Some believers (like me) think it likely that everyone who ever lived will have opportunity, with a clear mind free of confusion and misinformation, to understand God’s love and his offer of eternal life. This might be during their lifetime or it might be after death.
I anticipate that the vast majority of people who ever lived will align with God and live with God forever. If everyone responded to God’s offer, it would be called Universalism, which we discussed last time. But what if someone does not wish to live with God forever? Will God override their free will?
The question arises, though, as to who with a clear mind would NOT respond positively to God! We can only guess, but C. S. Lewis’ suggests in Mere Christianity (Christian Behavior, chapter 8) that it is pride, by which Lewis means a competitive, dominating pride—strong egotism.
I once knew such a person very well. He was a minister and would suck every bit of competing ego out of a room. I often wondered how he would react face-to-face with God; I am not sure it would go well. Would such a person really want to be faced with God forever? If not, would God force them to do so against their will? And what would happen to that person who rejected eternal life with God?
I first became aware of conditional immortality in 1998. I was so excited! It made such good sense, was consistent with the character of God, and provided a very satisfactory resolution to the old ‘Heaven or Hell’ perspective. Let me explain.
I think most Christians assume that once we are born our ‘souls’ or ‘spirits’ live forever. But this is not a biblical idea; it comes from Plato. Plato taught that ‘spirits’ exist eternally from the past and eternally into the future. While Christians do not embrace the first part, many do embrace the second part—that all ‘spirits’ continue forever. One might call this ‘unconditional immortality’.
However, God does offer us the possibility of eternal life—which we might call ‘conditional immortality’. And we can understand the condition as our simply aligning with God and accepting his provision of eternal life. If we do not accept God’s gift of immortality, then presumably conditional immortality does not apply for us and we simply cease to exist.
This would be ‘annihilation‘—the cessation of life and thought—and it is not a punishment but the natural result of death without God’s provision of eternal life through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus, Immortality (Eternal Life), and Destruction
This throws new light on John 3:16 that some might not have considered:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Some assume ‘perish’ means to be punished in hell for eternity. But the contrast is not between eternal life and eternal torture in hell but between eternal life (immortality) and perishing (not eternal life). Despite what some believe, Jesus does not teach eternal punishment in hell. But he does share vivid warnings to those who carelessly pursue a path toward potential calamity, death, and destruction.
Old Testament images he employs to illustrate these warnings are the story of Gehenna in Jeremiah 19 and the destruction of the rebels in Isaiah 66. There is destruction in both cases. The worms do not die, and the fire is not extinguished. However, the people are destroyed—they DO die and ARE extinguished.
Some believers have taken Jesus’ imagery and references to ‘destruction’ and turned them into an eternal conscious punishment in hell. But the issue is not eternal punishment but personal destruction—final annihilation—cessation of existence.
Jesus’ talks about eternal life, which includes our becoming immortal, and demonstrates the power of that immortality in his victory over death in his resurrection. However, this immortality is a gift the Father offers us and does not apply to those who reject the offer. Those rejecting the Father’s provision of eternal peace and happiness are also rejecting immortality—so they experience annihilation by their own choice, which is the natural and normal result of death.
Annihilation is the Natural Result of Death
The final death, or annihilation, of those who do not wish to live eternally with God is NOT punishment; it is simply the natural result of our innate mortality. We don’t posses innate immortality, but God offers immortality to us on the condition that we accept it. But if we reject the offer then we experience the natural consequence of mortality–extinction. Annihilation. It is our choice.
I believe God is infinitely merciful. I believe God will offer eternal life to everyone who ever lived. But I don’t think God will override anyone’s free will and force them to live with him eternally. So, annihilation is not the Father robbing immortality from those who say ‘No’ to eternal life. Final death is the natural experience of all people.
Now I would not say that annihilation is a pleasant prospect. In fact, I think annihilation is terrible to contemplate even if we choose it for ourselves. There is nothing worse than final destruction and extinction.
But wait! There is something worse—eternal torture in burning fire! Fortunately, though, that is not a valid prospect.
God’s Universal Love
I believe God’s love is universal and his offer of eternal life will be universal, but I don’t think God will force those to live with him for eternity who do not wish to do so. I think God’s love is balanced by respect for a person’s free will.
On the other hand, perhaps everyone WILL accept God’s offer of eternal life. I hope so! After all, I AM a hopeful Universalist.
Jesus without Baggage exists to assist and support those questioning beliefs they have been taught in fundamentalist, traditional evangelical, and other groups. If you know someone who might find Jesus without Baggage helpful, feel free to send them the introductory page: About Jesus without Baggage.
Articles in this series:
How Some Misguided Christian Beliefs are Very Harmful
Belief in Angry God is Perhaps the Most Damaging, Misguided Christian Belief of All
If We Are Free to Approach God Without Fear, What Becomes of Our Other Religious Fears—Like Hell?
Hopeful Universalism and a Gentle Alternative
A Gentle Alternative to Punishment in Hell for Those Who Reject God’s Offer of Eternal Life—Conditional Immortality