What About Physicalism and Soul Sleep? (Part 1: Scope)

“What happens when we die?”
“Do conditionalists believe in soul sleep?”
“What about the issue of dualism vs. physicalism?”

At Rethinking Hell we hear these kinds of questions often. They are good questions about interesting topics! However, they officially fall outside of our discussion area, as we focus on Evangelical Conditionalism and the Hell debate.

This article explains why that is the case. We will consider the scope and importance of Evangelical Conditionalism, and review its main tenets about life, death, resurrection, immortality, and annihilation. We’ll also encounter the lens of biblical holism, which will clarify how things are best framed and discussed.

Let’s begin by posing a question of our own, which better encapsulates our work at Rethinking Hell:

“What is the ultimate destiny of human beings?”

This question determines the broad scope of the Evangelical debate on Hell, since each of the three main views affirms some correlation of final punishment and final reward. On Universalism, those who are finally punished are also eventually saved. On Conditionalism, eternal destruction is the privation of eternal life (just as death is the privation of life), and this eternal life or immortality is awarded to the saved only. On Eternal Torment, all will live forever in either Heaven or Hell, so to experience eternal bliss is simultaneously to avoid experiencing eternal misery.

If we keep this profoundly important controlling question in mind, we will be able to recognize the boundaries of the debate.

The initial questions are different. They’re not about our ultimate destiny in any direct sense. Instead, they fall into one of two categories of Christian theology: anthropology and the intermediate state.

    • Anthropology is the study of human beings, particularly in terms of how we are constituted (constitutional anthropology).
    • The Intermediate State refers to a person’s condition or whereabouts in the interval between their death and resurrection.

We may ask, do people have a non-physical spirit or soul? Most Christians have answered “yes” to this question, many simply assuming it as the only option for our faith.

Is the soul conscious during death? Most have believed this too, often elaborating on what that conscious experience might be like for the saved and the unsaved.

But there is an alternative minority view, where the soul is believed to enter a state of unconscious “sleep” between death and resurrection. In the Protestant tradition this “soul sleep” view was held by the Anabaptists, and notable Reformers Martin Luther and William Tyndale.

As if that weren’t controversial enough, a perspective called Christian physicalism goes further. On physicalism, the human constitution is basically physical, lacking any soul/spirit of a different nature. The view is sometimes called materialism to reference physical matter, or monism to emphasize its singular nature as distinct from dualism.

Importantly, Christian physicalists–like all Christians–believe that God is Spirit, and that He created and sustains all things in existence, including ourselves. This differs markedly from a naturalistic physicalism in which our brains and bodies are the result of unguided causes. It affirms that whatever the precise structuring of human beings may be, we were designed purposefully and intricately, wholly complete in the image of our Creator. Should that constitution suffer decay and dissolution in death, our Creator is able to restore us to life again–even if we cannot fathom how.

Christian physicalists also affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross for our sins, and his resurrection–placing their trust in him as their Lord and Savior.

For these reasons, the occasional suspicion and even animosity directed at Christian physicalists is unwarranted. As a non-physicalist myself I can make this observation without prejudice. When self-styled heresy hunters turn this into a hill to die on, they show themselves to be uninformed.

Or worse, uncharitable, when it comes to the specific doctrinal concern that the union of Christ’s divine and human natures be maintained during his death–if the critic insists that physicalists must deny this, when in fact they typically affirm it. Sincere affirmations of faith take precedence over supposed logical implications. Whatever the strength of arguments about physicalism implying heresy, critics must stop short of dictating that such things are actually believed by others.

Even so, physicalists have provided their response on logical grounds. Rethinking Hell representative Chris Date, for instance, who happens to hold to physicalism, has explained that the person of Jesus Christ subsists in both divine and human natures, and if Jesus ceased to be conscious as a human being during death, his human nature still continued to exist (especially so since the Father did not permit him to undergo decay; Acts 2:27).

Not only is the union of natures preserved, but the related criticism that the divine being is affected doesn’t hold up either. As far as atonement is concerned, the notion of substitution requires only human death, albeit that of a sinless human of infinite value (Heb 2:17; Col 1:22). But for the death of the incarnate Son to effect some change in the Trinity is not possible even in principle, since it occurs in time, yet God transcends created time.

