Hello Kevin! Not sure what you are seeing in this statement>> "This is a fire unquenchable, and by it every unrepentant sinner will be destroyed" (ST, 4/14/1898). Are you saying that this picture does not at all represent the "fire from heaven" at the end of the 1000 years of Rev. 20?
I'm glad you asked. What a privilege to be invited to . . . speak well of God, giving glory to Him and to further develop coherent and satisfying answers to the difficult questions arising from the inspired texts.
I understand your question to be asking if this depiction of living flesh enduring the miseries of live fire torture portrays the physical realities of the final destruction of the finally impenitent. Further to the implications of your question is the belief that in such a conflagration, they would obviously have to be supernaturally sustained by God1 in order to live for even a few minutes. This presents a serious problem.
We do not believe it ends this way. We hold that this is a key component in the attack on the character of God; i.e., the thinking that God will sustain life in the throes of the agony of searing flesh for the purpose of physical torture. Punishment? For what end? Correction? Retribution? There is no purpose served in this but vengeance and vindictiveness. The process of going to second death ITSELF is the punishment. It is a torture of their own soul as they wrestle toward an acceptance of the righteousness of God, their own choice to remain outside of it, and a recognition that this is all JUST. They still do not want grace; they have gone past that day. They would still choose self-government, but they do realize the futility of it. They see that the righteous God is the very source of their breath. They must come to the acceptance of that reality and, acknowledging the justice of the whole affair, they can at last say, "you are righteous; let me go." Can you imagine such a thing? What horror!
The extent of wickedness in the individual will determine the amount of suffering they go through, in that the principles of self are all the more deeply ingrained in the more thoroughly wicked, and the principle of self is such that it wants to have its own way. The soul will desperately try to find a way out of this, and there will be a terrible wrestling. The stronger that self has been, the worse the agony of that wrestling. But every ONE of them will have to come to the realization that there is no way out. There was an escape provided during the day of salvation; they did not want it then; they are past wanting it now.
They are made to understand the principles of God's Kingdom, and they know that they are past true repentance; they have now only fear for their end and the desperate innate drive of the soul to exist tries to comprehend its own extinction. They know that to live on in this mode of fear would be only a continuance of the mental agony they are in, for they understand that they cannot exist in sin. It is separation from God in Whom is the very life that is even now sustaining them. The hell they are in is the end of the road confrontation of the eternal realities and a knowing that now is the time of reckoning.
It is a terrible thing to face soul death, and we don't ever want to experience even a "smidge" of that torture. Jesus drank it to the dregs. He would have died second death without humans putting Him on the cross. It is likely He would have gone right to the altar of His own accord and laid it down right there in the outer court of the temple without any human action against His physical being.
No, there is no need for a burning hell to eat at every nerve fiber of the physical being until the impenitent is fully consumed―with a special Divine sustaining of life so that the more wicked will suffer on for longer durations of time in accordance with the degree of wickedness. Oh, how this appeals to our human hearts that desire revenge. The natural tendency for even a "good" Christian, when faced with personal wounds as the result of others' sins, is to refrain from thoughts and desires of personal, earthly revenge and retribution but take delight in the knowledge that they [sinners] will receive their licks from God in the end.
The physical torture would not bring about a proper confession. We know this about torture―the victim will say whatever the tormentor wants him to say. Besides, this confession has already been made, before the fires consume. [We believe the fire is only a cleanup and a preparation for restoration of the creation.) So why torture by "hell-fire"? Again, I need someone to give me a reason for it that is in line with the principles of freedom, noncoercion, forgiveness, and all-for-the-other self-sacrificing love. These impenitents are going to second death, to soul annihilation. Is there something they can learn from this punishment so they will not ever do it again? Or is it a lesson to the saved that they better not mess up again or they will suffer this fate at last? Or will the "never sinned" group (the angels and unfallen worlds) have to ponder anew the claims of Satan that God will wipe out the one who steps out of line? You see, the purpose of a 6000-year demonstration of the results of sin would be wiped out entirely by God stepping in to torture and then kill the sinner.
Or does God have an arbitrary code of law that demands suffering for sin? Not that sin will naturally bring about the suffering of second death, but that God will have to impose it Himself to satisfy some sort of demand that HE HIMSELF built into the universe. In other words, are we looking at a created cause and effect rather than a natural? This is the booby-trapped garden principle: "Danger: Keep Out. Owner has planted land mines in this garden." Why would He build in arbitrary torture and suffering as a penalty for sin? Who gets satisfied by this? What principle of justice gets satisfied? Come on, people, we need a good answer that lines up with God's True Character as He declared to Moses [Exodus 33 and 34] and as He demonstrated in Jesus Christ. We have to get these mad ideas about God out of our heads forever. The universe can never be secure with this idea floating around. This fire torture would not serve any purpose to the never-sinned or to the saved or to God Himself. This is out of the character of everything we know about forgiveness and everything He has demonstrated about forgiveness.
Again, what is seen in this quote, re-posted below, is that there is no hint that the "fire unquenchable" is a physical torture, but is equated with the worm-that-will-not-die symbolism from the garbage dump of Gehenna, outside the walls of historic Jerusalem, remembering that Gehenna is one of the words from which we derive the word "hell."
See that in this quote we have an explicit definition of the unquenchable fire as that the sinner "will see that sin is the transgression of God's law" and the terrible realization comes that "his soul is cut off from God" and he/she must suffer the wrath of God. The wrath of God is well established in Scriptures as God hiding His face, pulling away from the sinner His protections. There can be varying degrees of wrath; it can be mixed with mercy, but the ultimate wrath is a complete and final separation from the sinner which results in second death, as Jesus endured in His dark night of the soul. The cross was incidental. That is not why He died. We should all know this from inspiration. . . .
We read of chains of darkness for the transgresssor of God's law. We read of the worm that dieth not, and of the fire that is not quenched. Thus is represented the experience of every one who has permitted himself to be grafted into the stock of Satan, who has cherished sinful attributes. When it is too late, he will see that sin is the transgression of God's law. He will realize that because of transgression, his soul is cut off from God, and that God's wrath abides on him. This is a fire unquenchable, and by it every unreprentant sinner will be destoyed. Satan strives constantly to lead men into sin, and he who is willing to be led, who refuses to forsake his sins, and despises forgiveness and grace, will suffer the result of his course. (ST, 4/14/1898).
May God enlighten every mind upon this most important topic. We must come out of error with regard to the character of God! We cannot go home until this central issue in the great controversy is brought to the forefront. This is the glory that enlightens the whole earth. When His character is perfectly reproduced in His people, He will come to claim them, as stated in COL 69. What character is that? If we believe that God destroys the sinner, then we would fit in with those who will be religious persecutors in the final movements.
For those religious people will see that terrible things are happening in the world, natural disasters, plagues, pestilences and so forth, and, looking for a cause, they will point to those who are not in step with THEIR idea of God's law and they will say that this little group is bringing down God's wrath upon the world, because they are (supposed) desecrators of His law; therefore, the thing to do is to coerce them into serving "God" as per the dictates of their own belief system. When this little band will not comply, the last step will be a decision to wipe them out by execution. The whole of society cannot go along with these ideas, except that they have clung to the idea that God kills the sinner or sends them to eternal hell fire. They have received the character of their god! By beholding they have become changed into the image of the Beast they serve!
Praise God from Whom ALL blessings flow, in Whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning. He is the same yesterday, today and forever! Hallelujah!
1"Magical thinking" defined as thinking conventionally about final destruction.