Evaluating the theological arguments
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This article is about “conditional immortality”, or “conditionalism”. This teaching rejects the historic Christian understanding of hell as being unending, conscious torment. It presents itself as a third way between the traditional understanding and the doctrine of universalism (that all people will ultimately be saved). According to conditionalism, the ultimate destiny of the wicked is not unending punishment, but the termination of their existence. Human beings are not “immortal” – that “immortality” is “conditioned” upon faith in Christ, and the unbelieving will one day be annihilated.
Though all conditionalists agree on this defining point, beyond that they present a wide variety of arguments and scenarios. Because of this it is important to define the words and issues under discussion carefully. Conditionalists disagree over anthropology (the doctrine of what man is), the intermediate state (what happens to a person between death and the final judgment), and the resurrection. For example, conditionalist Earl Ellis denies the existence of an intermediate state, saying that “the Old Testament … knows no body/soul dualism and has no … conception of [a soul] with an after-death experience different from the body” (E. Earle Ellis, New Testament Teaching on Hell in ed. Brower, K. E. and Elliot, M. W., The Reader Must Understand, Leicester: Apollos, 1997, p208-10); whereas John Stott accepts the existence of a state where the body and soul are temporarily separated (Edwards, David L. and Stott, John R. W., Essentials – a liberal-evangelical dialogue, London: Hodder and Staughton, 1988, p317-8). Furthermore, the terms are often used inconsistently; John Stott (probably the most well known conditionalist to evangelical readers) and Edward Fudge (whose book “The Fire That Consumes” was a landmark in setting out conditionalist teaching) define the words “conditionalism” and “annihilationism” in precisely opposite ways!
These disagreements do not make things too difficult though. Broadly speaking, there are four main theological arguments used by conditionalist against traditional teaching. None of these arguments depend on any fine distinctions. For us, “conditionalism” will simply refer to the teaching that a man’s permanent existence is “conditioned” upon faith in Christ and will hence only ultimately be possessed by believers. We will use the word “annihilationism” as a synonym.In this article we will leave out any discussion of the question of when, according to annihilationists, the act of annihilation takes place and also the question of what punishment there is before the final resurrection.
The Objections Briefly Defined
What, then, are the four theological objections which conditionalists have against the idea of an unending hell? Why do they say that we must drop the idea? The first reason is anthropological. Conditionalists teach that the historic doctrine assumes an unbiblical idea – an idea borrowed from Greek philosophy, and in particular from the philosopher Plato. Secondly, they say that eternal torment is not compatible with God’s character – his attributes of love, which could not allow torment, and his justice, which would forbid infinite punishments for temporal offences. Thirdly, the continuing existence of unrepentant sinners would prevent God’s total victory over evil in the new creation – how could the world be perfect if there were still rebels who were not reconciled to God’s rule? Fourthly, believers could not be happy in heaven if they knew that some of their fellow men were still suffering torment in hell.
The First Argument: A Platonic Anthropology?
Anyone who believes in an unending hell will rightly wonder how, if conditionalism is biblical, the overwhelming majority churches and Christians in history could have made such a big mistake? Writing in the 19th century, Charles Hodge said, “This is the doctrine of the whole Christian Church, of the Greeks, of the Latins, and of all the great historical Protestant bodies.” and “It is an almost invincible presumption that the Bible does teach the unending punishment of the finally impenitent, that all Christian churches have so understood it. There is no other way in which this unanimity of judgment can be accounted for.” (Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: W B Eerdmans, 1952, vol 3, p869-70.) John Stott admits this, saying that the teaching of an endless hell “has to be described as traditional orthodoxy, for most of the church fathers, the medieval theologians and the Reformers held it.” (Edwards and Stott, op. cit., p324).
The conditionalist answer to this problem is to say that the church went wrong very early on, by making a flawed assumption about man. Borrowing an anthropology from Plato and Greek philosophy, the church’s theologians brought in the idea that man was naturally immortal. Thus, when they rejected the idea of universal salvation, the only possibility left was for unending punishment. Man, they thought, is by nature unable to die; so if a man is not saved, he must be continually punished – this is the only possible alternative.
Annihilationist Clark Pinnock writes a typical statement when he says: “The assumption [of immortality] goes back to Plato’s view of the soul as metaphysically indestructible … People mixed up their belief in divine judgment after death … with their belief in the immortality of the soul … and concluded … that the nature of hell must be everlasting conscious torment” (ed. Crockett, op. cit., p147-9).
