The Great Lie of Seventh-day Adventists
Ellen White’s “Original Lie”
The Founder of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, Ellen Gould White, had some choice words to say about the teaching of the immortality of the soul:
The great original lie, which [the devil] told to Eve in Eden, “Ye shall not surely die,” was the first sermon ever preached on the immortality of the soul. That sermon was crowned with success, and terrible results followed. He has brought minds to receive that sermon as truth, and ministers preach it, sing it, and pray it.
The sermon which Satan preached to Eve upon the immortality of the soul – “Ye shall not surely die” – they have reiterated from the pulpit; and the people receive it as pure Bible truth. It is the foundation of spiritualism. The word of God nowhere teaches that the soul of man is immortal. Immortality is an attribute of God only. 1Timothy 6:16: “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honor and power everlasting. Amen.”
Mrs. White makes two specific errors here that betray a further and underlying problem with her understanding (and Seventh-day Adventists’) of the nature of the human person that is common among the various sects that deny the natural immortality of the soul. We’ll get to the underlying problem after we clear up the first two errors.
1. Mrs. White obviously did not comprehend the Catholic (and biblical) understanding of death. She apparently thought that Catholics believe human beings never die because we believe the souls of mankind are immortal. At least, that is what she appears to say. Modern Seventh-day Adventists I have talked to have a bit more of a nuanced approach, but say essentially the same thing. They will say that Catholics (and those who believe in the natural immortality of the soul) teach that in “death” only the body dies, not the person. So it would be improper to say “Tom Smith died.” For the Catholic—the argument is made—Tom Smith’s body died, not Tom Smith. This is simply incorrect. In fact, Catholics believe that when a Christian dies, the person dies, not just his body. The real key here is to define just what we mean by death.
I remember learning in Philosophy class in the seminary that the basic definition of death that goes back to Plato, Socrates and perhaps beyond is: “The reduction of a composite being into its component parts.” This is precisely what occurs when a human person dies: his “component parts” of body and soul are separated. But make no mistake about it; it is the person who dies. Simple enough. However, at the “death” of the person there is a sense in which we can say the body “dies” that the soul does not. The body itself is “reduced to its component parts” because it no longer has its form, or unifying principle, which is the soul. This is why the body will very quickly begin to decay or “break down into its component parts” at death. As Scripture says, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7).
Because the soul is spiritual in nature, there are no “parts” to break down. Hence, the soul continues to live as a substantial, though incomplete, entity. It is in this sense that we say the soul of man does not die, while the body and the person do.
2. When Scripture says God “only hath immortality,” this does not mean humans and angels do not participate in that immortality that God possesses absolutely. The Fourth Lateran Council declared in its Constitutions, “On the Catholic Faith,’ ch. 1:
We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable…”
God alone is eternal according to the Council, yet “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23) according to Scripture. This is not a contradiction. Catholic theology makes a distinction between the aeternitas of God and the aevum or aeviternitas of man. The “eternity of God” has no beginning and no end. The “eternal” life of man has a beginning, but no end. There is an essential difference between the two. Man’s eternity, or more precisely, his immortality, is a participation in what God alone possesses absolutely.
There are two ways to help clear up this misunderstanding biblically. First, we note that even Mrs. White and Seventh-day Adventists believed and believe in the resurrection. Is this not immortality? St. Paul describes the resurrection of the body in terms of: “… this mortal nature must put on immortality” (I Cor. 15:53, emphasis added). Jesus said, “He who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26). That means, at least in some sense, humans will possess immortality. And the fact is: Seventh-day Adventists agree that after the resurrection, Christians will never die. That is the definition of immortality! Thus, even according to Adventist theology, I Timothy 6:16 cannot mean God alone is immortal in an absolute sense and to the exclusion of all others in any sense.
