Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: What Do We Mean by “Annihilation?”

As you likely are already aware, here at Rethinking Hell we deny the traditional teaching of Hell as a place of eternal torment, and instead view it as a place where the conscious existence of the unsaved is ended forever. This view is variously called “conditionalism,” “conditional immortality,” or “annihilationism.”1 The term annihilationism has led to a lot of confusion, and has led critics of our view to use straw man arguments against our view, so I would like to clarify what annihilation means in the context of annihilationism and conditional immortality.

What We Do Not Believe

Let me start by saying that we don’t necessarily believe that God will obliterate all of the subatomic particles and energy that once constituted the body of an unsaved person. At least, we don’t believe that He must do so in order for our view to be true. This immediately renders moot arguments based on the laws of conservation of matter and energy, such as the argument that since matter and energy cannot be destroyed (apparently not even by God Himself), therefore neither can humans be destroyed. For our purposes, it is not a problem if the subatomic particles that comprised their once-living bodies still exist, or if the energy contained within them is converted to some other form of energy somewhere else in the universe. In fact, we have no reason to think that this won’t be the case. This also renders moot the claim that biblical words used to describe the destruction of the lost don’t mean “to annihilate,” which will become clear as you read on.

What We Do Believe

We believe that the risen lost will die a second time, and will have no life or conscious existence ever again. The physical matter that composes their bodies may remain for some time after their second death, perhaps even years.2 If all that remains is inert matter, then that is annihilation as far as annihilationists are concerned, and quibbling over whether or not the Bible says they will “cease to exist” becomes pointless.

As an illustration, picture a corpse. A corpse exists; when a person’s body dies, it isn’t “annihilated,” but it is dead and cannot feel or think or consciously experience anything at all. A corpse cannot experience sadness; it cannot feel pain. It exists, insofar as it is composed of physical matter and looks like a human being, but it has no conscious existence.3 That is what the second death of the unsaved will be like, except both their bodies and their souls will die. They may not be truly “annihilated” in a strictly scientific sense of the word, but that is irrelevant since they will be able to be tormented about as easily as a clump of dirt. Put another way, as the body is dead as a doornail following the first death, so will the soul be following the second.45

Maybe people aren’t truly “annihilated.” Perhaps they don’t truly “cease to exist” in a very strict sense of the phrase. But being reduced to nothing more substantial than a corpse, ends a person’s existence in the way that matters. And as corpses are known for doing, whatever remains of those who die the second death will probably decompose and disappear, if they aren’t first burned up or something. Either way, matter doesn’t matter; substance is of no substance in the debate. So when traditionalists make a claim similar to that of Dr. Robert Morey in his oft-quoted Death and the Afterlife, that “there isn’t a single instance in the New Testament where apollumi means annihilation in the strict sense of the word,”6 it is irrelevant, because we don’t necessarily mean that the unsaved are annihilated “in the strictest sense of the word” to begin with. It is a red herring, as we are not arguing about cosmic obliteration of their molecules, but only the cessation of conscious existence.

Some might insist that this shouldn’t be called “annihilation” since what we believe awaits the risen unsaved is really more like death than annihilation. Indeed, what we believe awaits them is death. The reason terms and phrases like “annihilation” and “ceasing to exist” became popular ways to refer to this view is because “death” and “dying” have become so theologically loaded that most Christians think the biblical language of death is just another way of saying “conscious separation from God” or something along those lines. Perhaps, then, the current jargon isn’t precise enough,7 but ultimately this isn’t about how we define the terms. Ultimately it is instead about what the Bible says will happen to the wicked. We could give it another name; we could call it “corpsism” and say that lost will be fully “corpsated” or something, but that doesn’t change what we believe will actually happen. If a person is permanently and eternally rendered dead like a corpse, in both body and soul, permanently and eternally without an sort of consciousness or any sort of life in any sense, then one can say whatever one wishes about the corpses and ash that remain (Isaiah 66:24; Malachi 4:3).

