In discussions of heaven and hell, one is hard-pressed to find a conversation in which questions of God’s love, wrath, and mercy do not arise. What is God’s wrath? How does it get reconciled with God’s love and mercy? Does God give every sinner what he or she deserves, or does he show some degree of mercy to the unrepentant by annihilating them?1 Is it loving for God to destroy the wicked—i.e. to send them to hell in the manner that the Bible actually describes (e.g. Matthew 10:28)?
Questions about the nature of Godly justice and wrath, how love plays into it, what is deserved, and more, have great practical significance when it comes to arguments for and against conditionalism.2 Arguments for conditionalism may rely on certain beliefs about God’s love, wrath, and mercy. Certain arguments against conditionalism may rely on the assumption that conditionalism is based on certain beliefs about God’s love, wrath, and mercy. And yet such an assumption is unwarranted, as different conditionalists can have different views on God’s love, wrath, and mercy.
What of these different views? The views can be many, but ultimately, they all are variants of two main ideas, two main views that seek to answer one main question:
Does God annihilate the unrepentant because it is the punishment that they deserve, or is it an act of kindness on his part towards them?
My goal here is not to convince anyone that one particular view is correct (although I will let you know which I believe). My goal is to show some of the diversity that exists in conditionalist thought. This is meant to inform, and also to defend evangelical conditionalism from certain philosophical and systematic objections that apply only to one particular conditionalist approach or the other.
View #1: Annihilation Is What the Unsaved Deserve
At the most basic level, any number of views about God’s wrath can fit under this umbrella, including some that you wouldn’t necessarily connect with the idea of “deserving” anything. Simply put, the view is that when the Bible says the wages of sin is death, it means death the way annihilationists would use it (and the way the Bible uses as well—see here for more on that). Those who are annihilated are annihilated because they deserve that punishment, no more and no less.
View #2: Annihilation Is Better Than What the Unsaved Deserve
This second view approaches annihilation as a form of mercy. Now, I do not believe that this view is nearly as common as the language used by many conditionalists might indicate. Although God’s mercy and love are appealed to often in the literature, many of the uses utlimately fall outside of this approach.
This approach essentially holds that eternal torment is what is deserved by the unsaved. However, while the unsaved do not get awarded salvation, God nonetheless shows them mercy by annihilating them. They would have been tormented forever, but God put them out of their misery. Under this view, it can be said that God shows love and even grace to the unsaved, since they get less than they deserve.
Commentary on All the Talk of Love and Mercy that Conditionalists Use
It is hard to say just how common each of the two views are in conditionalist thought. Conditionalists talk about God’s grace and mercy a lot when the discussion of hell comes up. For what it’s worth, my guess is that some of the time (if not most of the time), these same conditionalists don’t go as far as actually affirming view #2. I think what many have is a sort of cognitive dissonance. God is loving and merciful, and so he is merciful even in final punishment. However, the final punishment is not less than the unsaved deserve, but exactly what they deserve.
The problem with this is that God doesn’t need to be loving or kind or merciful to annihilate the wicked if that is what the wicked deserve. A heartless robot judge could give everyone what they deserve. I am not saying that God is actually like a heartless robot judge, only that, in this particular instance, God need not be any different from such a being. It is not loving to give someone the precise punishment that they deserve. It is just, but it is not an act of love or mercy towards them.
Inherent in the idea of love is to want what is good for the person, and inherent in the idea of mercy is to give them better than they deserve. If annihilation, which is not a good fate, is what is deserved by the unsaved, then neither love nor mercy apply in the action of God annihilating people. If annihilation is what is deserved, then it is perfectly just and perfectly good and righteous, but there is no mercy or love in it (at least not for the recipient). This is perhaps one area where Christians are often taught to quibble and try to make the ideas of love and mercy fit in because we are trained to think that God just has to be merciful and loving in absolutely everything he does.3 But if we are straight with ourselves, if we say that annihilation is what sins deserve, then we have to say that it is a just punishment, not a merciful one.
For the conditionalist who believes that annihilation is what sin ultimately deserves, is God’s nature as a God of great mercy and love therefore irrelevant to the discussion of hell?
Certainly not! There is a way that God’s love and mercy do play directly into the discussion. For what it’s worth, I think this is really why so many conditionalists bring up God’s love and mercy so much (even if they haven’t thought it out in so many words). Most conditionalists view eternal torment, at least as traditionalists have described it throughout most of church history, as a far worse fate than annihilation. So then, if sin deserves annihilation, eternal torment would be worse than what sin deserves. God, therefore, would be giving people worse than they deserve if the traditional view is true. And if a cold robot judge can at least give no one worse than they deserve, how much more should this be true of a loving God?
Perhaps it can help to think of it numerically. What is deserved, what a robot judge or a cold, cosmic force like karma could do, is 0 (zero). Zero is the baseline. Now imagine that what is worse than what is deserved, which would be genuinely evil, is -1. Love and mercy (especially mercy), doing what is good for the other person even when they don’t deserve it, would be +1. Well, God, being loving and merciful, is a +1 in his totality. If God is a +1, it already seems out of the ordinary for him to do zero (though I think this is ultimately what he Bible shows us in this case). To imagine God being a -1 would just be unconscionable. How could a loving God (a +1) ever be a -1?
