Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Conditionalist No Longer

These next several posts will lay out my change of convictions regarding the doctrines of the Advent Christian denomination of which I am presently an ordained minister.  Those distinctive doctrines are in the area of personal eschatology.   They are the teachings that the soul due to being mortal and not innately immortal is unconscious at physical death and will be raised with the body when Christ returns.  Both the believing and unbelieving dead are unconscious and both will be raised at Christ’s Second Coming.  The believers will be given immortality and eternal life with glorified resurrected bodies while unbelievers will be condemned and eventually annihilated or destroyed in hell.  

I attended Berkshire Christian College where I first heard and was taught what has been also called Conditional Immortality.  I embraced what I was taught being convinced of the hermeneutical arguments and exegesis presented for the pertinent texts of Scripture.  I still have deep respect for those who taught me these doctrines that were often said to underscore the Bible’s teaching that life is found only in Christ.  It has not been an easy transition for me partly due to my love and respect for those teachers whom I consider my mentors and friends.  Those same men were instrumental in teaching me the doctrines of Reformed Theology too.  So I am truly indebted to them. 

However, I have wrestled for awhile now with the theology of Conditional Immortality and can no longer affirm its tenets.   This has not been an overnight change or a quick one.  Over the course of several years I have seen the strength of the orthodox view that while physical death ends all connection with earthly life there is a conscious afterlife for the soul or spirit.   For the believer this is not the ultimate hope.  That hope is the believer’s resurrection and inheritance on an earth made new.  For the unbeliever physical death ends any hope of reconciliation with God and entails some degree of conscious suffering, which will only continue under the eternal wrath of God at the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ten of my reasons for this change are given below and others will follow in subsequent posts and I also hope to expand on a few of the reasons given below.  What I plan to do in other posts is provide more exegetical and theological material.  I am open to comments, challenges, sighs and whatever other responses my friends in Christ would care to give.  If my arguments are faulty I welcome critique and more light. 

