It is often the case when discussing matters of eschatology that a variety of terms will be used to argue for one’s position. Subtle nuances drive the need for additional terms, and our position of conditional immortality (“conditionalism”) is no exception. The primary reason that we prefer that term over “annihilationism” is that the study of eschatology involves much more than a narrow focus on what happens to the risen lost. While it is certainly true that the majority of our effort is often spent arguing for the annihilation of the risen lost, that’s not the full scope of what conditional immortality is.
With that in mind, I would like to offer a biblical case for the compatibility of conditionalism and what is often called “new creation” (NC) theology. For my purposes here, I will define that as the belief that the new heavens and new earth mentioned in Isaiah, 2 Peter and Revelation refers not to some other plane of existence where we will dwell after this world is destroyed, but rather to this world fully redeemed (even if possibly recreated), in which risen humanity will dwell with God, enveloped by His glorious, manifest presence—the final realization of God’s purposes for creation.
While many non-conditionalists agree with this much, it does arguably entail a number of elements that some may reject, so I will make them explicit from the outset. NC theology is most compatible with a conditionalist reading of Scripture, and taken together they imply the following:
- The risen lost and saved alike will physically rise from the dead, on earth, to be judged by God.
- The manifest glory of God will fill the earth during and after this Judgment.
- Those in Christ will partake of this divine nature in a glorified state, never to die again.
- Those not in Christ will be undone by God’s presence and for their sins will be put to death, never to rise again.
As such, according to NC theology and conditionalism taken together, heaven and hell are not so much different geographic locations as they are different encounters with the divine nature. For those in their sins, the fear of death will grip them, and the presence of God will destroy them. Once the risen lost are destroyed with fire (2 Pet 3:7), God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), giving His saints their inheritance of immortality (1 Cor 15:51-55), and then death shall be no more (Rev 21:4).
Sin in the Presence of God
These concepts are not mere speculation or clever crafting of imagery; they are well-supported throughout Scripture and extra-biblical literature. For example, Isaiah 6:1-8 gives us the contrast between a person in sin, and one whose sins are cleansed in the presence of God:
- In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.
- Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
- And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
- And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
- And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
- Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.
- And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
- And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
What we see in this passage is Isaiah being brought into the presence of God. Beginning in verse 4, God displays His power by shaking the whole place with His voice, as it fills with smoke. Isaiah, understanding that he is a sinner, has a telling realization in verse 5: “Woe is me! For I am lost…for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” It is in this moment that we have the clearest example in all of Scripture of the response of a sinner once they encounter God’s presence: fear of death.
The presence of God causes even the seraphim to cover their faces (v. 2). This veiling of God’s presence is reminiscent of God covering Moses in part from His presence as he passed by (Exod 33:22). Isaiah, however, does not experience God’s glory in part, as Moses did—nor is he shielded from it, as the seraphim are—but is fully exposed, and completely vulnerable. Knowing his sin and seeing God’s holiness, Isaiah becomes overwhelmed with a fear of death. So while both of these cases is an experience of God’s presence, it is Isaiah’s experience that is portrayed as a face-to-face encounter, where he fears impending judgment, for he declares, “my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
It is not until the seraphim touches the coal to Isaiah’s lips, cleansing him, that this fear subsides (v. 6–7). We then see the contrast sharply in the following verse: whereas Isaiah beforehand feared death, once cleansed of his sin he is emboldened in the presence of God. This is remarkable, as just a moment ago he was in fear of his complete destruction, yet he now boldly proclaims, “Here am I! Send me” (v. 8). The significance of this detail may easily be overlooked, but Isaiah’s boldness here is not normative behavior throughout Scripture for a prophet. An overwhelming majority of all those called by God throughout Scripture offer reluctance and excuses, rather than eager participation. However, Isaiah, able to approach the majestic King in a purified state, volunteers to go as God’s prophet.
In the commissioning of Isaiah, then, we see both the potentially destructive power of God’s presence in verses 4-5, as well as the enlivening power of God’s presence in verse 8. The cause of Isaiah’s transformation was not a change in location or proximity; he was not sent to a different place, or separated from God’s presence. According to verses 6-7, It was a change in relationship, resulting from God cleansing Isaiah of his sins.
