Total Depravity and Conditional Immortality

Conditional immortality (or annihilationism) is a heterodox belief which states that obtaining immortality is based upon a condition, namely believing the gospel.  Therefore, unbelievers don’t suffer eternally in hell for their sin but rather (after a time of punishment) cease to exist.  Atheists generally believe that at death consciousness dissolves and individual persons cease to exist as well.  Conditional immortality basically affirms this atheistic belief.

I’m not going to make an extended argument here for what has been called the traditional view of hell.  My only purpose is to state that before I believed the gospel, I was told by someone that if I didn’t believe it I would die and be eternally extinguished.  My very first thought was, “Who cares?  I won’t exist.  I can have my sin and (someday in the future) die and go to sleep forever.”

In other words, the doctrine of conditional immortality doesn’t properly take into account man’s total depravity.  Fear of death is a weak motivation for repentance.  Fear of hell, that’s quite another motivation.

 

C.M. Granger

 

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4 thoughts on “Total Depravity and Conditional Immortality

  1. // obtaining immortality is based upon a condition, namely believing the gospel //

    Not quite. The condition is that of being one saved. Matters of coming to be saved are distinct. I’m not sure if you’re advancing a Reformed approach to the issue here, but if so, your approach would seem to be challenged by Reformed soteriology regarding conversion.

    // Fear of death is a weak motivation for repentance. //

    And yet the Bible teaches that the fear of death is crippling until Christians are liberated from it (Hebrews 2:15).

    Yes, there is a deep human fear of losing one’s life, or there wouldn’t be such a thing as capital punishment. It is commensurate with the claim that life is a good, with privation of life thereby constituting a harm.

    Given that conditional immortality would evangelize by holding out an immortality vs. no-immortality choice, ostensibly that is a no-brainer, even for atheists. Although much more could be said about the terrible shame, bitter regret, and potential finite torments that await the unsaved judged not worthy of the everlasting age to come, on conditionalism, why must evangelistic coercion be the criterion for correct doctrine? That strikes me as an anthropocentric ground for truth and justice, which would be immediately questionable.

    // Fear of death is a weak motivation for repentance. //

    How about shamefully acknowledging one’s guilt before a holy God? That would seem a more authentic response than pure self-preservation via an instinct of harm-avoidance.

    • Hi Peter, welcome to the blog

      I’m not clear on your first point, believing the gospel and being saved are different ways of saying the same thing, no?

      Fear of death is common, but not universal. Radical Muslims don’t seem to fear it. Neither do those who are willing to die for a cause, national liberation in Chechnya, for example.

      However, my post was more from my personal experience. Death, cessation of existence, didn’t have the teeth necessary to trouble me unto repentance. I feared death, but not enough. Also, atheists I have encountered (in my own family and otherwise) appear not to be troubled by ceasing to exist. Indeed, that’s what they expect to happen.

      Of course, I’m not disputing Hebrews 2:15. I’ll have to look into it further. I believe there is a deep human fear of losing one’s life, generally. I’m not asserting otherwise. What I am asserting is that fear of death is a weak motivation in comparison to eternal hell. Death can be endured, hell cannot.

      When I was in my sin, I wouldn’t give it up to avoid ceasing to exist. I loved it too much for that. I guess others who come to Christ are more noble than I?

      I don’t think conditional immortality properly takes total depravity into account. The underlying assumption is that death-avoidance will prompt repentance, but the lost are under bondage to sin….and sin has within it a death wish–it’s irrational. Ceasing to exist is *nothing* in light of it.

      Thoughts?

