Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked (Part 2)

In a recent article, guest contributor Terrance Tiessen, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, explained that after being convinced of conditional immortality he nevertheless thought for a while “that neither traditionalism nor annihilationism gains an apologetic advantage from the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement” because “Jesus neither suffered endlessly nor was annihilated.” 1 Upon further reflection, however, Tiessen has come to conclude that “Since the penalty for sin is death, what Jesus suffered as our sin bearer was death,” while “the unrepentant wicked, who must pay the penalty for their own sin, necessarily die the ‘second death.'” He concludes, therefore, that “penal substitutionary atonement accords much better with conditionalism than it does with endless conscious torment.” 2
Tiessen echoes my own sentiments, captured in the conclusion to my 2012 article “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked.” “Traditionalists say that Jesus died for our sins,” I wrote, “but what they mean is that he suffered pain leading up to his death . . . And because traditionalists don’t believe the bodies of the risen wicked will ever die, their view of eternal punishment is at the very least considerably more unlike the substitutionary death of Christ than [that of conditionalists].” 3
However, I also noted the existence of “the reverse challenge from traditionalists who insist that conditionalism must be false because either Christ wasn’t annihilated or because of conditionalism’s allegedly heretical Christological implications,” and I said we at Rethinking Hell would address the challenge in the future. 4 It is to this challenge that I turn now, if belatedly.

In What Sense Substitutionary?

Traditionalist Robert Peterson summarizes the challenge in his published written debate with Edward Fudge. Conditionalists, he writes, must believe that “either the God-man ceased to exist or his human nature ceased to exist.” 5 If the conditionalist affirms the former, Peterson continues, “then the Trinity only consisted of two persons during that period of time. The Trinity would have been reduced to a Binity, or the resurrection of Jesus meant the re-creation of the second person of the Trinity.” 6 If, on the other hand, the conditionalist opts for the alternative, then according to Peterson, “the conclusion of the Council of Chalcedon is wrong and Christ’s natures were separated. . . . [and] his resurrection must involve another incarnation.” 7
Either explanation, of course, seems at least extremely problematic, if not outright heretical.
However, Peterson’s proposals can purport only to exhaust the options available to conditionalists who believe Jesus did in fact cease altogether to be alive and conscious as a human being between death and resurrection. This includes anthropological physicalists, who believe human beings lack an immaterial soul that remains conscious after death. Whether Peterson has indeed exhausted the options available to such conditionalists will be the topic of a future third installment in this series. Dualist conditionalists who affirm the continued conscious existence of Jesus as a disembodied immaterial soul between death and resurrection, are immune to Peterson’s challenge. They can simply respond by saying that neither of Jesus’s natures were destroyed on the cross, and as such there is no danger of committing heresy.
But these conditionalists face a different challenge, one Peterson might have offered had he been aware of their existence. “Scripture presents Christ in his death as making a substitutionary atonement for his people,” Peterson explains. “This means he died in their place and bore the punishment that they deserved.” 8 And while some conditionalists reject the doctrine of penal substitution, Glenn Peoples nevertheless observes that all “models of the atonement that deserve to be called mainstream . . . take substitution as an integral part of them.” 9 Conditionalists who accept the disembodied conscious existence of Jesus’s soul between death and resurrection must therefore explain how Jesus can be said to have suffered a fate that otherwise would have awaited the saved had he not suffered it in their place. After all, such conditionalists believe that fate is to be destroyed in both body and soul; if Jesus’s soul was not destroyed, in what sense was his death substitutionary?

