A Critical Analysis Of Conditional Immortalism Or Annihilationism

A good while back I preached a sermon (Matthew 3:10-12) on Hell.  In that sermon I referenced the view known as Conditional Immortalism, which is basically just another way of saying Annihilationism.  Those who hold to this view believe that, after a certain period of time (one day, ten days, a thousand years, or whatever), people who die in an unrepentant state, and thus go to Hell, will eventually be annihilated or vaporized, and will no longer exist.  This is what I’ve called a “have your cake and eat it too” view of Hell.  It allows for a belief in conscious torment in Hell for the unrepentant, unregenerate, but also allows for, what some would call, a more “humane” view of Hell as well.  Now, there are many problems with Annihilationism, but the only one that matters is that it is not Scriptural.  A couple years ago I wrote a thorough critique of this view in response to someone who had written a blog post defending Annihilationism.  And in a world where this view of Hell is becoming more and more popular (and being embraced by more and more people who claim to be Evangelical Christians), it’s worth knowing how to respond to it in a Biblical manner.  The following is my critique.  It’s lengthy…I know.  But I would hope that it  may be helpful to anyone who has an interest in defending Orthodox Christian views in a culture and society that is constantly kicking against such views (the Conditional Immortalism proponent’s words will be in bold).

Conditional Immortalism (a.k.a. Annihilationism):  A Critical Analysis

First, let me say that I think that conditional immortalism is quite an interesting view.  And although I do not think that it is an accurate view of what happens to those who go to Hell, it is, at the very least, a view that does support conscious torment for the wicked, something lacking in many views of Hell today.   I’ve now had some time to look into your arguments, so let me offer an analysis of my thoughts.

The following are your six arguments for conditional immortalism, with my responses under each one.

Your first argument is as follows:

1. The Language of Destruction — Numerous biblical passages refer to the wicked and the damned being destroyed or perishing (Ps. 37:38; Ps. 68:2; Ps. 145:20, etc.).  But if the damned live forever, then they are never destroyed.  Also, the biblical imagery of fire  (Isa. 34:10-11; Ezek. 20:47-48; Amos 5:6, Mt. 3:12, Mt. 13:49-50, Rev. 20, etc.) suggests obliteration of the wicked, since fire consumes what it burns.

While it is good to see that you are trying to support your view with Scripture, I’m not so sure that these verses are helpful to your position.  In fact, not one of them suggests that the conscious torment of the wicked will be temporary.  But, just in case I’m missing something, let’s take a closer look at each one of them. (I’ll list my thoughts under each):

Psalm 37:38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

Three things to note here: First, we have to deal with that word “destroyed.”  It seems to me that the Psalmist (in this case David) is using a very strong word to get his point across.  The variant of the Hebrew word for destroyed here transliterates as “charot” (the “ch” making a “k” sound), from the Hebrew word “charam.”  That’s a very strong word that effectively conveys the picture that David is trying to paint here; the idea that something very bad is going to happen to the wicked.  Second, you seem to be suggesting that if something is destroyed then it must not exist anymore period (I’ll get to the idea of the “soul” being destroyed later).  That’s just not the case.  Think about the buildings on 9/11.  After they were destroyed, did the materials that made up that building still exist?  Yes.  In fact, they still exist to this day in a land fill somewhere in New York.  The destruction did not mean their end.  It just meant that they existed in a different way.  A distorted and ugly way.  Third, the statement about the wicked’s future being cut off should not be construed to mean that they will no longer exist.  Since the idea of time is transcended in the spiritual realm anyway, I think this just means that their existence here, and their chance to do anything about their depravity, will be gone.  Regardless, I don’t see any claim in this verse that suggests that the wicked will only experience a temporary conscious torment.

Psalm 68:2 As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away;
as wax melts before fire,
so the wicked shall perish before God!

Are you suggesting that the wax melting means that it no longer exists after it melts?  To me, it seems that this is just suggesting, in a creative way (after all this is a Psalm, and the Psalms belong to the poetry genre), that something very bad is going to happen to the wicked.  But I don’t see any sign of temporary conscious torment here.

Psalm 145:20 The Lord preserves all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.

See comments about Psalm 37:38

Isaiah 34:10 Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
none shall pass through it forever and ever.
11 But the hawk and the porcupine 
[1] shall possess it,
the owl and the raven shall dwell in it.
He shall stretch the line of confusion 
[2] over it,
and the plumb line of emptiness.

