“Conditional Immortality”—What it means and why it’s the best label

Alas! The hell debate has a terminology problem. First, traditionalism is nondescript and sometimes considered pejorative. It’s also not quite accurate: there were several traditions in early Christendom, with eternal torment dominating in the Western church from around the fourth century. Next, universalism can refer to the inclusivist outlook on world religions, which evangelical universalists typically deny in favor of an eternal opportunity to respond to the gospel. Finally, conditionalism (short for Conditional Immortality) is sometimes reduced to a view about the mechanics of human mortality/immortality instead of pertaining to ultimate destinies in the context of eschatology.

The addition of “eternal torment” and “ultimate reconciliation” to our deck of terms helps us compensate for some shortcomings. However, despite many proposals, no viable alternative has emerged that is simultaneously strong and consistent across all three positions. It seems that these terms are here to stay, for better or worse, as well-established shorthand labels.

If “conditionalism” ain’t broke . . . please don’t break it!

Still, for our part, as conditionalists, I’m not sure we really do have a terminology problem. Are the supposed shortcomings of conditional immortality (CI) really that significant? I’d like to suggest that they are largely based on misunderstandings that we can easily clear up. What’s more, as I’ll show further below, our chosen name is supplied to us by historic theology and its conventional terminology. If CI is the right label, or a perfectly adequate one, then we would respectfully ask for a moratorium on attempts to change it!

For now, let’s set the stage with the relevant context, which does not need to be explicit in a label.

This is Rethinking Hell, after all. So it should be apparent at least that we’re advancing a doctrine of damnation within the debate over final punishment. Our interest is the ultimate fate of those not saved before a resurrection to final judgment (John 5:29). That’s the relevant context for the perspectives of traditionalism, conditionalism, and universalism, and at least this much may be assumed. Moreover, this focus quite naturally refers us on to the topic of final reward, or the ultimate destiny of those who are saved. As everyone knows, universalism must include soteriology if it is to present a coherent position. While this is arguably less true of the doctrine of eternal torment, it is certainly true of conditional immortality. This wider, reciprocal frame (sometimes called “personal eschatology”) is a significant part of the debate, and therefore determines the best context for the whole.

The term conditional immortality squares directly with this frame, as we will see. It does not, as some have mistakenly thought, refer only to the final fate of the saved.

In order to arrive at a clear understanding of what we do mean by the label and how that justifies our use of it, let’s first take a look at the concise summary provided by the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism:

Conditionalism is 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.

When the gift of life is ultimately granted forever, we call that immortality.

We also call it eternal life. Salvation, on our view, is salvation to everlasting life with God.

Simultaneously, it is salvation from a permanent death (termination of life forever; final loss of being). The definitive event called the “second death” denies a person everlasting life, so it is aptly called annihilation, especially in light of biblical associations with destruction by eternal, consuming fire.

It remains crucial to see this event in light of eternity so that the whole point of annihilation, or a second and final death, is understood. The point is to finally lock in an “eternal judgment” against defiant sinners (Heb 6:2), who “must not be allowed to . . . live forever” (Gen 3:22). Everlasting life—immortality—is forfeited by annihilation, and that is its terrible significance. As a means to that end, it is necessary that the whole person be destroyed, body and soul (Matt 10:28).

As it says in Romans 6:23, the gift of God is eternal life, but death is the wages (payment) for sin. Here we understand death to negate life, both by termination of the past and by privation of the future. That being the case, if there is to be no final return to life (resurrection), death will negate life forever. This scenario we believe will occur on the second occasion of death (the “second death”), where an eternal death negates eternal life.

Permanent death as “eternal punishment,” “eternal destruction,” and cosmic disinheritance in light of cosmic redemption

It is the category of capital punishment that helps us to see why death points forward in time as the privation of ongoing life. If the only valid kind of punishment were a subjective experience of torment (whether physical or mental), then punishment could not include death itself. This would make death arbitrary with respect to punishment itself. Killing then could be considered an act of mercy, putting a person out of their misery (i.e. “mercy killing” or euthanasia). But why do this, if the punishment has been paid in full? Why not release the person? On the penal substitution theory of the atonement, why not, indeed, let Jesus down from the cross just prior to death, if punishment consists in suffering alone?

