The Righteous for the Unrighteous: Conditional Immortality and the Substitutionary Death of Jesus

I was recently honored to be published in volume 18 of McMaster Divinity School’s McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. My article argues from the atoning work of Christ to conditional immortality and against eternal torment, and will be the basis of my plenary presentation at the upcoming Rethinking Hell Conference 2018 in Dallas–Fort Worth, March 9–10—for which tickets are still available! In the meantime, my article is available for free PDF download. Here are three of the opening paragraphs, to give you a feel for what I go on to argue:

Conditionalists have very often commended their view on the basis of biblical texts that describe hell and final punishment in terms of death and destruction, including those typically cited in support of the doctrine of eternal torment, and this article does not seek to reinvent the proverbial wheel. But in the eyes of some traditionalists, conditionalism is more objectionable on Christological grounds than on any other. Robert Peterson, for example, summarizes how the doctrine of substitutionary atonement should inform one’s understanding of hell: “The cross sheds light on the fate of the wicked,” he explains, “because on the cross the sinless Son of God suffered that fate.” Mistakenly understanding conditionalists to be saying Christ’s human nature ceased to exist on the cross, Peterson insists that the “systematic implications of holding that Jesus was annihilated when he died are enormous. Nothing less than orthodox Christology is at stake.” Such a view, he argues, entails a temporary separation of Jesus’ human and divine natures, thereby violating the Chalcedonian doctrine of the hypostatic union. Alternatively—and equally problematically—Peterson argues that if both of Christ’s natures “ceased to exist between his death and resurrection, then the Trinity only consisted of two persons during that period of time. The Trinity would have been reduced to a Binity.”

Conditionalists, on the other hand, often argue that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is more consistent with their view of hell than that of their traditionalist critics. Agreeing with Peterson that “Jesus’ death somehow reveals the nature of final punishment,” Edward Fudge observes that “Jesus died; he was not tortured forever. Jesus’ death for sinners does provide a window into the final judgment awaiting the lost. But the view we see through that window is one of suffering that ends in death—not one of everlasting conscious torment.” Glenn Peoples likewise writes, “the New Testament is replete with the language of Jesus dying for sin, for sinners, and for us. Whatever else this might mean, it at least means that in Christ’s passion and ultimately his death we see what comes of sin.” Peoples concludes, “in identifying with sinners and standing in their place, Jesus bore what they would have borne. Abandonment by God, yes. Suffering, yes. But crucially, death.”

Peterson and other critics of conditionalism are right to test it for consistency with an orthodox doctrine of the atonement. Despite their Christological objections, however, conditionalism passes that test quite well—while their own traditional view fares poorly—given the Bible’s teaching of the substitutionary death of Jesus. As the following essay sets out to demonstrate: (1) in the Old Testament, the lives of sacrificed animals substituted for the lives of those who deserved to die; (2) animal sacrifices prefigured Christ’s own atoning sacrifice, likewise described by New Testament authors as the giving of his life in place of those for whom he died; (3) his infinite worth as the God-man enabled him to bear the death penalty deserved by the millions for whom he bore it; (4) by applying his infinite worth to his torment, traditionalists risk unintentionally denying the substitutionary nature of his death, a denial conservative evangelicals are not typically willing to countenance; (5) because Jesus was to be raised, he did not wholly cease to be when he died, but since no resurrection will follow the second death, the bodies and souls of the unredeemed will be destroyed in hell; and (6) although Christians continue to suffer death and will until Christ returns, his substitutionary death shatters its power over the redeemed, guaranteeing their resurrection unto eternal life.


“The Righteous for the Unrighteous: Conditional Immortality and the Substitutionary Death of Jesus,” article in the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry by Chris Date
The current issue of the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry, containing Chris’s article
Chris Date’s profile, where his article can also be downloaded