Category Archives: Theological

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (5): Satan’s Methods in the Final Crisis

The portion of Scripture that is widely cited as predicting Sunday laws at the end of time is Revelation 13:13-17. I will take a fresh look at the passage with Adventist beliefs about this element of the future in mind. Let me say first, that a church’s beliefs on a topic should be exegetically defensible, but do not need to be exegetically compelling. Doctrine comes under the heading of systematic theology, where Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all play a role. Not all Adventist and Christian beliefs are grounded in biblical exegesis alone. For Adventists, insights from the pioneers, current understandings, and the teachings of Ellen White all play a role in formulating doctrine. But, in Adventist understanding, doctrine must not contradict Scripture, it must at least be defensible in light of Scripture.

Since Revelation never uses the words Sabbath or Sunday, it is possible that exegetical certainty in the matter of Sunday laws at the End is not available from Scripture alone. But such lack of exegetical clarity is true of many doctrines. For example, the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible, and nowhere does the Bible contain many of the Chalcedonian formulas with regard to Jesus Christ. But while they go beyond the specific data of Scripture, these doctrines can be defended from the evidence of Scripture. They are a contextualization of Scripture in light of the questions and issues raised in the centuries after the New Testament. And that is sufficient for believers to make a commitment to such teachings, even if we “see through a glass darkly.” We will find that the concept of Sunday laws at the end of time does not contradict Scripture, it is compatible with the evidence, even if the evidence is not compelling.

The key text is Revelation 13:13-17 (my translation): “And he [the land beast] does great signs, so much so that he causes fire to come down out of heaven to earth in the presence of men. And he deceives those who live on the earth because of the signs which he was given to do . . . saying to those who live on the earth that they should make an image to the beast. . . . And he [the land beast] was permitted to give breath to the image of the beast, in order that the image of the beast might speak and might cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed. And he [the land beast] controls everyone . . . so that he might place a mark upon their right hands or upon their foreheads, so that no one might be able to buy or sell except the one who has the mark, the name of the beast or the number of his name.

This passage exhibits the two outstanding characteristics of Satan’s method for persuading people at the end of time. In Revelation 13:13-14 there is the method of deception. Satan brings fire down from heaven in a false Pentecost or a counterfeit Mount Carmel showdown. He uses great signs to persuade the people of earth that he is the true God, the one worthy of worship. He is not so in fact, but he uses “signs and lying wonder” to deceive (see also 2 Thess 2:9) those who live on the earth. In Revelation 13:15-17, however, he uses the method of intimidation or force. Those who refuse to worship the image of the beast are to be killed. Those who refuse to receive the mark of the beast will not be able to buy or sell. So Satan’s methods are force and deception. This is in direct contrast with God’s methods. God always speaks the truth, and never forces anyone to follow or worship him. The final crisis is a showdown between rival claims to be God and two different methods of persuasion.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (4): How God Works in the World III

In the previous two blogs I noted six important principles of prophetic interpretation gleaned from fulfilled prophecies. Taken together, these three principles caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction and encourage us to be very attentive to the prophet’s original time and place. I will share the final two principles here:

Principle Seven (7): Prophetic Fulfillments Are Most Clearly Understood As or After They Occur. The record of future predictions on the basis of prophecy has not been a good one. The earlier six principles help explain that sorry track record. Part of the problem is the very purpose of prophecy. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future (although that is the way many approach prophecy), it is given to teach us how to live today and to strengthen our faith at the time of fulfillment. Jesus says essentially this in John 14:29: “I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” As or after a prophetic fulfillment, it will become evident what God was doing and faith will be strengthened. The same principle should caution us not to expect crystal clarity regarding the future in advance of the fulfillment.

Principle Eight (8): There Are Two Types of Prophecy, Classical and Apocalyptic. The way prophecy is fulfilled is impacted by this distinction. Apocalyptic prophecy is seen in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7 and in passages like Revelation 12. It tends to involve a series of historical events running one after another from the prophet’s day until the End. Dual or multiple fulfillments should not be expected, because the prophecy covers the whole period from the prophet’s day until the End. Apocalyptic prophecies tend to be unconditional, God sharing the large strokes of history that He foresees will take place. In contrast, classical prophecy is seen in books like Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah. There is a strong focus on the immediate situation, and if the end of all things is in view, it is a natural extension of the prophet’s situation, time and place. There are strong conditional elements, the fulfillment is dependent on human response.

