Conditional Immortality—An Acceptable View?

What does Conditional Immortality affirm and deny?

As a doctrinal position, conditional immortality explicitly affirms that immortality is a gift from God given only to the saved (1 Tim 6:16; Rom 2:7; 2 Tim 1:10; 1 Cor 15:54). Immortality means living forever (literally, deathlessness).

It also implicitly rejects universal immortality, the view that all people are or will be immortal. Since this is a tenet of both eternal torment and universal salvation, conditionalism necessarily denies those two positions. ((Conditionalism therefore also rejects universal salvation’s stipulation of a universally-met condition for immortality.))

Conditionalism is described in terms of “eternal life” for the saved, and “eternal punishment” for the unsaved (Matt 25:46). Punishment here consists of an “eternal judgment” of death instead of life, requiring an “eternal destruction” of “body and soul” (Heb 6:2; 2 Thess 1:9 cf. Matt 10:28).

This aspect of conditionalism can be called annihilation. Whereas the concept of death speaks of a forfeit of life (without specifying whether this will be temporary or permanent), annihilation speaks of a death that is permanent. Since God is the source of life (Acts 17:25; Heb 1:3; Rev 2:7 cf. Gen 3:22), this may be understood in terms of a consequence of eternal separation or severance from God.

Proponents of conditionalism are therefore able to affirm any Christian statement of faith to include the language of eternal separation, and/or expressly biblical terms such as “eternal punishment.” However, conditionalists are unable to affirm statements which include everlasting torment, or everlasting consciousness for the unsaved.

Does Conditional Immortality reject a core doctrine of Christian faith?

Neither conditionalism nor annihilationism were rejected by any early church councils or creeds. These also did not affirm universal immortality, either in the form of eternal torment or of universal salvation (a version of which was arguably rejected at the time of the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 AD).

However, eternal torment and the immortal soul became official dogma of the Roman Catholic church. If one is Catholic, then conditionalism may be considered a rejection of the church’s teaching.

In the Protestant tradition, the Catholic dogma “that the soul is immortal” was most famously rejected by Martin Luther, ((Martin Luther, “Assertio omnium Articulorum m. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. novissimam Damnatorum,” article 27, 131–32. Note: For Luther, the rejection of the soul’s innate immortality did not lead ultimately to rejecting eternal torment.)) and later by William Tyndale, both of whom were following in the footsteps of John Wycliffe in this regard. Protestants are not typically bound to any teaching that the soul is by nature immortal, ((A notable exception would be a situation requiring full adherence to the Westminster Confession, which speaks of mankind being created “with reasonable and immortal souls.”)) and thereby will eternally exist. Strictly speaking, it is only the eternal existence of souls here that conditionalism must deny, since if God created a soul with an immortal constitution, it does not follow that God will never destroy that soul.

As for the question of whether eternal torment must be affirmed within Protestantism, this varies according to context, and is often tied to a particular statement of faith (which do vary in this regard, as noted above). The general trend is toward statements with language deliberately selected to be inclusive of conditionalism and all forms of eternal torment.

The additional question of whether belief in eternal torment is absolutely essential to Christian faith, goes beyond denominational context. It would be relatively rare to find any formal church statement explicitly equating disbelief in eternal torment with disbelief in Jesus Christ. Despite this, it is less rare to find individuals who are willing to take that position.

A final question arises as to whether any core doctrine of the Christian faith is challenged by some logical implication of conditionalism. The common charge in this connection is that if Jesus Christ underwent the penalty that is due to sinners (under a penal substitutionary atonement model), then annihilationism entails that his divine and human natures were separated. ((For a more thorough response to this charge see Chris Date, “Cross Purposes: Atonement, Death and the Fate of the Wicked,” available in Part 1 and Part 2.)) But this is based on a mistaken assumption that conditionalism stipulates annihilation or everlasting destruction as the punishment for sin, instead of simply death (Rom 6:23). Death is the wages of sin universally, so that this still applies at the time of the final judgment, just as it did when Jesus forfeited or “laid down” his life (John 10:17, 18). The difference between the two is not that the wages or punishment is changed, in which case an exact substitutionary atonement would not be supported. Rather, in the context of final punishment a judgment is being given that is eternally binding (Heb 6:2). This means that the wages of sin will be applied to individuals irrevocably. While it is true that annihilation ends up describing their eternal punishment, annihilation is not the judicial standard used.

