“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label

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

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

A Case for Conditionalism

What is conditionalism? Basically, there are three views on hell, and they are all represented within evangelicalism. There is traditionalism, universalism and conditionalism. Setting aside for the moment that there are different varieties among these views, I will speak in general terms about each position:1Most seem to believe in a form of “separationism.” Along with this is a form of “lewisianism” in which all who are in hell, ultimately choose it, and hell’s door is locked from the inside (C.S.Lewis). Yet there are those, like N.T.Wright, who suggest a kind of “dehumanization,” that those who refuse to respond to the gospel, and only worship themselves, “that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not,” but however, he admits that this is wandering into “territory that no one can claim to have mapped” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York, NY: Harper One, 2008], 183.). To illustrate this, some point to Smeagol’s ghastly transformation into Gollum in the LOTR Trilogy. Yet, ironically, Gollum is eventually annihilated in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom.

  • The predominant view is traditionalism which is the perspective that we are all eternal beings who will live forever either in heaven or hell.2The label “traditionalism” suggests that the alternate views are not found in church tradition, which is untrue. Within this view are two alternatives as to the nature of hell. Eternal torment is the more “traditional” view where the unbeliever is tormented in literal fire. Eternal separation is a softer and increasingly popular view where the unbeliever is eternally separated from God – in this view the fire is treated as a metaphor. In either of these, the unbeliever will never die or be freed from this state of punishment. This is the view I grew up with and came to believe for most of my life.
  • Universalism is the view of hell as a place of burning which is refining and purifying with the ultimate purpose that all will eventually come to a place of repentance and restoration with God and then enter Heaven. The length of time for this purified repentance will vary for each unbeliever, but God’s love, according to Universalists, is powerful enough to bring all to repentance and restoration. In other words, hell will eventually empty itself and cease to be.
  • And just briefly, because it will be fleshed out more: conditionalism is the view that we are not all eternal or immortal beings, unlike God. Eternal life and immortality is “conditional” upon faith in Jesus Christ, and is given only as a good gift, not as a curse. When the condition of salvation is not met, hell is a place of complete destruction and annihilation. In this view, the unbeliever eventually perishes and ceases to be.

Continue reading “A Case for Conditionalism”

1. Most seem to believe in a form of “separationism.” Along with this is a form of “lewisianism” in which all who are in hell, ultimately choose it, and hell’s door is locked from the inside (C.S.Lewis). Yet there are those, like N.T.Wright, who suggest a kind of “dehumanization,” that those who refuse to respond to the gospel, and only worship themselves, “that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not,” but however, he admits that this is wandering into “territory that no one can claim to have mapped” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York, NY: Harper One, 2008], 183.). To illustrate this, some point to Smeagol’s ghastly transformation into Gollum in the LOTR Trilogy. Yet, ironically, Gollum is eventually annihilated in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom.
2. The label “traditionalism” suggests that the alternate views are not found in church tradition, which is untrue.

The Neglected Doctrines of Resurrection and Bodily Transformation

Today in Protestant circles we still hear a lot about the immortality of the soul, despite this doctrine being passionately rejected by Martin Luther 500 years ago.1 Martin Luther, “Assertio Omnium Articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. Novissimam Damnatorum,” article 27, Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. 7, pp. 131,132. But we rarely hear of the immortality of the body, an important feature of resurrection, nor do we even hear that much about resurrection in general!2 For example, the otherwise commendable Reforming Catholic Confession fails to include the resurrection of the unsaved, and only alludes to a resurrection of the saved by mentioning “glorified bodies” (even this much requires additional understanding to link the two concepts). Will all rise physically from the dead, like Jesus did—or only the saved? And if all rise in physical bodies, will the bodies of all be fitted with immortality, never to die again—or only those of the saved?

