Another reason why “annihilationism” is a better name than “conditionalism:” evangelical universalism is a form of conditionalism

In March, I gave some reasons why “ultimate annihilationism” is a better name for that position than “conditional immortality,” although the latter is widely used by proponents of this position. As I jogged today, I was listening to a fine interview by Chris Date with Robin Parry, the author of Evangelical Universalist (under the pen name of Gregory MacDonald). Once again, I was reminded that a synergist (like Robin Parry) can only be a hopeful universalist; only a monergist (like Thomas Talbott) can be convinced that God will eventually achieve the salvation of all human beings, though many of God’s elect will only come to saving faith in hell, the final effect of which is thus purgatorial.

A new thought dawned on me today, however, and that is that evangelical universalism is a form of conditionalism. This is not something that either Chris Date or Robin Parry asserted, but it appears to me to be true. One of the key points of the doctrine of “conditional immortality” is that it is incongruous to assert that the wicked live forever (as traditionalists believe), because that would be a form of immortality, and Scripture only ascribes immortality to those who are given eternal life on account of Christ’s atoning death and through faith.

Evangelical annihilationists believe that immortality is conditioned on saving faith. But this is precisely what evangelical universalists assert. Because they are evangelicals, they too are conversionists. Unlike many non-evangelical universalists, who might even be non-Christian, evangelical universalists are not unitive pluralists, who believe that everyone gets to “heaven” (which has different names in different religions), by different religious paths. Like evangelical annihilationists, evangelical universalists believe that only those who believe live forever. Thus, both positions are forms of “conditional immortality.”

Fascinatingly, the evangelical universalist understanding of that immortality which is conditioned on faith is the same as the traditionalist understanding of immortality: for both, immortality is eternal life, the gift that God only gives to those in Christ. This is one reason why “annihilationism” is the best name for the belief that the wicked are ultimately punished by God with destruction, the death of body and soul. Traditionalists also believe in “conditional immortality,” that is, in the doctrine that God only gives immortality to believers, through Christ, but they deny that the endless existence which the wicked experience is what the Bible calls “immortality,” which is the life of God and with God, “eternal life” (cf. Jn 3:16). That was my earlier reason for rejecting “conditional immortality” in favour of “annihilationism” as the name for the belief that God finally destroys the wicked.

What I came to see, while listening to Parry and Date, though this was not in either of their minds, is that all 3 of these alternative evangelical understandings of the nature of hell believe in conditional immortality, i.e. that God gives “life” only to those in Christ. Where they disagree is regarding the nature of divine punishment in hell. Traditionalists believe that the wicked, who experience the “second death,” are forever conscious of God’s punishment, which never comes to an end. Annihilationists believe that the second death is analogous to the first but more thorough; whereas the first death entails only decay of the body, the second death entails destruction of both body and soul: the wicked are destroyed. This too is endless punishment, but it is not endless life. Evangelical universalists believe that hell serves the purpose of both retribution and restoration. It is punishment with sanctifying effect in the end.

The differences between these 3 positions are clear, and all may be stated in evangelical terms, but to call one of them “conditionalism” is unhelpful, since all 3 of them affirm conditional immortality, albeit with different understandings of what that entails.

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32 Responses to Another reason why “annihilationism” is a better name than “conditionalism:” evangelical universalism is a form of conditionalism

  1. Ronnie says:

    “Traditionalists also believe in ‘conditional immortality,’ that is, in the doctrine that God only gives immortality to believers, through Christ, but they deny that the endless existence which the wicked experience is what the Bible calls ‘immortality,\'”

    Of course, traditionalists have always affirmed (quite frankly and explicitly) that all human beings are immortal in the *normal* sense of the word. Pages upon pages of quotes can be produced—going back to the Fathers up to present day—of Christians affirming and arguing for the natural/unconditional/universal immortality of all men. Rarely did any of them feel the need to qualify their statements and explain “I am, of course, using the expression ‘immortality’ in an unbiblical way.” So as far as common usage is concerned, traditionalists absolutely do not believe in conditional immortality.

    My impression is that, historically, universalists have shared these presuppositions about unconditional and universal immortality with traditionalists (even though I’m much less acquainted with historical universalist literature). Indeed, Constable argued that the doctrine of unconditional immortality is the spring from which the errors of both endless torment and universal reconciliation flow.

