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Conditional Immortality: What’s in a name?

(This is my first post in a series of posts on the propriety of the term ‘Conditional Immortality’ to uniquely pick out the set of doctrines more popularly known as ‘Annihilationism’.)

1. Introduction

Traditionally, systematic theology has divided the various views about the final fate of all humans into three views: (1) Annihilationism, (2) Traditionalism, and (3) Universalism. It is my view that there are evangelical versions of each of these views. I think there are well-intentioned, biblically literate, regenerate Christians who hold to each of these views; and furthermore, I believe that there are many who do so because they are convinced that the Bible teaches said view. That is to say, it is not the case, in some instances, that those who hold one of the above views do so primarily for emotional or philosophical reasons.

This is not to say that I don’t think one or more of these views are false. To lay my cards on the table, I hold to (2). To disclose further: I feel fairly comfortable with my understand of the best arguments for (3); however, I previously had not given much attention to (1). There’s various reasons for this, but the past is in the past and I’d like to start turning my attention to (1). At this stage in my understanding of (1) I want to raise conceptual and philosophical difficulties and perplexities for (1). As I dig through the literature (e.g., E. Fudge The Fire that Consumes, C. Date et al. (eds) Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, etc.), I will slowly offer some (broadly) theological criticisms of (1) (that’s the plan, anyway!). Now, if you read the previous sentence (especially the parenthetical), you’ll note that one of the books mentions the word, ‘Conditionalism.’ What does that mean? It refers to “Conditional Immortality.” Many contemporary defenders of (1) wish that “Conditional Immortality” could be substituted for (1). I don’t think that name is very helpful. In fact, I don’t think “traditionalism” is either. In this post I want to offer some of my reasons for why I think what I do. In the course of doing so, I hope to raise some interesting questions and concerns. 

Caveat lector: In what follows I am assuming a bit of familiarity with (1) – (3). If you’re not familiar with the positions, and you don’t want to look into it, I’ll provide the roughest of statements of each view, void of all appropriate qualifications and nuance!

(1) Annihilationism: Some number less that the total number of humans who have/do/will ever exist will inherit everlasting life, the rest will be sent to hell and annihilated, where this means that the entire person will be snuffed out of existence.

(2) Traditionalism: Some number less that the total number of humans who have/do/will ever exist will inherit everlasting life, the rest will be sent to hell to pay the penalty of sin, and they shall continue to exist in hell forever.

(3) The total number of humans who have/do/will ever exist will inherit everlasting life (I’ll add one qualification here: evangelical universalists will say that those who die without faith in Christ will be sent to hell to suffer remedial punishment, being released when they finally profess faith in Christ).

2. Conditional Immortality

With that brief overview in hand, our first question is, what is the motivation to make “Conditional Immortality” the standard term of art instead of “Annihilationism”? Well, think of this in terms of marketing. “Annihilationism” comes with a lot of baggage a proper evangelical might want to avoid. For example, the view has historically floundered within evangelicalism but flourished in such camps as: Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh-Day Adventists, World Wide Church of God, Bible Student Movement, Christadelphians, the Millerite Movement, and Advent Christians. To be sure, proper and stalwart evangelicals have held to the Annihilationism, examples are: John Stott, Clark Pinnock (of the more unquestionably 1987 evangelical), Philip Hughes, John Wenham, Edward Fudge, a committee report for the Anglican church, John Stackhouse, Terrance Tiessen, Richard Swinburne, and F.F. Bruce expressed agnosticism over the issue. Yet, citing such a list has not seemed sufficient to undo the negative connotations associated with Annihilationism. So from a purely P.R. standpoint, it’s time to rebrand (I speak loosely here, the term “Conditional Immortality” has been around since roughly the mid-19th century, and mostly though not always designated “Annihilationism”). “Conditional Immortality” is the term that many of the contemporary movers and shakers are pushing.