Is Conditional Immortality an acceptable view outside Roman Catholicism?

Yes, broadly and formally speaking. The Eastern Orthodox church has no official view. The Church of England does have a formal position: Conditional Immortality. ((The Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, “The Mystery of Salvation” (London: Church House Publishing 1995).))

In terms of the global evangelical movement, conditionalism is compatible with the statement of faith of the World Evangelical Alliance, and other regional statements such as that of the Evangelical Alliance, the largest and oldest evangelical body in the UK, which also takes the explicit position: “The interpretation of hell in terms of conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view. Furthermore, we believe that the traditionalist-conditionalist debate on hell should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary issue for evangelical theology.” ((Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals, “The Nature of Hell” (London: Paternoster Publishing 2005), see pp130-5.))

A principal leader of the movement, John Stott, embraced conditionalism. Another principal voice in the movement, J.I. Packer, stated that conditionalists are “honored fellow-evangelicals,” and that “it would be wrong for differences of opinion on this matter to lead to breaches of fellowship.” ((J. I. Packer, “Evangelical Annihilationism in Review,” Reformation & Revival 6, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 37-51.))

Among the many celebrated proponents of evangelical conditionalism are Basil Atkinson, Richard Bauckham, E. Earle Ellis, Roger Forster, R.T. France, Michael Green, Harold Guillebaud, P.E. Hughes, David Instone-Brewer, Dale Moody, I. Howard Marshall, John Stackhouse Jr., John Stott, Richard Swinburne, Anthony Thistleton, Terrance Tiessen, Stephen Travis, John Wenham and Nigel Wright.

 

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This article is also available in PDF format here, and may be freely distributed.

21 thoughts on “Conditional Immortality—An Acceptable View?

  1. Thanks for this well written post. Like many others, I wholeheartedly and without reservation can affirm a statement of faith which includes a phrase like “eternal punishment” while also holding to conditional immortality. I not only believe this is possible, I believe it is the position which is most true to the Bible’s teaching and language. For a (hopefully) clear and concise picture of some of the key Biblical evidence for Conditional Immortality using graphics of verses, some readers may want to see my blog post (previously posted on RH Facebook page) here:
    http://parresiazomai.blogspot.com/2016/06/what-is-conditional-immortality.html

  2. Peter, you said, “Whereas the concept of death speaks of a forfeit of life…”

    SCRRREEEEEEEEECH…

    The concept of death, to the traditionalist, speaks of a forfeiture of all that is worthwhile while remaining is a state of existence. Death is not defined, to them, in terms of life as the conditionalist sees “life”. So although technically the conditionalist is able to affirm a Christian statement of faith that includes the language of eternal separation (because both believe a departure from God occurs), ultimately the two groups are each talking about two different things which are irreconcilable because of what it means to each of them to die (or to live!).

    When you say, “Proponents of conditionalism are therefore able to affirm any Christian statement of faith to include the language of eternal separation…,” I’m not sure what type of Christian statements you are referring to, but let’s take the most basic and often the starting point of the traditionalist. They will say:

    “To die a spiritual death means to be eternally separated from God; therefore, death means eternal separation from God.”

    I can’t agree with this traditionalist statement of faith that includes the language of eternal separation. While trying to find a point of affirmation, I think you are ignoring the fact that when the traditionalist uses the phrase “eternal separation” they also believe this to mean spiritual death.

    1. Hi TLY. My article received feedback from some fellow contributors before publishing, and we do mention those definitions fairly often, so there’s probably not a lot we’re ignoring 🙂

      You start out speaking of a “Christian statement of faith that includes the language of eternal separation,” and end up giving a “traditionalist statement of faith that includes the language of eternal separation.”