    In private conversations, I’ve had evangelical universalists affirm that God will keep a person alive until he puts his faith in Christ, even if it takes millions of years. But what that means is that a person will keep living even if he doesn’t put his faith in Christ. By my lights, this is a de facto form of unconditional and universal immortality.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Ronnie, you are certainly correct about the long theological tradition that the human soul is intrinsically immortal. My statement had in mind the contemporary scene. It is pretty difficult to find a professional evangelical theologian these days who holds a Platonic view of souls as indestructible.

      I am intrigued by your suggestion that the length of time God may need to bring some humans to salvation, in a universalist framework, makes doubtful my proposal that they affirm conditional immortality. I think, however, that my point still holds, the key difference between traditionalism and universalism, on this point, being the terminal date for acceptable repentance and faith.

      • Ronnie says:

        Thanks for the response Dr. Tiessen. I don’t believe that anything I wrote hinges on whether or not Christians have or had a Platonic view of indestructible souls. At issue is simply the meaning of the word “immortality” as used by Christian theologians, preachers, and pastors up to the present day. Even Robert Peterson, for instance, still affirms universal and unconditional immortality. In what has become somewhat of a slogan for defenders of traditionalism, he writes, “I believe in the immortality of human beings because the Bible clearly teaches everlasting damnation for the wicked and everlasting life for the righteous.”

        As for the second point; if people can live for millions of years without putting their faith in Christ, then ongoing life doesn’t seem to be predicated on faith in Christ. In other words, there seems to be no meaningful relationship between ongoing life and faith in Christ on the universalist scheme. There is no important parallel between that and the traditionalist/conditionalists scheme where humans can life for a very brief period on Earth without putting their faith in Christ. On that scheme, everyone is under a death sentence and their permanent death is both imminent and guaranteed save for faith in Christ.

  2. Ronnie says:

    Oh I forgot to mention something. You wrote:

    “This is one reason why ‘annihilationism’ is the best name for the belief that the wicked are ultimately punished by God with destruction, the death of body and soul.”

    and

    “That was my earlier reason for rejecting ‘conditional immortality’ in favour of ‘annihilationism’ as the name for the belief that God finally destroys the wicked.”

    and

    “Annihilationists believe that the second death is analogous to the first but more thorough; whereas the first death entails only decay of the body, the second death entails destruction of both body and soul: the wicked are destroyed.”

    Notice, the same traditionalists who now say “we agree that immortality is conditional!” Will also say, “We agree that the wicked are ultimately punished by God with destruction, the death of body and soul!” and “We agree that God finally destroys the wicked!” and “We agree that the second death entails destruction of both body and soul! We just don’t agree with you about what the words “destroy” and “death” mean when used in the Bible to describe the ultimate fate of the unrepentant.”

    Even though, again, I can fill up pages with quotes of traditionalists—going back to the Fathers up to present day—claiming and arguing that the wicked will never die and that the wicked will be made indestructible and that the soul cannot be destroyed, etc. And again, these statements are made with absolutely no qualifications of “of course, we’re using these expressions the way they’re normally used, not the way Scripture uses them.”

    Something fishy is clearly going on here. Someone is playing fast and loose with the terminology and it’s not the conditionalists.

  3. Chris Date says:

    “Conditional immortality” is not *merely* the doctrine that immortality is conditional upon God giving it. It’s *additionally* that immortality will only be given to those who express faith in Christ, and that only some will do so. Therefore, even novel universalists who claim that they believe immortality is conditional do not qualify as conditionalists, because they believe everyone will meet that condition.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Chris, I don’t understand why a condition that is universally met would fail to be a condition. So long as it is true that one cannot be saved without repentance and faith, these are conditions for immortality/eternal life, regardless of how many or few people meet the conditions.

      • Wm Tanksley says:

        It fails to describe. Imagine saying you’re a 5-point Calvinist except you define irresistible, limited, and unconditional that same way.

  4. Chris Date says:

    I mean, think about it. “Annihilationism” would, technically speaking, be that doctrine which holds that God will utterly destroy, in body and soul, those who are not saved. Yet, universalists could hold that God will utterly destroy, in body and soul, those who are not saved, because they believe everyone will be saved! Therefore, universalists could be annihilationists, too!

  5. Wm Tanksley says:

    I’m not sure this parsing is useful, anyhow. The two names are simply two sides of the same equation for us; neither one is obviously better or worse to describe us, except situationally.

    For you and for universalists, though, neither name is descriptive. For the ancients it wasn’t even true.

    I would like to have a better technical term for you than “traditionalist”, though. Immortalist? Preservationist?