As far as Conditionalism is concerned, our statement of belief in this area is simple: Jesus died, by which we mean ceased to live–not ceased to exist, was destroyed, was annihilated, or anything else. To affirm this biblical truth as a statement of historic fact, is not to invoke any view of anthropology or the intermediate state.

Now, at first blush physicalism might seem incompatible with soul sleep, given that it offers no soul to be disembodied at death. But both views are functionally similar in terms of rejecting a conscious intermediate state. That is likely to be the focus whenever the two are being lumped together.

Physicalism can even be functionally similar to dualism, depending on who you ask. Non-reductive physicalism, for instance, is not unlike property dualism in some respects. Some physicalists are primarily concerned to reject only certain types of dualism and various problems they see: cartesian dualism, bodily non-essentialism, etc. Yet they may still conceive of a person’s essence being held in God’s care during death, which to some ears sounds like a kind of distinct soul.

So it turns out that not everyone uses these terms in the same way. How much tension really exists between two given views will vary depending on the specifics.

There are still legitimate controversies and debates in these areas of course. But if they can be bounded by points of agreement–about death and resurrection for instance–we are able to focus on other worthwhile things, such as rethinking the doctrine of Hell.

 

The (Supposed) Point of Tension

At times, the question of immortality as a property of the soul has been in dispute between Annihilationism and Eternal Torment. This framing might have been helpful at times, but on strictly logical grounds, we must reject its assumption that if the soul survives death, this guarantees its permanent future.

That notion is more at home in Plato’s thought than in Christianity. According to his metaphysics, human souls always existed in an eternal and unchanging realm, and are indestructible by virtue of having no constituent parts. For the soul to survive death is just a function of its participation in the eternal realm, a demonstration of its permanent resilience.

“The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a Greek doctrine; it’s not a Christian doctrine.”

–Paul Copan1Paul Copan, Extinction or Corrosion?, 14:10, Rethinking Hell Conference 2020

“The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a pagan doctrine and not a Christian one at all.”

–Gordon Fee2Gordon Fee, First Corinthians Series (Part 9), Youth With A Mission Lausanne, 1977

In Christianity, souls are created, and included in the set of “all things” sustained in existence by God for however long as He determines. Instead of being baked into the structure of reality, our eternal future ensues from God’s judgments at a future event (Acts 17:31). Even if we do have inherently immortal souls–something rejected by Martin Luther and increasingly today by proponents of Eternal Torment–God is still able to annihilate, to “destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matt 10:28). Our final destiny is therefore a matter of His sovereign will and power, not of human anthropology or whatever means or mechanisms He may choose to implement.

“That the soul survives the grave is not a testimony to its indestructibility or of its intrinsic immortality. The soul as a created entity is mortal. It survives the grave only because it is sustained and preserved by the power of God.”

–R. C. Sproul3R.C. Sproul, The Origin of the Soul

Now, if the claim is that God equipped souls with innate immortality because every person will ultimately live forever according to His will, on either Universalism or Eternal Torment, this just begs the question. God could easily have done so instead because some (not all) will use this capacity forever. The most we could argue in this area is that God made souls capable of subsisting in death because more still needs to take place via resurrection. This persistence of the soul still only occurs for a temporary, intermediate time period, and relates only to a part of us–the situation is incomplete in both respects. An act of God is needed, and will someday occur, in order to bring each person back to life inclusive of all their constituent parts.

When we insist upon a biblical and Christian approach, we gain much clarity on the crucial role of God himself in this matter. As P. T. Forsyth explains,

A sure belief in immortality does not rest where philosophy puts it, but where religion puts it. It is not founded on the nature of the psychic organism, but on its relation to Another . . . I do not remember where we have Christian warrant for believing that man was created immortal . . . If my immortality is due to God’s gift, it is due to his incessant gift and creation, and not to an infinite lease on life which He signed at the beginning . . . In the Bible the supreme interest and the final ground of immortality was not the continuity of the organism, physical or psychical, but of a relation. The ground of the belief was not that such an organism must go on, but that a life in God, and especially in the risen Christ, could not die.4 P.T. Forsyth, A Sense of the Holy, Wipf and Stock, 1996

Immortality is still very central to the Hell debate today, just not as a property of the soul or as a function of disembodied continuance. Straightforwardly, it’s the notion of ultimately living forever (everlasting life), which is a question of fact about the future. To whom this applies is answered differently by the different views of final punishment. We Conditionalists say that immortality is a gift given only to the saved, and forfeited by others who will be destroyed in Gehenna. Traditionalists and Universalists, on the other hand, affirm everlasting life for all.

