Thursday, August 06, 2009

Three Views of Hell, Part 6 - Conditional Mortality

The doctrine of Conditional Immortality is the final of the three views of Hell left to examine. Like the other two, it has a surprising amount of scripture in it’s favor and should not be brushed off without some serious consideration.

Conditional Immortality, as the name suggests, rests on the idea that human beings are not immortal by nature. This would be opposite to the Eternal Torment view that clearly implies that we are all immortal (if we live forever without the sustaining life of Christ following in us, then we must, by our very nature, possess immortality). Which is right? The Biblical evidence is completely unequivocal.

Only God is immortal:

1 Timothy 1:17
To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:13-16
I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

Human beings do not possess immortality, but receive it as a gift from God, through Christ:

Matthew 19:29
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

John 3:16
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:36
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

John 5:24
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

John 6:40
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:47
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.

Romans 2:6-7
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;

Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 Corinthians 15:53-55
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

1 John 5:11-12
And this is the testimony, that God gave 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.

This is a short list of passages that teach us that eternal life is a gift of God, and that immortality is God’s own possession, which He bestows only on those who seek after Him. On the other side of that coin the Bible has a great deal to say about the fate of the lost; and it isn’t necessarily that they will spend eternity in Hell.

Genesis 2:16-17
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Ezekiel 18:4
Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

Matthew 10:28
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

John 3:16
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

John 10:28
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.

Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 John 5:12
Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

The implications of the teaching that immortality is God’s alone, to my mind raises a disturbing dilemma for those who hold to the Eternal Torment view. If it is true that man is, by nature, mortal and can only live an immortal life if God sustains him, then that would mean that God would, unnaturally, have to sustain all those in Hell for eternity. Why would God do such a thing, seeing as He frequently tells us that He takes no joy in the destruction of the wicked? Why would He continue doing something that apparently brings Him pain long after He supposedly has set all things right and all creation is exactly as He intends it to be? I don’t have an answer for that question.

God says repeatedly that those who are guilty will die, perish, be devoured, destroyed, or consumed. The problem is, that when many evangelicals see these words in the context of the passages above what they read instead is “Hell.” This is somewhat understandable given two verses at the end of Revelation:

Revelation 20:13-14
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:7-8
The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

“There you go,” say many Christians, myself included until recently, “eternity in the Lake of Fire is called the second death.” On these grounds, so the argument goes, it’s justified to refer to an eternity in Hell as perishing, death, being devoured, etc. The problem is, as I wrote in an earlier post, while Revelation certainly says that those who aren’t numbered with the saints will be cast into the Lake of Fire after the Judgment, nowhere are we taught that those lost individuals stay there for eternity. It is quite possible that those lost individuals are sent to Hell for a finite period of time in order to pay for their sins and that upon the completion of such a time and lacking the gift of eternal life they simply pass out of existence.

Simply put, until the Book of Revelation was penned there was not the least reason to assume that when God said, “the soul that sins it shall die,” He meant anything more than that. With the acceptance of Revelation into the canon we gain a little more information, but problems in understanding exactly what to make these two passages still exist, as they fall within very apocalyptic sections of the most hyperbolic, apocalyptic book in the Bible (to learn a little more about the apocalyptic style, click here).

Let’s imagine that you tell your child, “If you disobey me you will die;” and then he does disobey you and does indeed die. Then you meet him on the other side and say, “You know, I told you you would die if you disobeyed me. But what I didn’t tell you was that you’ll never actually die but live forever and ever being tormented every moment from now on.” If God had wanted to communicate that the fate of the lost was eternal torment in Hell, say those in the Conditional Immortality camp, then He had a very strange way of doing it. Those who find this view appealing simply say, “God meant what he said about sinners, and we believe He meant what He said.”

As always, there is a great deal more that could be said in defense of this position, so consider this a jumping off point if anything you read here promts you to look into this position more carefully.


Greg Alterton said...

If there's one thing your series has shown, it's that there are plenty of scriptures to back-up a variety of views on the ultimate destiny of a person's soul after death. While not all can be true, it inclines one not to be so dogmatic or intellectually lazy to rely upon a particular theological tradition uncritically, but to search the scriptures to find the truth. Very good job.

BTW, are you going to come down on the side of one particular view? (My take, after reading what you've posted in this series, is to not unthinkingly accept the notion to "eternal judgment" without going back and looking at all the scriptures on this matter -- in other words, it's something of an open question, and may not be closed for some time.)

Nathan Alterton said...

To answer your question: No, I have not come down on any one side of the discussion. I see valid and moving points for all the views. However, I will say that I have, over the last month, gained more appreciation for the Universal Justification view; which three months ago I was the most inclined to disregard.

I will probably write one more post on this topic, sort of a conclusion, where I want to look at the big picture of how these various views of Hell might affect the christian's view of God, and other things. I also want to remind readers that Hell was never, as far as we can tell from scripture, a central doctrine of any kind. It was never used as tool for convincing the lost to follow Jesus. Anyone following Jesus to get out of Hell is missing a great deal of the point of the Christ anyway.

There's one or two other items that I don't think that I've touched on much (I don't think) that I find interesting and don't fall within any one particular view that I still want to put out there.

Anyway, I really appreciate your interest. I'll let you know if I ever make up my mind on this one.

Greg Alterton said...

Some say that fear of hell is a legitmate motivation for a person to turn to Christ, that they see it in John 3:16, the key salvation verse, itself -- "For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish [there's the hell part], but have everlasting life." Of course, the idea of "perishing" may have nothing to do with hell, and may fit into an annihilation view. The point is, again, the question isn't so clearly answered.