Practical and ethical implications of hell. Part II: evangelical conditionalism
Tuesday, 8 November 2016
| Peter Grice
‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die . . . Whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ (John 6:49-51)
Conditional immortality is the view that only some people will ultimately live forever, while others will not. It’s not only about the nature of hell, but also the entire way we think about eternity. This view may be contrasted with the universal immortality of the two other views presented in this series: evangelical universalism and eternal torment. According to those views (and despite their different accounts of how eternity will be experienced), each human being, whether believer or unbeliever, will ultimately live forever.
In recent decades, conditionalism has enjoyed something of a renaissance among evangelicals around the world, noticed by secular media outlets such as the New York Times and National Geographic. Tentatively embraced by Rev. John Stott for many decades, it has flourished since the 1980s due in no small part to the landmark study of Edward Fudge, whose story recently became a feature film. In 1995, the Church of England rejected eternal torment in favour of conditional immortality. In 2000, the Evangelical Alliance in the UK deemed it acceptable as ‘a significant minority evangelical view’. In this decade, evangelicals from around the world started to organise more formally, and, in 2014, Rethinking Hell was formed to champion the cause. Today, if for no other reason than the calibre of its proponents, which include leading Bible scholars such as Richard Bauckham and the late I. Howard Marshall, conditionalism is hard to ignore.
In this article, I will unpack conditional immortality and its implications, especially for justice and perceptions of God’s character, from which other pastoral and missional implications flow.
Conditionalism and its view of hell
According to our view, at the time of final judgment, only a portion of humanity - great multitudes redeemed in Christ - will ‘live forever’ and ‘will never die’ (John 6:58 cf. Gen 3:22; John 11:26). Indeed, they ‘can no longer die’ (Luke 20:36 cf. Rom 6:9). Although God ‘alone has immortality’ now, Jesus has ‘destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel’ (1 Tim 6:16; 2 Tim 1:10). As a result, believers will ‘put on immortality’ in their glorious resurrection (1 Cor 15:53). The gift of ‘eternal life’, the Bible says, is received by those who ‘seek glory, honour and immortality’ (Rom 2:7).
The conditionalist view of hell is not of a place where unbelievers go and live (much less forever), but of a ‘second death’ sometime after the first, following resurrection and judgment. ‘Second death’ appears in Revelation as an interpretation of the famous lake of fire, which is a symbol from the vision given to John (Rev 20:14; 21:8 cf. Rev 2:11; 20:6).
Death, or loss of life, is one way to speak of the final consequences for sin; destruction is another. So when the apostle Paul writes of ‘the punishment of everlasting destruction’, we understand this to mean a total, permanent destruction of both ‘body and soul’ at Gehenna, as Jesus taught (2 Thess 1:9; Matt 10:28). This occurs on the fearful ‘day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly’ (2 Pet 3:7). The two fates are reciprocal: just as death negates life, and mortality negates immortality, hell is the loss of heaven, so to speak (John 3:16; Rom 6:23).
Can conditionalism yield a compelling justice?
Admittedly, this could be a hard sell. Increasingly, people find retributive justice overly harsh, even unjust. There are non-retributive versions of conditionalism, but I don’t want to soft-pedal. Conditionalism really polarises in this regard. To some, its punishment is incredibly lenient; an act of mercy. John Piper opined, ‘Annihilation is what the unrepentant want, not what they dread. It would be a reward, not a punishment’. But St. Augustine disagrees, saying instead that people ‘would certainly be overjoyed to choose perpetual misery in preference to complete annihilation’.
Perhaps both are right. On the one hand, losing life forever is a harsh and serious penalty, even though those who lose their life won’t be around to care. If we thought about this as Piper does, we would be assuming that punishment can only be experienced consciously, in real-time. But capital punishment is also a valid and serious form of punishment, even though one could argue that the person isn’t around to care: privation or loss are very real for that person (Matt 5:50; Heb 12:17). Similarly, the loss of eternal life, as understood by conditionalism, is a very grave prospect indeed.
On the other hand, even through the lens of conscious experience, conditionalism is quite measured. While it seems that a bitter experience awaits some on judgment day, it will not last forever, and will not necessarily be protracted, though this may vary from person to person. Some conditionalists hold to degrees of suffering, with perfect justice being proportionate to various crimes. But we always understand this suffering as being part of the process of being destroyed, i.e. dying, rather than as a separate punishment (and certainly not as the punishment, rendering death an afterthought!). The pattern for this would be Christ’s own death on the cross. Assuming a penal substitution model, we note that Jesus was tormented - though not eternally - as he died in our place. In the end, believers won’t have to pay this penalty, but unbelievers will pay for their own sins. It is possible then to consider the cross as exemplifying the most excruciating way to experience death, the upper limit of suffering and duration still outstanding for someone like Hitler, but certainly not the way everyone will experience the second death.