The writings of Ellen White fit the classical style of prophecy. She speaks to her immediate situation, encouraging fidelity to God and to Scripture. Where she speaks of the future, she speaks in terms of a natural extension of the immediate situation, rather than clear predictions of things that don’t exist in her day. For example, she does not foresee nuclear war or power, she doesn’t speak of cell phones, computers, the internet, Islamic terrorism, space travel, World Wars I and II, or the rise of secularism and post-modernism. When she describes police action at the end of time, the police are wearing swords, something more common in her day than today! It does not mean God was incapable of sharing our future with her, only that such a revelation was not central to her prophetic purpose, encouraging faithfulness to God and careful attention to the Scriptures. And regarding prophecy she says, “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” Last-Day Events, 38. A good example of conditional prophecy was her declaration in 1856 that some with her that day would live to see Jesus come. Obviously, the conditions for that prophecy were never met and we are still here in 2020.

In the next blog we will begin to take a closer look at Revelation 13:13-17, the passage in the Bible that is most often cited in relation to the possibility of Sunday laws in earth’s future. After a fresh exploration of Revelation 13, we will turn to Ellen White’s key statements on the subject.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (3): How God Works in the World II

In the previous blog I noted three important principles of prophetic interpretation gleaned from fulfilled prophecies. God is consistent, God is not always predictable, and God is creative. Taken together, these three principles should caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction before the fulfillment arrives. I will share three more principles here:

Principle Four (4): God Meets People Where They Are. Whenever God reveals Himself to a prophet, He does so within the prophet’s time, place and circumstances. All language is based on the sum total of a people’s experience. So God communicates to the prophets in their vocabulary, not His, for His language would not be understood. This is probably the most biblical principle that is not stated in so many words in the Bible. It is demonstrated, for example, by the four gospels. The one story is told in four different ways to reach a wide variety of minds. And it is demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to earth as a First-Century Jew, accustomed to the ways of Galilee. To understand the fulfillment of a prophecy, one must first understand the language, time and place of the prophet. This is true of Ellen White as much as anyone else God has communicated with.

Principle Five (5): God Often Spiritualizes History. Beginning with the Exodus story, we see a spiritualization of God’s historical actions in creation and the Flood (Exod 14:21-22). The basic scenario and language is repeated, but God uses that vocabulary in a figurative or spiritualized way; moving from Adam to Israel, Eden to Canaan, and a chaotic, water-covered world to the spiritual chaos of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. In the prophets, the Exodus story becomes the model for God’s spiritual transformation of His people in the future. The same kind of thing happens in Revelation 13, where Pentecost, Pharaoh’s magicians, Mount Carmel, the creation of Adam, Nebuchanezzar’s image and Solomon’s apostasy provide context for the great spiritual conflict at the end of time. In the New Testament generally, the things of Israel are applied to the spiritual community of the church and the language of Israel’s geography is applied to the whole world. To miss the spiritualization of a prophecy’s roots is to miss the point of the prophecy.

Principle Six (6): God Uses the Language of the Prophet’s Past and Present to Describe the Future. This is related to principle four, but moves from the general to the specific. God meets people where they are. He speaks to prophets in the language of their times, places and circumstances. So divine predictions of the future are framed as natural extensions of the prophet’s time, place and understanding. The Flood would be an unraveling of creation followed by a new creation. The eschatology of Deuteronomy 28 would depend on Israel’s obedience or disobedience to the covenant moving forward. The return from Babylon would be a replay of the Exodus. A classic example of this is Isaiah 11:15-16. It is predicted that Israel will be delivered from Assyria when God uses a wind to dry up the Euphrates River so the Israelites can cross in their sandals. The prophecy was fulfilled in Israel’s return from Babylon, but not a single detail turned out exactly as stated. Instead of Israel, it was Judah that returned. Instead of Assyria, they returned from Babylon. Instead of a wind, it was Cyrus’ engineers that dried up the Euphrates, instead of crossing the dry river bed, God’s people crossed the bridges because Cyrus released them from captivity. The first two are explained by Isaiah’s location in time (Isaiah’s present), when Israel still existed and Assyria dominated the world. God met him where he was. The latter two are explained by the used of Exodus language (Isaiah’s past) to describe God’s future deliverance.

