The following blog post is a guest post by Graham Ware. This is not Graham’s first guest post for me. As a fellow autism dad, Graham wrote this post for my autism blog.
I know that this is a controversial topic. I’m agnostic myself when it comes to the topic, although I do see good arguments on both sides. I also believe that conditional immortality has a place in orthodox Christianity and is by no means heresy. Some very well respected theologians hold this position. The purpose of this post is not to convince you one way or another. It is here for the purpose of developing our understanding.
The Case for Conditional Immortality: A Brief(ish) Summary by Graham Ware
“There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). Stephen asked me to write a post on the topic of conditional immortality; that is, the belief that eternal life/immortality is found only in Christ, and so those who do not receive the gift of salvation through grace which is available in Christ will perish/be destroyed (this is sometimes called annihilationism, though the two are slightly different but interrelated notions). I confess that I have nothing original to offer here. The argument has been laid out in essays by brilliant biblical and systematic theologians. What I present here is an attempt to condense what has been written into a short introductory summation of the case for this position.
The beginning and the end of humans
For a variety of reasons, the early chapters of Genesis have been the topic of considerable debate. This is not the place for that conversation. However we interpret that portion of Scripture (literal history, theo-poetic, myth, etc) we are given some important statements about humanity. God formed the man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and he became a living soul (Gen. 2:7; NIV and others translate it as “living being” but “living soul” is probably a better English translation, and the Hebrew nephesh was translated as psyche in the Greek Septuagint). We often assume that the “soul” is the immaterial, and immortal part of our being (as psyche was often depicted in Hellenistic writings) which continues on after our physical body dies (see for e.g. The Westminster Confession, IV.2). Westerners typically think in Hellenistic ways; of a soul and body separated at death, with the soul continuing forever. But this doesn’t really fit the Hebraic view we see in Genesis 2 and elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments. When Paul speaks of our earthly, mortal bodies in 1 Corinthians, he calls them psychikoi, which means something like “soulish”. Our current bodies are soulish, or soul-oriented, or perhaps soul-driven. Believers’ resurrection bodies will be pneumatikoi; that is, Spiritual, of the Holy Spirit, and thus imperishable, immortal (see 1 Cor. 15) because we will be transformed, and our bodies redeemed, by the work of the Spirit. Immortality is not something inherent to the human soul (as in Hellenistic dualism or some other worldviews), and Jesus himself stated God can kill both body and soul in Gehenna (Hell), by which he means the totality of the human being, not the individual parts (Matt. 10:28). God can resurrect a person killed by another, or who dies of natural causes. But can also destroy an entire person. Hell is a place of destruction and death, not torment. We are mortal souls, requiring the work of the Spirit, made available because of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ in order to have immortality. God alone has inherent immortality (1 Tim. 6:15-16), and bestows that immortality to people, through the grace revealed in the Gospel (Rom. 2:7 & 6:23, 2 Tim. 1:8-11, 1 John 5:11-12) and the work of the Spirit to bring about resurrection.
After the introduction of sin in Genesis 3, we read of the removal of Adam and Eve from Eden. God states “’The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever’” (Gen. 3:22). The now fallen humans are cut off from the means of eternal life, lest they live forever in their fallen state and avoid the consequences of sin, namely death, and requires an intervention from God to regain the possibility of everlasting life. In the Fourth Gospel, we see repeated claims from Jesus that he is the means of mankind receiving life. He is the bread of life, the giver of living water, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, because in him was life and that life was the light of humanity. After his resurrection, we read that Jesus breathed on his disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). This echo of Genesis 2:7 points to the renewal of humanity’s life. Without this Holy Spirit, a person remains psychikoi, or sarxichoi (of the flesh), and destined for death. Then, in the Book of Revelation we see the hope of those in Christ:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” (Rev. 22:1-3a)
The river of the water of life, and the tree of life, emblems of the everlasting life of the Age to Come, are made manifest in the new creation, and accessible to those who overcome through the blood of the Lamb. Immortality is now available to all, for God desires that none should perish (2 Pet. 3:9; cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). But for those who reject the gift of life, there is destruction, perishing, death.
Life and destruction: The biblical contrast
We have often been presented with the Heaven vs. Hell contrast in evangelical churches. The assumption is that all human beings will consciously exist forever and the only question is where they will be; a place of everlasting bliss, or everlasting suffering. But does Scripture ever say that? The language of the New Testament actually presents us with a very different contrast: life or its opposite- that is non-being, not everlasting life of two types. Multiple examples of this life-destruction contrast can be cited to demonstrate this. For example, Paul says that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Rom. 6:23) and he speaks of humanity in two groups, those being saved, and those perishing (1 Cor. 1:18). 1 John 5:11-12 states “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Jesus speaks of the road which leads to life, and the road that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13-14). James says the only Judge, God, is “able to save and to destroy” (James 4:12). . Revelation 20-22 speaks of those whose names are in the book of life, who have access to the river of the water of life and the tree of life, and others who are subject to “the second death”. Jesus states that eternal life is found in him, without which people perish (John 6). And perhaps the most well-known verse in Scripture, John 3:16, says that those who believe will not perish, but will inherit eternal life. The contrast is life and ceasing to be a living person, perishing, or being destroyed; between those who have life and those who do not. The notion that those outside of Christ continue forever in torment would require that all people have eternal life. But how can they, when that life is found in Christ alone? Instead, the biblical text speaks of the fate of those outside of Christ, who therefore do not have eternal life, using the language of destruction, decay, death and not perpetual suffering.
