“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 1)

Alas! The hell debate has a terminology problem. First, traditionalism is nondescript and sometimes considered pejorative. It’s also not quite accurate: there were several traditions in early Christendom, with eternal torment dominating in the Western church from around the fourth century. Next, universalism can refer to the inclusivist outlook on world religions, which evangelical universalists typically deny in favor of an eternal opportunity to respond to the gospel. Finally, conditionalism (short for Conditional Immortality) is sometimes reduced to a view about the mechanics of human mortality/immortality instead of pertaining to ultimate destinies in the context of eschatology.

The addition of some expanded terms to our deck, like “eternal torment” and “universal salvation” (or “ultimate reconciliation”), helps us to compensate for some shortcomings. However, despite many proposals, no viable alternative set of terms has emerged that is clear and consistent across all three positions. For better or worse, it seems that these terms are here to stay, including the well-established shorthand labels.

If “conditionalism” ain’t broke . . . please don’t break it!

Still, for our part as conditionalists, I’m not sure we really do have a terminology problem. Are the supposed shortcomings of conditional immortality (CI) really that significant? I’d like to offer that they are largely based on misunderstandings that we can easily clear up. What’s more, as I’ll show in Part 2 and Part 3, our chosen name just is the conventional term supplied to us by historic theology. If CI is the right label, then, or a perfectly adequate one, there should be a moratorium on attempts to change it!

For now, let’s set the stage with the relevant context, which does not need to be explicit in any label.

This is Rethinking Hell, after all, so it should be apparent that we ourselves advance a doctrine of damnation within the broader debate over final punishment (the “hell debate” among evangelicals). Our interest in that regard is the ultimate fate of those not saved before a resurrection to final judgment (John 5:29). The major positions, traditionalism, conditionalism, and universalism, all fundamentally disagree about the nature and/or duration of final punishment. But there’s more to say, because the topics of salvation and damnation are two sides of the same coin. A focus on final punishment quite naturally refers us on to the topic of final reward: the ultimate destiny of those who are saved. In fact we may often need to start with what it means to be saved, in order to properly frame what it means to miss out on that. Such is clearly the case with universal salvation, if we are to coherently understand what the position might have to say about final punishment or “hell.” While this is arguably less true of the doctrine of eternal torment, it is certainly also true of conditional immortality. The broader, reciprocal frame (summed up as “personal eschatology”) is a significant part of the debate, and therefore determines the best context for the whole.

The label conditional immortality squares directly with this frame, as we will see. It does not, as some have mistakenly thought, refer only to one of the two final fates.

In order to arrive at a clear understanding of what we do mean by the label and how that justifies our use of it, let’s first take a look at the concise summary provided by the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism:

Conditionalism is the view that life is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately be granted forever to the saved and revoked forever from the unsaved.

When the gift of life is ultimately granted forever, we call that immortality.

We also call it eternal life. Salvation, on our view, is salvation to everlasting life with God. Simultaneously, it is salvation from a permanent death (termination of life forever; final loss of being).

The definitive event called the “second death” denies a person everlasting life, so it is aptly called annihilation, especially in light of ominous biblical associations with destruction by eternal, consuming fire.

It remains crucial to see this event in light of eternity so that the whole point of annihilation, or a second and final death, is understood. The point is to finally secure an “eternal judgment” against defiant sinners (Heb 6:2), who ultimately “must not be allowed to . . . live forever” (Gen 3:22). Everlasting life—immortality—is forfeited by annihilation, and that is its terrible significance. As a means to that end, it is necessary that the whole person be destroyed, body and soul (Matt 10:28).

According to Romans 6:23, death is the wages (payment) for sin, but eternal life is the gift of God. Death is a penalty because it negates life, both by terminating the life that is already lived, and by depriving ongoing life that might otherwise have been lived. When contrasted with eternal life as Paul does in this verse, death can become a permanent situation. And it will, if it occurs at any point in which there will be no further return to life (resurrection). This scenario we believe will occur on the second occasion of death (the “second death”), where such an eternal punishment negates the reward of eternal life (Matt 25:46).

Permanent death as “eternal punishment,” “eternal destruction,” and cosmic disinheritance in light of cosmic redemption

Understanding how capital punishment works helps us to see why death points forward in time, as the privation of ongoing life. If the only valid kind of punishment were a subjective experience of torment (whether physical or mental), then punishment could not include death itself. This would make death arbitrary with respect to punishment itself. Killing then could be considered an act of mercy, putting a person out of their misery (i.e. “mercy killing” or euthanasia). But why do this, if the punishment has been paid in full? Why not release the person? On the penal substitution theory of the atonement, why not, indeed, let Jesus down from the cross just prior to death, if punishment consists in suffering alone?

