An Examination of Conditional Immortality
A guest post, originally posted at That Ancient Faith
I know this is quite a divisive topic, and one you may have come across before (sometimes referred to as “Annihilationism”); and have been told outright that it’s “heresy” or false, or that it’s an emotional argument people want to believe because it ‘sounds nicer’ than the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). Or maybe you’ve never even heard of this before and you didn’t realise there were alternative interpretations and views on hell.
Any discussion on “hell” is going to cover a lot of ground, and refer to many, many places throughout Scripture; so with that said, this will be a long one, so get comfy! I will do this in two parts as it will become too lengthy for one blog post.
This article will just focus on the Scriptural basis for the position of Annihilationism, as opposed to ECT, but to begin with I’ll define some terms as words like “hell” have become quite loaded with extra and unbiblical meaning over the centuries.
What is hell, anyway?
If you read through the Old and New Testament in older translations like the KJV, you’ll see the word “hell” a lot more often than in more recent Bible translations, which will most likely transliterate the Greek words instead. Not all the words get this treatment, and some still get presented as the word hell in English, for example, the NIV and NRSV will convert the word Gehenna into “hell”, but keep the Greek word Hades as-is (see: Matt. 5:22; 11:23).
The etymology of “hell” and its origins and how it became the word we know today in English, would take more time than I have space for here, but in short, there are three main Greek words which often get translated as the word “hell”, even though they are each different words with different underlying meanings:
Literally means “valley of Hinnom”, which is a place near Jerusalem where children were once sacrificed to Baal (see Jer. 19:5–6). Due to its history, it took on a more eschatological/spiritual meaning as a place of judgement and destruction.
This is the Greek form of the Hebrew Sheol found in the Old Testament, usually (and properly) translated as “grave”, or meaning the general place of the dead (similar to the place of the same name in Greek mythology).
This only appears once in the New Testament in 2 Peter 2:4 and is used in relation to the angels who sinned and were put in chains. Interestingly, it’s another word borrowed from Greek mythology, for the prison where the Titans were sent as punishment.
If you are interested in how we got the word “hell” in our English language, and more importantly, into our Bibles, I highly recommend that you read this study: The Real Hell.
A Case for Conditional Immortality (aka Annihilationism)
We are often taught that our souls, human souls, are inherently immortal. But where does this idea come from, because it’s never actually stated in Scripture that this is so. This is an Hellenistic philosophical assumption brought into the text (mainly from Plato’s influence) which can taint our interpretations. If we look at 1 Timothy 6:16 we can see that it is God alone who is immortal:
It is he [God] alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.
Any other mention of immortality or eternal life is only ever spoken of as a gift given to us by Jesus, and is often contrasted with the alternative: death, perishing and/or destruction.
Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
2 Timothy 1:10: …but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
John 10:28; 17:2: I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. […] since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.
1 John 5:12: Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
See also the many other times the New Testament authors speak of this as a gift: John 3:16,36; Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:42–43; 50, 54; Gal. 6:8. We also see from Hebrews 1:3 that Christ “sustains all things by his powerful word”, so even if the soul survives death, it would only be because God willed it to be so for his purpose of judgement. There’s nothing to suggest immortality (or even life in general) is inherent in anyone other than God unless it is given or sustained by him.
Destruction and Annihilation
This then leads us to the other side of the coin — death and destruction of the wicked. Throughout the Bible the way of salvation and following God is always presented as a choice between life and death; eternal life with God, or destruction and perishing. Both of these consequences for our choices are eternal as well, but it’s the how of it which is the key factor here.
In the first verse below which renders the Greek as “hell”, I’ll put in brackets the underlying word for clarity, which you can contrast with the previous section where I discussed these words. This Matthew passage is especially important in this discussion as it is where Jesus makes a strong point that what humans can do to one another (ie. kill the physical part), God can do to the spiritual part. A similar message is taught by James in his epistle (Jam. 4:12).
Matthew 10:28: 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 (Gehenna).
It’s also interesting to note that in this next Galatians verse, the word rendered “corruption” in the NRSV, is translated as “destruction” in the NIV and others. Looking at the Greek word φθορά (phthora) it can mean ‘destruction, corruption, perish’, all of which still speak to the finality of the fate of the wicked.
