Chapter 9 - Human Destiny - CONDITIONAL IMMORTALITY.

Chapter 9


THE ephemeral literature upon the subject of conditional immortality gives prominence to statements of a kind which, though generally excluded from standard works, have no little influence with ordinary minds. It is urged, for example, that the judgment upon sin was the death of the soul; and, it is added, the meaning of this can be realised by analogy, for just as the body is dissolved, and ceases to exist as a body, so shall it be with the soul. But this is to allow ourselves to be misled by using words in a loose and popular sense, unwarranted by Holy Writ. Scripture never speaks of the death of the soul. To quote in opposition to this the statement "The soul that sinneth, it shall die," is to trade upon the language of our English Bible. The word in the original means merely the person, the individual; the father is not to suffer for the son, nor the son for the father, but the person who sins, he shall die.[1]

Neither does the Scripture speak of the death of the body. In our English version we read of "dead bodies," but not in the original. If our thought be of "natural death," the body comes into prominence; if of "spiritual death," the soul. But in either case it is the man who dies - not his body or his soul.[2]

It is urged again that just as a branch may continue to live for a time after it has been severed from the tree, so the sinner may exist for a time apart from God; but that when separated from Him Who is the fountain of life, he must, sooner or later, fade out of existence. Now, this of course is a mere theory, without the slightest pretence of proof. Moreover, it abandons the rival theory that sinners are miraculously preserved in existence with a view to punishment; and it assumes that their ultimate annihilation will be the result of natural law, and not of a Divine judgment. If this theory be true, there must, of course, be an average length of life for the soul as for the body. What the period is we cannot tell, but it must be more than six thousand years, for we know that all who have ever lived on earth shall continue in existence till the judgment. But when the judgment comes, the antediluvian dead will of course be comparatively near the end of their sorrow, in contrast with the lost of the latter days. The amount of punishment to be suffered by the sinner will thus depend, not on the guilt of his sin, but on the age of his soul at the time of the judgment. It is not strange that this view of the matter is ignored by writers of repute.

It would probably be found, however, that the large majority of those who refuse to believe in what they call "eternal evil" ignore all such arguments and theories as have been here discussed, They rest their convictions altogether on the indisputable fact that the Creator is able to put an end to the existence of His creatures. And such, they tell us, Scripture explicitly declares to be His purpose; for "Destruction," "Perdition," "The lake of fire," and other words of kindred import, plainly teach the annihilation of the ungodly. This belief deserves, and shall receive, the fullest consideration.

But let it be distinctly kept in view that this implies what is called the "natural immortality" of man. If by the law of his being he be destined to cease to exist, or if the death-penalty of sin imply extinction of being, the question here proposed cannot arise. They who raise it assume that but for the Divine interference in judgment man's existence would continue indefinitely; and they undertake to prove unequivocally from Scripture that the second death, unlike the first, will put an end to him altogether. According to them the element of the miraculous is not in the preservation of the sinner for the judgment, but in his annihilation in and by the judgment. They thus entirely abandon the position taken up by the leading advocates of conditional immortality, and there must be no attempt to fall back on that position, if Scripture, when appealed to, should refuse the testimony they claim from it. The single issue now remaining is whether the Bible teaches the extermination of the wicked; and the onus of proof rests entirely with those who maintain that it does. Man exists; and as no crisis or change of which we have any knowledge puts an end to that existence[3], we must assume that it will continue indefinitely, unless the contrary be proved. But, we are assured, the Scriptures expressly teach that the wicked shall be put out of existence altogether. This is what has to be proved, and now we turn to examine the proofs.

That it is to the New Testament Scriptures we must look for a decision upon this question is a statement so obvious that most people will deem it superfluous. We are told, however, that "in the Hebrew tongue there are no less than fifty roots, meaning, habitually or occasionally, to destroy; most of which are used in the Old Testament to specify the ultimate doom of the wicked." A dictum of this kind is well fitted to overwhelm ordinary readers, who would never dream that an author of repute, writing on such solemn subjects, could make a statement wholly unfounded. But will the reader take up his Bible, and with the aid of a concordance seek out in the Hebrew Scriptures the more than fifty passages in which "the ultimate doom of the wicked" is "specified." His labours will lead to a startling result. Can he find ten such passages? Can he find FIVE? If his list should be a much longer one than is here anticipated, a glance at a Hebrew concordance will satisfy him that the same words which, as he supposes, describe eternal judgment, are elsewhere used of death, or of some other temporal judgment.[4] And he will find further that the extremely rare passages (such as Daniel 12:2), which admittedly relate to the final state, are precisely those which the advocates of eternal punishment lay stress upon to prove their doctrine.

