Recently a friend reached out to me with some questions regarding “annihilationism” and “conditional immortality.”
Will Every Soul Live Forever, or is Immortality Conditional?
One of the key questions in this discussion is this: Although the Bible clearly teaches the promise of eternal life for those who have been redeemed by Jesus, does the Bible teach eternal death for those who die in their sins?
“Conditional immortality” is the term given to the belief that the souls of those who die apart from redemption in Jesus will not go on living forever. They believe that immortality is conditional, meaning that only the souls of those who put their faith in Jesus will live forever, but not the souls of those who do not.
The central argument for conditional immortality in the Bible comes from Genesis 3 and Revelation 22, which talk about the Tree of Life, which was present in the Garden of Eden and will be present again in the New Jerusalem. In Genesis 3 we are told that the people were cut off from it, lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen state. The idea is that if the Tree of Life is in the New Jerusalem (Heaven), it provides people with eternal life, but to be cut off from Heaven is therefore to be cut off from the source of eternal life.
Conditional immortality is also related to the idea of “annihilationism”
Annihilationism or Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)?
Annihilationism is the belief that unredeemed souls will be “annihilated,” i.e. snuffed out in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:15) and cease to exist for all eternity. Seventh Day Adventists in particular argue that since Hebrews 12:29 says that God is a “consuming fire,” those who have not been justified and sanctified through Christ will be consumed by his presence and cease to exist.
In contrast to this is the traditional belief about Hell, held by the Church Fathers and the majority of Christians throughout history, that Hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT).
The key arguments against the ECT view of Hell, and in favor of annihilationism are two-fold:
- An eternity of punishment for sins committed in a finite lifetime seems unfair, i.e. “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”
- The view of Hell as eternal conscious torment is not Biblical, but is imported from outside philosophies.
- The ECT view is often blamed on Platonism, or Hellenism more generally, or from medieval assumptions influenced by writings like Dante’s Inferno
Rather than unquestioningly accepting these claims, we should examine if what they claim is true.
What Did Jesus Say About Hell?
Some might find it surprising that most of our understanding about Hell from the Bible does not come from the Old Testament, but from the words of Jesus.
13% of Jesus’ teaching and half of his parables were about Hell, judgment, and the wrath of God.
What that means is that Hell is not a peripheral issue, but is a major theme of Jesus’ teachings. If you claim that Jesus was a good teacher, you have to deal with the issue of what he taught about Hell.
Examining Jesus’ teachings, we find that the view of Hell as eternal, conscious torment was not a later addition to Christianity in the Middle Ages, nor the influence of Platonism or Hellenism, but rather people who simply accept the words of Jesus at face value.
Here are some examples of what he said:
- Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt. 25:41)
- And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46)
- [but some] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 8:12)
- And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
- Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a man who suffered in Hell after his life on Earth ended, which means that his soul was not snuffed out when he died, but continued living.
Because of the simple clarity of these verses, the great majority of Christians throughout history have accepted that the teaching of the Bible is that Hell is eternal, conscious torment.
Eternal Separation from God
In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the Apostle Paul describes Hell in this way:
those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,2 Thessalonians 1:9
Once again, we see an example of the eternality of the destruction which will be suffered by those who do not know God and who reject the gospel.
Rather than being unkind or heartless, these messages are written to those who are alive so that they can turn from their ways and be saved. As Ezekiel 33:11 says:
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?Ezekiel 33:11
It is the heart of a loving God that warns and pleads, knowing the gravity of what is at stake. It is because God cared so much that he came to this Earth to give his life, that people might be saved.
A Message from Beyond the Grave
In the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who died and suffered torment in Hades. Jesus shares that this man longed to be able to send a warning to his family members who were still alive that they should not make the mistake that he did, of not trusting in and walking with God.
For those who are alive, this is a very important story because it helps us to understand the urgency of responding to the gospel and receiving the gift of salvation and life that is extended to us in Jesus.
The question still remains as to whether it is fair for Hell to be eternal, since life on Earth is finite.
Here 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is helpful, which tells us that the essence of Hell is separation from God and his glory.
Since God is the source of beauty, life, joy, peace, and goodness – to be separated from God and his glory is to be cut off from those things for eternity. In other words: what makes Hell hellish, is that God is not there. What makes Heaven heavenly, is that God is there.
Furthermore, since Hell is the destiny of those who have rejected the grace of God and relationship with him, and have essentially pushed God away or turned their back on Him, Hell is the final culmination of them getting what they wanted in their lifetime.
In Genesis 6:3, God says something very serious: “My Spirit will not always contend (or strive) with man.” If a person continually rejects the offer of God’s grace and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the time will come when God will give them what they insisted upon, forever: life apart from God. This giving people over to their ungodly desires is the essence of God’s judgment (see Romans 1:18-31).
Hope Beyond the Grave
Faithful Christian teachers in history, such as John Stott, have believed in annihilationism, but this view has always been a minority viewpoint, mostly because it seems to contradict the straightforward teachings of Jesus.
What we do know is that the message of the gospel is truly good news, and that there is an urgency to this gospel because of the reality of Hell.