“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, I clarified what we mean in calling our view “conditional immortality.” In Part 2, a doctrine of proto-conditionalism was identified and elucidated, providing important historical context. Now in Part 3, I’ll complete the overall justification of our chosen label, giving due attention to convention, and also further explain our view and its relevance today.

As we’ve now seen, in the plainest terms immortality means “will live forever” and conditional means “subject to a condition.” Narrowly expressed, that’s primarily what we mean by the words conditional immortality. There is more involved theologically, but at the level of words, it remains for us to appreciate the secondary sense of conditional that we are also invoking.

A second sense of conditional, denying universal and absolute

In theological labeling convention, conditional is a technical term implying that conditions will not be universally met (i.e. rendered absolute). The reason for this is that it’s not merely the fact of a condition that is in view, but rather the interesting question of scope. If you wanted to announce a universal scope, you would call your position universal or unconditional. If you wanted to refer to a limited, nonuniversal scope, you would refer instead to “conditional” matters. In this sense, something can’t be both universal and conditional.

But isn’t a condition that is universally met still a condition? Technically, yes. However, in that case, the condition has become redundant. As such, it would be trivial—even potentially misleading—to point to it as significant. When choosing the best label for a position, it is important to avoid redundant, trivial technicalities! To object to our label on the basis of the notion of universally met conditions is therefore to nitpick and obfuscate, denying the actual conditionalist view its theological import.

Example #1: “Conditional salvation” denies “universal salvation” (universalism)

Let’s look at a clear example of this convention. Dr. John T. Walsh, a traditionalist writing in 1857, contended for the phrase eternal life as it pertained to salvation. His proposition was that “eternal life is conditional,” and he commenced his defense with the words, “If Universalism be true, eternal life is not conditional; for all mankind will enjoy it.”1 He doesn’t think eternal life is a present possession, but says “whether eternal life be a present or future possession, or both present and future, it is conditional . . . To have eternal life, then, is to have ‘treasure in heaven,’ the realization of which is evidently conditional. At the close of that parabolic description of final judgment, the Lord contrasts two classes, and shows conclusively that both do not obtain eternal life.”2 Walsh sees positive evidence in Acts 13:46 that some do reject the word of God and are thereby “unworthy of eternal life,” making this “another proof of its conditionality.”3 He concludes, “whatever the phrase eternal life may import, and whether it be enjoyed in this or a future state, it is certainly conditional. All men will never be the subjects of it, for its conditions are necessary means to its enjoyment.”4

Example #2: “Conditional universalism” an obscure and obsolete label

In 1892, modern conditionalist Emmanuel Pétavel-Olliff critiqued the view then called conditional universalism, a label coined by a proponent fifteen years earlier and meant to indicate a middle way between universalism and conditionalism.5 Introducing the matter, he wrote:

There is an absolute Universalism and a Conditional Universalism. Absolute Universalism goes so far as to affirm that every man of every sort, even though destitute of all religion and of all morality, will at last infallibly be reclaimed to goodness, and so enjoy eternal happiness. According to the formula of one of the adepts of this system, “It is not possible for a man not to be saved.” No human being would be able to withdraw himself or to be withdrawn from the final salvation reserved by God for him.6

As for conditional universalism, by contrast, the essential idea was that while God wants all to be saved, he will not violate human freedom, which might perpetually resist such a reconciliation, and therefore an “eternally provisional” situation is needed. The solution, eternal chastisements, preserves the possibility of resisting while at the same time making submission a virtual inevitability. Pétavel found fault with the chosen label:

The title given to the thesis, however, is open to criticism. The name Conditional Universalism has had a certain success. But is it really suitable? Usually the name that designates a system corresponds to the affirmation which that system maintains; thus optimism affirms that all is for the best in the best of worlds; pessimism, on the contrary, teaches that everything in the universe is in a bad way and getting worse; Conditionalism affirms that there is a condition to be fulfilled in order to the attainment of immortality, and so on. Now, what is the affirmation of Conditional Universalism? The universality of salvation? No, since it will always depend upon the free choice of individuals. At the bottom this condition is found to be the only element of certitude, the only absolute affirmation of the system, which thus, on examination, appears to be but a variety of Conditionalism with universalist hopes.7

