doctrine of human nature
Conditionalist theologians believe that the Bible presents a complete and verified doctrine of human nature. We do not believe that God has left out pieces of the puzzle from the scripture that have to be supplied by pagan philosophy. Augustine believed that God gave him insight into human nature through the writings of Plato, but we reject that. We trust the Bible alone to explain who we are.
Thus we find it illogical to make faith-statements like this:
“I am eternal.
Not this flesh that your eyes can see
But the soul that lives inside of me;
Not this body that soon shall expire
But the sanctified soul that cannot die.
I am eternal.”1
Such statements sound spiritual and encouraging, until one dares to actually look into the Bible to find support for them. It is there that one comes face to face with an astonishing absence of proof for such an eternal soul.
One would expect that if God had endowed all humanity with an eternal immaterial essence, it would have been prominent in the creation account in Genesis. Here is what God says about our creation:
“The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”2
Our identity does consist of two parts: this “flesh that your eyes can see” and life from God. There is no indication from the text that the life is the person. The life animates the person. If the life goes back to God, the person returns to the soil. Death is not the separation of body and soul, but the separation of life from the person.
The man (Adam) was formed not from some spiritual substance in heaven, but from the soil of the earth. God animated that combination of soil-elements and the animated substance became “a living being” – literally, an alive soul.3 Before God animated him, he was already a soul, but was not yet alive.
The reason this is important to conditionalists is that we believe that life is not a right. It is a gift bestowed upon humanity by God’s grace, but conditional upon our proper use of the gift. If we abuse the awesome gift of life, God is not compelled to keep us alive for eternity. Life was a gift at creation, an opportunity to live forever, but that opportunity was soon lost.
That is why God warned Adam:
“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”4
What God actually said was “dying, you shall die.”5 He gave a very accurate description of the human species — after the fall. We have become a dying species, and each individual who is part of the species shall eventually die.
Again, God does not insert any notion that this death sentence refers only to a part of us. He does not whisper to Adam “of course, this excludes your soul, because it cannot die.”
Whose idea was it that human beings are incapable of death? We first hear the words “You won’t die!” from that crafty serpent in the garden.6 Should we trust him to give us an accurate theology of human nature? Surely he has a lot to gain by convincing us that death is not real. But what do we gain by believing it?
death is a reality
Conditionalists believe that death is a reality for everyone was in Adam when God warned Adam not to eat of the forbidden tree. That includes Eve, since she was part of Adam at the time. That includes you and me, since we were still part of Adam as well. So, everyone, regardless of their spiritual condition will experience this death.
Just look around at all the cemeteries scattered throughout the planet. You will see that God’s threat was real. Death is a reality for all of us.
The good news of the gospel is not that Satan was right and God was lying. The good news is that God in his grace offers us hope beyond death: a resurrection of the whole person unto eternal life.
Jesus said: “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”7
This resurrection to eternal life is the true hope of the believer, not going to heaven as a disembodied spirit. In fact, Jesus says that if he does not raise you from the dead, you will be lost!
“Now this is the will of the one who sent me–that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day.”8
This would make no sense whatsoever if believers are already with Jesus in heaven for thousands of years before the resurrection. It is only logical if believers are in their graves awaiting a resurrection when Christ returns.
This also explains why the apostle Paul argued strenuously for a physical resurrection to the Corinthians. These Corinthians had been exposed to the pagan philosophical notion of the immortal soul. In explaining the gospel, Paul had to convince them that this notion was wrong. He had to show them that the resurrection is necessary.This is what Paul says to them:
“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”9
Nowhere in Paul’s argument does he concede that death is not real. He argues for the absolute necessity of a resurrection. In fact, he says that if there is no resurrection, believing in Christ is futile. If there will be no resurrection, we are all still in our sins. If there will be no resurrection, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Why? Because those who die have fallen asleep. They are not alive somewhere up yonder or down there. They are not alive anywhere.
Jesus experienced death
Jesus experienced that state of death – from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Paul says that Christ was the first to be awakened from that sleep. The rest of us await his coming. It is then that we will be made alive again. Paul argues that until that takes place, our hope in Christ is only that. It is a hope. If Christ does not return to raise us, that hope will be in vain.
Plato’s philosophy of the innate immortality of the soul had permeated the western world. Surely all the Greeks in Corinth would have been aware of it. If Paul had agreed with Plato, this would have been a logical place to indicate it. Instead, Paul argues against the popular notion of a continued conscious existence at death. He argues that unless and until the resurrection takes place, the Christian hope of eternal life will not be fulfilled. The popular Christian teaching today borrows Plato’s notion of continued conscious existence and reads it into the Bible. The result is that the resurrection takes second place to “going to heaven when I die.” The biblical hope is never death, but always resurrection.
Jesus knew that each one of his disciples would go to that dark place of death and experience that sleep for millennia before his return. His message to them was not “you will come to me when you die” but “I will come again and take you to be with me.”10 He comforted them by assuring them of their resurrection and reunion with him at his return. Surely, if they were going to already be with him in heaven for thousands of years, that would have been the logical message to give them. Why would he omit that if it were the truth?