Understanding the original context of Ellen White’s statements regarding a national Sunday law in the US, is critical to rightly anticipating in what way such statements might or might not be fulfilled in our own future. What matters is not what we think a prophecy must mean, but how God actually works in the world, how He moves from prediction to fulfillment.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (2): How God Works in the World

Unfulfilled prophecy has been the bane of prophetic interpreters for millennia. Even Seventh-day Adventists have a somewhat checkered history with it, as the Great Disappointment indicates. When we talk about Sunday laws in the final events of earth’s history, we are dealing with unfulfilled prophecy. There is a prophetic prediction. The fulfillment has not yet come. So you are dealing with an unfulfilled prophecy. You are projecting from the words of the prophecy to an expected outcome. But history is littered with attempts to do just that, most of which turned out to be false.

So how can or should one be able to speak with confidence about an unfulfilled prophecy? The answer seems obvious once you mention it. You assess the likely outcome of an unfulfilled prophecy on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. As you visit the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible you begin to get a sense of how God works in the world, how He moves from prediction to fulfillment, how His earlier actions project what His later actions will be like. Fulfilled prophecy gives us the needed perspective to make educated judgments about unfulfilled prophecy. I have reported on my study of fulfilled prophecy in the book What the Bible Says About the End-Time and in an updated and shortened summary in chapter 2 of my book The Deep Things of God. I will summarize the principles I discovered in that study here, with a brief proof text or two for each principle. The more detailed argument can be found in the above books. But here I will summarize just enough to address the topic at hand.

Principle One (1): God is consistent. This principle should not be controversial. If God is God, one would expect a certain consistency in His words and actions. What God says, He will do. What He does, He tends to repeat. Prophecy is grounded in God’s consistency. Because He is consistent, we anticipate that He will do what He says and repeat what He does. God’s words project how He will act in the future. God’s previous actions project how He will act in the future. Prophecy exists because God can be counted on to do what He says. But this principle needs to be balanced by a second one.

Principle Two (2): God is not always predictable. While God is consistent, sometimes He surprises us. Because God is God, we cannot expect to fully fathom His words and actions. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways are higher than our ways (Isa 55:8-9). There is a consistency in God’s actions between creation, the Flood and the Exodus, for example. But careful analysis shows that God does not repeat every detail of the earlier actions in the later actions. Fulfilled prophecy also shows that God does not always fulfill every detail of an earlier pattern or prophecy. So a certain amount of sanctified caution is called for in assessing unfulfilled prophecy. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. For who has known the mind of the Lord. . .” (Rom 11:33-34, ESV). The Spirit of God is like the wind, “You cannot tell where it is coming from or where it is going” (John 3:8, NIV). To suggest that God’s consistency requires that He fulfill our understanding of every word and detail of a prophecy is to have failed to observe the actual data of Scripture. When we assert that we have mastered the details of the future on the basis of prophecy, we have opened ourselves up to disappointment and even self-deception.

Principle Three (3): God is creative. God is not limited to the words and actions of the past. The antitype doesn’t simply carry out the type in a point by point correspondence. God can transcend what He has done before, adding new elements not discernable from the prophecy or God’s prior actions. In Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV) it says, “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” This passage is in the context of God’s promise to repeat the Exodus experience in Israel’s future deliverance from Babylon. But He is clear that the fulfillment will not be limited to a repeat of the historical details of the Exodus. God will transcend the Exodus by adding unexpected new aspects to the fulfillment. Taken together, these three principles should caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction before the fulfillment arrives. Let God be God!

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy: Introduction

COVID-19 has changed many things in this world. Before COVID people who wanted your expertise invited you to get on an airplane and visit their interesting part of the world. After COVID they could invite you to address their people from the comfort of your own office or home. As a result of such invitations I have been able to interact with Seventh-day Adventist people and others in the Bahamas, Newfoundland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Europe and locations I’d rather not mention here. These events have usually involved some question and answer periods and have allowed me to take the pulse of the Seventh-day Adventist movement in ways that might not have been possible otherwise.

