“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 3)

“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, I clarified what we mean in calling our view “conditional immortality.” In Part 2, a doctrine of proto-conditionalism was identified and elucidated, providing important historical context. Now in Part 3, I’ll complete the overall justification of our chosen label, giving due attention to convention, and also further explain our view and its relevance today.

As we’ve now seen, in the plainest terms immortality means “will live forever” and conditional means “subject to a condition.” Narrowly expressed, that’s primarily what we mean by the words conditional immortality. There is more involved theologically, but at the level of words, it remains for us to appreciate the secondary sense of conditional that we are also invoking.

A second sense of conditional, denying universal and absolute

In theological labeling convention, conditional is a technical term implying that conditions will not be universally met (i.e. rendered absolute). The reason for this is that it’s not merely the fact of a condition that is in view, but rather the interesting question of scope. If you wanted to announce a universal scope, you would call your position universal or unconditional. If you wanted to refer to a limited, nonuniversal scope, you would refer instead to “conditional” matters. In this sense, something can’t be both universal and conditional.

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“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 2)

“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, I clarified what we mean in calling our view “conditional immortality.” Now, in Part 2, we will continue with some important historical background. In Part 3, I’ll complete the overall justification of our chosen label with due attention to convention and further explain our view and its relevance today. If you prefer, you can read the entire article as a whole.

What “conditional immortality” meant before it was cool

Did you know that the Christian church has always held to conditional immortality? Well, not necessarily in a way that implies annihilation, but perhaps more consistent with today’s usage than you might expect.

For purposes of testing that claim, let us suppose that, at base, the term conditional immortality refers to the idea that humanity was not created mortal or immortal per se, but rather conditionally immortal or conditionally mortal, depending on emphasis.

More fully expressed, this would mean humans are mortal yet capable of immortality (after meeting qualifying conditions), or alternatively, immortal yet capable of mortality (after meeting disqualifying conditions).

Writing in the late second century, Theophilus of Antioch spoke this way explicitly:

Read more about “Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 2)

“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 1)

“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 1)

Alas! The hell debate has a terminology problem. First, traditionalism is nondescript and sometimes considered pejorative. It’s also not quite accurate: there were several traditions in early Christendom, with eternal torment dominating in the Western church from around the fourth century. Next, universalism can refer to the inclusivist outlook on world religions, which evangelical universalists typically deny in favor of an eternal opportunity to respond to the gospel. Finally, conditionalism (short for Conditional Immortality) is sometimes reduced to a view about the mechanics of human mortality/immortality instead of pertaining to ultimate destinies in the context of eschatology.

The addition of “eternal torment” and “ultimate reconciliation” to our deck of terms helps us compensate for some shortcomings. However, despite many proposals, no viable alternative has emerged that is simultaneously strong and consistent across all three positions. It seems that these terms are here to stay, for better or worse, as well-established shorthand labels. Read more about “Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 1)