The real question of immortality in Christianity–“Who ultimately lives forever?”–is something we can only know if God has revealed His intention to us. Therefore, instead of trying to derive an answer from human composition or postmortem conditions, we must look for it more directly, in the pages of the Bible.

 

Importance: our biblical standard

Shouldn’t we still seek to integrate our own beliefs in different areas? Yes, generally speaking a robust and well-formed theological belief system is good to pursue. We should explore and build connections between different doctrines, and test those relationships through logical argument.

Those involved in the Hell debate do tend to be theological types, who find detailed models satisfying, and love to discuss and debate all the finer points. Still, there is a time and place for boundaries, and for keeping beliefs distinct.

We understand this intuitively when it comes to the gospel message. The content of the gospel is meant to be accessible and clearly communicated to people from all walks of life, not just theologians and logicians. The message should not be saddled with more complex ideas, or clouded by concepts foreign to it. If we do seek integration with other beliefs, in principle they should not be permitted to modify the gospel. Better to be right about the gospel, than right about everything else instead.

We are saved through faith in Jesus, not by our knowledge of many facts or prowess in logical consistency. Faith, the apostle Paul reminds us in terms of matters of “first importance,” believes the good news of the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, his burial, his resurrection, and his post-resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15:1-4).

Our topic of ultimate destinies is similar, as a matter of great importance for us all. In fact there is some overlap with elements of the gospel message. Paul goes on in that passage to treat the topic of “the resurrection of the dead,” which in Hebrews 6:1-2 is listed as foundational doctrine alongside “eternal judgments.” Those two items comprise the main areas of interest for Conditionalism, along with the work of Jesus Christ in death and resurrection, and the account of Adam and Eve.

So we operate on fairly sacred territory, so to speak, and should be mindful of the theological scaffolding for our discussion: protology, eschatology, soteriology and damnation (first things, last things, salvation, and final punishment).

Having that awareness can help prevent too many missteps like category errors, wrong assumptions, unjustified inferences, and so on. If you’ve ever discussed theology with someone prone to making those mistakes, or who keeps “jumping around all over the place,” you’ll appreciate the need for a little structure and self-regulation in how we think and communicate.

For controversial topics like ours those problems are only compounded by personal bias, social interests, and a desire to be proven right. We too easily emphasize and reject only the weakest forms of opposing views, even outright caricatures, and ignore the best representations. These things produce frustration and confusion, instead of clarity and understanding. If we don’t attend to topical boundaries when needed, and allow too much obfuscation of already challenging subjects, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves embroiled in endless controversies that do nothing to edify (1 Tim 4:7).

Fortunately in that regard, beliefs in the areas of anthropology and the intermediate state aren’t of primary importance in matters of Christian faith. They might even be considered tertiary and somewhat speculative. That being the case, we have the option to be agnostic about them. Unlike matters that are more clearly revealed, maybe we just don’t have enough information here either way. Or if we do, maybe we’re still investigating, or have become stuck not knowing how to finally resolve things. If that’s where you find yourself, don’t be pressured into accepting or rejecting beliefs that aren’t of primary importance. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.

 

Statements and Boundaries

We see now why anthropology and the intermediate state are typically absent from statements of faith for the broad Evangelical bodies, such as the World Evangelical Alliance, the UK’s Evangelical Alliance, and the USA’s National Association of Evangelicals. In addition to affirming primary doctrines already noted, such statements typically also highlight belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the nature of God as Trinity, the present work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the future return of Jesus Christ, and the future resurrection of the saved and the unsaved. All of these basic beliefs should be givens implied by the term “Christian,” and are important both for faith and for unity. They are certainly implied by the term “Evangelical,” which we embrace in our banner “Evangelical Conditionalism.”