The one issue that seems to be on the minds of more SDAs outside the Western world than any other is the concept of future Sunday laws, particularly in the United States. This may come as a surprise to people in the West, who are well aware that Sunday laws are not on the radar in Western public conversation right now. But for many Seventh-day Adventists in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia the concept of Sunday laws is a real and imminent threat of critical importance. The narrative goes something like this: “Ellen White [special messenger to the SDA Church—1827-1915] clearly predicted, based on visions from the Lord, that before the end of time, the US Congress will pass a national Sunday law, enforcing worship on Sunday by all Americans. Laws like this will then be adopted in Europe, and ultimately by the entire world.”

The special appeal of this idea is that it would be the single, clearest, and most measurable sign of the End believers in the Second Coming of Jesus have. The idea that the gospel will be preached in the whole world as a witness to all nations is clear, but would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify. The idea that famines, earthquakes and pestilences will increase before the End still leaves open the issue of how bad these events have to be in order to qualify as apocalyptic. How massive and frequent are the earthquakes to come? How severe the pestilences? Determining that the End is at hand on the grounds of any particular earthquake, famine or pestilence has proven to be a fool’s errand through the centuries. But in contrast to these other “signs” a specific law in the halls of Congress of the United States of America, that is a specific, measurable sign of the End! When such a law is being debated in Congress and seems likely to pass, we can all know that the End is at hand. This concept is clear, simple and very attractive for people who like to know how and when things will end up. It gives them something unique to look for in the news cycle. It feels good to have “inside knowledge” in a matter of such importance.

But does this idea conform to biblical principles of prophetic interpretation? Is the purpose of such a prediction to satisfy our curiosity about the timing of the End? Or are we using the gift of prophecy in ways it was never intended to be used? One problem with fixing on a detail like this is that it can blind us to the larger picture of prophecy. We can have an unbalanced focus that causes us to forget prophetic features that are more vital to spiritual survival, like a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

In the blogs that follow, I will seek to explore three lines of evidence in relation to the topic. 1) What can we learn about unfulfilled prophecy from fulfilled prophecy? In anticipating specific Sunday laws, are we paying attention to how the Bible itself moves from prediction to fulfillment? We will review my previous study of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible, seeking guidelines that pertain to the specific prediction of a national Sunday law in the USA. 2) We will take a careful look at Revelation 13:13-17, the source passage in the Bible for the idea of a national/international Sunday law. Is that prediction as clear in the Bible as some have thought? Are there other ways that a counterfeit of the true Sabbath could occur? 3) We will take a close look at the key statements in the writings of Ellen White that are used to support the idea of a national Sunday law. How clear are those statements? What in her time and place was she referring to? Are similar conditions in play today?

I look forward to sharing this research with you and will welcome your feedback.

Questions and Answers (20:12)

Lou: You referred to the struggle that Romans 7 describes. What is this struggle? When is it? Is it before conversion, or is it after conversion?

Graham: Let me summarize what Paul says there: “The good that I would do, I don’t do; and all the evil that I don’t want to do, is what I do. I delight in the law of God in my inner man, but in my body I feel captive to the law of sin” (based on Romans 7:19-23). People say, “That couldn’t be a converted person.” And yet if he delights in the law of God, he sounds like a converted person. If you are struggling before conversion, if you are struggling during conversion, if you are struggling after conversion, if you are ever struggling, then look to Jesus Christ. It doesn’t really matter. It’s unnecessary to squabble about when the struggle occurs. Struggle is also mentioned in Romans 8, which all interpreters recognize as applying after conversion (Rom 8:18-25). Whenever you are struggling; before, during, or after conversion, be thankful to God for Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lou: Since we are talking about peace, it seems to me that human beings often live with a sense of guilt. Guilty people are surely not at peace with God. What is God’s remedy for guilt?

