Thinking About Hell
I preached on hell yesterday. I had to finish a 4 part series from the book of Malachi and since Malachi 4:1-3 clearly is speaking of the destruction of those who choose not to become worshipers of Jesus the topic was unavoidable. Had I detoured around those rather graphic texts which speak of the final punishment of the “arrogant” and “evildoers” it would have been an obvious deflection because the chapter is only six verses long. Yet as I delved into the study, and the message began to take form there was a greater sense of peace and conviction about what I would be preaching. For my non Seventh-day Adventist friends out there our doctrinal position on the destruction of the lost is firmly planted in what theologians call the annihilationism view of hell. Unlike traditional evangelicalism which takes an eternal conscious torment view of hell we Adventists believe that in the end God will thoroughly and completely annihilate lost people with fire. For the most part (as with other doctrines like the Sabbath, death, prophecy) we Adventists are pretty much alone on this one aside from a few notable and respected evangelicals like John Stott who tentatively conceded some ground to this view and even defended annihilationism according to an October 2000 article in Christianity Today see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/october23/1.30.html.
For me annihilationism is consistent with the character of a God who says in Ezekiel 33:11 “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked…” The notion of a God who would allow for the eternal conscious torment of lost people sounds more like a masochistic God bent on sticking it to those who crossed him. But just because annihilationism is perhaps a bit more palatable for me doesn’t mean I get to ignore the Bible texts that suggest that indeed the wicked will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” Rev. 20:10. But I’m satisfied with what I believe the Bible teaches there as well. My understanding is that when it comes to “for ever and ever” or “everlasting/eternal” those are relative terms in the Bible. In other words with regard to “everlasting/eternal” when those terms are used to refer to God there’s no question that these attributes are true of God who alone is immortal and eternal. However when it comes to humanity or other earthly, created, perishable things these words can only mean until the person or object is consumed, or burned up. For example Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered “the vengeance of eternal fire” but those cities are not burning today. There’s no question that the results or the impact of the fire is eternal, there is no Sodom and Gomorrah today (though Las Vegas could be considered a modern equivalent). So the same seems to be true for lost people, Revelation 20:9 says that fire came down and “devoured” the unsaved. The unsaved are consumed and destroyed by an “unquenchable” fire and it isn’t that they suffer an eternal conscious punishing but rather the result of the punishment is everlasting, and eternal.
Connected to the doctrine of hell is the idea of conditionalism or conditional immortality, the teaching (which I hold to) that humanity is not born immortal (not subject to death) but rather the only immortal being is God and thus God alone can grant immortality (I Tim. 6:16) which is what he will bestow upon his followers at his return (I Cor. 15:51-54). This again is where, Adventists and traditional evangelicalism part ways. The notion that we are all immortal (like God) doesn’t seem consistent with the pronouncement that God made to Adam and Eve in the Garden, “you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17) remember that it was the serpent that said that, “you will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). It would seem then that conditionalism is more accurate with what scripture says about the nature of man that indeed we are subject to death and that immortality then is a gift given only to those who come to faith in Jesus. For the lost then to spend eternity in a conscious state (even if it is in torment) would suggest that they too receive eternal life which is difficult to reconcile considering the fact that scripture clearly points to eternal life being reserved only for the saints.
In preparing my message though I thought about how both views are really a turn-off for the unbelieving world. Our culture doesn’t like the idea of a God who punishes, judges, or destroys anyone. Our culture believes that God’s love is big enough to find a way for all people to be saved and experience heaven. My guess is that many long-time evangelicals and Adventists have succumbed to the popular notion of Universalism simply because hell is so politically incorrect to talk about (or believe). Clearly God does want to save everyone (2 Peter 3:9) but He won’t because His love does not allow Him to force a relationship on anyone. Again I’m satisfied with a God who allows those who do not want to live eternally worshiping, serving, and loving him to choose eternal death instead of eternal life.
I’m certain it wasn’t the best sermon on hell but it was what God called me to share. It made me think carefully about hell and what the Bible is saying about lost people. More than anything it compels me to think even more about the gospel and the real need to preach it, and preach it well so that people won’t go to hell.