge of Christ to that mighty metropolis and to many others. This may be our last opportunity to work the cities.

Many questions are now being raised—especially questions about God. Since God knows everything and is all-powerful, why did He permit evil men to kill thousands of innocent people, including many Christians? And why does God not stop any future attacks which terrorists may plan against the innocent?

If the scales could be removed from our eyes so that we could view the invisible world, we would no doubt discover that God does stop many more of the devil’s plans than He permits. But it is only in light of the great controversy between Christ and Satan that we can understand why God tolerates evil at all. God gives the devil freedom to perpetrate some of his diabolical schemes—enough so that the onlooking universe will be completely satisfied when Satan and all his followers are obliterated at the end of the world.

But for now, Satan still lives. And we have yet to see how dreadful he can be. The final demonstration of the catastrophic power of Satan which God will permit will come after probation has closed and the fate of every man, woman, and child has been sealed. Then—and not until then—“all the elements of strife will be let loose. The whole world will be involved in ruin more terrible than that which came upon Jerusalem of old” (The Great Controversy, p. 614).

Not Much Time. And what of the time which remains before probation’s close? We may not have much time left. President George W. Bush wants us to use this time by returning to the lives we were living before September 11—buying, selling, traveling, attending sports events, etc. Much of the president’s advice is certainly good. But what if our normal way of life before September 11 did not include God? In the terrible assault on New York City God has given us a wake-up call.

In fact, every disaster reminds us of how quickly life can come to an end, and how vital it is for us always to be in a state of readiness to meet our Maker. This is a time for us to re-evaluate our priorities. In view of the coming destruction of all things terrestrial, would we not do well to focus now on the things that are eternal? Surely we should “give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip” (Heb 2:3).

Ellen White’s skyscraper chapter contains end-of-the-world language. Listen to these lines:

“Great changes are soon to take place in our world, and the final movements will be rapid ones. . . . Soon everything that can be shaken will be shaken. . . . It is impossible to give any idea of the experience of the people of God who shall be alive upon the earth when celestial glory and a repetition of the persecutions of the past are blended. They will walk in the light proceeding from the throne of God. By means of the angels there will be constant communication between heaven and earth” (Testimonies for the Church, 9:11, 15, 16).

Closer. Every day we are drawing closer and closer to the final chapter in the great controversy between good and evil. Our world is soon to undergo drastic changes. Christ is about to return, as He promised, and what a glorious day that will be!

I am a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, but I know that in the great day of the Lord my church membership will not save me. There is only one thing that really matters, and that is my personal walk with Jesus. When the world comes tumbling in around me, I want Jesus as my friend. Making Christ first is now my daily goal. Everything else can wait. note

1. See and skyscraper information.