Holistic Dualism and the Punitive Privation of Psychosomatic Life

According to Kenneth Mathews, “The Old Testament emphasizes the individual person as a unified whole.” 10 Often called “holistic dualism,” this view is not limited to the Old Testament. Stephen Travis says it is “characteristic of Paul,” who sees the person “as essentially a psychosomatic unity.” 11 J. Knox Chamblin concurs, characterizing holistic dualism as the view that “the whole person (‘human,’ anthrōpos) consists of a corporeal side (for which Paul’s favorite term is sōma, ‘body’) and an incorporeal (whose various functions are described by pneuma, psychē, kardia, nous, esō anthrōpos, etc.),” concluding that it is the “view with which Pauline psychology is most compatible.” 12 Philip Johnston, while acknowledging that the New Testament is more vitally interested than the Old Testament in a disembodied conscious existence, nevertheless agrees that “The OT clearly presents the human person as a psychosomatic unity” and that “the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus and his apostles emphasizes the importance of the whole person.” 13
Genesis 2:7, elaborating on the bird’s-eye view of man’s creation recorded in chapter 1, says “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (ESV). The Hebrew phrase translated “living creature” is nepeš ḥayyâ and was rendered “living soul” by the KJV, which may suggest to modern readers that what began to live was Adam’s immaterial soul. But the word nepeš here means something more like “person”—or “being” or “creature,” since animals are called nepeš ḥayyâ in Genesis 2:19. Explains Mathews, “In our passage man does not possess a nepeš but rather is a nepeš (individual person); ‘breath,’ not ‘soul,’ comes closest to the idea of a transcendent life force in man. Therefore the breath of God energized the dormant body, which became a ‘living person.'” 14 So even assuming an anthropological dualism in which human souls exist and remain conscious after death, a person is only alive if she is embodied and her body continues to breathe.
Conditionalists see the death penalty—whether temporal or eternal—as the punitive privation of this psychosomatic life. This is true even of physicalists like myself, who understand the compound word “psychosomatic” to refer to the interaction of mind and body, rather than soul (as traditionally thought of) and body, as a dualist might be inclined to do. Thus the punishment of death, as “the wages of sin” (Rom 6:32), consists in being deprived of life once enjoyed as a pyschosomatic unity, in whatever way that lack is experienced—if it is experienced at all. A dualist conditionalist may affirm the disembodied conscious existence of Jesus after his death and will deny that the finally impenitent will persist consciously after their second death (Matt 10:28), but in either case the punishment has been (in the case of Jesus) and will be (in the case of the annihilated wicked) the same: the privation of life. In a dualistic conditionalism, then, Jesus truly stood in the place of those for whom he died, giving up his (psychosomatic) life as a genuine substitute for theirs.

Temporary Subsistence vs Eternal Nonexistence

The Bible emphatically locates Jesus’s atoning work in his death. Having previously offered the evidence supporting this claim, I will not belabor the point here. Put succinctly, the Bible says “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” and that “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6, 8; emphasis added). Of course, his suffering was no trivial or irrelevant matter, and conditionalists generally affirm that the risen lost will likewise suffer—but that they will also die. Meanwhile, traditionalists believe the risen lost will live immortal in torment forever, never dying. So a dualistic conditionalism is much more consistent with substitutionary atonement, penal or otherwise.
Yet the question remains: Why did Jesus consciously experience privation of life in a disembodied subsistence for three days if the finally impenitent will be annihilated, never again existing to experience anything at all? The disparity does not challenge the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, but it is nevertheless a curious disparity. Still, I suggest that a dualist conditionalist can explain it.
Before offering such an explanation, however, it’s worth first observing that once one has suffered the death penalty, the natural outcome is disintegration, unless the Lord intervenes. As Paul explains to his Jewish audience at Antioch, “David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption” (Acts 13:36–37; emphasis added). It stands to reason that if holistic dualism is true, disintegration of the whole person, body and soul, is the natural outcome of death apart from the supernatural preserving power of God.
This was the view of Athanasius, who wrote that “God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption,” but that “transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time.” 15 The natural, “expected” outcome of sin and death, then, is corruption into the nothing whence man came. Irenaeus thus wrote, “it is plainly declared that souls continue to exist” after death, yet “the soul herself is not life, but partakes in that life bestowed upon her by God,” so that the reason souls continue to exist beyond death is that “God has both willed that they should exist, and should continue in existence.” 16 Lest one conclude that God wills the lost should continue in existence forever, however, Irenaeus went on to write that he “imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved,” who “shall receive also length of days for ever and ever,” but the lost “deprives himself of continuance for ever and ever” and “shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.” 17
So in a dualistic conditionalism, God preserved the body and soul of Jesus after his death, and he preserves the souls of all human beings beyond their first deaths while allowing their bodies to undergo the natural process of disintegration. But this is not what would have otherwise naturally followed the privation of their lives, and as a consequence of the second death, the finally impenitent will as whole persons return to nothing whence they came. Why the differences in duration (temporary vs eternal) and experience (conscious vs unconscious)?