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      A good descriptive name for the affirmation of endless conscious punishment would be very welcome. Should the day come when annihilationism is dominant in the Christian church, “traditionalism” would become increasingly less useful as a descriptor of ECP.

  6. Chris Date says:

    Upon reading the post again, I see that your conclusion hinges upon the premise that all 3 positions believe “immortality” is conditioned upon God giving it to a person through saving faith expressed in Jesus Christ. So my previous two comments can be ignored.

    Ronnie, however, is correct. Historically, traditionalists and universalists have affirmed that human beings are immortal even before they are saved. This was, for the former, a major reason for the eternal torment of the lost: if they live forever, they must live forever somewhere. And it was, for the latter, a major reason for the eventual salvation of the lost: if they live forever, eventually they will be saved. It is only the modern, novel formulations of traditionalism and universalism that claim to hold that immortality is only given at the point of glorification.

    But even if one were to grant (which I don’t) that these modern, novel formulations do believe immortality is not received until glorification, “conditional immortality” would still be a helpful term, because (a) it’s what the position has historically gone by, and (b) it’s the position that immortality *in the sense of ongoing physical life* is given only to the saved, and that not all will be saved.

  7. David Midkiff says:

    I agree with Ronnie and would add that blurring the lines between the three is quite a stretch. Traditionalism has never affirmed conditional immortality historically as they have quite consistently referred to the wicked as being immortal in hell. It’s only in recent history as they’ve been confronted by conditionalists that they’ve shifted in their use of the word. Their new claim that the wicked live forever but aren’t immortal is contrary to its simple semantics. Immortality has always carried the senses of being “perpetual, lasting, constant, not moral, undying, etc.” This is what the wicked are according to traditionalists.

    Finally, when pressed, most universalists believe in the inherent immortality of the soul just as much as traditionalists. They constantly refer to human souls as infinitely precious believing that the lake of fire will burn away the dross and leave the pure. The pure that remains is indestructible in their view, thus a part of the soul must be inherently immortal. Simply put, Universalism asserts that the wicked will remain immortal in the purifying fires, but once they are purified they transition into immortal life in heaven.

    Traditionalism and universalism are alike in the sense of placing different qualities upon immortality (immortality in hell vs immortality in heaven), yet conditional immortality denies these premises altogether asserting that the human soul only becomes immortal in Christ and will perish if thrown into the lake of fire. Without Christ, there is nothing of worth that can withstand His eternal fire. Conditional immortality is appropriate nomenclature for this view.

  8. Glenn Peoples says:

    Traditionalism and conditionalism / annihilationism hold in common that some are punished forever (whether that punishment is torment or death).

    Conditionalism and Universalism agree that all evil will one day be gone.

    But where traditionalists and universalists agree against conditionalists is where they affirm immortality for everyone. Perhaps traditionalism is just a form of universalism, since immortality is universal.

    Or we could be honest.

    • Glenn says:

      I realise that “or we could be honest” comes over as harsh. When I wrote it, I was thinking of somebody saying that traditionalism was a form of Universalism on the grounds that immortality is universal in both views.

      • Terrance Tiessen says:

        Does it not seem important to you that traditionalists and universalists can only be said to affirm that “immortality is universal” if we give to the term “immortality” two different senses? Traditionalists assert that “immortality,” as Scripture speaks of it, namely, as God’s gift to those in Christ, synonymous with “eternal life” In that biblical sense, traditionalists do not assert that immortality is universal, but universalists do.

        I admit that I was not fully aware of the extent of the emotional commitment of annihilationists who have commented here to “conditional immortality” as the descriptor of their position. I acknowledge that “conditional immortality” has been used for over a century by annihilationists to describe their understanding, but I still think that the choice of term is not a helpful descriptor of the distinctive conviction of that position. The immortality which Paul foresaw as replacing the mortal body of those who are resurrected with Christ (1 Cor 15:53-54) is God’s gift only to those who “belong to Christ” (15:23). This is not simply the assurance that God will keep them forever alive, it is that they will inherit the kingdom of God (15:50) and will therefore have bodies appropriate to their participation in Christ’s victory (15:57).

        In both 1 Cor 15 and 2 Tim 1:10, this is the “immortality” which God gives conditionally, and for which the condition is incorporation into Christ by grace through faith. Traditionalists and universalists can agree on this clear New Testament teaching, but they disagree at the critical point of whether or not that condition is met universally. It is for this reason that “universalism” is so fine a description of that position; it asserts that everyone will eventually belong to Christ and inherit his kingdom.

