Atonement Debate Redux: Lean Not On Your Own Understanding


While contending for Conditional Immortality within today’s evangelical world, it can often feel like one is in a battle of sorts: a contest of theological rigor, consistency, and biblical fidelity. This sense of contention gives rise to lively deliberations on social media, conversations with friends and family, discussions within churches, and even formal academic debate. What delights me most about all the interaction around conditionalism lately is the increased focus on the atonement and the soteriological implications of what we believe about what awaits the risen lost. In a theological battle that to date has been—to an extent—characterized by misunderstandings and vacuous rhetoric, it is encouraging to see a more focused approach come from both sides, especially those around the atoning sacrifice made by Christ on our behalf.

I recently had the privilege to join the fight for conditionalism on the Rethinking Hell Podcast and have eagerly awaited the continued dialogue that was sure to follow. So imagine my delight when I was informed that a former debate opponent of Chris Date has recently written about the connection between final punishment and penal substitutionary atonement! With great anticipation I prepared for doctrinal battle and awaited the pointed arguments I expected to encounter, only to find that in the end, the only attacks aimed at me fell upon straw men! How sad. Nevertheless, it is instructive to address what arguments have arisen in this new wave of focus on the atonement. Conditionalism’s critics often lean heavily on their own understanding of our claims, hastily waxing eloquent about our supposed errors without representing us fully or accurately. This article will address such arguments, and others, made in “Does the Doctrine of Hell Conflict With Penal Substitutionary Atonement” by  Hiram R. Diaz III on biblicaltrinitarian.com.

The Meaning of Death

After some introductory remarks, Diaz comments on the death of Christ:

Placing their focus on the word death, annihilationists fail to take into consideration that it is not death in abstracto that is in view in the passages they quote. Had Christ died from a stoning, his death would not be the atoning sacrifice for sinners. Had he died from being trampled by the masses of people who sought to make him king, his death would not be the atoning sacrifice for sinners.

To his first point, in claiming that annihilationists (or more properly, conditionalists) fail to address the context and fullness of the atonement in our quotation of passages regarding death, Diaz fails to accurately assess our position. When we speak of death, we do so by simply exegeting the term. For example, In Romans 6:23, we are told that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” From this, we understand that death is, at least in part, the punishment for sin. Rather than treating death as an abstract concept, as Diaz suggests, conditionalists recognize that death is grounded in the larger judicial context of God’s Law and His justice. By God’s Law sinners are condemned because He is just, and their condemnation comes to fruition in the form of death, which is also, biblically, the privation of ongoing life in the coming age.

There is no abstraction being made in our exegesis of this passage, and to suggest that this text is speaking of the specifics of Christ’s death would be reading into the text additional theological concepts that, while true, are not being explicitly taught. This would be a case of the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer by way of importing additional baggage implied by other uses of the word “death.” While conditionalists are accused of being overly simplistic in our reading of such passages, that is only the case if our interpretation is compared with eternal conscious torment, rather than Scripture itself. As any good theologian will acknowledge, Scripture is our primary measuring stick for the accuracy of theology. To use eternal conscious torment as the guide is the very definition of begging the question.

In Diaz’ second point above we find the first of our straw men being dispatched. With regards to the method of Christ’s death, conditionalism makes no claims regarding counterfactual, or alternative hypothetical, execution methods. This has absolutely nothing to do with the questions that conditionalists raise with regards to penal substitutionary atonement.

Regardless of the method by which Christ was executed, it was He who gave up His own life (Luke 23:46). The significance of crucifixion itself is due to the prophetic significance in Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies about His death, including the typological significance of Christ bearing one of the explicit curses of the Law, but the focus we must have is upon the death itself. Christ died to save sinners as the substitute for God’s just wrath. God could have simply chosen a different set of prophecies in His inspiration of the Old Testament Scripture for Christ to fulfill. Christ’s death itself, by explicit Scriptural teaching (1 Cor 15:3), is the essential component of the atonement where the method of death is an accidental component (in the philosophical sense), but these considerations are for discussions regarding God’s sovereignty, not His justice.

Diaz continues:

This would not be the case if it was merely the bodily death of Christ, i.e. the separation of body and soul. It cannot be the case, then, that Christ’s atoning sacrifice consisted only in his bodily death.

