“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, I clarified what we mean in calling our view “conditional immortality.” Now, in Part 2, we will continue with some important historical background. In Part 3, I’ll complete the overall justification of our chosen label with due attention to convention and further explain our view and its relevance today. If you prefer, you can read the entire article as a whole.

What “conditional immortality” meant before it was cool

Did you know that the Christian church has always held to conditional immortality? Well, not necessarily in a way that implies annihilation, but perhaps more consistent with today’s usage than you might expect.

For purposes of testing that claim, let us suppose that, at base, the term conditional immortality refers to the idea that humanity was not created mortal or immortal per se, but rather conditionally immortal or conditionally mortal, depending on emphasis.

More fully expressed, this would mean humans are mortal yet capable of immortality (after meeting qualifying conditions), or alternatively, immortal yet capable of mortality (after meeting disqualifying conditions).

Writing in the late second century, Theophilus of Antioch spoke this way explicitly:

Was man made by nature mortal? Certainly not. Was he, then, immortal? Neither do we affirm this. But one will say, Was he, then, nothing? Not even this hits the mark. He was by nature neither mortal nor immortal . . . Neither, then, immortal nor yet mortal did He make him, but, as we have said above, capable of both . . . For as man, disobeying, drew death upon himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting. 1

Notice that the end of this quote shifts the frame to eschatology, apart from Adam. Theophilus wrote elsewhere of the immortalization of believers in the resurrection: “When you shall have put off the mortal, and put on incorruption, then shall you see God worthily. For God will raise your flesh immortal with your soul; and then, having become immortal, you shall see the Immortal, if now you believe in Him.” 2

But for now, our interest is protology, not eschatology. The basic question is this: “Was Adam created mortal or immortal?” We like neat and tidy answers, but Theophilus says it’s neither. So too did fourth-century theologian Ephrem the Syrian:

For when God created Adam, He did not make him mortal, nor did He fashion him as immortal; this was so that Adam himself, either through keeping the commandment, or by transgressing it, might acquire from this one of the trees whichever outcome he wanted . . . Even though God had given them everything else out of Grace, He wished to confer on them, out of Justice, the immortal life which is granted through eating of the Tree of Life. 3

The initial condition for access to the “immortal life” of the Tree of Life was obedience, here understood as a test of Adam’s righteous trust in God. Adam’s initial state was such that he was yet to be confirmed in holiness and thereby confirmed in life everlasting. Had he not sinned, he would have received a guaranteed immortality. This probationary view of Adam’s initial state is thoroughly historical, being found not only in early patristic writers but also in Catholic dogma and the Reformed tradition to the present day. We will soon see that it is worthy of the label conditional immortality, despite various qualifications and caveats. After establishing this, we will discuss how and why the same label remains in service today.

Let’s continue. Writing between Theophilus and Ephrem, Methodius also rejected the dichotomy of the question to answer “neither”:

Now, man . . . being placed midway between incorruption and corruption, to whichever of these he may incline is said to partake of the nature of that which has laid hold of him. Now, when he inclines to corruption, he becomes corrupt and mortal, and when to incorruption, he becomes incorrupt and immortal. For, being placed midway between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of the fruit of which he tasted, he was changed into the nature of the latter, himself being neither the tree of life nor that of corruption; but having been shown forth as mortal, from his participation in and presence with corruption, and, again, as incorrupt and immortal by connection with and participation in life; as Paul also taught . . . 4

We may add to these patristic writers none other than Athanasius, who spoke of Adam’s immortality being conditional in the same way. Writing around 327 AD, he taught that

upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace . . . [that] they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality . . . Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them . . . [since] they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again . . . By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing. 5

Athanasius here relates protology to eschatology with perfect consistency (as did Theophilus, who said we may yet recover “life everlasting”). Humans remain mortal and “essentially impermanent,” he noted, in a state of corruption that will lead to nonexistence. Even so, the saints “continue for ever” with the “assurance of immortality.”

The lasting influence of the teaching of the likes of Theophilus, Methodius, Ephrem and Athanasius pales in comparison to that of St. Augustine, whose analysis would strongly shape theological opinion down to the present day. When Augustine weighed in on the same question, like others before him he could not give a simple answer. He would have said both, rather than neither, but the result is the same. According to Augustine, Adam was capable of avoiding death and thus being immortal by virtue of continuing to live forever. In that sense, he was already immortal, although his immortality remained to be confirmed. By the nature of free choice, Adam was equally capable of incurring death, so his immortality would not necessarily last (which is where it really counts). Either way, the matter hung upon a deciding condition, which was obedience. As it turned out, Adam chose disobedience and fell headlong into mortality.