On a practical and pastoral level, for those troubled at the thought that eternal torment may be unjust through lack of proportion, but not convinced by universalism, this should come as a great relief. On the other hand, for those troubled by an apparent lack of serious consequences for those who perpetuate evil, the fully gravity of conditionalism’s cosmic justice should assist.
There is another dimension to this. Conditionalism is very much at home with an earthly emphasis for the eternal kingdom (i.e., the New Creation, as expounded in the work of N.T. Wright, for example, himself more closely aligned with conditionalism than with other views). The redeemed are not going away forever to live in a place called heaven; rather, the kingdom of heaven is coming to earth, radically transforming it in the age to come. Considering the inheritance of the new heavens and earth, J. Richard Middleton’s term for annihilation, ‘cosmic disinheritance’, is perfectly apt. Indeed, in Matthew 3:41-43, all causes of evil are removed from the kingdom and burned up, so that the citizens of the kingdom remain to flourish (see also Heb 12:27).
Conditionalism therefore finds fault with both eternal torment and universalism for sometimes being too individualistic - justice must have its social/corporate dimension. And, for being too abstract - justice has its cosmic dimension. If the whole world (cosmos) is the stage, then justice is about God setting the world right, comprehensively. It’s about a time when ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Rev 11:15).
So conditionalism frames justice not merely as just desserts for individuals, but also, more optimally, within God’s corporate plan for creation. It is for the sake of others that wicked oppressors are removed, which overall may be seen as redemptive.
Concerning the retributive aspect, conditionalism responds to concerns by pointing out that life itself is not deserved, as if it were a right to be demanded, but rather is the Creator’s provisional gift. We all ought to be grateful to God for this act of love and grace, and not abuse what we’ve been given. As Irenaeus of Lyons put it, ‘For life does not arise from us . . . he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful . . . deprives himself of continuance for ever and ever’. If those who abuse this gift end up forfeiting it despite ample offers of reconciliation, this outcome seems to be satisfying from the standpoint of justice, and God’s retribution is legitimate.
How can conditionalism motivate Christians to action?
I believe there are some potent transformative effects of this view for the church today. Most obviously, it may be considered a welcome relief for the many who are struggling with the doctrine of eternal torment. I have heard countless stories of doubts that have been banished by discovering conditionalism.
Pastorally, when we comfort each other with stories of lost loved-ones looking down on us from heaven, we do each other a disservice, biblically speaking (eg. 1 Thess 4:13-18). There may well be some truth in this picture, but our hope is not in going to heaven when we die, leaving our embodied life behind. Rather, our hope is to return to life in the resurrection, forever. Missing out on that is a tragic loss, and conditionalism restores this emphasis. It may take a little time to adjust to this greater hope, but it is more comforting in the end.
This leads me to a final and potentially far-reaching observation about conditionalism’s practical connection with the existential frame of human longings and fears. Many people today cannot engage with Christianity because of all the abstract talk of heaven and hell. We are deeply connected to earth, our home. What we long for is to have all of the evil removed, and all of the good in the world to continue. I believe this is biblical, and great news to the average person!
The rub is that death is the enemy to this vision. But people already know this, at a very deep and personal level. They know intuitively that they themselves can be hostile to the good, and that no enemy of the good deserves to live forever (Rom 1:32). Did you catch that? If conditionalism is true, then people are primed and ready to consider the gospel! They value life and are not hostile to it, and they accept the reality of its tragic end, death. We should never portray this as no big deal, telling them that they will live forever regardless! Death hangs over all of us, and it is precisely through a ‘fear of death’, and the longing for eternal life, that Christ’s own death and resurrection are most clearly grasped (see Heb 2:14-15).
Conditionalism also has important implications for confidence and motivation in evangelism. This message is truly good news, and no objections about eternal torment will arise. What would happen if Christians began to see evangelism as a joyous task once again?!
Finally, I would dare to assert that conditionalism is even more life-affirming than other views (life in the broadest sense). I don’t mean this in terms of shalom-based flourishing in the age to come, to which universalists would object that our vision does not include everyone who ever lived. Rather, right now, life hangs in the balance: love of life and the lives of others quickly compel us; hatred of death repels us, for it is the enemy of all that is good and precious. Thus, conditionalism can only strengthen our resolve to care for the poor and needy, pursue medical advances, curtail abortion and euthanasia, strengthen marriages, and so on. When pressed through the lens of our deepest longings and fears, it uniquely speaks to the human condition and predicament, motivating a response. Life and death really are set before us, in so many ways; therefore, choose life (Deut 30:19).
Peter Grice is founder of Rethinking Heaven and Rethinking Hell. An author and speaker in the areas of Christian worldview and biblical eschatology, Peter resides in Brisbane, Australia.
 Church of England, ‘The Mystery of Salvation: The Doctrine Commission of the General Synod’ (1995), 199.
 Evangelical Alliance, ‘Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals’ (2000), 130–135.
 St. Augustine, ‘City of God’, XI.27, Penguin Classics Edition.
 J. Richard Middleton, ‘A New Heaven and a New Earth’, 207.
 Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’, 2, 34, 3.