A lengthier statement known as the Reforming Catholic Confession, which is aimed at unifying the Protestant world, likewise does not cover anthropology or the intermediate state. Regrettably though, as I’ve pointed out in a previous article, not only is its wording conspicuously weak in affirming the resurrection of the saved (Dan 12:2-3; John 5:29; Acts 24:15)–it fails to even mention the resurrection of the unsaved! This is vital doctrine, the outright denial of which is considered heretical (2 Tim 2:17-18; 1 Cor 15:12-19). So if anything should be concerning in these areas we deal with, it’s the all-too-common neglect of future resurrection. With future resurrection affirmed, we enter the domain of eschatology at the return of Christ, the main area of focus at Rethinking Hell.

Naturally there are still Christian groups and contexts in which one is required to affirm something about an intermediate state or human constitution. But across the broad Evangelical world and beyond, we can legitimately disagree over their details. By acknowledging where we could be mistaken we find greater unity in Christ, and are able to fellowship and minister together despite any differences on non-primary matters. This applies within the Evangelical Conditionalist movement too. For an outline of our diversity of belief on other matters, see the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism.

Our official statement concludes by saying that no belief of anthropology or the intermediate state is “a logical requirement or consequence” of Conditionalism. Those categories are technically out of bounds for our purposes, not only since they’re not directly about final punishment, and since they’re not of foundational importance, and since we have a diversity of opinion about them anyway, but also because this really is fitting and proper for the best framing of our view.

None of this means that they are not interesting and important in their own right, or cannot be integrated with Conditionalism. We’ve previously published guest articles from authors presenting their own integrated schemes, here and here. Individual perspectives are one thing, but the general approach to Evangelical Conditionalism has broad utility. It’s both well-founded in the literature, and well-represented in the dialogue today. In the next part of this series we’ll encounter this model and review its main tenets. An outline of our view is worth exploring for its own sake, and should be useful to have in one place. It will also help to clarify why it’s not necessary to attend to beliefs in others areas, such as anthropology and the intermediate state.

References
1 Paul Copan, Extinction or Corrosion?, 14:10, Rethinking Hell Conference 2020
2 Gordon Fee, First Corinthians Series (Part 9), Youth With A Mission Lausanne, 1977
3 R.C. Sproul, The Origin of the Soul
4 P.T. Forsyth, A Sense of the Holy, Wipf and Stock, 1996

“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”

Charles Fox Parham: “Father of Modern Pentecostalism”–and Annihilationist!

At Rethinking Hell we’re not exactly Pentecostal. Then again, we’re not exactly not Pentecostal! Evangelical is exactly what we are, and that covers both bases. As we note in our official statement, “Evangelical conditionalists are uniform in our belief that the unsaved will not live forever, and yet we are as theologically varied as evangelicals holding to the majority view of hell, concerning various in-house debates over the nonessentials of Christian doctrine. We belong to many diverse denominations and faith communities: non-denominationalist, Baptist, Churches of Christ, Episcopalian/Anglican, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and to many evangelical organizations. We are scholars and laypeople, pastors, teachers, overseers, missionaries and ministry workers.”

But among Pentecostals in particular, the name Charles Fox Parham commands a degree of respect. He is known as “The father of modern Pentecostalism,” having been the main initiator of the movement and its first real influencer. It was his student, William Seymour, who established the famous Azusa Street Mission. Parham would soon become critical of what he saw as emotional excesses at Azusa Street, which led to a growing rift between the two. Seymour’s influence kept rising, while Parham’s dwindled.

One of the main reasons for Parham’s waning influence was his declared annihilationism. That’s right: the early founder of modern Pentecostalism was an annihilationist! In the inaugural issue of Parham’s newsletter, The Apostolic Faith, he presented scriptural answers to 37 questions on the topic of conditional immortality. Among his main points were that sin brings death (Rom 6:23), that both the body and soul are destructible (Matt 10:28), and that immortality belongs to God alone but is imparted to the saved (1 Tim 1:17; Rom 2:7).