Graham: What worries so many people about guilt is the fear that goes with it. “I just got caught with my hand in the cookie jar, what is He going to do to me?” There is a lot of fear mixed in there. There is also a loss of dignity and self-worth. The woman taken in adultery felt very guilty and very ashamed. And the first thing Jesus did was to restore her dignity and self-respect. He did that time after time. How can we act with dignity, as people created in God’s image, if we have had our self-respect destroyed? Often, the chronic torture of unnecessary guilt is one of the negative consequences of the legal model.
In the great controversy model, the emphasis is on the truth about God. How does God regard His child who is in trouble? Look at the prodigal son. The father says, “Don’t even finish your speech of repentance. Come home and get a shower and put on the best clothes I can give you. I’ll even give you back your ring of authority” (access to his father’s bank accounts). By so doing the father endeavored to give him back his self-respect. And the son said, “But I am guilty; look what I have done!” And the father said, “Look, I’m willing to forget it if you will.”
Who was the one who wanted to rub the son’s nose in his misdeeds from time to time? The pious older brother, of course. But as far as God is concerned, He’s our physician, He doesn’t want to talk about guilt. He doesn’t even want to dwell long on forgiveness. He says: “Son, you’re My patient; you’ve come home; you trust Me. Let’s not waste any time on the past. Let’s work from here on. I want to make you well. And if you’re depressed about what you’ve done, it’s going to retard your healing. So please forget about it the way I have.” The real remedy for the anguish of guilt is the truth about God. The remedy for guilt is to know what God is like.

Lou: All right. We know what God gave up to have peace in His universe, but I guess I’d like to close with this question, What is it that we have to give up to really have peace?

Graham: There is a sense in which we don’t have to give up a thing. The gospel is about God not about us. Yet, at another level, there are things we have to give up or they will get in the way of what God wants to do for us. We need to co-operate with the Great Physician. So we do have to give up prejudice, bias, and fixed opinions. We do have to give up our unwillingness to listen, a self-satisfied stubbornness that there can be no new ideas. We do have to be willing to investigate the evidence. But in the end, we don’t give up a thing. The great good news about God is His gift to us. And I wonder sometimes how anybody could turn it down.
Think how the Son of God was the most skillful and persuasive teacher of the truth there will ever be, God Himself in human form. And He came to a very pious people who had bought into the Devil’s picture of God. Driven by that understanding of God, they were doing many of the right things, but for the wrong reasons. They were moved by law and by fear. And in most cases, Jesus couldn’t change their minds. But He did change a few minds, the very ones who gave us the marvelous picture of God we find in the New Testament.
Perhaps even today we have “dear idiots” scattered all over the planet, like the “dear idiots” of Galatia, who seemed to have a spell cast over them (Gal 3:1, Phillips). We must realize the Devil is our foe. He does not want us to see the truth. He does not want the Great Physician to heal us. He does not want us to become friends of God. But the good news about God is too good to turn down. It is everything that the old English word “gospel” implies. What good news!

Lou: Someone once said, “The gospel we preach must be the gospel by which our own souls are saved.” As we draw this book to a close, could you summarize your understanding of that gospel one last time?

Graham: For me, the heart of the gospel is this. God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be: arbitrary, unforgiving and severe. Jesus said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). God is just as loving and trustworthy as His Son, just as willing to forgive and to heal. Though infinite in majesty and power, our Creator is an equally gracious person who values nothing higher than the freedom, dignity, and individuality of His intelligent creatures. He desires that their love, their faith, their willingness to listen and obey, may be freely given. He even prefers to regard us not as servants but as friends. This is the truth revealed through all the books of Scripture. This is the everlasting good news that wins the trust and admiration of God’s loyal children throughout the universe.

Questions and Answers (20:11)

Lou: Here’s another question. “God has the power to take away our eternal life. But does He have the right to take away our life on this earth?” I think this question is talking about the first death that you referred to. Why should or would God ever want to interrupt our pursuit of happiness?

Graham: There are two things to consider there. Who determines what God’s rights are? As Sovereign, He’s going to do precisely as He wishes to. We don’t give Him His rights. However, the kind of sovereign He is, He does want His children to see Him as doing what is right. That is a great concern to Him. Does He have a right to intervene? I would say, if God had not intervened, we would have destroyed each other long ago. It isn’t a matter of whether He has a right to interfere with my pursuit of happiness; had He not intervened, there wouldn’t be any of us left to pursue happiness. The consequences of our own choices would long ago have destroyed us. So I’m glad He has intervened. He didn’t do it to deprive us of our freedom; He did it to preserve our freedom. But He has had to take emergency measures to do that.

Lou: This question touches on something you referred to in the first part of the chapter. There are texts (such as Rom 8:34; 1 Tim 2:5; Heb 7:25) which indicate that Christ intercedes with the Father. So this questioner says: “Here are the texts. Christ intercedes for us. Now, in what sense is that true?”

