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Mere Evangelical Conditionalism – 1

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

In the last post I introduced the terms “traditionalism” and “conditional immortality.” I raised some worries that showed some ways that the terms can give rise to conceptual confusions. I engaged in a bit of clarification and settled on a refined description for each term: (1) Mere Evangelical Traditionalism, and (2) Evangelical Conditional Immortality (which I shortened to Evangelical Conditionalism). I then let “MET” = (1), and “EC” = (2).

One of my main goals for the series is to develop a MET model that is superior to EC, or at least equal in terms of explaining the relevant texts. That model will be presented a few posts down the road. My immediate goal is to lay out what I take to be the EC core. By “the EC core” I mean the main biblical tenets that conditionalists think traditionalism is simply unable to account for, and it is in virtue of this inability to account for these tenets that conditionalism is said to be superior. It’s precisely this core that my MET model aims to meet.

In spelling out this core I will try to follow some of the things conditionalists have told me about their view. The first thing is that conditionalism is consistent with both dualism and physicalism. Thus, a doctrine of anthropology will not feature on the list of core tenets. Second, conditionalists have told me that their view is consistent with a wide variety of views on the intermediate state, namely it is consistent with (i) claiming that the person ceases to exist after bodily death, (ii) the person exists but is in some sense unconscious( a view often called “soul sleep”), and (iii) the person persists consciously through the intermediate state. Thus, a doctrine of the intermediate state shall not appear on the list of core doctrines. Third, these entail that conditionalism is not committed to the view that death just is the cessation of the person’s existence (however, MEC does want to say that the second death (Rev 2:11; Rev 20:6, 14; Rev. 21:8.) marks the end of the person’s existence; a discussion of ‘death’ will be discussed in a future post). A person may therefore exist after death, or not, and we are told that conditionalism is consistent with both of these options. Thus, assuming that death just is the cessation of existence will not feature on the list of core tenets.

In light of this, I propose one more amendment to a term introduced in the last post. Since I am trying to respect the conditionalist’s claims of neutrality between the above views—offering something like “big tent” conditionalism—I will call the view presented below, Mere Evangelical Conditionalism (hereafter “MEC”). This gets at the “big tent” theme, and also is fits nicely with the opposing view, MET.

I shall present the main tenets of MEC over the next three posts (including the present post). In this post I shall discuss what is perhaps the key tenet of MEC: God alone is immortal. By calling this a “key tenet” of conditionalism, I am not thereby implying that other views on personal eschatology deny this doctrine. Nonetheless, to the conditionalist, this tenet can rightly be called “foundational.” I turn to it now.

MEC-1. God Alone is Immortal

That God alone is immortal is a very important tenet of MEC. It has often been called “the heart” or “foundational verse” of conditionalism. Virtually every exposition of conditionalism begins with its affirmation. Focus on this theme allows the conditionalist to say that “Conditional immortality is—at the heart of the issue—a doctrine which seeks to preserve what the Bible says about God.” The idea is that if it is true that only God is immortal, one of the most prominent arguments for traditionalism falls flat. Edward Fudge seems to treat this tenet as something like a premise from which we can immediately infer that not all humans are immortal. He writes, “because only God is inherently immortal (deathless), human immortality is ‘conditional'”. Now, since Fudge holds that immortality is obtained only by the saints at the resurrection, it follows that he thinks since only God is inherently immortal, no human is immortal now.

Of course, this tenet find its source in 1 Tim 6:16, which tells us that “God alone has immortality.” According to a conditionalist FAQ, from 1 Tim 6:16 we can conclude that,

[I]f there were a box in which all the beings of this universe who could not die were placed, it would be occupied by the LORD alone. No created being—not even the angels in heaven—share that attribute with him, for since they owe their existence and life to God, they cannot claim immortality. Human beings (even human souls) are just as much created beings as the angels, and therefore share their mortality.