At the time, the controversial nature of this doctrine helped to give Parham’s detractors the extra ammunition they needed to argue that he was unfit for enduring leadership. When Parham was invited to Azusa Street in 1906 many there were just as repulsed by what they termed his “no eternal hell” teaching, as he was by some of the practices he witnessed. The mission subsequently ended its association with Parham’s Apostolic Faith, and continued their newsletter of the same name under a new publisher.1“The Apostolic Faith Movement Headquarters, Los Angeles.” Parham continued to publish his newsletter from Baxter Springs, Kansas, and to teach conditionalism to his followers. But in the January 1907 issue of the Azusa periodical, Seymour would strongly denounce Parham’s views (based on a blatant conflation of final punishment with the intermediate state setting of Luke 16:19-31) and even hint that annihilationists themselves might wind up in hell:2“Annihilation of the Wicked,” The Apostolic Faith, January 1907.

Many people today do not believe in an everlasting hell; but we read in the precious Word of God that the Lord Jesus taught it . . . We can see that there is no annihilation in God’s Word for the wicked, but there is a blazing and burning hell awaiting them . . . Hell, no doubt, is millions of miles from heaven, but yet the rich man, we find, had good clear eyesight. He had the sense of hearing, taste, feeling, and his memory was perfect. He could recognize Lazarus and talk with Abraham and beg him to let Lazarus come with a drop of water for his tongue. If the doctrine of annihilation were true, then this rich man would have been burned into ashes, and there would be no more of him. But we see in the Word of God, that Jesus taught a burning hell . . . Many who have preached a no-hell Gospel will find out better when they die and come to the judgment, just as this man died, and in hell lifted up his eyes . . . This man may have been like many today that do not believe in everlasting hell, but in the annihilation of the wicked; but he now sees that there is a burning hell.

Despite his waning influence and succession to Seymour, the role that Parham played remains important today. According to one source, “However historians may view Charles F. Parham, he holds a very significant place in modern church history, and to those within the rank and file of the Apostolic Faith, will always view him as the original projector of the modern movement.”3See the Apostolic Archives, http://www.apostolicarchives.com/articles/article/8801925/173160.htm, accessed on July 1, 2019. It’s not the purpose of this brief article to delve any further into that history, or to measure Parham’s precise historical importance or weigh his credentials. Those things aren’t of any direct relevant to our movement today. Instead, we hope to simply make more widely known the fact of Parham’s annihilationism, for whatever that might be worth to our fellow evangelicals. At the very least, we know that our Pentecostal readers will appreciate hearing about this largely forgotten fact.4I am indebted to my friend Gerald W Beene Jr. for pointing out to me that Parham held to annihilationism.

What did Charles Fox Parham believe about hell and immortality?

Let’s take a look at what Parham believed, in his own words.

Firstly, we should note that Parham’s openness to experiencing manifestations of the Holy Spirit was not at odds with a strong commitment to biblical teaching and the centrality of Christ and the gospel. On the contrary, the early Pentecostal movement maintained an apostasy narrative regarding mainstream churches that drove interest in recovering not only the experiences of the early church, but also its teachings.

For Parham, one significant error of church tradition was “the native immortality of the soul instead of immortality through Christ alone, as clearly set forth in the Scriptures,” which he was dismayed to see creeping in to the movement he generally celebrated:5Charles F. Parham, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Author’s Preface to the Second Edition, 1910.

The Apostolic Faith Movement has circled the globe . . . many multiplied thousands have not only heard the old time gospel of saving grace, but have witnessed a return in great measure to the apostolic faith . . . Nevertheless there is much to be regretted . . . remnants of dead creeds and worn out doctrines of men that have deluged the people from the beginning of the dark ages until now, have been dragged into this movement and made to receive the stamp, Apostolic. Eminent men who have been converted from their creed bound, earth-born religious organizations have been instrumental in this. The preaching of the native immortality of the soul instead of immortality through Christ alone, as clearly set forth in the Scriptures, unbalances the scales of God’s justice, in distributing rewards and punishments . . . The redemption of the body for which we who are in this tabernacle do groan, has been glossed over and neglected almost to rejection entirely.

Parham was all the more dismayed at this because he had been buoyed by the return and rise of conditional immortality in his day:6Charles F. Parham, The Everlasting Gospel, p135.

