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By conditionalist doctrine, I mean the belief that hell is the destruction of those souls that go there, rather than the everlasting torment or eventual purification of said souls.

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Technically, a couple of different terms are being confused in the question.

Conditionalism is the teaching that immortality / eternal life is conditional upon a right standing with God.

Annihilationism is the teaching that anyone who is ultimately unrepentant will cease to exist, usually after a period of torment that accommodates to the amount of evil they have done.

While these are technically separate, they do often go hand-in-hand.


Conditionalism

Most defenses for conditionalism start out with a general summary of their main point: nothing in the bible explicitly says humans are inherently immortal; not their bodies, not their spirits, not their souls.

Specific appeal is made to a selection of texts that seem to illustrate as much. Some key texts include:

  • Genesis 2-3, since humans require fruit from the tree of life in order to 'live forever', which humans are subsequently forbidden from eating,
  • 1 Timothy 6.16, which says God 'alone has immortality', taken to mean God alone is inherently immortal, while humans are dependent in some way,
  • Romans 2.7, First Corinthians 15.53-54, Second Timothy 1.10, etc., are understood to indicate that 'immortality' and 'eternal life' are gifts/rewards solely for those who are saved, necessitating a mortality and a temporal life as being the penalty for those who are not saved.

What Is Death?

Because conditionalism and annihilationism are teachings involving 'death', the discussion of course requires defining what 'death' consists of. It is frequently said by advocates of the traditional view ('eternal conscious torment') that 'death' should be defined as 'separation'. Bodily death is separation of the spirit/soul from the body, and spiritual death is separation of the spirit/soul from God. In both cases, the spirit/soul is believed to continue existing consciously in its state of death.

Conditionalists generally criticize this as a redefinition of the word. 'Death', they say, has always been defined as a cessation of life, consisting of a lack of all consciousness, comparable to a dreamless sleep. To support this definition, conditionalists again point to a selection of biblical texts:

  • Psalm 6.5: For in death there is no remembrance of you; in sheol who will give you praise?
  • Psalm 115.17: The dead do not praise YHWH, nor do any who go down into silence.
  • Psalm 146.4: When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his thoughts perish.
  • Ecclesiastes 9.5: For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.

This is in addition to the numerous texts throughout the bible that compare death to 'sleep', no matter who it is being described (e.g. 1 Kings 2.10; First Kings 22.40; John 11.11-14; First Thessalonians 4.13f).

With this altogether, conditionalists believe the bible broadly teaches that humans are not innately immortal, in any way, and that their natural end is to die and cease to exist.


Annihilationism

Where conditionalism defines human immortality as conditional upon a right relationship with God, annihilationism is defined as a direct punishment of death from God. Qualitatively, there is no distinction between 'death' and 'annihilation'; the latter word is used solely to clarify just what it is that 'death' consists of.

Again, on a broader level, annihilationists believe the bible teaches that humans who are ultimately unrepentant will suffer death / cessation of existence. Poetic idioms in the Psalms are said to accurately describe a lack of existence, prophetic metaphors are said to capture the essence of a lack of existence, and the 'plain meaning' of basic words are said to describe a lack of existence directly.

The final fate of the unsaved is:

  • To vanish like smoke (Psalm 37.20)
  • Like the snail that melts into slime, like the stillborn child that never sees the sun (Psalm 58.8)
  • Like smoke that is driven away, like wax melts before a fire (Psalm 68.2)
  • Like a dream when one awakes (Psalm 73.20)
  • Destroyed, wiped out all remembrance of them (Isaiah 26.14)
  • Stubble in a burning oven; leaving them neither root nor branch; ashes under the soles of the righteous' feet (Malachi 4.1-3)
  • Slaying of body and soul (Matthew 10.28)
  • Eternal punishment (Matthew 25.46)
  • Death (Romans 6.23)
  • Eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1.9)
  • Like Sodom and Gomorrah: turned to ashes, and condemned to extinction (2 Peter 2.6)
  • The second death (Revelation 2.11ff)

Resources

It is widely agreed, even by critics, that the best, complete treatment in favor of conditionalism and annihilationism is The Fire That Consumes, written by Edward Fudge. While it is difficult to speak on behalf of a broad spectrum of belief, Fudge's book is yet considered the masterwork defense of these two beliefs.

