Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23

In Genesis 2:17, God’s warning “you will certainly die” (מֹות תָּמֽוּת) refers to the penalty or consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin, should they disobey God’s command. They had been given the ongoing privilege to “live forever” by accessing the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22 cf. 16), but this would be forfeited and their lives would be cut short by death—death as normally and universally understood; sometimes called “physical death.”1

The main objection to this view is that Adam and Eve did not die “in the day” that they ate (Gen 2:17), if in fact ordinary death was in view. But this is to misunderstand the Hebrew idiom, as Walter Kaiser et al. explain:2

It is just as naive to insist that the phrase “in the day” means that on that very day death would occur. A little knowledge of the Hebrew idiom will relieve the tension here as well. For example, in 1 Kings 2:37 King Solomon warned a seditious Shimei, “The day you leave [Jerusalem] and cross the Kidron Valley [which is immediately outside the city walls on the east side of the city], you can be sure you will die.” Neither the 1 Kings nor the Genesis text implies immediacy of action on that very same day; instead they point to the certainty of the predicted consequence that would be set in motion by the act initiated on that day. Alternate wordings include at the time when, at that time, now when and the day [when] (see Gen. 5:1; Ex. 6:28; 10:28; 32:34).

In other words, “you will certainly die” became true instantly, as a kind of death sentence or curse. But the timing of the death event is not specified in the warning. This is clear in the Aramaic translation of Genesis 2:17 found in Targum Jonathan, which suffices to show that at the time of Jesus this was viewed as ordinary death. It reads, “in the day that thou eatest thou wilt be guilty of death.”3

So the verse does not refer to a so-called “spiritual death,” an idea popularized relatively late in church history. It is often read into Genesis 3:7, on the assumption that whatever happened immediately on that day must be indicating death. The verse says that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked,” so clearly, something happened. But what it depicts is the acquisition of knowledge from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (cf. Gen 3:11, 22). According to the narrative they had been created naked, but it wasn’t until their figurative eyes were opened that they understood this nakedness on a different level, and felt ashamed. The explanation, as God soon declared, was that they had “become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:22). Therefore, they were prevented from living forever, following a series of penalties ultimately consigning the first man to the ground from which he was taken (Gen 3:14-23).

To make these observations is not to deny that any immediate “spiritual” fallout occurred, where to be in a state of sin may be likened to being dead (Eph 2:1). However, Genesis 2:17 is warning about the ultimate consequence or judicial penalty for sin (cf. “the wages of sin is death,” Rom 6:23). This should not be confused with the sinful state itself.

The view that Genesis 2:17 speaks of ordinary death is not unique to conditionalism. It was common in the writings of the early church Fathers, and is held by many theologians and commentators today, who routinely discuss the mortality introduced by Adam and Eve. It is pervasive in Young-Earth Creationism (YEC), which insists that there was no death before Adam and Eve. But we may insist on it as a feature of the narrative without necessarily holding to YEC, treating the text first and foremost as a piece of (inspired) ancient literature. Only once it is parsed on its own terms, should we consider how to harmonize it with scientific perspectives (or whether that is even desirable).

That Genesis 2:17 speaks of ordinary death is also clear in the New Testament. First Corinthians 15:21 explains the relationship between death and resurrection: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” In context, Paul is presenting resurrection as the solution for those “in Christ” (v22 cf. “the dead in Christ,” 1 Thess 4:16), to overcome the problem introduced by Adam. Resurrection undoes death, and a victorious one overturns it forever (Rev 1:18).

In Romans 5:12-14 Paul is referring to the same problem, saying, “death spread to all men because all sinned . . . [even] before the law was given . . . death reigned from Adam to Moses . . . [Adam] was a type of the one who was to come.” Here Paul is reasoning that the death penalty for serious sins in the law of Moses could not explain why everyone beforehand still had to die, so there must be liability to a more universal law. He will go on to label it “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2), and explain that “the end of [sinful] things is death” (Rom 6:21). This is the context for understanding the famous statement: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). James poetically echoes the same two-stage progression, explaining that “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (Jas 1:15).

The gospel message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection elucidates biblical descriptions of the “bad news” of the human predicament. We must be able to see a direct correspondence of problem and solution. Whether we do preserve the integrity of this cruciform structure in our theology can serve as a litmus test.

For Paul, Christ’s sinless life and consequent victory over death is the solution: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his . . . Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:5, 9). While we are united with Christ through baptism, which is symbolic and “spiritual,” our future resurrection, like Christ’s, will be spectacular and physical.

Second Timothy 1:10 says that Jesus “abolished death . . . through the gospel.” Knowing how he did this, according to the gospel, helps us see clearly what “death” is in view here (whether death as ordinarily understood, or else a spiritual kind of death). Hebrews 2 explains: Jesus took the human form of “flesh and blood” so that he might “taste death for everyone,” that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:9, 14-15).