The teaching of conditional immortality and destruction of the wicked is taught by . . . thousands of Christians, including many ministers, in all the churches . . . A noted English clergyman says, “I do not know an intelligent clergyman of the Episcopal Church, in England, who believes in the eternal torment of the wicked.” The Bible does not teach such an unbelievable lie, and no one can charge God with having such a revengeful attributed of character. The Bible everywhere teaches death, destruction, etc. To give the sinner eternal life, in any condition, destroys the necessity of Christ.

By this last point, Parham shows that he understood the deep connection between conditional immortality and the saving work of Jesus Christ:7ibid., p109.

If eternal torment is the wages of sin, then Christ has never paid the penalty, and we are all lost, but if death is the wages of sin, Christ has made full and complete propitiation for our sins. If all men have eternal life, whether in Heaven or Hell, it would be impossible to receive it as a gift through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The teaching that all men have immortal souls denies the Divinity of Christ, makes Him a liar and an imposter, and all His claims to bring life and immortality to men through His death are false.

Parham here alludes to the important text of 2 Timothy 1:10, which teaches that the good news of “life and immortality” was made possible since Christ abolished death. To him, the undermining of such a clear teaching justifies strong condemnation, and was also associated with the ongoing reformational dispute of grace versus works:8ibid., p109-110, 129

The teaching that all men have immortal souls has rendered possible the deplorable state of modern churchanity. Formerly, all evangelical Christians demanded of each candidate, that they be truly born again . . . Now they have also fallen in with the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian methods, taken into membership any who are willing to subscribe to their creeds, who promise to be faithful in their attendance and in financial aid. As they are already immortal beings all they need is a respectable moral life and doing the best they can . . .

If a man possesses inherent immortality, Christ’s life and sacrificial death were entirely unnecessary. If God so loved the world that He desired all men to enjoy Heaven with Him in Eternity, He need not have given His only begotten Son, but sent them godly or moralizing teachers, who could have instructed them, how to be too good to go to hell, so that God would be compelled to take them into Heaven. At the judgment, God could have simply separated the good ones from the bad ones, taken part to Heaven and sent part to hell. In a word, the teaching that everyone has an immortal soul denies Christ and makes Him an unnecessary factor in the plan of Salvation.

Orthodoxy freely admits that we only have eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord, but immediately gives a lie to the whole thing by telling the sinner that He has eternal life and can never die . . . Orthodoxy would freely admit most of the claim of those who believe in Conditional Immortality, that man only has life in Jesus Christ, but when this teaching would necessitate the destruction of the wicked, all Rome and her daughters set up a howl, for since the days of early Catholicism down to the present time, the theologians of all churches have rejoiced in the thought that God would eternally torment all who did not accept their interpretations of the Scriptures . . . By no possible twisting of the English language could you make the words death, destruction, perish, used universally in the Bible relative to the wicked, to mean eternal torment.

While we at Rethinking Hell don’t express such concerns in the same harsh terms, Parham’s essential point is worth noting: if eternal torment rather than death is what Christ rescues us from, how can this account for Christ’s death being the penalty that he took upon himself as our substitute? Parham’s and our criticism that eternal torment tends to minimize or ignore the central role of death in the gospel, applies equally to the minimizing of resurrection, or as Parham lamented in a quote further above, to neglecting the need for bodily redemption (Rom 8:23). He saw that belief in eternal torment and inherent immortality logically affected other doctrines, and hoped that Conditional Immortality might yet establish itself as the biblical remedy:9ibid., p107-8.

The doctrine of “Conditional Immortality” is not a new theory but if adopted, would revolutionize all so-called Orthodox creeds and doctrines. Unless you accept this doctrine as the basic foundation on which to build the superstructure of all other doctrines, the whole Bible becomes a maze of contradictions and lies. Orthodoxy teaches that all men have Eternal Life, either in Heaven or Hell, but we teach that man can only obtain Eternal Life and Immortality through the “new birth” . . .  Conditional Immortality teaches that Adam was a perfect human being, without Immortality, that had he obeyed God, He would have continued to live forever, a human being in Eden. When Adam fell, he lost his physical life, and the privilege of everlasting existence. The entire Scriptures agree that Christ died to restore the human race to what was lost in Adam . . . Everlasting Life in the new Earth to all that are found worthy in the judgment. He is especially the Savior for those that accept Him in the new birth and obtain His life for their life, for spirit, soul, and body, making them worthy of Immortality at the resurrection and the glorified elect in eternity.