So here we have a better understanding of his argument from above. If Christ’s atonement was merely a bodily death and nothing but a bodily death, then His method of death would be immaterial. Speaking of “mere bodily death” is speaking of an event; therefore it reduces death to a mere description of an event, apart from its judicial nature as a punishment, and its terrible significance for ongoing loss of life. Oddly enough, in Diaz’ assessment of conditionalism he treats death this way, thereby treating it in abstracto! This is the very charge he makes against us, yet in so doing, he fails to recognize that the significance of Christ’s death was not derived from its bodily nature, but from its self-sacrificial nature, Christ lovingly laying down His life (or “himself”) for His sheep. Again, arguing over the method of Christ’s death has no relevance to any discussion of conditionalism, so I’ll leave the point alone until one of our opponents can demonstrate a necessary link between Conditional Immortality and arbitrary atonement methods.

I would also like to note that defining death as “separation of body and soul” (Diaz’ take on James 2:26) ignores what that verse is talking about. The verse says, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” This is an analogy between two dead things (dead faith and a dead body), not a definition of death. And if it were a definition—if it were claiming that body/spirit separation is death—then the latter part of the verse would be equally definitive. However, I’m sure most theologians would scoff at someone defining death as the separation of works from faith—or that joining faith plus works saves us.

Next Diaz discusses the nature of death in the Garden of Eden, pointing out that the punishment for sin is not merely physical death, but rather includes a number of other punishments. He states:

[T]he death promised to sinners in Gen 2:16-17 has to be broader than the mere bodily death annihilationists have in mind. God did not add punishments to the promised punishment of death. Death is not merely bodily death, therefore, but the entirety of fallen man’s life, including his experience of death.

Here we are presented with our second and primary straw man. The assertion that conditionalists view death as merely physical and nothing more is pivotal to Diaz’ entire argument. Each of his following points relies on this assumption, yet there’s one glaring problem: conditionalists of all stripes affirm that a part of Christ’s atonement involved at least a physical death. Specifically, many conditionalists “locat[e] punishment in the experience of conscious suffering… which culminates in death,” yet others locate punishment “primarily in death” where “suffering is a part of the process of being destroyed… compared to the experience of Christ on the cross” (from Rethinking Hell’s Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism, section 8.2).

Additionally, all conditionalists recognize that death isn’t merely a separation of soul and body, but the privation of life. We see this in Genesis 3:22, where ongoing life was a gift contingent upon righteousness. After the fall, and after the introduction of sin into the world, Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life. This typologically points forward to the final state. Eternal life is contingent upon the righteousness of Christ, and those not in Christ are cut off from life (the tree itself is depicted in Revelation 22:2). Throughout the Bible the ordinary sense of death is being deprived of life, even to the point where losing one’s life is rephrased as “losing yourself” (Luke 9:25, Matthew 16:26). Far from merely physical death, or the separation of soul and body, conditionalism teaches that death is the ultimate judicial consequence for sin, demonstrated through an eternal privation, or removal, of life itself.

Unfortunately for Diaz, and for the advancement of discussion in this area, much the rest of this article is directed at a ghost. This fact is illustrated with the next argument:

Even more problematically, if bodily death is meant in Gen 2-3 and Rom 6:23, then this implies that Enoch and Elijah, neither of which underwent bodily death, were free from the taint of original sin and never committed actual sin.

This argument is entirely ad hoc. In both examples, the individual was taken directly to heaven. These cases are clearly exceptional events and we are not given exhaustive detail regarding their circumstances. However, projecting this issue onto a theological opponent doesn’t alleviate the problems it creates for Diaz’ own position. While he would reject that death alone is the consequence for sin, he would certainly affirm that death in part is a consequence for sin. As such, if Elijah and Enoch did not bear the full penalty for their sin (as death is a part, and on his premises they did not die), then he must face the dilemma that either these men were sinless (the problem he projects), or that there exist at least two men in heaven for whom sin has not been fully atoned (a different problem entirely). This is the problem with making rules based on exceptions. And even this line of argumentation is based on the erroneous assumption that conditionalists treat death as an abstraction rather than concrete, which was addressed above.

In concluding this section of his argument, Diaz writes:

Either bodily death alone is the promised punishment for sin in Gen 2-3 & Rom 6:23, Enoch and Elijah were born sinless and lived sinless lives, and the Scriptures are in error when they declare that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – or the death promised to sinners in Gen 2-3 and Rom 6:23 is much broader in its scope, including, but not being limited to, bodily death.