This author also thinks that no human person is presently immortal, since “the Bible never speaks of human immortality this side of the resurrection at Christ’s return.” According to these sources, it appears as if conditionalists think we can conclude straightaway from 1 Tim 6:16 that no humans are now immortal. Here’s the argument:

(MEC-1) Only God is immortal.
(C1) ∴ No human person is immortal.

Of course, the conclusion doesn’t follow immediately from (MEC-1). We need another premise,

(MEC-1) Only God is immortal.
(2) No human person is God.
(C2) ∴ No human person is immortal.

But now the argument seems like it requires endorsing heresy. What, for example, do we do with Jesus—the God-man? He is a human person. We can get around this by adjusting (2). Tom Morris (The Logic of God Incarnate, 1986) introduced the distinction between being merely and fully human. A mere human has all the properties necessary for being fully human, and is also limited in certain ways, viz. a mere human person cannot also be divine (these limiting properties are not part of human nature as such). An individual can be fully human (exemplifying all the properties necessary for human nature) without being merely human, since he would not also have the limiting properties. Thus, Jesus for example, according to Christian dogma, would be fully but not merely human, since he is also fully divine. With these in hand,

(MEC-1) Only God is immortal.
(2a) No mere human person is God.
(C3) ∴ No mere human person is immortal.

But this doesn’t really help. For it might seem like we can also use (MEC-1) to derive the conclusion that no fully human person is immortal. Moreover, if a God-man isn’t, strictly speaking, God (as the way the terms are used in the argument), then we can still use (MEC-1) to rule out Jesus’ immortality. Of course, the incarnation is philosophically perplexing and raises many mysteries for all sides. So for the sake of simplicity I’m going to bracket counterexamples from Jesus in this post (mind you, this isn’t to say that the nature of Jesus is or isn’t problematic for conditionalism, it’s just to say that I’m ignoring any potential problems in this post.).

Now, we may have reached the desired conclusion only if the terms ‘God’, ‘immortal’, ‘human person’ are being used univocally in our argument. To see how ambiguity can muck up an argument, consider this example:

(1) Only mental entities have intentionality.
(2b) No road map is a mental entity.
(C4) ∴ No road map has intentionality.

‘Intentionality’ is often referred to as “the mark of the mental.” It’s often defined as “aboutness.” The problem here is that many people do think maps are “about” things, e.g., the thick red line with the I-38 on it is “about” interstate I-38. A popular way to explain this (which you don’t need to accept, but the illustration is useful) is to say that mental states have original intentionality and maps have derived intentionality. In our case, the map derives its intentionality from a mental state which had that intentionality originally. Our question now is, might there be ambiguities in our target argument? To answer this question, we need to look at the terms more closely. It seems clear that if there’s to be a problem of this sort in our target argument, it’s most likely going to be with the major term, ‘immortality’, in premise (MEC-1). Thankfully, analysing this term does not require a digression on our part, because premise (MEC-1) just is our first core MEC tenet!

‘Immortality’, as it turns out, is multiply ambiguous (see e.g., Fischer and Curl (1996) for an exhaustive philosophical taxonomy). Conditionalists (and Traditionalists) often use the term in imprecise ways, usually when writing for popular audiences. For example, conditionalist Edward Fudge writes, “‘Immortality’ means deathlessness, and anyone who is ‘immortal’ is incapable of dying.” Let’s see if this definition helps us gain clarity:

(MEC-1a) Only God is incapable of death.
(2a) No mere human person is God.
(C5) ∴ No mere human person is incapable of death.

Before I get to the problem with this version of the argument, the careful reader will note that I use “death” instead of “dying” as that state which mere humans are capable of being in. This is because dying is a process, and people who are alive can go through this process while living. On the other hand, death is either the state of being dead, or, a point like event in the process of death when extinction is assured (SEP §1.1). As a result, one might think that dying is, strictly speaking, consistent with immortality. For example, S might be dying and, before S reaches death, the process is reverses and S continues to live on indefinitely. Therefore, I shall mean by “death” the state of being dead. So (C5) says that every human person is capable of being in that state.