Graham: Well, we need to refer to the questions in Romans: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31. “Who can bring any accusation?” Romans 8:33-34. But we have sometimes turned that around and made God the one who is against us. We need to remind ourselves who the accuser of the brethren is, the one who accuses them day and night before God (Rev 12:10). Satan is the one who is against us. And Christ does meet his charges through intercession, for the enemy of God is our enemy, too.
There are times, though, where I think God has said: “I have given you priestly intercession, even My Son in between, because I know how scared you are of Me.” And so as an emergency measure He has sometimes spoken of Jesus coming in between. But we need to read John 16:26-27. Really, there is no need for anyone to intercede with the Father, not even the Son, because the Father Himself loves us. So we need to put all those passages together.

Lou: Our problem is making a distinction between Father and Son, isn’t it? It is easy to think of Jesus as more kind and loving than the Father.

Graham: How sad when people come to that conclusion. And yet, if the Father sees us thinking the Son is kinder than He is, He’s not jealous of His Son. He just wants us to get the message. And many of us will arrive in the Kingdom more comfortable with the Son than with the Father. And I keep imagining what it would be like to arrive in the Kingdom and say to the Son, “Thank You for begging the Father not to kill us.” And things like that. And by and by He will say, “Look, it’s time you met My Father.” So He will take us into the Father’s presence and we will stand there, maybe looking at the floor in fear. And the Son will say, “Look a little higher. Look into His face. What do you see?” And we will see a face that is just as kind as the face of the Son. When that time comes don’t say, “Father, thank you for letting the Son persuade You not to kill me.” He wouldn’t be angry about it, but He would know you still need a little work. He will want us to grow up, but He will be patient even then.

Lou: Let’s shift gears with this question: “If God knows what we need, why do we have to pray in order to be provided with our needs?” That touches on a previous chapter in this book (Chapter Fifteen—“Talking to God as a Friend”).

Graham: Yes. God provides us with what we need whether we pray or not (Matt 5:45). That is what is so generous about Him. Does that mean that we should not pray? Of course not. Prayer is “conversation with God as with a friend,” and He really is our friend, so we will talk to Him about these things anyway. After all, prayer is more than just begging Him for today’s groceries.

Lou: That’s right, that isn’t the way we treat our wives or our friends, talking with them only when we need something! Here’s another interesting question: “Should we pray to the Holy Spirit?”

Graham: I think that would be most appropriate. Father, Son and Holy Spirit—all three are co-equally, co-eternally God. However, I think there’s special historical meaning in praying to the Father in the name of the Son. It is the Son who revealed the truth about the Father with the help and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also helps us, because we don’t know how to pray as we should. He reminds us of God’s whole way of winning us back to the truth. So what I like to do is pray to the Father in the name of the Son, in grateful recognition for what He’s done, but with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Lou: I guess we don’t have to worry about the Holy Spirit getting His feelings hurt.

Graham: The members of the Godhead go out of their way to honor each other.

Questions and Answers (20:10)

Lou: “If God does not punish, then who sends the fire down from heaven on the wicked?” Rev 20:9. You’ve already alluded to that. Also, “Who caused Ananias and Sapphira to fall dead?” Acts 5:1-11.

Graham: I would want to make a difference between two kinds of death. What happened to Ananias and Sapphira is what the Bible calls the first death, and they will be resurrected. Their future, in which resurrection they will arise, is between them and God. But what happened to Ananias and Sapphira is different from this awful death at the end. Now when fire comes down from God and consumes the resurrected wicked (Rev 20:9), God is there, no doubt about it. But as we have discussed before, this “fire” is His life-giving glory which is described in the Bible as having the appearance of fire (Ezek 1:26-27; Dan 7:9-10; Rev 4:5). In fact, if we were among the saved, we would have been living in this life-giving glory for a thousand years, and it won’t have hurt anybody. It’s only if we’re willfully and rebelliously out of harmony with God that this glory is damaging. God in mercy has veiled this life-giving glory for our sake. His so-called “strange act” (Isa 28:21) is when He ceases to veil His life-giving glory. When this earth is no longer a dark place, and His glory fills the earth, all that is out of harmony is consumed. He doesn’t turn His back on this. He’s there. He’s watching His children. It’s His glory. But He’s not torturing His dying children to death. That’s the difference.

