Peter Grice of Rethinking Hell gives a survey of major biblical themes and their connection to conditional immortality. Once this doctrine is revealed as a foundational theme in its own right, bringing significant clarity and unity to the Christian message, the presentation will move into a discussion of its relative success and critical importance at this point in history. Finally, Peter will outline some of the ways in which the recovery of conditionalism must continue to revitalize global Christianity.
(Companion article series to the presentation at CIANZ Conference 2016 entitled – How Conditional Immortality Succeeds)
The shape of global Christianity is changing. For decades, its longstanding influence upon Western culture has been in sharp decline, and now we have entered the so-called “post-Christian” era.
Christianity used to be part of the cultural furniture. Non-Christians understood its message and basic tenets, even if they didn’t quite believe. They also shared some of its background assumptions and ways of seeing the world.
But now, features of our belief system are no longer openly understood or assumed. Cultures have become much more broadly secular and skeptical. Pluralism and relativism have softened the sense in which the gospel might be taken seriously, as a strong and urgent claim.
Add to this a rising confidence in the sufficiency of scientific explanation, together with a growing distaste for religious views in general, and one can see why our deeply cherished views might seem so outmoded to some.
Perhaps I’m being too optimistic, but I think I can see an upside to all of this—an opportunity for the gospel to once again be understood and taken seriously.
You see, when Christianity becomes too closely aligned with culture, it is at risk of cultural captivity. The gospel’s radically counter-cultural message becomes gradually diluted and warped, in a way that is hard to detect. Whenever this happens, biblical reform is needed. And reform occurs once Christians come to their senses and seek an appropriate course-correction.
This is now happening in a discernible way, I believe, in a historic turn toward biblical theology.
Biblical theology is a ground-up approach which faithfully pursues ever-greater insight into the biblical text. It insists on studying biblical texts in context, and invites exploration of the Bible’s themes and motifs as they unfold and develop. By being more investigative than some other approaches, it challenges us to submit our received interpretations to fresh biblical scrutiny.
This excites me as a conditionalist, because I see how this shift within Christianity is yielding insights that naturally lead on to conditionalism. The process is in place, and is already underway.
The rise of evangelical conditionalism, noticed even by secular media outlets such as the New York Times and National Geographic, represents a key part of today’s clarification and reinvigoration of our core message to the world. Ironically, critics of conditionalism often assume that it is part of the decline of Christianity in the West—as if resulting from capitulation to a postmodern culture. But to those in the know, it is heartening to realize that it may just be part of a recovery.
Two Competing Visions
To appreciate the overall shift, we need to understand two alternative renderings of the basic biblical plotline and worldview. In simple terms, the dominant framework has long been that of CREATION→FALL→REDEMPTION. Today, it is fast becoming that of CREATION→FALL→NEW CREATION. Let’s unpack the main differences between the two paradigms.
As is apparent, the most significant divergence comes at the end, which is the area of eschatology or future things. This is the culmination of many smaller differences along the way.
In contrasting “Redemption” with “New Creation,” it’s not as though the latter doesn’t qualify as redemptive—far from it! But as an alternative rendering of what redemption entails, the new creation view represents a renewing of the original, fallen creation, and of human beings within it. As such, God’s rescue plan liberates all of creation from the effects of sin (Rom 8:18-22), by removing and destroying all evil, corrupted things (Matt 13:41; Heb 12:27). On this view, we are rescued “from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4), since only the present order or form of the world is passing away (1 Cor 7:31), not the literal cosmos.
The other, more dominant vision tends to de-emphasize the original creation by portraying its complete replacement by a brand new world. God ends up destroying not just the world-order, but the actual cosmos (that’s one way to read 2 Peter 3:10, for example), and rescues people by whisking them away to the new world.
Steven James has investigated these two models as presented by theologian Craig Blaising:
The first model, the spiritual vision, tends to view the eternal state as heavenly, timeless, bodiless, and unrelated to the materiality of the present creation. The second, the new creation model, emphasizes an earthly, material, time-sequenced, embodied existence in a new heaven and new earth.1
We might add that the first vision of the cosmos is dualistic, with heaven and hell representing final destinations for human beings (and earth de-emphasized), while the second vision is much more holistic, with heaven and earth representing interpenetrating realms within an integrated whole. According to James, the latter model more “consciously affirms the literal bodily resurrection of Christ (and of all believers in the future)” and “gives a this-worldly hope that embraces life after death that is material and earthly.”2 He concludes that “the shift from the dominant spiritual vision toward a new creation concept should not be ignored . . . certain key features of the shift seem to be the result of a more faithful reading of Scripture.”3
The Failing Paradigm
One of the many biblical problems with the spiritualized, dualistic view is that it has styled “heaven” as the uncorrupted abode of God and the holy angels, yet also implies that this realm will be literally destroyed to make way for a new heaven (Rev 21:1). This manifests as an internal tension within the logic of CREATION→FALL→REDEMPTION, where God abandons not only our home, but also His own. Instead of the Fall requiring a kind of contingency plan, God ends up with more of an exit strategy. What’s more, with the loss of substantial continuity between creation and final redemption, Satan is arguably credited with a minor victory.
But the model’s lack of this-worldly hope is a problem which runs surprisingly deep. The Bible portrays the world as our home, and the Christian hope as that of “the redemption of our bodies” via glorious resurrection (Rom 8:23; 1 Thess 4:13). Presenting an other-worldly hope in an ethereal, perhaps even disembodied state, runs contrary to this.
Not only contrary to what the Bible portrays, but also to what every human being was created to understand through general revelation. Basic human longings are not wrong, if they are directed toward all the goodness that may be seen in creation—to loving life for its many blessings, and longing for it to last forever. Instead of being wrong, they are just incomplete.