We may add to this critique a suspicion that the term conditional was being used by its proponents surreptitiously, masking what is effectively still a dogma, derived from an absolute supplied by endless time. Today’s “hopeful universalism” may be wielded in a similar manner, affirming a divine recipe for an inexorable push toward reconciliation via the eventual, natural erosion of any conditions standing in the way. In such cases, we find that while it is helpful to note that a condition is being preserved only until it is redundant, this is just too subtle an observation to warrant being featured in a label.

Conditional happiness/misery—how theology got the feels

During the year 1708, the famous Boyle Lectures were given by traditionalist John Turner, vicar of Greenwich. His language illustrates conventions of the time and the contrast between “conditional” and “universal”:

And accordingly the great advantage that we absolutely, and certainly, and unconditionally received by our redemption, is, a deliverance from death, and our being restored to an eternal and immortal continuance in life. For which reason I called it, and I think most properly, the redemption of human nature; in that, as it thus far chiefly respects the recovery of our life lost by Adam’s sin, by a perpetual reunion of soul and body; so it is thus far absolute and universal, it belongs to us all, as men; and every body, as certainly as we are born of Adam, and die by his disobedience, shall be restored to life again by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.8

Here we detect the view that Christ’s resurrection universally causes the resurrection and immortality of all, effectively the “redemption of human nature” itself with respect to deliverance from death. While we can affirm here the correct sense of immortality as eternal continuance, we must strongly reject this line of thinking. Our own view is that all people will be resurrected, but only some will receive a “resurrection like his,” having “died to sin” and been “crucified with him,” in order that “we will also live” and “never die again,” for “death has no dominion” over him, nor over those who are “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:2-11). The redemption provided by Christ’s resurrection applies only to the resurrection of those so qualified. But Turner wasn’t finished:

But then, as all that misery that we were to expect in a state of death was from our own actual iniquities and personal offenses, so, whether that future and endless life to which we shall be raised by Jesus Christ, shall be a life of happiness in Heaven, where Christ is gone before; or a life of misery and torments in Hell and the chambers of darkness: This is not absolute, nor universal, but conditional, and must depend on our new covenant with God in our Redeemer.9

This demonstrates again that a position is called conditional if it denies the unconditional stance, or in other words, the universal or absolute. It indicates that the situation is not universal. When applied to a context so definitive as “eternal and immortal continuance . . . future and endless life,” it becomes firmly dogmatic with respect to the eternal future, affirming non-universality. Turner certainly held to “no hope of universal, or inconditional pardon.”10 To discover why he was compelled to affirm the universal redemption of human nature in spite of denying universal salvation (or “ultimate reconciliation”), consider his own words:

God made man a creature by nature immortal and everlasting, and with a design that he should be eternally blessed, and happy, and glorious . . . [however] being an immortal creature, he thereby becomes miserable to all eternity. His immortality is in his nature and antecedent to his punishment and misery.11

Turner denies Adam’s conditional immortality of the kind we have shown was well established in Christian thought (regardless of what else may be said of a soul). He therefore consistently denies conditional immortality as it pertains to resurrection and endless life. He understands that salvation is conditional,12 so he is forced to treat human nature universally in the abstract, apart from a doctrine of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).

Turner’s blind spot is illustrative of a majority for so many centuries, regardless of whether their necessary fudge factor was to say that the finally unredeemed are still halfway “redeemed” as to their nature and resurrection. Turner’s tweak is driven not only by a commitment to universal immortality by means of immortal nature but is further reinforced by the dominant eschatological notion of two places—heaven and hell—associated with two emotional states, or qualities of subjective experience. Such elements as these have been the warp and woof of theological contrivance for far too long.

The unfinished business of the Reformation

The proto-conditionalism described in Part 2 has a logical structure: Adam was to live forever on a condition, but he did not. It is essential to note that this structure is itself unaffected by the idea of Adam’s having an immortal soul.