Some conditionalists1 do tend to view the entire punishment as a period of torment after which annihilation occurs. They are therefore committed to the argument that aiōnios does not mean “everlasting” when it occurs in Matt 25:46 (and also 2 Thess 1:9). Rethinking Hell leaves room for this view but argues instead that final punishment really is everlasting—that it is forever. It is the eternal perspective of immortality supplied by the broader conditionalist frame that helps us to appreciate annihilation as future privation. We are indeed “annihilationists,” but the event of annihilation is embedded within our conditionalism.

This frame not only supplies an eternal time component but arguably also a spatial one that is comprehensive in scope. Our Hell Triangle diagram points out that each viewpoint should account for the apokatastasis as indicated in Acts 3:21, and conditionalists typically argue that God is eradicating evil entirely from the cosmos, liberating it from bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21). While God is transcendent over creation, all of it is his rightful domain, and he is going to flood all creation with his glory and holy presence (Hab 2:14; Isa 6:3). In the new creation (new heavens and earth), God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28) through Christ, the one who “fills all in all” (Eph 1:23), will “fill all things” (Eph 4:10), and “is all, and in all” (Col 3:11). This final state of the cosmos is commensurate with the everlasting reign of Christ in his kingdom (Rev 11:15).

In the context of this all-encompassing future, we understand why the Lord will remove “all causes of sin” from his kingdom—burning them up like weeds and discarding them like bad fish (Matt 13:36-42; 47-50)—which removal results in only the righteous remaining (Matt 13:43 cf. Dan 12:3; 2 Pet 3:13; Heb 12:27). On that terrible “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet 3:7), the wicked are destroyed with an “eternal destruction” from the Lord’s returning presence (2 Thess 1:9 cf. Isa 2:21-22). Since Christ will fill all things in the new creation, there simply is no place for evil creatures to reside. Due to the eschatological import of the term inheritance, this exclusion from the future reality is aptly called cosmic disinheritance.2

“Conditional immortality” doesn’t entail Christian physicalism

Notably absent from our summary statement above is any mention of the mechanisms behind life, death, and immortality, or any view on the nature of human constitution and the possibility of a conscious intermediate state. These topics are by no means unimportant or uninteresting, and they do often arise in our discussions. Arguments for conditionalism can be advanced which make use of them, and often have been. But it is important not to assume that our collective position, conditional immortality, refers to any particular view of those matters.

The standard idea of an immortal soul collapses at least three distinct notions into one, that sometimes need to be teased apart again in order to avoid category mistakes. Namely, eternal persistence (immortality), internal subsistence (an innate means of eternal persistence), and external resistance (indestructibility or imperviousness to all destructive elements and forces).

When a person dies, if their consciousness continues on in some form, this does not automatically mean they are immortal.3Even if we grant that they have (or basically are) a continuing soul that is itself immortal, as many have believed, then such a transition would still only demonstrate resilience to bodily death in terms of persistence beyond. It would not constitute eternal persistence, or resilience to other potential destructive hazards, nor even subsistence (the soul generating its own vitality). Mere continuance at death simply does not prove immortality in the sense of endless life. As Vern Hannah observed, “The term immortality comes from the Greek, athanasia, meaning ‘deathlessness,’ and hence, unending existence . . . It should be apparent then that the ground of immortality is soteriological and not anthropological.”4

The Christian doctrine of an immortal soul is broader. What is normally in view is that God fully intends all souls to last forever (immortality proper) and therefore has made them of indestructible, everlasting stuff, existing under their own steam and impervious not only to death but to all substances and forces, especially the supernatural fires of hell. If all of that is bundled into the idea that a soul survives the body at the moment of death, only then would mere continuance effectively signify everlasting continuance. On the other hand, if God didn’t necessarily create all souls to live forever in independence—a perfectly legitimate doctrine—he could just as easily sustain them in existence along with the rest of the created order. On this view, the soul neither generates its own vitality nor is necessarily impervious to all modes of destruction (especially the fiery judgments of God). Its continuance at death would not indicate immortality, and should not be considered a normative kind of existence for human beings, who are created and redeemed for bodily life.

