Some recent online discussions have cantered around what is meant by the term “conditional immortality” or its synonym “conditionalism.” These are essentially anthropological terms. They describe the nature of humanity as the Bible represents it. They affirm that human beings have the potential to become immortal, but that immortality is not innate: it is not something we are born with.
Conditionalism in Genesis
The early chapters of Genesis prove to be very helpful as a guide to understanding human nature. They show that human beings are creatures, like the animals, but that human beings were intended to be more than that. They were created in God’s image and likeness, which implies a special authority from God and responsibility to him. God tested this responsibility in the Garden of Eden by planting two special trees in Eden: the tree of life (which, if eaten would have granted Adam and Eve immediate immortality), and the tree of knowing good and evil.
Of these two trees, only the latter was prohibited. The first humans were allowed to eat of all the other trees, including the tree of life. If our ancestors had simply made the correct decision, they would have remained alive forever, along with all their descendants.
Instead, they were deceived to believe that it was the other tree that actually held promise. Satan had told them “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). That statement was the truth, but it implied a lie: that the tree offered immunity from death. Instead “being like God” merely meant having experienced both good and evil. God had known both the good of his original creation and the evil of Satan’s rebellion. Taking of the tree of knowing good and evil would cause humans to experience evil personally – thus wreck the purity of Eden, and human intimacy with their creator.
God’s response to that sin led to a further consequence: human mortality. The persons of the Triune One speak among themselves and say …
“Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever-” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. “(Genesis 3:22-24)
Before the fall, human beings had the potential to become immortal. They had the potential to become something more than what they were. As a consequence of the rebellion in Eden, this opportunity was taken away.
God wanted human beings to be immortal. He still does. He wants to establish a relationship with us that will bring glory and joy to both parties forever. Yet God cannot endure unrighteousness forever. Until a solution can be found that will undo the Eden rebellion, God cannot grant immortality to human beings. He was thus forced by his own nature to banish us from paradise.
So, although intended for immortality, human beings are now reduced to the same nature as the animals God has placed us over. The ancient scientist Solomon recognized this:
I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20).
This is the bad news the Bible gives us, which serves as the backdrop for the good news of eternal life available through Christ.
Conditionalists proclaim Christ, and his second coming as the time when God is going to grant immortality to the saved and undo the Edenic curse. But we have also championed the truth of this bad news: that all humanity is mortal and subject to real death. We feel that it is dishonouring God’s word to say that humans are both mortal and immortal at the same time.1 We also feel that it is inconsistent evangelism to claim that Jesus offers eternal life and then teach people that they already have eternal life.
So, instead of teaching people that immortality is innate (that is, that all human beings are born with it), we teach that it is conditional. God offers eternal life to those who put their faith in Christ: those are the conditions. One of the first post-apostolic writers to express conditionalism was Theophilus of Antioch:
God did not create humanity as either mortal or immortal, but, … with the capacity for them both. If humanity inclined towards those things which relate to immortality by keeping the commandments of God, then it would receive immortality as a reward from God… On the other hand, if humanity should incline towards those things which relate to death by disobeying God, then humanity would be the cause of its own death.2
When a certain man came to Jesus once, asking “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”3 – Jesus did not challenge his theological inference that eternal life is something that must be obtained. If immortality were innate, then Jesus should have stopped the man and pointed that out. Instead, Jesus agreed with the man that he needed eternal life, and then challenged the man to follow him – that he might get what he was asking for.4
The Gospel is all about how God offers us what we do not have on the basis of his grace, through the atoning death of Christ. Christ’s death has met the conditions. Following Christ is the solution to the curse of Eden. A conditionalist is someone who does not trust in her own innate ability to live forever, but trusts in Christ’s completed work on the cross, and looks forward to the day when Christ will make her immortal.