However, the structure is violated by the idea of an immortal soul once it is applied to eschatology. Modern conditionalists agree with others that it is important to relate protology and eschatology, as we’ll see in a moment. But the moment we do, the doctrine of an immortal soul becomes a modifier. The problem is not that there is a soul which continues on past death. As already noted, conditionalists can hold to that. The problem is not even the idea of a naturally immortal soul per se. Technically, this is no barrier to God should he judge that such a soul should be annihilated. The real issue, which the doctrine of a naturally immortal soul assumes, is the doctrine that the soul is immortal by destiny: that God’s design and decision is that all souls endure forever. The doctrine of an innately immortal soul is a proxy for this.

That’s why the logical model of proto-conditionalism must be modified under the burden of immortal soulism. The model suggests that the unsaved will not live forever despite a resurrection, but that the saved will. But immortal souls will live forever, so the unsaved simply must as well.

The significant doctrine of universal immortality by destiny effectively masquerades as the doctrine of an innately immortal soul. Given that this violates the logic of proto-conditionalism, which is a most prominent doctrine in church history, if the immortal soul is indeed a contrivance, imported from pagan philosophy, then it’s full corrupting effect is now most clearly seen. If we are pursuing consistency, then the denial of an immortal soul should liberate proto-conditionalism from captivity to this doctrine, rehabilitating forgotten connections and triggering a minor theological reformation.

This is now finally happening as a result of momentum gained in recent centuries. Before then, it was Martin Luther who most famously led the charge, ranking the papal doctrine of an immortal soul with characteristic contempt among the “endless monstrosities in the Roman dunghill.”13 Among those who defied the assertion of immortality going back to the beginning of the church, Sophrinius, patriarch of Jerusalem, stands out. He wrote in a synodical letter to the Third Council of Constantinople in 680 AD, “Men’s souls have not a natural immortality, it is by the gift of God that they receive the grant of immortality and incorruptibility.”14

Eschatology recapitulates protology—what “conditional immortality” means today

The meaning of the term conditional immortality has hardly changed throughout history, if at all. We are in full agreement with the sources cited that humanity was created to retain life and thus attain immortality, but lost this possession. Death came to Adam and the entire human race due to sin (Rom 5:12), and fallen human beings remain naturally mortal, being prevented from accessing the Tree of Life in order to “live forever” (Gen 3:22).

What has shifted is the context. Now that life and immortality have been lost to humanity, what is the outlook for us? It is tempting to jump straight to our frame of eschatology, but there remains a bridge to walk across. As Meredith Kline explains, “Eschatology antedates redemption. The pattern for eschatology goes back to creation . . . it was a covenant of works which was proffered to Adam as the means by which to arrive at the consummation.”15 Adam’s opportunity was meritorious: a work of righteous obedience (which is not as controversial in Protestant theology as it might sound16). Karlberg writes that this arrangement “indicated the eschatological goal of creation. As image of God Adam was to move . . . from glory to higher glory . . . Adam stood not at the end, but at the beginning of the way. Covenantal blessing for obedience would first bring confirmation in righteousness, and then glorification . . . the reward of eternal life.”17

Heavyweight Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck outlines this application to eschatology via Christ’s redemptive work:

Though before his disobedience Adam was righteous, he still had to secure eternal life in the way of works . . . In addition, Christ was the second Adam. He came not only to bear our punishment for us but also to obtain for us the righteousness and life that Adam had to secure by his obedience. He delivered us from guilt and punishment and placed us at the end of the road that Adam had to walk, not at the beginning. He gives us much more than we lost in Adam, not only the forgiveness of sins and release from punishment but also and immediately—in faith—the not-being-able-to-sin and not-being-able-to-die.18

The whole of redemptive history involves the restoration of Adam’s lost opportunity: of the renewed offer of eternal life even after death (Heb 11:19). The Law given to Moses introduced God’s righteous standards. Due to the disobedience of sin, the law could not produce righteousness, and the law of sin of death still reigns, its dominion cast like a veil over all humanity (Isa 25:7). Yet, due to the righteous obedience of Christ on their behalf, believers have fulfilled “the righteous requirement of the law” (Rom 5:4) and “are set free from the law of sin and death” (v 2). This was instituted with the disobedience of Adam, and so whereas Adam failed—and the rest of us ever since—Christ succeeded! (v 19).