Mortalism is in fact the best term for the denial of continuance beyond death. This view is implied by physicalism, which denies all forms of dualism and a separable soul, including immortal soulism. But one can reject the soul’s natural immortality while still affirming a continuing soul. In this way, one can simultaneously affirm human mortality without having to commit to mortalism.

So while many mortalists and physicalists are conditionalists, many conditionalists are not mortalists and physicalists. This is a matter of anthropology, while conditionalism itself is fundamentally a doctrine of final destiny: salvation and damnation. Concerning death, its locus of interest is what is judicially prescribed for the second death at a final judgment and not so much what happens, as far as we can know, after the event of the first death.

“Conditional immortality” doesn’t mean contingency

Contingency is a good term for the denial of the soul’s intrinsic or natural immortality. This expresses the dependency of a soul or person upon God and is reminiscent of the philosophical affirmation in Acts 17:28 that in him “we live and move and have our being.” There is ample biblical support for this idea that God is not only the Creator but also the Sustainer of all things that have been made.

The contingency of human life is a tenet of our view (at least until the gift of immortality is finally given, which may impart natural immortality). But it can just as easily be a tenet of traditionalism or universalism. Historically traditionalism has affirmed an immortal soul, but this is declining.

Referring to contingency as a critically distinct position called “conditional immortality,” therefore, is a mistake. And it is certainly convenient to our critics! If that’s all our view amounts to, then traditionalists and universalists can trivialize it by retorting that they too hold to this view of contingent life and immortality; they just happen to think that the scope is not limited (all people live forever; none are annihilated). When our perspective is conflated with contingency, we are left with a kind of arbitrary annihilation, severed from its judicial connections to eternal life. The right use of “conditional immortality” helps prevent such a reduction, because it preserves the direct relation of our view of final punishment and our view of final reward.

Regrettably, conditionalists have sometimes enabled the above confusion by being less than clear. The reason for this is polemical. Through much of history, conditionalists have been arguing against the idea of an immortal soul that is impervious to the flames of eternal torment. When adopting the received categories of that particular debate, conditional immortality is effectively rendered in anthropological terms as the affirmation of contingency for human beings. Bringing one of our tenets to the fore may be just fine in that context, so long as the eternal aspect of immortal life is not forgotten. Once remembered, it should be apparent that in Christianity, theologically speaking, immortality depends on the ultimate judgments and mercies of God.

In saying all this, I don’t want to give the impression that conditionalism is not also about anthropology. I strongly recommend that we give due attention to the glorious transformation of believers, “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor 15:54). This profound change is commensurate with the resurrection of believers, although not quite the same thing (v 51). Conditionalism does elucidate that anthropological transformation, but since this is not explicitly referenced by our label, this article will say no more.

What “conditional immortality” meant before it was cool

Did you know that the Christian church has always held to conditional immortality? Well, not necessarily in a way that implies annihilation, but perhaps more consistent with today’s usage than you might expect.

For purposes of testing that claim, let us suppose that, at base, the term conditional immortality refers to the idea that humanity was not created mortal or immortal per se, but rather conditionally immortal or conditionally mortal, depending on emphasis.

More fully expressed, this would mean humans are mortal yet capable of immortality (after meeting qualifying conditions), or alternatively, immortal yet capable of mortality (after meeting disqualifying conditions).

