I once came across a rather indignant and unhappy person denouncing the conditional immortality on a Youtube video. This response raises the question; what is wrong with the message of conditional immortality? According to the Bible, only God has immortality1 and Jesus came to grant immortality through the Gospel.2 In other words, man cannot expect to continue to exist unless God grants him immortality, which is immunity from death. Therefore the message of conditional immortality is good news; not bad news.
A fantastic scripture describes this wonderful hope. John 5.21 states that “just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.”3 The meaning of the passage is obvious; but note that being raised from the dead is synonymous with being given life. In other words, we only have life when we are raised from the dead. Jesus proclaims the wonderful truth of the resurrection central to much of his preaching throughout the Gospel of John. For example, before he raises Lazarus from the dead he states; “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”4 Why was he glad? Because they would see Lazarus being raised from the dead…complete with burial clothes. Lazarus had been dead for several days and everyone was greatly concerned about the stench once the tomb was opened, which of course points to man’s problem with death and the corruption of the flesh in death. Nevertheless, Lazarus was raised back to life, much to everyone’s great joy.
If we only have life when we are raised from the dead, then that raises all sorts of questions about those who are not raised from the dead. The Hebrew perspective of life and death was bound by their understanding that man was cursed to die and return to dust as God had said in Genesis 3:19. The hope was to return from the grave to life and to live in the land of the living. Conditional Immortality states that immortality is only given to those that believe. It makes sense, because Jesus said that the Father raises the dead and gives them life. Being raised from the dead and being given life are the complete package deal.
For some though, those that do not believe are still raised to a form of life, to experience eternal torment forever in an afterlife ‘hell’. This idea is based on a number of assumptions and traditional ideas that have become cemented in Christian thinking. Some of this thinking was based around Jesus’ teaching on judgment in the Gospels, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest it was not early Christian theology. For example, the word that Jesus used to describe this judgment (gehenna), which is often translated by hell, meant something very different to Jesus and his audience. It is very likely that much of the descriptions of judgment referred to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Like the Old Testament prophets of old, Jesus came preaching repentance or judgment, and judgment in Hebrew thinking was synonymous with destruction.
Whatever the central message of the Gospel was, we should see its tenets fully explored in the context of getting the message out to the world. In the Acts of the Apostles, there was not one reference to eternal torment in hell. If there were no references to eternal torment in hell, then what does that tell us about the message that was being passed on? What is mentioned many times is the resurrection of the dead and the avoidance of the corruption of the body. In particular, King David is twice used as an example of the power of the resurrection. Both Peter and Paul preach that King David was still in his tomb, his flesh corrupted. However, Jesus had been raised from the dead, avoiding this corruption. The hope then is the return from a place of being dead in a new restored body to receive life just as Jesus had promised. Although there are a few references to judgment, there was no mention of people suffering forever in torment.
If eternal torment in hell were an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, we would expect to see the Apostles clearly explaining how if people did not repent, they would spend eternity burning in agony and torment forever and ever. In fact, that would have been a powerful tool to get people to believe…but they did not teach it. Why not? The answer is that eternal torment was not part of early Christian thinking. Paul never once used the word hell in all his letters.5 To Paul, the wages of sin was death6 and his hope was the resurrection from the dead.7 He never once mentions the hope of avoiding some horrible afterlife experience of everlasting suffering. The problem is that there are other passages that are often used to promote eternal torment. However, there are always sound and sensible answers for these as well. For example, while there is a resurrection of the unjust, their final destination is the lake of fire in Revelation, which is called the second death.8 Because there was no mention of eternal torment, it is more likely that the second death is an extenuation of the original curse; man was and has been, and always will be, subject to death unless he is raised in the resurrection of life and given immortality. The message of Conditional Immortality then is good news. It is the promise of life everlasting to those that believe.
- 1 Timothy 6:16
- 2 Timothy 1:10
- The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1996, c1989 (Jn 5:21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson
- John 11:15 The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1996, c1989 (Jn 11:15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson
- In 1 Corinthians 15:55 he uses hades which is rendered by grave in most translations
- Romans 6:23
- Philippians 3:10-11
- Revelation 20:11-15