Considering Augustine’s enormous influence, it’s worth encountering his scheme in precise Latin terms. The key concept to understand is that of ability, or capability (being suggestive of the potential application of that ability). The Latin term for this is posse. In scholastic Latin, the emphasis shifted slightly to refer more to “potential” in the abstract, as we would use that term today. For our purposes here, it makes little difference whether we locate the main idea in Adam as an inner potential of his free will, where “both” mortality and immortality are held together in tension, or else as future possibilities, in which case it’s “neither.” But for Augustine, posse did relate to human nature, in terms of free will, sin, and death.

First, let’s consider his axioms on the four states of man 6 regarding free will and sin (Latin: peccare). Briefly put, Augustine held that Adam could freely choose whether to sin, but after he chose sin, he was unable to stop. Those with a now regenerated nature can freely choose not to sin, while those finally glorified cannot choose to sin. In this way, human nature is perfected beyond its initial state. Not able to sin, the fully redeemed are not-peccare-able: “impeccable.”

Augustine’s four states of man (with respect to free will and sin)
Innocent Man posse peccare, posse non peccare able to sin, able not to sin
Unregenerate Man non posse non peccare unable not to sin
Regenerate Man posse non peccare able not to sin
Glorified Man non posse peccare unable to sin

With this in place, we can consider what Augustine said about free will and death (Latin: mori). Originally, Adam was able not to die (posse non mori) and thus live forever. This state of original immortality (prima immortalitas) Augustine designated immortalitas minor. Adam could freely have chosen the immortalitas major, which is the immortality of God and of glorified/resurrected saints, becoming unable to die (non posse mori). But he was equally capable of corruption into mortality, which did occur, and Adam became unable not to die (non posse non mori).

Augustine’s three states of Adam (with respect to sin and death)
Original State posse non peccare et mori able not to sin and die
Potential State non posse peccare et mori unable to sin and die
Actual State (Fallen) non posse non peccare et mori unable not to sin and die

For Augustine, all people are implicated in this. Being simply mortal from that time on, human beings are yet capable of attaining immortality, and in fact all do. With the final immortality (novissima immortalitas), glorified saints attain the immortalitas major, which is qualified by perseverance in the blessed state (felicitas) secured by the vision of God (beatitudo). He writes, “For as the first immortality which Adam lost by sinning consisted in his being able not to die, while the last shall consist in his not being able to die; so the first free will consisted in his being able not to sin, the last in his not being able to sin.” 7 But what sounds to our ears like a redemption of believers turns out to encompass unbelievers as well. Those in the damned state (miseria) are likewise unable to sin and die!

The notion that finally accursed sinners should attain the immortalitas major—which was initially forfeited by Adam—should be surprising, to say the least. Aware of this apparent conflation of punishment and reward, Augustine does his level best to explain it away, introducing novel kinds of flesh and death:

Although it be true that in this world there is no flesh which can suffer pain and yet cannot die, yet in the world to come there shall be flesh such as now there is not, as there will also be death such as now there is not. For death will not be abolished . . . For the spirit, whose presence animates and rules the body, can both suffer pain and cannot die. Here then is something which, though it can feel pain, is immortal. And this capacity, which we now see in the spirit of all, shall be hereafter in the bodies of the damned. 8

Given Augustine’s commitment to universal immortality, he was obliged to explain how immortality could be a good thing in general, yet to some become an eternal horror. In his scheme, the loss of immortality is the consequence of sin—but how then could its recovery mean hell? Whether he avoids the charge of incoherence is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say this is a major point of departure with our own view, where not all mortals become immortal (i.e. some are resurrected mortal and go on to die). This is easily seen in Luke 20:35-36, where those who “cannot die anymore” (non posse mori) are precisely those who are “considered worthy to attain . . . to the resurrection . . . [as] sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”

Writing in 1866, theologian and church historian Philip Schaff called the immortalitas minor “the relative or conditional immortality of Adam in Paradise, which depended on his probation, and was lost by the fall.” The immortalitas major, he observed, refers to “the absolute immortality of the resurrection-state, which can never be lost.” Here we see an authoritative use of our label in more recent times, confirming its correct application to a thoroughly orthodox doctrine concerning the state of mankind before the fall. Elsewhere, Schaff writes that Augustine

distinguishes between absolute and relative immortality. The former is the impossibility of dying, founded upon the impossibility of sinning; an attribute of God and of the saints after the resurrection. The latter is the bare pre-conformation for immortality, and implies the opposite possibility of death. This was the immortality of Adam before the fall, and if he had persevered, it would have passed into the impossibility of dying; but it was lost by sin. 9

Schaff’s use of terms echoes that of Benjamin Kennicott more than a century earlier, who in 1749 gives us one of the earliest English usages of the term “conditional immortality”:

Adam was created either absolutely immortal, absolutely mortal, or conditionally immortal. If he was created absolutely immortal, he could not have died; but die he did. If he was created absolutely mortal, he could not but die; and therefore was not a candidate for immortality. But if he was created conditionally immortal, and this conditional immortality hung (as we are assured it did) on his eating or not eating of the Tree of Knowledge; it seems impossible he could be allowed by God free liberty to eat of a Tree of Life, which would render him immortal, and consequently not mortal in case of his violating the divine command. 10

Kennicott’s terminology is refined: Adam was created as a “candidate for immortality.” The implication of candidacy is that had he not sinned, at some point in his maturation God would have given Adam liberty to eat of the Tree of Life (perhaps also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil 11), thus conferring upon him immortality as a reward. This parallels the gift of eternal life as we understand it today, which, as we say in our statement, graciously extends the provisional gift of life forever.

