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.