Second, we can point to our Lord’s comparison between the immortality of angels and the immortality of the faithful. Jesus said, “Those who are accounted worthy to attain… to the resurrection of the dead… cannot die anymore because they are equal to the angels” (Luke 20:35-36). What makes this text so significant is the context. Our Lord was responding to the Sadducees who “say there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit” (Acts 23:8). It is in this context he makes clear the fundamental truth that angels are immortal. He then uses the example of the angels for the immortality of the resurrected dead. Angels are pure spirits, and therefore “cannot die.” So how are men “equal to the angels?” Men have spiritual souls that similarly cannot die. So obviously, again, I Timothy 6:16 must be taken to mean that God alone is immortal absolutely. Angels and men participate in the immortality that God alone possesses in a strict sense.
The Problem Continues – From Here to Eternity
Like its founder, Ellen Gould White, the Seventh-day Adventist sect denies the natural immortality of the soul. In 1988, the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church published a biblical exposition of the fundamental doctrines of their denomination. It states:
The soul has no conscious existence apart from the body. There is no text that indicates that the soul survives the body as a conscious entity.
Failing to understand the nature of the human person leads to more errors than space would allow us to consider here. But another couple of examples are found in Ellen White’s take on the resurrection and the judgment:
Thus were serious errors introduced into the Christian faith [by the Catholic Church]. Prominent among these was the belief in man’s natural immortality and his consciousness in death. This doctrine laid the foundation upon which Rome established the invocation of saints and adoration of the Virgin Mary. From this sprung also the heresy of eternal torment for the finally impenitent, which was early incorporated into papal faith.
Aside from the fact that Mrs. White misrepresents the Catholic position on Mary—Catholics do not adore her; we honor her, and rightly so—notice how the truth of the communion of saints and even the doctrine of Hell goes up in smoke (pun intended) with the denial of the immortality of the soul?
In the years I have dealt with Adventists and other sects that deny the natural immortality of the human soul, I have found the underlying problem to lie in the misapplication of texts of Scripture from the Old Testament. Here we find the real foundation of the error for these are the “go-to” verses for Adventists.
We will examine three of them here:
1. Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers… For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease… But man dies, and is laid low… and where is he?… Oh, that thou wouldst hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldst conceal me until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again?… His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not… (Job 14:1-2, 7, 10, 13-14, 21)
“His sons come to honor, and he does not know it?” To the Adventist, this text is clear: that would mean there is no consciousness after death. Further, the author compares the death of a man to a tree getting cut down. He says the tree has the advantage! The tree continues to live, whereas a man will not. Seems like an open and shut case. But not so fast! If we examine the context here we see quite a different story. Job is speaking of death being the final end to this life. He is not denying that there is an afterlife. There are four points to consider in order to clear up this apparent difficulty:
1) Job compares man to a tree, which continues to blossom again; or “return” to this life. Man does not. He is not denying an afterlife. Job obviously believes man will be resurrected. He says as much in Job 19:25: “For I know that my redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” Job simply declares what all Christians believe: a man that dies will not ordinarily return to this life.
2) In verses 13-14, as Fr. William Most has said, “[Job] indulges a fanciful wish, saying he would like to hide, without dying in Sheol, the underworld, until God’s wrath has passed” (Catholic Apologetics Today, p. 228) This is an understandable wish in the midst of terrible suffering. It is in this context that he says, in verse 14, “If a man dies shall he live again?” Job knows that you cannot go to Sheol and return to this life. We know this is what he is referring to because, as we have seen, in Job 19:25, Job explicitly teaches that there will be a resurrection of the body. So the dead will return, but not to this life.
3) What about the part that says the sons of the dead man “come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not?” Job is writing at a time, before the advent of Christ, when the dead did not experience the Beatific Vision. The “limbo of the fathers,” as it is called, was somewhat mysterious.
Job talks of the future life as he knew it, and as Jews thought of it. Job and his people thought of life [after death] as a drab survival—which is what it really was before the death of Christ. It was a dim limbo of the fathers, in which they had no means of knowing what transpired on earth, whether their children suffered or prospered [barring a special revelation given by God to the souls in Sheol for a special purpose as we see in the cases of Samuel (I Samuel 28:15), perhaps Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15), certainly Jeremiah and Onias (II Maccabees 15:11-15), and Moses and Elijah on the Mountain of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:30-31)]. By way of the beatific vision of God [the holy souls of the departed] can know what goes on on earth. But without that vision he cannot. And that vision was not to be had in the days of Job, not until Jesus died (Apologetics Today, 229-230).
