What is meant by “Conditional Immortality” and what, if any, is the Biblical basis for it?

In this essay I shall be looking at the doctrine of Conditional Immortality and how this idea has been taken from the Bible. I shall look into the Scriptures that are used to support this doctrine and the other ideas and doctrines that have branched off from Conditional Immortality and have become a part of it in some instances, and see if there actually is any Biblical basis for this belief in Conditional Immortality. Conditional Immortality is considered to be a relatively “new” idea compared to the universalism doctrine which dates back as far as the early church to Origen’s theory of apokatastasis – the idea that everything will be restored back to God, possibly even the devil. Universalism is the other main challenge, along with Conditional Immortality, to the traditional view about hell, and what happens to unbelievers after death and judgement, although Universalism has been widely condemned and its doctrine has never really been accepted by evangelicals. But because of the seeming “newness” of Conditional Immortality; [It] has caused evangelicals, whichever position they take on the debate, to be hesitant when discussing the matter. The assumption is that if this is a Biblical doctrine, then why did it not appear until recently?1 Conditionalism did appear under different forms in the 19th Century debates and is documented by various scholars, such as Geoffrey Rowell and his “Hell and the Victorians” along with David Powys essay on 19th and 20th Century debates, although more recently, Conditionalism and Annihilationism have become more known due to it gaining more public knowledge due to two important works by John Wenham and John Stott. The first, by Wenham in “The Goodness of God”, talks of the moral difficulties of hell in one of the chapters that deal with this subject. He presented Conditionalism as a possible option. The second work was written fourteen years later by John Stott with a case for Annihilationism when he was questioned by David Edward’s in “Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue”. Because such a respected leader of the modern evangelicalism supported this doctrine, it caused people to listen and brought it to a wider Christian audience.2

1

Gray, T., “Destroyed for ever: An examination of the debates concerning Annihilation and Conditional Immortality”, Themelios Journal, Vol. 21, Issue 2, p.14 2 Ibid., Gray, T., pp. 14 - 15

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The debate between Conditionalists and people who believe the more traditional view on hell is between the ways Biblical texts have been interpreted, and secondly concerns theological arguments. ‘Caution must be exercised when using Biblical texts … only when we have considered context, [and] setting …can we make a fully informed decision.'3 The trouble with doctrines and debates like these is that some Scripture can be interpreted and taken in different ways to back up certain points, so now I shall look at the definitions of Conditional Immortality to see what it actually defines as and then move on to the Biblical basis for it. Immortality in the Old Testament does not really appear as a distinct term, but in Proverbs 12: 28 it ‘has the coinage ‘not-death’ (al-māwet)’ 4 The Old Testament does have some positive references to hope in an afterlife in Job 19: 26, Ps. 17: 15; 49: 15; 73: 24; Isa. 26: 19; 53: 10 – 12; Dan. 12: 2,13, but these appear to speak of resurrection of the body and some, a resurrection first then life for ever after. The Daniel 12: 2 reference is one of particular interest because here God speaks of those who have already died, and states they will “wake up” to have life again forever, while others will wake up to find “shame and disgrace” forever.5 This in itself goes against Conditional Immortality, and the belief that the unrighteous will perish indefinitely or be annihilated after a certain period of time and punishment.6 But S. D. F Salmond, in his book Christian Doctrine of Immortality talks about this verse in Daniel and concludes to say that ‘the antithesis shows at once that life is not mere existence.’7 But in the New Testament, the word ‘immortality’ has several different meanings since there are three different words used in the Greek: ‘anthanasia, ‘deathlessness’ … aphtharsia, ‘incorruptibility’ … [and] aphthartos, ‘incorruptible’.8 This kind of immortality means more of immunity from decay and death because of sharing eternal divine life. So what exactly is meant by “Conditional Immortality”? Well, the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology describes it this way:
[It is] the doctrine of that immortality was not a natural endowment of man at Creation, but it is a gift from God to the redeemed who believe in Christ. Those who do not receive Christ ultimately lose all consciousness or existence.9
3 4

Gray, T., op. cit., p. 15 Ferguson, B. S.; Wright, D. F. (eds.), New Dictionary of Theology, p. 332 5 Quotes are taken from the NCV translation of the Bible. 6 cf. Grudem, W., Bible Doctrine, pp.459 - 462 7 Salmond, S. D. F., Christian Doctrine of Immortality, p. 490 8 Ibid., Ferguson, B. S.; Wright, D. F. (eds.), p. 332 9 Elwell, W. A., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 264

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Annihilationism is closely related to this Conditional Immortality doctrine in the way that Annihilationism teaches all men were created immortal but then those that do not believe in Christ will be deprived from immortality and then made nonexistent at death. But what dies the Bible say? Where does Conditional Immortality come from in Scripture, if it indeed does have a solid Biblical basis?
Romans 2: 7 – 8 delineates two distinct categories of persons who will appear before God on the day of judgement. ‘To those who seek for glory, honour, and immortality by perseverance in well-doing, He will give eternal life’10

