One of the most unpleasant realities in scripture is Hell. As creatures we often abhor such a concept. It is a teaching that is connected to the biblical teaching around God’s holiness, the nature of sin, the condition of man, and what life and death truly is.
The SDA Church has long claimed that the belief in Hell being eternal conscious torment is one of the main reasons people have rejected God. Ellen G. White, who the SDA Church believes was divinely inspired and corrects inaccurate interpretations of scripture, claimed the belief in eternal conscious torment is repugnant and doesn’t align with someone simply committing sins on earth for a brief period of time. She did teach/believe that Hell will take place on this earth, involving real flames with a real painful experience, but that that experience will end—appealing to the emotions of those in Heaven and whether or not they will be compassionless creatures all of a sudden by virtue of now being in heaven (which assumes a number of things). In their view, Hell will be the judgment of God poured out on the wicked, on this earth, at a second resurrection event, leading to the complete annihilation of the wicked.
And this gets to the heart of the issue—an incorrect view of man’s condition, the nature of sin, and the holiness of God. It’s important when examining this topic to keep our emotions in check and not let them cloud our judgment and biblical interpretation. It’s also important that we tread carefully and thoughtfully as this is a very weighty matter.
As shown above, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church loathes the idea of Hell being an eternally conscious experience. In their eyes, it warps the character of God and isn’t compatible with Him being loving. Their belief in this area, like most who believe in annihilation, is connected with their view of conditional immortality and man not having an immaterial spirit (anthropological monism). Because they see man as strictly a physical creature and they define eternal life as having indefinite existence, eternal life then must only be something given to those who are saved—nor could the physical body withstand the flames of Hell forever. In their eyes, those in Hell, if conscious eternally, would also have eternal life. But this is an incorrect definition of eternal life.
Jesus defined eternal life in His high priestly prayer as communion with and knowing the only True God (John 17:3), not merely having indefinite consciousness. Those in Hell do not know the True God or have communion with Him—which is why they are there—so therefore they don’t have eternal life even if they are conscious.
To understand what the Bible says on this subject we have to have correct definitions in accordance with scripture and we have to examine three things—the condition of man, the nature of sin, and the holiness of God.
The Condition of Man & Nature of Death
Humanity does not reject God because of the idea of Hell—or any doctrine for that matter. Mankind naturally is hostile to God because he is a sinner, a rebel. He is born hostile to God, a hater of God, can’t seek for God, or do anything that is pleasing to Him (Romans 3:9-11).
The Bible describes the fallen man as already dead due to their sin, by nature a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-4). This is because in God’s economy, he works with federal heads (representatives). Adam was the federal head of all of humankind and, when He well, we all fell in Him and all sinned (Romans 5:12). We may not like this, but that’s what the text says. It also important to note that if one rejects this, they must then reject Jesus being their new federal head as the Second Adam who they can then be seen as righteous in (1 Corinthians 15:42–49).
When a person is transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of Light, they are transferred from the fallen, condemned family of Adam into the royal family of Jesus Christ. In Adam all die, in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). The question becomes, what does being made alive look like if a person is already conscious and aware yet dead?
Like is stated in Ephesians 2:1-4, we are born dead in our sins. When God regenerates a person (John 3:3, Titus 3:5) that dead aspect man’s being is made alive through union with Christ. A person is still conscious despite this aspect of their nature being dead.
Secondly, this shows us that “by nature,” the fallen man is a child of wrath. Meaning, the just and fair thing for God to do would be to condemn all of humanity. All of us are deserving of God’s wrath, not His love. But He is so merciful and gracious that He actually spares those that turn to Him in faith and repentance which showcases the fullness of His attributes. He has justice, wrath and anger toward sin (Deuteronomy 9:8, Numbers 11:1-2, Romans 2:5, 1 Thessalonians 1:10) but also great grace, mercy, love and kindness (Nehemiah 9:31, John 3:16, Romans 5:1-2, 11:5-6).
Biblically speaking, death is a separation. To be physically dead means the body is separated from the spirit (James 2:26), and to be spiritually dead, i.e. dead in sin, means to be separated from fellowship with God and hostile to Him. Once we realize the proper definition of both death and eternal life, a lot of interpretive problems are cleared up. The lost will perish forever because they will forever be out of fellowship with God and separated from communion with Him (which is what eternal life means). This is why Hell will be miserable—the inhabitants will be cut off from the source of all things good.
Because all of humanity is deserving of condemnation, we cannot demand that God give grace to anyone. Grace would not then be grace, but something deserved or merited. The fact that God spares anyone should be what causes us to see how abounding in steadfast love and mercy He is.
