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.
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.