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

Perish the Thought Part 3: Revisiting John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”1Unless otherwise indicated all quotes of the Bible will be from the ESV. On occasions when I am discussing relevant Greek words and phrasing I may provide my own rendering but this is not intended to suggest errors on the part of the ESV.

I love John’s Gospel.

The reason for this is simple. Somehow, despite penning his narrative with relatively easy to read Greek, John was able to express his theology in profound ways. On nearly every rereading of his narrative I find something new jumping out at me. This is the case with John 11:25-26. I have, in the past, spent some time thinking about these verses and made a few observations here and here.

Since then, I have become more aware of studies into the Greek verbal aspect and how this affects the way we interpret Scripture. I have even attempted to apply this knowledge to my exegesis of Jude 7, which you can read here. Just a few weeks ago a debate was conducted between James White and Leighton Flowers over whether John 6:44 teaches unconditional election.2The debate can be found here. I have very little interest in this debate, but one claim White made about John’s use of the present tense with reference to true believers received some attention by a few Greek scholars who believe this argument betrays a misunderstanding of Greek verbal aspect.3For a brief discussion of the verbal aspect as it relates to his controversy over Greek aspect in the White vs Flowers debate see here. This prompted me to reflect on John’s use of the present tense with reference to believers throughout his narrative. This led me to greater clarity on how John expressed his conviction that not all will accept Jesus and will become immortal. It also gave me insight into how John characterizes those who do reject Jesus and why that is disastrous for them.

Given my past study of John 11:25-26, I was already aware that John used participles in the present tense there. Verse 25 has πιστεύων (pisteuōn, ‘believing’) and verse 26 has two participles, ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’) and πιστεύων (pisteuōn, ‘believing’). Greek participles are complex and I do not have space to describe all the ways they can be used in the Bible.4For those who are interested in introductions to Greek participles can follow the link here and here. It is sufficient to note that the participles I am discussing here are substantive, which means they are acting like a noun. In John 11:25 ὁ πιστεύων (ho pisteuōn) simply means ‘the believing one’ or ‘the one who believes’, (though the ESV has ‘whoever believes’, which is acceptable).5The word ὁ (ho) is just an article that means ‘the’. Its use here is how we know that πιστεύων (pisteuōn, ‘living’) must be acting like a noun here. This is followed by εἰς ἐμὲ (eis eme), which simply means ‘unto me’.

This is where things get interesting. The participle, πιστεύων (pisteuōn) is from the verb πιστεύω (pisteuō), which means ‘to trust’. In his narrative, one of the common ways that John refers to genuine believers is to use a particular construction that utilizes the verb πιστεύω (pisteuō). I shall let some respected NT scholars explain.

Leon Morris,

A very important construction and one that John uses often is that in which he follows the verb “believe” with the preposition eis, which normally means “into”. It is interesting that John uses this preposition rather than en, “in”. In English we normally speak of believing “in” Jesus rather than believing “into” him, but John prefers the more dynamic expression.6Leon Morris, Jesus Is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1989), 179.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that when John uses the expression pisteuein eis, he is conveying the idea of wholehearted trust in Jesus Christ.7Ibid., 180.

Murray J. Harris,

This distinctive prep. phrase “believe in” depicts the total committal of one’s total self to the person of Christ as Messiah and Lord, something more than an intellectual acceptance of the message of the gospel and a recognition of the truth about Christ, although these aspects are involved. For John, belief involves not only recognition and acceptance of the truth but also adherence and allegiance to Jesus as the Truth (14: 6).8Murray J. Harris, John, Kindle ed., (B&H Publishing Group: 2015), Kindle locations 1647-1650.