Writing in the late second century, Theophilus of Antioch spoke this way explicitly:

Was man made by nature mortal? Certainly not. Was he, then, immortal? Neither do we affirm this. But one will say, Was he, then, nothing? Not even this hits the mark. He was by nature neither mortal nor immortal . . . Neither, then, immortal nor yet mortal did He make him, but, as we have said above, capable of both . . . For as man, disobeying, drew death upon himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting.5

Notice that the end of this quote shifts the frame to eschatology, apart from Adam. Theophilus wrote elsewhere of the immortalization of believers in the resurrection: “When you shall have put off the mortal, and put on incorruption, then shall you see God worthily. For God will raise your flesh immortal with your soul; and then, having become immortal, you shall see the Immortal, if now you believe in Him.”6

But for now, our interest is protology, not eschatology. The basic question is this: “Was Adam created mortal or immortal?” We like neat and tidy answers, but Theophilus says it’s neither. So too did fourth-century theologian Ephrem the Syrian:

For when God created Adam, He did not make him mortal, nor did He fashion him as immortal; this was so that Adam himself, either through keeping the commandment, or by transgressing it, might acquire from this one of the trees whichever outcome he wanted . . . Even though God had given them everything else out of Grace, He wished to confer on them, out of Justice, the immortal life which is granted through eating of the Tree of Life.7

The initial condition for access to the “immortal life” of the Tree of Life was obedience, here understood as a test of Adam’s righteous trust in God. Adam’s initial state was such that he was yet to be confirmed in holiness and thereby confirmed in life everlasting. Had he not sinned, he would have received a guaranteed immortality. This probationary view of Adam’s initial state is thoroughly historical, being found not only in early patristic writers but also in Catholic dogma and the Reformed tradition to the present day. We will soon see that it is worthy of the label conditional immortality, despite various qualifications and caveats. After establishing this, we will discuss how and why the same label remains in service today.

Let’s continue. Writing between Theophilus and Ephrem, Methodius also rejected the dichotomy of the question to answer “neither”:

Now, man . . . being placed midway between incorruption and corruption, to whichever of these he may incline is said to partake of the nature of that which has laid hold of him. Now, when he inclines to corruption, he becomes corrupt and mortal, and when to incorruption, he becomes incorrupt and immortal. For, being placed midway between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of the fruit of which he tasted, he was changed into the nature of the latter, himself being neither the tree of life nor that of corruption; but having been shown forth as mortal, from his participation in and presence with corruption, and, again, as incorrupt and immortal by connection with and participation in life; as Paul also taught . . . 8

We may add to these patristic writers none other than Athanasius, who spoke of Adam’s immortality being conditional in the same way. Writing around 327 AD, he taught that

upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace . . . [that] they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality . . . Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them . . . [since] they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again . . . By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing.9

Athanasius here relates protology to eschatology with perfect consistency (as did Theophilus, who said we may yet recover “life everlasting”). Humans remain mortal and “essentially impermanent,” he noted, in a state of corruption that will lead to nonexistence. Even so, the saints “continue for ever” with the “assurance of immortality.”

The lasting influence of the teaching of the likes of Theophilus, Methodius, Ephrem and Athanasius pales in comparison to that of St. Augustine, whose analysis would strongly shape theological opinion down to the present day. When Augustine weighed in on the same question, like others before him he could not give a simple answer. He would have said both, rather than neither, but the result is the same. According to Augustine, Adam was capable of avoiding death and thus being immortal by virtue of continuing to live forever. In that sense, he was already immortal, although his immortality remained to be confirmed. By the nature of free choice, Adam was equally capable of incurring death, so his immortality would not necessarily last (which is where it really counts). Either way, the matter hung upon a deciding condition, which was obedience. As it turned out, Adam chose disobedience and fell headlong into mortality.

Considering Augustine’s enormous influence, it’s worth encountering his scheme in precise Latin terms. The key concept to understand is that of ability, or capability (being suggestive of the potential application of that ability). The Latin term for this is posse. In scholastic Latin, the emphasis shifted slightly to refer more to “potential” in the abstract, as we would use that term today. For our purposes here, it makes little difference whether we locate the main idea in Adam as an inner potential of his free will, where “both” mortality and immortality are held together in tension, or else as future possibilities, in which case it’s “neither.” But for Augustine, posse did relate to human nature, in terms of free will, sin, and death.