Just like the Passover, when the presence of God sweeps through Egypt, only those who are covered by the blood of the lamb do not fear destruction. So, too, do those covered by the blood of Christ fear no destruction from the presence of God upon judgment. This concept is not unique to Isaiah, though, as Malachi 4:1–3 states:
- For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
- But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
- And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
This passage reveals to us a few important things. In verse 1, we are given a clear picture of the fate of the wicked: they will be destroyed by fire. This common imagery of burning stubble—or dead and discarded vegetation—is carried into the New Testament, and is one of Jesus’ more frequent illustrations of the fate of the risen lost (Matt 3:12, 13:30, 40–42; Luke 3:17). Jesus likewise warns His followers to discard that which may cause them to sin and similarly be committed to the flames (Matt 5:30, 8:18; Mark 9:43). This is contrasted in verse two with the fate of the righteous, those who fear God’s name, whom the “sun of righteousness” will rise upon to heal. The context suggests that the “sun” mentioned in verse 2 is in fact God Himself (cf. Ps 84:11), as indicated both by the following verse referring to God’s action, and the fact that this is an eschatological event. Verse 3 also presents us with a point of significance: the proximity of the righteous and wicked. Upon the destruction of the wicked, the righteous will tread upon their ashes. This conflicts with the usual theological musings of heaven and hell as separate spheres of existence in the hereafter, instead indicating that they are part of the same location. So, we can reasonably infer the following:
- The fate of the risen lost is destruction (v. 1).
- The fate of the risen righteous is bliss (v. 2).
- The righteous will be in close proximity with the destroyed wicked (v. 3).
- The presence of God (the “sun of righteousness”) is the source of destruction for the wicked, and healing for the righteous.
Jesus confirms this teaching when he explains the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:40-43:
- Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
- The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers,
- and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
- Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
Jesus uses almost identical language as Malachi in his explanation here. The wicked are burned with fire, and afterwards righteousness will “shine” for God’s people. His teaching in essence is the same doctrine as Malachi 4, and both serve as prophetic confirmation of Isaiah’s different responses to God’s presence in Isaiah 6. Just as sinful Isaiah feared being undone (Isa 6:5), so it will actually be for the wicked according to Malachi (4:1, cf. Matt 13:42). Just as forgiven Isaiah was emboldened and encouraged by the Lord’s presence, so it will be for the righteous according to Malachi (4:2, cf. Matt 13:43). Isaiah’s two very different responses to the same presence of God typify what we see on the day when God acts: the “sun of righteousness” heals God’s people and burns up God’s enemies as chaff.
This interpretation is not novel, but has appeared throughout history. One such example is from the Babylonian Talmud—a piece of Jewish teaching from around the 5th century AD—which provides vivid imagery that echoes many of the passages discussed above. In language derived from Malachi 4, this historical example from within the Judeo-Christian tradition conveys the idea that God Himself is the source of both the destruction of the wicked and of the healing of the righteous:
R. Simeon b. Lakish says: There is no Gehenna in the Future World, but the Holy One, blessed be He, brings the sun out of its sheath, so that it is fierce: the wicked are punished by it, the righteous are healed by it. The wicked are punished by it, as it is said: For, behold, the day cometh, it burneth as a furnace; and all the proud, and all that work wickedness, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall set them ablaze, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. It shall leave them neither root—in this world, nor branch–in the world to come. The righteous are healed by it, as it is said, But unto you that fear My name, shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in its wings. Moreover, they will revel therein, as it is said, And ye shall go forth, and gambol as calves of the stall.1
Relevance to Conditionalism
One may read all of the above and agree with it in its entirety, but still ask the famed question, “So what?” In the spirit of answering such curiosity, I will now show how NC theology fits into the standard arguments for conditionalism.
To start, we must examine the primary passage which teaches the division of the righteous and the wicked at the final judgment. This is espoused by Jesus in Matthew 25:31–33:
- “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.
- Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
- And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
Those who follow the shepherd (the “sheep”) will be placed on God’s right side, and those who reject the shepherd (the “goats”) will be placed on God’s left. Once these two groups are divided, each are judged. The righteous are judged in verses 34 and 40:
- Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’
- And the King will answer them [the sheep], ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
The unrighteous are judged in verses 45–46:
- Then he will answer them [the goats], saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
- And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We see all of humanity in God’s presence at the judgment. They are divided into two groups, from where they will receive their just deserts. To those on His right He grants eternal life, while those on His left He condemns to eternal punishment.2
Here, Jesus’ words describe a separation of the nations as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. This pastoral example is telling; in order to separate wolves from sheep, there must be wolves among the sheep. They are located together on the day of judgment, while the process of judgment separates the groups to either side of God, and issues their just reward or punishment. With this image of the Last Day, Matthew 25 and Malachi 4 fit well together. We are given a picture of the general resurrection, where the nations are divided (Matt 25:32, 33), a judgment is pronounced consisting of consuming fire for the wicked and joyful healing for the redeemed coming from God’s presence (Mal 4:1, 2; Matt 25:40, 45). The result of the judgment is carried out in the destruction of the wicked, trampled under the feet, as it were, of the glorified in Christ (Mal 4:2, 3; Matt 25:46).
This final, positive stage in the sequence is commensurate with the age to come—the new creation. As 2 Peter 3 so puts it, we look forward to “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells,” following the destructive fire to appear on the “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet 3:13, 7).
Another important passage to examine in this connection is that of Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 1, where he writes:
- This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—
- since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
- and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels
- in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on 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,
- when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
In this passage, we are told of Christ’s coming in judgment of this world. God is just, so will punish those who afflict his people (v. 6), and He will do this as he is revealed “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” on the enemies of God (v. 8). As such, the wicked will suffer “the punishment of eternal destruction” that comes from the presence of the Lord.
Astute readers may notice that the above rendering utilizes the ESV’s footnoted alternative (“punishment…that comes from the presence of the Lord”) as opposed to “punishment…away from the presence of the Lord.” While the Greek preposition (ἀπó) is the word for “from,” the translators have suggested “away from,” which it can also mean on rare occasion, when context dictates. In the case of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, however, no such context presents itself. The word actually appears twice in this verse, but while in the first instance the ESV adds the word “away” (“away from the presence of the Lord”), in the second instance it does not (“and from the glory of his might”). Even on the surface this seems inconsistent, as it is reasonable to assume that if context warranted ἀπó be translated “away from” with regards to God’s presence, indicating separation, then it would also warrant a translation of “and away from the glory of his might.” The translation of ἀπó as “away from” is unique to this passage for translations like the ESV, while for many others, like the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB, the translation does not have the additional wording. This debate has already been captured well in articles here on Rethinking Hell, so I won’t give an exhaustive treatment here.3 Suffice it to say that the case for understanding ἀπó as a locative statement—“away from”—instead of a causal statement—“from”—for this passage is a weak one. On this point, even traditionalist C. L. Quarles agrees:
The locative interpretation of ἀπo in 2 Thess 1:9 is not as incontrovertible as some modern interpreters assume. The common adjectival force of the preposition, the OT background, and the parallels from both the NT and Pseudepigrapha lend strong support to the causal interpretation. The implications of the causal interpretation are significant for understanding the author’s eschatology. His view of divine wrath is active rather than passive. Eternal destruction does not consist of the Lord’s evacuation but of his confrontation with the unrepentant sinner. . . The exegetical evidence clearly stands in favor of the causal view as opposed to the separative view.4
With a causal reading of verse 9, we can see the text flowing logically. God comes in fire to destroy the wicked by the power of His presence, the same glorious form in which the people of God will worship Him. This verse provides better proof of conditionalism than it does traditionalism, just as it fits better with NC theology than it does the alternative view of a final dualistic heaven and hell; a combination of NC theology and conditionalism therefore draws out the clarity of this passage more so than any competing theological view.