It is not that John always used this construction, since John did use the formula with the dative in John 3:15 (ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ, ho pisteuōn en autō, ‘whoever believes in him’). He can even express the idea of wholehearted trust without the use of a preposition at all (e.g. John 5:24, 38; 8:31). John also can combine πιστεύω (pisteuō) with ὅτι (hoti, ‘that’) to refer to facts that are believed (e.g. John 9:18; 11:26; 16:27; 20:31) or in contexts where giving intellectual credence to a statement is in view (e.g. John 2:22; 5: 24, 38, 50; 8: 31).9Ibid., Kindle locations 1640-1643. One could even come to believe through a witness (John 1:7). Nevertheless, John’s frequent use of the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction stands out as a way he emphasized those who have wholehearted trust in Christ.10There are variations of the construction where it might refer to believing unto his name (John 1:12; 2:23) the Son (3:18; 5:40), Son of Man (9:35), Jesus (12:11), the Light (12:36). Jesus often might simply say ‘believe in me’ (6:35; 7:38; 12:44, 46; 14:1, 12; 16:9; 17:20) or the variation ‘believe in him’) might be used (John as narrator can use this variation but Jesus does as well, see 2:11; 3:16; 4:39; 6:29; 7:38; 12:37, 42.

I wish to point out that in John, believing in Jesus–in the sense of believing propositions about him–is just as important for obtaining eternal life as believing unto him (having wholehearted trust in him). This is seen at various places in John’s narrative. For instance, in John 3, after Nicodemus becomes confused about Jesus’s teaching on the need to be born again, Jesus admonishes him asking, ‘ If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ (3:12). Here the verb πιστεύω (pisteuō) is not used as part of the the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction here. In this context Jesus is talking about understanding and accepting as true propositions he makes about earthly and spiritual things. It is important that Nicodemus does accept Jesus’s claims as being true. Shortly after this, Jesus teaches that wholehearted trust in him (believing unto him) is how one obtains eternal life (3:15-16, 18, 36). Jesus will go on to emphasize the same point using the variations of believing (6:47), believing in Jesus (5:24) and believing unto him (6:40). Believing Jesus’s teachings and wholehearted trust in him are how one obtains eternal life.

This comes together in John 11:25-27. When Jesus says ‘Whoever believes in me’ (11:25) and ‘everyone who … believes in me’ (11:26) he is using the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction. Jesus is stating that those who have wholehearted trust in him will be resurrected and will never die forever.11Since I have published my article where I discuss the meaning of οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (ou mē apothanē eis ton aiōna) in John 11:26 I have vacillated between my own reading of the clause and Glenn Peoples’s reading of it. I find his reading (‘not be dead forever’) very attractive as John would then be presenting a strong contrast between eternal life as living forever and the fate of being dead forever. That would fit very well with the CI reading of Matthew 25:46 as presenting eternal life as living forever in contrast with an eternal punishment that amounts to the eternal privation of life. Alas, I am not quite there yet, as I still see elements in John that make me think that my reading of οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (ou mē apothanē eis ton aiōna) is to be preferred. At the end of verse 26 Jesus asks Martha if she believes what he has just said. This does not involve the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction but is the simple use of the verb in the question ‘Do you believe this?’ (πιστεύεις τοῦτο;, pisteueis touto?). Likewise, Martha’s reply (11:27) does not use the πιστεύω + εἰς construction. Instead, Martha emphatically says ‘“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God’. The verb πιστεύω (pisteuō) is used in the perfect active indicative form. This ‘denotes a present state of firm, settled belief, with the previous act of believing implied.’12Murray J. Harris, John, Kindle ed., (B&H Publishing Group: 2015), Kindle locations 1647-1650), Kindle locations, 7004-7007. Carson explains that this ‘reflects the state of her confident trust… Her faith is a rich mixture of personal trust … and of confidence that certain things about Jesus are true’.13D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Kindle ed., (Eerdmans Publishing: 1991), Kindle locations, 8633-18081. This shows that believing in the sense of accepting what Jesus says about himself and believing in the sense of wholehearted trust in him go hand in hand as part of what it means to be a true believer. Though Jesus will later have to remind her of this (11:40), in 11:25-27, John characterizes Martha as one who properly responds to Jesus.

