Relevant Passages: 1 Corinthians 15:22; John 3:16; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
A Soul That Sleeps. An important part of Adventist history is the willingness of the pioneers to adopt the doctrine of soul sleep and the non-immortality of the soul. Such a position denies the existence of an eternally-burning hell, opting for the final destruction of evil (annihilationism) rather than its continuous punishment. In Evangelical circles, the topic has come alive in recent years. The most prominent contributor on the side of the annihilationism is Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, first published in 1982. The October 23, 2000 issue of Christianity Today featured the debate on its cover: “Hell: Annihilation or Eternal Torment?” In 2000, Inter-Varsity Press published Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, featuring Fudge and Robert Peterson as contributors. The following items all deserve attention in the discussion:
1. Basic Assumptions: Overall Philosophy or Individual passages? Perhaps the easiest way to defend an eternal hell is to focus on particular passages which seem to point in that direction. But the annihilationist would argue that an overall framework must first be established before individual texts can be properly understand. In short, annhilationists argue that a good God would not burn sinners forever.
2. Divine Sovereignty: God’s right to do as He pleases? Devout believers who stand in the tradition of Augustine and Calvin would insist that God has a right to burn people forever, just because He is God. Those in the Arminian Wesleyan tradition are more inclined to appeal the our human idea of “justice” to question the whole idea of eternal punishment for the sins of a brief earthly life.
3. Hebrews vs. Greeks: Resurrection of the body or the immortality of the soul? In 1954, a well-known French NT scholar, Oscar Cullmann gave a lecture which draw a great deal of attention. In it he argued that the doctrine of the immortal soul had Greek rather than biblical roots, and was incompatible with the doctrine of creation; resurrection and restoration would be the only kind of “obedience” expected. His lecture was published in book form in 1958. His book no doubt prepared the way for the surge of interest in annihilationism at the end of the 20th century. What does this on going dialogue tell us about our vulnerability to doctrinal change? To doctrinal stagnation?
4. Motivating the sinner. For many Christians who stand in awe of God, the doctrine of hell comes quite easily. Note Ellen White’s reaction early in her life when she learned that her own mother was studying the topic:
“Why mother!” cried I, in astonishment, “this is strange talk for you! If you believe this strange theory, do not let anyone know of it; for I fear that sinners would gather security from this belief, and never desire to seek the Lord.”
Later in her experience she had concluded that hell was a hindrance rather than a help:
How repugnant to every emotion of love and mercy, and even to our sense of justice, is the doctrine that the wicked dead are tormented with fire and brimstone in an eternally burning hell, that for the sins of a brief earthly life they are to suffer torture as long as God shall live.” (GC 535)
5. Immortality: Natural Endowment or Gift of God through Christ? The believer in conditional immortality argues that immortality is something which pertains only to God (1 Tim. 6:16); thus, only through Christ, is it is available to human beings (John 3:16; 1 Cor. 15:22).
6. Progressive Revelation: From the “shades” of Sheol to the Resurrection hope. The Old Testament does not teach a final resurrection hope with clarity except in Daniel 12:1-2. For most of the Old Testament, the description in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 is the norm: when a person dies, he or she goes to the grave as one of the “shades.” A vivid illustration of the “shades” in action appears in Isaiah 14:9-11 where the “shades” greet the king of Babylon when he arrives in Sheol.
7. Final Judgment. Referring to those who receive the mark of the beast, the third angel declares that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 14:11). Many Christians take this language to mean an eternally burning hell. How is it possible to interpret these words as referring to final punishment, not continuing punishment?
8. Sabbath/Sunday Issue. In the nineteenth century, Adventists saw in the third angel’s message an announcement of a deadly final conflict between two “sacred” days, the Sabbath blessed by God (Saturday) and the one established without divine blessing (Sunday). Within the setting of the great struggle between good and evil, Revelation 13 and 14 were understood to refer to coercive and deadly support of Sunday over against those who would insist on the right to honor the day God blessed. When the United States Congress actually debated a national Sunday laws in the 1880s, and when many Adventists spent time in jail for working on Sunday in the 1890s, the Sabbath-Sunday conflict seemed very real, especially in the light of the belligerent stance adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. In an excerpt from Dr. Josiah Strong, quoted in Ellen White’s The Great Controversy, 564-65 (1911), the pope himself is cited as attacking the idea of liberty of conscience:
“Pope Pius IX., in his Encyclical Letter of August 15, 1854, said: `the absurd and erroneous doctrines or ravings in defense of liberty of conscience, are a most pestilential error — a pest, of all others, most to be dreaded in a state.’ The same pope, in his Encyclical Letter of December 8, 1864, anathematized `those who assert the liberty conscience and of religious worship,’ also `all such as maintain that the church may not employ force.'”
While the church of Rome still insists on its right to control the conscience of its members, the more obvious threat to the Sabbath today would appear to be from a not-so-subtle secularism. At the same time, however, many conservative Christian voices are calling for government to exercise a more active role in support of so-called Christian morality. Could “conditional” prophecy be one way of approaching this dramatic change in culture? If so, how might that affect the Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13 and 14? If Adventists can admit that the details of Isaiah 65-66 and Zechariah 14 will not be fulfilled as predicted, could we say the same for the traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13 14? How does one go about “correcting” popular misconceptions of prophecy which assume that God speaks with finality not conditionally?