Parham’s understanding of Conditional Immortality thus included what today is called New Creation Theology, which places the emphasis on God liberating creation from decay, leading into a new heavens and earth, rather than a final split into heaven and hell (and transportation of people to those respective locations). He therefore understood the physical resurrection of the unsaved and their subsequent judgment to lead into the biblical teaching of Gehenna, which references an earthly location:10ibid., p127, 9; 131-2.

Orthodoxy teaches that multiplied millions, unjudged, are already in Hell. This is impossible; no one is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone until after the Resurrection and the White Throne Judgment . . . The lake of brimstone will cease to exist when it has consumed the wicked, for the ashes of the wicked are to be trodden under foot of the meek, who shall inherit the new earth. The wicked will be destroyed on this earth at the close of the judgment. The fires that purify this old world will destroy the wicked and make this world a Paradise for the righteous . . . After the final judgment the wicked are cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, which is the second death. The first death causes cessation of life in this world, the second death will cause a cessation of life in eternity. Hell, as a place of destruction, will be right here upon the earth. The purifying fires will burn them as rubbish, paving the way for the Paradise of God.

With continuing life in the world as a reference point, Parham responded to his critics who charged that such a destruction at Gehenna would not count as an eternal punishment. He rightly noted that eternal punishment is to be understood as the denial of the reward of eternal life, and therefore a final punishment of destruction is properly eternal since destruction denies life in an ongoing manner:11ibid., p129.

Another much used Scripture to prove eternal torment, is the sentence pronounced by Jesus, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous to life eternal.” This passage does not read punishment everlasting, as the orthodox would teach it, but everlasting punishment. When a man is hung for a crime, he receives everlasting punishment, as far as this world is concerned. When the wicked are destroyed in the lake of fire and brimstone, that is everlasting punishment, as far as eternity is concerned.

There is much in Parham’s approach to this subject that we as Evangelical Conditionalists might agree with. Despite his strongly-stated criticisms of the traditional/orthodox view of eternal torment, he was also able to temper his views for the sake of unity and dialogue. He had more to say than we are able to cover in a brief survey, but given the charge of his critics that he denied hell altogether, which is a charge we also sometimes face, it will be fitting to end with how he responded:12ibid., p127.

It is not my purpose to enter into any lengthy discussion regarding this subject; everywhere it is being discussed, pro and con, and those who are unprejudiced or teachable will be able to weigh both sides of the question and form their own conclusions. Among the awful charges that have ever been brought against me, perhaps the one most vehemently announced and maliciously peddled is that I am a “no-Hellite,” which is absolutely false, for I believe in a Hell hotter than orthodoxy teaches. One that utterly destroys the wicked. Destruction would satisfy all that justice demands, and God, if He be a God of Love, Justice, and Mercy, could ask no more than the wages of sin, which is death.

References
1 “The Apostolic Faith Movement Headquarters, Los Angeles.”
2 “Annihilation of the Wicked,” The Apostolic Faith, January 1907.
3 See the Apostolic Archives, http://www.apostolicarchives.com/articles/article/8801925/173160.htm, accessed on July 1, 2019.
4 I am indebted to my friend Gerald W Beene Jr. for pointing out to me that Parham held to annihilationism.
5 Charles F. Parham, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Author’s Preface to the Second Edition, 1910.
6 Charles F. Parham, The Everlasting Gospel, p135.
7 ibid., p109.
8 ibid., p109-110, 129
9 ibid., p107-8.
10 ibid., p127, 9; 131-2.
11 ibid., p129.
12 ibid., p127.

Death or Eternal Suffering—Which One Reveals How Much Jesus Loves You? (A Response to Timothy Keller)

Timothy Keller is a widely respected Christian pastor and much-needed public voice. But even our best and brightest are prone to saying questionable things due to the implications of their doctrine of hell. A case in point is Pastor Keller’s recent tweet: “Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.” This statement proved to be quite controversial, leading Keller in subsequent tweets and comments to seek to clarify what he had meant.