The Nature of Sin & Holiness of God
When Ellen White states that it is repugnant that hell would be eternally conscious because sin was only committed over a brief period of one’s life, we get insight into the weak understanding of sin that permeates the Adventist system of theology. But more importantly, we get insight into their truncated view of God’s holiness.
God is a Holy Being (1 Peter 1:15-16). He is also a just Being (Deuteronomy 32:4, Job 34:12, 37:23; Psalms 89:14). This means that He is completely free from sin, it is entirely foreign to Him, and it is part of His nature that He must punish sin. For He is just and to not punish sin would be to go against His very nature making Him unjust. This is why Romans 3:26 is so incredible. God is both the just and the justifier. He punishes sin by taking the punishment for it upon Himself, but also spares those who turn to Christ by justifying them by their faith in His work for them in His life, death, burial and resurrection. He still punishes sin while sparing sinners.
It’s interesting to note that the song of the unfallen angels, day and night, is “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Revelation 4:8) and not “love, love, love.” God is absolutely a loving Being, but the Adventist system tends to caricature God by elevating His love above all such that the rest of His character becomes warped. We have to see the entire character of God, not just the facets we want to magnify.
Even a single sin is worthy of condemnation and the punishment in line with the one who man has offended. Sin is not simply making a mistake. It isn’t a simple slip-up. Sin is rebellion, it is utterly offensive to God because it is contrary to Him and His nature. Sin committed against the infinite God, is infinitely evil and requires an infinite punishment. Only the infinite One Himself had the capacity to make the infinitely valuable atonement that was necessary on account of sin. This is why Jesus being both 100% man, and 100% God is absolutely necessary (hypostatic union). Jesus could pay an infinite penalty with His infinite value of a sacrifice for human beings.
Matthew 18:23-35 gives us insight into how big the debt owed by man is. It is an eternal chasm that only God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, could fill. This impossible debt illustrates how infinite our sin debt is before a Holy God. If we choose to pay for our sins ourselves rather than trusting in Christ, we will end up paying that debt for all eternity and never be able to pay it in full. In realizing that sin deserves nothing less than eternal conscious judgement, we begin to realize just how great the work of Jesus Christ for our salvation is.
The Biblical Evidence
The SDA Church—like other annihilationists—has sought to argue over the meaning of the term “punishment”—citing that it doesn’t necessitate a conscious experience, but can be an eternal end state (ie: the punishment is eternal in so far as once one is annihilated, it’s final). The problem with this understanding is the usage throughout scripture. We’re told Hell is a place of torment, which requires conscious experience by definition, and this torment takes place “day and night, forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). We’re told the flames are eternal (Matthew 3:12, 25:41; Mark 9:44-49). Let’s look at some of these more closely…
Adventists will often cite Jude 7 to say Sodom and Gomorrah suffered eternal fire, but they were burned up, so will be the afterlife of the wicked.
The phrase used in that verse, “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire,” is actually in the present tense, not past. While the physical cities themselves were destroyed to ashes, that does not mean the wicked inhabitants ceased to exist or that they aren’t presently under the wrath of God. Peter indicates that the ungodly are kept “under punishment” until the final day of judgment (2 Peter 2:9).
The same Greek word used for “eternal fire” in this verse is the same found in “eternal life” and “eternal punishment.” The argument could be made that only the flames are eternal, but the experience of the inhabitants is not, which would be rather pointless, but let’s continue examining.
The Adventist Church loves to appeal to Isaiah 66 to claim that it demonstrates that the seventh-day sabbath will be observed in Heaven. So this verse in particular is only problematic for their position on Hell. Others understand this passage to be using deconstruction and reconstruction language, common in the Old Testament, to refer to the restoration of Israel after their destruction. But in the Adventist Church’s case, their claim that this is in reference to Heaven creates a problem.
Verse 24 says that, outside of the city, there are unquenchable flames where the wicked will be burn and the inhabitants of the city will look upon them with contempt. If this is talking about Heaven, like the SDA Church tries to claim regarding Isaiah 66:23, then outside of Heaven there will be eternal flames where the wicked are being tormented. SDA apologists have tried to use the defense that only the flames are eternal, not the suffering, but this still creates problems because, like Ellen White claimed, they don’t believe the flames will burn forever.
Revelation 14:10, 20:10
The phrase “forever and ever” (which means “to the ages of the ages” in Greek) is used twelve times in the book of Revelation. This is two of them and they are in reference to the Lake of Fire.