What we have here is a false dilemma. While it is true that either death is alone the punishment for sin or such punishment is broader, the additional baggage attached to the first horn of this dilemma is frivolous.  Diaz has conjured up—and attributed to conditionalists—a mess of heretical doctrine via hypothetical syllogism (if A then B, if B then C and so on) with ad hoc assumptions as the basis for the bulk of his argumentation. Furthermore, after all the work constructing that horn of the dilemma, it remains the case that conditionalists affirm the very same horn of that dilemma that Diaz himself does: that the death promised to sinners is much broader in scope than “mere bodily death.” This renders this entire argument void, as it is a textbook straw man. In Diaz’ case, it includes an emphasis on psycho-somatic separation, which as a mere description of an event is hard to understand in terms of justice and punishment. In the case of conditionalism it includes an emphasis on the loss or privation of life, which is how it makes sense as a punishment.

Applying the Atonement

At this point in the article, readers must recognize that when Diaz uses the phrase “annihilationists” he is referring to something else entirely. One may be tempted to stop the discussion altogether. However, there is still much to be gleaned from the remainder of this article, and much that we can say by way of response so that our position is further clarified. With that note, we continue to the next section, where Diaz examines Isaiah 53:

The Holy Spirit clearly identifies Christ’s pouring out of his soul unto death as part and parcel of the penal substitutionary work of the Messiah. Likewise, God reveals that part of Christ’s suffering unto death for his people consisted in his being “despised and rejected” as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…one from whom men hide their faces.” The penal substitutionary atonement of Christ is said to consist of these experiences that the Lord God had prior toduring, and up to the point he gave up the ghost. Christ’s death for sinners is the totality of his bearing our transgressions, finalizing in the separation of his body and soul.

While his conclusion here is almost correct, some of his argumentation is problematic. Diaz rightfully points out the sections of the chapter where Christ’s suffering is directly linked to our sin (“…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities… he was cut off out of the land of the living and stricken for the transgression of my people…”), but then concludes that each element of Isaiah 53 is part of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Isaiah 53 certainly includes language that displays Christ’s suffering on our behalf, but it is a logical jump to say that every prophetic description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is directly applicable to the sacrificial aspect of Christ’s atoning death. We have been assuming penal substitution, but there may be additional layers of the atonement, and also non-atoning and non-substitutionary aspects of Christ’s Passion. Yes, Christ was a man of sorrow, but where in the text is He described as being a man of sorrow in our place? The earlier sections display it clearly when he was pierced for our transgressions, but to make this application universally for Christ’s prophetic descriptors is problematic, as if one were to say that Christ was born in Bethlehem in our place.

Further, Diaz seems to assume that all of these things count as “bearing our transgressions” in the form of suffering rather than death, yet when verse 8 speaks of being “stricken for the transgressions of my people,” it seems to refer to being “cut off from the land of the living,” like a lamb to the slaughter, and sent to the grave. Consequently when the passage deals most directly with the concept of a sin offering, it emphasizes death. It says, “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days”—which shows what a remarkable thing it is to die and yet live again to see his spiritual progeny—“because he poured out his soul to death” (Isa 53:10-12). Diaz seems to assume that this last phrase refers to Christ’s experience of suffering as what was “poured out.” But in context, Christ’s soul, or life, is being poured out as an offering, where “out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” refers to the satisfaction of “he shall see his offspring.” Here his anguish, rather than pain, is the very human desire to keep on living. When in Gethsemane, Jesus says “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38), the passage is ambiguous as to what this is about most squarely. But in Hebrews 5:7 there is no ambiguity: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” Simply put, careful nuance is needed when reading Isaiah 53, and we cannot just assume details because they seem to help our preferred reading. Despite claiming to sum up the totality of the passage in Christ’s atoning death, Diaz leans heavily on the concept of the atonement in abstracto, allowing him to treat Christ’s death not as summing up the atonement, but merely as a “finalizing” event in a series.

While some of this may seem like nit-picking, it is important to note that such a misunderstanding of Isaiah 53 affects biblical interpretation elsewhere, as Diaz displays when he refers to the curses facing covenant violators:

In Deuteronomy 28:15-68, the Lord enumerates a list of curses facing those who break his law. To be sure, the death of the body is included in this list, but there is more. The curses include futile toiling, human reproductive fruitlessness, animal reproductive fruitlessness, agricultural fruitlessness, confusion and frustration in all that the Israelites sought to perform, pestilence, disease and fever and inflammation and fiery heat and drought and blight and mildew. Additionally, the skies will also not yield rain needed for the production of crops. God also declares that their accursedness will in part consist of their being defeated by their enemies and made an object of shame and scorn, being afflicted with unhealable boils and tumors and scabs and itch. What is more, they will be struck with madness and blindness and confusion of mind, and they will be continually robbed and oppressed with no one to deliver them. The Lord further adds that their wives will be raped, their houses will be taken from them - and the list goes on.