Adam “was a type of the one who was to come” (v 14), Jesus, “the last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45). Being obedient, even to the point of death (Rom 5:18-19; Phil 2:8), through “the power of an indestructible life” he rose from the grave and “will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Heb 7:16; Acts 2:24; Rom 6:9). This is how he “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).

Conditionalists deny that this gift is given to all people (1 Cor 15:54-57). There will be some mortals who do go to their second death, while “the one who conquers” will not (Rev 2:11) because these conquerors will be given access “to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7). The fruit of this tree is no mere token for bliss; it is, as it was in the beginning, the source of eternal life itself. Hence, only to those who “seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7).

In denying that all seek and receive the gift of eternal life, which we associate with immortality, we are denying universal immortality. We are denying that all people ever to have lived will live forever (something affirmed by both traditionalism and universalism). Insofar as “universal” here can be rendered “unconditional,” conditional immortality aptly conveys this denial in terms of the special, secondary sense of “conditional” explained further above. If others affirm universal immortality by means of natural immortality (as in an immortal soul), we implicitly deny that too.

In conclusion, there is a primary and secondary sense of our term conditional immortality. It means “living forever depends upon a condition” and implies “living forever is attained only by some.” As a denial, the secondary sense rejects natural immortality for all (of the sort God never intends to revoke). A label can only be credited with so much import, but we think that much is justified.

Beyond that, we ask others to understand the theological context for conditionalism today, which focuses on personal eschatology and incorporates a doctrine of salvation (immortality) and damnation (the denial of immortality, i.e. annihilation).

We have seen that the redemptive work of Jesus Christ recapitulates the role of Adam in that Adam’s sinful disobedience was remedied by Christ’s righteous obedience. Adam’s sin led to death; Christ’s victory over death leads to everlasting life. In other words, from our statement, conditional immortality is succinctly this:

. . . the view that life or existence is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately either be granted forever on the basis of righteousness (by grace, through faith), or revoked forever on the basis of unrighteousness.

*       *       *       *       *

Note: This is the final part of a series. See also Part 1 and Part 2, or read the entire article.

  1. John T. Walsh, The Nature and Duration of Future Punishment(Richmond: W. H. Clemmitt, 1857), 38. []
  2. Ibid., 40. Emphasis in original. []
  3. Ibid., 42. Emphasis in original. []
  4. Ibid., 44. Emphasis in original. []
  5. Pétavel-Olliff, Emmanuel. The Problem of Immortality, 1892. Reprint. (London: Forgotten Books, 2013) 497. []
  6. Ibid., 277-8. []
  7. Ibid., 498. []
  8. John Turner, The Wisdom of God in the Redemption of Man, as delivered in the Holy Scriptures, vindicated from the chief Objections of Modern Infidels, 92-93. Bold emphasis added; some original emphasis removed. []
  9. Ibid., 92-93. Bold emphasis added; some original emphasis removed. []
  10. Ibid., 251. []
  11. Ibid., 228. []
  12. Ibid., 192. A marginal note summarizes, “The salvation of men by the covenant of grace is conditional.” []
  13. Martin Luther, “Assertio omnium Articulorum m. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. novis-simam Damnatorum,” article 27, 131–32. []
  14. As cited in LeRoy Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Vol 2. 17.2. []
  15. Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 154-155. []
  16. For further study, see Mark W. Karlberg, “The Original State of Adam: Tensions Within Reformed Theology,” Evangelical Quarterly 59:4 (1987): 291-309. []
  17. Mark W. Karlberg, Covenant Theology in the Reformed Perspective: Collected Essays and Book Reviews in Historical, Biblical, and Systematic Theology, 101. []
  18. H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 3:394-5 (#389). []
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