        As you and others in these comments have noted, there are various affirmations upon which two of the three major alternatives agree against the third. But what distinguishes two of those positions is annihilation of the wicked and universal salvation, respectively. Those two positions have very useful descriptors. What is commonly called “traditionalism” does not fare so well for a name. “Endless conscious punishmentism” or “ECPism” does the job more clearly than “traditionalism,” but it lacks the simplicity and punch of “annihilationism” and “universalism,” which is why “traditionalism” persists. By contrast, “conditional immortality” is unhelpful as a term for any of the three positions, because it could be applied to any one of them, depending on the meaning one assigns to “immortality.”

        • Glenn Peoples says:

          Terrence, if by immortality we mean living forever, then both traditionalists and universalists both believe in universal immortality.

          From a New Testament perspective, immortality is not itself glory and happiness, else there would be no point in pointing out that the saved would receive immortality and glory in 1 Cor 15.

          Now of course I don’t think that it would really be appropriate to call traditionalists universalists in spite of their belif in universal immortality – universal “not-dying.” That would be misleading. Similarly, conditional immortality has always maintained that not everyone *will* receive immortality. As far as I know – correct me if you know otherwise – conditional immortality has been used to refer to a view distinct from traditionalism and universalism, maintaining that immortality will come to some and not all – not in the sense in which conditionalists use that term. This is a claim rejected by traditionalism and universalism.

          Now if you can come up with some re-tooled sense of the term conditionalism so that it includes universalists, great, but it’s hardly legitimate to ask that everyone else take part in that ahistorical convention. Otherwise we can all play that game: Traditionalists are – in some new sense – universalists.

        • Glenn Peoples says:

          My previous comment did not show up. Spam filter, perhaps?

          One more (!). You can be a universalist and maintain that the lost will be tormented forever, or that they will be annihilated (but that in fact everyone will be saved). Let us conclude that annihilationism and eternal torment are unhelpful terms.

          But clearly that’s not true.

          I would also ask that if, on learning that someone is a conditionalst, you then press further to find out whether or not they are a universalist. If not, then it would appear that the term is helpful after all. 🙂

          PS, I usually describe my view as annihiationism, because that is what specifies my view on “hell.”

        • Wm Tanksley says:

          No emotionality was intended or felt. This is a difficult issue, and we’ve also been thinking about it. For various reasons we find your conclusion difficult to follow.

          I’m pretty sure I’m not one of the people you’re worried about here, but if I am, let me know and I’ll rethink my approach.

  9. Stan Fowler says:

    Terry, I think you have rightly argued that using the term “annihilationism” helpfully denotes the fact that it is the only perspective that affirms the ultimate cessation of existence of some persons. If we all accept the idea that “immortality” is in Scripture a qualitative term, not just a descriptor of unending existence, then “conditional immortality” does not clearly distinguish among the options.

  10. Chris Date says:

    “If we all accept the idea that ‘immortality’ is in Scripture a qualitative term, not just a descriptor of unending existence, then ‘conditional immortality’ does not clearly distinguish among the options.”

    For one, we don’t all agree. Yes, it doesn’t describe bare, ongoing existence, but it does (IMO) describe ongoing physical life and insusceptibility to physical death. However much traditionalists might want to call hell a place of “death,” it’s in resurrected, living bodies that live for eternity–the very thing meant by “immortal.”

    What’s more, as has already been noted several times, a change in terminology isn’t really necessary to begin with. “Conditionalism” and “Conditional Immortality” have historically described the view; you can go back to at least the 19th century to see that this is the case. The effort, to urge adoption of the more novel label “annihilationism,” seems to me to be somewhat pedantic.

    Again, the phrase “Conditional Immortality” is a specific reference to that view which entails that immortality in the sense of ongoing physical life and insusceptibility to physical death is a gift given only to those who express saving faith in Jesus Christ, and that not all human beings will express that kind of faith. The traditional view and universalism, by definition, are excluded by that meaning of “Conditional Immortality,” and as such no alternative label is required.

  11. Terrance Tiessen says:

    My apologies to commenters on this thread. I recently subscribed to a new spam interceptor and I am still figuring out what it is doing. Some comments had been approved but also put in spam. I marked them as “not spam,” only to discover that there were then duplicates, which David Midkiff took to be his fault, but I think it was mine.

    Having figured out that this was happening, I just dealt with a few items that were in the “spam” folder, approving some but deleting others which I took to be duplicates. Now, however, I fear that not all of those were duplicates, but they are permanently deleted. For instance Chris had quoted Robert Peterson but I can’t find that comment now, so it was obviously not the same as one for which I took it to be a duplicate. Sorry about that, Chris.