  2. Thank you for the kind reply. I could have been less terse.

    On my first point, the distinction I have in mind is between actually being born again as kainos anthropos, having the indwelling Spirit and being considered “in Christ,” on the one hand, and on the other, the process by which one responds to the gospel. Similar, yes. But not always part of the same spheres of inquiry, so my comment was aimed at staying on the scent. The condition in conditional immortality is the former. In the so-called “chain of salvation” in Rom 8:29-30, the final stage of glorification is considered by us commensurate with a resurrection/transformation of the believer, which has certain distinguishing characteristics such as incorruptibility and immortality (1 Cor 15:35-58). However literal in terms of effulgence, there is no doubt that the Shekinah glory of the O.T. is the paradigm for the N.T.’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit indwelling believers’ bodies as temples not made with human hands, and that the sanctification of the body-temple, as living sacrifices, prepares us for the full glorification of our bodies at the Parousia. In fulfilling his role as faithful Son of Man, Jesus was crowned with “glory and honor” and is “bringing many sons to glory.” He received “glory and honor” at the Transfiguration. The mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We are “sown in dishonor… raised in glory.” Numerous such teachings, that we are being conformed to the image of the One who brings glory/light from the Father into the world—actually “[transfigured] into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18), helps to shed light on the importance of the terms “glory, honor and immortality” as they relate to the gift of eternal life (Rom 2:7). So, the immortalization of believers at the end of the age finds its condition in the indwelling “Spirit of glory” (1 Pet 4:14).

    I would say that fear of death is universal, and that this is the impetus for constructing systems of philosophy and religion which deny it, so that the willful ignorance or self-deception phenomenon is very much in play. False martyrdom, materialism (dissipation of self, as per Epicurus), reincarnation, existentialism, and so on, all have this in common. There is a whole body of literature around this, since ancient times. When Paul begins his address at the Areopagus in saying, “you are very deisidaimonia,” he selects a technical term at the very heart of the Epicurean-Stoic controversy, being every bit as feisty as he was in tossing the hand-grenade of the resurrection among Pharisees and Sadducees. Plutarch had nothing but contempt for Epicurus’ charge that afterlife torments were to be feared, but non-being was nothing to fear, saying:

    “The great majority, however, have an expectation of eternity undisturbed by any myth-inspired fear of what may come after death; and the love of being, the oldest and greatest of all our passions, is more than a counterpoise for that childish terror. Indeed when men have lost children, a wife, or friends, they would rather have them exist somewhere in hardship and survive than be utterly taken away and destroyed and reduced to nothing; and they like to hear such expressions used of the dying as ‘he is leaving us’ or ‘going to dwell elsewhere’ and all that represent the soul as changing but not perishing in death, and they talk like this… No; the countenance worn by death that dismays all men as fearful, grim, and dark, is insensibility, oblivion, and knowing nothing. Such expressions as ‘he is lost’ and ‘he has perished’ and ‘he is no more’…” —Plutarch, Moralia, That Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible

    // However, my post was more from my personal experience. Death, cessation of existence, didn’t have the teeth necessary to trouble me unto repentance. I feared death, but not enough. Also, atheists I have encountered (in my own family and otherwise) appear not to be troubled by ceasing to exist. Indeed, that’s what they expect to happen. //

    And yet, according to what atheists report, how do they typically respond to a God who eternally torments? I would say, with more atheism. In fact as a special case of the problem of Evil and Suffering, the problem of Hell arguably drives atheism more than just about anything else! That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but I think it does highlight the problem of contrasting two alternative views on Hell, rather than alternative views on reality, as worldviews, or as the gospel kept intact. With that in mind, I would not agree that atheists hold anything like the doctrine of conditional immortality which I espouse. This is important, because on my view, the whole point of a final death is to deprive everlasting life. Once atheists are resurrected they will be disabused of their false worldview, and will encounter the Truth face to face. They will try to “get in.” They will *want* to get in. But they will be rejected by the Master of the house. No wonder the description of being cast out results in reactions of weeping (regret) and gnashing of teeth (an idiom expressing anger). The focus ought to be on inheriting the blessing, versus being rejected from it. Esau is the example of one who didn’t care about the blessings until it was too late (Heb 12:17). Hedonism or loving one’s life of evil deeds seems to be the correct contrast here. Remember Lot’s wife, Jesus said. Whoever seeks the glorious blessings, being willing to lose their present lives of sin, will find them.

    // When I was in my sin, I wouldn’t give it up to avoid ceasing to exist. I loved it too much for that. I guess others who come to Christ are more noble than I? //

    That is exactly my point above—nonchristians love their life of sin. They turn back to Sodom, even after warnings of death. What happened on that occasion is “given as an example of what will happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6) and of “eternal fire” (Jude 7). Those who come to Christ ought to be drawn *to Christ*! Ask, seek, knock. As Jesus presented the gospel call, it wasn’t “repent or burn!” Rather, it was “repent and believe!” The gospel is good news because it is attractional. One repents due to belief, not fear.