  1. In practice, especially in literature critical of this view, these terms are used with a lot of fluidity. Sometimes they are viewed as being largely synonymous, and are used interchangeably. Other times, they are used to describe considerably different views. For example, some, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, deny that the unsaved will be resurrected at all. Others believe that they will be resurrected to be judged and then sentenced to extinction. Some refer to the former view using “conditional immortality,” and to the latter using “annihilationism.” Others use those terms the other way around. We at Rethinking Hell believe the unsaved will be resurrected. as explained in our statement of faith. []
  2. Among conditionalists there are those who believe humans have immaterial souls or spirits (or both), and there are those who do not. The former believe that the immaterial souls or spirits of the lost will, along with their bodies, die the second death, the result being a complete and everlasting cessation of life and conscious existence. []
  3. As explained previously, if people are conscious between death and resurrection it is because they have immaterial souls or spirits that do not die when the body dies prior to the resurrection, and instead remain alive and conscious. The body, however, is dead and inert. []
  4. The philosophical question might then be raised as to whether or not an immaterial soul can be truly dead and yet still exist. Either answer is quite compatible with annihilationism. If one argues that it can still “exist,” it is irrelevant because it is still dead either way. If one argues that consciousness is such a fundamental aspect of a soul that if it were permanently die like the body it would literally cease to exist, then that doesn’t hurt this view at all either. Why would it? []
  5. This assumes humans have immaterial souls that survive separation from their bodies in the first death. If not, then for all intents and purposes we can just say that after final judgment, the lost are reduced to nothing but remains forever, and leave it at that. []
  6. Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984) 90. []
  7. A discussion of what constitutes existence will likely come up in future posts. []
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  • C.F. Hudson wrote:

    “The view we hold is commonly called a doctrine of “annihilation.” We shall spend no time in quarrel with this word, though we prefer the scriptural term “destruction.” But when our opponents repeat the hackneyed saying, that no particle of matter was ever known to be annihilated, and thereupon fetch inferences against us, we ought to say that no labor need be thus wasted. We take the word in question in the same general sense in which our opponents often use it,—the perishing of distinct, individual being.”

    from Christ Our Life, 1860

  • Peter Grice

    From our Statement of Faith:

    “We affirm… final punishment, consisting ultimately in the destruction of body and soul, a permanent end to life and conscious existence.”

  • Mark Mcculley

    The most important problem to deal with the name is “conditional” .To most people that automatically means “conditioned on the sinner”. Of course most people are Arminians who believe that God loved (or loves) those people who perish in the second death, but then they make the efficacy of Christ’s death a hostage to the sinful will of the sinner.

    The second problem is the definition of “soul” and the connection of that to “body” and “spirit”. But of course because ot “rethinking hell’s” apologetic strategy of avoiding the topic of the intermediate state (and anthropology), there can be no resolution of that question. For example, to say– “as the body is dead as a doornail following the first death, so will the soul be following the second”—leaves open the possibility that something called the “soul” is neither dead nor even asleep between death and the Lord’s coming. I think we must do better than the minimum when it comes to texts which command–don’t fear those who can destroy the body only….

    • Mark, your claim about what “conditional” means to most people is completely unsubstantiated. To assert that this is somehow the most important problem says a lot more about you and your theological idiosyncrasies than it does about the issue.

      As for the intermediate state and anthropology, there is diversity of thought amongst 1. conditionalists in general—now and throughout history—and (more importantly) 2. the RH team. Because of that, RH will not be taking a dogmatic stance on those issues. To say that the quoted sentence leaves open the possibility of a conscious intermediate state is simply to restate that RH leaves open that possibility; you haven’t shown how or even that it is a problem.

      • Mark Mcculley

        There is nothing more important than the question about if salvation is conditioned on the sinner. For you to deny this as a coalition is to deny that what Christ did is what saves a sinner. If Christ died for all sinners, but only some of them are saved, then it’s not Christ’s death which saves any sinner.

        This is not only logical but the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus in texts like John 6, 10, and 17. Now, instead of telling us what the gospel is (and is not), you can say that I am making it about me and my eccentric narrow position, then you have avoided the offense of the cross. You have not walked according to the rule of Galatians 6.

        If you are going to start counting numbers, and go with the majority, then you might as will side with the pope in the traditional view that salvation is by ceremonies and works we are enabled to do. Campbellites who teach “conditional immortality” are notorious for denying the truth of Adam’s imputed guilt and also for conditioning salvation on doing certain “steps”..

        Certainly, the same kind of logic is present also with more “liberal” folks in the

        Alexander-Campbell tradition like Ed Fudge, who says: because God is so just, and because Jesus’ saving work is so extensive and so powerful, the apostle Paul confidently affirms that only those who consciously reject God’s light will finally be lost (Rom 5:13-14, 18-21).

        Fudge writes that Christ’s work is powerful in the very process of denying that Christ will give the Holy Spirit and faith to all for whom Christ died. He not only leaves it up to the sinner to accept or reject the gospel, without any grace from God to make a difference, but he also denies that all for whom Christ “poured out His soul” will be justified, as Isaiah 53 teaches.

        Romans 5: 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

        In context, the reason these people die is the imputation of Adam’s sin, the parallel is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Certainly these verses do not teach that all people between Adam and the law were justified.