Conditionalists also take death seriously, and that leads to our special appreciation of the gift of immortality. We understand the awful consequences that are the result of sin entering God’s creation, and that makes us appreciate Christ all the more. When we read Romans 6:23, it makes perfect sense as it is: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But if a person believes that immortality is not conferred as a gift, but is an innate possession, they have to supply some interpretation for Romans 6:23 to fit their view. It then reads “For the wages of sin is death (but only death of the body, because the real person is the soul and it cannot die), but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (except that eternal life is actually a right we have by birth, so Christ does not give it).”
William Newton Clarke complained that conditionalists “argue from the silence of scripture regarding the natural immortality of man, and from the uniform association of ‘eternal life’ with Christ.”5 He was exactly right – although it is hardly reason for complaint. Scripture is silent on the natural immortality of humans because it rejects the notion. Eternal life is either conferred upon the faithful or it is innate by reason of creation. There is no logic that allows for both, or any scripture that proves both.
Conditionalists have never argued against the concept of human immortality. We simply insist that that great gift will be given to humans at the appropriate time. It has not been the possession of all humans from birth. Instead, it will be given to some humans at the return of Christ. Speaking of that return, Paul says that it will happen “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:52-53 NIV).
That glorious day will be the beginning of “the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.”6 The fact that raising the dead is first on Christ’s list when he returns should be an encouragement to us. It should enable us to face the death of our loved ones (or even our own eventual death) with courage, knowing that although death is real, it is only temporary.
Life Only In Christ
The doctrine of human mortality is Christocentric, not anthropocentric.7 It reveals Christ as the giver of life, not just the one who can “get you to heaven.” John states the options bluntly: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”8 The Bible is about Jesus Christ. The Old Testament pointed forward to him, the New Testament points back to him. Human mortality is the need which only Christ could meet. Paul says that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”9
Over against this clear teaching from the Bible on human mortality is the persistent mistaken notion that humans are born with immortal souls or spirits that consciously survive the death of their bodies. This view sees the references to death in the scripture as usually referring to this physical death, and therefore irrelevant on the subject of the soul’s survival. The view thus confirms both mortality and immortality at the same time. Any scriptural evidence in favour of human mortality can immediately be dismissed as not pertinent, since it (in the innate immortality view) always refers to the material aspect of human existence, and not the spiritual.
Scriptures that Clash with the Innate Immortality Tradition
The innate immortality tradition reflects Greek dualism. It is a worldview that is read into scripture, rather than being a part of it. It has become embedded in Christianity the way many other non-biblical traditions have. By taking a closer look at doctrines taught in scripture, the clashes between those doctrines and the innate immortality tradition become more evident.
1 Timothy 6:16
In chapter 15 we noted that scripture teaches that God “alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). The innate immortality view denies this, although its proponents do exercise a great deal of verbal gymnastics to try to affirm it.10 At issue, then, is not simply the doctrine of human nature, but the doctrine of God’s nature as well. To claim immortality for sinful humanity is to deny it as an exclusive attribute of God. But when the first humans sinned, God said that they “must not be allowed to … live forever.”11 Their sin had not only affected their relationship with God (resulting in banishment from his presence in Eden), but it changed them. They had been immortable (capable of becoming immortal by eating of the tree of life). Now they were simply mortal.
Some argue that the term “immortality,” when it refers to God, has a different meaning than when it refers to all other beings. They argue that “the meaning of ‘immortality’ in the Bible largely depends on its context.”12 They see this as adequate justification for ignoring the contradiction found in the traditional doctrine of the immortal soul, and affirming both the exclusive immortality of God and the universal immortality of humanity as dependent upon him. Conditionalists see this as double-speak. While it is true that all words depend on their context for meaning, there is nowhere in the context of 1 Timothy 6:16 that redefines the term or assumes a distinction between how it is used by Paul there, compared to how he or other biblical authors use it elsewhere.