Some conditionalists1See the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism for our position on this and other matters of diversity within the broader movement. do tend to view the entire punishment as a period of torment after which annihilation occurs. They are therefore committed to the argument that aiōnios does not mean “everlasting” when it occurs in Matt 25:46 (and also 2 Thess 1:9). Rethinking Hell leaves room for this view but argues instead that final punishment really is everlasting—that it is forever. It is the eternal perspective of immortality supplied by the broader conditionalist frame that helps us to appreciate annihilation as future privation. We are indeed “annihilationists,” but the event of annihilation is embedded within our conditionalism.

This frame not only supplies an eternal time component but arguably also a spatial one that is comprehensive in scope. Our Hell Triangle diagram points out that each viewpoint should account for the apokatastasis as indicated in Acts 3:21, and conditionalists typically argue that God is eradicating evil entirely from the cosmos, liberating it from bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21). While God is transcendent over creation, all of it is his rightful domain, and he is going to flood all creation with his glory and holy presence (Hab 2:14; Isa 6:3). In the new creation (new heavens and earth), God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28) through Christ, the one who “fills all in all” (Eph 1:23), will “fill all things” (Eph 4:10), and “is all, and in all” (Col 3:11). This final state of the cosmos is commensurate with the everlasting reign of Christ in his kingdom (Rev 11:15).

In the context of this all-encompassing future, we understand why the Lord will remove “all causes of sin” from his kingdom—burning them up like weeds and discarding them like bad fish (Matt 13:36-42; 47-50)—which removal results in only the righteous remaining (Matt 13:43 cf. Dan 12:3; 2 Pet 3:13; Heb 12:27). On that terrible “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet 3:7), the wicked are destroyed with an “eternal destruction” from the Lord’s returning presence (2 Thess 1:9 cf. Isa 2:21-22). Since Christ will fill all things in the new creation, there simply is no place for evil creatures to reside. Due to the eschatological import of the term inheritance, this exclusion from the future reality is aptly called cosmic disinheritance.2The term cosmic disinheritance was coined by Richard Middleton in A New Heavens and a New Earth, 207.

“Conditional immortality” doesn’t entail Christian physicalism

Notably absent from our summary statement above is any mention of the mechanisms behind life, death, and immortality, or any view on the nature of human constitution and the possibility of a conscious intermediate state. These topics are by no means unimportant or uninteresting, and they do often arise in our discussions. Arguments for conditionalism can be advanced which make use of them, and often have been. But it is important not to assume that our collective position, conditional immortality, refers to any particular view of those matters.

The standard idea of an immortal soul collapses at least three distinct notions into one, that sometimes need to be teased apart again in order to avoid category mistakes. Namely, eternal persistence (immortality), internal subsistence (an innate means of eternal persistence), and external resistance (indestructibility or imperviousness to all destructive elements and forces).

When a person dies, if their consciousness continues on in some form, this does not automatically mean they are immortal.3As modern conditionalist Edward White clarified, “If immaterialism in the thinking power compels the inference of immortality for mankind, it compels it also for the thinking principle in animals . . . Man, according to the Bible, is not unconditionally immortal by nature and destiny. He was created from the dust of the earth [yet] the thinking power may, if God will, survive, in a maimed, imperfect state, but it alone is not the Man.” Edward White, Life in Christ,22, 485.Even if we grant that they have (or basically are) a continuing soul that is itself immortal, as many have believed, then such a transition would still only demonstrate resilience to bodily death in terms of persistence beyond. It would not constitute eternal persistence, or resilience to other potential destructive hazards, nor even subsistence (the soul generating its own vitality). Mere continuance at death simply does not prove immortality in the sense of endless life. As Vern Hannah observed, “The term immortality comes from the Greek, athanasia, meaning ‘deathlessness,’ and hence, unending existence . . . It should be apparent then that the ground of immortality is soteriological and not anthropological.”4Vern A. Hannah, “Death, Immortality and Resurrection: A Response to John Yates, ‘The Origin of the Soul,’” The Evangelical Quarterly 62:3 (1990), 245.