Galatians 6:8: If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
The following verses use the word “destruction”, which is an accurate rendering and a different word from the Galatians verse, all of which come from same Greek word ἀπώλεια (apóleia) that can be defined as: destroying, utter destruction, a perishing, ruin, destruction.
Romans 9:22: What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction…
Philippians 3:18–19: For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
1 Thessalonians 5:3: When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
2 Peter 3:7: But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless.
As you can see from these few examples, there is a pretty uniform semantic range here, which in any other context would mean what it says without any implication of ‘unending pain and torment’ which is often read into the text; and shows that the fate of the wicked is consistent in the New Testament as it is in the Old. See Psalm 92:7 for one (of many) examples which speaks of evil people being condemned to “destruction forever”, rather than them in a constant state of being destroyed continuously forever, as the ECT doctrine would suggest.
It’s also interesting to note that the contemporary usage of this particular Greek word in various non-Biblical texts uses it in the same face-value meaning of the word (i.e. being completely destroyed), and some translations even rendering the word in English as “annihilation”, as in the quote below:
Elsewhere in Greece, as people learned the seriousness of the danger hanging over the Thebans, they were distressed at their expected disaster but had no heart to help them, feeling that the city by precipitate and ill-considered action had consigned itself to evident annihilation (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 17.10.1 — emphasis mine)
See the other examples of the word usage in: Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, 14.28.2; Galen, De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis, 7.4.17; Philo of Alexandria, Legatio ad Gaium, 233; Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, 5.559–560; and 1 Maccabees 3:42. This in itself should display the normal usage and understanding of this word around and during the first century. If something is destroyed, it’s gone.
The Eternal and Unquenchable Fire
Other than destruction, Scripture has references to an “unquenchable fire” and “undying worm” throughout the Old Testament as well. If looked at in context, this becomes clear that it is speaking about the finality of judgement, and not its duration; see: Isa. 66:24; 2 Kings 22:17; 1:31; 51:8; Jer. 4:4; 7:20; 21:12; Ezek. 20:47–48. Looking closely at these passages, we can see that the fire is “unquenchable” and the worm “undying” in the sense that nothing and nobody can stop the process before it’s achieved its purpose of destruction and consuming — but the object in the fire doesn’t last forever, only until it is destroyed or dead.
The idea of an eternal fire doesn’t originate with Jesus, as we see from the verses above, so clearly the imagery is being drawn from the Old Testament and its usage in those texts, and is then applied in the new covenant Kingdom context (eg: “It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.” Matt 18:8).
This phrase is not only restricted to the Gospels, though; Jude and Peter shed light on the meaning of the eternal fire and the punishment of the ungodly:
Jude 1:7: Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
2 Peter 2:6: …and if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly
Here we can employ the principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. Jude says that Sodom and Gomorrah underwent the punishment of “eternal fire” in their destruction, and yet, that fire isn’t burning anymore. Likewise, Peter says that the reduction of Sodom and Gomorrah to “ashes”, and condemnation “to extinction”, is an example of what is coming to the ungodly in the final judgement. These two passages alone give a pretty clear demonstration that eternal fire and complete extinction go hand-in-hand within the judgement of God.
Just when this concept was beginning to become a little clearer, Isaiah throws another spanner in the works when he speaks of the “devouring fire” and “everlasting flames” and those who are to be burned in the fire;
Isaiah 33:12, 14–15
And the peoples will be as if burned to lime,
like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.
The sinners in Zion are afraid;
trembling has seized the godless:
“Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
Who among us can live with everlasting flames?”
Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly,
who despise the gain of oppression,
who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it,
who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed
and shut their eyes from looking on evil…
The phrase translated “everlasting flames” in the Septuagint (LXX) is very similar to the phrase “eternal fire” in the New Testament. But here we see that it is God himself who is the fire, and the righteous are able to dwell within the eternal fire, whereas the wicked are burned up like discarded thorns and chaff.
Wheat, Chaff and Gnashing Teeth
This leads us nicely to the final point I want to make in this post. There’s still much more that can be covered, but I will leave that for a second part as this is already getting pretty long and heavy!
