Conditional immortalism is the view that human beings are not naturally immortal but are only granted immortality (eternal life) by God as part of our salvation. In other words, immortality is conditional upon divine grace. Thus, those who are saved in Christ live forever with him, while those who are damned suffer in hell for some finite period and are eventually annihilated.
Conditional immortalism should not be confused with other versions of annihilationism which say that the damned are immediately destroyed upon death and do not suffer in hell. And conditional immortalism contrasts with the traditional view (since Augustine) that the damned suffer eternal conscious torment.
Six Arguments for Conditional Immortalism
1. The Language of Destruction — Numerous biblical passages refer to the wicked and the damned being destroyed or perishing (Ps. 37:38, Ps. 68:2, Ps. 145:20, John 3:16, Phil. 3:19, etc.). But if the damned live forever, then they are never destroyed. Also, the biblical imagery of fire (Isa. 34:10-11, Ezek. 20:47-48; Amos 5:6, Mt. 3:12, Mt. 13:49-50, Rev. 20, etc.) suggests obliteration of the wicked, since fire consumes what it burns.
2. The Opposing Concepts of Damnation and Eternal Life — In Scripture the eternal life promised to Christians is opposed to the damnation of the wicked. But if the damned live eternally in hell, then their fate also is eternal life. After all, they never die. Theirs is a painful eternal life, but it is still eternal life. The conditional immortalist view makes much better sense of the biblical contrast between damnation and eternal life.
3. Reconciliation of All Things to God — The Bible says that God will reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:20). If the damned live forever in hell, then they are not reconciled to God.
4. Matthew 10:28 — In this passage Jesus says that God can “destroy both body and soul in hell.” This suggests that hell is indeed a place where souls are destroyed.
5. The “Second Death” — Conditional immortalism makes the best sense of the concept of the “second death” referred to in Rev. 20:14-15 and Rev. 21:8. If the damned soul lives forever in hell, then there is no second death, thus contradicting Scripture.
6. The Argument from Justice — If all of the damned suffer in hell eternally, then this constitutes an infinite penalty for finite sins, which is profoundly unjust. Some traditionalists insist that sins against an infinite and holy God require a temporally infinite penalty. But this is a non-sequitur. It does not follow from the fact that God is infinite and morally perfect that punishment of those who sin against him must be infinite in duration.
So where did the doctrine of eternal conscious torment come from, if not Scripture? It appears that the culprit is the Platonic concept of natural immortality. Socrates and Plato affirmed the notion that the human soul is naturally immortal. This idea found its way into Christian theology in the late second century and later through Augustine. It should be noted that while Augustine had most things right, he was not infallible. He read the Platonic doctrine of the soul’s indestructibility into Scripture, and the church followed his cue.
Replies to Counter-arguments
1. Matthew 25:46 — In this passage Jesus says the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment” which suggests eternal conscious torment.
Reply: The word translated here as “eternal” is aionias, which literally means “of the ages” (cf. Rom. 16:25). However, even if aionias is taken to imply an everlasting state, conditional immortalism is not contradicted in this verse. Those who go to hell are eventually annihilated and they remain destroyed forever. This is a perfectly natural understanding of “eternal punishment” in this verse.
2. Revelation 20:10 — As commonly translated, this passage declares that the devil, the beast, and false prophet “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (NIV).
Reply: These are special cases and should not be taken to represent the fate of all of the damned, particularly human beings. More importantly, the phrase often translated “forever and ever” (again involving aionias) is better translated “for ages upon ages,” as it is in some Bible translations. This signifies a much longer torment but hardly that which is everlasting.
For an extensive discussion and defense of conditional immortalism, see Edward Fudge’s classic work The Fire that Consumes. And for an informative scholarly dialogue between proponents of the traditional and conditional immoralist views, see Two Views of Hell, co-authored by Edward Fudge and Robert Peterson. Also, check out this interview with Fudge about his view. Lastly, the eminent evangelical biblical scholar John Stott defends conditional immortalism view in his Evangelical Essentials. In fact, it was Stott’s arguments that finally persuaded me to embrace conditional immortalism.
Thanks for your post, Dr. Spiegel. For a general response to conditional immortality, please see here.
Thank you for this concise and cogent presentation. I invite you and your readers to visit http://www.EdwardFudge.com/home.html where they will find links to another interview (Modern Reformation magazine), a summary article on the subject (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society) and an eye-opening multiple-choice quiz on What the Bible Really Teaches About Hell. – Cordially, Edward Fudge
Thank you for your kind words and the helpful links on your website, which I do encourage readers to visit. Thank you also for your courage and humble leadership in defending a biblical perspective on hell.
Thanks, Dr. Spiegel.
