The investigative judgment is the core doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist system of theology—particularly surrounding judgment and eschatology. It was formally given the name in 1855 by SDA pioneer Joseph Bates.
While the SDA Church will be quick to affirm that all of their doctrine comes from scripture alone, this teaching was a development over time as a response to the Great Disappointment of 1843 and 44 which claimed that Jesus was returning October 22, 1844. As many Millerites sought to find meaning in the Disappointment, a man named Hiram Edson claimed to have a vision on October 23, 1844—the day after the Great Disappointment—where he was shown that they weren’t wrong about the date, but the event and location. He claimed that Jesus wasn’t returning to earth, but entered into the Most Holy Place of a sanctuary in Heaven on that date to begin his next phase of heavenly atonement—the cleansing of the Sanctuary.
This began the snowball of development which later turned into the Investigative Judgment. Along the road of development was what is known as the “7 Year Period”—a time in which this Little Flock of disappointed Millerites were teaching that upon Jesus leaving the Holy Place to enter the Most Holy Place, the door or mercy was shut off to the rest of the world. Salvation was no longer possible for those who rejected their message or who left their small group.
The movements prophetess, Ellen G. White, claimed to have seen this in the Midnight Cry vision from God (First Vision of December 1844), though the Adventist Church has sought to distort this fact for decades. This is because Ellen would later claim (in 1883) that it was her first vision that turned people away from the Shut Door theory. This is 100% false. She also claimed to be shown in the same vision the day and the hour of Jesus’s coming.
As time went on they were forced to reject the Shut Door theory with a new hypothesis that when the door of the Holy Place shut, the door of the Most Holy opened, thus the door of mercy and period of probation (another extra-biblical, key doctrine in their system) was extended. This is then what the Investigative Judgment ended up developing into.
It is important to note that, the Adventist Church has readily put forth the narrative that 1844 and this doctrine were arrived at through serious bible study and prayer. This is not true. As Seventh-Day Adventist theologian P. Gerard Damsteegt documents in his 1992 How Our Pioneers Discovered the Sanctuary Doctrine, it began with Edson’s supposed vision the day after the Great Disappointment. Edson then shared this information with O.R.L. Croiser and F.B. Hahn, two other disappointed Millerites, who then published this information in the February 7, 1846 issue of the Day-Star (which was a Millerite publication). This was then built upon in the subsequent years to try and figure out how to make it work.
What ultimately kept it going was a later vision that Ellen G. White claimed to receive from God where she states that God showed her that Brother Croiser had the light on the sanctuary and that it was God’s will that it be written out and published in the Day-Star and that she was “fully authorized by the Lord” to recommend that publication of the Day-Star to every christian. This was the supposed stamp of approval from God that the early Seventh-Day Adventist’s needed. Croiser later went on to renounce this teaching that Ellen G. White claims God confirmed to her.
Over time, the doctrine developed into its current representation which states that Jesus entered the Most Holy Place of Heaven in 1844 to begin looking over the life record of all of those who have professed faith back to Adam and Eve. In this investigation Jesus is looking to see which of your sins have and haven’t been confessed. Those that have been will be blotted out. Those that have not will stand against you. The standard to pass this judgment is the 10 Commandments and one’s perfect obedience to them. If any sins remain on your life record, either unconfessed or forgotten, your name will be blotted out of the Book of Life and you won’t make it through the judgment or be saved. Ellen White went so far as to say that one must believe this doctrine to be saved.
This doctrine fundamentally distorts the historic, biblical Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ and is partly why the Adventist Church is outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Despite the many efforts over the decades to update, change and rethink the teaching, the problems only become worse. Since all Adventist roads lead back to 1844, if this doctrine falls so goes the entire SDA framework.