In contrast, John does not characterize all who interact with Jesus in this way. In the Prologue (John 1:1-18) to his narrative where he introduces the main points of his Gospel, he makes it clear that not all received him when Jesus came to them (1:11). Those who did receive him are also described as those who “believe unto” his name (1:12). This qualification is the first use of the the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction (τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, tois pisteuousin eis to onoma autou, ‘the ones believeing in his name’) in John and it shows that he viewed the reception and rejection of Jesus in terms of believe and trust in him. If one receives Jesus one believes him and has wholehearted trust in him. If one rejects Jesus then one has chosen to disbelieve him so has not placed wholehearted trust in him.

As the narrative unfolds, John presents characters which exemplify this negative response to Jesus. In John 5, certain Jews had decided to kill Jesus ‘because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God’ (5:18). Later in the same chapter Jesus tells his listeners that though they seek eternal life in the Scripture (5:39), they in fact ‘refuse to come to me that you may have life’ (5:40). They are people who outright refuse to receive Jesus (5:43) and so it is questioned whether they can believe (5:44) the witnesses regarding who Jesus is. Jesus ends with a scathing appraisal on the listeners,

Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? (5:45-47)

Since there is no indication of a change of audience between John 5:18 and 5:33-47, it is safe to say that Jesus is continuing to address the Jews. These Jews do not believe in the sense of accepting the validity of claims about Jesus. This characterisation of the Jewish interlocutors as those who do not receive Jesus and do not believe him follows Jesus’s teaching on the resurrection (5:24-30).

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.

Unlike John 11:25-26, Jesus explicitly says not all will be resurrected to life. Whereas in 11:25 the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction is used, in 5:24 Jesus says ‘whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me’. In this case John uses the πιστεύω (pisteuō ) + dative noun construction,14The Greek used is ὁ τὸν λόγον μου ἀκούων καὶ πιστεύων τῷ πέμψαντί με (ho ton logon mou akouōn kai pisteuōn tō pempsanti me). ‘Hearing’ (ἀκούων, akouōn) and ‘believing’ (πιστεύων, pisteuōn) are governed by the one article, so ‘hearing and believing’ describes the one person, not one person who hears and another person who believes. which means ‘give intellectual credence to’. This is a reference to the Father, which is not at all surprising given Jesus can impart life to others because, like the Father, he has life in himself (5:21, 26). In this context, the Father is a witness testifying to who Jesus really is (5:37), but Jesus also has the same authority to execute judgment as his Father (5:27). Not all will be resurrected to life; some will only be resurrected to judgment. It is not surprising that John does teach there is a resurrection to judgment since he has already told the Jews who opposed him in 8:21-24 that they would die in their sins if they failed to believe that he is I AM (i.e. God). This means John 11:25-26 presupposes that not all will believe Jesus and wholeheartedly trust him, so not all will be resurrected as believing and living people who will never die again.

As his narrative unfolds, John reminds his audience that not all believe and trust Jesus. While speaking to a crowd about the life found in him, Jesus states that they do not believe (6:35). Using the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction, he restates his message that those who wholeheartedly trust him will ‘have eternal life’. He ‘will raise him up on the last day’ (6:40). Some in the crowd complain (6:41) as do the disciples (6:67) at his claim to be the source of life. Clearly not all believed (6:64). Many disciples turned their back on him (6:66), though the twelve continue to believe him (6:68-69). One of the major points developed in John 6 is not all will believe and wholeheartedly trust Jesus.

In chapter 10 Jesus again tells the Jews that they do not believe him (10:24-26). Though several of them will come to place their trust in Jesus (see 10:42; 11:45 where the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction is used) there are others who continue to act in direct opposition to Jesus. There are Jews who report to the Pharisees who, along with the chief priests determine to have Jesus killed in order to prevent more people from placing wholehearted trust in him (11:46-48, the πιστεύω + εἰς (pisteuō + eimi) construction is used again: πάντες πιστεύσουσιν εἰς αὐτόν, pantes pisteusousin eis auton, ‘everyone will believe in him’). We are back at chapter 11 where Martha has been characterized as one who properly responds to Jesus with belief and trust. In this same chapter the Jewish leadership is characterized as those who not only refuse to believe and trust Jesus but seek to prevent others from doing so. John thus presents the characters in his narrative in such a way that he made it clear not all will come to believe Jesus and have wholehearted trust in him. This means that not all will be resurrected as living people who will never die again.