This particular chapter in Isaiah is talking about the judgment on the nations.  I think the verses that precede this passage are helpful:

8 For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
9 And the streams of Edom 
[2] shall be turned into pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch.
10 Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
none shall pass through it forever and ever.

Verse 10 indicates that this will be a fire that will “not be quenched,” and “its smoke shall go up forever.”  It sounds to me like this is something that will go on for eternity.  This is a fire that will burn for all time.  Now, yes, there is nothing in here that says that the punished will be in it forever.  But there’s nothing in here that says that they’ll eventually be annihilated either.  And even though fire “consumes” what it burns, there is always something left over.  It may not be much, and surely wouldn’t resemble what it once was, but something will remain.

Ezekiel 20:47 Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. 48 All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”

See comments on Isaiah chapter 34.  One thing to note here though:  Here we have a sense that there will be something physical that happens to the wicked.  Their faces will be scorched.  But I don’t see anything in this verse that suggests temporary conscious torment for the wicked.

Amos 5:6 Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,

Again, see comments on Isaiah chapter 34 above (again, no sign of temporary conscious torment).

Matthew 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

See comments on Isaiah chapter 34 above.

Matthew 13:49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth

Here’s another verse that suggests conscious torment.  In the fiery furnace there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  So we have conscious torment with no suggestion whatsoever that it will be temporary.

Revelation 20:15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

No sign of temporary punishment or temporary conscious torment here.

Your second argument is as follows:

 2. The Opposing Concepts of Damnation and Eternal Life — In Scripture the eternal life promised to Christians is opposed to the damnation of the wicked.  But if the damned live eternally in hell, then their fate also is eternal life.  After all, they never die.  Theirs is a painful eternal life, but it is still eternal life.  The conditional immortalist view makes much better sense of the biblical contrast between damnation and eternal life.

With this, it is necessary to address one of your arguments that comes a little later.  I think many of us have confused what it is that is actually happening with those in Hell.  We get this much:  Those who go to heaven are experiencing eternal life.  But those who are in Hell are not really experiencing eternal life.  They are experiencing the second death.  Only this is a death that goes on forever.  This is exactly the opposite of what souls experience in heaven.  Revelation 20:10-15 speaks volumes here:

10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Now we have a verse that not only speaks about the lake of fire, but also about what will happen in the lake of fire.  The devil was thrown into the lake of fire where the beast and false prophet were, and “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  This is a place where torment will never end.  And verse 14 tells us that the lake of fire is the second death.  Finally verse 15 tells us that the lake of fire is the final destination for anyone whose name was not found in the book of life.  Now, yes, this verse does not say that the “anyone” whose name was not found in the book of life will be tormented forever.  But there is no need for John to tell us that.  He already told us that it is a place where eternal torment will happen in verse 10.  Revelation 21:8 is relevant here also.  It says this:

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Again, all the wicked will be thrown into the lake of fire.  And the lake of fire is the second death (Rev. 20:14), and this is a place where we know eternal torment takes place (Rev. 20:10).

Your next argument is this:

3. Reconciliation of All Things to God — The Bible says that God will reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:20).  If the damned live forever in hell, then they are not reconciled to God.

I’m not really sure what point you’re trying to make with this one.  It sounds as if you are suggesting that you believe that God reconciling all things to himself means that God will reestablish ties with everyone, even the lost.  However, that seems to completely contradict your argument that the lost will eventually be annihilated, i.e. no longer exist.  So I’m not sure if that’s what you mean or not.

Your fourth argument is as follows:

 4. Matthew 10:28 — In this passage Jesus says that God can “destroy both body and soul in hell.”  This suggests that hell is indeed a place where souls are destroyed.

First, let’s look at what verse 28 says:

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

First of all, this is not a verse that was meant to give us the definitive answer about the ultimate destination of the human body and soul of a wicked person.  When read in context, we see that this was actually a statement that was made by Christ to give the disciples comfort and confidence in a world that would oppose them.  However, even if one tries to use it to support a view that the lost do not experience eternal conscious torment in Hell, the argument doesn’t hold up for the same reason it didn’t hold up when regarding the Psalm passages above.  There is no indication that destruction of body and soul means that body and soul no longer exist.  It very well could just mean they exist differently.  Finally, let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that you are right about what “destroy” means here in Matthew 10:28.  Just because God could destroy body and soul (i.e. in a conditional immortalist view), does that mean that He would?  I don’t think that type of a conclusion can be ascertained from this passage.  Just because someone can do something doesn’t mean they will.