These kinds of questions are essential for assessing any doctrine of salvation and damnation, and yet they are often absent from the hell debate, and from broader discussion. Both heaven and hell are widely seen as ethereal destinations, to be arrived at immediately upon dying. But this truncated version of the biblical schedule of events renders resurrection and final judgment superfluous, even incoherent. Why were the unsaved sent straight to hell before Judgment Day, the very point at which they will be sentenced to hell? And if the saved and the unsaved already reside in the place where they’ll spend eternity, why bring them out? If they are brought out in resurrection, only to be shortly sent back there but this time in a physical form, how can those realms be suited to both physical and nonphysical habitation?

Continue reading “The Neglected Doctrines of Resurrection and Bodily Transformation”

1. Martin Luther, “Assertio Omnium Articulorum M. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. Novissimam Damnatorum,” article 27, Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. 7, pp. 131,132.
2. For example, the otherwise commendable Reforming Catholic Confession fails to include the resurrection of the unsaved, and only alludes to a resurrection of the saved by mentioning “glorified bodies” (even this much requires additional understanding to link the two concepts).

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 not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They had been given free access to the Tree of Life in order to “live forever” (Gen 3:22 cf. 16), but this ongoing privilege would be forfeited if they ate fruit from the other tree, which was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). They did succumb to this temptation, after believing the serpent’s lie that they would not surely die. This resulted in the introduction of human death into the world—death as normally and universally understood; sometimes called “physical death.”1I recommend not using terms like “physical” and “biological” unless necessary, as this can legitimize an unhelpful dichotomy with a so-called “spiritual death.” It can also unduly provoke interest in mechanisms of bodies and souls that might attend death, but which don’t need to be qualified in the ordinary use of “death.” If qualification is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” We should always think about death functionally, as the negation of life. So we should not think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). On both occasions, death still brings life to an end, even if the second time around this may be complete and permanent (Matt 10:28). Romans 6:23 refers simply to “death” because the universal wages of sin is not first, second, physical, or spiritual: it’s just death, the ending of life.

. . . for in the day that you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17)

The most common objection to the above is that if ordinary human death is in view, Adam and Eve apparently did not die “in the day” that they ate (Gen 2:17). But this is to misunderstand the Hebrew idiom “in the day” and the special function of “certainly die,” which, along with attention to context, must inform our reading of the English (lest we misread the warning with modern assumptions). As Walter Kaiser explains:2Walter 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.

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. In the Hebrew, this phrase is a language construct known as an infinitive absolute.3The infinitive absolute here is paired with a finite verb of the same root, roughly as “dying-die,” for what Gotthelf Bergsträsser describes as “a peculiarly Hebrew hybrid of verbal noun and verbal interjection of imperative character.” The infinitive absolute is a verbal noun, referring not to the actual dying of Adam and Eve, but to dying itself in the abstract. Then the interjection of “die” carries a similar condemning sense to the sentiment, “Die! Die!,” only without such intensity and animus. Intensification is one function of the infinitive absolute, but in Genesis 2:17 the other main function is served: certification. Death is being certified, or made certain. Since in context the infinitive absolute emphasizes certainty, and lends this effect to the whole construction, it should be read nominally, i.e. functioning as a noun or label–not merely as a death that is incidentally certain, but as a thing called “dying-die” or “certainly-die,” that in turn carries that implication. Therefore we must conclude, even before we learn that this is indeed how it is used elsewhere, that the construct functions as a kind of sentence or curse. It has no exact equivalent in English, and should be read not as a statement about when death will occur, but rather to emphasize the certainty of death being incurred.

Not only is the language different to our own way of speaking, but the general concept is different to our own way of thinking, due to very different cultural contexts. When someone incurs the death penalty today, it happens in a courtroom after some time has passed. None of that was available or needed in Genesis, because God himself had declared what would happen. So it makes sense in this context to focus on God’s warning becoming true and certain the very moment the “crime” would occur. Simply put, the transgression would make certain the death. Beforehand, they were not going to die. But once they sinned, they were going to die. Even if this is a little unfamiliar to us, we can still see how it is simple and straightforward.

