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Timeout: “The Smoke of Their Torment”


No belief enables Seventh-day Adventists to stand tall as much as the fact that we do not believe in eternal punishment. I wish nothing more needed to be said, but it does not end there. Sadly, it is only the eternal part that has been erased from the Adventist version of punishment. The belief that gives us the greatest reason to feel proud is also the greatest reason to be embarrassed. No belief is more embarrassing than the fact that Seventh-day Adventists believe that God will burn people alive — and burn some for a protracted period.

I take that back.

Here is a softer version. Nothing is more disappointing than the fact that Seventh-day Adventists were not aroused to rethink the notion of God burning people alive after the Holocaust. The Nazis did not simply cremate people after they had been gassed. Some individuals — children, women, and men — were thrown alive into the fire. In God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, I contend that hell, understood as a place where God tortures people, lost its meaning-making potential after the Holocaust.

Irving Greenberg has proposed a new criterion for what can and cannot be part of theology in a world that went through hell. “Let us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” I support one hundred percent that “the burning children” must have a say in what passes for responsible theology in the twenty-first century. 

The Sabbath School Quarterly does not mention the burning children, but it makes no attempt to wean its audience from the belief that God will burn people alive. In a comment on “the smoke of their torment,” the study guide is content to affirm that the fire will not be eternal.

These texts do not talk about endless burning, for none of these cities is burning today. The consequences are eternal, not the burning itself. The “eternal fire” in Revelation refers to annihilation; the burning will be long enough to make the consumption complete until nothing is left to burn.

I had planned to leave this for the end of this TIMEOUT, but it is just as well that it comes at the beginning. It is important enough to return to it at the end of this reflection. Before we do, I wish to discuss three other things. With reference to the Quarterly, I will discuss “the everlasting gospel,” the announcement that “the hour of his judgment has come,” and the Adventist conviction that “the mark of the beast” allots a critical role to the Sabbath in the time of the end.

Everlasting Gospel         

As noted in my submission earlier this week, the message of the first angel is called a euangelion — without the article (Revelation 14:6). In Greek, far more than in English, the article defines and delimits the noun to which the article is attached. We have enough of it in English to get the idea. It is not the same to say that “the stone hit a boy” as to say, “the stone hit the boy.” In the latter example, the boy is defined. The person telling us this says “the boy” for a reason, either because there was only one boy in the story that could be hit or because there is one boy among many that has special significance. “A boy,” by contrast, leaves unsaid who the boy was. Did the stone hit “a boy” in a crowd of many boys? Did it hit “a boy,” not a girl or a woman or a man or an elderly person, all of them also at the scene? Did the stone accidentally hit “a boy,” not the inanimate target at which the stone-thrower was aiming?

As we can see, the article is not a minor matter even in English. This is one reason why most of the leading interpreters of Revelation believe that the first angel’s “gospel” should not be confused with “the gospel” in New Testament usage elsewhere. In addition, we have a crucial Old Testament background text, Psalm 96:1-13, and we have the story of Revelation up to this point. John’s euangelion is on this logic best understood as “an eternally valid message.” 

How much of this is preserved in the Quarterly and other SDA interpretations? Lumping prevails over precision.

The gospel is good news about God, who saves human beings on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ and His work for them. The gospel is “everlasting” because God never changes. His plan was put in place even before we existed (2 Tim. 1:9, Titus 1:2).

This is good Protestant theology, with a nod to “the gospel” in the letters of Paul, but is it adequate for the cosmic horizon in Revelation? A similar generic understanding is found in the writings of one of the architects of the “New Historicism.” 

The adjective “eternal” [Gr. aionos] applied to “gospel” in Rev. 14:6 carries special meaning. It affirms that the end-time gospel is the unchanged gospel of the apostles and Jesus. The end-time gospel is not a different gospel, but the gospel as set forth by Paul in his letters to the Romans and to other churches (H. K. LaRondelle).

This statement affirms the opposite of what John’s non-use of the article leads us to expect: it makes definite what John has left indefinite. It gives us “the boy” instead of “a boy,” as it were, and it takes away from John the prerogative to define the meaning in the context of his story. The notion that the message of the first angel is “the gospel as set forth by Paul in his letters to the Romans and to other churches” might have merit if it took stock of newer perspectives on Paul.

While the Seventh-day Adventist community was busy with other things the past four decades, “new perspectives on Paul” have upended verities long taken for granted. The “Lutheran Paul” that is evident in the statements quoted above was carpet-bombed by the rediscovery of the apocalyptic tenor in his letters; by Paul’s respectful use of the Old Testament; by a new appreciation for the narrative substructure of his message; by animated rhetorical give-and-take; and by instances of speech-in-character. Most important, perhaps, is the growing conviction that Paul in Romans picks up where Habakkuk left off in the Old Testament. What is revealed in the gospel, is not “faith in Jesus” or a message that is “by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17, NIV). Instead, it is “the faithfulness of Jesus” that is revealed; “the faithfulness of Jesus” reveals God’s righteousness and right-making (Romans 1:16-17; 3:22-36).