This is not the only way that John uses negative characterization to teach that not all will believe and trust Jesus. In certain places he emphasizes that some will face judgment. Though Jesus does state that he did not come to judge but to save (3:17; 12:47), there is good reason to think there is a time when those who reject him will be judged by him (5:22, 27, 29-30; 12:48), not because he brought them condemnation but because they were already condemned (3:18). Just as John characterizes certain interactions with Jesus as examples of true belief and wholehearted trust he also makes it clear that those rejecting Jesus are in some sense already condemned. One of the clearer statements that people do reject Jesus falls in John 3:17-21.

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God. (Emphasis added.)

Jesus is saying the verdict is already in (αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ κρίσις, hautē de estin hē krisis, ‘this is the judgment’). There are those who love the darkness and not him. This resembles the Prologue to John’s Gospel where we are told that ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him’ (1:5-11). John 3:18 connects wholehearted trust in Jesus (ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν, ho pisteuōn eis auton) with this verdict. ‘Those who do not believe are already condemned’ (ὁ … μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ho… mē pisteuōn ēdē kekritai). This is not a separate judgment from the one that will take place after the resurrection. It is a rhetorical way of talking about a future event as if it is happening in the present. This literary device is called prolepsis. An excellent example of prolepsis can be found in John Keats’s poem entitled “Isabella” (1820),15See also Joseph Dear’s article on prolepsis.

So the two brothers and their murdered man
Rode past fair Florence

Needless to say, it would be quite alarming if people argued that Keats had in mind a ‘spiritual’ kind of murder because the murdered man is alive whilst riding with the two brothers. The literary device is proleptic in the way it anticipates the future assassination of a still-living character through the use of the past tense (‘rode’). It is a reference to the man as having already been “murdered” (his future fate) at a time when that fate had not yet befallen him. John uses the same kind of literary device when he speaks of a person already having eternal life (3:16, 36, 5:24; 6:47) or being condemned (3:18). The decision to reject Christ now means the wrath of God remains on a person (3:36) and so anticipates the future judgment as if it is a present reality.

In light of this, Jesus’s affirmation that those who “believe unto” him will be resurrected as living ones cannot be seen to apply to all who are resurrected. John did not think all would come to believe and trust in Jesus; therefore, the statement that resurrected believers would be living people who would never die forever cannot apply to those who reject him. To be sure, everyone will be resurrected (5:25, 28-29a). However, John makes a distinction between those who have done good and those who have done evil. Only believers will rise to the resurrection of life (5:29).

Returning to the use of the present tense in John 11:25-26, from a verbal aspect point of view the present tense of the participles ‘lives’ (ζῶν, zōn) and ‘believes’ (πιστεύων, pisteuōn) convey the sense of progression.16See this link for a decent introduction to Greek verbal aspect. That is, the point of view presented by John with the use of the present tense is one of an ongoing process. It is like watching a parade on the television. You don’t see the parade as a whole, but the continual passing by of the participants in the parade. This is why I am always tempted to translate ζῶν (zōn) as ‘living one’ and πιστεύων (pisteuōn) as ‘believing one’, though that can read awkwardly in English. The perspective of an ongoing process provided by the present tense participles makes me think of life in a dynamic sense. Since ζῶν (zōn) and πιστεύων (pisteuōn) are participles that are functioning like nouns they tell you something about the person as one who is actively and ongoingly believing and living. To be sure, John does use other tenses with reference to true believers,17For example, see the use of the aorist tense in the following verses John 1:7; 2:11, 22-23; 4:39, 41, 50, 53, 5:44; 8:24, 30-31; 10:42; 11:15; 11:40, 45; 17:8; 20:8; 20:29. but he chose to use the present tense in 11:25-26, and that does add a nuance to the statement that believers who die and are resurrected are actively living and believing forever.