God alone is immortal; men obtain immortality only by his gracious gift, conditioned upon faith in Christ (1 Timothy 6v16, 2 Timothy 1v10.) Conditionalist John Wenham showed in his work that a great number of New Testament references to hell describe it in terms of destruction, perishing or death – and he asks the question, does this not naturally suggest annihilation? (Wenham, John W., The Case for Conditional Immortality, in ed. Cameron, op. cit., p169-74). It is then argued that were it not for prior philosophical presuppositions, annihilation would comfortably win out. This is argued, for example, by Anglican Michael Green: “The language of ‘destruction’ is the most common description of final loss in the Bible… The most natural meaning spiritually is precisely parallel to the literal meaning, i.e. to take away life, to liquidate. Immortality is not, as Socrates thought, a quality which all people have naturally…” – Green, Michael, Evangelism Through The Local Church, London: Hodder and Staughton, 1993, p69.
Problems with the Accusation of Platonism
However, whilst conditionalists all make this accusation, only a small number of them make it with any clarity. Plato did not only teach that man has an indestructible soul, but also that this soul is pre-existent (i.e. eternal), imprisoned by a hostile body as a punishment, and that it endures multiple incarnations. This proves that the church hardly “assumed” without question Plato’s doctrine of the soul! Edward Fudge addresses this problem, but his answer is a “just so” story – he says that despite rejecting major planks of Plato’s understanding, the church uncritically accepted and built on the remainder (e.g. op. cit., p39). He gives us no evidence to back up this important assertion.
Nevertheless, I think that the conditionalists are making an important point about immortality and eternal life. Biblically, “life” comes through believing on the Son (e.g. John 3v15-16, 36, 4v14, 1 Timothy 1v16, 6v12, Matthew 7v14); hence it cannot be innate. What we need to do is to ask, what, in Scripture, are “life” and “immortality”? If we examine the Scriptures carefully, we will find a distinctive definition: “this is life eternal, that they might know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ” (John 17v3). Life is not mere existence, but knowledge of and fellowship with God through Christ. Hence all outside of Christ are “dead”, or in “death” – but not non-existent, or annihilated (e.g. Ephesians 2v1, 5, John 5v24). Here the conditionalists are misinterpreting the key terms and missing the point of them.
If we accept the Bible’s teaching on hell, then we need to use the terms carefully. The terms “life” and “immortality”, should not be used without qualification to mean continued existence. We need to explain that man was made for fellowship with God, and that this is true life. If this had been done more consistently in the past, the error of conditionalism might have gained less traction.
There are some conditionalists, such as Earle Ellis, who claim that the body/soul distinction (i.e. The idea that man is fundamentally a two-part being – see Genesis 2:7) is also itself unbiblical Platonism. The Old Testament concept (which must control our New Testament reading) is, he says, the idea of an indivisible unity. Hence when the “body” dies, even to talk about a continuing existence for a “soul” is mistaken, because no such distinction can actually exist. An “intermediate state” is not possible – resurrection is the only option on the table. Against Ellis though, there is plenty of biblical evidence for continuing existence after death and before the resurrection, and hence his idea is profoundly mistaken (e.g. Ecclesiastes 3v11, v21, 12v7, Job 32v8, Ezekiel 32v31, Luke 16v19-31, 23v43, 2 Corinthians 5v6, Revelation 6v9).
The Second Argument: The Attributes of God
The Scriptures reveal a glorious God of many perfections; including love (e.g. John 3v16, 1 John 4v8-19, Romans 5v8, 8v35-9), and justice (e.g. e.g. Jeremiah 50v7, Romans 3v25-26, Revelation 15v4, 16v7, 19v2). Going from here, conditionalists raise three objections. What is common to them each is the denial that eternal torment could agree with God’s character; they often weave these objections together.
Firstly, they say that eternal punishment is intrinsically unjust. Stott asks, “Would there not … be a serious disproportion between sins consciously committed in time and torment consciously experienced throughout eternity?” (Stott, op. cit., p318). Pinnock agrees and goes further, stating that the traditional view makes God “a vindictive and sadistic punisher” (ed. Crockett, op. cit., p137). Conditionalists often use emotive words and expressions to argue this point, e.g. Wenham in ed. Cameron, op. cit., p187-8: “It is a doctrine which makes the Inquisition look reasonable.”
Secondly, they argue that eternal torment is incompatible with God’s love. “What would the goodness of God mean if God torments people everlastingly?” “Eternal torment… exhibits a vindictiveness totally out of keeping with the love of God revealed in the gospel.” (Pinnock in ed. Crockett, op. cit., p149, p153.)
The third objection is often left implied without being explicitly spoken: torment is itself intrinsically incompatible with God’s love. Green wonders, “What sort of God … could rejoice eternally in heaven … while downstairs the cries of the lost make an agonising cacophony?” (Green, op. cit., p69).