Now, having made clear my use of terms, I will raise two problems with the target argument just given: First, nothing in (C5) rules out the truth of the proposition that no humans will, in fact, suffer death. Just because I am capable of X does not mean that I will in fact X. For example, I am capable of speaking Mandarin, though lamentably, I don’t think I ever will speak the language. Second, a new, multiply ambiguous word has been introduced—death. How are we to understand what “death” means? We might say, “It means not-living.” Two problems: (i) death doesn’t mean “not-living” (my car keys are not living, they are not therefore “dead”); and (ii), “life” is multiply ambiguous. I shall therefore withhold discussion of ‘life’ and ‘death’ until later, as they are both core tenets of MEC. And yet, I find it helpful to make one point: In ordinary language, we tend to think of life and death primarily in biological terms. Thus, a person might die in the sense that her body no longer holds certain vital signs (cardio, brain, or higher brain criteria), yet the person might continue to exist as an immaterial soul or even, given certain materialist assumptions, here mind is “downloaded” into, say, a synthetic body. In both cases she is not living (in the biological sense); and yet, if she continued to exist indefinitely, it would be exceedingly strange to deny that this person is immortal. So, in ordinary language, immortality seems primarily to be about the indefinite existence of the conscious person. Hence, everlasting conscious existence is not the same as everlasting life. For example, in his debate with Nate Taylor, conditionalist Chris Date made sure to specify that the “eternal life” possessed by the saints, whatever else it is, “minimally includes biological life.” On this view, then, an immaterial soul that survives its death is not biologically alive, yet it is still existing.

When conditionalists have attempted to precisify ‘immortality’, as it is used in 1 Tim 6:16, they naturally have turned to the Greek. They note that the Bible uses two Greek words that are both translated ‘immortality’—”aphtharsia” and “athanasia.” The former seems to include endless existence, but also propositions about decaying, perishability, etc. The latter is used in 1 Tim 6:16 and seems to mean the more traditional conception of immortality, viz. the endless existence of the conscious person. I will now use “endless existence” as shorthand for the indefinite continuation of a person’s existence, even if the person has died. With this in hand, let’s substitute ‘endless existence’ for ‘immortality’ in our target argument:

(MEC-1b) Only God has endless existence.
(2a) No mere human person is God.
(C6) ∴ No mere human person has endless existence.

Ultimately, (C6) is what evangelical conditionalism needs to rule out. This premise is the main target. We want to know whether 1 Tim 6:16 rules it out. Now, here is a problem with the argument given immediately above. Recall that, according to conditionalists, MEC is supposed to be consistent with the conscious person’s persisting through the intermediate state. Here, then, is a scenario consistent with MEC: Sam is numerically identical to an immaterial soul. Upon death, all souls exist consciously in an intermediate state (either in the abode of the dead or righteous). Upon Christ’s return, all souls will be reunited with their resurrection body, and thus made living again. Some of those embodied souls will enter the New Heavens and Earth to live forever. Sam is one of these souls. Thus, Sam has endless conscious existence. MEC is supposed to be consistent with this state of affairs, and so we must deny that (C6) is entailed by our first key tenet, in its (MEC-1b) iteration. Now, some conditionalists might be thinking, “Easy, just give up dualism.” First, such a move will speed up the internal debates that must (and will!) eventually happen within the fledgling conditionalist movement, breaking the (uneasy) truce between dualists and physicalists. Second, I can tell the above story on several versions of physicalism. Without going into detail, I’ll just note that several Christian physicalists (and monists) have proposed physicalist-friendly versions of the intermediate state (e.g., Kevin Corcoran, Lynne Baker,Greg Bahnsen and, though not a materialist himself, Dean Zimmerman). Must conditionalists deny these versions of physicalism? That would be a strange result. Must conditionalism, then, deny the possibility of a consciously experienced intermediate state? Besides being yet another break with traditional Christian doctrine, the intermediate state is, by conditionalists’ lights, far more biblically supported than MET. So all of these moves are costs, and it’s not clear the S. S. Conditionalist can continue taking on water in this way without sinking.

