Conditional Immortality and Natural Death

The New Testament has vivid warnings of potential calamity and destruction. Two Old Testament images used to illustrate these warnings are the story of Gehenna in Jeremiah chapter 19 and the destruction of the rebels in Isaiah chapter 66. In both cases there is destruction; the worms do not die, the fire is not extinguished, but the people are destroyed—they die and they ARE extinguished.

infinity

Jesus Speaks of Destruction

We can see how appropriate it is for Jesus to use these images in warning people of his day. The issue is not eternal punishment but personal destruction—final annihilation. However, annihilation is not caused by the Father robbing immortality from those who say ‘No’ to eternal life; they never had immortality to begin with.  Final death is our natural experience.

A big part of Jesus’ message in the New Testament is that we can have eternal life (become immortal); he demonstrated this by his victory over death in the resurrection. However, this immortality is an aspect of the eternal life the Father offers us and does not apply to those who reject it. Those rejecting the Father’s provision of eternal peace and happiness are also rejecting immortality—so they experience annihilation.

Conditional Immortality vs. Universal Immortality

Many assume we are all born immortal, so that we either spend eternity with the Father or apart from him, but this is not a Jewish-Christian idea; it is a Greek idea popularized by Plato who taught that our ‘spirits’ exist from eternity and will last through eternity. Christians rejected Plato’s idea of our existing eternally in the past, but many came to accept the idea of our existing eternally in the future. And if this were the case, they felt there must be a place for those who reject the Father.

Instead, I believe we have conditional immortality—we have immortality only on the condition of the Father’s provision of eternal life. If we reject this provision, we also reject immortality and we simply cease to exist.

There were Christian adherents of conditional immortality throughout Christian history, and increasing numbers of Evangelicals embrace it today. In the book, Four Views on Hell (1996), a group of Evangelicals debate the options, including conditional immortality supported by scholar Clark Pinnock who mentions several books that promote conditional immortality.

Is the Threat of Hell Necessary to Control Behavior?

Final annihilation is terrible to contemplate. There is nothing worse than destruction and extinction. But wait! There is something worse—eternal torture in burning fire!

Those who teach a burning hell believe it is true, but they are mistaken. When arguments against such belief are raised, they often protest that behavior would be unrestrained without the prospect of eternal punishment in hell. They think fear of hell is a useful tool to draw people to God and away from their evil ways; in fact, it often has the opposite effect as people reject such a cruel and callous god.

Jesus did not bring a message of fear but of love, and our behavior is based on our response to the Father’s love rather than fear. When we begin to understand the Father’s love, we can begin to love ourselves and then to love others as we love ourselves. This is all the motivation we need.

The doctrine of eternal punishment in hell-fire is mistaken, it is baggage, and it breeds fear and superstition. I contend that part of Jesus’ coming to us was to remove fear and superstition, and the concept of hell should be among the first superstitions to go.

Image: Infinity via Wikimedia Commons
Your observations and comments are welcome below.
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27 Responses to Conditional Immortality and Natural Death

  1. Mark says:

    What if a “thinking thing” as Descartes describes us is too precious to annihilate? What can we do with someone very precious who is like us but doesn’t like us? Surely what they want is to be away from us. Respecting their wishes, is that a torture? Letting me be away from the presence of God for ever would be a torture, but does Hitler want to spend eternity with our God?

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  2. Jesus Without Baggage says:

    Hi Mark, you could be correct. I believe conditional immortality is more likely the situation, but a secondary possiblity is that another place is prepared for those who do not wish to be associated with the Father. And you are right–respecting their wishes is not torture and this scenario is consistent with what we learn from Jesus about the Father, while eternal punishment is not consistent with what Jesus says of the Father.

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  3. Thanks Jesus Without Baggage for your post. I agree “The doctrine of eternal punishment in hell-fire is mistaken,” You might find some useful posts at our website http://www.afterlife.co.nz and at rethinkinghell.com
    Increasing number of Christians are taking a fresh look at hell. Perhaps the followin g would be of interest. http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2012/theology/the-wrath-to-come/

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    • Tarnya, thanks for the links. I spent some time looking around your site and found it very interesting. I appreciate what you all are doing there regarding conditional immortality and hell.

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  4. Marc says:

    Tim, Thanks for your blog. I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity who was attracted by the lack of a dogma requiring belief in eternal torment. The Orthodox understanding of the Harrowing of Hades implies that all will have the opportunity to hear the true Gospel, and that judgment and punishment or more like diagnosis and treatment. Having done a better job than most in preserving the ancient Christian Faith, universal restoration or conditional immortality seem to have more support in the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures and the early Church Fathers than eternal torment.

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    • Hi Marc,

      I have long had an appreciation for Orthodox Christianity. I even visited a Greek Orthodox church once (it’s liturgy was actually in Greek) and I picked up the liturgy book in the pew and happened to find the Greek text and was able to follow along. I was so excited! It was a practical application of my NT Greek studies in college. I also marched with an Antiochian Orthodox church in solidarity with the Palestinians some years ago.

      There are several aspects of Orthodox thought that appeal to me and I hope someday to study them more fully. Your comments give me some pointers!