First, let’s consider his axioms on the four states of man10 regarding free will and sin (Latin: peccare). Briefly put, Augustine held that Adam could freely choose whether to sin, but after he chose sin, he was unable to stop. Those with a now regenerated nature can freely choose not to sin, while those finally glorified cannot choose to sin. In this way, human nature is perfected beyond its initial state. Not able to sin, the fully redeemed are not-peccare-able: “impeccable.”

Augustine’s four states of man (with respect to free will and sin)
Innocent Man posse peccare, posse non peccare able to sin, able not to sin
Unregenerate Man non posse non peccare unable not to sin
Regenerate Man posse non peccare able not to sin
Glorified Man non posse peccare unable to sin

With this in place, we can consider what Augustine said about free will and death (Latin: mori). Originally, Adam was able not to die (posse non mori) and thus live forever. This state of original immortality (prima immortalitas) Augustine designated immortalitas minor. Adam could freely have chosen the immortalitas major, which is the immortality of God and of glorified/resurrected saints, becoming unable to die (non posse mori). But he was equally capable of corruption into mortality, which did occur, and Adam became unable not to die (non posse non mori).

Augustine’s three states of Adam (with respect to sin and death)
Original State posse non peccare et mori able not to sin and die
Potential State non posse peccare et mori unable to sin and die
Actual State (Fallen) non posse non peccare et mori unable not to sin and die

For Augustine, all people are implicated in this. Being simply mortal from that time on, human beings are yet capable of attaining immortality, and in fact all do. With the final immortality (novissima immortalitas), glorified saints attain the immortalitas major, which is qualified by perseverance in the blessed state (felicitas) secured by the vision of God (beatitudo). He writes, “For as the first immortality which Adam lost by sinning consisted in his being able not to die, while the last shall consist in his not being able to die; so the first free will consisted in his being able not to sin, the last in his not being able to sin.”11 But what sounds to our ears like a redemption of believers turns out to encompass unbelievers as well. Those in the damned state (miseria) are likewise unable to sin and die!

The notion that finally accursed sinners should attain the immortalitas major—which was initially forfeited by Adam—should be surprising, to say the least. Aware of this apparent conflation of punishment and reward, Augustine does his level best to explain it away, introducing novel kinds of flesh and death:

Although it be true that in this world there is no flesh which can suffer pain and yet cannot die, yet in the world to come there shall be flesh such as now there is not, as there will also be death such as now there is not. For death will not be abolished . . . For the spirit, whose presence animates and rules the body, can both suffer pain and cannot die. Here then is something which, though it can feel pain, is immortal. And this capacity, which we now see in the spirit of all, shall be hereafter in the bodies of the damned.12

Given Augustine’s commitment to universal immortality, he was obliged to explain how immortality could be a good thing in general, yet to some become an eternal horror. In his scheme, the loss of immortality is the consequence of sin—but how then could its recovery mean hell? Whether he avoids the charge of incoherence is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say this is a major point of departure with our own view, where not all mortals become immortal (i.e. some are resurrected mortal and go on to die). This is easily seen in Luke 20:35-36, where those who “cannot die anymore” (non posse mori) are precisely those who are “considered worthy to attain . . . to the resurrection . . . [as] sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”

Writing in 1866, theologian and church historian Philip Schaff called the immortalitas minor “the relative or conditional immortality of Adam in Paradise, which depended on his probation, and was lost by the fall.” The immortalitas major, he observed, refers to “the absolute immortality of the resurrection-state, which can never be lost.” Here we see an authoritative use of our label in more recent times, confirming its correct application to a thoroughly orthodox doctrine concerning the state of mankind before the fall. Elsewhere, Schaff writes that Augustine

distinguishes between absolute and relative immortality. The former is the impossibility of dying, founded upon the impossibility of sinning; an attribute of God and of the saints after the resurrection. The latter is the bare pre-conformation for immortality, and implies the opposite possibility of death. This was the immortality of Adam before the fall, and if he had persevered, it would have passed into the impossibility of dying; but it was lost by sin.13