(Note:  The following is in relation to Marc’s response to JohnFrog.  Marc, you said this:

But notice that, according to Matthew 10:28, it’s within God’s power to destroy both the body and the soul. If the soul is indeed immaterial and therefore not composed of particles, its destruction necessarily involves a fundamentally different type of event. With respect to the immateriality of the soul, then, I wonder if we might be forced to restrict our conception of “destroy” to refer exclusively to annihilation. And I think this conclusion is potentially compounded by a further consideration: the nature of damnation in hell. There appears to be some prima facie plausibility in regarding the destruction in hell as being maximal, and complete annihilation seems to entail maximal destruction.

I see you’ve borrowed heavily from what John Stott said in his debate with David Edwards.  I’ve always had questions for him about things he said in that debate.  But since he’s no longer with us I’ll just ask you.  The question I have for you is this:  How do we have any definitive idea of what exactly the soul consists of?  I submit to you that we don’t.  So it’s quite a stretch to say that the destruction of one’s soul will result in it no longer existing.  Even if it is immaterial, why does that mean that its destruction “necessarily involves a fundamentally different type of event”?  And if it does involve something different, couldn’t that something still result in eternal torment?  After all, if the soul is immaterial, then it would seem that there would be nothing for the fire to consume, and thus it would just keep burning forever.   I also disagree with your assertion that maximal destruction in Hell has to mean complete annihilation because complete annihilation seems to entail maximal destruction.  Again, you’re basing this statement on what?  I don’t mean these questions to sound disrespectful.  I really don’t.  But you (and the writer of the blog) are the ones making a claim.  So the burden of proof lies with you.

Your fifth argument:

5. The “Second Death” — Conditional immortalism makes the best sense of the concept of the “second death” referred to in Rev. 20:14-15 and Rev. 21:8.  If the damned soul lives forever in hell, then there is no second death, thus contradicting Scripture.

Already dealt with this one above.  Who said that the concept of the second death is temporary?  Certainly Scripture never makes that claim.  In fact, Scripture says that the lake of fire is the second death, and we know that it is a place where eternal conscious torment takes place.  There is no contradiction here.

And finally, your last argument:

6. The Argument from Justice — If all of the damned suffer in hell eternally, then this constitutes an infinite penalty for finite sins, which is profoundly unjust.  Some traditionalists insist that sins against an infinite and holy God require a temporally infinite penalty.  But this is a non-sequitur.  It does not follow from the fact that God is infinite and morally perfect that punishment of those who sin against him must be infinite in duration.

You say that the argument that some traditionalists make about sins against an infinite and holy God requiring a temporally infinite penalty is “non-sequitur.”  And yet in your comments on Matthew 25:44-46, you suggest that the punishment can very well be infinite, but that it just doesn’t include eternal conscious torment.  In fact, here are your exact words:

Those who go to hell are eventually annihilated and they remain destroyed forever.  This is a perfectly natural understanding of “eternal punishment” in this verse 

It seems to me that you think that those who die as unbelievers are going to be punished infinitely for finite sins.  You just don’t agree with those “traditionalists” on what that punishment will consist of.  Is that a fair assessment?

You then ask this question:

So where did the doctrine of eternal conscious torment come from, if not Scripture?  It appears that the culprit is the Platonic concept of natural immortality.  Socrates and Plato affirmed the notion that the human soul is naturally immortal.  This idea found its way into Christian theology in the late second century and later through Augustine.  It should be noted that while Augustine had most things right, he was not infallible.  He read the Platonic doctrine of the soul’s indestructibility into Scripture, and the church followed his cue.

You suggest that eternal conscious torment is not from Scripture (I assume you mean the eternal conscious torment of the human soul.  Surely even you agree that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is found in Scripture [Rev. 20:10]).  You also suggest that Socrates and Plato are the ones who started all of this with their ideas that the soul is naturally immortal.  True Socrates and Plato believed that.  Also true that Augustine had much to say about those two.  But to attribute Augustine’s belief in the eternal conscious torment of a lost person’s soul entirely to Socrates and Plato is a bit of a stretch.  It’s my contention that Augustine based his belief (as many of us do) on his interpretation of Scripture.  Let’s take a look at three passages in particular.  The first is Matthew 25:41:

Matthew 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Here’s a verse that says that the lost will be cursed and will end up in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  We’ve already established the fact that this is the lake of fire, and the lake of fire is the second death that is a place of eternal torment (Rev. 20:10).  We also know that human souls will be thrown in there.  Finally, we know that one of the three entities that will be tormented forever will be a human being (the false prophet).

The next passage is Matthew 25:44-46:

44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Verse 46 says it all.  This will be an eternal punishment for those who are lost.  Here’s how you try to counter this verse:

Reply:  The word translated here as “eternal” is aionias, which literally means “of the ages” (cf. Rom. 16:25).  However, even if aionias is taken to imply an everlasting state, conditional immortalism is not contradicted in this verse.  Those who go to hell are eventually annihilated and they remain destroyed forever.  This is a perfectly natural understanding of “eternal punishment” in this verse.

The word used here is aionion (a variation of aionios).  And while one translation for aionios could be “of the ages,” there are certainly other things that have to be taken into consideration when rendering a translation (i.e. textual variants among manuscripts, or in this case the lack thereof, context of the passage, how a word or phrase is used and translated elsewhere in Scripture, etc.).  With that understanding, I think it’s, at the very least, worth mentioning that every single major translation (KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, NIV, ESV, HCSB, etc.) translates aionion here as “eternal” or “everlasting.”  Now if it was one or two of the major translations then your argument may be stronger.  But to suggest that some of the greatest Biblical Scholars (the cream of the crop when it comes to the original languages) that have ever lived, whether they were looking at manuscripts of the Alexandrian or Byzantine text types (meaning earliest or latest), all translated this word inaccurately just does not seem likely.   Also, your last statement here is quite interesting.  Is the eventual annihilation of the lost a “perfectly natural understanding of eternal punishment,” as you put it?  It sounds to me like that would be an act of mercy, not punishment.

The third passage to look at is Revelation 20:10 (one we’ve already examined above):

10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

 Here’s your reply to this verse:

Reply:  These are special cases and should not be taken to represent the fate of all of the damned, particularly human beings.  More importantly, the phrase often translated “forever and ever” (again involving aionias) is better translated “for ages upon ages,” as it is in some Bible translations.  This signifies a much longer torment but hardly that which is everlasting.

Let’s break down this reply sentence by sentence.  First you say that these are special cases, and they should not be taken to represent the fate of all the damned, particularly human beings.  The question I have is “Why?”  In fact, what we do see in this passage is that one of the three entities thrown into the lake of fire who will be tormented forever is the false prophet, who, again, will be human.  Next, you say that the word for “forever and ever,” is “better” translated “for ages upon ages.”  Here the phrase is “aionos ton aionon.”  And again, I have to ask:  Were the translators of all of the major translations all wrong?  Finally, you say, “This (aionos) signifies a much longer torment but hardly that which is everlasting.”  First, let’s assume for the sake of your argument that you are correct, and that the better translation is “for ages upon ages.”  Even if that’s the case, your argument can just be turned around.  In other words, even if the better translation is “for ages upon ages,” that still doesn’t mean that the torment will only be temporary.  In fact, even in your own argument you’ve admitted that this word could mean “forever” or “eternal.”

One final point, when taking the Greek into consideration.  It has to do with how the word “aionios” (or its variations) is translated in other areas of Scripture.  It’s my guess (and I could be wrong) that when Luke uses this very same word (aionios) in Luke 18:29-30 (“And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brother or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life’”), that you would agree that the proper translation is “eternal.”  There are other examples of this as well (where aionios or it’s variations are translated as “eternal” or “forever,” and I assume you’d have no problem with it [i.e. 1 Timothy 1:17, 1 Peter 1:23, Revelation 1:6, to just name a few]).  If I’m right about that, and you do think that “aionios” is translated properly in those other instances, then I would think that, at the very least, you should consider the notion that it could be translated as such in Matthew 25:44-46 and Revelation 20:10.

 In Conclusion

 In conclusion I want to say that I mean no disrespect whatsoever with my comments and questions.  Obviously I do not agree with conditional immortalism.  Obviously you do.  However, I truly believe this: even though this is a disagreement, it is a disagreement among brothers in Christ.