The hook that caught me
Even though I was raised in a conditionalist denomination, I was not always convinced of conditional immortality. I was sixteen years old when someone gave me a little booklet entitled “Why I Believe in Conditional Immortality” by Sidney A. Hatch. That booklet was the hook that caught me. I could not find a biblical refutation for its arguments, and I found myself cheering for the author as he explained his life story, starting out as a Baptist pastor, and eventually going to another vocation, and finally returning as a pastor of a conditionalist church.
Hatch was a Hebrew scholar. His study of the use of נפש (nefesh) in the Old Testament convinced him that the traditional understanding of the nature of humanity was not supported by how this word was used there. When Hatch applied himself to a study of the human soul, he discovered that it consisted of a body with life breathed into it,1 and that the very same thing is said of animals.2 Consequently, נפש (nefesh) is used consistently in Genesis to refer to animals.3 So, Hatch suggested “If it be argued from Genesis 2:7 that men possess immortality, the same argument would apply to the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, and the fish of the sea; for they too are ‘living souls’ possessing ‘breath of lives.’”4
Having discovered that traditional theology was incorrect in its assessment of human nature, Hatch found that he was equally misinformed about human destiny. He went back to the early chapters of Genesis, which he believed contained “the theological seed-plot of the Bible.”5 There he found an accurate description of human nature. Humans go back to the dust when they die, because that is what they are made of.6 Hatch comments “There is nothing in this verse, or in any of God’s dealings with Adam, to suggest that he or any part of him would go anywhere but ‘unto the ground’ – ‘unto dust.’ There is nothing here to suggest that Adam would find himself, after death (and much to his surprise), in some sort of spirit world.”7 He concluded that humans return to the ground and “sleep” in a state of unconsciousness in their graves until the resurrection. He concludes further that “all those arguments which contend that man goes somewhere else at death besides the grave are based on the assumption that there exists such a thing as ‘an immortal human soul.’ For this supposition there is not one verse of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation.”8
But Hatch’s pastor heart would not allow him to stay merely interested in human nature and destiny. He wanted to preach the gospel, and a gospel not corrupted by the unbiblical notion of going to heaven or hell at death. He found in the New Testament a clear distinction between the saved and the lost: the saved will inherit eternal life, the lost will die. He found that “according to conditional immortality the gospel is very simple: Life or death. To say that it is life in one place or eternity in another place is to reduce ‘the good news’ to little more than the offer of an opportunity to live in the comforts of the new heavens and the new earth rather than in the wretched conditions of the traditional hell.”9 For Hatch, “conditional immortality preserves the sharply defined, concise issue of the gospel and of the ages, life or death. It also avoids the unscriptural extremes of universal or final reconciliation on the left and eternal torment on the right. Life is life and death is death.”10
After establishing a scriptural basis for rejecting the traditional teaching about hell, Hatch then asks proponents of eternal conscious torment to explain how the biblical “God of love (can) maintain a chamber of horrors somewhere in the universe throughout eternity?”11 He concludes that “conditional immortality is the true message that proclaims both the love of God and the judgment of God, without compromising either.”12 His argument is not emotionalism. He is calling for biblical consistency.
Finally, Hatch explains that only conditionalism explains why Jesus must return. Both the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the lost require a resurrection. So, Hatch argues that “conditional immortality…recognizes the absolute necessity of the return of Christ. Without it there can be no resurrection, no immortality, no judgment, and no kingdom of God upon the earth.”13
A copy of Hatch’s booklet can be downloaded here.
31:20, 21,24-25,30; 2:19.
4Hatch, p. 4.
5Hatch, p. 4.
7Hatch, p. 4.
8Hatch, p. 6.
9Hatch, p. 6.
10Hatch, p. 7.
11Hatch, p. 7.
12Hatch, p. 8 [sic].