Now, I do not want to give the impression that “image” is all, or mostly, or primarily what matters here. What adherents of (1) will want to say is that “Annihilationism” doesn’t properly capture their whole position on the fate of humankind. They find their entire view about the fate of all humans to be biblical and beautiful, and thus they do not want to see their view described by a term that narrowly defines what will happen to the finally impenitent. Surely we can empathize with the motivation here.

So then, what is “Conditional Immortality”? Here is how one conditionalist describes it:

“Conditional Immortality” is an unfortunately cumbersome piece of jargon that refers to a fairly simple belief: That human beings are mortal, and can only receive immortality on the condition that God gives it to them as a gift through Jesus Christ.

This author then proceeds as if “annihilation” falls right out of this picture. That move seems unwarranted to me, but I’ll save my evaluation for later. Another description of (for now) so-called “conditionalism” (short for Conditional Immortality) is given by something of a conditionalist think-tank, Rethinking Hell, here:

Conditionalism refers to the biblical doctrine of conditional immortality, which holds that God alone possesses immortality innately and therefore any other being who is immortal (imperishable, deathless) is so extrinsically, that is, as the result of a positive act of God. No other being, human or otherwise, whether by creation or resurrection, possesses immortality innately but only as God’s specific gift.

Anytime the New Testament mentions immortality in connection with human beings, there are three contrasts which bear out as true: (1) that immortality is ascribed only to the redeemed and never to the damned, (2) that it is a gift of God in the heavenly body and never the natural body, and (3) that it is always in reference to the whole person and never a disembodied soul or spirit.

Conditionalists believe that since the damned are not immortal and never will be, they will actually perish in hell (annihilation). This is the punishment referred to in the Bible as destruction, by which one will perish in the lake of fire, the second death. Some Christians suppose that everyone innately has an immortal soul, redeemed and damned alike, which God will not or cannot destroy. But Jesus implied otherwise, saying that we should fear God because he “can destroy both soul and body in hell” (gehenna).

Immortality is a gift bestowed by God upon his children. To receive this crown, a person must belong to Christ. Such is the condition of this conditional immortality. And this conditionalist view is evangelical insofar as it is understood and articulated within a framework of evangelical Christian orthodoxy.

So this view, then—evangelical conditionalism—is what we explore and commend at Rethinking Hell, whereby we examine how those who do not belong to Christ will be resurrected to face both judgment and the punishment of their destruction in the lake of fire, “the second death.”

Again, I have several worries about what supposedly “falls out” of the seemingly benign concept of conditional immortality, viz., only God is absolutely immortal (i.e., there are no possible state of affirms at which God ceases to exist), and for any created human person, H, if H is immortal, then H’s immortality is had only if some (contingent) condition obtains. Taken at face value, it seems as if the majority of the Church has affirmed this; namely, Christians want to affirm the dependency of all created things on the will of God. Thus, one may exist forever and yet be conditionally immortal. As we shall see in the course of this series, conditionalists pack a lot more into the concept of “conditional immortality” than merely being contingently immortal.

Now, already conditionalists will want to push back against what I just said. I know what they are itching to say (they want to specify the necessary condition!). If it’s merely God’s will, they will say this notion is uninteresting. I ask that they hold off pressing these sorts of worries at this time, because I’m painting with a broad brush. But here’s one immediate worry that does seem relevant. If a goal is to distance the view under discussion from Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and other unsavory (or at least not classically evangelical) groups, how does “Conditional Immortality” do that? If one of the above groups held to everything in the above doctrinal statements except they added that the condition was “good works,” wouldn’t it be proper to say said group held to conditional immortality? Furthermore, apparently the Muslim philosopher Avicenna and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides held to a conditional immortality, coupled with annihilation (cf. Medieval and Modern Perspectives (Harwood Academic), ch. 12). Wouldn’t this view properly be called a conditional immortality?

We can safely bypass these questions, at least for now, if we add a qualifier to “Conditional Immortality,” to wit: Evangelical Conditional Immortality or, Evangelical Conditionalism for short. For now I’ll refer to this view as EC. I’ll refer to (3)—Evangelical Universalism—as EU.