The Christian doctrine of an immortal soul is broader. What is normally in view is that God fully intends all souls to last forever (immortality proper) and therefore has made them of indestructible, everlasting stuff, existing under their own steam and impervious not only to death but to all substances and forces, especially the supernatural fires of hell. If all of that is bundled into the idea that a soul survives the body at the moment of death, only then would mere continuance effectively signify everlasting continuance. On the other hand, if God didn’t necessarily create all souls to live forever in independence—a perfectly legitimate doctrine—he could just as easily sustain them in existence along with the rest of the created order. On this view, the soul neither generates its own vitality nor is necessarily impervious to all modes of destruction (especially the fiery judgments of God). Its continuance at death would not indicate immortality, and should not be considered a normative kind of existence for human beings, who are created and redeemed for bodily life.

Mortalism is in fact the best term for the denial of continuance beyond death. This view is implied by physicalism, which denies all forms of dualism and a separable soul, including immortal soulism. But one can reject the soul’s natural immortality while still affirming a continuing soul. In this way, one can simultaneously affirm human mortality without having to commit to mortalism.

So while many mortalists and physicalists are conditionalists, many conditionalists are not mortalists and physicalists. This is a matter of anthropology, while conditionalism itself is fundamentally a doctrine of final destiny: salvation and damnation. Concerning death, its locus of interest is what is judicially prescribed for the second death at a final judgment and not so much what happens, as far as we can know, after the event of the first death.

“Conditional immortality” doesn’t mean contingency

Contingency is a good term for the denial of the soul’s intrinsic or natural immortality. This expresses the dependency of a soul or person upon God and is reminiscent of the philosophical affirmation in Acts 17:28 that in him “we live and move and have our being.” There is ample biblical support for this idea that God is not only the Creator but also the Sustainer of all things that have been made.

The contingency of human life is a tenet of our view (at least until the gift of immortality is finally given, which may impart natural immortality). But it can just as easily be a tenet of traditionalism or universalism. Historically traditionalism has affirmed an immortal soul, but this is declining.

Referring to contingency as a critically distinct position called “conditional immortality,” therefore, is a mistake. And it is certainly convenient to our critics! If that’s all our view amounts to, then traditionalists and universalists can trivialize it by retorting that they too hold to this view of contingent life and immortality; they just happen to think that the scope is not limited (all people live forever; none are annihilated). When our perspective is conflated with contingency, we are left with a kind of arbitrary annihilation, severed from its judicial connections to eternal life. The right use of “conditional immortality” helps prevent such a reduction, because it preserves the direct relation of our view of final punishment and our view of final reward.

Regrettably, conditionalists have sometimes enabled the above confusion by being less than clear. The reason for this is polemical. Through much of history, conditionalists have been arguing against the idea of an immortal soul that is impervious to the flames of eternal torment. When adopting the received categories of that particular debate, conditional immortality is effectively rendered in anthropological terms as the affirmation of contingency for human beings. Bringing one of our tenets to the fore may be just fine in that context, so long as the eternal aspect of immortal life is not forgotten. Once remembered, it should be apparent that in Christianity, theologically speaking, immortality depends on the ultimate judgments and mercies of God.

In saying all this, I don’t want to give the impression that conditionalism is not also about anthropology. I strongly recommend that we give due attention to the glorious transformation of believers, “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor 15:54). This profound change is commensurate with the resurrection of believers, although not quite the same thing (v 51). Conditionalism does elucidate that anthropological transformation, but since this is not explicitly referenced by our label, this article will say no more.

 

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Next, in Part 2 of this series, a doctrine of proto-conditionalism
will provide important historical context. If you prefer to read the
article as a whole, click here. Otherwise, click to read on to Part 2.

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1. See the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism for our position on this and other matters of diversity within the broader movement.
2. The term cosmic disinheritance was coined by Richard Middleton in A New Heavens and a New Earth, 207.
3. As modern conditionalist Edward White clarified, “If immaterialism in the thinking power compels the inference of immortality for mankind, it compels it also for the thinking principle in animals . . . Man, according to the Bible, is not unconditionally immortal by nature and destiny. He was created from the dust of the earth [yet] the thinking power may, if God will, survive, in a maimed, imperfect state, but it alone is not the Man.” Edward White, Life in Christ,22, 485.
4. Vern A. Hannah, “Death, Immortality and Resurrection: A Response to John Yates, ‘The Origin of the Soul,’” The Evangelical Quarterly 62:3 (1990), 245.
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