Righteousness, Resurrection, and Redemption

As to the question of duration—a question facing physicalists as well—conditionalists have at least two answers available to them. First, as I observed in part 1 of this series, “According to many traditionalists,” such as Robert Peterson, Wayne Grudem, and Larry Dixon, “the finite duration of Jesus’ suffering and anguish is the equivalent of the eternity of agony awaiting unbelievers on account of His divine nature.” 18 As they say, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; a conditionalist can simply replace torment with death and say that the finite duration of the God-man’s death is the equivalent of the eternal death awaiting unbelievers. Second and alternatively, having borne the punishment deserved by and awaiting the lost—death—Jesus was raised because unlike them, he lived a perfect, sinless life. He did not deserve the privation he suffered, and so it was reversed, whereas the finally impenitent will deserve their privation, and so it will never be undone. Both parties will have suffered the punitive privation of psychosomatic life, but only the punishment of those who deserve it will be eternal.
As to the question of experience, the second answer to the question of duration above can be extended here: because the punishment Christ bore would be reversed, he subsisted consciously beyond death so as to be raised later. The final punishment of the wicked, however, will be eternal, and they will not be redeemed, so there is no point in continuing their conscious existence and they are completely destroyed.
Indeed, dualist philosophers have often insisted that resurrection is not even possible if human beings do not have immaterial souls that subsist after the death of their bodies. Garrett DeWeese, for example, writes that “the crucial issue is that of personal identity.” 19 Explaining how personal identity is maintained in resurrection “is not a difficult task for dualists,” observes DeWeese, because they “ground personal identity in the soul, not the body, and can say simply ‘same soul, same person.'” 20 But if human beings do not have souls that persist beyond death, then there is a gap between death and resurrection, during which nothing exists to preserve personal identity. The allegedly resurrected person may be identical to the person who died in every imaginable way, but so too would a hundred exact copies thereof, if an omnipotent mad scientist were to create them. DeWeese explains that such copies of himself, created after he dies, “would have, at the moment of their assembly, the same memories, beliefs, desires, fears, hopes and so forth as I had at the moment of my demise,” and “if identity is grounded in psychology, all would have equal claim to be ‘me.'” 21 If resurrection is possible, then personal identity must be grounded in something that subsists beyond death to be reunited later with the resurrected body: the soul. 22
A dualist conditionalist, then, could say with Paul that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and that as a substitute Jesus suffered this fate in the place of sinners who otherwise would have faced it themselves on the Last Day. Those on whose behalf his sacrifice was not made (assuming five-point Calvinism), or those who refuse to appropriate the salvific benefits of his atoning death for themselves (assuming unlimited atonement), must therefore suffer that fate themselves. But to defeat death Jesus had to be raised; thus Paul elsewhere writes, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). Therefore Jesus’s soul subsisted beyond death so as to preserve his personal identity until his resurrection, just as those of all human beings will remain conscious after their first deaths until reunited with their risen bodies for judgment. 23 But because the lost fail finally to be covered through faith by the saving blood of Christ, and because God no longer has reason to preserve their souls in an unnatural, disembodied half-existence, the lost will perish forever, and they will disintegrate wholly into the dust whence they came, the breath that animated them returning to God who gave it (Eccl 12:7).

“The punishment that they deserved”

In the final analysis, dualist conditionalists can wholeheartedly affirm the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, summarized (as noted above) by traditionalist Robert Peterson as meaning that Jesus died in place of his people “and bore the punishment that they deserved.” That punishment was death, the privation of life once enjoyed as a psychosomatic unity of body and soul, the very punishment conditionalists argue awaits the finally lost. And dualist conditionalists can explain why Jesus went on consciously to experience that privation in a disembodied subsistence and was raised three days later, even though the risen wicked will be completely and forever destroyed on the Last Day, in body and soul. But because traditionalists posit that the resurrected lost will go on living immortal forever, they cannot affirm that Jesus truly bore the punishment in place of those who will believe in him.


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Part 1 of this article is available here.

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  1. Terrance Tiessen, “What did Jesus suffer ‘for us and for our salvation’?” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted July 17, 2016, (accessed July 17, 2016).[]
  2. Ibid.[]
  3. Chris Date, “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted August 12, 2012, (accessed July 17, 2016).[]
  4. Ibid.[]
  5. Edward William Fudge & Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (InterVarsity, 2000), 88.[]
  6. Ibid.[]
  7. Ibid., 177–8.[]
  8. Ibid., 175.[]
  9. Glenn Peoples, “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism,” Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, eds. Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, and Joshua W. Anderson (Cascade, 2014), 20.[]
  10. Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, The New American Commentary, vol. 1A (Broadman & Holman, 1996), 197.[]
  11. Stephen H. Travis, “Psychology,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (InterVarsity, 1997), 984–5.[]
  12. J. Knox Chamblin, “Psychology,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (InterVarsity, 1993), 767, 768.[]
  13. Philip S. Johnston, “Humanity,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (InterVarsity, 2000), 565.[]
  14. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 197; emphasis in original.[]
  15. On the Incarnation of the Word, 4.4; emphasis added.[]
  16. Against Heresies 2.34.1, 4.[]
  17. Ibid., 2.34.3. For a fuller treatment of this passage, see Chris Date, “Deprived of continuance: Irenaeus the conditionalist,” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted November 13, 2012, (accessed July 30, 2016).[]
  18. Date, “Cross Purposes.”[]
  19. Garrett J. DeWeese, Doing Philosophy as a Christian, Worldview Integration Series (IVP Academic, 2011), 255.[]
  20. Ibid., 255–6.[]
  21. Ibid., 256.[]
  22. DeWeese offers this argument in greater detail than I have reproduced here, and two others, in ibid., 255–9.[]
  23. For reasons possibly explaining why the lost will be resurrected, only to be finally destroyed, see Joseph Dear, “Double Jeopardy: Why Raise the Dead, Only to Destroy Them?” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted July 22, 2012, (accessed July 17, 2016).[]