      I wasn’t suggesting that conditionalists can affirm a *traditionalist* statement of faith. Clearly, if the statement itself (or for that matter, any accompanying documentation about the statement) defines the terms that way, then yes, that means that we cannot affirm it.

      But statements of faith are often crafted very carefully and deliberately, aiming to say no more nor less than is written. As the article notes, this is often deliberately inclusive. I’m referring of course to statements of faith that are formally written for purposes of qualifying membership or something along those lines. When framers want to be exclusive on some point, they tend to deliberately tighten up their language, because statements of faith are often used in a manner where they should speak for themselves, and either be affirmed or denied as such, in good conscience.

      My impression is that the word “death” does not typically feature in a statement of faith where the point being made speaks of “eternal separation.” I actually don’t think too many traditionalists would come up with your “spiritual death means to be eternally separated” wording. So much could be said at this point, but I’ll just suggest two reasons for that: traditionalists normally have in mind a handful of texts that make “spiritual death” the fallen condition of all people (so it’s not “eternal” by definition), and, therefore, traditionalists who are scrutinizing their view of a second death are likely to speak of eternal separation rather than any kind of spiritual death at this point. Also, on that scheme it would be the second spiritual death, which is hard to articulate without sounding incoherent, since a reader is being asked to countenance the notion that someone already dead can be said to then go on to die again, in exactly the same sense. It’s also not uncommon in general discourse for traditionalists to forget that they should account for a second death, and so the concept of eternal separation tends to be aimed at accounting for something else at that point (probably location and misery).

      In any case, I’m again not advocating the signing of a statement of faith that is known to be a “traditionalist” one in terms of the intent of a particular wording. But insofar as a statement of faith is itself meant to serve as an authoritative reference with respect to its own wording, for signing in good conscience, then the point I wish to make is just that a conditionalist can indeed affirm the phrase “eternal separation.” I know of real-world situations in which either that phrase was intended to be inclusive of conditionalism (as the article mentions), or else it was not intended to exclude conditionalism. Another possible scenario is that nobody in authority knows whether or not there was any clear intention with the phrase when the statement was first crafted, and as such are content to let the inherent openness of the language stand.

      1. In fact this article would serve well those who are involved with crafting a formal statement of faith, should they wish to consider whether or not to allow for conditional immortality in their document, and then how best to articulate their intention either way.

      2. Peter, thanks for that clarification and you are right in that I was not properly separating and giving distance between a tightly worded or formal statement of faith and what is generally believed to be the meaning behind the words used. I guess I’ve never seen a statement of faith that includes the language of “eternal separation.” I’m used to something like this:

        southeastchristian(dot)org/beliefs/ (unable to link)

        Do you have an example statement of faith that illustrates what you are talking about?

        And regarding traditionalist definition of “death,” maybe I get that from Robert A. Peterson (Hell on Trial, pg. 198) where he defines “death” as the perpetual separation from God’s eternal life when referring to the second death. I have to admit I do not understand what a “spiritual death” means, but that doesn’t really matter, and substituting “second death” for “spiritual death” better illustrates the point I was trying to make.

        1. Thanks, TLY. I don’t have any examples at hand, but the Southeast Christian SoF is instructive as an example of a minimalist approach: in their case, so minimalist that they leave the matter entirely open, saying no more than that apart from Jesus, we are all “lost and without hope.” I quite like that as a starting point, because it both prompts the question of the biblical hope (resurrection unto eternal life), and prompts a certain resonance with a person’s own appreciation of their lostness and hopelessness (which, if it incorporates the notion of death as an enemy to be feared, is likewise biblical; eg. Heb 2:15). I was trying to think how their statement might be affected by speaking of an “eternal separation,” but really, there is no biblical impetus to do this, since it is not biblical language (though the NIV tries to smuggle the concept into 2 Thess 1:9).

          Yes, you’re right, Peterson and others will still tend to define “death” as a perpetual separation, despite the incoherence I noted of becoming twice-separated at a second death. Calling something “spiritual” covers a multitude of logical sins, I’ve found. I think what is normally meant by that in this context is relational, so that the baseline concept of separation refers to the separation of God and individuals relationally (hence, Adam and Eve hid from God, and hence “severance” of the relationship is a similar idea). When a conditionalist sees that this should include the fact that God is the source of our lives (and not only positive qualities of our life-experience, such as “bliss”), it fits rather well.