Although Christ has already conquered sin and reconciled us to himself, the salvation process culminates in “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26), which will occur with the resurrection of believers, when “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54).

Critics of conditionalism sometimes urge that “the biblical definition of death” is a spiritual one. But when we are simply interested in the death that Adam introduced into the world, and that Jesus overcame for us by dying without sin and then rising from the dead, that claim is hard to reconcile with the biblical descriptions.

 

 

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  1. I do not recommend using the term “physical death” (or “biological death”) unless deemed necessary. If further clarity is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” The term “physical death” implies an unhelpful dichotomy between physical and spiritual death, and prejudices an interest in mechanisms that might attend death, in terms of things like bodies and souls. But the more obvious way to define death is through its operation upon life, which is, simply, to bring life to an end. Death at any time does this, so we should also be mindful not to think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). It might be complete and permanent (Matt 10;28), unlike ordinary death where resurrection follows, but it is still an end to life. Romans 6:23 simply says “death” for good reason. The universal wages of sin is not first death, second death, physical death or spiritual death. It’s just death, the ending of life. []
  2. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Baruch, “Hard Sayings of the Bible” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 92, emphasis in original. []
  3. See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865. []
Biblical Exegesis Commentary Introductory Peter Grice
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  • HaakAway

    If there are “core concepts” this is one. The invented term, “spiritual death”, which I have used in the past, introduces some much confusion. God is the source of life. To reject God is to reject life and that is on almost every page of Scripture.
    Thank you for your work.

    • Peter Grice

      Thanks, John. Always appreciated your comments here!

  • disquswithme

    In the past, I attempted to track down the origin of the phrase “spiritual death”. I could not find that idea until just the last few hundred years. (Though if I recall correctly, there was something kind of like it in the Eastern Orthodox church going back a while.) You touched on that briefly, but I’d be interested in a more complete history of that idea/term. I may have missed something.

    Thank you for the interesting and informative article!

    • HaakAway

      You have a good idea for a longer article: “The Origin of ECT Terminology”.
      There are bits and pieces in many great articles here but your question brought that image to mind for me. Good Questions lead to Good Bible Study.

    • Peter Grice

      Thanks for that! The term does appear in places like Augustine. But as you suggest it doesn’t really become popular until the last few hundred years, and that’s the more modest claim I wanted to make. The reason could have been polemical. What’s really unfortunate is that there’s been a further evolution in our day, where “spiritual death” doesn’t complement the other notion, but aims to exclude it. So people will say things like “Christ died to save us from spiritual death” or even “Christ died spiritually for us”—as if that’s the totality of what should be said. Augustine would be aghast.

      • Sean Michael Killackey

        Good point. I think the punishment of sin is primarily spiritual death, but to think that ordinary death – which is a better term than physical death, at least to my ears – isn’t a major part of it is rather strange.

        For a second it seems understandable. To the righteous, what is death? Either their spirits go to be with the Lord in bliss before the Resurrection, or they pass out of existence to reappear – instantly from their perspective at the Resurrection. If they were faithful, their reward is sure. They can’t lose!

        But then you think about the horror of death, of your friends, family and so forth and, it is troubling. And, even if it is in some ways it is preferable that one dies a good death (in the old sense of being in God’s favor), it is obviously unnatural to actually be death, and not in a minor way. It’s like an amputation of the whole body!

  • Sean Michael Killackey

    Is cessation of life the same thing as non-existence, at least for the dualist?

    • Peter Grice

      Hi Sean. Classical dualists (platonic, cartesian…) who would locate life (and full personhood) in the continuing soul, would have to therefore say that to lose life is to lose existence, yes. But biblical dualists ought not go that far, and instead will insist that the dead are still the dead, even if some part of them “exists” or is conscious in death. Such will hew closely to the conventions of biblical language (resurrection is coming back to life, as in resurrection from *the dead*), including to note that the whole person is a “soul.” If we nonetheless have some immaterial part of us, that’s perfectly fine on this approach (and hence fine within conditionalism). A good term for the approach is “normative holism,” which emphasizes that human life is meant to be embodied, and in eternity will be so, even if for some interim period there is disembodiment. Physicalists/materialists and dualists alike can adopt this model. Hope this makes sense and addresses your question!

      • Sean Michael Killackey

        Thanks for the response, Peter.

        First, I want to say that I’ve enjoyed reading many of your guy’s articles, including this one. I don’t agree with everything, nor do I agree with your conclusion. But you make numerous good points in the many posts I’ve read, and failing that, interesting ones; and, perhaps most importantly, a charitable spirit. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had a chance to read your group’s books, but there (somewhere) on my reading list. [Also, are you a dualist or some kind or a physicalist? I haven't read all your posts, and those that I read I either read poorly, and you said one way or the other, or didn't indicate.]

