I agree with believers who suggest that God offers eternal life after death to everyone — even those who have never heard, and even those of other religions. Thus it is possible that all who ever lived could be part of God’s eternal community.
However, as we discussed before, there might be those, exercising their independent free will, who reject God’s offer of eternal life. If this is so, then what becomes of them? Surely God will make an alternative arrangement for such people; what might it be?
Believers have suggested several scenarios.
1. Everlasting punishment in a burning fire. We explored this in previous posts and discovered that there is no basis for postulating such an option.
2. Everlasting punishment without fire. This is the view that the imagery of fire in the New Testament is metaphorical.
3. Universalism-everyone will go to heaven. Some believe that everyone WILL respond to God’s love, which is so overwhelming that we will have no choice but to accept it. But wouldn’t this make us automatons—robots without the capacity for self-determination? Would we have no free will?
4. Conditional immortality-annihilation. A fourth possibility is that we are not inherently immortal as some assume. Jesus’ message in the New Testament is that we can have eternal life (become immortal); however, this offer of immortality does not apply to those who reject the offer so they experience death or extinction.
I believe conditional immortality determines what happens to those who reject eternal life.
The final death of those who do not wish to live eternally in God’s community is not punishment; it is simply the natural result of our innate mortality; we do not have unconditional immortality. God offers an alternative—eternal life, but if one rejects the offer they experience the natural consequence of mortality–extinction.
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 19 and the destruction of the rebels in Isaiah 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 based on their own preference and choice. However, annihilation is not caused by God robbing immortality from those who say ‘No’ to eternal life; we do not have 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 God offers us and does not apply to those who reject it. Those rejecting God’s provision of eternal peace and happiness in his/her community are also rejecting immortality—so they experience annihilation.
Conditional Immortality vs. Universal Immortality
Many assume we are all born immortal, so we either spend eternity with God 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 God’s provision of eternal life. If we reject this provision, we also reject immortality and simply cease to exist.
Christian adherents of conditional immortality existed 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 a number books that promote the idea of 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 I am certain 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; but, 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 God’s love rather than fear. When we begin to understand God’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 harmful baggage that distorts the character of God and 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.
Then Why Need We Share the Good News of Jesus?
But if eternal life is available to everyone whether they have heard or even if they follow another religion, then why do we need to share the good news of Jesus with anyone at all? Good question! We will talk about that next time.
Articles in this series: Jesus, World Religions, and Eternal Life
- Do All Religions Lead to the Same Place? Not Really
- ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’; Is Jesus the Only Way to Life? Yes and No
- Will Everyone Live Forever with God After Death? Not Necessarily!
- Hell? Conditional Immortality? Something Else? What Happens to Those Who Reject God?
- If Most Everyone Will Have Eternal Life with God Anyway, then Why Do We Need to Share the Good News of Jesus?
- 3 Reasons Why Loving Others is Not All There Is to Following Jesus