Traditionalism

In light of the above skeletal description of what we are now calling “Evangelical Conditionalism,” I’ll turn and look briefly at “Traditionalism.” Let’s skip past some of the above work and immediately qualify this view as, Evangelical Traditionalism. So now we have ET along with EC and EU. One immediate worry I have with ET is that, while EC and EU seem to describe their views as “we think the Bible teaches X,” ET is typically defined as the majority view on the fate of all humans as held throughout Church history. Where’s the Bible in this description? We can remedy this: ET is the claim that the basic structure of what the majority of church history has thought the Bible teaches about the fate of all humans, is what the Bible teaches about their fate.

Before proceeding, I’ll note here that I’m not saying that the label “Traditionalism” is being used pejoratively. One EC blogger suggests that taking issue with the term “Traditionalism” indicates that one is a greenhorn who fails to realize that the term has been employed by people on both sides of the debate. I agree both sides have used that word to label the view. However, it is only fair to point out that ECs and EUs have sometimes argued that fairly early into the history of the Church, Christianity became infected by Greek Philosophy, and this explains several tenets of what is often considered to be the traditional view. Coupling these claims—Traditionalism and its Greek philosophical influence—at least mildly implies that a disease lies at the heart of Traditionalism. I can cite several examples here where ECs or EUs tell the story of Church history and link Greek philosophy with Traditionalism. I’ll just cite one: Greg Boyd writes,

While the Hellenistic philosophical tradition generally viewed the human soul as inherently immortal, Scripture sees immortality as something that belongs to God alone…Unfortunately, some (but not all) early Church fathers accepted the Hellenistic view and consequently read into Scripture the view that the wicked suffer unending torment. This became the dominant view of hell throughout Church history.

We note here the bifurcation of Scripture vs. Hellenistic philosophy, and the latter, but not the former, is endemic to “Traditionalism.” Thus, while it is true that both ETs and EC/Us use the word “Traditionalism” to describe the traditional view, the latter group often, at least passively aggressively, demeans the traditional view by making sure to cite “Greek philosophy” as a crucial part of its etiology. However, I want to stress that I am leaving these sorts of complaints aside for my purposes, because I see this as a petty complaint, at least compared to the worries I want to raise.

Hence, having (hopefully) extracted myself from the criticism that my worries are rooted in a cage-stage mentality, I want to state another worry I have. As things seem to me from an overhead view dialectical terrain, both ECs and EUs have made moves to locate their respective views among the early Church fathers. Here one thinks of LeRoy Froom’s massive The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers (2 vol.) and Ilaria Ramelli’s massive 900 page tome, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. On the Interwebs, claims from proponents of EC and EU about the distribution of these views range from “widespread” to “the majority.” The way things seem to be headed, an impartial person who stumbled upon the relevant literature could be forgiven for thinking “Traditionalism” is the view that was not held by the majority of those in closest proximity to the New Testament writers, but became the majority view somewhere around the 3rd or 4th centuries, after Hellenistic philosophy had crept into the Church and driven out truly Biblical anthropology and eschatology!

Another worry is that ET is either defined too narrowly such that a large number of evangelical views will not fit into any of the traditional categories, or, to avoid this problem, it is defined too broadly such that it becomes virtually conceptually otiose. The former: on the “narrow” view, “Traditionalism” is equated to the view that the soul is inherently immortal, hell is a literal lake of fire complete with all the Dantean trappings, and either God or satan “tortures” the damned forever. Now, I don’t hold this view, and neither do traditionalist I know and read. For example, Calvin didn’t hold this view, yet he’s usually considered to be a paradigm traditionalist. Likewise for thinkers like C. S. Lewis, Jon Kvanvig, Eleanore Stump, and Jerry Walls. How do we classify them? Perhaps by an endless stream of qualifications, like Mitigating Evangelical Traditionalism; Attenuated Mitigating Evangelical Traditionalism; Mitigating Soft Evangelical Traditionalism-Lite?! The above thinkers classify themselves as working within the Traditional tradition, and others have so classified them as well. But if we allow these people in, just what is the content of “Evangelical Traditionalism”? Just that some people have everlasting life and others suffer and are punished everlastingly? No, that won’t do, for EC affirms that!