        When it comes to dualism or monism, I think that some kind of dualism is correct. I lean to hylomorphism, though, my position is not set in stone. In any event, I agree that a person is body and soul. In fact, I think that the Bible uses “soul” mostly of the whole person, and, at least in the NT, “spirit” of part of the person, which I think is immaterial. So I really am a body-SPIRIT dualist, where “soul” refers to the person as a totality. [Not that I won't refer to spirit as soul, given the commonality of the latter.]

        Why I asked that question was set the stage for a problem I have with Conditionalism, given dualism.

        If ordinary death, the cessation of life, doesn’t entail that one passes out of existence, and yet is sufficient punishment for sin, or the culmination of the sufficient punishment for sin, and passing out of existence is more severe a privation, how can God be justified in blotting the wicked out of existence?

        That is, wouldn’t inflicting non-existence on a sinner be harsher than the deserve punishment of merely ending his life, and hence not a true, that is, just, punishment at all?

        I’m making some assumptions about conditionalism here, which, given that there are different versions of conditionalism, and I’m not understanding any of them rightly, might be the reason this problem exists in my mind. Perhaps correcting this assumptions would solve it, so to that end, let me ask some questions.

        (1) Is ordinary death sufficient to pay for one’s sins (or as the culmination of a sufficient punishment for one’s sins)?

        (2) Or is it really suffering (pain, shame, whatever) followed by eventual annihilation?

        (3) Is there a way to reconcile an affirmative answer or (1) and (2), given dualism?

        (4) Do we get punished twice for our sins, once when we undergo ordinary death and then when we suffer in Hell and are consumed therein?

        I’ll add that I strongly tend to eternal conscious torment (primarily, shame, distress, agony and rage), but conditionalism isn’t unthinkable to me, unlike universalism. I also think that the spirit can subsist on its own, and doesn’t need SPECIAL intervention by God to conserve it. Obviously, everything that is not God is sustained in being by God. So my position doesn’t attribute existential inertia to the spirit, only that it has the same independence of existence from the body that the sun has from the earth; the former doesn’t depend on the latter for its existence.

        And because it is relevant, even if not essential, I’ll ask:

        (5) Is the ordinary death that the righteous undergo punishment for their sins, or is it merely an effect of sin, that, strictly speaking doesn’t constitute punishment for them, as it does the wicked, since Christ already paid for their sins.

        (6) Or is it punishment in a way analogous to temporal punishment (as opposed to eternal punishment) in Catholic thought? [It is obviously a result of sinfulness in general, I think most would agree.]

        Also, on older posts, do people (that is, at Rethinking Hell) still answer comments there, or is there another way to ask questions and get answers – like email? I don’t want to overwhelm you with my questions (whether good ones or bad!), and figure that the relevant posts would be a better place in any event, absent email, anyway.

        • Peter Grice

          Sean, apologies for not responding sooner. I’m glad that you have enjoyed our articles, even while we may disagree. We’re aiming to promote dialogue, and not only our own view. It’s encouraging that you can detect the charitable spirit we strive for. You mentioned in passing that you can’t countenance universalism, so you may be interested in the article I just published about that topic.

          I am personally agnostic on this issue of anthropology. We should not be dogmatic. The biblical case for physicalism is reasonably strong, but by no means watertight. The Bible isn’t necessarily communicating dualism where a lot of people think it is. Despite that, I tend to think that some form of dualism is more likely. But I also don’t think the Bible is interested in telling us about anthropology in terms of constitution, and the usual case for physicalism (eg. Adam is dust) I interpret more along the lines of normative holism. What is important in the Bible is ultimate things, and historically when people have deemphasized the resurrection and an embodied eternity, they have emphasized intermediate disembodiment as if that were final and thereby very important—the idea of dying and then going to heaven or hell forever. But coming back to life in resurrection is where it’s at. Most resurrections in the Bible have been temporary, though, with Christ’s everlasting one being the firstfruits in a new order of creation. So the interesting question, which throws up the possibility of a second death, is how to understand the resurrection of the unsaved, which is one of shame, corruption, mortality and judgment. My next article will explore this.

          I think that your body-SPIRIT understanding is perfectly faithful to the text, and could easily be correct. On the other hand, I have read the opinion that this could be metaphor. As I said, at the end of the day I don’t think we can know for sure what goes on under the hood.

          Let me take a stab at your clarifying questions. I’ll start with (1) thru (4), combined. I am answering through the lens of biblical theology. This can be in tension with other approaches, and in my opinion a biblically driven paradigm shift can sometimes be necessary to fully appreciate CI. At any rate, to answer your questions it is necessary to lay down something of a biblical scaffolding of events. Its internal logic will make all the difference.