          It can be hard to follow the traditionalist usages of the concept of death as separation. A so-called “physical death” can be another application of separation, this time of soul and body. That version of “death means separation” has been part of a tendency to forget the return to life at the time of resurrection, and to imagine that hell’s torments are non-physical, occurring to disembodied souls, even as soon as you die, before judgment day (another point of potential incoherence). Since the Bible has this persistent habit of just referring to death, the traditionalist has the unenviable task of selecting which version of death to assume each time, and to remind themselves of what is being separated from what, exactly.

          1. It might be worth mentioning that the traditionalist understanding of death as separation doesn’t necessarily cohere with the traditionalist understanding of perishing/destruction as mere ruin or lostness. If both are taken to refer to what happens to a person, it can get a bit confusing to figure out what is being separated from what in order that a person should “die” yet remain alive. So it’s easier to either keep both sets of references abstract, referring to the God-person relation (which is a bit more accommodating), or to have only the perishing references refer to the person.

          2. Peter, I understand that the language of “eternal separation” allows for both views on one hand, but on the other hand a statement of faith is a tight and precise summary of essential belief. I’m having great difficulty seeing how “eternal separation” would be worked into a statement of faith that communicates essential and core beliefs of the members, but then that statement be accommodating to two conflicting beliefs. Doesn’t “eternal separation” in that context become nonspecific (too general) and not qualified to be part of a statement that is precise and essential? I’m still puzzled here.

            I’m not sure it’s possible to represent two views and have it also be essential, unless the belief is that it’s essential to believe in the possibility of the two conflicting beliefs, which would be an odd core expression of faith.

            I just don’t think too many groups would require as essential two possible views, or a statement that allows for both. Seems like they would go one way or the other, or exclude such a thing from a statement of faith and into nonessential beliefs. But if this can be done in a meaningful way, I’d like to see it.

          3. World Evangelical Alliance: “The Resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life, they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.”

            Evangelical Alliance: “The personal and visible return of Jesus Christ to fulfil the purposes of God, who will raise all people to judgement, bring eternal life to the redeemed and eternal condemnation to the lost, and establish a new heaven and new earth.”

            After following your two links, I can see where “resurrection of damnation” and “eternal condemnation” (and “eternal separation”) might all be language deliberately selected to be inclusive of conditionalism and all forms of eternal torment.

            Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like accommodations for two drastically different beliefs when specifying essential beliefs. Perhaps others see it as not that big of a deal.

          4. Consider what you’re uncomfortable with here:

            “accommodations for two drastically different beliefs” “when specifying essential beliefs”

            Your discomfort is because you’re missing the difference between nonessential and essential beliefs. One of the points debated and voted on in the process of building those large Evangelical confessions was whether conditionalism was against the essentials of evangelical Christian faith. This was no accident; although the vote was close, it was in favor of not excluding conditionalism.

          5. TLY, just chiming in to say I tend to agree with William’s note about essential and non-essential beliefs—but I personally appreciate your discomfort if you didn’t think this is a second-tier matter. Perhaps you’re familiar with the whole bounded set vs. centered set discussion in church circles (also in terms of the analogy to a fence vs. a watering hole), as well as similar issues in terms of the differences in how tightly or loosely we hold our beliefs. Suffice to say there are different models and purposes for how to use a formal statement of faith, ranging from exclusive stringency with clear denials, to inclusive common-ground affirmations, with degrees of openness. It is far too simplistic to say that this is the USA vs. UK in a nutshell, but there is a grain of truth to that overall contrast. What helps me ultimately settle on a good approach is to consider that we belong to the church universal, and our movement, evangelicalism, is very much a global one. Local church communities and more parochial institutions can validly require more exclusive particular commitments, but at the same time I would hope that they don’t go so far as to fail to accommodate the broader Body of Christ in some way.

