Adventist Liberalism at Its Best: Death and Resurrection

(system) #1

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.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Elaine Nelson) #2

Refusing to accept the traditional Christian teaching of either heaven or hell removes all the concern of whether either will be in the future following death. If life here is all there is, we are free to live in the best way we know, following the Golden Rule which has nothing to do with God or theological beliefs. Living morally and ethically does not require belief in a god and never has. The most reliable allies in any moral struggle will be those who respond to the ethically significant aspects of life whether or not they conceive these things in religious terms. Some of the worst crimes have been committed by committed believers in God. You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding him. Trusting one’s own commitment to following right action should not depend on the view of a god that is personally believed.

(Marianne Faust) #3

Very good article! Thank you Alden Thompson! What exactly means: “Adventist Calvinists begin to flex their muscles in frightening ways, …”?

(Sirje) #4

Questioning tradition is always risky business, as illustrated by the provision for “anonymous” contributors even here. Ellen Harmon’s comment to her “liberal” mom is telling. Maybe it was the influence of Ellen’s early life that placed her on the path she found herself on in later life - bucking tradition. That may be what prompted her to write, “There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error…” Counsels to Writers and Editors p. 35. Anyone expect a statement like that to appear in the Review any time soon? What happened?


Subject: Interesting quotes from a recent article in Adventist World (April 2014)

Sirje, April 2014 Adventist Review did have an article titled “Big-Picture Theology: Understanding the Preamble of the Fundamental Beliefs.” Your quote was one of many that were published.

The Bible is a perfect, and complete revelation. It is our only rule of faith and practice.
James White, A Word to the Little Flock, p. 13.

The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is, to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.
J.N. Loughborough [see article for complete reference]

Do not carry your creed to the Bible, and read the Scriptures in the light of that creed. If you find that your opinions are opposed to a plain “Thus saith the Lord,” or to any command or prohibition He has given, give heed to the Word of God rather than to the sayings of men. Let every controversy or dispute be settled by “It is written.”
EGW, 2MR 89 (original source was given as “Manuscript 142, no date”).

We must not think, “Well, we have all the truth, we understand the main pillars of our faith, and we may rest on this knowledge.” The truth is an advancing truth, and we must walk in the increasing light.
EGW, RH Mar 25, 1890 (by the way, RH at that time was “Advent Review and Sabbath Herald”).

There is no excuse for anyone in taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without an error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.
EGW, RH Dec 20, 1892.

The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union.
EGW, RH Dec 15, 1885. [the rest of the sentence, of which this quote is just the beginning, reads: “; all who bow to this holy word will be in harmony.”]

We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same shade of light. 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… 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.
EGW, 15MR, 150. [original source given as Letter 29, 1889]

(Ron Corson) #6

Not to disagree with too much but don’t you think that a view in which one believes in a God of love would significantly increase people’s ability to live morally and ethically? Of course by the same token if one believes in a wrathful God of vengeance then such views would lead to greater problems living morally or ethically. Or the idea of no God to perhaps a relativistic view where ethics and morals depend on what will please the person. I think people point to the golden rule because they have a more of a God of love view or at least a concept that such a view would be the most beneficial for society.

I would be curious to know what some of the worlds worse crimes were that were committed by believers in God within the last 100 years or so. Unless you are referring to certain Islamic crimes which I think may fall into the wrathful vengeance God category.

(Yoyo7th) #7

Stott input is significant.

SDA position is most logical and humane. Another doctrine where the SDA church says “NO” to the usual church status quo…and…

For the contemporary age…annihilation is more green, ECO friendly, environmentally safe. energy efficient, conservationist.

Just think of all of the energy not wasted compared to an everburning hell!

(Elaine Nelson) #8

Prog SdA:

“God” is a universal term used far back in recorded history as a description of a trancendent, Supreme Being" by ancients from many cultures. It is NOT limited to Judeo-Christians, and is used by millions of Muslims (“Allah” means “God”)

With that understanding, those who believed in God, have killed, and are currently killing millions in the Middle East and many countries in Africa. Christians and Muslims are killing the other; Hindus are killing Muslims and Christians largely based on their particular belief of their god; just as did the Israelites more than 3,000 years ago.

(Ron Corson) #9

A god is a universal term. those who specifically refer to their god as “God” are usually Jews or Christians, with some Jews not even wanting to spell out the word GOD such as G_d. Islam refers to their god as Allah. Since Hindu’s have so many gods they would not refer to just God. The same for Pagans since they also have many different gods.