Jesus also uses images like chaff in a furnace or the destruction of body and soul. His parable in Matthew 13 foretells a day when the wicked will be cast into a fiery furnace like chaff (which has echoes of that Isaiah passage above), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
It is often assumed that weeping and gnashing of teeth refers to pain and torment, which seems logical and understandable, but that’s not how either of those figures of speech are used in the Old Testament. Instead, they are phrases speaking of mourning and anger:
Job 16:9: He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me.
Psalm 35:16: …they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth.
Psalm 112:10: The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.
Lamentations 2:16: All your enemies open their mouths against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: “We have devoured her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; at last we have seen it!”
Notice how gnashing, anger and despair are linked together throughout these verses. Contrast this with how Jesus uses the phrase in his parables and teaching on those who will be locked or thrown outside of the Kingdom, and it becomes clearer that this is a figure of speech displaying the anger of those people who aren’t allowed in, rather than any physical torment or fire put on them;
Luke 13:28: There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.
After analysing these texts, phrases and the underlying Greek words, I find it just threads everything together and keeps the whole of Scripture consistent in the message of the Gospel: turn to God and have life, else go your own way in sin and end up with its wages: death. All of the times where Scripture speaks of the end result for the ungodly and wicked, their end is destruction, fire and ashes, not a continual life of torment forever. These ideas must be read into the text if we aren’t going to take what it says at face-value (or the “plain meaning”).
The Early Church
If we can accept that this view of Scripture is accurate, and that the Bible doesn’t say that humans are inherently immortal, then logically it should follow that the earliest teachers of Scripture, after the Apostles, should have said the same, or similar, following their forebears.
Clement of Rome, one of the earliest Church Fathers writing somewhere between AD 30–100, wrote about the punishment of God on the unrighteous in terms of death and perishing; he even uses a phrase similar to a Pauline term found in 2 Thess. 2:8 (“The Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of His mouth”):
Because they could furnish no assistance to themselves, they perished. He breathed upon them, and they died, because they had no wisdom. […] for wrath destroys the foolish man, and envy killeth him that is in error. — Clement of Rome, 1 Clement, chap. 39
Ignatius of Antioch, another early bishop, writing around AD 107, sent a letter to the Ephesian church to teach against heresy. He used similar language found in the Biblical texts of “everlasting fire”, but also speaks in such a way that suggests the wicked will “perish” if they haven’t received the immortality which Christ breathed into his Church:
[False teachers] shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him. […] For this end did the Lord suffer the ointment to be poured upon His head, that He might breathe immortality into His Church. […] Why do we foolishly perish, not recognising the gift which the Lord has of a truth sent to us? — Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Ephesians, chaps. 16–17
Similarly, in his epistle to the Magnesian church, Ignatius makes the claim that if Jesus were to “reward us according to our works, we should cease to be”! Though he doesn’t elaborate on this point, it squares with the New Testament message that the “wages of sin is death”.
Written around the same time as Ignatius, was the Epistle of Barnabas, who, in his conclusion, states that: “For the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one].”. This would even imply that the devil will eventually perish as well, along with everything that doesn’t belong to the Lord.
A little later on from these text around AD 130, the anonymous Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus gives a similar interpretation that “death” truly means death and that the fire consumes those in it “even to the end”, implying the condemned survive long enough to be punished, but will eventually be consumed by the fire:
…when thou shalt despise that which is here esteemed to be death, when thou shalt fear what is truly death, which is reserved for those who shall be condemned to the eternal fire, which shall afflict those even to the end that are committed to it. - Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, chap. 10
So we see that even the earliest writers seemed to keep within the biblical tradition of speaking about death and perishing as being the final end to those who turn from God or do evil. It’s later on, towards the end of the second century that we really begin to see a shift in interpretation of the fire being more of an eternal torture chamber rather than a furnace.
To Be Continued…
I will continue with this exposition on the fate of the wicked in a second part soon, where I’ll examine more of the Old Testament usage of “unquenchable fire” and also the references we find in the book of Revelation.
Luke writes at www.thatancientfaith.uk and his aim is to enable people to think (or even, rethink) about what they believe; to question long-held doctrines they've been taught, and see what rings true and valid by the Scriptures. The truth will always be vindicated and will hold up under scrutiny, while the rest will be stripped away.