Creation is meant to point beyond itself, to the transcendent Creator. It isn’t meant to point merely to itself, which (given its wondrous nature) would lead on to false worship (see Romans 1). Neither is its witness meant to be drowned out by an abstract, intangible vision of otherworldly destinations, which is what we’ve been telling people to long for, and to long to avoid. While there is a grain of truth to this, given that there are two human destinies, a two-destinations model still implies that God’s creation is to be abandoned and destroyed—as if this is part of what we’re longing for!
If an unsaved person fails to muster enthusiasm for escaping the created world, as presented in this otherworldly vision, can we really blame them? If they are inclined toward big-picture concerns, grieved by systemic injustice and longing to see life flourishing in peace and harmony, should we really expect them to respond well to a message that appeals mainly to individual interests such as self-preservation and harm-avoidance?
The popular image of heaven as a place of clouds and harps is clearly a caricature, but it is derived from a vision that the church has long been presenting. And that, I think, is as good an explanation as any for why the message of Christianity in the West has been increasingly rejected—it has become just too strange and unappealing. It was pitched as good news, yet upon closer inspection, was found to be pie-in-the-sky unappealing.
Lest I seem to be trying to make the gospel more palatable to postmodern sensibilities, I would simply point out that the world of the Bible, properly accessed via biblical theology, is much, much stranger!
Indeed, in my analysis of what has happened, my charge is that champions of the spiritualized model already capitulated to culture, and continue to do so, out of embarrassment over what the Bible seems to present when taken plainly. They embraced what they felt was a more palatable and philosophically sophisticated worldview (something warned against in Colossians 2:8). In that dualistic outlook, which has its roots in platonic thought, an inherent abstractness helped to keep some of that embarrassing strangeness at arm’s length. The more this is done, the easier it is to just accept what is being imagined—to a point.
That point was approached in Western culture when it found no blissful place just above the clouds, and no cavernous hell just below the ground. For a long time, both realms had been conveniently out of sight and out of mind, until our cosmology changed. The obvious and correct response was to realize that the Bible doesn’t require us to think exactly that way—the map is not the territory—even if it seems to portray things that way at times (for example, Jesus ascending into the clouds). But instead of reclaiming what the Bible does say in more concrete terms, spiritual heels were dug in, leading to ever more abstract and intangible thinking.
Due to these and other problems with this model, theologian Jürgen Moltmann has insisted:
Christian Eschatology must be broadened out into cosmic eschatology, for otherwise it becomes a Gnostic doctrine of redemption, and is bound to teach, no longer the redemption of the world but a redemption from the world, no longer the redemption of the body but a deliverance of the soul from the body.4
The Succeeding Paradigm
Biblical theology tends to be concrete rather than abstract. Its cosmology is this-worldly and holistic; more characteristically hebrew than greek. It embraces the fact that there is something strange about a burning bush that is not consumed—that place was designated holy ground. There are many, many strange things going on, and while these have their origin in an invisible, spiritual realm, they are often experienced as manifest realities. The “otherworldly” realm is located right here, or at least very near, and is liable to show up. This makes sense, because God is actively ruling over the affairs of His creation, and intimately concerned.
In this article series, we will examine five points of recent biblical theology that are part of the overall shift toward a new creation model: glory, heaven, kingdom, image and temple. In this first installment we will only be able to introduce them, however we will consider them in detail next time.5
New insights on these themes offer important correctives in their own right, but also propel them toward integration and convergence upon conditional immortality. The fact that conditionalism succeeds at explaining the themes in a coherent way is of interest to us, because it suggests that this is where conservative biblical scholarship is heading. In turn, a recovery of conditionalism as a vital core doctrine just might succeed in helping to advance the church’s mission. Considering its current challenges, this should be of interest to Christians everywhere.
Theme #1: Glory ~ An important, overlooked N.T. theme about the transformation of believers and the manifestation of Jesus Christ in the eschaton, including even a literal radiance. Believers seek for “glory, honor and immortality” (Rom 2:7).
Theme #2: Heaven ~ More like God’s space than a literal destination for people, the rule/dominion of heaven occurs wherever it is made manifest. In the new creation, heaven and earth overlap, and the dwelling-place of God is with mankind (Rev 21:3).
Theme #3: Kingdom ~ The kingdom of God/heaven is coming to earth—the main theme of Jesus’ preaching.
Theme #4: Image ~ Humans actively “image” God in the world by developing or “subduing” the earth, building flourishing societies and taking care of the animals (Gen 1:26-28 cf. Psa 8:3-8). Jesus is the image of God, the second Adam, into whose image we need to be remade.
Theme #5: Temple ~ A sacred place where God’s space and human space overlap, and microcosm of reality untainted by sin. No temple is required in the new creation (Rev 21:22), because God’s glory fills the whole earth.
Next time, we will explore these themes and their connections to conditionalism. We will see that the whole biblical cosmos (the earth and the heavens) is to be purged of evil by God’s fiery judgment (2 Peter 3), and only that which is good will be granted to continue on forever. On this day of judgment, to be preserved is to enter into the inheritance of everlasting life, while to be removed is to be disinherited, receiving the punishment of everlasting destruction, or annihilation.
- Steven L. James, “New Heaven, New Earth: Analyzing the Recent Rise in New Creation Eschatology,”p1. Accessed online at: https://www.theologicalstudies.org/files/resources/New_Heaven_New_Earth-Analyzing_the_Recent_Rise_in_New_Creation_Eschatology.pdf
- Ibid., p14.
- Ibid., p2.
- Jürgen Moltmann, “The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology,” 1996, p259.
- For a full treatment, see my essay “Tempest Theophany” in “A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge,” available at www.rethinkinghellbooks.com.