Some time ago a Signs reader sent us the following question: “I agree with Seventh-day Adventists that God will not punish the wicked in hell forever and ever. However, even your view that God will destroy the wicked in a lake of fire at the end of the millennium pictures God as arbitrary, vengeful, and severe, using His power to put down evil—the very characteristics that Satan attributes to God but that are actually characteristics of Satan himself. I do not believe that in the end God will finally resort to force to put down evil.”
Following is my response.
You raise a very important issue, and I am sympathetic to your concern. Love is one of the primary attributes of God’s character, and any teaching about His ultimate dealing with sin and sinners must be consistent with that love.
The problem for us humans is how to bring together everything we know about God without creating unacceptable contradictions. It’s true that one of the primary attributes of God’s character is love—but so is justice. Is love, then, the primary attribute of God’s character, with justice as a secondary characteristic that yields to love whenever there is a conflict between the two? I don’t think so.
If the death of sinners is not just, why will God allow it to happen as the final solution to the problem of evil? If, on the other hand, their death is just but God has no part in it, whose justice does it represent? How could He be totally just if He has no part in the execution of justice? Does justice exist outside of God?
Your question brings up several other issues relative to God’s attitude toward sin and sinners. One of these is whether a loving God can be angry. I believe He can. The idea that He cannot arises out of the popular misperception of anger as bad in and of itself. However, anger is bad only when we misuse it, such as when we lose our tempers. Obviously, God does not lose His temper. Anger is a perfectly normal human response to injustice, and often it is the most loving response when people are being treated cruelly. I propose that God’s anger is also a very appropriate and a very loving divine response to injustice.
I have a friend who holds your point of view about God’s anger, and I asked him once how he would feel if an intruder were to rape one of his teenage daughters. He said, “Murderous.” Then I asked him how he would want God to feel. He thought a moment, and then he said, “Murderous.” I rested my case.
When my wife and I visited the World War II concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, several years ago, we felt profound anger at the way Hitler treated Jews and other “undesirables.” That was an entirely appropriate response. And I propose that God feels the same way about the suffering He’s seen the wicked inflict on human beings these thousands of years of human history. I wouldn’t want a God who did not feel angry about such atrocities!
You said that in the end you do not believe God will resort to force to put down evil, because force is a characteristic of Satan. Force—the exercise of power to bring about a desired result—is an attribute of Satan in the sense that Satan uses force to get people to obey him. That God will never do. All who obey Him must do so by choice.
But the Bible does say that when Lucifer and his angels chose to rebel against God’s law of love in heaven, heaven’s armies cast them out (Revelation 12:9, 10). That was force—God using His power to eliminate rebellion and evil from heaven. And the Bible teaches that an all-wise God will eventually exercise the same power to cleanse the entire universe of rebellion.
Others who hold your view agree that the wicked will ultimately be destroyed, but they claim that God will not personally destroy them. He will simply allow nature to take its course.
Let’s consider the prospect of God truly refusing to intervene to destroy the wicked, allowing their eternal demise to be just the natural outworking of their choice to be evil. To do that, God would have to place the wicked in a world all by themselves long enough for them to become extinct through the natural outworking of disease and the principle of “tooth and claw.” Their race would suffer a miserable, prolonged, pathetic extinction.
When I have a dog or cat with a painful terminal illness, in mercy I ask the veterinarian to “put it to sleep.” In the same way, I see God’s eventual destruction of the wicked as a merciful alternative to truly allowing nature to take its course while He stands aside and watches.
Some people who share your view offer the explanation that the wicked will be destroyed by the revelation of God’s glory in the final judgment rather than by God Himself bringing fire down on them. But to absolve God of the responsibility for the death of the wicked by saying that “He just unveiled His glory” hardly gets Him off the hook.
Imagine for a moment that I have a laser beam in my forehead that will kill people if I take my hat off in their presence. If I ever did that and were hauled into court for murder, what do you think the judge and jury would say to my plea that “I didn’t kill anyone. I just took my hat off”? If it is within my power to not take off my hat, then I’m responsible for those who die when I take it off, even if I didn’t personally strike them.
You said that “God is not arbitrary, vengeful, or severe.” It’s true that God is not arbitrary in His dealings with the wicked. An arbitrary God would destroy them with no consideration for what His loyal subjects thought about it. That’s why God refused to eradicate sin when it arose. Rather, He allowed it to continue for several thousand years so that all created beings could pass judgment against it for themselves.
Is God vengeful? No—by which I mean He is not spiteful. Is He severe? If by severe you mean “malicious,” no. But if you mean “strict,” yes. God is always strict in dealing with evil.
I propose that the life of all creatures is ultimately in God’s hands. Therefore, when the time comes that the wicked are permanently destroyed, God will be responsible for their death, and whether He takes personal action to make that happen or merely “allows” it to happen is irrelevant. I also propose that His justice is the reason why He will not only allow it to happen but also will actually initiate it. And in the long-range scheme of things, that tragic event will be the most merciful thing that a loving God could do!
Marvin Moore is the editor of Signs of the Times®. He and his wife, Lois, live in Caldwell, Idaho.