Unjust Punishment: The Objection Evaluated
Is eternal punishment intrinsically unjust? Conditionalists are aware that they are open to the accusation that they have minimised sin’s offensiveness (e.g. Stott, op. cit., p318-9). How can we know if they are guilty of doing so? Similar arguments are used by universalists to argue that all will be saved – if God is love, surely none can be ultimately lost. Theologian Larry Dixon points out for us that this involves the serious error of supposing that whatever we can conceive of God’s love must surely be, and whatever we cannot conceive concerning His wrath, surely cannot be (Dixon, op. cit., p53-5). Scripture must supply the checks and balances in our understanding, otherwise our “God” is imaginary. If eternal punishment is incompatible with God’s character, just how much punishment is compatible? Who decides? Many conditionalists recognise the dangers of speculating and rationalising, but the fact is that this objection relies on doing far too much of both.
What we do know already about God’s perfect justice seriously undermines this argument. Adam’s one sin incurred a universal death sentence (Romans 5v12-21) and the whole creation was cursed (Genesis 3v14-24, Romans 8v18-23); the entire catalogue of natural catastrophes, human hardships, infant mortalities and death itself followed this single transgression. If Luke 16v19-31 accurately depicts the “intermediate state”, then this means that thousands of years punishment is a just punishment. Charles Hodge is correct to say: “It is very obvious … that we are incompetent judges of the penalty which sin deserves” (Hodge, op. cit., p878.) This point can also be argued from Christ’s death and the gospel, which demands that men come to a radically altered conception of sin’s seriousness. Going to Calvary is an effective response to the conditionalist claim to the moral high ground. They claim that their teaching is driven by a desire to be more humane and compassionate, and imply or openly allege that believers in the historic orthodoxy are morally deficient. Stott says that he finds the traditional teaching “intolerable” and wonders how its proponents live without “cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain” (Stott, op. cit., p314). There is, however, nothing compassionate or humane about a doctrine which decreases the value of the sacrifice offered to redeem us by the Son of God. Every time we think of sin as less serious than it really is, we also think of Christ’s sacrifice as being less worthy than it really was.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that the conditionalist alternative is also a kind of eternal punishment. Though conditionalists explain that the Bible’s “eternal” punishments are punishments which have eternal results(non-existence) but are not everlasting in the consciousness of the one being punished (e.g. in Matthew 25v41, 2 Thessalonians 1v8, Jude 1v7), it is still an everlasting punishment which follows “temporal” offences. This way of arguing would prove too much – it ultimately proves universalism rather than conditionalism, because the penalty of losing one’s existence is still a de facto eternal punishment.
Is torment incompatible with love? What is hell for? In some types of conditionalist writings, comparisons abound to Hitler (e.g. Pinnock in ed. Crockett, op. cit., p38) and the Inquisition. Paul Helm helpfully corrects these: the traditional hell is not meaningless, cruel or sadistic, but a place of justice (Helm, op. cit., p116, 126) – hence meaningful, fair, and necessary. It is not a tragedy – it is a triumph; the triumph of the righteousness of God. If eternal torment is what justice demands, the question must be, is justice incompatible with love? When put this way, the question is whether God’s attributes are opposed? Is God at war with himself? Does he have to ultimately chose one or the other?
The most devastating problem for this argument, and the tragedy in those making it, is that it bypasses the centre of evangelical theology. It misses the heart of the Biblical gospel: that God’s love is revealed and effected in Christ, and received through faith in Christ. The occupants of Hell are outside
of Christ. God’s mercy is for believers; Hell’s occupants are unbelievers, and hence outside the sphere of that mercy. The objection that God cannot punish forever undermines the doctrine of salvation in Christ alone and ultimately supports the teaching of universalism, not conditionalism.
Traditionalists have, rightly in my view, argued that sin’s punishment must be everlasting because sin in the eyes of God is infinitely offensive. This offensiveness arises from the majesty, dignity and holiness of the God against whom sin is committed. Talk of “temporal” offences is misleading, because it is not the time factor which is significant – it is the majesty of the one who is dishonoured by sin.
The Third Argument: A Marred Victory?
The third argument is that hell would ruin the totality of God’s victory over sin. The loss sustained by having such an ugly blot upon reality as hell would spoil the triumph of God in the gospel. Stott argues that “the eternal existence of the impenitent in hell would be hard to reconcile with the promises of God’s final victory over evil” (Stott, op. cit., p319). Stephen Travis, the principal of St. John’s theological college in Nottingham, says that everlasting punishment involves an “eternal cosmological dualism… impossible to reconcile with the conviction that ultimately God will be ‘all in all'” (Cited in ACUTE, op. cit., p106-7). Stott refers to various universal-sounding texts; these texts, he says, do not make “meaningful sense” if anyone continues to be unreconciled to God (John 12v32, Ephesians 1v10, Colossians 1v20, Philippians 2v10-11, 1 Corinthians 15v28. Stott, op. cit., p319.)