There is nothing inconsistent with the above scenario and (MEC-1b). This is because we might also think that 1 Tim 6:16 is stating something that will be true about God even in the New Heavens and Earth. At that time, say conditionalists, the only existing human persons will be those living forever in the New Jerusalem. We ask, at that time, will 1 Tim 6:16 no longer be true? That seems antecedently unlikely, and there are at least three reasons why. The first reason is this: 1 Tim 6:16 shouldn’t be taken as merely suggesting that God’s existence is endless, for that is consistent with God’s existence having a beginning. Many theologians and philosophers think that one thing 1 Tim 6:16 is affirming is that God has no beginning or end. Let’s then include this distinction in our target argument:

(MEC-1c) Only God has beginningless and endless existence.
(2a) No mere human person is God.
(C7) ∴ No mere human person has beginningless and endless existence.

Now, (C7) is true enough, but it is of course consistent with the denial of (C6), which conditionalists cannot allow. On this analysis, nothing about 1 Tim. 6:16, in its (MEC-1d) iteration, demands that we deny that all human persons will indefinitely exist from their first moment of existence onward. As we have seen, this is precisely what conditionalists mean to deny about human persons, not the claim that human persons have no beginning.

The second reason we might want to think that 1 Tim 6:16 will be true in the age to come is that whatever the immortality had by the saints will be endowed immortality. We don’t think God’s immortality is endowed, we think it’s original to himself, and this will be true even if 1 Tim 6:16 does not have in mind “two-way” immortality (beginingless and endless). I will call the immortality that God has from himself original immortality; and it’s this that is uniquely true of God’s immortality, however we understand that term. We can present another version of the target argument:

(MEC-1d) Only God has original immortality.
(2a) No mere human person is God.
(C8) ∴ No mere human person has original immortality.

Of course, (MEC1-d) is true enough. But note that it’s affirmation is consistent with the denial of (C6). And again, nothing about 1 Tim 6:16, in its (MEC-1d) iteration, tells us that all human persons will not indefinitely exist from their first moment of existence onward. The third reason we might want to think that 1 Tim 6:16 will still be true in the New Heavens and Earth is that, as Edward Fudge says, the verse “says that only God has immortality in himself. Humans are not naturally immortal.” Here, ‘natural immortality’ means something like “the property of being immortal by nature.” Fudge says that the notion that souls are naturally immortal is an import from Greek philosophers (I don’t think this unambiguously is true; what may be true is that one particular philosophical expression of the commonsense belief that we are immortal is due to Plato, and Fudge constantly confuses the two, but I will leave this to the side).  Yet, I have not seen conditionalists deny that God is naturally immortal because the idea is stolen from Greek philosophers. Hence, the concept of natural immortality as such can’t be problematic. This aside, it is clear that conditionalists think 1 Tim 6:16 at least rules out that humans are naturally immortal. Let’s see how this iteration of the target argument fares:

(MEC-1e) Only God has natural immortality.
(2a) No mere human person is God.
(C8) ∴ No mere human person has natural immortality.

Unfortunately, it turns out that even this minimal conclusion cannot be sustained by (MEC-1e). The alert reader will immediately see that we can employ the above distinction between original and endowed natural immortality. Thus, (C8) would be consistent with human persons having their natural immortality endowed to them by their creator—this might be called ‘unnatural immortality’, where the source of the immortality is not natural to human persons but external to them, namely, issuing from God.

Another argument to the conclusion that 1 Tim 6:16 rules out humans now possessing immortality is that the verses teaches us that only God is essentially immortal. At times, Fudge et al. seem to be of the opinion that if a human person H has the property of being immortal, H must have that property essentially. Some traditionalists have claimed this (though it’s not essential to Traditionalism as such). For example, some have argued that (i) all humans are made in the image of God, (ii) the imago dei is essential to being human, and this image includes immortality. Apart from this traditionalist argument, one might forgive Fudge et al. for thinking that so long as the traditionalist merely claims that immortality is a property shared by all humans, then they’re saying that immortality is essential property of humankind. Thus, the target argument becomes:

(MEC-1f) Only God is essentially immortal.
(2a) No mere human person is God.
(C9) ∴ No mere human person is essentially immortal.