  1. I hold to the bipartite or dichotomous nature of human beings.  Human beings who are created in the image of God are a duplex unity of material (body) and immaterial (soul/spirit) parts. Click here for my essay on Biblical Anthropology.
  2. Physical death is the dissolution of this created unity of body and soul/spirit.  The body being corporeal returns as it were to the dust.  This does not make the body an inferior component in human nature.  Human beings were created to be corporeal beings.  The body is necessary for earthly life and for the resurrected and glorified life of the new age. 
  3. Human beings though made and fashioned in the image of God do not possess innate immortality.  Immortality is not inherent in the communicable attributes that God shares with us as his image bearers.   Immortality is an attribute inherent with God and comes to us through the Gospel. 
  4. Nevertheless, this lack of innate immortality does not mean that at physical death the soul or spirit of man ceases to exist or exists in a condition of unconsciousness or “soul sleep.”  Biblical texts that describe physical death as sleep need to be interpreted in light of texts that indicate a conscious awareness of the soul/spirit in the afterlife (or in some cases an anticipated awareness of being with the Lord upon physical death).  Rather these “sleep” texts are best interpreted as using the language of appearance to describe physical death and when stating that the whole person dies (i.e. he slept with his fathers or Lazarus sleeps) are best understood as a synecdoche. I also think that when the Old Testament speaks of the dead being in sheol it primarily has the ungodly dead in view.  The righteous see sheol as their destiny in times of affliction, danger or when anticipating the prospect of a sorrowful or untimely death but overall sheol is seen as the abode of the ungodly dead who are cut off from God.  Whereas the New Testament uses the image of sleep to describe the death of believers in Christ but this is not a state of unconsciousness.   Sleep points to rest from earthly trial and a cessation of complete participation with this fallen age.  They are blessed who die in the Lord for they rest from their labors.  They in fact begin to participate in that promised rest which will be fully realized at the resurrection. 
  5. Neither does the lack of innate immortality mean that the eternal judgment will entail the eventual annihilation of the unrepentant.  Those who have argued for the innate immortality of the soul have erred in seeing this as the logical reason for eternal conscious suffering regarding the lost.  Immortality is always presented in the Bible as a positive quality of life.  It is the benefit that comes from the gift of eternal life given through the Gospel to those who believe.  Whatever the nature of eternal conscious suffering, it is not the immortality of which the Bible speaks.  Yet the Bible teaches that the final state of the wicked will be one of eternal consciousness and suffering. 
  6. Those who hold to CI stress those texts that speak of the wrath of God as destruction, while those who hold the traditional theology of hell stress the punishment texts.  Yet the New Testament in particular seems to posit three major images for the nature of eternal judgment.  They are destruction, banishment and punishment.  What CI hermeneutics does is introduce a sequence with these images which begins with banishment followed by suffering that ends in destruction or annihilation, which is the punishment.  In my mind there is no hermeneutical justification for introducing this sequence with these images rather these images all have the same referent.  Thus the final judgment is seen in some texts to be banishment or exclusion, in other texts punishment that includes suffering and in others destruction. These images point to the same eschatological reality, a reality that we are unable fully to grasp.  The Scripture uses figurative or symbolic language to describe the reality of hell, of which on the surface some of the images might seem not to fit together (like fire and utter darkness).  Yet with all symbols the reality is greater than what is symbolized. 
  7. CI overstresses the destruction texts.  The words that are used that describe the final judgment as destruction do not require that they be interpreted as extinction of existence.  Sometimes the words describe that which is lost or ruined.  To destroy something might mean to obliterated it from existence but it could also mean to make it unfit for its intended use.  The CI retort is that it is one thing to destroy an inanimate object like a vial of ointment it is another thing to destroy a living creature.  If I total the car in the accident it is indeed destroyed.  It will never again be driven.  If I run over my dog and destroy it, there is no longer life in that animal. I will never be able to take my dog for a walk.  Yet this is just the point that is debated regarding the condition of the unrepentant under that final judgment. If these destruction texts stood alone then this interpretation might be warranted but because other images are used and the various words for destruction have a range of meaning it does not stand that they depict the final destruction of the ungodly as an extinction of being.  Charles Hodge summarizes the meaning of destroy in a compelling way: "To destroy is to ruin. The nature of that ruin depends on the nature of the subject of which it is predicated. A thing is ruined when it is rendered unfit for use; when it is in such a state that it can no longer answer the end for which it was designed ... A soul is utterly and forever destroyed when it is reprobated, alienated from God, rendered a fit companion only for the devil and his angels."[i]
  8. CI affirms that the fire of judgment consumes its victims.  While these agents of destruction will bring suffering their primary purpose is not that but eventual and eternal destruction.  The unquenchable fire and undying worm are images of destructive agents that cannot be stopped “until” their work is finished.  Yet this “until” is a reading into these texts.  In fact the smoke of the fire is said to ascend forever and ever and the worm is said to be undying.  While we need to be careful in pressing the details and drawing tight comparisons between natural fire and worms and these eternal agents (images) of final judgment, it does seem odd that they are described as eternal and undying if the “fuel” is eventually extinguished to a condition of non-existence.  Rather it seems that they are eternal and undying because those who are consigned to their work eternally exist in a state of utter loss and ruin.  
  9. The distinction that CI makes between the process of judgment or punishment and the result of the same I have come to question.  The argument is that it is the result of the judgment that is eternal not the process.   This is based on a hermeneutic that argues that the meaning of the adjective eternal has to be understood by the noun it modifies. When it is used with nouns of action it refers to the result of the action and not the process.    So when the Bible speaks of eternal redemption it is the result not the process that is in view, since Christ secured redemption by his finished work.  Likewise, when we read in the Scripture of eternal punishment or eternal destruction it is the result not the process of the punishment and destruction that is in view. This hermeneutic was endorsed (if not introduced) by Basil Atkinson in his book “Life and Immortality.”  “When the adjective aionios meaning ‘everlasting’ is used in Greek with nouns of action it has reference to the result of the action, not the process.  Thus the phrase ‘everlasting punishment’ is comparable to ‘everlasting redemption’ and ‘everlasting salvation,’ both Scriptural phrases.”[ii]  Yet this assumes that punishment is in the same category as redemption and salvation.  In other words because redemption is secured once by Christ what must be eternal about redemption is the results and not the process.  Christ is not eternally redeeming.  Yet this is not automatically the case with other words and this would include the Bible’s use of the word punishment.  Take the word entertainment and modify it by eternal and there is no way it could be referring to results and not to process (eternal entertainment).  On this point J.I. Packer writes: “Though this assertion is constantly made by annihilationists…it lacks support from grammarians and in any case begs the question by assuming that punishment is a momentary rather than a sustained event. While not, perhaps, absolutely impossible, the reasoning seems unnatural, evasive and, in the final assessment, forlorn.” [iii] I would agree with Packer’s comments.
  10. CI affirms that what eternal judgment ultimately entails is death.  Mortal human beings are cast into the lake of fire.  The ultimate judgment that will await them is death.  To destroy a vial of ointment is indeed to ruin it but to destroy a human being in the flames of eternal fire would be most certainly to bring eventual death and death is the absence of life.  Yet the Bible’s use of death has a range of meanings too.  On the day that our first parents ate the forbidden fruit they died.  They did not die physically yet they died nonetheless.  They died to their Creator in that their covenant bond with him was severed by their sin and they were banished from the Tree of Life. Thus the Bible speaks of spiritual death – of being dead in trespasses and sins, which means we are morally cut off from God and under his judgment, which is a present reality in this age until God in grace saves us through faith in the Gospel. Thus the ungodly are described even in this age as perishing under the wrath of God due to being in a state of ‘spiritual death,’ which does not suggest that their final punishment will be one of non-existence because those who now exist are said to be perishing. Yet even physical death is not presented in the Bible as a cessation of existence but rather as dissolution of the unity of inner man and outer man.  Even some who hold to CI would affirm that the soul though unconscious still exists.  It does not hold in my thinking that the nature of eternal punishment which is identified as the “second death” in the lake of fire requires that this be understood as extinction of being. 
These are ten of my reasons for questioning the doctrines of Conditional Immortality.   The bottom line of course is what does the Bible teach?  To embrace or reject the tenets of either view of personal eschatology has to be rooted in exegesis that is based on careful hermeneutics.  But of course this is what everyone who is engaged in this debate claims.  Maybe the deeper issue is one of epistemology – how do we come to know what we know.  What presuppositions or biases are lurking underneath the claims we all make to careful Biblical interpretation?  Maybe those of you who care to respond to these posts might help me answer these kinds of questions.  Certainly, there seems to be emotional depths at play among those who hold to some form of annihilation and those who hold to the traditional view.  Sifting through all of this to arrive at a correct Biblical understanding requires that we at least become aware of what we do bring to our study of the Scriptures when we seek to understand what it teaches on the nature of man, death and eternal judgment.  It is certainly a call to humility as one proceeds to seek light from God's most holy, true and inerrant Word.   Ecclesia semper reformanda est!