Whenever we begin to look more carefully at such texts, though, we find that the context often undermines the possibility of conditionalist interpretations. The “universal” reconciliation of Colossians 1v20 comes “through the blood of his cross”; in John 12v32, Christ actively draws all men to himself. The universalism in these texts is redemptive; those who are at enmity with God relent and are reconciled to him. The people who are outside of the realm of redemption in Christ are simply not in view in these passages. These texts prove far too much for the conditionalist case; the redemptive context would imply universalism, not annihilation, if it proved anything of the kind.
Indeed, this argument is made much more convincingly by universalists. Nels Ferré argues: “without the ultimate salvation of all … there can be no full solution to the problem of evil” (Cited in Dixon, op. cit., p66-7). The “victory” achieved by annihilation is comparatively hollow – instead of being saved, the wicked simply stop existing. It is not really a universal victory if part of that universe has to first be wiped out!
The Essence of “Victory”
The error here is that both conditionalism and universalism are wrongly assuming that “victory” over evil requires the non-existence of the (impenitent) evildoers. This is not how we normally understand the idea of victory. In the normal understanding, “victory” belongs to the side which can finally impose its will – the side that wins! An enemy is defeated when he submits, not when he ceases to exist. Roger Federer became the Wimbledon champion when by beating all his opponents, not by forcing them to give up tennis entirely.
Along the same lines, an “ultimate solution to the problem of evil” only requires that evil is properly (justly) dealt with, not eradicated. Conditionalist and universalist arguments in this area are not backed up by Scriptures which explain the “victory” in the way that they have thought. Peter wrote that in the new creation “righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3v13). Reformation theology has traditionally rightly held that God’s manifesting of His justice vindicates His righteousness (e.g. Romans 9v22-23; see the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III, paragraph VII). Hell demonstrates God’s unimpeachable holiness, his implacable enmity towards sin, and his vindication over against its perpetrators. This does not undermine his victory over evil; it is his victory over evil. Modern sociological theories teach that punishment is valid only if it is remedially effective in reforming the wrongdoer. The same kind of idea is at the root of this conditionalist objection to hell. It is an idea which cannot happily co-exist with the traditional penal concept of hell – or indeed of Christ’s death on the cross.
This conditionalist argument ultimately proves too much. If God’s victory is incomplete until all sinners are annihilated, then the new creation cannot begin until the last sinner has completed his pre-annihilation punishment and then gets zapped out of existence. Until then, heaven could only be an intermediate state – awaiting future victory. Dixon asks an important question – will Satan suffer eternally as Revelation 20 states? No conditionalist work I looked at addressed this question (see Revelation 14v1 1and 20v10). If he does suffer such punishment, then by conditionalist reasoning final “victory” would be impossible – we’d be waiting forever.
Final Argument: A Miserable Victory?
If, as we have argued, it is the punishment (not the removal) of sinners which is essential to God’s victory, then how will the saints who are in glory look upon this punishment? If God’s glory is manifested in his perfect justice then the teaching that hell will actually cause rejoicing (not sorrow) for the redeemed naturally follows. God’s justice is good, not something to regret – it will be the putting right of centuries and millennia of wickedness
– something to delight in. This idea is fiercely rejected by the fourth conditionalist argument. Pinnock compares it to enjoying seeing a cat microwaved (Pinnock in ed. Crockett, op. cit., p140). Wenham is more moderate, but still emphatic: He cannot “see how … saints could be in perfect bliss with human beings hopelessly sinning and suffering.” (Wenham in ed. Nigel Cameron, op. cit., p189).
Humanity in Hell?
Traditionalists have felt some of the force of this objection. One answer given questions the extent to which the damned will be considered “human beings”. The dignity of human beings is that they bear the image of God, and this is a gift of God’s grace (Genesis 1v26-7, 9v6, James 3v9). Everything that we admire in our fellow humans, including the unsaved, is not something essential to them, but part of a gift from God. In hell, such gifts will be withdrawn. At that stage, the unsaved will be no more human or naturally pitiable than Satan – we will only see the full hideousness of their rebellion against God. C S Lewis wrote that “What is cast … into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains'”. (Quoted in Dixon, op. cit., p213-4).