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    This is an exemplary answer; the format and approach taken to the content model the pattern I think most answers on this site should take!
    – Caleb
    Feb 14 '14 at 19:42
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    This is a great answer. I will link others back here to this when I am seeking to clarify this concept. Feb 21 '14 at 18:04
  • To add to Mark Edward's excellent answer, neither the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ (nefesh), nor πνεῦμα (pneuma) have any notion of immortality. May 8 '17 at 17:10
  • Yet pneuma is used to describe one person of the Godhead... Mar 17 at 13:28
  • @Caleb Agree. Lol i reposted this answer and it got slammed as lame haha christianity.stackexchange.com/a/84108/54533
    – Al Brown
    Jul 31 at 21:24
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This is going to be an incomplete answer because this question is broad and is connected to other doctrines like the nature of man, the state of the dead and the judgment.

Since the beginning of sin there was only two possibilities for mankind: life as offered by Christ or death. It was not eternal life in heaven or eternal life in hell.

Genesis 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

These verses above are referring to the second death and not the first death.

John 8:51 Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.

The second death is complete destruction of the wicked in the lake of fire as described in the verses below.

Psalm 37:20 But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away.

Matthew 10:28 And 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 (γέεννα).

2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;

Malachi 4:1,3 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts.

Sodom and Gomorrha are set forth as examples of suffering eternal fire in Jude, but they were clearly destroyed.

Jude 1:7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.

2 Peter 2:5,6 And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly;

We are judged by our works so this means that everyone will have different rewards not the same reward. Revelations 20:13,14 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

The word forever and eternal (olam in the old testament and aionios in the new testament) in the bible does not necessarily mean an endless length of time it can also mean an age. Take for example Jonah 2:6 and 1 Samuel 1:22. In both these cases forever is clearly referring to a specific amount of time 3 days and nights in Jonah and to the end of Samuel’s life in Samuel. It really depends on the context of the verse itself. In many cases can just when dealing with the punishment of the wicked it could mean an ambiguous time until all the wicked are burned up or it could be referring to the nature of the punishment which has eternal consequences (eternal separation from God in death).

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  • Are these specific arguments representative of Annihilationism specifically or just your formulations? Could you edit to make it clear who is being represented here and also deal with the where "conditionalism" from the question fits in?
    – Caleb
    Feb 14 '14 at 20:23
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Death is not the same as being annihilated.

There are two ways of defining dead.

  1. the lack of physical life - not breathing, no consciousness, no pulse and eventually, no body. Just 'dust' remains and maybe some teeth! From this death, life is again possible by a resurrection at the time of God's choosing.
  2. Spiritually dead is the state of being dead to sin, even if you are still breathing. Like the term, 'dead man walking' - referring to a prisoner who is sentenced to death, and is on his way to dying - he is essentially dead already! The spiritually dead includes all men who ever lived, except Jesus. All are essentially waiting for the execution of the penalty handed to Adam - "the penalty of sin is death". So even while they live, they are dead. These too can be raised to new life - physical or spiritual, by God.

Annihilation is the removal (or expiry) of the resurrection option. They simply no longer exist in any form. This can only happen after the second death mentioned in Rev 20. This is not 'dead' in either of the previously noted states - it is irreversible.

The biblical basis for this understanding is not based on what scripture explicitly says this, but what it does not say.

The dead will not live, the departed spirits will not rise; Therefore You have punished and destroyed them, And You have eliminated all remembrance of them. Is 26:14

The context of this passage is not end-time, post second-death; it is a song about life and troubles and the God who provides.

What we do have is no mention of any evil person being given eternal life. None! How can the wicked be tormented forever in some kind of demented, spiteful God scenario who takes delight in giving life to all and letting the wicked suffer for eternity!

As explained here, eternity does not have mean 'forever' and punishment does not mean torture or even death.