Paul’s message in Romans becomes a message of theodicy (the trustworthiness of God) and not only a message about soteriology (how can I be saved)! It has been my privilege to explore these perspectives in my commentary on Romans, The Letter to the Romans: Paul among the Ecologists (2017). And I sometimes wonder: is ignorance of ‘the new Paul’ in the Adventist community a result of indifference, anxiety, insularity, or the determination that our community is best served by continuing business as usual?

God “saves human beings on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ,” says the Quarterly. This view reflects the traditional view of Paul’s faith-language in Romans. It leaves out the most exciting common ground between Romans and Revelation. Paul, too, knew that the divine command was misrepresented before it was violated (Romans 7:7-13). He, too, knew that God’s right-making had to address the misrepresentation and not only the violation. This Paul is less Lutheran and more like John, as when the third angel draws attention to “the commandments of God as explained by the faithfulness of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).   

“Hour of His Judgment”

In my submission earlier this week, I said that the judgment of the first angel is best understood as the critical moment (Revelation 14:7). The cosmic conflict is coming to a head. The bad side is about to declare itself. The scene plays out in the streets and not in the court room. “Fear God and give him glory” is a call to turn away from the misrepresentation of the slanderer and his audacious imitation. The “hour” has indeed come, as in the Gospel of John (John 12:20-33), and it is “hour” in the sense of the critical moment (Revelation 14:7, translation mine). The Quarterly’s idea about “the hour” makes it harder to see the theological street battle here taking place.

It is important for God’s people to give Him glory because “the hour of His judgment has come” (Rev. 14:7, NKJV). The judgment in view here is the pre-Advent investigative judgment, which takes place prior to the Second Coming. The purpose of this judgment is to reveal whether or not we are truly serving God — a choice made manifest by our works (see 2 Cor. 5:10). At the conclusion of this judgment, the destiny of every person is decided (Rev. 22:11), and Jesus will come to bring His reward to every person according to his or her deeds (Rev. 22:12).

Let the notion of “the pre-Advent investigative judgment” stand, but all the eggs should not be in that basket. We are in territory where “the dragon acts and God reacts.” We are approaching the crisis point, peerlessly described by R. H. Charles one hundred years ago.

The Satanic host is about to make its final struggle for the mastery of the world…The hidden mystery of wickedness, the secret source of all the haunting horrors, and crimes, and failures, and sins of the past was about to reveal itself — the Antichrist was to become incarnate and appear armed, as it were, with all but almighty power.

We are also in the theological universe of John. We are indebted to him, unique among the writers of the New Testament, for the notion of “judgment” that is revelatory (John 12:31).

The Quarterly’s emphasis on judgment as a judicial scene brought back to my mind one of my rare encounters with the theological hierarchy in the church. Some years ago, I was invited to contribute a volume of the projected Seventh-day Adventist International Bible Commentary. I was asked to write on the Gospel of John. I have presented on John in scholarly contexts; I even had a paper included in a volume that had contributions by famous scholars like Jürgen Moltmann, Rowan Williams, and Miroslav Volf. I have taught the poetic theology of John at Loma Linda University, and I hope to write more extensively on John before the sun sets on my life.

The prospect of writing on John made me happy. In the vetting process, I was asked to sign a document outlining the methodological constraints that applied. On my first reading of the document, said to be a joint work of scholars at the Theological Seminary and the Biblical Research Institute, I did not see anything objectionable. I told the person who had invited me to participate that I had no objections. But then, perhaps thinking that this was too good to be true, I read the document again. There, in a footnote, I found this sentence: “Key theological concepts rooted in the broad testimony of Scripture serve as a guide and check on exegesis of individual passages. These concepts include: (a) in the context of the Great Controversy, it is not the role of humans to bring God into judgment, but vice versa…”

I told my friend that I had no problem with the methodological constraints, but I could not accept this statement. I certainly could not accept it as a constituent of the cosmic conflict outlook. In the cosmic conflict, the distinctive feature is precisely the two-way character of “judgment.” God subjects his ways to the judgment of humans, angels, and principalities. Humans do not bring God into judgment; it is not necessary because God brings his case before the universe. God’s interest in making things known is greater than our interest in knowing (John 16:5, 12, 25). That was not the vice versa that the authors had in mind. “God is the one who brings humans into judgment — and not vice versa.” I consider this to be a view untamed by cosmic conflict theology. I told my friend to ask the committee to allow me an exception. “It is an interpretation,” I said, “a dubious interpretation, too; it has nothing to do with method.” But the matter ended there. I could not be entrusted to write on John unless I signed the statement. I did not agree then; I do not agree now; the statement targeted a pillar of my faith. And yes, with an eye to the Quarterly, I think it is a missed opportunity to make so little of the revelatory, two-way character of the judgment in Revelation.

“The Mark of the Beast”

The Gospel of John shows the risk of observing the Sabbath while separating it from its meaning. “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed” (John 19:31). It is good to be ready in time for the Sabbath to begin, as we see in the Sabbath practices in this text, but something is missing. The day has achieved independent standing: it is the day over its meaning or the day without the need to consider the meaning. Worse yet, it is the right day but the wrong meaning.

The Quarterly takes a clear position on the relation between the Sabbath and “the mark of the beast.” 

