Lou: Graham, you and I know that the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is strongly connected with this third angel’s message. How was it that our church came to identify with the third angel’s message?
Graham: It’s actually something of a historical accident. The Adventist pioneers saw the three angels happening in a historical order. The first angel’s message was given, and then the second, and then the third. We do feel that we’re the people with the final message, which includes number three. But the Adventist pioneers always referred to “the three angels’ messages.” They realized it’s a barren message to preach number three alone. We should always preach all three.
Lou: Would you go so far as to say that there’s something especially unique about this third angel’s message? Is it appropriate to identify myself as a Christian who believes in the third angel’s message?
Graham: Well, if one took the third angel’s message just the way it reads without understanding what the rest of the Bible has said about it, then a Seventh-day Adventist is a Christian who believes in eternal torment.
Lou: Uh, oh! That’s not what I had in mind!
Graham: I’m sure it wasn’t, but by calling people’s attention to the meaning of the cross in the larger setting of the Great Controversy, we can offer a truly biblical explanation of the third angel. At first glance, the third angel’s message is fearsome. But to explain it in the light of how and why Jesus died is to bring very heartening news to people. The message is serious, yes, but it is no reason to be afraid of God.
Lou: So the Seventh-day Adventist Church has chosen to strongly identify itself with all of the three angels’ messages (Rev 14:6-12). How did that choice come about? Do you think it was a good one?
Graham: I think it was a very good choice, because the position that these three messages have in the Bible suggests they are the final messages of invitation and warning. They also provide us with a wonderful opportunity to summarize all the rest of Scripture. If you read these three messages apart from the rest of the Bible, they’re fearsome. But if you read them in the light of all sixty-six Bible books, it is an opportunity to demonstrate our conviction that the whole Bible is the word of God. The Bible should be read as a whole, and these three messages must be understood in the light of all that’s gone before.
Lou: But that raises another question. Why not just take the third angel’s message (Rev 14:9-11) as it reads? Why not read it and just believe it the way it reads, that people are going to be burned forever, that the smoke of their burning goes up forever and ever (14:11)?
Graham: Well, if you were reading the whole Bible you would just have read in Jude that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with eternal fire (Jude 1:7), but that fire went out a long time ago. So the book of Jude prepares you for these words in Revelation. And then there is the slave who doesn’t want to be set free, so they punch a hole through the lobe of his ear and he serves his master “forever” (Exod 21:2-6). The rest of the Bible prepares you to understand this fire and smoke that goes up forever and ever. See also the section in Chapter Nine on “How Sinners Die the Second Death.”
Lou: So you’re saying that I have to interpret the Bible to find its real meaning. I can’t just take the surface meaning of texts. Each text has a context and a history, so I have to work at understanding Scripture.
Graham: When people say, “We must take that text just the way it reads,” I often say, “Well, let’s turn over here to Deuteronomy where it says, `Take the tithe and buy strong drink with it and rejoice before the Lord’” (Deut 14:22-26).
And they’ll say, “Oh no, don’t take that text just the way it reads; let’s interpret that with care.”
And then we turn to the text where it says, “Give wine to the poor, that they may forget their misery” (based on Proverbs 31:6-7).
And they will say, “No, let’s interpret that.”
Then we go to, “It would be better not to marry; but it’s all right if you can’t control yourself” (based on 1 Cor 7:36-37).
“Oh, let’s interpret that.”
“Women shouldn’t speak in church” (based on 1 Cor 14:34-35).
“Let’s interpret that.”
Then we come to the third angel’s message and they say, “Let’s take it just how it reads.”
When it comes to the Bible, we need to be consistent all the way through. We want to find the true meaning, we don’t want to cheat. We want to know exactly what it means. And it takes the whole of the Bible to do that.