Many earnest Christians have expressed sincere concern over the fairness of God in His executions of retributive justice in hell. Of course, Seventh-day Adventists have been in the forefront of the opposition to the interpretation of hell that teaches an eternity of conscious, endless physical, mental, and emotional torture for the lost. The major alternative position to the never-ending torture teaching has been technically referred to as annihilationism. In other words, God will ultimately bring an end to His just judgments on rebellious sinners, and they will be annihilated, consigned to an eternity of unconscious nonexistence.
Somewhat similar to the opposition directed at the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment is the criticism aimed at a key aspect of the traditional annihilationist position that there will be varying degrees of punishment for the damned before they finally subside into an eternity of nonexistence. A classic expression of this position comes from one of Adventism’s most respected advocates of the annihilationist position:
“The wicked receive their recompense in the earth. . . . Some are destroyed as in a moment, while others suffer many days. All are punished ‘according to their deeds.’ The sins of the righteous having been transferred to Satan, he is made to suffer not only for his own rebellion, but for all the sins which he has caused God’s people to commit. His punishment is to be far greater than that of those whom he has deceived.
After all have perished who fell by his deceptions, he is still to live and suffer on. In the cleansing flames the wicked are at last destroyed, root and branch—Satan the root, his followers the branches.”1
What disturbs many annihilationist believers regarding the interpretation of Ellen White is the suggestion that God’s retributive justice seems vindictive, not redemptive.2 What does God seek to prove if no more hope exists for those who have been judged to be deserving of the destiny of hell? If there is no hope for corrective reform of the condemned, why should God want to give the appearance of brutally punishing them? In other words, what good could come out of the relatively protracted suffering of the lost?
Hell: merciful or punitive?
Are redemptive purposes served by God subjecting the lost to varying degrees of punishment in hell? Or should the only just annihilationist alternative be that God will immediately and utterly destroy all the vast hosts of the damned with one withering stroke of righteous judgment? For those whose sensibilities find degrees of punishment utterly reprehensible, perhaps there is a less crude version of annihilation.
A title variation on Jonathan Edwards’ (in)famous sermon follows: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” While not wanting to appear flippant about this very sobering subject, it appears to me that the critics of the varying degrees of punishment position are arguing for a position that could justly be called “Sinners in the Hands of a Humane God.”3
Such an interpretive scenario envisions God orchestrating an end-time lethal injection4 version of hell. He will reluctantly begin the sad process by first administering some sort of collective anesthetic, which will then be quickly followed by a gently administered, collective lethal injection to the now-drowsy throng. Then, when all have breathed their last breath, their bodies will be consigned to some nether region for fiery incineration. And finally, the whole process will be completed with the sweeping away of their ashes into utter oblivion.
What can be made of this seeming dilemma that appears to impute very unbecoming attitudes of vindictive wrath to a merciful and just God? Should traditional annihilationists exchange their vision of varying degrees of punishment for a version of collective, instantaneous destruction for the hopelessly lost? Or possibly the question could be put this way: Are God’s mercy and justice best served in the infliction of varying degrees of retributive judgment, or should such an infliction throw out the “degrees of justice inflicted” interpretation and replace it with some version of an instantaneous, annihilating blow?
First of all, I sincerely recognize the concerns of those who are troubled by the thought that God will administer varying degrees and amounts of punishment. I do feel the pained reactions of those who have struggled with the seeming injustice of the traditional annihilationist position. I, too, was somewhat staggered when first confronted with the well-meant objections to this doctrine. Especially did I feel the initial force of the questions, What good does it do the wicked since there is no chance for their redemption at this late date? Are they not finished for eternity? So why not just put them quickly out of their misery?
The first point to be made has to do with the question of overall perspective. Especially for Seventh-day Adventist annihilationists, the key question does not center on whether God will or will not annihilate the persistent rejecters of His graced salvation (He will), but which alternative method has (1) the best biblical support and (2) seems most consistent with the character and nature of God’s love. The latter point revolves around the key organizing biblical perspective known as the great controversy theme.