In the absence of scripture and the biased 'hellfire' interpretations like Matt 25:46, it seems many would rather make up what they want and pursue a theology not of the bible, but of men, desperate to justify their jobs, influence and income.

Certainly the theology of an eternal hellfire for the wicked is intended to extinguish the true revelation of the Judgement and the true God who is Saviour first and Destroyer second. Also addressed in the link provided.

After the 'second death' Rev 20:14, the next revelation in Rev 21 is,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea...

This is a time when all physical life is gone. All remaining have spirit lives and life eternal.

God Himself will be among them, 4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” v3

At this point, God's plan of salvation has been completed - all created humanity that has accepted Christ as their Saviour has been changed to spirit life.

What we are also told is that 'God is love' - torturing a broken and deceived humanity is not part of His plan. He will however hold to account the perpetrator of evil in ways that we are not privy to.

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Credit to user Mark Edward from whom this text is taken, from the end of a long answer to a different question

I’m pasting it because it is the only text we found on the se addressing what Annihilationists use as basis. If you dislike it, you can try to provide a better answer:

Annihilationism

Where conditionalism defines human immortality as conditional upon a right relationship with God, annihilationism is defined as a direct punishment of death from God. Qualitatively, there is no distinction between 'death' and 'annihilation'; the latter word is used solely to clarify just what it is that 'death' consists of.

Again, on a broader level, annihilationists believe the bible teaches that humans who are ultimately unrepentant will suffer death / cessation of existence. Poetic idioms in the Psalms are said to accurately describe a lack of existence, prophetic metaphors are said to capture the essence of a lack of existence, and the 'plain meaning' of basic words are said to describe a lack of existence directly.

The final fate of the unsaved is:


  • To vanish like smoke (Psalm 37:20)
  • Like the snail that melts into slime, like the stillborn child that never sees the sun (Psalm 58:8)
  • Like smoke that is driven away, like wax melts before a fire (Psalm 68:2)
  • Like a dream when one awakes (Psalm 73:20)
  • Destroyed, wiped out all remembrance of them (Isaiah 26:14)
  • Stubble in a burning oven; leaving them neither root nor branch; ashes under the soles of the righteous' feet (Malachi 4:1-3)
  • Slaying of body and soul (Matthew 10:28)
  • Eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46)
  • Death (Romans 6:23)
  • Eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
  • Like Sodom and Gomorrah: turned to ashes, and condemned to extinction (2 Peter 2:6)
  • The second death (Revelation 2:11ff)
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    Welcome. Anyone can quote 20 verses - the object is to explain them in a way that draws them together for a succinct and accurate meaning that is in concert with the broad scriptures. You haven't done yet.
    – steveowen
    Jul 19 at 4:20
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    'We are using' ; 'are said to' ; and 'are said to' (again) and 'are said to' (yet again) and 'plainly mean' all point to the expression of an opinion without reference to accepted authorities. In order to firmly establish a 'biblical basis' one must quote (substantially) from recognised authorities such as lexicons. That is what often makes such questions a poor fit for this site (a comparative site) and a better fit for SE-Biblical Hermeneutics, the reason that the other site exists.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 19 at 6:16
  • As far as I know this is the only text on the whole se describing what annihilationists base their views on. Question should be cleanly asked and answered somewhere, and now is. Thats why I pasted it here. He clearly claims the “plain meaning” interpretation and says so. Seems a reasonable claim. It’s unfortunate that it will be missed due to five downvotes in the first nine minutes. Btw the original much longer answer this is pulled from got dozens of likes, including this same portion.
    – Al Brown
    Sep 6 at 17:12
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    I do find it very strange that this answer has four down-votes while the answer it was copied from has 23 up-votes, no down-votes, and no criticism of the "said" problems. Sep 6 at 17:43
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    @AlBrown Agree with Ray about the downvotes. +1 from me today. This article acknowledges that the biblical basis is not that strong, but still worthy to be considered (John Stott & CS Lewis take the agnostic position). Another good article raises the possibility that the wicked are punished for a while but not forever, by interpreting some key verses as figurative not literal. Sep 6 at 20:24

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