In “only potentially immortal” Jefferson Vann discusses the relative merits of the phrase “only potentially immortal” as it applies to biblical anthropology, and the gospel.
The other day while listening to the Rethinking Hell Podcast, I was struck by the phrase quoted by a traditionalist in reference to the conditional immortality position. The moment I heard the phrase, was struck by two realisations. First, I recognized that I had used the phrase. But secondly, I wondered about the appropriateness of using it to defend conditionalism.
In 1999, when Robert Peterson wrote “Does the Bible Teach Annhilationism,”1 he criticised Philip Hughes for arguing – although this was not a direct quote from Hughes – that “only God … is inherently immortal, and human beings, by contrast, were created only potentially immortal.”2 Peterson responded to Hughes’ conditionalism by saying that traditionalist believe in a never ending hell for other reasons besides their belief in an immortal soul.
Nobody quite caught the fact that Peterson had added that little word “only” to Hughes’ argument. Hughes had said that “the potential was there.”3 His point was a positive one. He was stressing the gospel reality that by becoming immortal, believers will at last reflect the true image of God that our creator intended for us.
In his interesting novel about evangelical theology, Stephen Propp has a character, a theology professor, who is a conditionalist. In a conversation with fellow professors about hell, Professor Standing states “The Bible never says that ‘man’s soul is immortal.’ Only God is inherently immortal—see Second Timothy 6:16—man is only potentially immortal.”4
There we see those words again.
I am not saying that we conditionalists never say that. I have said that. The fact that humans are merely potentially immortal is one of the basic facts of biblical anthropology. The Bible teaches that we are not immortal like God, but mortal, like the birds and the bugs.5
In one of the best definitions of conditionalism. John Wenham said “belief in conditional immortality is the belief that God created Man only potentially immortal. Immortality is a state gained by grace through faith when the believer receives eternal life and becomes a partaker of the divine nature, immortality being inherent in God alone.”6
I agree with that definition. But I regret that we ever have to stick that puny word “only” next to the amazing words “potentially immortal.” It is clear why we do it. Our traditionalist brothers presume that everyone is innately immortal. We have to say no to that presumption.
But there is much more to conditionalism than mere mortalism. We conditionalists want to tell the world of God’s amazing promise of eternal life. We are frustrated when we try to do this because so many believe that no matter what a person’s relationship with God is, they already have eternal life, by virtue of being born.
The message of God’s offer of eternal life – or, more precisely, permanent life (αἰώνιος ζωὴ) is the heart of the gospel. The good news is that God has given us access to this permanent life in Christ. Therefore, we are potentially immortal.
Everyone knows that things are not they way they should be. We humans have not been able to make much change in that, because we are part of the problem. We do not have the potential for permanent life in ourselves.
But God has changed that by what Jesus Christ did for us. His death and resurrection are the beginning of the new life God offers us in him. By following Jesus, we are turning back in the right direction – and that will lead to a perfect eternity. By following Jesus, we regain the potential for permanent life. The potential will become actual at the resurrection when Christ returns. That is why we are urged to set our hope on Christ coming again.7
That is the gospel, as this conditionalist reads it.
So, we embarrass ourselves by talking about being only potentially immortal. It is one of the ugly truths that makes the gospel so beautiful.
1Robert A Peterson, “Does the Bible Teach Annihilationism.” Bibliotheca Sacra, 156 (January-March 1999): 13-27.
3Philip Edgcumbe Hughes,. The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ. Eugene, Or: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.
4Steven H. Propp, And With All Your Mind. IUniverse, 2010.
6John Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality.” in Christopher M Date, Gregory G Stump, and Joshua W Anderson, eds. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014).