Now, to those like myself who believed for decades that the Bible taught a hell of eternal torment, Keller’s statement doesn’t seem controversial at all. It hits all the right notes for conservative evangelicals, and just feels appropriately pious and true. It’s one of those statements you whip out when you want to defend hell from its liberal or postmodern detractors. There are many variations on the theme—to do with God’s love, glory, holiness, or even His willingness to defer to the sinner’s own desires—but in each case the basic formula is the notion that the worse hell looks, the better God looks by contrast.

For example, if you think that the idea of a loving Creator tormenting people should cause us to raise at least one eyebrow, simply realize that people in hell are tormenting themselves, and you’ll soon feel much better about the whole thing. In time, you will see that God is really being magnanimous for giving them a separate place to do so. You know, forever.

Continue reading “Death or Eternal Suffering—Which One Reveals How Much Jesus Loves You? (A Response to Timothy Keller)”

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 anyone rise physically from the dead, like Jesus did? Will everyone rise from the dead—or only the saved? And if all will rise, 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”

References
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).

Three Biblical Arguments Against Universalism

Below are three biblical arguments against universalism (and an extra one for further reading!). While they offer more than simple proof texts, it would take a much longer article to develop them more fully. Even so, I trust that you will find them useful and persuasive. Let’s first look at some relevant context, and then dive into the arguments themselves.

Personal eschatology—the study of the final fate of human beings—should be embedded within cosmic eschatology, the study of the final state of God’s created order. God is redeeming the cosmos, and human beings within it (see Rom 8:18-25). Universalists and conditionalists both agree that God will redeem the cosmos as a whole. But universalists also claim that God will eventually redeem every human being that will have ever lived, while our claim as conditionalists is that God’s work of “new creation” purposefully excludes some human beings. Despite knowing enough about the immortal God and realizing that they ultimately deserve death, they still reject him (Rom 1:18-23; 32). They disobey the gospel (1 Pet 4:17; 2 Thess 1:8; Rom 10:16), and so fail to respond obediently in repentance and faith to the knowledge of God and his offer of salvation (Acts 6:7; Rom 1:5; 16:26). They love sin rather than goodness, themselves rather than God, and are “disqualified regarding the faith” (John 3:20; 2 Tim 3:2-8).

Continue reading “Three Biblical Arguments Against Universalism”

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. 2:16), 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 against using qualifiers like “physical” and “biological” if they can be avoided, since they can imply an unhelpful dichotomy with a so-called “spiritual death.” They 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 well after the crime was committed, and is handed down in a courtroom after a formal process to convict. 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”

References
1 I recommend against using qualifiers like “physical” and “biological” if they can be avoided, since they can imply an unhelpful dichotomy with a so-called “spiritual death.” They 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.

“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”

The Annihilation of Hell? A Response to Alan Gomes

Back in 1991, when hardly anyone had discovered the internet, anti-cult author and Biola university professor Dr. Alan W. Gomes wrote “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell,” a two-part article (see Part 1 and Part 2) for The Christian Research Journal.1Alan W. Gomes, “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell,” Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, pp. 14ff. and Summer 1991, pp 8ff. Those familiar with the debate over hell will recognize that things have moved on since then. Responding now could seem a little anachronistic. After all, Dr. Gomes can hardly be faulted for not interacting with more recent writings by evangelical conditionalists.

However, like J. I. Packer’s critical review from 1997, Dr. Gomes’ article is still doing the rounds, suggesting that a belated response may be warranted. My intention will not be to find fault with Dr. Gomes himself, but for practical reasons I will proceed as if Dr. Gomes had been apprised of the clear statements and arguments of today’s evangelical conditionalists. He at least had access to the pre-1991 contributions of evangelical conditionalists such as Edward Fudge and the late John Stott, with whom we are in substantial agreement. This interaction with a decades-long dialogue then should hopefully be instructive, perhaps even taking us all a little further. Continue reading “The Annihilation of Hell? A Response to Alan Gomes”

References
1 Alan W. Gomes, “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell,” Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, pp. 14ff. and Summer 1991, pp 8ff.

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

Our conditionalist reading is that the glorious presence and power of the Lord directly causes the punishment of “destruction,” which is indeed “everlasting” as 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”