I have a friend who is Seventh Day Adventist and we constantly debate whether hell is eternal. I show him passage after passage that demonstrates that the Bible teaches everlasting punishment, but he continues to bring up the fact that, for people in hell, their ultimate fate is to be thrown into the lake of fire. To my understanding his belief is that people who do not believe in Jesus Christ do go to hell and they burn for however long it is but once they are thrown into the lake of fire they cease to exist. Thus the punishment is eternal in the sense that it can never be revoked or turned back. He interprets it in this weird way as if the punishment itself is eternal and not that the punishment has an eternal duration. I was always taught that people burn forever. Could you clarify?
This is a difficult question and the answer is not absolutely clear from scripture. Sincere, Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians that I know and respect disagree about the nature of hell. I do not think you can absolutely dismiss your 7th Day Adventist friend’s position. The scriptures which suggest that the punishment in hell lasts for eternity seem, at first glance, to be abundantly clear. For example Revelation 14:11 “The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever” seems to have an obvious interpretation, as does Matthew 9:48 (their worm never dies…). But then, there are other passages which seem to imply that those who are sent to the eternal fire are consumed by that fire, which implies that their torment ends at that point. The Jewish understanding has leaned historically toward the latter, while the traditional Protestant Christian understanding has leaned toward the former. For myself, I believe that the eternity of heaven and the eternity of hell are the same and I tend toward the traditional understanding of the nature of Hell. Let me be honest with you, however. I believe that a strong case can be made for both views from the Bible. Therefore, I will have to say that we would do well not to be overly dogmatic on this question and certainly should hesitate to call those who disagree heretics. Because I believe that the punishment of hell is eternal, I am attaching a paper on the topic by a friend—Dr. Douglas Jacoby—who disagrees with me. He has published a book The Truth About Heaven and Hell with Harvest House that I recommend you consider reading.
I have two suggestions. First, you should read the book by Doug Jacoby and the attached file in order to acquaint yourself with the biblical basis for the view of your 7th Day Adventist friend. Second, I suggest you reach your own conclusion on the matter, share it with your friend, but allow with him for the possibility that on this particular question we may need to allow one another space to disagree and not divide over this question. I would then move on to other issues. That is my suggestion. In any case, we all agree that we want absolutely no one to go to hell and we want all to go to heaven. Whether the punishment in hell goes on infinitely long or whether it continues for a certain length of time does not affect all that much our desire to prevent this fate for our friends and even for our enemies! We can agree that our job is not to judge but to help as many as possible to be saved. We can afford to leave this question in God’s hands, while not hesitating to hold to and teach what we believe on this difficult question.