Conditionalism Vs Eternal Torment Vs Universal Reconciliation
I hold to a doctrine that many would probably consider to be unorthodox, some would even dare call it heresy (though notable ministries such as GotQuestions say it is a valid scriptural interpretation). It's called Conditionalism, sometimes Annihilationism, and in a nutshell it is the belief that the unsaved (those who die apart from Christ) do not possess immortality and after a period of punishment proportional to their sins will be utterly destroyed - body and soul. A chief proof-text is Matthew 10:28:
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Another proof-text is the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, where eternal life is juxtaposed not to eternal torment, but to having perished:
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.
Thirdly is 1 Timothy 6:16 where the Apostle Paul declares that only God is innately immortal:
...who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.
Throughout Church history there have essentially been three views regarding what ultimately happens to the unsaved:
1. Eternal Torment - this is currently the predominant view in Christianity and has been since Augustine published The City of God in 426 AD. Proponents believe that the unsaved are consigned forever to hell either immediately after death or after the final judgment described in Revelation 20. There they will be consciously tormented without reprieve for eternity. A necessary prerequisite to this belief is the platonic theory that souls are innately immortal and indestructible - called Naturalism. The major force of the argument in favor of this traditional view is two-fold: first, it has been the predominant view for 16 or 17 centuries, and second, the Bible, especially the New Testament, often uses the adjective eternal in describing the punishment of the wicked.
Key verses: Daniel 12:2, Matthew 25:41, Matthew 25:46, Mark 9:43, Luke 16:19-31, Revelation 14:9-11, Revelation 20:10
Problems: First, only three passages explicitly describe ongoing torment in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31, Revelation 14:9-11, and Revelation 20:10) and the passage in Luke specifically refers to this torment occurring in hades, a place God later destroys (Revelation 20:14). The passage in Revelation 14 refers only to the smoke of the torment, not the torment itself, an idiom used elsewhere of both Edom (Isaiah 34:9-10) and Babylon (Revelation 19:3) - places that were or will be utterly destroyed, but whose smoke is not literally ascending in perpetuity. This leaves only the Revelation 20 passage, which deals specifically with the devil, antichrist, and false prophet. Second, the vast majority of biblical references to the fate of the wicked describe their ultimate condition as death, perishing, destruction, ceasing to be, knowing nothing, being completely consumed, etc. Third, theologians have had great difficulty reconciling this view with the normative sense of justice going so far as to invent theological concepts not mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Aquinas' "sins against an infinite God deserve infinite recompense"; compare to Job 35:6, Jeremiah 7:19). Fourth, the anger and wrath of God appear to become co-equal to the love and mercy of God even though the Bible often paints a different picture where love and mercy are superior (Exodus 20:5-6, Psalm 30:5, 1 Corinthians 13:13, 1 John 4:7-11, James 2:13). Fifth, various biblical distinctions and eschatological images become erased or melded together in seemingly contradictory ways (e.g. "utter darkness" vs "fire", hades vs the lake of fire, eternal separation from God vs God's omnipresence, etc). Sixth, poses a problem with the substitionary atonement of Christ - namely that the specific substitution on the Cross was death, not eternal torment.
2. Conditionalism - this was the predominant view in the first two centuries after Christ, with the first major detractor being Athenagoras. Around 200 AD the Eternal Torment view grew in popularity with the rise of Neoplatonism and Conditionalism became increasingly less popular into the 4th century. The view holds that human immortality (i.e. eternal conscious life) is conditional upon a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Without immortality the unsaved are ultimately cut off from the source of life and therefore will at some point cease to exist having been destroyed in hell - what the Bible calls the "lake of fire" or gehenna.
Key verses: Malachi 4:1, Matthew 3:12, Matthew 10:28, John 3:16, Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 1 Timothy 6:16, 2 Peter 2:6, Revelation 20:14-15
Problems: First, it must reconcile the eternal nature of the punishment of the unsaved. Second, Revelation 20:10 appears to plainly describe the devil, antichrist, and false prophet undergoing eternal torment. Third, if it is the biblical view, why is it presently held by a minority of Christians?
3. Universal Reconciliation - probably always held by a minority, and first popularized by Origen who heavily emphasized the "restoration of all things", this view holds that all creatures, humans and demons alike, will ultimately be reconciled to God. Hell is essentially a purgatory of sorts for the unsaved and through Christ's atonement even unbelievers will eventually be reconciled to God. This view has often been lumped in with broader Universalism, but in all fairness to proponents of this view, they do not teach that all religions lead to God or that all gods are the same being as is found in what is commonly called Universalism. Instead, reconciliation with God is only possible through Christ and the Gospel.