    // The underlying assumption is that death-avoidance will prompt repentance, but the lost are under bondage to sin….and sin has within it a death wish–it’s irrational. Ceasing to exist is *nothing* in light of it. //

    So, no, death-avoidance is not the underlying assumption of C.I. That’s just what it looks like through an eternal torment mindset, which does not make final punishment the denial of final reward, akin to a cosmic disinheritance. Romans 1:32 makes the point that sinners know “God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die” (not eternal torment, by the way), but do them anyway. Both views should take a pessimistic view of depravity. That’s why it takes God to initiate repentance.

    This highlights what’s wrong with the whole comparison, I think. It’s common enough—John Piper recently stated it. But we already know that both views can’t be right, and that in comparing them, one is pure fiction. If annihilation is to be properly tested for its claim on truth, eternal torment in that case would be claimed false, so it would seem prejudiced to treat it as more than an arbitrary hypothetical among a variety of others.

    If we’re talking about the gospel and evangelism, we really should be comparing gospels. We should be comparing the two different proposals, or offers, intact. Not just parts of them. The whole point of evangelism is to present a new reality which is not yet believed.

    Now if consonance, rather than dissonance, is to be considered an advantage, then I think, by the lights of the criticism itself, conditional immortality does have the upper hand anyway.

    Have you come across the material at http://www.rethinkinghell.com, out of interest?

    • Hi Peter,

      You said:

      ” I would not agree that atheists hold anything like the doctrine of conditional immortality which I espouse. This is important, because on my view, the whole point of a final death is to deprive everlasting life. Once atheists are resurrected they will be disabused of their false worldview, and will encounter the Truth face to face.”

      The end result is the same–cessation of existence. That’s what I was referring to.

      So you’re assertion is they’re resurrected, realize the mistake they’ve made, weep and gnash their teeth, then dissolve into nothingness? But again, no existence, no suffering–no problem. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

      Atheists don’t like hell because they reject a God of holiness. Disbelief isn’t going to change, whether eternal hell or conditional immortality.

      You said:

      “That is exactly my point above—non-Christians love their life of sin. They turn back to Sodom, even after warnings of death. What happened on that occasion is “given as an example of what will happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6) and of “eternal fire” (Jude 7). Those who come to Christ ought to be drawn *to Christ*! Ask, seek, knock. As Jesus presented the gospel call, it wasn’t “repent or burn!” Rather, it was “repent and believe!” The gospel is good news because it is attractional. One repents due to belief, not fear.”

      I don’t think coming to Christ is this simple. People are complex, their reasons for coming to Christ cannot be narrowed down to belief or fear exclusively. Both are always involved, if you ask me. They’re weaved together. Christ used the motive of fear rather freely. Certainly, it’s not the only motive, or the primary one, but it’s a biblical one. Sometimes, before a sinner understands the love of God he or she must experience the fear of God.

      I have come across the material on rethinkinghell.com. I began some email correspondence with Preston Sprinkle on this topic and he referred me to that site. However, I don’t believe the weight of the biblical evidence supports what Preston refers to as “Terminal Punishment”. But, he is very even-handed and you may find his posts on the subject helpful. See the link on my blogroll, “Theology in the Raw”, they were posted in January I think.

      How would you respond to Charles Hodge’s comments from Vol. 3 of his systematic theology, pg. 874, on the duration of suffering for the wicked?

      “To destroy is to ruin. The nature of that ruin depends on the nature of the subject of which it is predicated. A thing is ruined when it is rendered unfit for use; when it is in such a state that it can no longer answer the end for which it was designed. A ship at sea, dis-masted, rudderless, with its sides battered in, is ruined, but not annihilated. It is a ship still. A man destroys himself when he ruins his health, squanders his property, debases his character, and renders himself unfit to act his part in life. A soul is utterly and forever destroyed when it is reprobated, alienated from God, rendered a fit companion only for the devil and his angels.”

      I find those comments compelling.

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