Daniel's prophecy above referred to is the only passage in the Old Testament which plainly announces the resurrection of the wicked. And when in the Epistle of Jude the inspired writer seeks a prophecy of the great judgment to come, he finds it in the words of Enoch, outside the canon altogether. Account for it as we may, the silence of the Old Testament Scriptures as to the final state is one of the most striking features of the revelation. It is not merely "life and immortality" which have been brought to light by the gospel; it is there also that the dark alternative has been plainly revealed. But even those who would reject the position here assumed as regards the scope of the Old Testament, would freely admit that the ultimate appeal must be to the New.

An admission which fairness demands may somewhat clear the ground. The language of the New Testament describing the destruction of the lost is perfectly consistent with the doctrine of conditional immortality. And further, this is all that needs to be proved by authors such as those that have here been quoted, assuming always the validity and success of the arguments on which their position rests. But that is not the question here. These arguments have been examined, and they have been found, not only fallacious, but destructive of "the faith once delivered."  The question now is, whether those who reject these reasonings can apart from them altogether find proof in the Scripture that the doom of the wicked is annihilation.

With some, this question will resolve itself into an inquiry whether the word destruction correctly expresses the Greek original in the passages where it is used. But this will not bear investigation. Extinction or annihilation is not necessarily implied in the word at all. So far from this being its primary meaning, it is a very remote signification. In the classical use of the word, to destroy a thing is to do it irreparable injury, to unfit it permanently for the purpose for which it was intended. Its meaning as used of a person may be illustrated by a quotation which ought to be familiar to all who speak the English tongue - " No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold or liberties or free customs, or be outlawed or exiled or any otherwise destroyed, but by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."  According to Magna Charta, then, to drive a man from his home, to deprive him of his property, or to shut him up in prison, is to destroy him.[5] The thought that we would convey by ruin our ancestors expressed by destroy. The word, therefore, may be fitly used to describe the doom of the wicked, whatever that doom may be. But the meaning of a word depends upon the use of it. Judged by this test, what is the force of the expression in the New Testament?

There are ten words rendered destroy in the Authorised Version, and three of these occur also in the substantive form as destruction. A full list of these words will be found in the Appendix; but there are only three of them which need be noticed here, as these alone are used to describe the final state of the lost.

We read in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, that at His coming the Lord shall destroy the Lawless One, the Antichrist. The word here used (katargeo) occurs again in Hebrews 2: 14 of the destruction of the Devil at and by the death of Christ. It means to render powerless, or useless, or inoperative (Rom 3:3, 31, ex. gr.), and hence "to do away," or "destroy," in the Magna Charta sense. The same word is used of death in 1 Corinthians 15:26 and 2 Timothy 1:10. For the believer, death was "destroyed" de jure at the cross, and will be "abolished" de facto in the glory. The thought of annihilation cannot be imported into this word at all.

The next word, a very much stronger term for "destruction," is used for "natural death" in the only passage where it occurs as a verb.[6]  Four times only it is used as a noun (olethros), and in each of these the word ruin would exactly convey the thought intended. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, a certain person is delivered to Satan "for the destruction of the flesh," albeit we find in 2 Corinthians 2:6 that this same person, having profited by his "punishment," was restored to the fellowship of the Church. In 1 Thessalonians 5:3 we are told that at the advent of Christ "sudden destruction" shall come upon the ungodly. Is this annihilation? By no means, for, as Scripture elsewhere will tell us, they shall be "reserved to the day of judgment to be punished." The same remark applies to the statement in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. And, moreover, it is "everlasting destruction from the face of the Lord": it is banishment and not annihilation which characterises the ruin. In the last remaining passage where this word occurs, St. Paul declares that the lusts begotten of money-worship "drown men in destruction and perdition." Is this annihilation? And yet the Greek language contains no stronger terms to express the idea.[7]

The word rendered "perdition" in the verse just quoted is the last which claims mention here. It is perhaps the most important of all. The noun (apōleia) occurs twenty times, the verb (appollumi) ninety-two times, in the New Testament. A reference to the Concordance will show that it is sometimes used as a synonym for death in the ordinary sense, and in several passages it describes the present state of the impenitent. Christ came "to save that which was lost." In the parables, the sheep was lost, the piece of silver was lost, the prodigal son was lost. So in every passage where the subject or the context enables us to fix the meaning with certainty, the word means a condition of existence, not a ceasing to exist.[8]

He who gives a cup of cold water to a disciple "shall in no wise lose his reward." Christ was "not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel." If a man put new wine into old bottles "the bottles will be marred."  "The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy."  In the Appendix[9] will be found a list including every passage where this word occurs, and the reader can judge for himself whether in its use in Scripture it means annihilation. And let it not be forgotten that if the words here noticed fail to convey that idea, the Greek language has none other to express it.[10]