Key verses: 1 Timothy 2:4, 1 Timothy 4:10, Colossians 1:20
Problems: First, it is at seeming odds with major themes of the Bible such as the finality of judgment, the utter destruction of the wicked, and the necessity of choosing Christ before death. Second, there is very little scholarly or historical support for this view and no solid evidence it was ever widely held. Third, of the three views, it has by far the fewest prima facie verses in its defense. Fourth, it presents an atonement problem of its own: it holds that the unsaved will effectively pay for their own sins in hell until such time as the punishment is over and they can return to heaven, in which case the blood of Christ was not a propitiation for them, but their corrective punishment was. Fifth, this view contradicts most philosophical models of free will because no one can finally choose life apart from God. In Eden God purposefully included the choice of death (The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) and the Bible is filled with admonishments to choose life over death, obedience over sin, and God over the devil, yet if Universal Reconciliation is true no person is ultimately free to choose between the two options. In the end love becomes a coercive force.
What personally convinces me of Conditionalism:
1. It seems to me to be the most holistic and comprehensive view from a scriptural perspective and the only view that can account for every verse regarding the fate of the wicked, including verses such as Matthew 11:22-24, Luke 12:47-48, and Malachi 4:1 that are often ignored.
2. It was the predominant view in the first two centuries, even being held by immediate disciples of John. See also here.
3. It takes passages describing eternal punishment, eternal fire, and eternal destruction as literally as Eternal Torment proponents take them, but instead of the souls of the wicked being eternal, it is the punishment itself and the fire itself and the destruction itself that is eternal - it can't be undone.
4. It allows for a literal substitutionary atonement. Jesus' death was a literal substitution for our deserved death.
5. It requires no special pleading regarding the character of God. Justice is normative, proportional, and non-contradictory. God's love remains His greatest attribute.
6. It makes better eschatalogical sense and doesn't try to mix contradictory verses. For example, are the unsaved going to suffer in utter darkness (2 Peter 2:17, Jude 1:13) or in a raging inferno (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 20:15)? Are the wicked going to experience their torment in God's presence (Revelation 14:10) or away from His presence (2 Thessalonians 1:9)? Eternal Torment proponents have to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable verses in strange ways, but Conditionalism offers the most straightforward answer: the wicked are utterly destroyed in eternal fire in the presence of God (thus satisfying all scriptures that refer to fire and also the annihilation of the wicked), which results in complete darkness for them and non-existence - like a dreamless sleep. This is the only way a being can be truly separated from an omnipresent God ("away from the presence of the Lord").
7. It removes pagan and medieval Roman Catholic influences from the doctrine of hell - specifically aspects of Neoplatonism, Augustinianism (whose founder famously began replacing a literal interpretation of Scripture with allegory), certain arguments from Aquinas, and the extra-biblical imagery from Dante's Inferno.
8. Many scholars argue that in opposition to the platonic thought of Jesus' day, the Bible actually teaches quite emphatically and unequivocally that souls are not innately immortal - only God is immortal. Immortality is an imparted gift reserved for those who trust in Christ.
9. In contrast to widely held doctrines like Trinitarianism, forgiveness of sins, eternal life, the Incarnation, the virgin birth, the Second Coming, a universal resurrection, and others, the doctrine of Eternal Torment is notably absent from every single ancient Christian creed. I find it fascinating that such a supposedly key doctrine is found nowhere in doctrinal statements that represent almost the entirety of the early Church even though these statements are not silent on the fact that an eschatological judgment is coming for the unsaved.
10. Conditionalism resolves the obvious problems of cosmological dualism and the eternality of death associated with the Eternal Torment view. Traditionalists hold that "death" has a non-standard meaning - not the cessation of conscious living, but being "spiritually separated from God". Therefore, in their view, the numerous passages promising a future death for the unsaved really mean eternal, conscious torment apart from God - not literal death. This presents a problematic scriptural contradiction though: the Bible promises that death will come to a final, conclusive end. In Revelation 20:14 "death" is cast into the lake of fire and in Isaiah 25:8, 1 Corinthians 15:26, and Revelation 21:4 it is promised that death will be no more. Cosmological dualism is another problem that Conditionalism resolves - if the Eternal Torment view were true, then heaven and hell, righteousness and sin, life and death will coexist for eternity - a reality that seems counter-intuitive when considering passages promising that God will ultimately make all things right (1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:20).
If Conditionalism is so obviously true why have Christians largely believed in eternal torment? Many Christians feel a strong allegiance to whichever view is the majority or "orthodox" view regarding just about every doctrine, but for Believers who want to adhere as closely as possible to what the Bible teaches and believe what the early Church believed, sometimes tradition has to go (Mark 7:7-8). When considering Christianity at large (including Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) need I remind you that we Evangelicals hold to a number of minority views already?
- Salvation through faith apart from works
- No transubstantiation
- No Immaculate Conception, perpetual virginity, or Assumption of Mary
- No praying to Mary or other deceased saints
Dr. David Reagan offers a powerful and concise explanation of Conditionalism as evidenced from the Bible:
If you're interested in learning more about this topic here are some much more in-depth biblical studies:
Ask a conditionalist (annihilationist)... Edward Fudge responds
The Roots of Opposition to Conditionalism
Hell: Eternal Torment or Complete Annihilation?
Believe What the Jewish Apostles Taught, Not What the Greek Philosophers Taught
The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent