In a sermon he preached in 1741, Jonathan Edwards told his listeners: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire. . . .
“You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder” (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God).
But are sinners really in the hands of an “angry God”? Is God a sadistic deity who suspends sinners by a thread over the hungry flames of hell—eventually to plunge them into the churning inferno below? Does He then watch as they writhe and shriek through all eternity in flames hot enough to bring agony but somehow not hot enough to bring death?
Some Christians say that Seventh-day Adventists (publishers of Signs of the Times®) don’t believe in hell—or, at least, not in a very hot hell. The truth is that Adventists believe in the hottest hell of all—a hell that’s hot enough to destroy the wicked and not just scorch them through all eternity.
In saying so, Seventh-day Adventists stress several Bible passages which they believe predict complete annihilation of unrepentant sinners. For example, Malachi 4:1*: “The day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.”
Here’s another: “The wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away” (Psalm 37:20).
I once heard a fire-and-brimstone preacher like Jonathan Edwards describe scenes of the lost writhing in f lames that would burn through ceaseless ages. Since then I’ve wondered why hellfire means so much to so many Christians. I believe that what the Bible says about the fate of the wicked is important, and that in all our study we must always also consider the character of God, His justice, and His pledged word.
Seventh-day Adventists see many errors in the doctrine of eternal torment of the wicked in hell. Let’s consider several of them.
Love prolongs suffering.
I find it very strange that Christians readily condemn Hitler for prolonging people’s suffering yet insist that’s exactly what God does.
When I was a boy, a mad dog chased me. Men in the neighborhood soon came with guns and destroyed the pain-crazed animal. Rational human beings put sick animals to death to end their misery; they certainly do not wish even brute beasts to suffer endless torture.
Now let’s consider Job 4:17: “Shall mortal man be more just than God?” Are we to believe that our heavenly Father hates unrepentant sinners so much that He tortures them in flames through ceaseless ages when sinful humans wouldn’t even submit a dog to that kind of suffering? The way Adventists look at it, it is consistent with God’s mercy to destroy the wicked quickly, and, in fact, it is because He loves them that He permits their rapid destruction.
Here let me mention another idea about what will happen to the wicked, one that is the exact opposite of hellfire. This is the doctrine— often called universalism—that God will save everyone, the wicked along with the righteous. Adventists see it as an erroneous doctrine invented to avoid the repellent idea that God burns human beings forever.
Seventh-day Adventists do not teach universal salvation for two reasons: (1) We can’t find it in the Bible, and (2) we think that an unrighteous person forced to live forever in heaven would be just as uncomfortable there as if he were forced to live in hell—and God doesn’t intend for anyone to spend eternity feeling uncomfortable.
You see, if God took these people to heaven, they would not be happy there, for in this life they objected to the holy principles that govern the paradise of God. If they are not comfortable in the company of good people here, they would be uncomfortable with them in heaven. Moreover, the Bible says that God will make “a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), “and there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth” (verse 27).
There will be no place for the wicked in heaven. “For yet a little while,” we read in the Psalms, “and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be” (Psalm 37:10).
A blemished heaven.
Adventists understand the Bible as teaching that both righteous and wicked will receive their final reward on this earth. “Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: much more the wicked and the sinner” (Proverbs 11:31).
If the flames of hell were to burn forever, then there would always remain a plague spot somewhere on the new earth.
The doctrine of eternal torment seems to be so very contrary to the biblical teaching that the punishment of the wicked will be commensurate with their sins. Using a figure of speech, Jesus said that when He returns in judgment, some people “shall be beaten with many stripes” and others “shall be beaten with few stripes” (Luke 12:47, 48). In Matthew 16:27 He said that everyone will be rewarded “according to his works.” The apostle Paul spoke of the “righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:5, 6). Surely it would be all out of proportion to punish the wicked age after age without end for the sins of a brief lifetime.
Supposedly, the lost will cry for water, but a just and merciful God through unceasing ages will refuse even one drop to alleviate their pain. But God’s character of love will not change when He deals with the finally impenitent. Then—as at all other times—“shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Adventists believe He will always be a God of justice. “His righteousness endureth for ever” (Psalm 111:3). “His mercy endureth forever” (Psalm 118:3).
God has never been a vengeful tyrant—and He won’t become a vengeful tyrant when the time arrives to punish the wicked.
Life without Christ
The doctrine of eternal torment is in error because it is contrary to the biblical teaching that there is life only in Christ. “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 John 5:12).
A person burning in hell would not have a pleasant life, but he would have life. According to the Bible, the wages of sin is death, not eternal torment (Romans 6:23).
Confusing time and results.
The unquenchable fire spoken of in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 refers to the kind of fire and the effect of the fire that will destroy the wicked, and not its duration. Jeremiah foretold that Jerusalem would be destroyed by fire that “shall not be quenched” (Jeremiah 17:27). When an enemy came and set fire to the city, the flames could not be extinguished, but the fire did go out after it had accomplished its work. Jerusalem is not burning today.
The “eternal fire” spoken of in Jude 7 reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah “into ashes, . . . making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6).
Judgment at death.
While the doctrine of eternal torment teaches that man goes to his reward at death, the Bible teaches a future day for settling accounts. Jesus said, “I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12). In Peter’s day the judgment was yet future. “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished” (2 Peter 2:9).
Jesus taught that the wicked would be resurrected before being consigned to hellfire. “The hour is coming,” He said, “in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good’ unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28, 29).
The day of judgment isn’t at each person’s death. Rather, it’s an event still to take place in the future.**
Punishment vs. punishing.
Jesus said, “These [the wicked] shall go away into everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46). He did not say everlasting punishing. The wicked shall be visited with “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). “Transgressors shall be destroyed together” (Psalm 37:38). “The wicked . . . shall be destroyed for ever” (Psalm 92:7). The punishment of the wicked is a destruction that will be everlasting.
How hot is hell? Hot enough to devour the wicked (Revelation 20:9). Hot enough to reduce them to ashes (Malachi 4:3). Hot enough to cleanse the earth and melt the very elements (2 Peter 3:10, 12). Happily, after the fire has burned up all evil and every evil thing, then those who love God may confidently, “according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).
That, as Seventh-day Adventists see it, is the Bible’s truth about hell.