The use of ὁ ζῶν καὶ πιστεύων (ho zōn kai pisteuōn) in 11:26 is interesting for another reason. John could have just said that those who believe will die, be resurrected (11:25), and live forever (11:26). The inclusion of πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ (eis eme pisteuōn, ‘believing unto me’) in 11:26 is surprising because we tend to assume that belief in the eschaton is unnecessary as we will already be saved. But John is emphasizing how we will continue to have wholehearted trust in him after our resurrection. You die entrusting him with your fate and you will be resurrected as one who will forever be that kind of person.

Why add ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’)? After all, οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (ou mē apothanē eis ton aiōna, ‘never die forever’) sufficiently communicates the idea that resurrected believers will be immortal. In John 4 ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’) is used when Jesus tells a Samaritan woman who could obtain living water (4:10).18The participle ζῶν (zōn, ’living’) is being used as an adjective here but this does not alter what may be drawn from its use here. The idea of ‘living water’ could very well have to do with purification since moving water tends to become clean.19My lecturer at Bible College suggested this in our exegetical class on John 4. However, drinking ‘living water’ means one ‘will never be thirsty again’ as it will be ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ 4:14). The language behind never thirsting again is the οὐ μὴ + εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (ou mē + ton aiōna) construction that is used in John 11:26 to express the idea of never dying forever. This living water will eternally flow from the resurrected believer so that person will be immortal (see also John 7:38). In John 6, Jesus talks about how he is the living bread (6:48-51). He is living because of the living Father (6:57), who has life in himself and has granted that Jesus has life in himself (5:26). Jesus is thus the way one can live forever (6:51). Coming back to John 11:26, by describing resurrected believers as ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’), John emphasizes that we will be living in the same way as the Father and Jesus are now ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’). It is noteworthy that John refrains from referring to genuine believers who have not yet been resurrected as ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’) people. So, while it it is true that all will indeed come alive at the final resurrection, only believers who have died and resurrected as believers will be resurrected as ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’) people. According to John, those of us who have genuine faith and trust in Christ have eternal life now in a proleptic sense but this will only be realized for us when we are resurrected as immortal people.

If believers are resurrected so they are ζῶν (zōn, ‘living’) people who will never die, what did John think would eventually happen to those who will be resurrected to judgment (5:29)? John 15 gives us a clue. Early in this chapter, Jesus describes one who fails to remain in him (15:1-6).

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Using an extended vine metaphor, Jesus tells his disciples that those who chose to not remain in him are like unproductive branches.20I realize there are people who will argue that this passage does not have to do with the final fate of the lost, but the point of the metaphor is to at least describe what happens to those who do not bear fruit and do not choose to remain in Jesus. The vine metaphor is from the Old Testament where the vine stands for Israel herself.21See, for instance, Isa. 5:1-7; 27:2-6; cf. Ps. 80:8-16; Jer. 2:21; 6:9; 12:10-13; Ez. 15:1-8; 17:5-10; 19:10-14; Hos. 10:1-2; 14:7. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Baker Publishing Group: 2007), 491) Andreas j. Köstenberger observes that John transforms this into a metaphor about Jesus.

whereas the vine’s purpose of existence is to bear fruit for its owner, references to Israel as God’s vine regularly stress Israel’s failure to produce good fruit, issuing in divine judgment … In contrast to Israel’s failure, Jesus claims to be the “true vine,” bringing forth the fruit Israel failed to produce. Thus Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, fulfills Israel’s destiny as the true vine of God…22Ibid.

Notice how he says ‘whoever abide in me’ (he uses the present participle here, ὁ μένων ἐν ἐμοὶ, ho menōn en emoi) is the one who who bears fruit. However, not abiding in Jesus means one is discarded and withers (15:6). The word behind ‘withers’ is ξηραίνω, which when used with the passive voice (as it is here) means ‘become dry’ or ‘dry up’.23William Arndt, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (University of Chicago: 2000), 684. Is it interesting that John also uses the aorist tense here, which does not convey any idea of the process of drying out. The branch that is detached from the vine is a dead and dry stick. This is the opposite of being those believers who have living water flowing out of them so they themselves are truly living. The wordplay between ‘takes away’ (αἴρω, airei) and ‘prunes’ (καθαίρω, kathairei) helps contrast those who bear fruit and those who do not. Contrary to the universalist position that all will eventually be purified, Jesus is saying that those who remain in him will be ‘cleansed’ (this is a connotation of pruning a plant, though not one which can be pressed too far in this context). This is not what happens to those who fail to bear fruit. Those people are dead and so will be discarded and disposed of in a fire.