4) Most importantly, we have to read the very next verse: Job 14:22:
He feels only the pain of his own body, and he mourns only for himself.
This seems to be overlooked by those who deny the natural immortality of the soul. But if the dead man being spoken of feels his own pain, then he must have a continued existence, albeit, he does not know what is happening “under the sun.”
The “limbo of the fathers” was a shadowy sort of existence that we just do not know everything about. This “pain” in the afterlife of which Job speaks may well be a reference to the separation of body and soul at death and the longing for the resurrection. This makes sense” when we again consider Job 19:25. Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” It would certainly make sense that Job would communicate a sense of “pain” in that the righteous dead are awaiting that which will finally complete them as human persons. Most important however is the fact that Job indicates “feeling” after death.
2. Psalm 6:3-6:
My soul is sorely troubled. But thou, O Lord—how long? Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love. In death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?
“’In death there is no remembrance of thee?’ How can it get any clearer than that?” says the Adventist. Fr. Most, quoting Scripture scholar Mitchell Joseph Dahood, S.J., responds:
The psalmist suffers not because of the inability to remember Yahweh in Sheol [Hell], but from being unable to share in the praise of Yahweh which characterizes Israel’s worship (Apologetics Today, 231).
Psalm 6 is a Psalm of David written “to the choirmaster” in order for it to be sung in the context of the liturgical worship of the people of God. This is the worship of God that David loved so much. In Sheol there would be no Tabernacle, no Temple, no choir and no grand communal worship. There would be no “remembrance” of God in the liturgy. No “praise” of God in the assembly. This was the desire of David’s heart all of his life:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).
David does not want to be deprived of the glorious praise of God. Fr. Most continues:
Isaiah 38:18 also has similar language: “For Sheol will not thank you [nor] death praise you.” The verb for praise, hallel, in Hebrew is precisely the same verb used in I Chr. 16:4 and II Chr. 5:13 and 31:2 for the liturgical praise of God. That of course would not take place in Hell [sheol].
A good way to see vividly the difference between the after-life occasioned by the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ in the New Covenant verses the after-life in the Old Covenant is to note the different ways death is viewed in each Testament. David, in Psalm 6, does not want to die because in death existence was less appealing than life in this world. Not just for the damned—of course that would be true—but for the just. In the New Covenant, we see just the opposite. St. Paul says:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me… My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account (Phil. 1:21-24).
Only an understanding of the immortality of the soul and the glory of the beatific vision awaiting the faithful after the resurrection of Christ can make sense of this text. If there is nothing—but nothing—in death, then St. Paul should be saying with David, “I don’t want to die!” St. Paul says plainly that death in friendship with Christ is “far better” than life in this present world.
3. Eccl. 9:10:
For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
That sounds like we should join the local Seventh-day Adventist community, doesn’t it? But, again, not so fast! As always, the key is context. If we back up to verse five of this same chapter, we read:
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun. Go, eat your bread with enjoyment… Enjoy life with the wife who you love… which he has given you under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. Again, I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift…
Notice how many times the inspired author said “under the sun?” Three times in these few short verses! The inspired author does not say the dead have no existence at all. The context reveals that he was saying the dead have nothing to do, and no knowledge of, what is happening “under the sun” as I’ve said before. But, in the end, the writer of Ecclesiastes knows that justice is coming in the next life. He is so certain of this that he can say in the final two verses of his book:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (Eccl. 12:13-14).
The writer of Ecclesiastes is focusing upon what happens “under the sun” until the very end when he tells us that the after-life is the place where everything will finally make sense. He does not attempt to give us an in-depth teaching of the nature of the after-life. He simply assures his readers that ultimate justice awaits in God’s good time.
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