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Jesus [11] Hell: Conditional Immortality

In this series on Jesus, our starting-point was Matthew’s ‘Last Judgment’ (chapter 25), where Jesus claims, among other things, to be present in the lives of the ‘wretched of the earth’, and to have the authority to dispense eternal judgment about how we relate to these poor.

(For earlier articles visit http://jmm.org.au/catalog/section/jc1.htm ).

We then took a little ‘excursus’ into the notion of hell, and found that Christians have a range of views on the subject. Here’s another, generally termed ‘conditional immortality’ or ‘annihilationism’, which is the belief that those who die having rejected Christ’s offer of ‘eternal life’ will suffer, not eternal conscious punishment in hell, but eternal non-existence (death).

Wikipedia’s summary is as good as any:

In contrast to Traditionalism, which holds that the wicked will suffer in torment forever, and Universalism, which holds that all humanity will eventually be saved, Annihilationism concludes that, although God may use hell to exact some conscious punishment for sins, he will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked completely, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. However, not all religions associated with this idea believe that God would punish the wicked for any length of time beyond death. Instead, these believe that the dead are simply dead, and that the idea that God would inflict torture on someone, even an evildoer, is inconsistent with God’s personality.

The doctrine is often, although not always, bound-up with the notion of “Conditional Immortality”, a belief that the soul is not innately immortal. At death, both the wicked and righteous will pass into non-existence, only to be resurrected (or more precisely re-created) at the Final Judgment. God, who alone is immortal, passes on the gift of immortality to the righteous, who will live forever in heaven or on an idyllic earth, while the wicked will ultimately face a second death.

The vast majority of Christian writers, from Tertullian to Luther, have held to traditional notions of hell. However, the Annihilationist position is not without some historical warrant. Early forms of conditional immortality can be found in the writing of Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Theophilus of Antioch (d. 185), although Amobius (d. 330) was the first to defend annihilationism explicitly. The Second Council of Constantinople (553) and later the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) condemned the idea. Since the Reformation, Annihilationism has periodically surfaced, as in the 1660 confession of the General Baptists…

Recently, a handful of evangelical theologians, including the prominent evangelical Anglican author John Stott, have offered at least tentative support for the doctrine, touching off a heated debate within mainstream evangelical Christianity.


Inherent in the Annihilationist stance are notions of divine justice and love. Annihilationists claim that the idea of an eternal place of torment is morally repugnant, and an unfair punishment for finite sins. How can this accurately reflect God’s ultimate victory over suffering and evil, they argue, when it permanently installs a place of suffering in the final, eternal order? Likewise, how can the saved live in blissful joy knowing that some of their loved ones burn forever in hell? Traditionalists retort that only God is qualified to determine divine justice, and raise suspicions that Annihilationists may be succumbing to modern cultural pressures.

Annihilationists also claim that traditional notions of hell depend on Greek ideas of an immortal soul, which have been erroneously read back into Christian scripture. Traditionalists find this irrelevant, pointing to passages in the Bible they claim support the idea of an immortal soul.

Annihilationists also defend their beliefs by stating that those who believe in the eternal torture theory have misunderstood particular verses of the Bible. Some suggest that the idea of humans having an immortal soul is essentially a paraphrased version of the Serpent’s lie to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Indeed, in the final analysis, both Traditionalists and Annihilationists believe their view most accurately reflects the Bible’s statements about hell. Much of the debate revolves around terminology and the highly symbolic imagery of Revelation. Annihilationists argue that passages that speak of the unsaved as perishing (John 3:16) or being destroyed (Matthew 10:28)

should be taken literally. Traditionalists argue these should be taken metaphorically. Traditionalists argue that the passages in Revelation that speak of everlasting torment should be taken literally. Annihilationists claim the torment is limited in duration or metaphorical in meaning.







Shalom! Rowland Croucher

http://jmm.org.au/ – 17,000 articles; 4000 jokes/funnies


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