The core issue at stake in this protracted, cosmic contest has to do with God: in His loving nature being able to demonstrate that He is fit to be the moral Governor of the universe. Triune love has been brought under the most severe test and scrutiny in the unfolding of this drama. Can God’s love manifest a sustained demonstration that will effectively show that justice and mercy can redemptively negotiate the delicate, balancing challenges that sin and Satan have hurled at His redemptive love? Now, with these preliminary perspectives in view, let’s directly confront the issue.
Several perspectives on justice
First, I would offer the following reasons from natural law and the rational analogies of the best paradigms of human justice. Though imperfectly administered, the vast majority of our experience in human justice testifies that, according to the most basic canons of common sense, the degrees-of punishment position is the fairest way to proceed in the restrained administration of the just executions of retribution.5
For instance, normal human beings think it perfectly OK to mete out serious retributive justice to those who are demonstrably hopeless psychopaths— even though they are normally beyond hope of possible reform. Furthermore, human justice seems justified when it differentiates between the differing social impacts that certain crimes have and concludes that some crimes deserve more severe punishment than do others. Thus it only seems fair to expect that God will do the same thing on a cosmic scale—passing out different degrees of punishment (determined by the degrees of the heinousness of the convicted’s unrepented sins).
And why does God do this? Most obviously He does this in order to maintain His public justice. By this I mean that God evenhandedly deals out more punishment for the greater sins and less severe retribution for lesser sins so that public order can be sustained. Is it going too far to suggest that recollections of such evenhanded justice will be perpetual memorials to our tragic experiment with sin? Will the nail prints in the hands of our Lord not only tell of His infinite mercy but also implicitly recall such a grievous and costly experiment with rebellion?
While Jesus had much to say about hell that has been contested by both the endless torment and annihilationist advocates, the one thing that He made abundantly clear in His teaching concludes that there will be varying degrees of punishment. The very words of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:45–48 are unmistakably straightforward: Some servants will be beaten “with many stripes” and others with “few.”
Yet, despite the clarity of Jesus’ teaching, many sincere believers go on to suggest that God’s destruction of the evildoers cannot serve as a deterrent. This is obviously due to the fact that when hell transpires, there will be no further switching sides of loyalty between the claims of Christ and Satan. Yes, I fully agree there is no further need for any deterrent effect that may emanate from the signal judgments of God. This still does not, however, negate the need for God to demonstrate to the unfallen and redeemed beings of the universe the fullness and fairness of His justice— even right down to the last detail. This comes as part and parcel of His needed demonstration of the morality and fairness of His governmental justice—if He is to rule by moral suasion, not with an iron fist! The great controversy theme plays its important role here: The devil has charged God with injustice in the administration of His love. God’s overall response demonstrates, in the various facets of Christ’s work as righteous and just Judge, that He has been totally just in both the makings and the outworkings of the provisions of His salvation plan. This is why God, in His patient, unfolding demonstrations, has a pre-Advent judgment. Here, He clearly presents public evidence to unfallen beings in support of His reasons for redeeming whomsoever He will at the Second Coming. Furthermore, this explains the reason why He will have a millennial judgment—so that He can once more give compelling public evidence to the redeemed as to why He will destroy the wicked in the lake of fi re at the last judgment in the end of the millennium. And, in the end, He will demonstrate to all His loyal subjects (the unfallen angels, free-will beings of the unfallen worlds, and the redeemed of all ages) His justice in executing some with “few stripes” and others with “many.”
The just Judge
Before we move on to our final considerations, three other closely related issues cry out for attention.
1. Many are troubled with the thought that we with Jesus must decide “the portion which the wicked must suffer.”6 All Ellen White is attempting to communicate in this statement is an explanation of the words of Paul—“the saints shall judge the world” and “we shall judge angels” (1 Cor. 6:2, 3, KJV). Paul here does not detail what he means—and I am reluctant to put words into his mouth. But it would seem that, in the light of all that God has revealed, Paul says that God will carry us with Him in the decisions that He makes about the final judgments upon the lost. Most certainly the redeemed do not have any final, determining say in all of this, but as always, God seems anxious to carry us along with Him through the means of moral suasion as He metes out His judgments on the wicked.