So I guess in your statement if you are just meaning some universal god term then those worse crimes would be about equivalent to saying that the worse crimes in the world were committed by people who ate carrots. Not really to helpful unless the goal was to denigrate the carrot.

(Elaine Nelson) #10

Of course, we must recognize that no one person or group owns a definition of God or the name would not have been used in many languages for as many years. Narrowing it to one’s own concept is only a subjective view and when defined in this way the name only means what the user wants it to be which has caused years of disputes with religious groups and individuals as is readily apparent. Even Adventists have different idea of “their” God, with specific requirements for their particular understanding: a wrathful god who punishes for slight wrongs; a god of love; a god who requires absolute perfection, and more.

The requirement for any useful conversation: First: define your terms, is most applicable here: “How do you describe God?”

(Graeme Sharrock) #11

The writer states: “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.”

Actually is is because of Bell’s widespread appeal to evangelicals via the emerging movement that his book and ideas on hell HAVE been widely discussed. A loving God as the central concern of the Christian message is also the theme of Ellen White’s better books, and those SDAs who fail to appreciate the impact of Bell’s theology are the losers for not reading him lovingly.

(Stewart) #12

I appreciate these quotes very much, Carmen. The question that presses upon my mind is – Do we have a creed? I think the unavoidable answer is, Yes we have a creed.

That last quote in the set (15MR, 150) – what a wonderfully self-evident fact! (Once it is read, that is.) All our efforts to bring in doctrinal uniformity among our people, will count for little (perhaps nothing?), unless we have “the spirit of Christlike forbearance”.


Hello Marianne, I could be wrong, but what I think it means is. The Calvinist mind set is very ridged, no room for compromise, whats soever. And when they begin to “flex their muscle” its frightening because they will push anyone out that has a different view. Assuming my interpretation is correct, that indeed can be “frightening”.

(Stewart) #14

We don’t teach eternal torments. (For which I am grateful.) Yet we do teach that a large number of people will burn in the lake of fire for a number of days (some for “many days”,) don’t we? It seems to me that many of these would gladly be burnt at the stake (and die perhaps in 10 minutes,) rather than dieing that death. And the prospect of the Redeemed watching the people suffer for the sake of final vindication, still troubles me.

“Some were many days consuming, and just as long as there was a portion of them unconsumed, all the sense of suffering remained.” (Early Writings p.294) I don’t doubt any of this, but I think we have much yet to understand about the mechanics of these things, before we will be able to represent the character of God properly/sufficiently.


Thank you Alden, interesting topic indeed. Before becoming a Christian, this would be one of the biggest, I’d say, confusions I had towards a loving God. I would think, how can God burn me forever…and ever?! I would remember watching those movies, as a child, during Easter on Jesus, and it baffle me. Either this god had a split personality disorder, or something was very wrong here. I have to say, this doctrine was one of the biggest selling points for me joining this church. Even now, the doctrine of eternal burning hell raises my blood pressure.

And by the way, that movie “Hell and Mr. Fudge”, I watched recently. Now heres a man who stood against the tide. I recommend everyone to see it. Can be found at vimeo:
You can rent it for $4.99 or own it for $9.99 (these are prices in Australia, U.S I’m sure would be even lower). I decided to buy, well worth it, only $5 more.


I dont know, Stewart. I dont think we need to understand more on this, how can we possibly, without using our own imagination for much it. We are not given allot to go by. One of the most vivid examples of what its going to be like is Jude 7. If people ask me, all I’ll say is, I have no idea how long it will last, except to say that, God will be fair and just.

But then again, I could be wrong, and there may be something in Gods word where not seeing.

(Elaine Nelson) #17

When has an SdA theologian brave enough to address this quotation about hell only burning some for many, or even a few days? Is it only Hell if there is a specific time of suffering?


Hello Elaine,

I’m not sure if this post was meant for me, I did receive it in my email. My answer, I honestly dont know. This was my whole point when addressing Stewart.

(Elaine Nelson) #19

And some of those other religions accuse Christians of having three gods. Since no one can explain it, it is simply a statement of faith as are all religious beliefs. If there were substantiated facts, it would not require faith.

(Elaine Nelson) #20

It was not meant for anyone in particular, just on the article.