Earlier still, Oxford scholar and theologian Henry Dodwell wrote of Adam’s immortality hanging upon conditions in service to his mortalist argument that souls die at the moment of death. Referring to the passage in Athanasius quoted further above, he wrote in 1706:

Accordingly he ascribes all the hopes of immortality in man . . . This happy life in Paradise had given him, if he had persisted in it, a further title to an eternal state of happiness in Heaven, of which Paradise was only a covenanting symbol; but revocable by his misbehaviour . . . the law imposed concerning the forbidden fruit, the conditions whereof are thus expressed by him . . . Thus far he supposes us only enabled to be immortal if we please . . . Accordingly he expounds the divine threat . . . This cannot be the Second Death because it is so frequently described as a ceasing to be, and a ceasing to be for ever, never by an eternity of punishment. Yet it must be understood of the whole man. 12

The potent influence of the doctrine of eternal torment upon Dodwell is clear: he rightly understands death prior to the eschaton yet begs the question of death’s meaning in the eschaton, ruling out its consistency with death in general. He is wrong to dichotomize here, even though he rightly concludes that Genesis doesn’t speak of the second death per se (after all, even resurrection is beyond its horizon). In failing to see that the second death is a descriptive interpretation of the symbolic lake of fire, Dodwell treats it as a label for the state of never dying, despite this label being so counterintuitive. Like ourselves, Dodwell was a product of his time and its pressures for conformity. According to historian Thomas Macaulay, this pressure was very real: “Even in days which Dodwell could well remember, such heretics as himself would have been thought fortunate if they escaped with life” for denying “the immortality of the soul.” 13 This he courageously did, to his credit, even if he failed to pursue the same line of thinking to its logical end.

Philosopher Samuel Clarke described Dodwell’s view in terms of direct interest to us: “the Soul is Immortal, only conditionally, if it be victorious . . . making the Soul’s immortality conditional.” 14 (Note that he does not mean that all souls are contingent, though this is a hidden premise.) As in the above quote from Dodwell, he would have endorsed Clarke’s language for “the whole man,” and not only the soul. This is true of the writers we’ve consulted. Though they tended at times to introduce qualifications about parts of Adam (his soul or his body), in this context they nonetheless spoke of Adam himself and humans themselves.

*       *       *       *       *

Finally, in Part 3 of this series, I’ll complete the overall justification
for our chosen label, giving due attention to convention and further
explain our view and its relevance today. Click to read on to Part 3.

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  1. Theophilus of Antioch, “To Autolycus” 2.27. Bold emphasis added.[]
  2. Theophilus of Antioch, “To Autolycus” 1.7.[]
  3. Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis” 2.17. Bold emphasis added.[]
  4. Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins” 3.7, in Schaff, P. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6. Bold emphasis added.[]
  5. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word” 1.3-4. Bold emphasis added.[]
  6. The term “man” in this article is used in the classical sense for historical consistency. The usage often intends to imply both male and female. Similarly, Adam can be a reference to the first human but may often be taken to imply both Adam and Eve, whose condition followed the same course in the narrative of Genesis.[]
  7. Augustine, City of God 22.30.[]
  8. Augustine, City of God 21.3. Bold emphasis added.[]
  9. P. Schaff, History of the Christian Church 3:152. Bold emphasis added.[]
  10. Benjamin Kennicott, Two Dissertations: The First on the Tree of Life in Paradise, with some Observations on The Creation and Fall of Man; The Second on the Oblations of Cain and Abel, 1749.[]
  11. This idea of eventual permission to access the knowledge of good and evil, despite initial prohibition, is found, for example, in Irenaeus’s view that Christ recapitulates Adam, succeeding where he failed: “For it was necessary, at first, that nature should be exhibited; then, after that, that what was mortal should be conquered and swallowed up by immortality, and the corruptible by incorruptibility, and that man should be made after the image and likeness of God, having received the knowledge of good and evil.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.38.[]
  12. Henry Dodwell, “An Epistolary Discourse: Proving, from the Scriptures and the First Fathers, that the Soul is a Principle Naturally Mortal” (1706), p77-79. Bold emphasis added; some original emphasis removed.[]
  13. Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, 1848, 366.[]
  14. Samuel Clarke, A Letter to Mr. Dodwell; wherein all the arguments in his Epistolary Discourse against the Immortality of the Soul are particularly answered, and the judgment of the Fathers concerning that matter truly represented, 1708, 52-53.[]