In Christian discussions about human nature and destiny, conditional immortality is still regarded by some people as a view without a home in historic Christian thought. They might expect us to appeal to emotion or to our sense of fairness and love, but they might not expect us to provide a robust biblical case, and many are surprised when we do. They do not expect us to appeal to support from the Early Church Fathers. And they do not expect us to explain our case to them in terms of classical theology, but that is the issue I want to look at here. Classical theology actually provides us with a way to explain the conditionalist stance of “life in Christ alone.”
“Classical theology” is a name given to ancient Christian ways of thinking about God; ways that were used by most of the Church Fathers and innumerable theologians since then. It is a kind of theology that is expressed very carefully and exactly, using the language and precision of classical philosophy, the kind found in the work of Aristotle or Plato. This is not to say that those who employ classical theology agree with all the beliefs of the classical philosophers, but their language and categories proved a useful tool, used to great effect by many Christian theologians. Arguably the greatest proponent of classical theology was Thomas Aquinas, nicknamed “The Medieval Doctor.”
In evangelical colleges today students often do not learn about classical theology, and they are undoubtedly poorer for it. I graduated with a Bachelor in Divinity, effectively the equivalent of an MDiv in some parts of the world, and in all my classes I had not seriously encountered classical theology once. Although I am not Catholic, one of the things I admire about a Catholic education is its coverage of this important area of theological exploration. Historically, Protestant schools valued it too, but today it is unknown territory for many Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike.
In classical theology, a famous way of describing God is to say that he is that than which no greater can be conceived. This isn’t because God is like one of us, but much, much, much better, stronger, smarter and more powerful until our imagination reaches its limits. It is because God is pure being itself. To unpack this further, I’ll very briefly cover some of the main principles of classical theology, and then I want to look at how all of this speaks to the issue of conditional immortality.
Everything in the created universe has potential. It is actually something, but it has the potential or potency of being different. Edward Feser examples:
[T]here is being-in-act — the ways a thing actually is; and there is being-in-potency — the ways a thing could potentially be. For instance, a given rubber ball might “in act” or actually be spherical, solid, smooth to the touch, red in color, and sitting motionless in a drawer. But “in potency” or potentially it is flat and squishy (if melted), rough to the touch (if worn out through use), light pink (if left out in the sun too long), and rolling across the ground (if dropped).1
These are potencies that a red rubber ball has right now. In act, it is a red rubber ball sitting in a drawer, but in potency, it is flat and squishy, rough, light pink etc. The ball has both act and potency because it can change. Nothing can be pure potency, because in order to be able to change, something must have actual existence. A thing can be mostly potency. Or something could be pure act (actus purus), being utterly perfect and having no unrealised potential. This is what God is: Perfect, pure being itself, unable to be anything better than he is, without any potency that is not fully realised in actuality. God possesses – and is – all perfection at once.
We might say to God “you are my strength,” or “I have my life from you.” But there is nobody of whom God can say those things other than himself. God is our strength, but nobody else is God’s strength, only God. “The LORD is my life,” but nobody is the Lord’s life, other than himself. The moon reflects the sun’s light, we reflect the image of God, but God does not reflect anything. There is nothing ultimate beyond God. God does not need anything and God himself is the source of everything, and while we have our existence through God, God does not have his existence through anything else. So Anselm of Canterbury said to God:
But, surely, whatever You are You are through no other than through Yourself. Therefore, You are the life by which You live, the wisdom by which You are wise, the goodness by which You are good both to those who are good and to those who are evil, and similarly for similar [attributes].2
But if God is life, wisdom, goodness and so on, is God many things or just one thing? This was one of Anselm’s questions too:
What are You? What shall my heart understand You to be? Surely, You are life, wisdom, truth, goodness, blessedness, eternity—You are every true good. These are many things; and my limited understanding cannot in a single view behold so many at one time in order to delight in all together. How is it, then, 0 Lord, that You are all these things? Are they Your parts, or, instead, is each one of them the whole of what You are? For whatever is composed of parts is not absolutely one but is in a way many and is different from itself and can be divided actually or conceivably (intellectu). But these [consequences] are foreign to You, than whom nothing better can be thought. Hence, there are no parts in You, 0 Lord. Nor are You more than one thing. Rather, You are something so one and the same with Yourself that in no respect are You dissimilar to Yourself. Indeed, You are Oneness itself, divisible in no respect (nullo intellectu). Therefore, life and wisdom and the other [characteristics] are not parts of You but are all one thing; and each one of them is the whole of what You are and the whole of what all the others are.3
This way of thinking, although receiving more elaboration in Anselm than previously, was not new at all. The doctrine of divine simplicity, as it is called, was expressed in the work of the Fathers of the second century, such as Irenaeus. Here he explains that there is no distinction between the various aspects of God:
He [God], as soon as He thinks, also performs what He has willed; and as soon as He wills, also thinks that which He has willed; then thinking when He wills, and then willing when He thinks, since He is all thought, all will, all mind, all light, all eye, all ear, the one entire fountain of all good things.4
There is a lot of groundwork to cover to go through all the theologians of the first millennium of church history who discussed divine simplicity, but in brief it is the view that there are no parts of any sort in God. God is not divisible in any way. He isn’t physically divisible because he isn’t composed of matter. He has no temporal parts, meaning that His existence isn’t spread over time into bite sized bits so that we could divide up his timeline. He also cannot be divided up into goodness, love, justice, mercy and wisdom etc, which come together to form his character. Instead all of God’s attributes are metaphysically one.