          6. William and Peter, thanks for your comments.

            On one hand I can certainly appreciate the non-specific inclusion of conditional immortality and annihilationism within a statement of belief and it does feel good to be included and validated under “eternal separation” or similar language, but on the other hand just knowing that statement of belief is written to (primarily) include forms of eternal conscious torment produces a rather offensive and repulsive thought within me about the God I love.

            It’s a sometimes difficult dynamic for me—to desire (watering hole) harmony and be accommodating and allowing for disagreement with seemingly secondary matters, but then be deeply offended (fenced off) by such a terrible thought (deception, accusation) as eternal conscious torment and not wanting to call this important matter insignificant.

            It would be like someone wanting me to affirm a statement that my earthly father was a disciplinarian, when they know I’m thinking in terms of grounding and taking away car keys and they are thinking in terms of caging up and cigarette burns (torture). No one would affirm such a statement that is intended to harmoniously allow these two views of punishment to be nonspecifically blended as discipline. That’s terribly offensive to my father.

            The labeling of torture as “discipline” to accommodate grounding of course can’t be affirmed. Similarly, the labeling of ECT as “eternal separation” (or damnation or condemnation) to accommodate annihilation presents difficulties for me to affirm.

            Oh well, perhaps the bottom line is that I shouldn’t project what damnation, condemnation, and separation means to others, and that the reality of what that all means is not crystal clear to anyone. Along those lines, if damnation paints at least two starkly different pictures that are considered secondary issues, then why include this in a listing of critical beliefs? I would vote to model the Apostles’ Creed and leave damnation out of a listing of core beliefs.

          7. The apostle’s creed does include damnation, though: “and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” The result of judgment is damnation (in the sense it’s used in the KJV).
            I don’t see how we can simply escape this — although I’m inclined to agree with you that ideally we shouldn’t try to simply HIDE it, as has been done in the past.

          8. William, if the reference to that result of judgement is meant to communicate that there are two distinct possibilities—one of horrible existence and one of nonexistence—then I change my vote to just leave it out. Maybe something like what I referenced earlier:

            southeastchristian(dot)org/beliefs/ (unable to link)

          9. That’s all we’re suggesting — leave out the points of difference.

            (That creed is defective, though; it doesn’t leave out the points of difference, but the entire concept of Christian hope.)

          10. Additionally, when you say that “we shouldn’t try to simply HIDE it,” what would UNHIDDEN look like in a statement of faith that can be affirmed?

          11. It wouldn’t fit in the statement itself, but there should be some note alongside that the two differing beliefs are both accepted — much like most organizations accept both Calvinists and Arminians.

          12. William, that approach seems to conflict with what Peter just concluded in his article: “However, conditionalists are unable to affirm statements which include everlasting torment, or everlasting consciousness for the unsaved.”

            Perhaps he can clarify what he means here, but I take his statement to mean not only exclusive statements of everlasting torment, but also statements listing everlasting torment among other possibilities (even, as you would require, in a form detached or distanced from the primary statement of belief).

            Regarding what you describe as an after note of sorts, within my analogy, that could look like this:

            Statement of Belief: We believe your father to be a disciplinarian*.
            (*Some believe him to ground and take away car keys and others believe him to have a cage and administer cigarette burns; neither view is certain, yet both views are accepted as valid alternative beliefs.)

            So, the UNHIDDEN beliefs that are unpacked by an asterisk still present an insurmountable problem when trying to affirm a statement that attempts to find common ground between two conflicting beliefs.

          13. Well, yes, I am serious. Maybe I misunderstand what you are talking about with a statement of faith allowing for both views when you say, “ideally we shouldn’t try to simply HIDE it, as has been done in the past…there should be some note alongside.” Could you write such a statement to clarify what you are talking about since you seem exasperated with what I just wrote?

            Also, when you said earlier that “That creed is defective, though; it doesn’t leave out the points of difference, but the entire concept of Christian hope.” Did you mean to say, “it not only leaves out the points of difference, but the entire concept of Christian hope.”? If so, then what more hope need there be than this statement: “That man, created by God, willfully sinned against God and is consequently lost and without hope apart from Jesus Christ.”

            I’m confused by what you write.

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