So the timing of the death event was never specified in God’s warning, which was about the logical immediacy of the outcome of death, not its temporal immediacy. Both logical and temporal immediacy may be discerned in the idiom “in the day,” but any temporal immediacy here pertains to death becoming certain, not to death itself. As Kaiser pointed out in the quote above, there is simply no “immediacy of action.”

To confirm that modern Hebrew scholars have correctly understood the ancient nuances behind “In the day you eat, you will certainly die,” we can consult the ancient Aramaic rendering of Genesis 2:17 in the Targum Jonathan. It reads, “in the day that thou eatest thou wilt be guilty of death.”4See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865. This is clear and not prone to any misreading. But although our conventional translation is less clear and doesn’t preclude misreadings, it still adequately approximates the Hebrew. Misreadings can occur for different reasons, especially the intrusion of modern assumptions and expectations. For example, from a concordist desire to avoid any suggestion that human death never existed beforehand (based on one’s view of human origins). Or, as we often see at Rethinking Hell, based on the goal of defending eternal torment instead of death. Another reason is just the translation tradition for this well-known verse, which prefers formal-equivalence here since this is a solemn utterance of God with such far-reaching implications for humankind. Regardless, the way it is rendered in the Targum suffices to show that at the time of Jesus, people understood God’s warning to be about ordinary death.

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

1. I recommend not using terms like “physical” and “biological” unless necessary, as this can legitimize an unhelpful dichotomy with a so-called “spiritual death.” It can also unduly provoke interest in mechanisms of bodies and souls that might attend death, but which don’t need to be qualified in the ordinary use of “death.” If qualification is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” We should always think about death functionally, as the negation of life. So we should not think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). On both occasions, death still brings life to an end, even if the second time around this may be complete and permanent (Matt 10:28). Romans 6:23 refers simply to “death” because the universal wages of sin is not first, second, physical, or spiritual: 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. The infinitive absolute here is paired with a finite verb of the same root, roughly as “dying-die,” for what Gotthelf Bergsträsser describes as “a peculiarly Hebrew hybrid of verbal noun and verbal interjection of imperative character.” The infinitive absolute is a verbal noun, referring not to the actual dying of Adam and Eve, but to dying itself in the abstract. Then the interjection of “die” carries a similar condemning sense to the sentiment, “Die! Die!,” only without such intensity and animus. Intensification is one function of the infinitive absolute, but in Genesis 2:17 the other main function is served: certification. Death is being certified, or made certain. Since in context the infinitive absolute emphasizes certainty, and lends this effect to the whole construction, it should be read nominally, i.e. functioning as a noun or label–not merely as a death that is incidentally certain, but as a thing called “dying-die” or “certainly-die,” that in turn carries that implication. Therefore we must conclude, even before we learn that this is indeed how it is used elsewhere, that the construct functions as a kind of sentence or curse.
4. See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865.

Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: The Doctrine of Eternal Torment Was Not Universal in the Early Church

Many people incorrectly believe that, save for a few nut jobs, cults, and liberals who don’t care about the Bible, Christians of all stripes have always believed that hell is a place of eternal torment. For this reason, many are wary to even consider any alternative ideas like evangelical conditionalism (also called annihilationism). The idea that no one will live forever in hell, but will instead be destroyed and fully killed, sounds like some new age nonsense. Many think that Christianity simply has always taught that hell is a place of eternal torment, and only recently does anyone deny this because people today are just too soft and too sentimental to handle the truth. However, this assessment is not correct.

Continue reading “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: The Doctrine of Eternal Torment Was Not Universal in the Early Church”

“Fixing John 3:16”—500 Years After the Reformation

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

The most famous verse in the Bible is broken.

What the Bible says is not the problem, of course. But—and here’s the scandal—the message of John 3:16 has been dramatically changed.

What’s actually broken is the popular understanding of the verse. It turns out, this towering text has been widely and wildly misunderstood. For a long, long, time.

That’s quite a problem! And it’s not going to just fix itself. According to a growing number of Bible scholars and teachers around the world, something must be done to set the record straight.