The popular theology of conscious existence at death teaches that people go to their reward or experience their punishment immediately after death. The Bible teaches that both reward and punishment will take place after Christ returns.
“For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done.”11
God has appointed a day in which every believer will receive the blessings of his faith and every unbeliever will receive the consequences of his unbelief. That day is not the day of our death but the day of Christ’s return. By following the pagan teaching of immediate rewards and punishment at death, we are in effect rejecting what the Bible says. We are choosing to believe what the world teaches instead of what God says in his word. Conditionalists believe that it makes a difference.
the logic of conditionalism
The logic of conditionalism says that God will not judge before the day in which he has set to judge: the judgment day.
“For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”12
The parables Jesus taught his disciples that refer to his return indicate that his return is the time in which he will “settle accounts” with his followers and his enemies.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory…Then the King will say …take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. ”13
“After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them.”14
If Jesus had intended to settle accounts with us at death, why would he mislead his disciples by teaching something different? Why would he allow these teachings to be placed in holy Scripture to further the misleading? Conditionalists see the teaching that people go to their reward or punishment at death as a clear misrepresentation of what the Bible actually says about how and when God will bring about justice.
Jesus also taught the disciples to be hospitable toward the poor, who will not have the means to repay them for their hospitality. He said that they would be repaid, not when they die and go to heaven, but “at the resurrection of the righteous.”15 Surely if believers go to their reward at death, then they would be repaid for their good deeds then. But the Bible says otherwise.
The consistent and systematic emphasis of the apostles also concurs that believers will be rewarded, not at death, but at the second coming:
“let us encourage one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”16
“Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay”17
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”18
“Look forward to the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world.”19
“So now, little children, remain in Him, so that when He appears we may have boldness and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.”20
“…that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”21
Each of these apostles taught that the hope of the believer was the return of Jesus Christ, accompanied by the resurrection of all in their graves, the reward of those in Christ, and the punishment of those not in Christ.
If the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is correct, all of these apostles (James, Peter, John, Paul, and the author of Hebrews) were misinformed. They placed their hope in the coming of Christ when they should have placed it in the death of the believer.
But it gets worse. Even Jesus was apparently just as mistaken. He told believers “hold fast till I come” when he should have said “hold fast till you die.”22
The logic of conditionalism returns Jesus Christ to the center of Christian theology.
It is the Bible’s teaching about the second coming that is at stake when one surrenders to the innate immortality theory. The Bible teaches that Christ’s return is the single most important event of all history. The doctrine that people’s spirits remain alive at death and begin eternity then subverts this truth. That doctrine makes the second coming practically unnecessary.
The logic of conditionalism returns the second coming to the forefront of Christian doctrine. It says that immortality is conditional. Only those who are given eternal life by Jesus when he returns will live for eternity. All others will suffer their appropriate punishment for their sins, and die forever.
The logic of conditionalism returns Jesus Christ to the center of Christian theology. Our hope is not in ourselves – in something intrinsic within our nature. Our hope is in our Lord. We await a Savior who will take away the death that we deserve and give us life by his grace. Our hope is not that we will get what’s coming to us when we die but that he will bring an inheritance we do not deserve when he comes. We wait on our Lord to fulfill his promise. We promise to hold fast ‘till he comes.
- Alfred T. Mitchell, “I Am” in Tome of the Universal Poet (Xlibris Corporation, 2010), 166. [↩]
- Genesis 2:7 (NET) [↩]
- Hebrew nephesh chayah [↩]
- Genesis 2:17 (ESV) [↩]
- a literal rendering of the Hebrew mot tamut [↩]
- 6Genesis 3:4 (NLT) [↩]
- John 5:28-29 (ESV) [↩]
- John 6:39 (NET) [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 15:16-23 (ESV) [↩]
- John 14:3 (NET) [↩]
- Matthew 16:27 (HCSB) [↩]
- Acts 17:31 (NLT) [↩]
- Matthew 25:31,34 (NIV) [↩]
- Matthew 25:19 (NET) [↩]
- Luke 14:14 (NIV) [↩]
- Hebrews 10:25 (NIV) [↩]
- Hebrews 10:35 (ESV) [↩]
- James 5:7-8 (ESV) [↩]
- 1 Peter 1:13 (NLT) [↩]
- 1 John 2:28 (HCSB) [↩]
- 1 Timothy 6:14 (NASB) [↩]
- Revelation 2:25 (KJV) [↩]
About Jefferson Vann
Jefferson Vann is a missionary with Advent Christian General Conference, and elder at McAlpin Advent Christian Church in Florida and Relevant Church in Virgina. "My hope is that everyone who reads this blog will have an opportunity to understand the gospel, and will know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior." You can read more of Jeff's writing at Devotions | Vann Newsletter |An Advent Christian Systematic Theology | Commands of Christ | Learning Koine Greek Together