One thing’s for sure, the Christian community doesn’t know what to believe about hell, and that might be largely because we tend to avoid talking about it all together. Then, we’re forced to rely on bits and pieces of tradition and other cultural memes along the way. When an argument like yours is suggested, it’s easy to get defensive and cry heresy, even when we don’t really know why.
When I read a very worthwhile article by Tim Keller (http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/articles/the_importance_of_hell.html) I was totally surprised when he says “Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical.” Really?? Then why aren’t they teaching people? Because most Christians I know that believe in hell in the first place think it’s pretty literal and pretty real.
Anyway, thanks…and don’t forget the beloved John 3:16 in your list of verses that mention perishing.
To be fair, there is some precedent in Scripture where fire does not consume what it burns, such as in Ex 3:2, Is 66:22-24, Mark 9:48
Other than that, though, you do present a fairly persuasive argument.
This is the first time I have heard of Conditional Immortalism, and you have caused me to put my thinking cap on and dig through scripture and other works (for which I am always grateful!). I’m still thinking and learning, but to reply to your first point:
1) We typically don’t use the word “perish” in English (so I won’t comment on that term), but we do use the word “destroy”. However, usage of destroy does not always mean annihilation. If we say “someone’s reputation is destroyed”, we are not saying they no longer have a reputation, but rather we are talking about the quality of their reputation. If a car has been “totaled” we might say it has been “destroyed”, but it still exists and is still a car, just in poor condition. But we are talking English here and not Hebrew/Greek. I am far from being a Hebrew/Greek scholar, but when I look these words up, they do appear to extend beyond annihilation only. As for the fire, throughout the Bible there appears to be a repeating theme/emphasis of it being eternal. If people are eventually consumed, why the repetition of the eternal nature of it (when talking about humans)?
Regarding points 2 & 3:
2) Does the term “life” denote quality? Is it something beyond mere “existence”? In the “destroyed car” example above, we might say it has “no more life left in it” although it still exists and is still a car (it may even still start!). But intentional usage, interaction, and experience are what are terminated. But again, this is English, not Hebrew/Greek. When I look up the Greek word “life” used in John 3:16, it does appear to include the concept of quality, but I am no Hebrew/Greek scholar! 🙂
3) a) Col 1:20 says all things in heaven and earth. Hell is not mentioned. b) If people in Hell are eventually annihilated, they were not reconciled either. c) I think we both agree that not everyone will be saved, but this verse says “all”, so we have to be careful with the term “all” d) In context, Paul seems to be talking about Christians only.
It’s getting late here. Hopefully I can come back soon and address some more points. (BTW, thanks for your blog. I have been enjoying it!)
Regarding the verses you cited, it appears that only Exodus 3:2 presents a situation in which fire doesn’t consume what it burns. Both Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:48 make mention of a fire which isn’t quenched, not to something the fire is burning without consuming. These latter passages, then, don’t seem to constitute a scriptural precedent of the sort described. Additionally, I’m skeptical about the usefulness of Exodus 3:2 for the opponent of conditional immortalism. First, the unique fact that the fire was burning but not consuming the bush could be considered the exception which supports the rule. Second, nothing in the verse explicitly or implicitly concerns the subject of hell or of the inhabitants’ experiences there, so it probably would be inappropriate to support or attack a doctrine of hell with its content. And third, the nature and details of the event seem quite consistent with the affirmation of conditional immortalism: affirming the historicity of the event and the teaching of conditional immortalism seems unproblematic.
Addressing points 4-6:
4) This is similar to point 1 where the term “destroy” is discussed. Also, as I read this entire verse that also mentions killing the body, I thought about how killing the body does not mean annihilation of the body, but rather it denotes condition and separation (soul from body). This leads to the next point…
5) “Death” can be thought of as separation. Physical death is separation of soul from body (and thus from others alive on earth), not annihilation. Spiritual death is separation from God.
6) Are we as fallen creatures able to *truly* say based on our own reasoning what is or is not just on a spiritual scale before an infinite and holy God? Do we truly know the severity of the “smallest” sin? The first sin in the Garden literally caused worldwide (if not universal) repercussions. Was that overkill? You used the term “finite sins”, but that one sin profoundly changed the entire course of human history, seemingly into eternity. What if that was the only sin that ever happened – would Jesus still have to come and die a horrible death on a cross and be separated from the Father? I don’t know for sure, but I would think so. Would that be overkill?
Thanks again for your blog!
I have always rather liked conditional immortalism, except that I think the evidence for pre-lapsarian immortality is stronger than you think. I think a Biblical theology would strongly support the view that death is the result of original sin. I don’t have time to look up and cite the passages, but clearly (to me) this seems to be what Paul believes and is a good read of the Genesis account as well.