In eight of the uses, it’s in reference to God living, or reigning, forever and ever (Revelation 1:6, 4:9-10, 5:13, 7:12, 10:6, 11:15, 15:7). One of the others refers to the destruction of Babylon (Revelation 19:3) and the other to the saints length of reign with God (Revelation 22:5).
With this being the case, is there any possibility that God won’t live or reign forever and ever? Is there any possibility that God’s people won’t reign with Him forever and ever? Is there any possibility that judgement on Babylon won’t be forever and ever?
When this identical phraseology is used to refer to the Lake of Fire, then it would be up for negotiation as to whether or not God will reign forever and ever or that the saints’ eternal life and reign with God will continue forever and ever. The sobering reality is that Hell will continue as long as God lives, and it shall continue as long as His redeemed continue in glory with Him.
The text plainly says that the wicked in Hell are tormented day and night, forever and ever. Torment is not something that happens unconsciously. Torment, by definition, is a conscious experience, not simply an eternal consequence or blotting from existence.
Jesus talked about Hell more than anyone else in scripture. What was His understanding of Hell and eternal punishment? When speaking about His return and the Final Judgment, he says that the wicked will be cast out of His Kingdom into eternal fire, prepared for Satan and his angels. Verse 46 becomes pivotal. After saying this he then says the righteous will enter into eternal life and the wicked into eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46).
The same greek word is used for “eternal,” in the same sentence, referring to both the wicked and the righteous. To claim that one is an eternal conscious experience while the other is only an eternal sentencing with the punishment being annihilation is to be inconsistent within the same sentence. The conscious experience of both is tied to the eternal aspect of both.
It’s also important to note that Jesus described those thrown out of His kingdom into Hell as weeping and gnashing their teeth—a phrase consistently used to denote anger in scripture.
The wicked will be angry at God upon their sentencing. There is often times the assumption that, upon death, sin ceases. But scripture doesn’t portray those in Hell as being remorseful such that they repent and turn from sin. With physical death will come an increase in knowledge. Those in Hell will not be confused as to which religion is true and who the true God is. Their communion with the True God remains severed and the restraint that God has had over the wicked is lifted such that their natural, fallen proclivities will go unfettered.
While this passage in isolation does not necessitate the eternality of the gnashing, in conjunction with what the rest of scripture says on the subject, it speaks into the nature of Hell and is indicative that Hell is full of those who “gnash their teeth” in anger at God and there’s no indicator that this ceases.
How Can God Be Loving Then?
Probably the foremost objection by the SDA Church regarding Hell is how could God be loving to do such a thing. This is an area where we have to not allow our emotions to determine objective truth. We are creatures, fallen one’s I might add, that see things from a finite, limited perspective. God is not subjected to our human reason and standards. He himself is the standard and, apart from Him, there is no objective standard of love, right, wrong, etc. God alone is qualified to decide what the ultimate reality is concerning love, justice, righteousness, etc.
Adventism has inverted this with it’s “Great Controversy” worldview, where the fallen creatures get to decide whether or not God is good, based on whether or not He deals with sin in a way that reconciles with human understanding. The flaw in this reasoning is assuming that we have the capability to accurately judge what true love and justice should look like.
The Bible upholds God alone as the objective standard of all things. He as the Creator doesn’t have to prove anything about His goodness to any of His creatures—He is not obligated to do such. Instead, as creatures, we have the obligation to recognize Him as our Maker, who has given us life and His Son Jesus Christ for the salvation of all who will trust in Him. The creature has a solemn obligation to the Creator, not the other way around.
Failing to realize why Hell will be what it will be for the duration that it will be is a failure to fully see the holiness of our Maker and who it is that we have sinned against and how grievous that sin is. The love of God was demonstrated at Calvary 2000 years ago on behalf of sinners where God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, gave Himself a ransom bearing the wrath of God in the place of deserving sinners. This work bridged the gap, restoring communion with God, bringing eternal life to all of those that would believe. All of those that reject this will pay the penalty for their own sins, never being able to pay the debt in full and suffer the eternal consequences of that which is indeed eternal separation from God in an existence of pain, misery and torment.
We’ve heard many SDAs claim they would never worship such a God. The reality is, He is the Holy One. He is the Almighty. He is not subject to our subjective standards. It is Him that you have sinned against. And it is in the presence of His majesty and holiness that you will stand having to give an account for every thought, word, deed and motive. You will either spend eternal communion with Him by being covered in the righteousness of Christ, or be separated from Him due to your sin. He’s foretold us in His Word that the flame will not go out, the torment will happen day and night, forever and ever. The opportunity to be spared from the wrath to come is now—today is the day of salvation (Psalm 95:7-8).