This brings us to the most important feature of classical theology for what I want to share here. God is the one than whom nothing greater can be conceived. God is not divisible but is all good, all perfect, all wisdom, all at once. All of his attributes are one. And his attributes are what have come to be called “great-making attributes.” God’s essence is the good, which is the same thing as pure being.
Throughout classical thought is the model of a great “chain of being.” It is a hierarchy of all things that exist, from the greatest to the least. I’ve left a few things out in my illustration (cataloguing everything in existence might take a while). As we go up the chain we find things that are greater, which have less potency and more actuality, moving up from things like rocks to plants, animals, humans, and then on to the invisible world, to angels (which are not material), and still further up until we reach the end. At the top of the chain is God, the one who is maximally great. He is being itself, and as we move down the chain from God, we pass by all the things that have their existence because it is derived from God. The further down we go, the less great things are, and the less “being” they possess. God’s goodness, greatness and being are one, and so the less like God a thing is, the less it partakes in being.
Historically people might have used this chain to justify potentially unjust social arrangements, by placing princes higher up the chain than labourers, or men higher than women. But we don’t have to do any of that to appreciate the point of the image at all.
If God, pure being and the good itself, is at the top of the chain, then what is at the bottom? The answer is nothing. The chain fills the whole spectrum from non-being to pure being. We could think of literally nothing at all at the bottom of the chain, or we could, as some philosophers have, think of pure potency without any actualisation: The potential to come into being, but no actual being. What is the opposite of good? Evil, you might think. But evil is not an independent thing, in classical theology. Evil is the deprivation of some good, just as darkness is the loss of light. This applies to all kinds of evil, including our own sin. So writes Brian Davies, explaining the view of Thomas Aquinas:
[S]in arises because we do not choose to act as we should. We cannot do this, [Aquinas] thinks, without actually doing something, and God accounts for what we actually do. But God cannot account for (directly cause) the badness of what we do. This is not something that he can be thought of as creating. And here, again, I agree with Aquinas. My failure to do what I ought, though possibly taking the form of many nasty deeds (all of them, perhaps, capturable on video), is a failure, an absence, a non-being. So it is not created by God.5
Evil is not “created” by God in this analysis because it is not a created thing at all. What does it mean, then, to reject God, to turn from God, to be separated from him and to embrace evil? In asking that question, we have reached the point where we can see how classical theology can prove to be fertile soil for the doctrine of conditional immortality. The conditionalist view is that those who reject God will not have eternal life and they will come to an end. They will lose their very being. Some people without a framework of classical theology might feel that it is open to them to simply deny this outright and to treat it like a whole new proposition about hell that we are bringing to the table. But this is not so at all, because if God is pure being, everything else that exists has its being derived from God to one degree or another and if to reject God is to become finally separated from him, as our traditionalist friends tell us so often, then the final non-being of the lost seems to be already implied – or at least pretty strongly hinted – in classical theology. To reject God is to reject being.
When we are attuned to look for this language in older works of theology, especially in the first millennium of church history, it starts jumping out at us. This is not to say that they all believed in conditional immortality. As I’ve discussed before, Augustine played a major role in changing that (for the worse, I say). But just look at the way Athanasius described the annihilation that would come to human beings apart from redemption through the Word (Jesus):
For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as 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. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.6
When the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England in 1995 offered support for the view that those who reject God will finally come to an end, it did so using language that tapped directly into this school of thought. They wrote:
Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being.7
Hands were thrown up on horror at the supposed liberal, human-centred views of this document. I’m in no position to peer behind the words and into the hearts of the authors, but these particular words are really the application of a very traditional way of thinking about God and our relationship with him.
To deliberately choose against God is not to choose life in separation from God, it is quite literally to choose non-being. There is no opposite thing to God, no other life to embrace, in the end. There is only God, or the loss of God and what he is, our very life and being. Although when we turn from God we are not embracing a thing that exists in its own right, we are ultimately embracing our own non-existence. As I said, proponents of classical theology do not usually follow through when it comes to the final consequences of rejecting God. But nonetheless, in classical theology there are resources that can help us to understand conditional immortality in another (although not a “new”) light.
- Edward Feser, Classical Metaphysics (Piscataway: Transaction Books, 2014), 32-33.
- Anselm, Proslogion chapter 12.
- Anselm, Proslogion chapter 18.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 1, Chapter 12, paragraph 2.
- Brian Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil (London: Continuum, 2006), 189.
- Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word chapter 1, paragraph 4.
- The Mystery of Salvation: The Story of God’s Gift (London: Church Publishing, 1995), 199.