[i] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979 reprint edition), 3:874.
[ii] Basil F.C. Atkinson, Life and Immortality, page 101

[iii] James I. Packer, Evangelical Annihilationism in Review.  This article originally appeared in Reformation & Revival magazine, Volume 6, Number 2 Spring 1997.


  1. There is so much here that I'd love to interact with, especially points six and seven (which are a summary of Kendall Harmon's argument in his contribution to Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell). I don't want to flood your comments with a treatise, however. Skype? :)

  2. A lot can be said about Harmon's essay. Shorty:

    1. The essay is entitled "The Case Against Conditionalism: A Response to Edward William Fudge". But oddly, Harmon only devotes nine out of 32 pages actually critiquing Fudge. The three issues that he focuses on in those nine pages are fairly minor and hardly constitute a compelling "case against conditionalism."

    2. Scripture uses a variety of language and imagery to depict future punishment, but never delineates that punishment precisely in a minute-for-minute account. Therefore, any attempt to make coherent sense of all the passages will necessarily involve some reading between the lines. This is just standard fare in any type of systematic theology, so it strikes me as disingenuous for Harmon to fault Fudge for this.

    Harmon's charge that Fudge's proposed sequence of "banishment, suffering, then destruction" is not found in any particular passage is trivial. Neither does any passage say that all three elements occur simultaneously. In footnote 70, he simply asserts, with no evidence or argumentation, that the biblical descriptions of punishment should not be seen as pieces of a puzzle, but rather as beams of colored light refracted from a single ray. That footnote is a microcosm of the essay as a whole: well written, but poorly argued!

    3. I'm a conditionalist, but I don't serialize the various aspects of punishment the way Fudge is accused of doing. So again, Harmon's essay is not a case against conditionalism per se.

    4. Conditionalists focus on the death/destruction aspect of future punishment because that is where Scripture puts the emphasis. No conditionalist denies that some passages speak of suffering/torment, or that some passages speak of banishment/exclusion (found mostly in the Synoptic parables). But the overwhelming majority of passages describing future punishment speak of the eventual death/destruction of the wicked, using words like slay, kill, perish, death, die, destroy, destruction, abolish, consume, burn up, fade away, pass away, be no more, etc. Harmon's beef is with Scripture, not conditionalism!

    5. The way Harmon adds "and exclusion" to 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is outrageous and inexcusable. It is amazing to me that he faults Fudge for doing standard systematics, then continues to literally add words to Scripture! The justification he gives for doing so is outlandish. Of course, I've not read one traditionalist call him on this.

    There is plenty more to say, both about Harmon and the rest of your points (except #3!), but this is already longer than I expected--and I accidentally refreshed my browser, so I had to write it twice. I suppose that's what I get for writing a long comment in the comment box as opposed to copying and pasting from an editor!

  3. Point three states: "Human beings... do not possess innate immortality." Anyone who adheres to this is, by definition, a conditionalist. Wouldn't it be more appropriate, then, to say "Adventist no more" or "soul sleeper no more" ? Honest disagreement with a denominational or traditional interpretation just means your mind still works. But I am glad to see that your change of position does not contradict 1 Timothy 6:16. Respectfully [you are my old preaching teacher] I suggest you are using the word 'tenant' when you mean 'tenet'. Perhaps your spell-checker is changing that one on you unawares?
    Nathan Waterman