But the lake of fire - is not that annihilation? How can any creature live in the midst of fire? The question need not be discussed; neither need we consider whether fire be here a figure, as elsewhere in Scripture, to express fierce trouble and judgment. These are speculative inquiries. The practical question which concerns us is settled beyond dispute by the plain testimony of Scripture. In the judgment scene of the 25th chapter of Matthew the "eternal fire" is expressly called "eternal punishment"; and though the word rendered "punishment" be denied its classical meaning of corrective discipline, it cannot possibly signify annihilation.[11]

The Lord's words in the narrative of Lazarus and Dives are plainer still. The sinner is there represented as in a condition of conscious and active existence in hell.[12] And still more definite is the language of the very Scripture where the lake of fire is mentioned.[13] The Devil is to be cast into the lake of fire. This, therefore, must be the "fire prepared for the Devil," spoken of in Matthew 25:41. And it is declared that the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet shall be there "tormented for ever and ever." If such language can be construed to signify sudden annihilation, words may mean anything. This, moreover, is what Scripture declares will be "the second death."

[1] See the use of the same word in Lev. 5:2, 4, 15; “If a soul touch,“  etc., “If a soul swear,“ etc., “If a soul commit a trespass.”  In Lev. 7:20 we have “the soul that eateth;” and in 21:11 it is translated “body.”

[2] The word rendered “dead body” in Rev. 11:8, 9, is πτμα.  James 2:26 is the only seeming exception to the above statement.  But the context shows that there the word dead is used in the same secondary or figurative sense as when we speak of a stone or a log being dead.  And no English writer would now use our word kill as it is used in Matt. 10:28.  The passage is explained by the elasticity which the word ποκτενω possesses.  According to Liddell and Scott it means, first, to kill, slay; secondly, to condemn to death; thirdly, to weary to death, to torment.

[3] Here I am dealing only with those who accept revelation.

[4] Any one who has access to a good library will find in the “Englishman’s Hebrew Concordance” all the materials necessary to enable him to settle this question for himself.

[5] It is an interesting fact that amoung the peasantry of the west and south of Ireland, with whom English is an acquired language, this is the common meaning of destroy.  Any one who is evicted, or robbed, or ill-treated, is said to be “destroyed.”

[6] “Lest He that destroyed ( λοθρεων) the firstborn should touch them”  (Heb. 11:28)

[7] The champion of Conditional Immortality remarks on 1 Tim. 6:9:  “as the Greek language does not afford two stronger expressions than these for denoting the idea of literal death and extinction of being, it requires a large amount of evidence to prove that they were intended by St. Paul to convey the idea of indestructible existence in torment.”  No one whose mind was not thoroughly warped by dwelling on this controversy would imagine for a moment that the apostle here intended to convey either “extinction of being” or “indestructible existence in torment.”

But the admission above made is valuable.  These are the strongest expressions possible to express annihilation.  That the first does not express that thought is certain, for it if did the addition of the second would be mere verbiage.  The only question, therefore, is whether πλεια implies extinction.

[8] See App., p. 92 post.  Matt. 10:28 demands special notice on account of the use which has been made of it:  “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul;  but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”  Assume that “death” and “destruction” imply extinction, and this settles the whole question.  But if, refusing to assume anything of the sort, we analyse the words here used and consider that they were intended to convey, the thought we shall take in it this:  man’s power can reach the body only, not the soul; but God can destroy both.  If we want to know what “destroy” means, we must inquire hoe the Lord used the word elsewhere, and this it precisely what I am now investigating.

[9] P. 91 post.

[10] Of the Antichrist it is written, “whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth” (2 Thess. 2:8).  The meaning of the word may be gathered form the only other passage where St. Paul uses it:  “If ye bite and devour one another take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15).  This word ναλσκω occurs only once again – viz., in Luke 9:54.

Devour, in Heb. 10:27, is the common word for eating, here used in a figurative sense.  In 1 Peter 5:8, like use is made of the word generally rendered to swallow.

[11] Matt. 25:41 and 46.  The word κλασις, used in v. 46, occurs again only in 1 John 4:18; “fear hath torment”.  The kindred verb occurs Acts 4:21 and 2 Peter 2:9 only.  It means primarily to prune (trees), to curtail, or check, and then to chastise or punish.  Dr. Trench (Synonyms) denies to it in Scripture the special sense it bears in classical Greek of corrective punishment.

[12] Luke 16:19-31.  Some perhaps may object that this is not the final state of the lost; but this question need not be discussed, for the sinner is in the flames of Gehenna (cf. vers. 23, 24), and there for the fire, whatever it means, does not imply extinction.  I really must decline to notice the view of the passage urged by one of the writers cited in an earlier chapter, which represents Dives as “one of the elect people.”

[13] Rev. 19:20, 20:10, 14, 15, 11:1