A first response is familiar: just make a distinction between being essentially immortal originally and being endowed with essential immortality. But let us grant the conditionalist that 1 Tim 6:16 teaches that only God can be essentially immortal in any sense. In this way it might be thought that if, as the traditionalist claims, all persons are immortal, then they’re committed to claiming that all human persons are essentially immortal, which we’ve (tentatively) granted 1 Tim 6:16 denies. Thankfully, this affords us the opportunity to make another important distinction, that between common properties and essential properties (cf. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, 63). If ϕ is essential for belonging to a kind K, then x’s membership in K would be impossible without x’s exemplifying ϕ. This entails that every member of K will exemplify ϕ; it is thus a universal property. But, we should not think that just because some property,Ψ, is had by every member of K, that Ψ’s exemplification is therefore essential for membership in K. That is, an essential property for belonging to a kind K entails universal exemplification of that property, but the converse is not true. Universal exemplification of a property by all members of K does not entail that the property is essential to belonging to K. This is because some properties are common to a kind. A common property is one had by many of the members of K, with the limiting case being universally shared by all members of K (ibid. Morris). Morris gives the example “living on the earth at some time or other” as a property common but not essential to all humans (for example, if we start to colonize space, a human may spend its entire life on Mars).

In light of the above distinction between common and essential properties, we note that (C9) is compatible with the denial of (C6). Thus, again, nothing about 1 Tim 6:16, in its (MEC-1f) iteration, rules out that humans universally possess immortality.

Upshot

In light of the above, I will understand MEC-1 accordingly:

MEC-1: Only God is essentially, originally, and naturally immortal, where ‘immortality’ minimally denotes endless conscious existence but, uniquely in God’s case, denotes either that (i) he has also existed infinitely into the past (sempiternal) or (ii) there never was a time when God did not exist (eternal).

Given the above analysis, it looks like 1 Tim 6:16 is entirely useless for the work conditionalists have wanted it to do in the debate about personal eschatology. Often, the verse has functioned as a debate stopper. For example, in response to W.G.T. Shedd’s claim that all humans are immortal, Fudge seems to suggest that such an assertion should automatically be seen as false because it flies “into the face of Scripture’s statement that God alone possesses immortality” (TFTC, 22). Moreover, some annihilationists respond that what matters here isn’t whether human persons are immortal in this or that sense, but whether they are immortal at all (p.5). It is unclear what force this response is supposed to have. First, there are clearly senses of ‘immortal’ on which all orthodox Christians must admit all persons count as ‘immortal’. One popular conception of immortality is the remembrance theory. The movie “Troy” mentions this sort of immortality. As long as someone remembers you and your deeds, you continue to “exist” (in a very thin sense of exist, of course). On this view, since God will “remember” all persons who have ever existed, then we are all immortal. Second, surely the sense in which we are immortal in matters when 1 Tim 6:16 is employed as an argument against human immortality. For example, 1 Tim 6:16 doesn’t rule out that we are endowed with immortality because “only God is endowed with immortality.”

Now, it may well be that other verses rule out that all persons will indefinitely exist, but 1 Tim 6:16, whatever else its merits, doesn’t do that; even used in tandem with other verses it would be otiose. A floater premise. To be sure, 1 Tim 6:16 tells us a glorious truth about God, but we shouldn’t (anymore) use it to shift the balance toward evangelical conditionalism. It just doesn’t have that import. So, while we have honed in on a way to understand MEC-1, it unfortunately appears that “the foundational” text for evangelical conditionalism, a text which “lies at the heart” of the theory, is completely helpless to answer the question about whether all human persons will exist indefinitely. In the next two posts we’ll look at the concepts of (i) (everlasting) life, which is conditional immortality, and (ii) (everlasting) death, including the final punishment of the wicked—the second death. Including this post, these three posts will comprise the three core tenets of MEC.

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