All that I discuss above is relevant for how we should interpret John 3:16.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

If believing and trusting Jesus means we become living people instead of becoming dried out branches that are disposed of in a fire, then we have another good reason to think that ‘perish’ (ἀπόλλυμι, apollumi) really does refer to the actual death of those who reject him. Daniel Wallace states that the use of πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων (pas ho pisteuōn; Wallace translates this as ‘everyone who believes’) in John 3:16 should be regarded as a statement of a general and timeless truth (which he calls “gnomic”).24Daniel Wallcace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Zondervan: 1996) 620. As such, this verse is the perfect verse for conditionalists to cite as a summary of John’s conviction that eternal life can only be obtained through Jesus with the implication that not everyone will finally escape death. As such, this is a prooftext that conditionalists can cite in discussions with both universalists and traditionalists.

 

References
1 Unless otherwise indicated all quotes of the Bible will be from the ESV. On occasions when I am discussing relevant Greek words and phrasing I may provide my own rendering but this is not intended to suggest errors on the part of the ESV.
2 The debate can be found here.
3 For a brief discussion of the verbal aspect as it relates to his controversy over Greek aspect in the White vs Flowers debate see here.
4 For those who are interested in introductions to Greek participles can follow the link here and here.
5 The word ὁ (ho) is just an article that means ‘the’. Its use here is how we know that πιστεύων (pisteuōn, ‘living’) must be acting like a noun here.
6 Leon Morris, Jesus Is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1989), 179.
7 Ibid., 180.
8 Murray J. Harris, John, Kindle ed., (B&H Publishing Group: 2015), Kindle locations 1647-1650.
9 Ibid., Kindle locations 1640-1643.
10 There are variations of the construction where it might refer to believing unto his name (John 1:12; 2:23) the Son (3:18; 5:40), Son of Man (9:35), Jesus (12:11), the Light (12:36). Jesus often might simply say ‘believe in me’ (6:35; 7:38; 12:44, 46; 14:1, 12; 16:9; 17:20) or the variation ‘believe in him’) might be used (John as narrator can use this variation but Jesus does as well, see 2:11; 3:16; 4:39; 6:29; 7:38; 12:37, 42.
11 Since I have published my article where I discuss the meaning of οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (ou mē apothanē eis ton aiōna) in John 11:26 I have vacillated between my own reading of the clause and Glenn Peoples’s reading of it. I find his reading (‘not be dead forever’) very attractive as John would then be presenting a strong contrast between eternal life as living forever and the fate of being dead forever. That would fit very well with the CI reading of Matthew 25:46 as presenting eternal life as living forever in contrast with an eternal punishment that amounts to the eternal privation of life. Alas, I am not quite there yet, as I still see elements in John that make me think that my reading of οὐ μὴ ἀποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (ou mē apothanē eis ton aiōna) is to be preferred.
12 Murray J. Harris, John, Kindle ed., (B&H Publishing Group: 2015), Kindle locations 1647-1650), Kindle locations, 7004-7007.
13 D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Kindle ed., (Eerdmans Publishing: 1991), Kindle locations, 8633-18081.
14 The Greek used is ὁ τὸν λόγον μου ἀκούων καὶ πιστεύων τῷ πέμψαντί με (ho ton logon mou akouōn kai pisteuōn tō pempsanti me). ‘Hearing’ (ἀκούων, akouōn) and ‘believing’ (πιστεύων, pisteuōn) are governed by the one article, so ‘hearing and believing’ describes the one person, not one person who hears and another person who believes.
15 See also Joseph Dear’s article on prolepsis.
16 See this link for a decent introduction to Greek verbal aspect.
17 For example, see the use of the aorist tense in the following verses John 1:7; 2:11, 22-23; 4:39, 41, 50, 53, 5:44; 8:24, 30-31; 10:42; 11:15; 11:40, 45; 17:8; 20:8; 20:29.
18 The participle ζῶν (zōn, ’living’) is being used as an adjective here but this does not alter what may be drawn from its use here.
19 My lecturer at Bible College suggested this in our exegetical class on John 4.
20 I realize there are people who will argue that this passage does not have to do with the final fate of the lost, but the point of the metaphor is to at least describe what happens to those who do not bear fruit and do not choose to remain in Jesus.
21 See, for instance, Isa. 5:1-7; 27:2-6; cf. Ps. 80:8-16; Jer. 2:21; 6:9; 12:10-13; Ez. 15:1-8; 17:5-10; 19:10-14; Hos. 10:1-2; 14:7. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Baker Publishing Group: 2007), 491)
22 Ibid.
23 William Arndt, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (University of Chicago: 2000), 684.
24 Daniel Wallcace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Zondervan: 1996) 620.