          If you continue to live and do not die, you’ll live forever. If you live but then die, and never return to life again (resurrection), then you truly have perished (1 Cor 15:18). But if you die once and yet live again, your second life resumes your first. If you then go on to die a second death (Rev 20:14), your prior death is resumed. If there is no return to life this time, no second resurrection, then you have truly perished. Or if there is, congratulations, maybe you’ll live forever after all. It quickly emerges that what ultimately matters is what is final in the series, whether life or death. If we knew that some would actually live forever in the end, we could draw that into the present and say that they had eternal life even now. Sure, they may die. But ultimately, they would live. This is how Jesus speaks in John 11:25, 26—”I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Of course, he knew that his people die. He’d only just said that Lazarus was dead (v14). He even knew that Lazarus would die again. But he said that Lazarus was “only sleeping,” because he knew that Lazarus would come back to life. And he said of others “shall never die,” because this will ultimately be true in their case. And so he also said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). He said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). He said, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58). He said that the “children of the resurrection” can “no longer die” (Luke 20:36). These sayings depend on ordinary death, and on the understanding of Genesis that I’ve written about above. The plain statement of Genesis 3:22, “…lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever,” indicates the problem that Jesus overcame by his victory over death. We can live forever, and never die. We can have eternal life and not perish (John 3:16).

          Now to your questions. Basically, it all depends. Death is sufficient to pay for one’s own sins, because death is the laying down of life. But not in the sense of paying off debt, because then to die would be salvation. If you’re a sinner, you’re supposed to stay dead because that’s what you deserve. If you are resurrected to face judgment about your eternal fate, your life has resumed and your death has been temporarily suspended. But death still has dominion over you, and your second death will resume the first. So it is not ordinary death or second death that matters, but rather, death, the ending of life. And this will be permanent if God deems it so in an eternal judgment (Heb 6:2). Similarly, for the saved, it is not ordinary death that matters, but rather, death as the ending of life, and this will not ultimately be true of the saved.

          The payment/wages for sin is death, yes, not suffering. But to suffer as part of dying, fine. But that’s then part of death. Death as punishment can have a subjective experience component. But what makes it most serious as capital punishment, is the ongoing privation of life.

          // Do we get punished twice for our sins, once when we undergo ordinary death and then when we suffer in Hell and are consumed therein? //

          Some conditionalists speak of going to hell, and suffering there, but I don’t see the Bible describing final punishment in that cavernous way. The place of final punishment is earthly. It occurs on the ground, to flesh and blood people. Whether or not there is protracted pain involved, it is death by divine fire, body and soul (Matt 10:28). The punishment proper is ongoing privation of life, or privation of eternal life. This is not a second punishment, but ratifies and resumes the privation of life issuing from death the first time around. You may like to see an article here called “Double Jeopardy: Why Raise the Dead, Only to Destroy Them?”

          As for the special case of Jesus Christ, he laid down his life voluntarily, and undeservingly. Because of this, he defeated death and rose in victory over it, and “will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). But his victory does not mean that the ending of his life somehow wasn’t valid as a sacrifice or punishment. His life still ended. It’s just that what happened three days later in God’s jurisprudence was to factor his own undeservingness of death, so that all bets were off. Speaking of that, as believers we get our exemption through being born again. This places us on a different trajectory, economically speaking. It’s on our new trajectory, our second life, that we will never die a second death. Some believers die, due to having been born in Adam. But those who are still alive at the return of Christ do not. It’s not strictly necessary. What matters in deserving punishment is that the death remains in effect. So, the righteous being under grace, along the trajectory of the new creation, are not being punished if they die. Even so, there’s a sense in which it is punishment for sinning as the “old man.” Yet it is a death that is transformed by being swallowed up in the victory of immortality. And so I think I’ve just answered (5) and (6). I hope I am making some sense.

          We may not see comments on older posts. For some reason, this system doesn’t give good notifications. I’ve subscribed to comments here, and yet I only discover them because I am checking in. The best place to converse is really on Facebook! See facebook.com/groups/rethinkinghell/

          • Sean Michael Killackey

            Thanks Peter for your response to my questions (and sorry for the length of the response to follow):

            I think it would be great if universalism is true, I’m a universalist when it comes to my hopes. But as to whether the Bible or reason lend any weight to it, I think it’s pretty damning – pun intended. So, yeah I’ll like to read that recent article.

            When it comes to dualism vs. physicalism, I think the Bible isn’t silent, even if it speaks largely by implication, not explictly; and if favors dualism, I think. It seems a main motivation for understanding the Bible in a physicalist way is philosophic: we should read the Bible, and in particular those portions that relate to philosophical antrhopology, in the light of the findings of modern science [understood via the lens of physicalism]‘. This seems to be the approach of Joel Green in “Body, Soul and Human Life”.

            Of course, I don’t think science favors physicalism, – since understood through a physicalist lens, unsurprisingly, favors physicalism. But there are deciesive arguments against it philosophically speaking – the universality and determinate nature of the concepts we can concieve of and of the forms we use in reasoning from one proposition to another to reach conclusions seems to neccesitate that the soul/spirit be immaterial. As no material thing is universal or determinte in meaning – or possess intrinsic meaning, anyway. Also the personal identity question seems to me to favor dualism a great deal. So, I will admit that a large (largest?) motivator for my dualism is philosophic. I think the dualist understands reason and Scripture better.