Or perhaps think of it in terms of human relationships. You don’t have to a particularly good person to not stab a stranger for no reason. You just have to not be a horrible person. Well, God is like the good Samaritan, a good person who helps strangers simply out of the goodness of his heart. How unimaginable would it be for God to then be the person who stabs the stranger on the street? If a merely not-horrible person wouldn’t do that, how much less could we expect the good Samaritan to do so?
Now, before anyone thinks I’m bagging on traditionalists or calling them unjust, keep in mind that all of this, all of these analogies, assume that annihilation is the punishment deserved for sin, and that eternal torment is a worse fate. I cannot imagine anyone holding to the traditional view while affirming both of those premises, so no actual person (as far as I am aware) is being called unjust. Traditionalists would either say that eternal torment is what is deserved, or that eternal torment is actually a preferable fate than annihilation (a view that is pretty rare but probably on the rise). Assuming that annihilation is a less terrible fate than eternal torment and that it is what is deserved, traditionalists will simply find that out in the afterlife, realize they were mistaken, and then praise God for his justice. It’s not the end of the world.
What If View #2 Is Correct?
I don’t think that view #2 is correct. If it is, however, then I guess God shows mercy even in the final punishment of the unsaved. That would hardly seem out of character for the God we call our Father.
Comments on Retributive Punishment
Do conditionalists believe in retributive punishment? And is retributive punishment required for view #1?
The answer to the first question is that, like most questions, it varies. Some do and some do not. Well, I do question just how truly non-retributive annihilation is in some of the alternate explanations, but that’s another story.
The answer to the second question is no. That said, I think that overall, the majority of annihilationists who hold to view #1 do think of final punishment as retributive. I know that I certainly consider retributive justice to be what the Bible teaches (and therefore what I believe to be true). There are many names that could be applied to this view. I think “conservative” is a good description, as it requires the least degree of departure from how conservative Christians (both evangelicals and in other movements) have tended to view hell and wrath and God’s dealings with the wicked. It differs from traditionalism, of course, but much of the overall approach is the same. The final destruction of the wicked is retributive punishment. Wrath, though not the loose ball, unjust form of fury that we are used to seeing among humans when we think of anger, is nonetheless fury and anger. God potentially punishes for many reasons, but reason enough is simply that the sins of the wicked deserve it, deeds which were not forgiven them in Christ (which is the only way one can escape this just wrath).
Because traditionalists have typically viewed hell and final punishment in a similar way, as wrath, as vengeance, as fury (albeit a just fury), the conditionalist view of annihilation as retributive punishment has the most in common with historical and traditional Christianity.4 It does not require a fundamental change in one’s view of how God deals with sin or sinners. It does not require a change in how we think of God’s wrath, nor is it tied to a certain view of free will, the incarnation, a theology of non-violence, or anything else. Like the traditional view, God is seen as taking righteous vengeance against sinners. Like the traditional view dictates, one group is shown eternal mercy while the other group is shown the full, eternal recompense due for their sins. But unlike the traditional view, the conditionalist position does not entail God keeping them alive forever.
That all said, those who hold to annihilation not being a retributive act of God could still hold that the unsaved deserve it. One could hold to a view like Greg Boyd’s, where sin itself leads to self-destruction.5 God does not actively cause anyone to be destroyed. However, since death is the natural consequence of sin, the fate is still deserved. God isn’t putting anyone out of their deserved misery like in view #2. But rather than actively inflicting annihilation in his just wrath, he eventually lets people who have refused the chance to be saved just continue going their own way until they are gone. They deserve death and get it naturally, not at God’s hand.
I do not hold this view, but it still holds that annihilation is deserved, even if not actively inflicted by God.6
There are several points to take away from all this:
- As is the case with the traditional view (and many other theological topics), there is a variety of viewpoints on areas of underlying systematic theology among conditionalists.
- Some conditionalists believe that the wicked deserve their annihilation, and some believe that they actually deserve worse but God annihilates them out of mercy.
- All this talk of God’s love and mercy need not mean that a given conditionalist thinks annihilation is better than what the unsaved deserve. Some are guilty of cognitive dissonance, and others may be appealing to God’s overall loving nature as evidence that he simply would never be unjustly harsh.
- Many annihilationists do believe in God’s wrath and retributive vengeance towards the ultimately unrepentant. Many others do not, at least in theory.
Most importantly, because there is a variety of viewpoints on God’s wrath within conditionalism, simply arguing against one approach to God’s wrath is not going to defeat the doctrine. Conditionalism is a broader and more nuanced position than that, and it must be engaged as such.
- For our purposes here, we will not even entertain the idea that God would do unto anyone worse than they deserve. [↩]
- For what we mean by conditionalism, also known as annihilation or annihilationism, see our earlier explanation. [↩]
- This certainly is not unique to conditionalists, as becomes apparent anytime you hear a traditionalist challenged by an unbeliever about how a loving God could condemn anyone to eternal torment. [↩]
- This isn’t to say that this view has been universal. Variations have certainly existed, even in orthodox Christianity. [↩]
- See Episode 60 of our podcast. [↩]
- One might see this explanation and counter that even if the second death is not actively inflicted by God, God still, as a result of a person’s sin and unwillingness to repent, makes the choice to withdraw his life-giving power which up to that point had protected the individual from the consequences of sin, and so annihilation is still ultimately a retributive punishment at God’s hand. I would agree – and that is why I do not hold the view that final punishment is not retributive… [↩]