Annihilationism, or Conditional Immortality—the term preferred by those who hold to it—is the view that when the unsaved are cast into the lake of fire after the Great White Throne Judgment, they, body and soul, will be annihilated. They will cease to exist.
There is a group of conservative (as opposed to those who don’t care about the inerrancy and authority of Scripture) evangelical theologians who are propounding this idea through their website and podcast titled Rethinking Hell. In their “Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism,” they state:
Conditionalism is the view that life or existence is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately either be granted forever on the basis of righteousness (by grace, through faith), or revoked forever on the basis of unrighteousness.
Evangelical conditionalists believe that the saved in Christ will receive glory, honor and immortality, being raised with an incorruptible body to inherit eternal life (Romans 2:7). The unsaved will be raised in shame and dishonor, to face God and receive the just condemnation for their sins. When the penalty is carried out, they will be permanently excluded from eternal life by means of a final death (loss of being; destruction of the whole person; Matthew 10:28).
Although I have not been convinced of conditionalism, I have grown to respect these men and have benefited from thinking through their work. I recently interacted with one of the writers at Rethinking Hell, Peter Grice, about one of their common arguments, and thought it may be of help to share part of our discussion (with Mr. Grice’s permission), in several posts here.
After a brief introduction and thanking Mr. Grice for his work, my initial argument and inquiry are as follows:
One objection to Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) is that if ECT is the punishment for sin, then how do we explain Jesus taking our punishment on himself? That would mean Jesus must have suffered eternally—which, of course, he did not.
I actually agree with you that the common answer—that Jesus, being God, could suffer infinitely in a finite matter of time—is not a good response. If the nature of the punishment must be eternal in time, then Jesus could not have experienced that temporarily. That’s equivocating on the nature of the punishment. We agree. I think your critique at this point is entirely fair, and has helped me think through my understanding of the nature of the penalty for sin.
My response would be more along the lines of this: it seems that the penalty for sin is not inherently eternal conscious torment. Rather, the penalty for sin is, and always has been, death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). I have not been convinced of how you define death as necessarily meaning ceasing to exist (rather than separation—see James 2:26), but the solution to your critique in my view, then, would be that the length of time someone remains in conscious torment is not necessarily inherent in the penalty itself. The penalty itself is that of being in the state of death (again, I’d still argue spiritual death is spiritual separation from God). So, for Jesus to take the penalty on himself, but only to remain dead for a short time, is not quite as problematic in my view, since—the penalty being death—Jesus did fully experience that state.
The question of how long unbelievers remain existing in that state without ceasing to exist is then simply a matter of exegesis. In other words, I don’t have any strong theological problem with the idea that unbelievers go to hell and, by implication (not by necessity) are annihilated. I would just separate out that natural result from the penalty for sin and say that this annihilation is not itself the penalty for sin.
This leads me to my actual question. The reason I would have a theological problem with annihilation itself being the penalty for sin, is, once again, the atonement of Christ. I think that your critique of the traditional view (as creating problems for interpreting the atonement) is a solid, strong critique at this point. However, in my opinion, looking at the atonement is actually one of the strongest arguments against the conditional immortality view as well.
If you say that the penalty for sin is death, and you define death as annihilation—both body and soul ceasing to exist—and this is why annihilation of unbelievers in the lake of fire is necessary, then I think you still have an issue at the atonement. If the penalty for sin is one’s soul being destroyed—annihilated—then in order for Christ to truly take the penalty of sin on himself, that would mean his soul was annihilated—Jesus ceased to exist (at least until he was, somehow, brought back into existence at the resurrection).
Is that actually an implication you would follow through on? Or am I misunderstanding your position entirely, and you would not say that death (annihilation) is the penalty for sin (which would be difficult given Romans 6:23 et al)? Again, I would argue that death does not mean annihilation, so the absolute state of death (with no inherent reference to chronological duration of conscious torment) is the penalty for sin, though I would argue exegetically that the souls of unbelievers do remain forever in hell (and I might argue that the length of time does not increase the degree of suffering; it’s incidental). For that reason, I don’t have a strong theological objection to unbelievers being annihilated at some point (even if I have exegetical objections).
But if we connect death and annihilation and say that ceasing to exist is the penalty for sin, then I have a huge theological conundrum, because I can’t see how we can say that Jesus experienced the penalty for sin—unless his soul too was annihilated. Are you going to argue that Jesus, in his death on the cross, was, body and soul, annihilated? And if he didn’t cease to exist—his soul was not annihilated—then in what sense did he actually experience the penalty for sin as our substitute?
Thank you for your time.
In my next post, I’ll share Mr. Grice’s first response. And, in the meantime, I encourage you to contemplate the implications of such a view.
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