Schaff’s use of terms echoes that of Benjamin Kennicott more than a century earlier, who in 1749 gives us one of the earliest English usages of the term “conditional immortality”:

Adam was created either absolutely immortal, absolutely mortal, or conditionally immortal. If he was created absolutely immortal, he could not have died; but die he did. If he was created absolutely mortal, he could not but die; and therefore was not a candidate for immortality. But if he was created conditionally immortal, and this conditional immortality hung (as we are assured it did) on his eating or not eating of the Tree of Knowledge; it seems impossible he could be allowed by God free liberty to eat of a Tree of Life, which would render him immortal, and consequently not mortal in case of his violating the divine command.14

Kennicott’s terminology is refined: Adam was created as a “candidate for immortality.” The implication of candidacy is that had he not sinned, at some point in his maturation God would have given Adam liberty to eat of the Tree of Life (perhaps also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil15), thus conferring upon him immortality as a reward. This parallels the gift of eternal life as we understand it today, which, as we say in our statement, graciously extends the provisional gift of life forever.

Earlier still, Oxford scholar and theologian Henry Dodwell wrote of Adam’s immortality hanging upon conditions in service to his mortalist argument that souls die at the moment of death. Referring to the passage in Athanasius quoted further above, he wrote in 1706:

Accordingly he ascribes all the hopes of immortality in man . . . This happy life in Paradise had given him, if he had persisted in it, a further title to an eternal state of happiness in Heaven, of which Paradise was only a covenanting symbol; but revocable by his misbehaviour . . . the law imposed concerning the forbidden fruit, the conditions whereof are thus expressed by him . . . Thus far he supposes us only enabled to be immortal if we please . . . Accordingly he expounds the divine threat . . . This cannot be the Second Death because it is so frequently described as a ceasing to be, and a ceasing to be for ever, never by an eternity of punishment. Yet it must be understood of the whole man.16

The potent influence of the doctrine of eternal torment upon Dodwell is clear: he rightly understands death prior to the eschaton yet begs the question of death’s meaning in the eschaton, ruling out its consistency with death in general. He is wrong to dichotomize here, even though he rightly concludes that Genesis doesn’t speak of the second death per se (after all, even resurrection is beyond its horizon). In failing to see that the second death is a descriptive interpretation of the symbolic lake of fire, Dodwell treats it as a label for the state of never dying, despite this label being so counterintuitive. Like ourselves, Dodwell was a product of his time and its pressures for conformity. According to historian Thomas Macaulay, this pressure was very real: “Even in days which Dodwell could well remember, such heretics as himself would have been thought fortunate if they escaped with life” for denying “the immortality of the soul.”17 This he courageously did, to his credit, even if he failed to pursue the same line of thinking to its logical end.

Philosopher Samuel Clarke described Dodwell’s view in terms of direct interest to us: “the Soul is Immortal, only conditionally, if it be victorious . . . making the Soul’s immortality conditional.”18 (Note that he does not mean that all souls are contingent, though this is a hidden premise.) As in the above quote from Dodwell, he would have endorsed Clarke’s language for “the whole man,” and not only the soul. This is true of the writers we’ve consulted. Though they tended at times to introduce qualifications about parts of Adam (his soul or his body), in this context they nonetheless spoke of Adam himself and humans themselves.

*       *       *       *       *

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.”19 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.”20 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.”21 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.”22

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.23 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.24

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.25

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.26

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.27

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.”28 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.29

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,30 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 earlier 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.”31 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.”32

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.”33 Adam’s opportunity was meritorious: a work of righteous obedience (which is not as controversial in Protestant theology as it might sound34). 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.”35

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.36

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.