Thanks for spawning this great conversation.
Thanks for your comment. I do believe that human beings were originally created as “naturally” immortal and that this was lost with the Fall. I agree, as you say, that all death is the result of sin, and this goes for the second death (the death of the soul) as well as the death of the body. It is the greatest part of the gift of salvation that this original immortality lost at the Fall is restored as those in Christ are granted eternal life.
Do you mind if I make some comments on your remarks?
>> “. . . but we do use the word ‘destroy’. However, usage of destroy does not always mean annihilation.”
While this is certainly indisputable, I don’t believe it presents a significant problem for conditional immortalism. In our experience, as you observed, what we conceive of as destruction quite frequently involves the transformation of particles of matter (in keeping with the second law of thermodynamics), not the utter obliteration of them. This is the case when we’re not speaking figuratively. But notice that, according to Matthew 10:28, it’s within God’s power to destroy both the body and the soul. If the soul is indeed immaterial and therefore not composed of particles, its destruction necessarily involves a fundamentally different type of event. With respect to the immateriality of the soul, then, I wonder if we might be forced to restrict our conception of “destroy” to refer exclusively to annihilation. And I think this conclusion is potentially compounded by a further consideration: the nature of damnation in hell. There appears to be some prima facie plausibility in regarding the destruction in hell as being maximal, and complete annihilation seems to entail maximal destruction.
>> “As for the fire, throughout the Bible there appears to be a repeating theme/emphasis of it being eternal. If people are eventually consumed, why the repetition of the eternal nature of it (when talking about humans)?”
Perhaps for (conceptual) emphasis, to underscore the extreme conditions in hell, functioning as a strong deterrent. The eternality of the fire (or whatever the fire is intended to represent) may only be reserved for the damnation of nonhuman beings, but it still serves to destroy (or annihilate) the condemned humans.
>> “Does the term ‘life’ denote quality? Is it something beyond mere ‘existence’?”
It seems eminently plausible that “life” does denote (or at least connote) something qualitative, something beyond mere existence. But the contrast for which Dr. Spiegel argued is undiminished, and it may even be enhanced by conditional immortalism. Suppose there’s an infinite, qualitative distance between being and nonbeing–or between existence and nonexistence. If heaven affords its inhabitants a qualitatively robust “state” in the maximal sense, and hell presents its inhabitants with a qualitatively impoverished “state” in the maximal sense, then only conditional immortalism provides a qualitatively infinite contrast between heaven and hell.
Concerning point 3, which cited Colossians 1:20, I’m unsure I’d (personally) adduce this passage in favor of conditional immortalism, as I don’t know enough about what it means for God to reconcile all things to Himself. Since this point is unclear to me, I’ll move on to your next comment.
>> “4) This is similar to point 1 where the term ‘destroy’ is discussed. Also, as I read this entire verse that also mentions killing the body, I thought about how killing the body does not mean annihilation of the body, but rather it denotes condition and separation (soul from body). This leads to the next point…
5) ‘Death’ can be thought of as separation. Physical death is separation of soul from body (and thus from others alive on earth), not annihilation. Spiritual death is separation from God.”
I think it’s accurate to construe physical death as the separation of the soul from the body, where the latter ceases to function and the former persists. But it seems to me inaccurate to construe the second death as spiritual death, as mere separation from God. For one, mere separation doesn’t appear to adequately capture the essence of destruction. And two, people experience spiritual death on Earth, and the torment of hell is undoubtedly considerably worse. We thus require something more to properly account for the second death of hell.
>> “6) Are we as fallen creatures able to *truly* say based on our own reasoning what is or is not just on a spiritual scale before an infinite and holy God?”
It’s beyond dispute that our judgments on this matter won’t be infallible, but that doesn’t mean our speculations can’t be reasonable. And it doesn’t appear unreasonable to maintain that eternal, conscious torment for “finite sins” might be incompatible with certain aspects of God’s character. It must be admitted that we don’t understand the full magnitude of sin, and so we should exercise discretion in our analysis, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that only eternal, conscious torment is a suitable punishment for sin. Ten trillion years in hell is an unimaginable duration of time–and would, without question, make for a dreadful sentence–but it’s infinitely small compared to the unending duration of eternal punishment. Such an extreme form of condemnation just doesn’t seem consonant with God’s nature.
Paul D. Adams
Just finished Scot McKnight’s One.Life, chapter 12 “Eternity.Life” where he outlines essentially the same ideas you have here, which made me recall this post and re-read. Though I fall into the “traditionalist” camp, it’s time to rethink some things and to explore Edward Fudge’s works. Thanks for the challenge, Jim! As always I appreciate your thoughtfulness.