This is precisely what God (with tears in his eyes) warned Adam and Eve would happen if they disobey his Edenic prohibition. He said “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”13 That phrase “you shall surely die” is a combination of two forms of the same verb. The word mot (tAm) is the infinitive absolute of the verb “to die” and refers to the state of mortality that was humanity’s fate after the rebellion in Eden. From the moment they ate of the tree, humanity became a dying race. The second word is the imperfect tense of the same verb. The word tamut (tWmT’) refers to the eventual and inevitable death that would come to each member of the race as a result of the fall. Together these two forms of a verb reflect a Hebrew idiom that accentuates the certainty of an action. Thus the translations render the phrase “you will surely die.” The innate immortality doctrine turns this into an empty threat since it claims that the real essence of a human person never dies.
Paul tells us that “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.”14 Sin and death have been a matched set in human experience ever since that initial sin in Eden. It is not merely the body which sins, but the whole person. That is why we need a Saviour, not just someone who can raise us from the dead. Christ is both. He can restore our inner beings as well as raise our bodies. Both have been affected by sin; the wages of that sin is death to both, and the gift of God is eternal life for both.15
The Bible speaks of a coming day of judgment when all those who are not redeemed by Christ’s blood will totally perish in the fires of Gehenna hell.16 When the Bible speaks of believers being saved, it usually refers to this event. In other words, to perish is not simply to die. To perish is to utterly die. It refers to the ultimate, permanent death in Gehenna, not to the temporary death at the end of this life. So when Jesus told Nicodemus that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” he was speaking of the two ultimate fates of mankind. To perish is to be ultimately destroyed. To have eternal life is to escape that destruction. Many texts point out the same distinction.17 The innate immortality doctrine blurs that distinction because it insists that no human being ultimately perishes. Thus all human beings ultimately have eternal life.
The innate immortality view distorts a crucial and essential doctrine of the Christian faith: the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. According to the Bible, Christ’s death was to protect us from ultimate destruction, not to get our souls to heaven when our bodies die.
1 Corinthians 15:22-23
The Bible is also explicit on the issue of just when believers will gain the gift of immortality. It did not happen at our birth, and it will not happen at our death. Believers will be made alive at the return of Christ. Paul says “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Paul compares two events in history. The first event was the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden. As a result of that event, human nature became a fatal condition. The second event is the return of Christ to this earth.
The analogy Paul uses to describe the resurrection is a crop harvest. Each resurrection is a stage in the harvest. Since Christ is the Firstfruits, he was resurrected first. This took place three days after his death. The second stage of the harvest includes “those who belong to Christ” when he comes. This is the believers’ resurrection. Paul does not speak of Christ restoring souls with their risen bodies. Instead he speaks of the whole person being “made alive.” This is when the promise of eternal life will be fulfilled for us.
The doctrine of innate immortality also subverts this plain teaching of scripture. According to that view, no human being ever dies, so none will ever need to be made alive. The concept of the resurrection takes a back seat to the more immediate idea of conscious survival of death. It makes the return of Christ less crucial, and rather anticlimactic.
The consequences of original sin in the Garden of Eden include the mortality of all human beings, which makes homo sapiens no different from the animals in terms of mortality and eventual death. This dark reality is the backdrop upon which the brilliant light of eternal life offered by Christ emerges in scripture. In contrast, the tradition of innate immortality dilutes the teachings of scripture. Believing that one is already immortal by nature can make one less appreciative of the nature of God, the influence of sin, the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross, and the reason for his second coming.
Confusion in defining the term
Often in theological discourse, the same terms are used for different concepts, and sadly, this is the case for conditional immortality as well. John Stott, for example, defended the view described above, but did not call it conditional immortality. He defined conditional immortality as the view that “nobody survives death except those to whom God gives life.”18 While that is technically accurate, it does not represent the teaching of conditionalism. In conditional immortality as described above, everyone will be resurrected and face judgment. No one will survive death apart from that resurrection.
Wayne Grudem asserts that “some versions of conditional immortality deny conscious punishment altogether, even for a brief time.”19 The doctrine of conditional immortality as described in this article assumes both conscious punishment of the lost, and ultimate destruction of the lost.
The whole question of the final fate of the lost is not subsumed under the term conditionalism. The issue with conditionalism is whether there is anything immortal in human nature to suffer punishment for eternity. Conditionalists answer, no. We teach that death is real. The first death is real in that life ceases until the resurrection. The second death is real in that life ceases, and there is no longer any hope of resurrection.