            —-[What Jesus says in this passages] depend[s] on [taking him to refer to] ordinary death, and on the understanding of Genesis that I’ve written about above.—-
            and
            —-The plain statement of Genesis 3:22, “…lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever,” indicates the problem that Jesus overcame by his victory over death. We can live forever, and never die. We can have eternal life and not perish (John 3:16).—-

            I think you make a good point here, though, I’d qualify it by noting that everlasting life seems primarily defined by the glory, honor and joy of the righteous. Does this diminish your point? By itself perhaps not. I’m just trying to sow the seeds of my own reasoning that leads me to traditionalism. More on that later.

            —-Death is sufficient to pay for one’s own sins, because death is the laying down of life. But not in the sense of paying off debt, because then to die would be salvation. If you’re a sinner, you’re supposed to stay dead because that’s what you deserve. . . . it is not ordinary death or second death that matters, but rather, death, the ending of life. And this will be permanent if God deems it so in an eternal judgment (Heb 6:2).—-

            By ‘it is neither first nor second death, but being dead that matters.’ you’re saying something like ‘neither does it matter how you die, nor when you die – whether now (orindary death) or at the Judgment (second death), provided you’re life is cut short (you suffer the cessation of your life) and you remain perpetually dead.’

            Ordinary death is how you’re life is cut short, how you start being dead, and the second death is that death which makes it the case it’s forever. After each, though, you are dead, and this is the key thing, since it is what you deserve for your sins. Is this a fair understanding of what you’re saying?

            —-The payment/wages for sin is death, yes, not suffering. But to suffer as part of dying, fine. But that’s then part of death. Death as punishment can have a subjective experience component. But what makes it most serious as capital punishment, is the ongoing privation of life.—-

            You later say that the punishment proper is being dead. I’m not happy with this, or with saying that it is not part of the wages of sin. However, perhaps this is wholly a case of (to me) unappealing phraseology, with no or little difference in substance.

            We’re not born dead, well given miscarrages and abortions – - we’re not conceived dead, so we get to be that way one way or another. You are deprived of your life one way or another, and, since God has to punish worse sin more severealy and the less depraved sinners less severely, how one is deprived of this – how painfull or shamefully one is killed – depends on the severity of thier sins.

            I think we have to avoid “simple annhilationism”, which is to say, the view that all that the wicked are deserve is to be blotted out of existence. That view doesn’t respect the differences between sinners and their sin, it punishes all equally. (The Jehovah’s Witness view is like this.)

            —-Some conditionalists speak of going to hell, and suffering there, but I don’t see the Bible describing final punishment in that cavernous way. The place of final punishment is earthly. It occurs on the ground, to flesh and blood people. Whether or not there is protracted pain involved, it is death by divine fire, body and soul (Matt 10:28). The punishment proper is ongoing privation of life, or privation of eternal life. This is not a second punishment, but ratifies and resumes the privation of life issuing from death the first time around.—-

            Whether Hell is a place or state or whatever I dont’t think matters too much. Well, if the wicked remain there, it would have to be outside of the new heavens adn new earth. So it is hard to see how a traditionalist could say that Hell is MERELY a state irrespective to location. But if the wicked perish, it can be a state and inflicted upon them in the new earth, from which they perish, leaving only the new heavens and the new earth filled with the righteous. In any event, I’ll defintely check out that other article as well.

            To build on those seeds I planted earlier – we both agree that the wicked will suffer the privation of everlasting life, but, since I think of that as defined more by joy, honor and glory, I imagine the wicked suffering privation of these, and hence being in agony, humilated and in distress – which require they exist. As long as the feast of the Lamb goes on (forever) there the wicked will be, outside, weeping and gnashing their teeth in shame, rage and agony. The joy of the righteous in the new heavens and new earth are coeternal with the rage and agony of the damned.

            Still you make good points about Jesus saving us from, among other things, the cessation of life. If he does so, then this escaping from death is unique to the saved. Or so it seems – at least on first glance.

            Relatedly, what do you think of the argument for conditonalism that goes something like this: only the righteous will be immoralty, hence the wicked can’t persist perpetually. I think it doesn’t work, though, it isn’t needed to make the argument you’ve made. Does a being that never dies need to be immortal? I don’t think so. Compare how a person can be impeccable in the sense of never actually sinning (where he could still sin) and impeccable in the sense of never being able to sin. Or how the Bible could be without error, inerrant, though it is logically possible that it could have erred, or the still stronger claim that it is infallible, that is, it could not possibly error.