        Romans 5: 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

        mark: in Context, the “receive’ here is by imputation. God imputes righteousness and the result is life.

        18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

        Since I don’t think you have any universalists in your coalition, you cannot reasonably take this text to mean that everybody simply has an “opportunity” to be condemned. No, even the elect are all condemned, and it is that same group who will all be justified and given life.

        19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

        As for your second objection, you are correct. You have agreed on a policy, not only about the intermediate state, but also even about the definition of “soul”. You are correct that I haven’t shown this to be a problem. To be sure, I don’t think it’s much of a pragmatic problem. If the traditionalists can all agree not to even talk about the nature of “hell” or about the ages or the differences between immortality and resurrection, certainly you all can manage to talk about what human sinners are. But if you want to search together for the truth, it will get in the way. Of course, if you all already know what you think already, and then are simply bracketing some stuff “to stay on message”, it might go smoothly. Especially if eccentric folks like me don’t confuse things.

        • “There is nothing more important than the question about if salvation is conditioned on the sinner.”

          Mark, this is clearly changing the subject. Your original claim was about the purported understanding of the word conditional by “most people” and your equally specious claim about that word being the “most important problem” with our view, and it was that that I commented on. So all your comments here about “avoiding the offense of the cross”—indeed, your entire essay—are not merely bizarre but completely off topic, and obviously so.

          Your conspicuous attempts to steer any and every theological issue to your personal hobbyhorse (presumably a crusade against “Arminianism”) may be tolerated elsewhere, but I guarantee you they wont be tolerated here.

          • Mark Mcculley

            I understand. That’s what offense means. No tolerance.

            As you stand above the ‘wrong topic” which is the debate between the Reformed cherry on the gospel and the Arminian option, you know when it’s the other person who has the problem. You yourself are not scandalized. Keep it passive voice–”won’t be tolerated” sounds better than “I won’t tolerate”.

            Attempts? How many offenses have there been? Everything I ever said was just to get back to “calvinism”. Or once is enough?

          • Peter Grice

            You’ve posted a bit on our Facebook page. On one occasion, you tried to point out how liberal is one of our conference keynote speakers (Dr. John Stackhouse), except that your link was about somebody else of the same last name. A number of your posts just seem to be about finding this or that point to criticize, in areas that we don’t think are relevant to our topic.

            A number of people involved with Rethinking Hell are Arminian/Wesleyan, and a number are Calvinist/Reformed. It’s not something we want to explore here, and speaking for myself, your framing of the issue (here and elsewhere) involves a non sequitur. So we’d appreciate contributions directly on our topic. I’m sure you have some great thoughts and research along those lines.

          • Jeff Whittum

            Mark – if I may interject:

            I understand that a truly systematic and consistent theology demands of us that we consider the impact that each particular view we hold (and how we choose to express those views) relates to other views we claim to hold. All the more vital is an awareness of this concept when errors might land us outside the fold of orthodoxy. It would only be right and noble that such an error, if it be witnessed by one with a better grasp of the implications of that error, point it out to those less theologically aware.

            That being said, the entire success or failure of a war cannot be decided on every battle front equally or in the same way. We understand that strategically, there is much more going on in that war than a proper view of the final end of the wicked. But, as the diversity of the RH team attests, we’ve chosen to exercise grace where differences between us exist for the more immediate strategic effort of generating lively and honest discussion concerning the nature and duration of hell. We’ve no doubt that our Sovereign God is weaving a much more impressive theological tapestry than the small part we contribute to that tapestry at RH. That, however, should not dissuade us from executing well the section we’ve taken up. Part of executing well is staying focused on the task at hand. The more we pursue rabbit trails (however important those trails are) the more potential exists for dissension to stymie the progress already made and the potential of greater progress in the future. I can appreciate your concern that the big picture is not lost – the “forest for the trees” as it is often expressed – but the immediate concern at this juncture is to gain a hearing for a view that most evangelicals in the pews are as yet unaware of. *That* hill is what we are fighting for on the RH battlefront.


          • givemhell

            The word conditional simply means that something is not absolute and does not make any suggestions upon whom or what it is conditioned. Any connotations aside from the simple meaning of the word are imagined. As a Calvinist I am very fond of the term and don’t see any connection between the word “conditional” in the phrase “conditional immortality” and the monergism/synergism debate.

          • Givemhell

            Also, Annihilationism has always dealt the final state of man and Conditional Immortality has always dealt with the question of the immortality of the soul. The intermediate state is a different issue. You can hold to Annihilationism and think that the wicked will be tormented for 999 gajimirilitillian years in the intermediate state if you want just as easily as you could be an Annihilationist and believe that there is no intermediate state. The same goes for Conditionalism.

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