Well, perhaps, as some ECs have told me, ET is any view where some number less than the total number of humans are granted everlasting life and the rest of the humans (and perhaps the fallen angels) who have/do/will ever live suffer eternal conscious torment (ECT). Indeed, some ECs have suggested that ET isn’t a good name; rather, (2) above should be swapped out for ECT. Yet here the EC does not treat others as she wants to be treated. Recall that above I had pointed out that ECs think “Annihilationism” isn’t an apt label, and that’s because their views about the fate of all humans is so much more robust than propositions about what happens to the finally lost. In the same vein, shouldn’t the ET be extended the same courtesy? The question answers itself.

Thus, as many ECs have said, “For now, it looks like we’re stuck with ‘Evangelical Traditionalism’ until a better name comes along. In the interim, we will understand the view as the conjunction of (1) Some number less than the total number of humans are granted eternal life and (2) some suffer ECT.” But a problem here is that many putative traditionalists do not think hell is best described as torment. Take Eleonore Stump’s view that God will make the damned as comfortable as possible in hell, and he will limit the harm they can do to each other. That doesn’t sound like torment! Perhaps, then, we should find something better than (2) that can allow for the extremes of the Dantean view and the Stumpean view.

Let’s now make a modest move. At minimum, ET denies both EC and EU’s teaching about hell. This entails that hell is populated with the conscious persons forever. Furthermore, ET agrees with EC that heaven is populated by some number less than the total number of humans to have ever existed, and this results by grace through faith in Christ. Call this position Mere Evangelical Traditionalism, MET. Accordingly, MET contains two theses, we might call them (i) the minimal traditional heaven thesis and (ii) the minimal traditional hell thesis. I will suppose that (i) is easy enough to understand. That leaves (ii), the minimal traditional hell thesis. Kevin Timpe (Free Will in Philosophical Theology, 2014, §5.2) sets out to defend (ii), he analyzes the view accordingly:

The Minimal Traditional Hell Thesis

A. once a person is in hell, it is not possible for that person to escape,
B. hell is not empty as long as its inhabitants are contingent creatures and,
C. those who are in hell retain their free will.

A. rules out EU but is consistent with EC. B. is meant to rule out EC. For most contemporary philosophers and theologians, C is there to exculpate God from any blame or taint; but I note that C. is consistent with a robust Reformed theology (granting the view ad arguendo). Now, technically, what B. rules out is annihilation, where this is defined as the complete snuffing out of the conscious person.. It is an open question, for my purposes, whether MET can properly be called a version of conditional immortality. I want to suggest that it can. Making good on this will occupy me in the upcoming posts in this series.

The upshot here, ultimately, is that I think MET can mirror every move EC makes. That is, a MET model can account for all of the relevant passages EC puts forth in defense of their view, and is consistent with their basic anthropology and biblical theology of “life” and “death”. If this is right, at least two things follow: (1) EC is simply a bad name and annihilationists need to find a new term of art (if they refuse, I want to suggest that both traditionalists and universalists either do not refer to them by the EC handle, or at least make the point known in all future discussions); and (2) a potential argument falls out of this, the skeletal version looks like this (the relevant traditional background here is Christian church history, and the proponents of views are evangelical Christians):

  1. That a view is traditional is a good but defeasible reason to endorse the view. (We assume God guides the church, Eph. 4, those who develop and codify doctrines in creeds and confessions are assumed to be Spirit-filled Christians who generally have “eyes to see”, etc.)
  2. For all theological views, V and V*, if V and V* are underdetermined by the Biblical witness, and V is the traditional V but V* is not, and there is no other non-traditional, extra-biblical truth T that is in favor of V* but not V, then the proponent of V* who sees this situation ought to affirm V over V*. (Basically, all else being equal, tradition is a scale-tipper)
  3. There exists a well-motivated MET view such that MET and EC are underdetermined by the Biblical witness, and MET is traditional whereas EC is not, and no other T is in favor of EC but not MET.
  4. :. The proponent of EC who sees that this is the case ought to endorse MET.