While the second death will be preceded by a period of torment, it is the death which follows which is permanent. It is not the process of punishing which is perpetual (as if the word aionios was an adverb), but the event of punishment which is permanent (since aionios is an adjective). The Bible describes the fate of the lost as eternal punishment, not perpetual punishing.20
Millard Erickson uses the term “conditional immortality” to describe the state of Adam (and Eve) before the fall. Adam “was not inherently able to live forever; but he need not have died.”21 Thus, he adds another use of the term which does not quite fit our definition. Erickson defines death as “the termination of human existence in the bodily or materialized state.”22 He is free, then, to speak of Adam’s death as becoming certain at the fall, their “potential mortality” becoming actual.23 Yet he still keeps the door open to Platonic dualism by drawing a sharp distinction between physical death and spiritual death. The second death is spiritual death made permanent. He does not explain why there must be a physical resurrection for that to happen.
Should we jettison the term?
Seeing that there is confusion on how the term is used, is this a case for jettisoning the term “conditional immortality” for a more precise one? Probably not. In most cases, those who disagree with us at least grant us audience so that we can explain exactly what we mean, in order to lessen any confusion. It is in the act of clarifying terms and defining meaning that we confront the text of Scripture, and that is precisely what theological debate was intended to accomplish. If, in the end, my opponent in religious dialog confronts the texts of scripture and yet still disagrees with my interpretation of them, we can still walk arm in arm as brothers.
If, for the sake of argument, we entertained the idea that the term “conditional immortality” is no longer useful as a theological instrument, what would take its place? Some prefer the term annihilationism. The church tradition that this author comes from has not chosen to adopt that term. Although we feel it accurately describes the fate of the lost, we are not comfortable with its emphasis. Conditional immortality reflects the “good news” side of the Biblical message. It speaks of the gift of eternal life which is available to all who meet the conditions of faith in Christ and repentance from sin.
It also points to the fact that Christ has met the conditions that make eternal life possible for his church. It is “our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.”24 Thus, the term is Christocentric. The ultimate question regarding one’s eternal destiny is not whether one has a “soul” but whether one has a Saviour. It is not what you have done your eternal spirit but whether you have obeyed the Holy Spirit. As John put it, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”25 Ultimately, eternal life is not going to depend on having a part of you that survives death. Eternal life is going to depend upon your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, his Son. There are eternal haves, and eternal have-nots. That difference is what conditionalism is all about.
- William West explores this contradiction in Resurrection And Immortality (Xulon Press, 2006), 77.
- Theophilus of Antioch ad Autolycum (shortly after 180 AD) quoted in Alister E. McGrath, ed. The Christian Theology Reader (Malden Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 646.
- Matthew 19:16.
- Matthew 19:21.
- William Newton Clarke, An Outline of Christian Theology (BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009), 452.
- Acts 3:21 NKJV.
- Viewing mortality as an anthropocentric issue places too much emphasis on humans as created rather than humans as redeemed. Conditionalists argue that viewing mortality as an anthropocentric issue distracts believers from seeing the connection between human need for resurrection life and the solution for that problem offered in the atonement.
- 1 John 5:12.
- 2 Timothy 1:9-10.
- Page 104.
- Genesis 3:22 NIV.
- Christopher W. Morgan, Robert A. Peterson, Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 206. These authors discredit the conditionalist argument for exclusive immortality of God because they are seeking to defend the traditional concept of hell as the perpetual torture of immortal human souls.
- Genesis 2:17.
- Romans 5:12 NLT.
- Romans 6:23
- Malachi 4:1; Matthew 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5.
- See also John 4:14; 5:21; 10:28; 17:2.
- David L. Edwards with a Response from John Stott, Evangelical Essentials (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1988), 316.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1150 (footnote 12).
- Matthew 25:46.
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), 613.
- Erickson, 613.
- Erickson, 614.
- 2 Timothy 1:10 ESV
- 1 John 5:12 ESV