The language of destruction is prominent in Scripture. Psalm 37 says the wicked will wither like the grass, and die, and will be destroyed, and ultimately, “the wicked will be no more”. Jesus says that God can “destroy body and soul in Gehenna” (Matt. 10:28). The author of Hebrews says the enemies of God will be consumed (Heb. 10:27). Paul says those who sow according to the sinful nature will reap corruption/decay/destruction (Gal. 6:8). He also states that those who oppose the Gospel will “be punished with eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9), and “they will be destroyed” (Phil. 1:27) and for those who live as enemies of Christ, “their end is destruction” (Phil. 3:19). 2 Peter 3:7 declares “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly.” This language, I believe, should be read to mean just that- those outside of Christ will be reduced non-being, and will be punished with irrevocable and permanent death.
Some have argued that the words translated as “destruction” can be read as “ruin” or “lost”, and this is true in some cases (e.g. the lost coin for example uses a form of the Greek apoleia which usually is translated as perished or destroyed). However, when these terms (apollumi/apoleia, oletheros, phtheiro, katargete) are applied to human beings or have a a subject and object which are not inanimate objects, they almost always convey the sense of perishing or destruction. New Testament Greek scholar and translator R.F. Weymouth wrote, “My mind fails to conceive of a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses signifying ‘destroy’ or ‘destruction,’ are explained to mean an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this.” Almost all modern English translations do not chose to translate these as “ruin” or “lost” in the relevant instances. Even though Paul uses the phrase “eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9), this can hardly mean an unending process, since destruction strongly implies a process which has a very definite end, and “eternal ruin” would not make much sense with the following clause “from the presence of the Lord”. Likewise, when Jesus uses the phrase “eternal punishment” in the most often cited verse by defenders of eternal conscious torment (Matt. 25:46), when read in light of Scripture as whole, makes far more sense when understood to mean irreversible death and destruction, or to use the words of Athanasius, being “eternally bereft, even of being” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4.4-6).
Not only Athanasius, but other Church Fathers used the language of non-being, death, and destruction for the wicked and immortality for those would receive it as a gift from God. For example, Ignatius of Antioch wrote “Let us not, therefore, be insensible to His kindness. For were he to repay us according to our deeds, we would cease to be” (Mag. ch. 10). Irenaeus argued that “those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.” (Against Heresies, II.34). Justin Martyr wrote “God delays causing the confusion and destruction of the whole world, by which the wicked angels and demons and men shall cease to exist” (Second Apology, 7).
The Lex Talionis: God’s Justice
God’s judgement is just and right. Conditionalists are often accused of trying to soften God’s wrath, or make the notion of judgement more palatable. But conditionalism affirms God’s negative judgement, and the seriousness of non-belief. Non-being/extinction is no small thing. God’s punishment is not malicious, nor undeserved. The consequence of rejecting the gift and life, and the giver, is exclusion from eternal life. Some (perhaps most famously Anselm of Canterbury) have argued that because God’s nature is infinitely holy, and deserving of infinite honour, sin demands an unending punishment. Until every ounce of God’s honour has been satisfied, the punishment will continue to be implemented. Of course this assumes ahead of time that God uses corporeal punishment, even though the picture in Genesis seems to be that of capital punishment.
The other issue is that of the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye” notion of justice, which stipulates that punishment and revenge must not exceed the sin being punished. Throughout the Mosaic Law, punishment for offenses comes in the form of equitable restitution, or in the case of certain sins considered more severe, the death penalty is mandated. There is very little evidence of the infliction of pain as mode of punishment. In one of the places we see that warranted, the extent of corporeal punishment has a very clear limit; in Deut. 25:1-3 we read that floggings are never to exceed 40 lashes. To go above that is to bring shame and disgrace. God’s people, called to reflect God’s own holiness, were told to place firm limits on the use of corporeal punishment, yet we are often led to believe that God himself will unceasingly afflict millions with extreme torments. By the biblical standards of just punishment, this would be unjust. Instead, what we see is humanity cut off from God by their sin- that is cut off from the one who sustains all life (Heb. 1:3). To be permanently and irrevocably cut off from the eternal life in Christ is to perish.
Obviously there is far more to say on the subject, and more biblical texts to unpack. But I think what needs to be left here in this small space is the sense that conditional immortality is not the result of liberal theology (especially since it is present in the Early Church), nor is it an attempt to water down judgement and wrath to become more “seeker-sensitive”. Instead, it is a deeply evangelical, deeply biblical conclusion. It is anchored by the gospel itself; that Christ, through his incarnation, death, and resurrection brings resurrection life, and overcomes sin and death so that humanity may be free from this curse of decay and death, which is the final enemy, which God has promised to destroy (1 Cor. 15:26).
 Many of these great essays by top notch thinkers (John Stott, John Wenham, Basil Atkinson, Henry Constable, Edward Fudge, Stephen Travis, E. Earle Ellis, Anthony Thiselton, Clark Pinnock, and others) are now available in a helpful volume: Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, & Joshua W. Anderson (eds). (Eugene: Cascase, 2014). For a single author book-length treatment, the most known resource is Edward Fudge. The Fire That Consumes (3rd Ed.). (Eugene: Cascade, 2011).
 For more on the subject of Hebraic vs. Hellenistic understandings of death, the soul, and life beyond death, see NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
 Quoted in Glenn Peoples, “Introduction to Evangelical Condtionalism” Rethinking Hell, 23.
 John Stott writes, “It would seem strange, therefore, if people who are said to suffer destruction are in fact not destroyed; and, as you put it, it is ‘difficult to imagine a perpetually inconclusive process of perishing’.” See Stott “Judgement and Hell”, Rethinking Hell, 51.
 See for e.g. R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT). (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 966-7. Further, the use of the adjective eternal with a deverbal noun (in Mt. 25:46 it is kolasin) occurs six times in the New Testament, the five other uses all point to a one time event with an ongoing, permanent result or consequence (e.g. Heb.9:12 where Jesus’ death “once for all” makes possible an “eternal redemption”).