The death of the body is not the only punishment for their sin, in other words, but merely one part of the whole judgment on them. Christ, becoming a curse for his people’s redemption, therefore, did not merely consist in the death of the body on Calvary.

Similar to the previous error, here Diaz fails to make an appropriate category distinction, so that his conclusion simply doesn’t follow. In Deuteronomy 28 these punishments described are not resulting from sin, per se, but instead are punishment for violating God’s covenant commands and statutes given for Israel’s prosperity as a nation. If we accept that Christ’s substitutionary atonement on our behalf entails that He bore the full punishment for our sins—as of course we do—then we must provide evidence showing that Christ did in fact bear those punishments. It is clear that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:8, 1 Timothy 1:15). This is a stark contradiction to what opponents of conditionalism must teach if they are consistent: that the wages of sin is torment, and Christ suffered for sinners. Additionally, if we assume as Diaz does that part of the curse of the fall (and thus something for which Christ atoned) was the curses described in Deuteronomy 28, should we not also conclude that Christ suffered those things on our behalf? That is what logically follows from his argument, yet this leads to absurdities and contradictions with the rest of the Bible. Jesus did not bear a “cursed basket” (Deuteronomy 28:17), but instead miraculously fed 5,000 men in a single day! Jesus did not experience land and livestock curses so that we would not have to, he experienced death so that we would not. Like the previous section of the article, where Diaz conflates eschatological realities with soteriological ones, so too does he here conflate covenantal realities with soteriological ones. This is clear when one reads Deuteronomy 28:15. The language is covenantal. Simply put, this is conflating the Mosaic covenant with the moral law.

Ironically, in making his case that conditionalists have an inaccurate view of the atonement, Diaz must present an inaccurate version of the atonement by which he measures our so-called errant theology. He continues:

Rather, it also consisted in his bearing the totality of the judgment of God upon sinners, the curses which we deserve have fallen upon him. As it is written:

…the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.

The curse that Christ bore, his work of substitution is partly comprised of the sufferings he experienced and not merely the death of the body. The death of the body, rather, is where the work of redemption reaches its climax, its pinnacle. Thus, Jesus declares “It is finished” just prior to giving up his spirit into the hands of God the Father.

If by “totality of the judgment of God upon sinners” he means the covenantal curses included, Diaz is sorely mistaken as was just demonstrated. However, if a more orthodox understanding of God’s wrath is assumed, there’s nothing wrong with what he has written here. Again, the issue here is that Diaz assumes conditionalists believe that Christ’s death is merely a physical death. And as was already argued, this is not the case. In fact, Chris Date made this abundantly clear in his recent debate with Len Pettis, when responding to Chris’ final cross-examination, Len said “you can’t separate the wrath from the death,” to which Chris whole-heartedly agreed. With regards to penal substitution, Diaz writes:

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement states that Christ suffered in full the wrath of God due to elect sinners. The suffering Christ experienced was itself death as promised to Adam and Eve, all of their posterity, and re-articulated in the curses promised to Israel if she broke covenant with Yahweh. It was completed in the death of the body, when the Son of God gave his spirit into the hands of God the Father, and his body was laid in the tomb.

Again, there is troublesome language here about covenant curses being a “re-articulation” of the wrath of God due to elect sinners. To assume this—rather than understand covenant curses as the consequence for violation of the covenant God specifically made with Israel—would lead us today to believe that such things as the common cold, being the victim of robbery, or developing Alzheimer’s are judgements from God in the form of cursing us. And on Diaz’ assumptions, if we see these curses befall us, what can we assume other than that God’s wrath abides on those who experience these things, as Job’s comforters did? This would lead us to conclude Christ has not been a substitute for them, but rather they are bearing the wrath of God for themselves. This line of thinking is more in line with the pseudo-doctrines of the “prosperity gospel” televangelists than it is with the Bible.

Thus is the second major argument of Diaz’ article constructed on a crooked foundation. If the presuppositions are wrong, it is no wonder that his conclusions are either also wrong, or completely miss the point, as he demonstrates when attempting to show the consistency between penal substitutionary atonement and eternal conscious torment:

This in no way conflicts with the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment, for the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement summarizes the entirety of Christ’s passion and substitutionary work in the phrase “Christ died for sinners.” The reality of the situation is that Christ’s suffering, according to the Scriptures, is part of the work of substitution. It is the death of Christ for sinners. It is the place where the Son of God is made the object of God’s wrath, cut off from God’s beneficence, overcome with the sorrow and pain of being crushed by the Father. And it is finalized in the separation of Christ’s soul and body.

