Relevant Verses: John 11
Leading Question: What does Jesus teach us about death and resurrection?
Given what is happening in our culture today, Jesus’ attitudes toward death and resurrection have become urgent matters. Secularists who have no hope of a future life have no reason to be concerned about either death or resurrection. This world is all there is. By contrast, Christians take both death and resurrection very seriously because they believe in a real future, in some respects like the present, but in others quite different.
The challenge for the Christian community today is that many Christians who believe in a real future for the redeemed also believe in a continuing future for the lost in an eternally-burning hell. Ever since Augustine (d. 430), the idea that a sovereign God must burn sinners forever has been deeply rooted in both Catholic and Protestant traditions. By the nineteenth century, however, when Adventism was born, a multi-faceted religious ferment was stirring in the western world. On the left, agnosticism (previously virtually unknown) had burst upon the scene as a live option. At the same time, on the sectarian right, small splinter groups of devout believers – most notably Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses – ironically revealed that they shared some concerns with the new agnostics, in particular, the rejection of eternally burning hell.
Of special interest to Seventh-day Adventists is Ellen White’s autobiographical perspective on the issue. In the 1840s when her devout Methodist mother began studying the possibility that there was no eternally burning hell, young Ellen White reacted with alarm. Writing some thirty years later in her autobiography, she recalled her urgent words to her mother:
“‘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.’” – Testimonies for the Church, 1:39
In my own experience, discovering that reaction from the young Ellen White was a startling event, for I was much more familiar with her strong rhetoric against the doctrine of eternally burning hell from her writings in the 1880s. In particular, these two quotes from The Great Controversy, had made a vivid impression on me:
“The errors of popular theology have driven many a soul to skepticism who might otherwise have been a believer in the Scriptures. It is impossible for him to accept doctrines which outrage his sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence; and since these are represented as the teaching of the Bible, he refuses to receive it as the word of God.” – GC 525 (1888, 1911)
“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 335 (1888, 1911)
In Ellen White’s view, it was the doctrine of an eternally burning hell that had driven many thoughtful people into agnosticism. From her perspective, the alternative for devout people was insanity. When I query my students after having them read her autobiography in the Testimonies (1:9-112), they universally sense that Ellen White was headed for insanity rather than agnosticism. In short, the doctrine of the non-immortality of the soul literally brought life and health to her.
This is not the place to fully document the cultural movement from belief into agnosticism. For those who wish to pursue it further, let me recommend a remarkable book by the American historian, James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1985). The back cover blurb is revealing:
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, atheism and agnosticism were viewed in Western society as bizarre aberrations. Shortly thereafter, unbelief emerged as a fully available option, a plausible alternative to the still dominant theism of Europe and America.
Another major event took place in the middle of the 20th century, namely, the publication of a little book by a well-known French New Testament scholar, Oscar Cullmann. In Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament – recently re-issued by Wipf and Stock (2010) – Cullmann argues a simple thesis: from a biblical perspective, resurrection, not the immortality of the soul, is the proper counterpart to creation. According to the Bible, argues Cullmann, the body was created good and will be resurrected. From the perspective of Greek philosophy, matter is evil; only the soul is good and must escape from matter at the end of life. Cullmann is persuasive: the idea of an immortal soul is a Greek intruder into the world view of the Bible and is incompatible with the true biblical doctrines of creation and resurrection. One of Cullmann’s more telling arguments is his simple contrast between Socrates’ calm acceptance of death as a friend, and Jesus’ strong cries and tears. Jesus saw death as an enemy.
As a result of Cullmann’s book, new publications defending hell simply vanished for several decades. All that began to change in 1988, however, when InterVarsity Press published Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue. In his dialogue with the “liberal” David Edwards, noted evangelical John Stott openly sided with those who reject natural immortality and the doctrine of an eternally burning hell. Suddenly, the defenders of hell began to emerge and continue to publish to this day.
Two other recent events should be noted. 1) LLT Productions has published a full-length DVD in defense of conditionalism. “Hell and Mr. Fudge” tells the story of Edward Fudge who once believed in an eternally burning hell, but who has now become the most thorough-going defender of conditionalism. His books, The Fire that Consumes and Hell: A Final Word are now widely known and available. 2) Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins is a passionate defense of conditionalism. Unfortunately, because of his links with the so-called “emerging church,” Bell’s book has not been widely praised by some who could support his position. Still, the book has certainly played a part in the burgeoning discussion of the doctrine of hell.
So how can a Sabbath School class explore the issue? In the Gospels, the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 should be essential reading as would also the final chapters of each Gospel that deal with Jesus death and resurrection.