Continue reading ““Fixing John 3:16”—500 Years After the Reformation”

Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence

Note: This article is part of a series. Here, Part 1 presents a consistent, straightforward conditionalist understanding of 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Since conditionalists question the NIV’s interpolation (“and shut out from”)—practically the only time we would quibble with any modern English translation—Part 2 will cover the more complex issues raised by a traditionalist reading, showing that the simple face value reading is correct. All references are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

2 Thessalonians 1:9 is one of those texts which first convinced me to take the idea of annihilation seriously. Not just in isolation, where it seems obvious that destruction due to Christ’s coming is the point, but in the context of what is being said in the first couple of chapters of the epistle. (The NRSV even uses the word “annihilating” a mere eleven verses later concerning the “man of lawlessness,” which is intriguing enough on its own!) The overall impact of the passage I think should give anyone pause about this issue, since it portrays the day of judgment and the fire of judgment differently from familiar expectations from Christian tradition. Too often, our critics treat a single word of this verse as an isolated proof-text, or suggest that’s how we treat it, when of course each side must give due consideration to the fuller structural context.

“Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”—2 Thessalonians 1:9, KJV

The conditionalist reading is that the glorious presence and power of the Lord causes the punishment of destruction, which is everlasting because it is God’s permanent judgment. Let’s explore how this makes the best sense. Continue reading “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence”

Conditional Immortality—An Acceptable View?

What does Conditional Immortality affirm and deny?

As a Christian doctrinal position, conditional immortality affirms that immortality—living forever and never dying—is a gift from God given only to the saved (1 Tim 6:16; Rom 2:7; 2 Tim 1:10; 1 Cor 15:54; John 6:50-51; John 11:25-26; Luke 20:36).

It also tacitly rejects universal immortality, the view that all people either are or will be immortal. Since this is a tenet of both eternal torment and universal salvation, conditionalism necessarily denies those two positions.1Conditionalism therefore also rejects universal salvation’s stipulation of a universally-met condition for immortality.

Conditional immortality, or conditionalism, is expressed in terms of a reward of “eternal life” for the saved, and an “eternal punishment” for the finally unsaved (Matt 25:46). The punishment is an “eternal judgment” of death instead of life, since the wages of sin is death (Heb 6:2; Rom 6:23). This requires an “eternal destruction” of “body and soul” (2 Thess 1:9 cf. Matt 10:28).

Although the biblical label for that event is “the second death,” it can also be called annihilation (conditionalism and annihilationism may be used interchangeably). Whereas the concept of death indicates the forfeit of life but doesn’t specify duration, annihilation speaks of a death that is a permanent loss of life, and destruction of the whole person. Since God is the source and sustainer of life (Acts 17:25; Heb 1:3; Rev 2:7 cf. Gen 3:22), this kind of demise may be considered a consequence of eternal separation or severance from God.

Continue reading “Conditional Immortality—An Acceptable View?”

1. Conditionalism therefore also rejects universal salvation’s stipulation of a universally-met condition for immortality.

Lessons from a Tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo

On Saturday, May 28th, 2016 a four-year-old boy climbed past some barriers and fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. The boy’s life was in danger. In order to save him, zookeepers shot and killed Harambe, a large, male gorilla.
This story—which is tragic on many levels—can nevertheless help us to think about several questions that often arise in the brotherly debate between those who believe in eternal conscious torment and those who believe in annihilationism. Specifically, I would like to draw out three lessons. Continue reading “Lessons from a Tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo”

"Hell Triangle"—Christian Views of Final Punishment

Rethinking Hell’s classic “Hell Triangle” chart has been revised and updated, and made available in a variety of formats, for printing and including in blogs and presentations.

          

 

You may freely use the images below under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means that you can use the diagram in any way, so long as appropriate attribution is included, and so long as you don’t change the image or use it to make your own version. Continue reading “"Hell Triangle"—Christian Views of Final Punishment”