            You mention the Rethinking Hell facebook group. Apparently facebook examines what I search for and websites I visit (to better construct their fake news or something, I’m not sure) Anyway, I’ve noticed your facebook group mentioned several times, at least a while ago. I’ll check that out today as well. However, for this topic I’ll respond here, since the post is still pretty recent. Anyway, this response is getting somewhat long, so I’ll wrap it up here, and finish responding later today or tomorrow morning, since I still have my misgivings about whether God would be justified in annihilating evildoers if the punishment they deserve is cessation of life, a punishment that is inflicted by ordinary death, even though a human (given dualism) persists after this death, albeit in a truncated state.

          • Peter Grice

            Thanks for your reply, Sean. I look forward to seeing you on Facebook, where we frequently discuss these kinds of things more interactively.

            I’m not sure that universalism is God’s own expressed hope, and so I’m not sure that we should be hopeful of it, at least not unconditionally. I do see God’s love itself as conditional, accepting the conclusions of John Peckham’s “The Love of God: A Canonical Model.” So there are assumptions that I question in the whole setup for universal or hopeful universalism. That said, a wideness to God’s mercy is certainly befitting of the God of Scripture. Conditionalism only stipulates that there are some who are annihilated: we do not know how many.

            Yes, some physicalists, like Joel Green, approach the issue via science and philosphy. But there is certainly a strong biblical case, and that is the clear motivation of others.

            // I think you make a good point here, though, I’d qualify it by noting that everlasting life seems primarily defined by the glory, honor and joy of the righteous. Does this diminish your point? By itself perhaps not. I’m just trying to sow the seeds of my own reasoning that leads me to traditionalism. More on that later. //

            But look again at Romans 2:7, where the triplet is “glory, honor and immortality.” Yes, the joy that you naturally include here—”felicity” in the old language—is an important quality of that eternal life. In my experience in the exchange between the two views, conditionalists invariably admit both the quantative and qualitative aspects of a definition for “eternal life,” whereas traditionalists will often charge us of denying the qualitative, and in the process affirm only the qualitative definition (insert appeal to John 17:3 here), while at other times affirming both as we do. Affirming the quality only is meant to be the “spiritual” way to understand, with conditionalists presumably playing the part of the unenlightened, except that most of us were traditionalists who thought that way at first, and except that traditionalists will argue that “eternal punishment” must be every bit as everlasting as “eternal life” in Matthew 25:46 (wrongly assuming that we would treat it as qualitative there, when in fact we don’t). I do think that when pressed to consistently treat “eternal life” both quantitatively and qualitatively, the traditionalists runs up against further problems, but that’s a discussion for another time.

            // By ‘it is neither first nor second death, but being dead that matters.’ you’re saying something like ‘neither does it matter how you die, nor when you die – whether now (orindary death) or at the Judgment (second death), provided you’re life is cut short (you suffer the cessation of your life) and you remain perpetually dead.’ Ordinary death is how you’re life is cut short, how you start being dead, and the second death is that death which makes it the case it’s forever. After each, though, you are dead, and this is the key thing, since it is what you deserve for your sins. Is this a fair understanding of what you’re saying? //

            Yes, it sounds like it. I am incorporating the way in which I see death functioning in the Bible, as an abstract judicial standard that can have instantiations for individuals, but that also has an ongoing legal status variously described as “dominion” and “power.” In the first instance, death is a transcendent law, i.e. a penalty. We must always track with when we are speaking prescriptively of penal death, verses merely speaking descriptively of events and states of affairs during and after a death.

            // You later say that the punishment proper is being dead. I’m not happy with this, or with saying that it is not part of the wages of sin. However, perhaps this is wholly a case of (to me) unappealing phraseology, with no or little difference in substance. //

            That may be the case. I think you are campaigning for suffering here. But I haven’t suggested that this isn’t part of experiencing being destroyed, put to death, etc. You will find conditionalists, such as John Stackhouse, who will not insist upon this point as we do at Rethinking Hell, and will allow ample finite duration for torments prior to death. But I would still offer that the Bible is very consistently clear that death is the judicial penalty for sin (consider the Mosaic Law, where the point of the harshest penalty was not so much the pain of the stoning, but the end goal). Justice ought to be theocentric and objective, but many will ground it only in the subjective dislikes of the object of punishment. But justice and punishment on a biblical worldview are much broader than that. Certainly privatory justice cannot be jettisoned as automatically invalid, as many attempt to do. Jonathan Edwards conceded that our privatory understanding of “eternal punishment” fits all the scripture expressions well.

            // since God has to punish worse sin more severealy and the less depraved sinners less severely //

            Oh, there is ample room for this in conditionalism, and it doesn’t have to be in terms of suffering. Daniel 12:2 makes it a resurrection of shame, and there are certainly degrees of that, which lead to a variety of emotional reactions: bitter rage, weeping, hopeful pleading. But I do personally question the biblical justification for the necessity of such degrees. For example, the common “according to works” passages arguably turn out on closer inspection to be speaking in binary fashion of good vs. bad works. At least, it’s not a given for me.