The central issues in the final crisis will be worship and obedience to God in keeping His commandments (Rev. 14:12). The Sabbath commandment, in particular, will be the test of faithfulness and obedience to God. As the Sabbath is the distinctive sign of the obedience of God’s faithful people (Ezek. 20:12, 20), so the mark of the beast is the sign of allegiance to the beast.

The mark of the beast involves the substitution of a human com­mandment for God’s commandment. The greatest evidence of this fact is the humanly established institution of Sunday (see Dan. 7:25) as the day of worship instead of the seventh-day Sabbath, the day mandated in Scripture by our Creator. The attempt to change the sign of God’s authority to another day is an attempt to usurp the role and power of God Himself.

Is the Sabbath “the sign of God’s authority,” as the Quarterly avers? Or, putting it differently, does the authority-question and the obedience-response best define the meaning of the Sabbath in the Bible? This would be good Calvinist theology, but it should not be accepted as good Sabbath theology without reflection. When I worked on these questions in The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, I changed my mind about several things. I concluded that the Sabbath is a sign of God’s commitment more than it is a divine commandment. God’s commitment is the primary meaning. We see God’s commitment in God’s rest in Genesis (Gen. 2:1-3); we see it in God’s promise in Isaiah (Isa. 56:1-8). We see it above all in John, where the extent of God’s commitment is demonstrated in conspicuous Sabbath healings (John 5:1-18; 9:1-41), and where his commitment comes to a head precisely on Friday when Sabbath-observing Jews were rushing to put things in order so they could observe the Sabbath properly (John 19:31).

Tetelestai, “it is finished” (John 19:30), echoes Genesis at the point when the Sabbath is instituted (Genesis 2:1-3), and it is a scene of stupendous commitment. We shall see the commitment one last time when, as Revelation puts it, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them” (Revelation 21:3). Better people than me have shown that this is a Sabbath text (Moltmann), the Sabbath in the form of God’s enduring commitment.

Authority, not commitment, has been the default position in Seventh-day Adventist explanations of the meaning of the Sabbath.  

In an arbitrary manner God appointed that on the seventh day we should come to rest with His creation in a particular way. He filled this day with a content that is “uncontaminated” by anything related to the cyclical changes of nature or the movements of the heavenly bodies. That content is the idea of the absolute sovereignty of God, a sovereignty unqualified even by an indirect cognizance of the natural movements of time and rhythms of life. As the Christian takes heed of the Sabbath day and keeps it holy, he does so purely in answer to God’s command and simply because God is his Creator (Raol Dederen).

Why, then, should a man keep the Sabbath? To the Christian there is only one reason, and no other, but that reason is enough: God has spoken. The Sabbath commandment rests definitely and solely on a “Thus saith the Lord” and has no ground in nature, as such. It is for this reason that God makes the Sabbath His sign and test (M. L. Andreasen).

I am grateful that Andrews University Press let stand my proposed corrective to this view of the Sabbath. Here is what I say in The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day:

Where the Roman Catholic Church and leading Protestants argue that the Sabbath is changeable because it is arbitrary, defenders of the Sabbath concur that it is arbitrary, but they do not agree that it should be changed.

Is divine arbitrariness the default position in theology, the rising tide that lifts all ships, including the ships that have the Sabbath as part of their cargo?

On the premise that the controversy between good and evil in the biblical narrative revolves around the question of whether or not God is arbitrary, it is difficult to appreciate how God will be vindicated from the charge that God is arbitrary under a symbol that proves God’s arbitrariness. Moreover, if the alleged arbitrary feature of the Sabbath is made to be its most fundamental characteristic, it leaves a residue of arbitrariness on God’s reputation. By choosing this line of reasoning, defenders of the Sabbath may be winning the battle for the Sabbath at the tremendous cost of losing the war concerning the character of God.

May God hasten the day when we shall have more to say about the Sabbath as the sign of God’s commitment.

“The Smoke of Their Torment”

Virtually all interpreters of Revelation believe that the scenes of torment in the message of the third angel is torment orchestrated by God (Revelation 14:9-11). Seventh-day Adventists have not contested this view with much passion; we have been content to say that the torture will not last forever. Chris Frilingos captures well the theological impact of the traditional view of the scene. The lost are tortured alive in a lake of fire, with “the Lamb and his angels” (and presumably the redeemed) watching from afar (14:10). “As if to confirm the truth of the Lamb’s manly bearing, the creature’s posture goes unmentioned in this episode; and the gash in the Lamb’s body, so apparent earlier, disappears from view,” he says. I don’t agree with Frilingos’ view of the scene, but I agree what the consequence of his view is: “the gash in the Lamb’s body…disappears.”

Where this happens in interpretations of Revelation, the book has been for naught. “The gash in the Lamb’s body” is at risk if we give the wrong answer to the most important question in the Three Angels’ Message: Does God burn people alive for a protracted period at the end? Our answer so far seems to confirm that we do our worst work on texts with which we are most familiar.


Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019

Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019

Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019

Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019

Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019

Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019

Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019

Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019

God Reacts: The Three Angels’ Message, March 5, 2019


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash


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