The Bible is a complex book. It is a challenging book, and we humans tend to attempt to reduce the Bible’s complexity, to make it less challenging and more easily comprehensible. Unfortunately, this plays into a significant weakness we are all prone to, to emphasize the parts of the Scriptures that we like, and rationalize away the ones that we do not. This tendency is quite obvious in to the most vigorous current debates within Adventism, that of a women’s ordination, and the church’s stance on homosexuality.
While it is true that the Bible is based on some very simple principles, these principles often play out in complex ways in real life. The Bible’s complexity is one of its great virtues, because it reflects life as it is, not as we would wish it to be.
One of the areas that really troubles modern sensibilities is the destruction of the wicked. Especially troubling to many is the notion of the Lake of Fire, the term in Revelation used to describe the final cleansing of the Earth from sin. It recalls all too vividly the medieval notion of eternal hellfire, and seems to cast God as cruel and eager for revenge, willingly torturing those who is offended him.
In case you’re not troubled enough, consider this passage from the book The Great Controversy (p. 672):
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.
This notion, that those who have sinned more will suffer longer, is extremely troubling. For a long time I struggled with it. Then I saw a short piece by Angel Rodriguez, I believe it was in the Adventist Review, on this very topic. I have been unable to locate it, so what I am sharing here is my interpretation of my recollection of what he wrote. That’s a short way of saying whatever is correct about it probably came from brother Rodriguez, and whatever’s confusing or wrong is my contribution. But here’s how I now view the situation.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Confession is good for the soul.” And most of us I’m sure have also experienced that truth. Detectives and other investigators depend upon it. Almost everyone, having done wrong, feels the need to confess. And when I say “feel,” I am indeed talking about a physical experience. We often speak of “Getting a load off our chest.” That’s because we experience a physical tightening of our chest in such circumstances. And when we confess, we do indeed experience physical as well as emotional relief.
At the same time, confession is generally something were not eager to do, because it is also physically taxing. It literally hurts. To admit to oneself, and then to another that one has been wrong, has done wrong, has no excuse, is a searing experience. I use the word “searing” intentionally, because it burns. Again, I think most of us have felt this.
And this is why I think those who have sinned more, and never repented, burn more in the Lake of Fire. Whether the Lake of Fire is literal I do not know – it may well be. But I suspect that the real volcanic experience is internal.
We cited the text in an earlier blog, that “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess,” that God is just. Just imagine how galling, how difficult, how searing an experience it will be. The rain of fire ends the last futile charge of the unrepentant against the Holy City. In that moment, every unrepentant being will recognize that defeat is certain, and eternal extinction awaits.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The fact that they were willing to attempt a final assault on the New Jerusalem demonstrates that they they were, until this instant, still in denial. So the question arises, since they have demonstrated to themselves and to the universe that they would be miserable living in a perfect world — in fact, that it would be a kind of hell for them — and that any society they devised for themselves would also be hellish — thousands of years on this earth have proven that — what is the most merciful thing to do?
They cannot live, because, as we have demonstrated, continued life for them would be torture. So what is the most merciful way for them to die? It seems to me than allowing them to reach acceptance of those truths would be the most merciful thing.
We often say, and too often see that some who suffer from terminal diseases find death a relief, a release from constant suffering. Sin, it seems to me, is the ultimate terminal disease. Those who refuse to be cured will find peace only in death. And I believe a merciful God allows each unrepentant sinner in the Lake of Fire as long as it takes to come to acceptance.
Acceptance in this case means recognizing that happiness has been rejected, and is no longer possible; admitting to oneself that truth; confession, searing and painful as it is, that the coming oblivion is both just and merciful; and that the God who provides that oblivion is, in so doing, demonstrating love, and mercy, grace, and yes, justice.
Again, I do not know, I do not contest that the Lake of Fire is literal. But if it is, then I am convinced that it’s heat pales in comparison with the internal fire generated by confession and acceptance of one’s wrongdoing. And who would take the longest? Who would spend the longest time in denial and anger, and take the longest to come to acceptance? It only makes sense that the one who has caused the most evil for the longest period of time would have the greatest anger and the greatest difficulty coming to acceptance.
Poet Dylan Thomas famously wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage at the dying of the light.” But is that what we would wish for our loved ones? That they should die raging, or that they should indeed go gentle, peacefully into rest? I believe we would prefer the latter. And I believe that the God of love and mercy, when it finally comes time for him to commit the “strange act” of letting the unrepentant die, will do so in the most merciful way, a way which will allow them at least a fleeting moment of peace.
It Has taken me some time to write this piece because it is so difficult, and because it is so easily misunderstood. But I do believe that even the Lake of Fire demonstrates God’s mercy. For the wicked, it is a final act of mercy.
And this will prove to be the final act of judgment: the wicked themselves ratifying that God is love, and that God is just.