If we look at this objection carefully, we will see that really it is very like the previous two. Similar ideas about love, justice, suffering and evil are being assumed. Again, it proves too much: it applies to any
hell whatsoever. Heaven would then have to become a waiting room until the last sinner is annihilated. Even then, though, would not the memory of sufferings and everlasting loss be always present to upset the redeemed? How, to put it in Wenham’s terms, could the saints enjoy perfect bliss knowing that some others had in the past suffered that instead? Would there not be everlasting regret? Conditionalists generally argue that statements such as “the smoke of their torment ascends up for ever” (Revelation 14v11) refer to the memorial of torment and not torment itself… on their own terms, wouldn’t this memorial everlastingly sadden heaven?
We have to point out that this argument again is really just speculation; conditionalists have not explained the Scriptures where the righteous rejoice in the wicked’s calamity, rejoice at the punishment of the unsaved (e.g. Revelation 15v2-3, 18v20, 14v10, and many references in the Psalms), and where God is glorified for His wrath and justice (e.g. Romans 9v22-3). This rejoicing agrees with our understanding of justice in this present world – the proportionate punishment of the guilty does not distress right-thinking people now. Why should it do so in future? Rather, when we see that the punishment given out perfectly fits with the crime that deserved it, we are satisfied and thankful – why should this be different in heaven? When we ask these questions, we see that this objection assumes the validity of the second objection which we have already refuted: that hell is unjust.
We have reviewed the four conditionalist theological objections to the traditional understanding concerning hell’s nature as a place of torment, and its endless duration. The first objection is the most substantial. It aims at establishing annihilation as the default presumption, and draws its strength from the fact that the traditional doctrine has not always been carefully presented. However, we found that conditionalists have themselves been careless in investigating and presenting the Platonic philosophy that the traditional case is said to assume. When this is accurately described the whole assertion – that the church merely assumed that Plato’s teaching was true – looks unrealistic. In fact, the conditionalists have themselves misinterpreted the Scriptural terms “life”, “death” and “immortality”.
The other three objections are broadly similar, and are rather speculative. They all suppose that there are inconsistencies between the historic teaching and various aspects of God’s being and happiness. Each objection falls into similar problems; each supports the doctrine of universalism more than conditionalism, each overplays certain aspects of the biblical data whilst overlooking others, and each draws its main strength from modern misconceptions about God, love, justice and suffering. The relevant Bible verses do not support the conditionalist arguments.
The arguments for annihilationism are weak, even if we look kindly upon them, and the underlying issues are important. We live in a time when even many professing Christians have a very weak appreciation of the terrible nature of sin and the holiness of God. Annihiliationism is a symptom and result of this weakness, and where it is believed or taught we can only expect the weakness to grow. Bible-believing Christians need to be thoroughly convinced that God is far more holy than they ever imagined even in their very best moments. They need to be sure that the eternal damnation of the wicked is not only a just outcome, but the only just outcome which God’s character absolutely requires – and which we will rejoice in. With this in mind, we will be able to better appreciate the immense love shown to us in the giving of the Lord Jesus Christ. We will be equipped to go out to proclaim the good news with more urgency and wonder – amazed that so holy a God, whose hatred of sin is so intense, should ever be so kind to unworthy sinners like us.
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Relevant Reading (Both for and against)
ACUTE, The Nature of Hell, Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000
ed. Brower, K. E. and Elliot, M. W., The Reader Must Understand, Leicester: Apollos,
E. Earle Ellis, New Testament Teaching on Hell
Gray, Tony, The Nature of Hell: Reflections on the debate between conditionalism and the traditional view of hell
Head, Peter M., The Duration of Divine Judgment in the New Testament
ed. Cameron, Nigel, Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992:
Harmon, Kendall S., The Case Against Conditionalism
Wenham, John W., The Case for Conditional Immortality
ed. Crockett, William V., Four Views on Hell, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996:
Crockett, William V., The Metaphorical View
Pinnock, Clark H., The Conditional View
Walvoord, John, The Literal View
Custance, Arthur C., The Sovereignty of Grace, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979
Dixon, Larry, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell, Fearn: Christian Focus, 2003
Edwards, David L. and Stott, John R. W., Essentials – a liberal-evangelical dialogue, London: Hodder and Staughton, 1988
Fudge, Edward W., The Fire That Consumes, Houston: Providential Press, 1982
Green, Michael, Evangelism Through The Local Church, London: Hodder and Staughton, 1993
Helm, Paul, The Last Things, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989
Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: W B Eerdmans, 1952, vol 3
Powys, David: Hell: A hard look at a hard question, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997
Schwarz, Hans, Eschatology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000
Stott, John R. W., The Message of Ephesians, Leicester: IVP, 1984
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