Whether we conditionalists can say a hearty, “Yes and Amen!” to this depends largely on what is meant by saying that suffering just “is the death of Christ.” If only Christ’s conscious suffering is “the place where the Son of God is made the object of God’s wrath,” then the fact of Christ’s loss of life (His death) is being trivialized. According to Diaz, death makes the wrath of God “finalized” somehow. In the comments section of his article, Diaz asserted that both Christ’s suffering and the eternal suffering of the lost in Hell are just “death itself.” In the latter case, he added, “It is an execution that is constantly occurring, the totality of man’s existence under the wrath of God is death . . . The wicked will not cease to be executed, killed, slain, destroyed, etc.’” But if this is true, how can the substitution thereof be “finalized” without a contradiction? How can Christ’s death even be included in the atonement, when in Diaz’ own description, His suffering, which corresponds to suffering in Hell, just “is the death,” or “death itself,” or, the actual “execution”!?

We can agree that suffering “is part of the work of substitution.” But that is because the atoning sacrifice was one of death, such that suffering was part of how Christ died. What we must reject is the notion that the atoning sacrifice was one of suffering, exhausting wrath, and then death. This is  to miss the whole point of death, which is loss of life, and not merely psycho-somatic separation. Sadly, though, this seems to be what Diaz is suggesting. 

It is only by artificially limiting the meaning of death to the death of the body, i.e. the separation of body and soul, that the annihilationist can claim that the doctrines of penal substitutionary atonement and ECT conflict with each other.

In his concluding remarks, Diaz doubles-down on his straw man. This bookends the article with the central claim that conditionalists mistakenly consider death to be physical death and nothing but. He further claims, again, that this is defined by the separation of body and soul. Oddly enough, it is this separation that he mistakenly identifies as death, not conditionalists. It is those who view hell as eternal conscious torment that must be married to this definition of death as separation (rather than the privation of life, which is how conditionalists actually define “death”) as it gives credence to their view that the soul will live on forever. Yet this living on forever in torment is also, as Diaz put it, the very definition of death itself. An everlasting soul being tormented in perpetuity is the very definition of death. Obviously.

In the end, Diaz’ efforts are a construction built upon a crooked foundation. His conclusion is way off base. Like an argumentative tower of Pisa, his base is fundamentally skewed—and while in Pisa there are similarly places where it doesn’t look so bad, from the correct vantage, the problem is undeniable. This is why we lean not on our own understanding, but instead rest our theology on the solid ground of God’s inspired Word.

If Diaz were to properly represent the arguments that conditionalists are putting forward with regards to the atonement, he would know that our concern is that the death experienced by Christ in His Passion is the death that the lost experience in Hell: loss of life in both cases. God’s wrath is not reducible to experience only, but conditionalists do acknowledge that the lost experience pain and suffering just as Jesus did while suffering death on the cross. This suffering of God’s wrath culminates in real physical (and for those who make the distinction, spiritual) death. On Diaz’ view, Christ bore God’s complete wrath for the elect during those hours on the cross, culminating in death, whereas the lost will never ever experience the culmination of real physical (and, again, spiritual) death. In this way, assuming Diaz’ position, God’s execution of wrath can’t be exhausted against the lost in the same way it was exhausted in Christ on behalf of the elect, but in fact never ends.

There’s no way around this glaring inconsistency. Since Christ bore the sins of the elect as our substitute, and since the punishment of eternal conscious torment for the lost is categorically different from the punishment Christ experienced on our behalf, we therefore conclude that eternal torment is not properly compatible with penal substitutionary atonement.

 

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  • Peter Grice

    Nice article, Peter. This illustrates a potential abuse of models of engagement characterized by polemics and debate. Diaz has decided in advance that our view is heresy (he has stated this), so his posture toward dialogue must always be that of refutation. He already “knows” our view is wrong, so has developed something of a blind spot when it comes to receiving our feedback that he’s misrepresenting us. Despite our efforts, his habit is to just dig his heels in and try to show that we don’t know what our own views are. This is a shame, because neither side then has the benefit of constructive criticism. We have even in the past offered to help potential critics properly understand our claims and arguments, in order to then criticize accurately. When they accept, things usually go much better.

  • Gino

    The author concedes too much in allowing that if James were defining death then we could conclude that death is the separation of body and spirit. That’s not what James says. He says the body without the spirit is dead. So death here is not a separation but rather what happens to the body as the result of a separation. And what happens is that it is rendered insensate and inanimate, that it begins to decay and ultimately returns to dust/ashes as God promises in Genesis. Exactly what we conditionalists say will happen to both bodies and souls of the lost who will be reduced to ashes like Sodom.

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