    My thought, when I read the citation from Peterson, rather speedily, was that Peterson was unwise to speak as had done. Nonetheless, Chris’s point is well taken. Not all traditionalists have been as careful as I have tried to be, in distinguishing between uses of the term “immortality,” and in identifying the ways in which Scripture uses the term, as distinct from a traditionally philosophical use. As a consequence, I have said that “traditionalists affirm . . . “ when what I really mean, I guess, is that “traditionalists should affirm . . . .”

    I am pretty much agnostic right now about the nature of hell. What I am trying to do is to clarify for myself what I would mean if I concluded that (a form of) traditionalism is correct, and what I would mean if I concluded that (a form of) annihilationism is correct. Were I to conclude tomorrow that annihilationism is the biblical position, that is the term I would use to describe my position, for the reasons I have enunciated. In the process of thinking these thoughts out loud, however, I may have been guilty of speaking too undifferiatingly about what “traditionalists believe,” when what I mean is: “I, wearing my traditionalist hat, believe . . . “

    • Chris Date says:

      Gotta love technology! No worries, stuff happens. We totally respect you and your openness and willingness to research and dialogue. Many of us appear to disagree with you concerning terminology, but that doesn’t change how we think of you. Well, not in my case, anyway. For the record, I don’t really prefer one term over the other. I’m perfectly happy being called, and calling myself, an annihilationist. I just don’t think conditionalism is as unhelpful as you do, and with the utmost respect for you, I think the “immortality means more than ongoing life and insusceptibility to death” explanation to be illegitimate. Immortality, biblically speaking, means not dying, in the ordinary, physical sense of the word. Yes, Paul says other things are included in the package that is salvation and glorification, but it’s a leap to say that immortality consists in that entire package. No, immortality is part of that package, and it will not be granted to the lost, and so they will die. It’s simple and biblical. But again, I am perfectly happy with the label annihilationism.

    • Ronnie says:

      To clarify; I was the one who quoted Peterson, and the quote is still there, third comment down 🙂

      • Terrance Tiessen says:

        Thanks, Ronnie. That is a relief. So it was you I was talking to when I suggested that Peterson was unwise in his choice of terms.

  12. David Midkiff says:

    One quick thought about the term “annihilationism” in general: If that is to considered an appropriate term for our viewpoint, then “tormentalism” should be just as appropriate for traditionalism since the underlying focus is on the mode of punishment. Moreover, I could argue that the term “traditionalism” refers to a certain stream of traditional doctrine when in fact annihilationism has been traditionally present in every age of Christianity as well as Rabbinic traditions from before the time of Christ. Of course, we also believe that Christ and the apostles taught it too, but that is always up for debate. In essence, the nomenclature has become what it has despite its imperfect, and arguable nuances. I think if we’re going to truly be consistent with focusing on the mode of punishment then we should call the three branches: tormentalism, annihilationism, and purificationism. And I’m really not trying to be facetious when I say that.

  13. Stan Fowler says:

    Terminology is a real problem, isn’t it? The problem that I see with “traditionalism” is that it doesn’t define the content. “Tormentalism” doesn’t denote the unending nature of the punishment, so I don’t find it useful. I would like to find a one-word equivalent of “everlasting conscious punishment”, but I haven’t found it yet.

  14. Giles says:

    You say a synergist (a believer in libertarian free will) can only be a hopeful universalist. At most this is true only if the synergist is also an open theist. If God has exhaustive foreknowledge there is no problem him foreseeing that all will be saved. Even if someone affirms open theism they can still argue that libertarian free will + infinite time = a certainty of universal salvation. If, over a given time period, the chances of a soul repenting are greater than 0% then, given infinite time, the chance rises to 100%. It never rises to 100% in any given time period (or libertarian freedom would be violated) but it approaches closer to 100% the further down the time tunnel one peers. So, if it it permissible to talk of a probability over the course of eternity; then that probability is 100%.

    • Chris Date says:

      Except the risen lost won’t be made immortal. Er go, there won’t be an indefinite amount of time to repent.

      • Giles says:

        Well yes, if annihilationism is true. Its a very persuasive interpretation of scripture I think and I can understand why annhilationists are so confident of their stance. But the point stands, that if one does affirm indestructible free will and infinite time synergism is compatible with a confident universalism.

  15. Cristián Aguirre Halabi says:

    Excellent analysis! It helped me a lot to understand the terms. God bless you.

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