2. Others are troubled with the Bible’s use of the word vengeance (Isa. 34:8).7 Many have wondered if that word means “just punishment.” Most likely, yes! The word vengeance must be understood very much like the word wrath. It means the execution of God’s inexorable opposition to that which is contrary to His nature of love. For millennia God’s mercy has manifestly tempered His justice. But a day will come when there will finally be justice no longer tempered with the restraints of loving mercy. It will still be a merciful justice in the sense that God extends to the whole universe (including the damned) one final, merciful favor by putting to death those who refuse to accept His mercy and who would threaten the harmony of the universe that will once more be governed by the principles of freely chosen love. Yet God still executes this merciful justice in a totally just way.
This latter point deserves a few further lines of comment. As has been pointed out elsewhere,8 if God is the source of all life, His is the ultimate court of resort when it comes to the final determination as to who will continue to benefit from His beneficent, life-giving power. Try as they might, many well-meaning Christians attempt to relieve God of the onus of His role as the executioner of retributive justice.9 But whether He executes such justice passively or actively, He is still the Sovereign Lord of life and death. It matters little, in the final analysis, if one pulls the plug of a life support system from a dependent patient or simply administers a lethal injection. The results of justice are the same since the One who is the only source of life and just justice is the same Person. We are all on life support when it comes to sin. If we reject the offer of eternal life support, the only alternative will be eternal separation from the Life Supporter and the result will be endless death.
3. What does the suffering of the lost actually entail? Is it primarily physical, mental/emotional, or social? The answers to these questions are not totally clear. But we can be reasonably assured, in the case of our Lord, that it was both mental/emotional and physical. There is no doubt that His somewhat protracted suffering on the cross involved the most intense experience of physical pain. But was this the main burden that He had to bear? If the normal experience of crucifixion tells us anything, the physical suffering of Jesus was relatively brief. And this strongly suggests that the main cause of His physical death was the intense mental anguish that resulted from the judgments of God that fell upon His sinless, yet sin- and guilt-bearing Son. To put it bluntly, Jesus died of a broken heart because of our sins that He bore for us. The wrath of God’s just judgments on sin tore out the heart of the Son of God. Most certainly His anguish was primarily mental/ emotional, and the most telling aspect of this pain was the grief that resulted from a broken love relationship with the Father (also suggesting profound social suffering).
Jesus’ sufferings: a type of end-time hell?
Now, what does this say about the varied types of suffering that the lost will experience? The answer seems simple: Whatever Jesus suffered at Calvary will be the same type of suffering that the lost will experience in the end-time hell. The only difference between Calvary and the end-time hell will be that the sufferings of the lost will be considerably less in degree and intensity than the infinite sufferings of our Lord. And this leads us to our final argument for the differing degrees of protracted suffering experienced by those who have rejected or neglected the sufferings of the vicarious atonement made by the slain Lamb.
Not only should we ponder the lessons of sweet reason, the broader perspective of the Bible, and the teachings of our Lord, but we would be remiss if we failed to ponder the implications of Christ’s experience of sacrificial atonement. The Cross speaks with uncanny power and poignancy to our present question.
One of the final arguments that the doubters of the varying degrees of punishment position bring forward is drawn from the metaphors of “quick destruction”—such as stubble being quickly consumed. Most certainly there will be quick destruction, but does that mean that each case should receive the same instantaneous execution? We most certainly cannot now clearly divine God’s justice in every case. In fact, Christians should always withhold judgment as to how God will dispose of specific, individual cases. Why not, in our limited understanding, leave it up to God to work out the details of His love?
And yet, patience notwithstanding, I am sure of one thing about the soon-to- be-revealed executions of His justice: That which was relatively brief for Christ will seem quite protractedly long for the lost. And one may appropriately ask, How so?