RH Cheat Sheets: Revelation 20:10-15

1. The words “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” describe what John saw in his vision—it is not straightforward, didactic teaching. Notice that the lake of fire in which the devil is to be tormented forever and ever is something the devil “was thrown into,” not “will be thrown into.” This is a sure indicator that he is describing what he saw in his vision, since the event he describes has not yet happened. The reason he says they will be tormented forever and ever is because he could not speak of something never-ending as having been completed, so don’t let that make you doubt whether it is still part of the vision.

2. All throughout Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation—dreams and visions depict realities by means of symbolic imagery; they are not literal illustrations of said realities. In Revelation 1:12-16, John sees seven golden lampstands and seven stars in his vision. In Revelation 1:20, Christ interprets the vision for him, saying that “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” When visions and dreams are interpreted, the interpretation is the thing in reality. As a formula, it looks like: [Symbol] is [thing in reality]. Critically, symbols do not describe reality (e.g., the seven stars do not describe what the seven churches are) but merely symbolically represent it. 

3. In verse 14, we are told that the lake of fire is the second death. Following the formula, the second death is the thing in reality, and the lake of fire merely symbolizes it. Just as the seven stars do not describe what the seven churches are, eternal torment in the lake of fire does not describe what the second death is. The unrighteous will literally die a second time, which fits well with their names not being written in the book of life.

4. Verse 14 also says that Death, which is depicted as a horseman in the vision (Rev. 6:8), will be thrown into the lake of fire. According to Revelation 21:4 just a few verses later, “death will be no more.” So, despite what the vision describes as happening in the lake of fire (eternal torment for the horseman), the reality is that death will be destroyed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:26, 54).

5. According to Revelation 20:10, the beast who was thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation 19:20 will be tormented forever and ever. In Revelation 17:8, however, an angel interprets John’s vision and says that “the beast that you saw… is about to… go to destruction.” In the vision of Daniel 7, which foretells the same events as in Revelation, the ten-horned beast (Dan. 7:24; Rev. 17:12) that rises out of the sea (Dan. 7:3; Rev. 13:1) and speaks great words against the Most High (Dan. 7:25; Rev. 13:5) is “killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire” (Dan. 7:11). So, in the vision given to Daniel, the beast is killed, whereas in the vision given to John, the beast is kept alive in torment forever and ever. Of course, a contradiction in symbolism is only problematic if there is also a contradiction in interpretation, which is not the case. In line with the angel’s interpretation in Revelation 17:8, the beast’s death in Daniel 7:11 is interpreted thus in 7:26: “[the beast’s] dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed to the end.”

In short, although the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation 20:10-15 depicts the lake of fire as a place of eternal torment for what is thrown into it, it actually symbolizes the end of those things in reality. Death was thrown into the lake of fire and will be no more, the unrighteous were thrown into it and will die a second time, and the beast who was thrown into it will go to destruction.