A sister from an independent Christian church in Idaho writes: “You mentioned a book you co-authored on the subject of final punishment, your part being to present the biblical case for conditional immortality. What exactly do you mean by ‘conditional immortality?’ ”
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“Immortality” means deathlessness, and anyone who is “immortal” is incapable of dying. According to the Bible, God “alone possesses immortality” inherently or in his own nature (1 Tim. 6:16). Human beings are not naturally “deathless” or “immortal.” We are mortal human creatures who owe our existence every moment to God who made us (Gen. 2:7; Acts 17:25, 28). We cannot survive death by ourselves. Nothing about us is death-proof. Our immortality is conditional on God who gives it.
Despite this grim and humbling reality, humankind has from earliest history tried to discover a means of immortality apart from God. The Egyptians embalmed their dead. Hindus taught reincarnation. Greek philosophers theorized that every human possesses a mortal body that houses an immortal or deathless “soul.” This notion did not come from Scripture or from God. It originated with the devil, and it was first foisted on humankind by the serpent that told them, “You shall not surely die,” directly contradicting the Creator’s warning that disobedience would lead to death.
During the second and third centuries after Jesus, certain converted Greek philosophers brought a form of this pagan notion into the church. Tertullian and others assumed that the soul cannot die, reasoned that it must therefore live forever somewhere, and concluded that the wicked will suffer everlasting conscious torment. When he encountered Jesus’ statement that God is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna (Matt. 10:28), Terullian followed his logic instead of his Lord and said that the lost will live forever in unending conscious torment.
The traditional doctrine of hell as unending conscious torment makes God the supreme torturer of the universe — a horrible slander to his character as it is revealed in Scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ. It also overlooks the fact that whenever Scripture ascribes immortality to humans it always refers to the saved, never to the lost; to the body, never to a disembodied soul or spirit; to God’s gift at the Resurrection, never to something inherent to humans by creation (Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 9:25; 15:52, 53, 54; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 Pet. 1:4).
The clear implication is that the wicked are raised mortal, and that is confirmed by Scripture’s assertions that they will die, perish and be destroyed in the second death. God does not keep people alive merely to torment them forever. That is a horrible doctrine, a blasphemy that creates atheists, contradicts the Scriptures and grieves the Holy Spirit. Small wonder that godly scholars such as John Stott (Anglican), E. Earle Ellis and Dale Moody (Southern Baptist), Homer Hailey and Jim McGuiggan (Churches of Christ), F.F. Bruce (Brethren), Philip E. Hughes (Westminster Seminary) and many, many more have publicly questioned or denounced the traditional doctrine of everlasting conscious torment.
The phrase “conditional immortality” turns out to be a shorthand way of saying that God is God and we are not. It means that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). It simply says that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If you remember nothing else from these two gracEmails, remember Romans 6:23 and John 3:16. Quote them without explaining them away and you are teaching “conditional immortality.”