The final point inherent in the previous paragraphs related to our Lord’s experience of Calvary has provoked an interesting line of thought on the issue of differing degrees of punishment. Possibly the best way to bring closure to our reflections on this issue is to carefully ponder the following questions:
Why did God the Father choose a cross to be the instrument of death? Why did He not choose to have Christ instantly beheaded or quickly run through with a spear or sword? Was God unjust in executing judgment on Christ with a cross when He could have done it by a beheading, a noose, a sword, a gas chamber, a bolt of lightning, or a lethal injection?
The experience of the divine/human Christ (through the dark hours of Gethsemane and the utter darkness that enveloped Him there, and on to the cross and the ultimate darkness that consumed Him there) speaks with unparalleled and compelling power to our dull senses that sin is much more horrible to God than any of us could ever imagine. As has been previously mentioned, the death of Christ was caused not so much by physical anguish as by mental anguish.
This will essentially be the same experience of the wicked in the lake of fire, though of a more limited nature than that of the wounded and bleeding Lamb of God. And most certainly, the reason for their lingering death is that their hearts will not be broken by sin the way Christ’s was. They grieve only the loss of their lives, not the horror of their sins. Christ grieved the opposite way. He was revolted by our sin, yet loved us unto death and did not love His own life. What a powerful reversal for us. Redemptive suffering always seems relatively brief, while the judgments of just retribution have always seemed unending to the damned!
Will there be varying degrees of retributive suffering for the lost? I will leave it to each person to ponder the evidences that have been articulated in this essay. I rest my case with this final word: When pondering this question, never forget the profound lessons of Gethsemane and Calvary. For our issues, the lessons seem to be this: The greater one’s revulsion to sin, the quicker will be the finale of hell. The dimmer one’s view of sin, the longer lasting will be the self-inflicted experience of God’s reluctant and merciful but unavoidable retributive justice. Thanks be to God for the surprisingly brief bout of suffering that made provision for the salvation of the whole human race! Second death, “be not proud!”10 Hell exists as the only inevitable destiny for those who refuse the solace of the surprisingly sudden death of Calvary.
1 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1911), 673.
2 The original inspiration for this essay arose from a friendly letter exchange between the author and Dr. Henry and Lorraine Gerber of British Columbia, Canada. This exchange took place in January 2003, and the present article contains the expanded gist of my reply to these honest searchers for truth.
3 And most certainly, the annihilationist position is very humane when contrasted with the utterly
reprehensible alternative of the endless torment interpretation of hell.
4 The reason I chose the lethal injection alternative is that it seems to be the most painless (at least physically) version of modern alternatives for capital punishment. Hanging, the electric chair, the gas chamber, firing squads, and beheadings all have, to one degree or another, very unseemly connotations. Hanging is very much associated with public executions and lynchings (especially the infamous racist lynchings of Black Americans during the “Jim Crow” era). The electric chair conjures up visions of smoking corpses, charred beyond recognition (in my native Florida, the electric chair at the old Raiford State prison was wryly dubbed “Old Sparky”). Firing squads are commonly associated with repressive, dictatorial regimes the world over. And beheadings are all too easily associated with, for example, the cruelties of the crimes of the insurgency in Iraq (not to mention the very unedifying vision of bloody, severed heads plunking into buckets at the base of the French guillotine). Yes, lethal injection seems to be the least reprehensible and most humane of all forms of capital punishment.
5 In essence, the argument asks, If the almost universal canons of human justice mean anything, will we say that humans are to be judged more righteous than God if He does not administer varying degrees of just retribution?
6 White, The Great Controversy, 661.
7 Compare Isaiah’s use of this vivid language with Ellen White’s application of the same terminology
in The Story of Redemption (Washington, DC: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 1947), 429.
8 Woodrow W. Whidden, Ellen White on Salvation (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 1995), 49–53; Woodrow W. Whidden, Jerry Moon, John Reeve, The Trinity (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 2002), 260–71.
9 For a ready collection of Ellen G. White’s statements on the passive and active executions of God’s justice, see the published compilation of her thoughts titled Last Day Events (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1992), 240–44.
10 This compelling phrase is taken from the book title of John Widener’s poignant story of his
son’s heroic but losing fight against cancer, Death Be Not Proud (New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1960).