The process of theological debate requires a constant stating and restating of one’s position so that all parties are aware of where each other stands. If this does not happen, we run the risk of misrepresenting each other in the conversation. Some of my recent articles were presented in hopes of accurately defining the position of evangelical conditionalism.1 This is another attempt to clarify what evangelical conditionalists believe.
1.Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only Jesus can save sinners.
Many in the theological debate wrongly conclude that anyone who challenges the traditionalist teaching on hell must be a theological liberal. In reality, conditionalists are usually quite conservative in their view of God, the Bible, and especially salvation. We believe that there is only one way to salvation, and his name is Jesus Christ. Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”2 Other religions, or inspired human effort might help people change their ways, but they are not the way back into a relationship with the Father. Only Jesus is the Way. Other religions, or inspired human effort might come to some aspects of the truth, but only Jesus is the Truth himself. Other religions, or inspired human effort may improve someone’s quality of life, but they can never impart eternal life. Only Jesus can do that.
At this juncture, traditionalists might argue that this is a point of essential agreement between themselves and conditionalists. Indeed it is. Yet we challenge our traditionalist brothers and sisters to embrace that final aspect of John 14:6 in its entirety. Traditionalism teaches that all human beings are born with a soul which has immortality regardless of whether that soul has accepted Christ or not. Thus, that immortal soul has no need for Jesus, and is in no danger of losing eternal life. Their destiny is to live forever whether or not they have come to Christ. Christ does not mean exclusive life to them, but life in a better location.
Conditionalists, on the other hand, believe and teach what we call life only in Christ. We see life not as an innate possession, but as a potential possession. The difference is Christ. Instead of trusting in an inborn quality in our nature, we trust in Christ. Our hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christ is our life.
Although conditionalism is usually defined as an anthropological tenant, it has just as rightful a place among the doctrines of theology proper. At the heart of our teaching is what Paul declared about God: that he “alone has immortality.”3 That is, if there were a box in which all the beings of this universe who could not die were placed, it would be occupied by the LORD alone. No created being – not even the angels in heaven – share that attribute with him, for since they owe their existence and life to God, they cannot claim immortality.Human beings (even human souls) are just as much created beings as the angels, and therefore share their mortality. The hope being immortal is just that: it is a hope. The Bible never speaks of human immortality this side of the resurrection at Christ’s return. Human immortality is a promise. We possess it only in that potential form. It is the inheritance of the saints.
3.Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only the Saved will Live Forever.
Biblical eschatology presents a series of prophesied events that will take place simultaneously with – or be initiated by – Christ’s second coming. At the end of that stream of events there will be an ultimate consummation of all things. The Judgment Day will be one of those events, but it too will have an end – “the second death.”4 After this, Jesus will recreate heaven and earth for our eternal habitation and his eternal glory.5
Eternity is an exclusive club, and non-members are not allowed. Those whose names are not listed in the Lamb’s book of life will have been destroyed (soul and body) in hell.6 That would make it impossible for them to participate in eternity. Traditionalists teach that God is obligated to keep human souls alive forever because he made them immortal. The Bible does not teach that. Traditionalists teach that God will torment these souls for eternity. The Bible teaches that those in hell will be tormented as punishment for their particular sins, some with few stripes, others with many.7 That reflects the justice that was prescribed in the Old Testament law.8 God is just. His justice does not require torturing people for eternity for the sins of a few years. But even if one could justify punishing people forever, it would still require immortality, which the Bible is clear that sinners do not have.
Another point in which traditionalists and conditionalists disagree is that most traditionalists insist that punishment in hell begins the moment the sinner dies. Conditionalists place reward and punishment at the point in time that the Bible does. The Bible says “the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”9 Both destinies begin at the second coming of Christ. Neither the believer’s eternal life nor the damnation of hell begin at death. Instead, death is a period of unconscious sleep for both. For traditionalists, hell begins at death, is interrupted by an unnecessary second judgment, and then resumes again.
Conditionalists love the message that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life..”10 We do not choose to redefine that message – by changing the reward to something else besides eternal life. Immortal existence in God’s recreated universe is OK with us. We do not have to go to our reward at death. We prefer to wait for our reward to come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Only after he returns will eternal life be meaningful.
Conditionalists believe that this present world consists of haves and have nots. The Bible says “that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”11 Only the saved will live forever. The lost will be … well… lost.