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  7. michaeleeast says:

    The fires of hell don’t exist.
    But surely extinction is not much better.
    I don’t subscribe to the view that we have to accept the Gospel to live.
    I’m Greek I suppose.

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    • Michael, you seem to be describing universalism, which is a possibility. But what about the issue of free will? Will the Father force us to live in peace with others if we don’t want to? If we wish to dominate others in eternity, will he allow it?

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      • michaeleeast says:

        I don’t claim to know.
        But one possibility is that contact with the Father brings about a change in the individual which allows him or her to live in peace.
        As for the victims, we learn to forgive as the Father forgives us.

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  8. sheila0405 says:

    One of the passages used to “prove” hell is Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man states that he is in torment in the flames. There is disagreement among Christians as to the nature of this passage: is it really a parable, or was this an actual occurrence. Because Jesus added a name to a person in the story, the preachers I know say, that changes the story from parable to reality. Any thoughts? Maybe in a future post?

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    • michaeleeast says:

      I believe that the story of the rich man and Lazarus goes back to ancient Egypt.
      The name Lazarus may have been used because it was Lazarus who was raised from the dead and there is a reference to this in the story. “‘”If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”‘” Luke 16:31 (NRSV)

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    • Sheila, I think you are on the right track when you call it a parable. A parable is meant to make a point; the details are not to provide information about how the world works.

      Here the point seems to be summed up in the last line: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ If a person is set in his opinion, then nothing will convince them.

      I am sure I will address it further in some future post.

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    • Marc says:

      The story of the rich man and Lazarus gives insight into the spiritual realm of Sheol or Hades, not the Lake of Fire or Gehenna. The conditions of Hades were forever changed when our Lord Jesus Christ entered this spiritual realm upon His physical death. The most ancient Christian understanding about the Harrowing of Hades is that most of those who heard the Gospel were healed and experienced the First Resurrection into Paradise, and Paradise ascended with the Lord into the Heavenly Jerusalem.

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  9. Tim I have enjoyed reading through your series, and especially that a non-scholar such as myself can follow along quite nicely. I appreciate the effort you have taken to make your posts readable, as opposed to trying to prove your intelligence or worthiness in academia. As a former straight up evangelical, I have some reconstructing to do after the deconstruction process. This has given me food for thought. I’m inclined to think we’re given an opportunity to ‘choose life’ with an unclouded, uncorrupted judgement, probably after death. But the idea that we’re actually mortal by default and immortal through graceful intervention is a new one for me. Thank you.

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    • Thank you MTN! I am glad you find my blog posts readable. This was one of my goals from the beginning–to discuss theological issues in simple language. This does not assume that any of my readers are uneducated, but that some might not have the background for more technical theological discussion.

      I hope you are doing well in your reconstruction since leaving ‘straight up’ evangelicalism. If you have questions of me that are not addressed in my blog posts, you can contact me directly at my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JesusWithoutBaggage.

      ~Tim Chastain

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      • Tim, after reading through your series and thinking more on this again, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on judgement and wrath. Huge topic I know! My understanding of a graceful, loving God is expanding but still don’t know what to do with all the passages that point to the ‘day of judgement’ etc.. Have you addressed this anywhere previously or have any good resources you could point me to?
        – Jane

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        • Hi Jane,

          If you read the entire series on hell, it addresses aspects of wrath of course. But your question of judgment and wrath is a good one. I will address the issue at some point, but I am not sure when.

          As a short, and inadequate, answer I think there will be a judgment, but the judgment won’t be the vicious condemnation some people expect. Instead, I think it will be a final opportunity for everyone to accept eternal life with the Father with a clear mind and a clear understanding of what is involved.

          Even with this clarity, there may be those who choose not to accept eternal life in the Father’s new order. So they are allowed to reject it and are separated from the Father as they wish. In essence, they have judged for themselves.

          Does this brief explanation make sense to you?

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          • Chris says:

            After 10 years of bit picking up a bible or going to church, primarily because of the baggage reasons you talk about, I’m coming back to God and your blog is helping me cope with some of my own concerns and beliefs and how they contradict with what so many Christians say today.

            It seems as if your idea of afterlife and hell is similar to Jehovah’s Witnesses: “hell” is simply your grave, it’s death.

            I love this idea because the idea of eternal torture in Hell doesn’t make God sound very loving

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          • Hi Chris, I am glad that you find my blog helpful; that’s what it is all about for me–being helpful. You are right: eternal torture in Hell doesn’t make God sound very loving.

            I hope you continue to find my blog helpful, and if there is anything in particular you would like me to address, just let me know and I will try. If you have more personal questions or comments, you can always email me from the contact page.

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  12. Mike says:

    What is your take on 2 Peter 3:3-7?

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Mike, I believe in the future coming of Jesus, just as the author of 2 Peter did.

      However, I wouldn’t use the argument the author used to support it. He was a follower of Jesus, as I am, and had some idea of an end-times scenario, but he was only a human trying to fill in things he did not know for sure. I imagine he felt his explanation in defense of the second coming was effective though just because he used it does not make it factual.

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