            // I think we have to avoid “simple annihilationism”, which is to say, the view that all that the wicked are deserve is to be blotted out of existence. //

            Think about what you’re saying, man! Pull yourself together!! Remember, the alternative is eternal life / immortality. To be blotted out of the book of life is the ultimate loss, just as the death penalty is considered the ultimate form of punishment in (ethical) secular courts. As mentioned, there can be more going on than that, but I would not consider this eternally grave forfeiture any kind of moderate punishment, much less a non-punishment that some critics wildly claim. Consider that Augustine compared annihilation to even eternal torment, and expressed that the damned should be “overjoyed” if they discovered eternal torment when they’d beleived they were headed for annihilation. We are doing little more today then rehashing a debate between the likes of Epicurus and Plutarch. I’m with Augustine on team Plutarch.

            // As long as the feast of the Lamb goes on (forever) there the wicked will be, outside, weeping and gnashing their teeth in shame, rage and agony. The joy of the righteous in the new heavens and new earth are co-eternal with the rage and agony of the damned. //

            I don’t think it makes sense that it should. Marriage suppers don’t do that. It has long been assumed that this takes place after being cast in to hell. But I argue that it is the judgment day experience of being first cast out of the kingdom. It is very important for justice and vindication that the wicked see with their own eyes and learn of their eternal privation—”like profane mockers at a feast, they gnash at me with their teeth” (Psa 35:16). But it is simply not important that they see this eternally. It is not necessary that punishment be constituted in the realtime subjective perceptions of the object of punishment.

            // Relatedly, what do you think of the argument for conditonalism that goes something like this: only the righteous will be immortality, hence the wicked can’t persist perpetually. I think it doesn’t work, though, it isn’t needed to make the argument you’ve made. Does a being that never dies need to be immortal? I don’t think so. Compare how a person can be impeccable in the sense of never actually sinning (where he could still sin) and impeccable in the sense of never being able to sin. Or how the Bible could be without error, inerrant, though it is logically possible that it could have erred, or the still stronger claim that it is infallible, that is, it could not possibly error. //

            I think that the argument succeeds when supplied with appropriate biblical support. But that aside, when you say “only the righteous will be immortal,” I think you have something different in mind than I do. But for any meaning of “immortal,” doesn’t it follow inescapably that everyone else will not be that, and thus can not be that? The function of “only” is to exclude. In any case, we must remember the conditionalist and biblical position that immortality (literally, deathlessness) is a *gift* given only to the saved, through the gospel, due to Christ’s conquest of death. In fact it is the ordinary meaning of immortality, which is to live forever. It is not the question of mechanism, or how that immortality is achieved viz. constitution. So if that’s what we’re talking about, then the conclusion of annihilation tumbles out. Yes, “a being that never dies” is immortal, in the plainest of senses. You’ve gone in the direction of mechanism. But I think that becomes a red herring. What you’re grappling with next is what in theology is called absolute immortality, where God makes it necessary. I think what you’re saying is that a person ends up living forever by virtue of never dying, but this was never absolutely secured. If so, I don’t think that works for eternal punishment, which is meant to be an eternal judgment (Heb 6:2). Being condemned to hell forever requires eternal life in the quantative sense, and this is one of the reasons a traditionalist may selectively deny the quantative in “eternal life.”

            // I still have my misgivings about whether God would be justified in annihilating evildoers if the punishment they deserve is cessation of life, a punishment that is inflicted by ordinary death, even though a human (given dualism) persists after this death, albeit in a truncated state. //

            For what it’s worth, I reject your framing of conditionalism in this argument as you go on to outline it. You say “a conditionalist might say,” but those are things I don’t say, about any differences between the first and second death. Some of this pushback I have already articulated further above. I simply don’t think that the Bible defines the first and second deaths in the way you are doing, and this is not a move to “paper over the differences.” The judicial nature of death is the same, the ending of life. The judicial difference is supplied by the circumstance of an eternal judgment: death without possibility of return to life. This is cessation of life, so there can’t be any “mere cessation of life” that is “different from or less severe” than it. In both cases, life ceases. That’s what’s captured by the term “death” on my view. So long as the person remains dead, it remains true. It is not part of the judicial standard of death to stipulate that it most be one kind or another, temporary or permanent. That is a function of whether the death remains in effect. It is common to assume that annihilationists make final punishment annihilation. But that is merely descriptive of the means of final punishment when never reversed. The prescriptive end is privation of life, rendered permanent by divine decree.

