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Adventist Liberalism at Its Best: Death and Resurrection


In some ways, Adventists are very conservative, believing in a God who answers prayer and who is coming again. But even the most conservative Adventists are “liberal” in at least one key respect: “mortalism,” the belief that the body is a holistic unity and does not have a separate soul. Mortalism means no eternally burning hell, a very “liberal” idea.

Given what is happening in our culture today, attitudes towards 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. But Evangelical Christians do take both death and resurrection very seriously because they believe in a real future for real people, a future that is in some respects like the present, but in others quite different.

But evangelicals face a dilemma: What to do about 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.”  – The Great Controversy, 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.” – The Great Controversy, 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. Yet initially, she was afraid to adopt the position that would give her life!

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. Prodded by his liberal dialogue partner, Stott, after admitting that “probably most Evangelical leaders” do believe in an eternally burning hell, makes this astonishing admission:

Do I hold it, however? Well, emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth [314/315] and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it. As a committed Evangelical, my question must be – and is – not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? And to answer this question, we need to survey the biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilation, and that “eternal conscious torment” is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture. – Evangelical Essentials, 314-315

Several paragraphs later, Stott articulates a refreshing model for addressing the ever-present dilemma facing the exploratory believer: How does one negotiate the difference between personal convictions and the position of the majority of believers in a community?

I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the world-wide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to suppress, and I am grateful to you for challenging me to declare my [319/320] present mind. I do not dogmatise about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. I also believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.– Evangelical Essentials 319-320

Stott’s admission unleashed a torrent of voices in defense of hell and the lively debate continues to this day.

Two other recent events should be noted.  1) In July 2012, LLT Productions released its full-length feature film (now available on 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 (1996, 2011) and Hell: A Final Word (2012, 2014) are now widely known and available. 2) Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins (Harper, 2011, 2013) 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 eagerly 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 along with the final chapters of each Gospel that deal with Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is a wonderful opportunity for Adventists to celebrate the liberal frosting on its otherwise quite conservative cake.

And if your Sabbath School class is really brave, it could compare Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins with God Wins (Tyndale, 2011),the Calvinist response to Bell by the Mark Galli, the current editor of Christianity Today. The contrasting titles illustrate the long-standing divide between the free-will perspective in the Arminian/Wesleyan tradition, and the sovereignty of God perspective dominant in the Calvinist tradition. Our Methodist roots place us solidly in the free-will tradition, though in times of apparent crisis, Adventist Calvinists begin to flex their muscles in frightening ways, frightening, at least to those who really want to believe that love can win.

But for all his defense of the Calvinist position, Galli makes a remarkable concession toward the end of his book. After noting a number of puzzling paradoxes which Christians have largely accepted as unresolvable, Galli argues that at least one aspect of the debate – the fate of those who have not heard of Jesus – should be allowed to remain as a paradox: “Scripture is satisfied to leave paradoxes unresolved. Likewise, it teaches that God is good and just and powerful, and that the world is full of evil. It does not speculate about the fate of those who have not heard of Jesus or who die before the age of accountability, as troubling as we find those questions.” – God Wins, 149 

If Evangelicals could accept that more moderate position, Adventists would be cheering them on. The more traditional evangelical position is a much harsher one. Those who do not explicitly accept Jesus burn forever! On this point Adventists, nudged by The Desire of Ages, chapter 70, have generally adopted a truly liberal position: Those who have never heard of Jesus can be saved. The crucial quote is this one:

Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God. – Desire of Ages, 638

Ellen White’s position is clearly shaped by the judgment parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 and her language echoes that of Romans 2:14-15 (“they…have done the things that the law required”). So Adventists would probably want to take issue with Galli and not place this question among the unresolvable paradoxes that Scripture does not address. Our free-will heritage undoubtedly makes it easier for us to see such a position.

But is this an issue on which we should choose up sides and divide the church? Probably not. While the church must establish the boundaries within which we agree to live together, trying to push through resolutions on the interpretation of Scripture is not productive of good. In a Web Special to the Adventist Review (June 12, 2014), Mark Finley, Editor-at-large, wrote these  helpful comments in the context of the debate over the ordination of women:

How shall I relate to those who think differently than I do? Should our different views build walls between us? Should different opinions about the reading of the biblical text divide friends? Ellen White’s meaningful comment is insightful here: “One man blunders in his interpretation of some portion of the Scripture, but shall this cause diversity and disunion? God forbid. We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light” – Letter 29, 1889 to Brother and Sister Buckner [Manuscript Releases 15:150, 1993].

Though Finley does not cite the next two paragraphs in Letter 29,  they are relevant at a time when some want the church to decide by vote which interpretations of Scripture are correct:

The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord but they cannot quench it and establish a perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect a perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance. Satan can sow discord; Christ alone can harmonize the disagreeing elements. Then let every soul sit down in Christ’s school and learn of Christ who declares Himself to be meek and lowly of heart; and Christ declares that if we learn of Him, then our worries will cease, and we shall find rest to our souls. 

The great truths of the Word of God are so clearly stated that none need make a mistake in understanding them. When you as individual members of the church love God supremely and your neighbor as yourself, then there will be no labored efforts to be in unity; there will be a oneness in Christ, the ears to reports will be closed, and no one will take up a reproach against his neighbor. The members of the church will cherish love and unity and be as one great family.

It is in that spirit that we should carry on our discussions in our homes, schools, and churches – and on-line.  By God’s grace, it can happen.

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