Before I begin, let me give you a link to check out. I started reading this recently, and this author has helped me articulate more clearly what I’ve been wanting to say.
Humans are finite beings. There is nothing in humanity that has the innate quality of immortality within itself. According to the creation account in Genesis, we came from dust and, barring a work of God on our behalf, we will return to dust. Humans die. We cease to exist.
I think we forget this all too often in Evangelical circles. We assume that to be human is to be immortal. Thinking this way leads naturally to the belief that everyone will live eternally, just in eternal bliss or eternal horror. But, does this do justice to the full teaching of Scripture? A previous “reblog” contains an article called “Hell Before Augustine” in which the article highlights Augustine’s significant role in what is not the “traditional” view on the immortality of the soul. Augustine argued for infinite, conscious punishment in hell precisely because souls are immortal. I’m not sure he’s right. What I’m dealing with here is called “conditional immortality.”
*By the way, creeds do not have fixed statements on what you must believe about a soul’s inherent immortality nor do they force one doctrine of final judgment. These are debatable issues.*
What’s at stake here is the view of God each perspective leads to. The final image of God with the “traditional” eternal hell group seems to be one in which God believes a finite number of sins (some less than others due to brevity of life), even being as evil as genocide, equal infinite punishment. This level of punishment is how the Judge who holds mankind accountable believes is necessary. One might honestly ask how a limited number of sins equate to an unlimited, unending, conscious punishment. I think this is an honest question. After all, modern believers affirm like Abraham that the Judge of all the earth will do right. (Gen. 18:25) This limitless punishment applies across the spectrum including Hitler (who we often say is worthy of it) and those who live and die in lands where Christ has not yet been named. Even as I typed the previous statement I found myself struggling to see the justice in it.
The final image of God with the “conditional immortality” view is rather different. Like the “traditional” view, God is still the Judge who will hold people accountable for their final rebellion and sins. However, the major difference is the duration of punishment. “Conditional immortality” does not believe the souls of man are inherently immortal and because so, they will not live forever. The finite number of sins (of varying degrees of evil) will be punished accordingly. The conclusion of the punishment, whether for a millennium or ten millennium (arbitrary numbers for analogical purposes only), will end in cessation of being, annihilation. Here, finite sins equal finite punishment. Seems logical, right? Seems just, right? Seems more consistent with the character of God revealed throughout scripture and most clearly in Jesus Christ.
So again, in one example, a 16-year-old male pulled over for going 50 in a 40 is sentenced to a lifetime in prison without parole as is the 16-year-old that committed more serious crimes. Is that a good or bad judge? Or, in the other view, the two young men are given a punishment that is equivalent to the crime committed. Different view of the judge?
My discussing this perspective of “conditional immortality” will not be based solely upon personal preference and use of human reasoning. Rather, I want to submit this concept to the scriptures and see what how it might assess this concept.
Let me jump first to likely the most famous verse in the Bible. John 3:16 is so familiar that I might not even need to place it here, but for the sake of the argument, I shall: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son that whosoever would believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The good news of the gospel is the promise that death, the alien invader of the human race, has been defeated by Christ’s work and now holds no power over those in Jesus. Jesus proclaims that outside God, death is coming. And, I’m convinced this death is not simply referring to physical death, but to the death of our entire being. To perish means “to not exist.” Jesus seems to be saying that all humanity is heading for “non-existence”, but here is given the way out through Jesus. In other words, Jesus is affirming that eternal life is not inherently given to man, but supplied to man by God alone.
Consider another example from Paul. In Romans, we learn “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 3) What comes from sin? Death. What happens to sinners, those aligned with Satan against Christ? Death. Again, souls of people are not immortal. They will die.
If the Bible wanted to speak of hell as eternal incarceration, why not say it? Prisons existed in the ancient world. Those in our modern penal institutions are alive. They are not dead. They have not perished. They have not been destroyed. They are alive, being punished. See the difference? Maybe the scriptures called hell the “second death” (Rev 20) because once God finally judges all the earth rightly (Gen. 18), those things in rebellion against him actually do perish, die and are destroyed. See why Jesus encourages Lazarus’ family with the good news those in him will “never die.” (Jn. 11) He wasn’t referring to the first death, something every human ever born will experience. He was referring to the second death, the death from which no one will ever return. Why not? Because God, who is rich in mercy, will punish exactly as the sins deserve, no more, no less, and after that, no longer sustain the souls existence. God is not sadistic.
Some might say, “well, how is the idea of final death a threat to those outside the church? Isn’t that an easy out?” First, if we are threatening people to Jesus, we aren’t making disciples. While I could be wrong, I don’t think Jesus scared any of this twelve disciples to him, but called them lovingly and convincingly. Second, I don’t know about you, but death scares me. Now that I’m alive, I’d like to keep alive.
My parents died when I was 14/15. They died at 48 years old. They didn’t get to see my wife or my children. I’m saddened by that. I don’t want that to happen to me. So, I hope to live longer by taking better care of my self. But, one day, death will come and I will probably wish for one more date with my wife, or one more hour with my kids before its’ all over…But, what if I never had to die, didn’t have to age, didn’t have to deteriorate? What if I could have that extra date(s) with my wife and time with my children? What if I had an endless (eternal) amount of time to live and love my family? And, what if after that, I had opportunities to meet an unnumbered throng of people who lived on this earth, in various places and at various times, all who followed Christ? What if I had forever to learn their names and stories? What if I got to hear over and over again how Jesus met every need, wiped every tear and canceled every debt? What if I had unlimited time to experience the vastness of this universe, to see stars born, to new planets, to climb the Rockies, to see jungles of the Amazon and the plains of the African wilderness? And, most importantly, what if I had limitless time to sit, walk, eat and talk with Jesus? What if I was allowed to ask every question and think through every issue with the one who is Wisdom? If that were true, I’d want it.
Praise God it is true. And, I do want it! Praise God the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ. I am not immortal. I cannot sustain my own existence. But, God can. Did you know the tree of life was removed from the first garden so man would not become immortal? (Gen. 3) And, did you know that the tree of life will be replanted in the new garden so that man will be immortal? (Rev. 21, 22) Those in the second death won’t touch that tree of life, because life is the gift in Christ, and death is the consequence of rebellion.
God is just. God is mercifully just. He won’t punish beyond what is required. And, God is gracious. God is infinitely gracious giving us something our wages don’t earn, namely life forever with him in his renewed cosmos.