Lou: You once told me that we will bask in that glory for all eternity. We will never want it to go out.

Graham: Oh, I like the fact that this is everlasting fire. If the fire is God’s glory, it had better not go out. We will live in this everlasting fire for eternity, but it’s His life-giving glory.

Lou: Someone raised the same basic question about the Flood. “Are you saying God doesn’t kill? What about the Flood?”

Graham: This is a similar question to the one about Ananias and Sapphira. The deaths at the time of the Flood belong to the first death. I see God bringing the Flood as an emergency measure, and a very serious one at that. The Flood was a very risky thing for Him to do, lest we serve Him from fear. And certainly the Flood didn’t win their hearts. The survivors built a tower to escape Him not long after (Gen 11:1-9). But He did it to preserve contact with the human race. Those who died in the Flood died the first death. And all who died in the Flood will be resurrected.

Lou: A related question: “How do we explain where God in the Old Testament told His people again and again to wipe out the enemy? Here are God’s children being instructed by God to do this. How do you reconcile that with a loving God?”

Graham: That was truly an emergency measure. But before He did that, He said to the children of Israel, “When I take you out of Egypt, I’ll send my angel ahead of you. I’ll send hornets ahead of you. I’ll use the forces of nature to remove your enemies one way or the other. Let Me do it” (Exod 23:23-30). But they didn’t trust Him on this, as with so many other things He sought to do for them. And so He stooped and met them where they were and helped them fight. But while He helped them, He still hated the fighting. How do we know? When David wanted to build the temple, God said, “You’re a great man as a warrior, but you’ve been a man of blood (1 Chr 28:3). That’s not My ideal,” and He went on record as not wanting the fighting. He never designed His people to fight their way into Canaan. But in their lack of faith, He helped them fight.

Questions and Answers (20:9)

Lou: What are the redeemed, those who are saved, doing during this thousand-year period? That’s a long period of time.

Graham: I like to remember what Peter said: “With the Lord a thousand years is like a day” (2 Pet 3:8). You could translate that “a millennium is like a day, and a day is like a millennium.” I don’t think we need to worry about the time. I think that a thousand years with the Lord will seem like a day. But there are important things that have to happen during that time. The loyal angels will have had a chance before the Second Coming to meet as a heavenly family and consider candidates for the Kingdom. That way our future neighbors and friends can be satisfied that it’s safe to admit former rebels like us into eternity. But what about us? We’ve not seen the evidence that they examined. I think during the Millennium those who have been adjudged safe to save will have their opportunity to ask questions, to see the evidence, to find out why mother isn’t there. I would find her absence very sad. But God will be fair about it, He will show me the evidence so I can understand.
There’s something else that may need to happen during the Millennium. We will be preparing ourselves to face that awful scene when the wicked die in a fiery moment of destruction. We will have to see that someday. Are we ready to see it and not become afraid of God? Those of us who live to see Christ come, will have become so settled into the truth that we can see the seven last plagues and not become afraid of God. But think of all the babes in the truth who have been saved from the foot of Mount Sinai through the centuries. Think of the thief on the cross. Think of all the others who have not had time and evidence to become confirmed in this.
Everyone must be ready for that awesome day when God says to those inside the New Jerusalem, “Children, you know what’s coming next. Do you want to come out to the wall and watch? Or do you want to hide in the basement somewhere? I’m about to give My rebellious children up, and untold numbers of them are going to die. And you know why I’ve waited so long.” And so we stand, perhaps, and watch our God, as fire comes down from heaven and the glory of Him who is love consumes all that is out of harmony. And we will know that, as the wicked die, God will be crying: “Why will you die? How can I give you up? How can I let you go?” Hosea 11:8. He’s no more angry with them than He was with His Son when He gave Him up in Gethsemane and on Calvary.
When it’s all over, I can see God turning to us and saying, “How awful that was. But children, I have one last question to ask you all. Have I made you afraid? Because if I have, I’ve let it happen too soon, and I would have waited longer.” But hopefully we will all be so settled into the truth that we will be able to draw close and say to God, “It’s all right, there was no other way.” And from then on there will be peace forever, in spite of that awful end. Are we ready to see that and not be made afraid? Because if it makes us afraid, then we’ll serve Him from fear, and the obedience of fear produces the character of a rebel. If any of us serves God out of fear after that, God will still have the seeds of sin in His universe, and He will not have won the war. We would be back where it all began.

