In my last post, I shared a concern I have with the view called Conditional Immortality, the idea that the unsaved “will finally be destroyed (annihilated).” I wrote to Peter Grice, articulating my argument against conditionalism based on their very argument against eternal conscious torment. Read my initial argument here to get the context, and then read Mr. Grice’s response below.
Thank you so much for the kind and encouraging words about our ministry!
Your question makes sense, and comes up fairly often.
It is understandable when people think that our claims include such things as the definition of death being ceasing to exist, and the punishment for sin being annihilation. I think that you’re rightly discerning some of the relationships and pitfalls in this area.
But evangelical conditionalism is a particular model to essentially bracket out the thorny questions of constitutional anthropology (physicalism vs. dualism vs. agnosticism), and whatever goes on in the intermediate state. Here’s what I would say. Death is the ending of life (not existence). In the relevant case, human life. Human life and personhood is biblically constituted in Genesis, where Adam (for example) is more than the sum of his parts, at least while alive. Whatever might be believed about an immaterial part surviving between death and resurrection, it’s not Adam as we know him, nor is he alive as we know it. So we must not shift to philosophical categories and, against the grain of biblical terminology, call the dead the living. Resurrection is a concept “of the dead” and “from the dead,” so our definition of life and death is preserved until everyone has been brought back to life again. The biblical language of sleep isn’t meant to disclose whether an immaterial part is conscious or not in death, but is a logical construct used to anticipate resurrection as a return to life.
So we arrive at Jesus’ criticism to the Sadducees: we need to know both the scriptures and the power of God, in order to see that God’s revealed intention is how we know something will happen, and no natural mechanism or circumstance could possibly stand in his way. Discussing means and mechanisms is often how our topic can get dragged into the weeds. In the final analysis, our category is soteriology, not anthropology, and we are looking to the question of immortality proper, which pertains to everlasting life.
Unfortunately, some conditionalists in the past (not necessarily part of the evangelical conditionalist movement) have conflated God’s intentions in eternal life and eternal punishment, with one of conditionalism’s tenets, the denial that an immaterial soul has immortality (note: not the denial of an immaterial soul). It turns out that even this is not a necessary tenet of our view, for that is only talking about natural immortality, the mechanistic capacity to survive on its own steam, which is not match for a God who would be prepared to annihilate such a soul nonetheless. It turns out that pretty much all of our philosophical reasoning in this area is circumvented by divine prerogative. All we need to focus on is understanding God’s will with respect to our eternal fates.
Which brings me to the other aspect of your line of questioning, to do with final punishment being eternal, and the demands for consistency with the substitutionary payment of Jesus Christ, under penal substitution.
To that I would offer that the requirements for an atoning sacrifice of death are indeed the same as the penalty for sin, where death is the cessation of life. Furthermore, the same penalty for sin is the standard for final punishment as well, as I’ll explain. But we need to also follow through on what I call ordinary death, which is Adam’s death and our own, in terms of the conundrum of how Christians can possibly still die if we annihilationionists are right about the penalty for sin (how indeed can Christians be punished for our sins anyway?).
Well, the problem is that we are reducing death to an event, when the point of a death penalty is the ongoing cessation of life. That kind of privative punishment is active so long as the person remains dead. Romans 6 helps to show that in the relevant biblical application, death is a thing that can still have dominion and power of you, even in resurrection, where to be released from that dominion means that you will never die again. Ergo, the function of death extends beyond the mere event of death, and principally has to do with an abstract administration, whether we speak of the delegated role given to Satan in wielding the power, or God’s higher judicial economy in which individual deservingness is assessed (against, for example, the harm they will continue to cause if permitted to live on).
So the payment of death for sin is foremost a judicial standard that God uses, requiring the laying down of life, and enduring so long as God is reckoning that punishment to the individual. A temporary resurrection unto judgment is not a victory over death, but a resurrection unto eternal life is. A second death is essentially a ratification of the first, and resumes it forever. Not because death itself must necessarily be permanent, but because the context of judgment day provides an “eternal judgment” (Heb 6:2) and “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), such that the punishment receives its eternality on that occasion from that context.
The fact that Jesus laid down his life, committing his spirit into the Father’s hands, was enough. Hypothetically, the Father could have kept him dead. But once the atoning sacrifice is accepted (let’s say three days later, as it pleased the Father), Jesus is rescued from death on account of his own righteous life (“the power of an indestructible life,” Heb 7:16). He does not deserve to stay dead forever. Instead, he deserves life forever. You might like to read my recent article at our website, responding to Tim Keller, at the point where I talk about how Jesus was saved from death not by avoidance, but in the midst of death—and this is how Christians are also saved from death, the penalty of sin (the article points to a few things that aren’t commonly appreciated). It is not as if most of us avoid the event of death. But our deaths will be swallowed up in victory, as we rise to immortal life. We are saved from the penalty of sin in this way.
Finally, it’s true that some of what I’ve said might technically leave open the door for the destruction of the body only, in final judgment. There’s more to say about that, and I’ll try to address it in an article I’m working on about this whole question. I would simply offer for now that Matthew 10:28’s “body and soul” seems to preclude it. And it’s not such a bad thing if we need to rely on special revelation to know for sure that the whole person is destroyed in the end. It may be that the term “destruction” provides that stronger connotation, as well as the notion of consuming and unquenchable divine fire being the destroying agent. All we need to know is that we really miss the point if we insist that death must be defined according to such mechanics. The whole point of annihilation is the forfeit of eternal life, and we can allow God the flexibility to do that more thoroughly than the forfeit of life on a previous occasion.
I hope that there’s something here to shed light, and that it helps to resolve some tensions for you.
What do you think of Mr. Grice’s response? There were some helpful aspects to it, and a couple of good points he made (particularly the point about the effectiveness of the death penalty being the lasting cessation of life, and the point about not avoiding the event of death, but death being swallowed up in victory in the resurrection). But there still seem to be some weaknesses and blind-spots in his response, and in Conditionalism in general. One issue is the simple definition of life and death. I asked Mr. Grice specifically about how he would define death, and I’ll share his response to that inquiry in the next post.