Conditionalists base their ideas for the doctrine on passages of Scripture such as 1 Tim. 1: 17; 6: 16 and 2 Tim. 1: 10, which all state in one way or another that only God has immortality, as Stott affirms by saying, ‘according to Scripture only God possesses immortality in Himself’11 Conditionalists also base the doctrine on three main points in Scripture as their evidence for Conditional Immortality, the first point being stated above. The other two points of Scriptural evidences are:
[1.] eternal life is described as a gift from God imparted only to the believing person (John 10: 27 – 28; 17: 3; Rom. 2: 7; 6: 22 – 23; Gal. 6: 8); and [2.] the wicked are said to “perish” or to be “destroyed,” which is taken to mean that the nonredeemed will be reduced to non-existence.12

While it is true what these Scriptures are saying, Louis Berkhof produces a counter argument for these evidences in his Systematic Theology, refuting the claims of the Conditionalists for the non-existence of the unbeliever after death, saying,
The doctrine of Conditional Immortality is plainly contradicted by Scripture where is teaches: (1) that sinners as well as saints will continue to exist forever, Eccl. 12: 7; Matt. 25; 46; Rom. 2: 8 – 10; Rev. 14: 11; 20: 10; (2) that the wicked will suffer eternal punishment … and therefore will not be annihilated, cf. the passages just mentioned; and (3) that there will be degrees in the punishment of the wicked, … Luke 12: 47, 48; Rom. 2: 12.13

So while Annihilationists hold that we were all created immortal, and Conditionalists, that we only receive immortality as a gift from God, therefore not being created immortal, we can look to the Genesis account of the creation of Man to see, and

10 11

Harris, M. J., Raised Immortal, p. 197 Gray, T., op. cit., p. 16 12 Ferguson, B. S., Wright, D. F., (eds.), op. cit., p. 261 13 Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology, p. 691

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quite possibly deduct, that Man was made neither, but with the option to become either.
He was created for immortality rather than with immortality. Such a view coheres with 1 Tim. 6: 16. God is inherently immortal, but Man is derivatively immortal, receiving immortality as a gracious divine gift (Rom. 2: 7)14

With this in mind, plus the Scriptures that Conditionalists use to back their doctrine of immortality/eternal life as a gift, it would be good now to mention the slight, but extremely important differences between the words used. Immortality and eternal life are closely related, but the difference being that eternal life is the “positive” end of immortality, that is, going to live and share life in heaven with God and the other Righteous, whereas immortality in itself is just continued existence. Looking at 1 Cor. 15: 51 – 54, we can see that immortality is gained through the Resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus when God comes to judge the world, where believers will be changed from mortal to immortal “in the twinkling of an eye.” From Paul’s teachings, and examination of the Scriptures, it is clear that immortality that leads to eternal life is something that is only given to the righteous as a gift of grace from God, but that the unrighteous will also be resurrected on that Last Day for judgement, but that their immortality goes with them down the “negative” end to eternal punishment, which is explicitly outlined in Scripture in the New Testament writings and the Gospel’s,15 not Annihilationism. So therefore it would seem plausible to conclude that the Bible does in fact teach us of “Conditional Immortality,” but only in the sense that just the righteous will inherit immortality and eternal life because they are in Christ, the unbelievers living an eternity in hell for their actions and God’s just judgement on them, but not being annihilated in any sense or form.

14 15

Ferguson, S. B., Wright, D. F. (eds.), op. cit., pp. 332 - 333 cf. 2 Thess. 1: 9; Rev. 20: 6, 14; 21: 8

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Bibliography
Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology, (Oxford, Banner of Truth; 1939) Davies E., “Eternal Punishment”, Foundations, Issue 13, (UK, British Evangelical Council; 1984) Elwell, W. A. (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Michigan, Baker Books; 1984) Ferguson, S. B., Wright, D. F. (eds.), New Dictionary of Theology, (England, InterVarsity Press; 1988) Gray, T., “Destroyed for ever: An examination of the debates concerning Annhilation and Conditional Immortality.”, Themelios, vol. 21, Issue 2, (USA, RTSF; 1996) Grudem, W., Bible Doctrine, (England, Inter-Varsity Press; 1999) Harris, M. J., Raised Immortal, (England, Morris Morgart and Scott; 1983) Journal for the study of the New Testament, Issue 28, (England, JSOT Press; 1986) New Revised Standard Version, New Testament (The Division of Education and Ministry, National Council of the Churches of Christ, 1990) Salmond, S. D. F., Christian Doctrine of Immortality, (Edinburgh, Morrison and Gibb Ltd; 1901)

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