Such an argument will need to be appropriately Chisholmed, but I think we can overlook some of the technical details and put it into service for our purposes. Premise 2 is important, I call it the Simple Criteria for Adjudicating doctrinalLy-equivalent disputEs; or, SCALE. I’ll call the whole argument, the argument for FiLtering out AnnihilationisM from Evangelicalism, or, FLAME. (Here I am not saying annihilationists are not evangelicals, merely that the argument, if good, has as its aim to remove that option as a contender.)

To make sure there is no confusion, I will state the obvious: I have not argued for the above; that is, I have not justified FLAME’s crucial premises. Moreover, I am not sure I will argue for the relevant premises, at least in this series. I think my main motivation will be to develop the MET model, argue for the equivalence, and thus provide a reason to take “Conditional Immortality” off the table as a suitable substitute for “Annihilationism.”

I want to now close this already too lengthy post with three points, two on FLAME and one on the MET model.

  • FLAME: there are two immediate reasons, off the top of my head, that an EC might use to dismiss FLAME right off the bat. The first is this, the evidence from the patristics is the T we’re looking for. This argument would need to be developed, e.g., making use of a proximity premise like, e.g., “a view that closer to the time the NT was written is more likely true than views that are further.” I doubt a strong argument can be developed here. Moreover, I disagree with the EC evaluation of the patristics as a whole. Finally, the MET model will be consistent with what many or most of the patristics have to say here. The second is this: there is a T, and that is an argument from the “character of God.” Here we might think that if two views are equal, and view 1 is consistent with the character of God while view 2 is not, view 1 ought to be accepted over view 2. There are many things I would want to say to such a move (especially about the understanding of the character of God and the inferences drawn from it), one is this: if the EC makes this move I think I can put pressure on her to move away from EC and to EU.
  • MET: Many ECs are probably thinking that MET is too weak, and they don’t care about a model like, say, Stumps, wherein God tries to make the damned as comfortable as possible and limits the harm they can cause one another. I mean, on such a view, it would even be too cruel to make Rush Limbaugh have to sit and listen to Rachel Maddow for all eternity! Such a view can’t hope to account for all the relevant Biblical passages (or so it seems). I will grant this. Hence, I shall create a MET model that is very close to the Dantean picture of hell. Such a model will qualify as “traditional” by anyone’s lights.
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3 Comments

  1. One line of argumentation against Conditionalism has come from philosophical understandings. Anselm and Aquinas thought that since God is infinite, therefore all sins committed against Him should be infinite and hence should expect infinite torment instead of proportional torment and destruction as punishment. This does not seem to follow certain scriptures however. In Isaiah 40.2 God said that “Jerusalem had received double for her sins.” As attested elsewhere, the reason for the “double” was because: 1. they both overtly sinned and 2. they departed from the Lord (a separate sin).

    So, if this is how God does His accounting toward humans, sin against Him is not infinite it seems. I never thought this philosophical argument defending the traditional view as strong. If I am correct on my understanding of Isaiah 40.2, it makes this argument void.

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks for the comment. I may be missing something, but I don’t see the relevance of this comment to the post. It would be an interesting exercise if you could try to state the argument you’re responding to. From (1) “God is infinite” you can’t get the conclusion (C) “:. all since against him receive infinite conscious punishment” straightaway. There’s no inference rule that warrants that move. So, that means there’s a whole bunch of stuff {STUFF} that goes between (1) and (C), such that 1 + {STUFF} logically imply (C). It may be worthwhile to see if you could present the argument, see what the reasons are, and then see if your defeater still works.

  3. […] (Note: This is part two of a series on evangelical conditionalism/annihilationism. Part one is located here.) […]

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