Lou: At the end of the book of Revelation there’s that beautiful statement, “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev 21:4). It just struck me as you were talking that maybe we will need to wipe the tears even from God’s eyes.

Graham: Oh, I like that thought very much. As His children, wouldn’t that be appropriate? To get a little closer and say, “It’s all right, God. It’s all right.”

Questions and Answers (20:8)

Lou: What about the accusation that God is unforgiving? Consider Adam and Eve. It is their very first offense, and they have to leave their garden home. Why couldn’t God have been the way Jesus said we ought to be, forgiving “seventy times seven”? Matthew 18:21-22. Why couldn’t He have just said, “Well, you’ve made one mistake, that’s your first, we’ll overlook that”?

Graham: If sin were merely breaking the rules, if sin were merely a legal matter, He could have forgiven and let it go. In fact, I believe He did forgive Adam and Eve. He treated them like the father of the prodigal son treated him. The father forgave his son even as he left home. He regarded him with forgiveness even as he wallowed in the pigpen. The problem with a focus only on forgiveness is that sin changes people. Forgiveness does no good in the long run unless one responds. Forgiveness by itself doesn’t heal the damage done by sin. It is not that God is unforgiving, but that, having sinned, we are changed. And what is needed is not so much forgiveness as healing the damage done. So I would say that of course God forgave Adam and Eve. But that was not all that they needed.

Lou: We’re back to that crucial point that you made rather early on; it matters how we understand what went wrong, the sin problem.

Graham: Sin is not so much a legal problem as a real problem. It calls for healing and not just some kind of legal adjustment.

Lou: Back to Satan’s accusation that God is severe. I can hear someone saying, “Isn’t death too severe a punishment for not loving and obeying?”

Graham: If death were a penalty, that would be incredibly severe. But if it’s a consequence, that’s something else entirely. Death tells us that sin is a very serious matter. It changes us. But unfortunately, we often speak about death as an imposed sentence or penalty. That puts God in a very severe light. Death is ultimately a consequence of sin and not a penalty that God imposes on us.

Lou: In the book of Revelation, God is described as resurrecting the wicked at the end of the Millennium. Why does God do this? They are wicked and rebellious. They are lost anyway. Why not just leave them asleep? Isn’t it harsh to bring them back to life only to let them burn up?

Graham: I imagine the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah arising at the end of the Millennium (Rev 20:5), looking around and saying, “Here we go again!” It seems cruel and inhumane to resurrect them, doesn’t it? There has to be a purpose.
The word “millennium” means a thousand years. The Millennium of Revelation begins with the Second Coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the righteous (Rev 20:4-6). At that time Jesus takes the righteous to heaven (John 14:1-3), while the wicked die and/or remain in their graves. At the end of the thousand years is the third coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the wicked.
Why would God resurrect the wicked after all that? What suffering that would cause! How terrible to be in the New Jerusalem and see one’s loved ones outside (Rev 20:7-10). God would only do this if it said something of very great importance that would contribute to our understanding and to the security of the universe. For example, we might wonder why Uncle Bill is not in the Kingdom. Uncle Bill was the one who said, “If you’d just prove it to me, I’d come in.” And you see Uncle Bill out there. He is looking at the New Jerusalem. He sees Christ in His human form at the apex of the city. Here’s all the evidence, plain to see, and Uncle Bill is not moved one bit. In fact, Revelation goes on to say that Satan moves among these rebels who have been resurrected and he deceives them into marching against the New Jerusalem as if to destroy Christ again (Rev 20:8-9). And you will be able to say, “God, your diagnosis was right. More time and more evidence would not have done Uncle Bill any good.” The cause of his death is something much more important than simply imposing a penalty for his refusal to believe. Uncle Bill is simply not safe to save. God shows him all the evidence at the end of the Millennium, and he still does not respond. You’ll weep when you see it, but Uncle Bill will not respond. So these events will be a final demonstration of the character of God and, by contrast, the characters of Satan and all who follow him.