Furthermore, a causal reading of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 can be supported by turning to the underlying Greek construction—ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ κυρίου, “from the presence of the Lord”—as it appears elsewhere in the Bible, namely Acts 3:20, which states, “…that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you.” In this passage, the exact same prepositional phrase is used, and the context is clear. The refreshment spoken of in Acts 3:20 comes from God’s healing presence. To suggest that a locative reading is normative for this construction would lead one to conclude that such redemptive refreshment would come from a place located away from the presence of the Lord. That doesn’t make any sense, and as such, we have a direct line of evidence suggesting a source reading of ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ κυρίου, giving us additional reason to reject a locative reading when it appears later in 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
Lastly, 2 Thessalonians 1 builds upon the foundation laid above. Just as Isaiah 6 and Malachi 4 illustrate the opposing fates of the risen wicked and righteous, so too does 2 Thessalonians 1 illustrate that it is the presence of God itself that punishes the wicked and draws the worship and praise of those in Christ.
The destructive power of God’s presence is further illustrated as God sitting on a throne of fire, where “A stream of fire issued, and came out from before him” (Dan 7:10). This fits well in conjunction with Jesus’ teaching that “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). John the Baptist—echoing the words of Malachi 4 as he speaks of Jesus—says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:11b-12). While much has been said of the phrase “unquenchable fire,”5 it is not far-fetched to take the biblical data regarding the final judgment and understand this fire as coming from God’s presence. In fact, when Jesus speaks of the final judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, verse 31 indicates that He is talking about Daniel 7 (so the “eternal fire” of His teaching may be associated with the fire flowing from God’s throne). It may also be more satisfying to understand this fire as connected to God’s eternal presence, for those who insist that the unquenchable fire will never go out (though this question has been thoroughly addressed by others at Rethinking Hell). The Bible describes it as such in passages like Hebrews 10:27 and 12:29, and it fits the context of final judgment very well.
One final passage to examine is Revelation 14:9–10, which reads:
- And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand,
- he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
In stark contrast to being separated far away from God’s presence, this passage teaches us that the full force of God’s wrath will be poured out upon the unrighteous in the presence of the Lamb.6
While eschatology will remain a complex field where debates get heated (no pun intended), for proponents of new creation theology, conditionalism has many appealing elements that complement it well. Similarly, those who hold to conditionalism may learn well from the great minds which have helped to shape a modern view of new creation theology, N. T. Wright and J. Richard Middleton among them. Each position takes seriously the biblical data, is heavily focused on the power of God’s manifest presence, and properly exalts God and gives Him glory. Though some of these concepts are difficult to process, it is my hope that this article can encourage readers to dig into Scripture and be edified in their faith as they see the power of God at work in shaping a new heavens and new earth, establishing justice by removing the unjust forever, and healing the just for eternal life.
* * * * *
- Tractate Avodah Zarah 3b–4a. [↩]
- Joseph Dear, “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment—Part 1,” Rethinking Hell [blog], January 15, 2014, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2014/01/matthew-2546-does-not-prove-eternal-torment-part-1. [↩]
- Peter Grice, “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His Manifest Presence,” Rethinking Hell [blog], November 14, 2016, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2016/11/annihilation-in-2-thessalonians-19-part-1-destroyed-by-the-glory-of-his-manifest-presence.
Ronnie Demler and William Tanksley Jr., “Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 2): Separation or Obliteration?—The Present Controversy,” Rethinking Hell [blog], December 5, 2015, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2016/12/annihilation-in-2-thess-1-9-part-2-separation-or-obliteration. [↩]
- C. L. Quarles, “The ἀπὸ of 2 Thesslaonians 1:9 and the Nature of Eternal Punishment,” WTJ 59 (1997), 201–11. [↩]
- Matthew 3:11–12 (cf. Luke 3:16–17) in Rethinking Hell’s EXPLORE section.
Chris Date, “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation and Mark 9:48,” Rethinking Hell [blog], November 20, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/the-fire-is-not-quenched-annihilation-and-mark-948-part-2.
Glenn Peoples, “What the Qal? Revisiting the Unquenched Fire,” Rethinking Hell [blog], June 14, 2013, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2013/06/what-the-qal-revisiting-the-unquenched-fire. [↩]
- Joseph Dear, “A Primer on Revelation 14:9–11,” Rethinking Hell [blog], April 5, 2017, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2017/04/a-primer-on-revelation-149-11. [↩]