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Notes:

  1. See the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism for our position on this and other matters of diversity within the broader movement.
  2. The term cosmic disinheritance was coined by Richard Middleton in A New Heavens and a New Earth, 207.
  3. As modern conditionalist Edward White clarified, “If immaterialism in the thinking power compels the inference of immortality for mankind, it compels it also for the thinking principle in animals . . . Man, according to the Bible, is not unconditionally immortal by nature and destiny. He was created from the dust of the earth [yet] the thinking power may, if God will, survive, in a maimed, imperfect state, but it alone is not the Man.” Edward White, Life in Christ,22, 485.
  4. Vern A. Hannah, “Death, Immortality and Resurrection: A Response to John Yates, ‘The Origin of the Soul,’” The Evangelical Quarterly 62:3 (1990), 245.
  5. Theophilus of Antioch, “To Autolycus” 2.27. Bold emphasis added.
  6. Theophilus of Antioch, “To Autolycus” 1.7.
  7. Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis” 2.17. Bold emphasis added.
  8. Methodius, “The Banquet of the Ten Virgins” 3.7, in Schaff, P. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 6. Bold emphasis added.
  9. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word” 1.3-4. Bold emphasis added.
  10. The term “man” in this article is used in the classical sense for historical consistency. The usage often intends to imply both male and female. Similarly, Adam can be a reference to the first human but may often be taken to imply both Adam and Eve, whose condition followed the same course in the narrative of Genesis.
  11. Augustine, City of God 22.30.
  12. Augustine, City of God 21.3. Bold emphasis added.
  13. P. Schaff, History of the Christian Church 3:152. Bold emphasis added.
  14. Benjamin Kennicott, Two Dissertations: The First on the Tree of Life in Paradise, with some Observations on The Creation and Fall of Man; The Second on the Oblations of Cain and Abel, 1749.
  15. This idea of eventual permission to access the knowledge of good and evil, despite initial prohibition, is found, for example, in Irenaeus’s view that Christ recapitulates Adam, succeeding where he failed: “For it was necessary, at first, that nature should be exhibited; then, after that, that what was mortal should be conquered and swallowed up by immortality, and the corruptible by incorruptibility, and that man should be made after the image and likeness of God, having received the knowledge of good and evil.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.38.
  16. Henry Dodwell, “An Epistolary Discourse: Proving, from the Scriptures and the First Fathers, that the Soul is a Principle Naturally Mortal” (1706), p77-79. Bold emphasis added; some original emphasis removed.
  17. Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, 1848, 366.
  18. Samuel Clarke, A Letter to Mr. Dodwell; wherein all the arguments in his Epistolary Discourse against the Immortality of the Soul are particularly answered, and the judgment of the Fathers concerning that matter truly represented, 1708, 52-53.
  19. John T. Walsh, The Nature and Duration of Future Punishment(Richmond: W. H. Clemmitt, 1857), 38.
  20. Ibid., 40. Emphasis in original.
  21. Ibid., 42. Emphasis in original.
  22. Ibid., 44. Emphasis in original.
  23. Pétavel-Olliff, Emmanuel. The Problem of Immortality, 1892. Reprint. (London: Forgotten Books, 2013) 497.
  24. Ibid., 277-8.
  25. Ibid., 498.
  26. 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.
  27. Ibid., 92-93. Bold emphasis added; some original emphasis removed.
  28. Ibid., 251.
  29. Ibid., 228.
  30. Ibid., 192. A marginal note summarizes, “The salvation of men by the covenant of grace is conditional.”
  31. Martin Luther, “Assertio omnium Articulorum m. Lutheri per Bullam Leonis X. novis-simam Damnatorum,” article 27, 131–32.
  32. As cited in LeRoy Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Vol 2. 17.2.
  33. Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 154-155.
  34. For further study, see Mark W. Karlberg, “The Original State of Adam: Tensions Within Reformed Theology,” Evangelical Quarterly 59:4 (1987): 291-309.
  35. Mark W. Karlberg, Covenant Theology in the Reformed Perspective: Collected Essays and Book Reviews in Historical, Biblical, and Systematic Theology, 101.
  36. H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 3:394-5 (#389).