            // Another problem I find is that Scripture says ‘It is destined for men to die once.’ Now, this is not a statement about mankind in general, since some, Like Lazarus died twice and presumably won’t suffer damnation. //

            I agree, but would retain the term “general” for this. It is only saying in general terms what is appointed for all mankind: to die once, then face judgment. The fact that some die more than once (Lazarus) and some never actually die (1 Thess 4:17) is as you say, the exception to the rule (although I think a great multitude of Christians may literally never die). But when conditionalists say that many (not just a few exceptions) die twice, this is no violation of the text, for it is speaking of what is appointed to all mankind. On conditionalism, it is appointed to all mankind to die and to face judgment. Some will then go on to die again. But that was a) never appointed to all mankind, and b) arguably never appointed at all (might depend on one’s doctrine of predestination). If it was actually “appointed” to them in the exact sense of this text, nonetheless it was not appointed to all mankind, which is all the text is interested in talking about.

          • Sean Michael Killackey

            Hi Peter,
            I had written a further reply to you, but it got lost when Wordpad closed on me and I neglected to save it. In any event, it seems that you think Facebook would be a better place, and I recently joined the group, so I’ll make my words here brief.

            Concerning universalism, I was thinking something like: ‘It would be better, all other things being equal, if everyone was eventually saved.’ But could all things be the same and yet everyone be saved? I don’t think so, it might be worse. Will everyone be saved? The Bible seems pretty definitive on this point: no. Even the universalist suggestion that given enough time everyone would see the light and be saved seems suspect to me. Why not suppose they become worse?

            Now, I think your points about what Christ saves us from to the conclusion that the wicked will not be spared the deprivation of their lives, is somewhat problematic for more traditional positions. Thanks for making those points; I’ll have to think about it some more.

            I’m still find a problem between ‘the wicked deserve the deprivation of their lives’ and ‘the wicked will be annihilated’. If the former can be accomplished in ordinary death where the spirit of a person still persists until the Judgment, then it seems that annihilation is taking it even further, and so seems more severe than the putative deserved punishment of cessation of life. Just as exacting a $500 fine by taking $40,000 seems excessive, and thus unjust. I’ll ask that on Facebook sometime this week, I think, see what others think.

            I did like your point about the passage in Hebrews (‘just as it is appointed to men to die once . . .’). I still think there is a problem there, but am less sure. At least it seems that your understanding of the passage is plausible, and so if the positive reasons for conditional immortality are as good as you think, this passage is as good as solved.

          • Peter Grice

            Hi Sean. I have taken to writing my drafts in software that auto-saves. Been burned way too many times.

            Yes, the Bible does paint a pessimistic picture about the desires of some, in places like John 3:21, 2 Peter 2, and Romans 1.

            “Though the wicked is shown favor, He does not learn righteousness; He deals unjustly in the land of uprightness, And does not perceive the majesty of the LORD. 11O LORD, Your hand is lifted up yet they do not see it. They see Your zeal for the people and are put to shame; Indeed, fire will devour Your enemies.”—Isaiah 26:10-12

            // I’m still find a problem between ‘the wicked deserve the deprivation of their lives’ and ‘the wicked will be annihilated’. If the former can be accomplished in ordinary death where the spirit of a person still persists until the Judgment, then it seems that annihilation is taking it even further, and so seems more severe than the putative deserved punishment of cessation of life. Just as exacting a $500 fine by taking $40,000 seems excessive, and thus unjust. //

            That’s fine, but this problem is set in terms different to my claim, which insists on categories from biblical theology. The persistence of a spirit in no way resurrects the life that was cessated/privated, and ought not be incorporated into deservingness in your equation. What (conditionally) overturns death is resurrection, i.e. coming back to life. Similarly, when the death sentence is resumed for the finally unsaved, the non-persistence of a spirit doesn’t worsen it, compared to the first time. That is to reduce the judicial, prescriptive category to descriptive details that have no bearing on it. The prescription is that life ought to cease. And so it does, again. The oughtness of the judgment remains in effect eternally. It is true that there was a resurrection to follow the first instantiation of death, whereas this time that won’t happen. But it was not a victorious resurrection conquering the dominion of death, and so the person remained under the death sentence throughout, now eternally ratified after a formal, public disclosure of their deeds and deservingness. The old testament mostly has a limited horizon of ordinary death. The new testament also at times speaks as if there is no resurrection of the unsaved. This is because from the vantage point of the living (and not from the God’s eye view of a timeline chart), to contemplate one’s future viz. death is to contemplate one’s ultimate future. If death is deserving, then that’s the final word on your life, regardless of whether you will be temporarily resurrected. As noted, the permanency of death is a function of an eternal judgment. This in no way implies that it wouldn’t have been just for the sinner to remain dead after ordinary death. I’m sure that you’re still feeling the pull toward analyzing things according to whether some part of a person is left over or not. But that’s not the judicial frame. Why then does God destroy both body *and soul,* as Jesus taught? Well, I happen to think that “soul” here refers to life. Men can take away your body but not your life, because God can grant life again (besides, there’s a general resurrection). But God can, if he will, take away your life also. As for the position of dualist conditionalists that God does destroy the immaterial part of man, this is understood as part of the mechanics, not part of the punishment. If resurrection was the point of preserving the spirit after ordinary death, then there is no longer any point. Hope these reflections help!

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