Ruminating on an Argument Against Annihilationism

Ground Clearing

I recently came across a group of people I’ve never given a second thought to prior to coming across them. I never gave this group a second thought because I found the position it is a proponent for so odious and incredible that I didn’t think it warranted any time or energy engaging with and refuting. But I have since changed my mind. Not because I’ve come to think that the position is any more credible than I had previously thought it was, but because I’ve realized how many people this view is coming to pollute; among evangelical Christians. The position I’m referring to is popularly known as annihilationism, or among its adherents: conditional immortality and/or evangelical conditionalism. Here is how they succinctly describe their position:

Conditionalism is the view that life or existence is the Creator’s provisional gift to all, which will ultimately either be granted forever on the basis of righteousness (by grace, through faith), or revoked forever on the basis of unrighteousness.

Evangelical conditionalists believe that the saved in Christ will receive glory, honor and immortality, being raised with an incorruptible body to inherit eternal life (Romans 2:7). The unsaved will be raised in shame and dishonor, to face God and receive the just condemnation for their sins. When the penalty is carried out, they will be permanently excluded from eternal life by means of a final death (loss of being; destruction of the whole person; Matthew 10:28).[1]

So according to this particular iteration of conditionalists, as their label portends, they believe that people are born with a potential status; i.e. either a person will be finally granted immortality by receiving the gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ; or they will die in their sins, and be left in their mortal state—meaning that, according to the conditionalist, at the Great White Throne Judgment they will be “annihilated,” their lives will be eternally extinguished from existence (what many people believe happens to animals when they die).

I had said, in another blog post (that I have subsequently taken down), that I am going to write an actual paper (with real research) on this issue; and I still intend to. But writing such papers take time and research, and my blog posts take me (typically), on average, about an hour to write and publish. Until I am able to finish that paper, I will of course!, keep putting up blog posts; and this post, as you can already tell from what I’ve been saying thus far, is going to engage with what I consider to be the erroneous view known as annihilationism.

Body of Thought

In an earlier blog post on this issue I had quoted Thomas Torrance, and hinted at how I might go about critiquing the conditional immortality (CI hereafter) position; I was going to tie my argument into the doctrine of imago Dei—oh, and I still am! I shared a link to that post in the Facebook group ReThinking Hell where Peter Grice (one of the primary founders of the “movement” ReThinking Hell), and some others pounced on my tact and what I was going to argue. Peter said I’d need to engage with actual scriptural exegesis in order to offer a persuasive argument for his clan; and another admin in the group offered a weird passive-aggressive sniping comment that he could see, in no way, how an argument from the ‘image of God’ could undercut his and their position on hell and annihilation. This all seemed too weird to me; I mean was the dimmer on in the living room? Isn’t their position fundamentally grounded in a theological-anthropological premise about what humanity is; what bearing that has on a human being’s eternal destiny before God? How could these guys, the luminaries of the group, have such trouble grasping how my critique would not only start by thinking about all of this theologically (God forbid it!), but more pointedly theologically-anthropologically? If I didn’t know any better I’d think that I had shown a light on something they didn’t really want to talk about, or maybe something they feel ill-prepared to respond to; and this is me giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Since this is a blog post let me get to a quote from my Evangelical Calvinist colleague, Myk Habets, that he offers up in his published dissertation on Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance. I’ll share the quote, and then tie it into how I think its material substance, theologically, works directly against the erroneous position known as conditional immortality. Here’s Myk (and he’s discussing Torrance’s theology, in case that wasn’t clear):

If humanity is created to know God and to revel in the joy this knowledge brings (worship), then theosis is the attainment of that knowledge and the joyous communion it creates. The problem with this is, of course, the fact that humanity has fallen. Any discussion of humanity created in the imago Dei must deal with the fact of the Fall and its consequences. For Torrance, the Fall of humanity resulted in total depravity, in Calvinistic fashion. Total depravity does not entail, according to Torrance’s reading of Reformed theology, a thorough ontological break in humanity’s relation with God, but it does mean the essential relation in which true human nature is grounded has been perverted and turned into its opposite, something which only makes sense in a relational-teleological understanding of the imago Dei. Sin is properly of the mind and drags humanity into an active rebellion against God. It is only by the grace of God that human beings still exist at all. The imago Dei is not destroyed by the Fall but ‘continues to hang over man as a destiny which he can realise no longer, and as a judgment upon his actual state of perversity’. As a consequence, Torrance follows Barth and Calvin in maintaining that the imago Dei can now only be found in Jesus Christ, not in the creature properly speaking. He writes, ‘…justification by grace alone declares in no uncertain terms that fallen man is utterly destitute of justitia originalis or imago dei. It must be imputed by free grace’.

There are tensions within Torrance’s anthropology (as in Calvin’s). On the one hand he argues the imago is an inherent rationality within all humans. On the other hand he argues the imago no longer remains in the creature after the Fall as creatures are utterly depraved. The sole existence of the imago Dei is found in Christ and in those in communion with him. For sure this communion is only possible through the incarnate Son and by the Holy Spirit, but the inherent capacity for communion with God is there nonetheless. How do we account for this tension? Our options are, as I see it, twofold: first, Torrance is inconsistent, or second, there is a deeper explanation. It is my conviction that Torrance is so influenced by Calvin’s anthropology that he adopts his ‘perspectival approach’, to use Engel’s words. From the perspective of traditionally conceived explanations of the imago Dei in substantial terms, the imago Dei has been obliterated in fallen creatures. And yet, from a christological perspective the imago is present, incipiently, as all humans have a capacity for God because the incarnation proleptically conditions creation. Outside of a saving relationship with Christ this avails them the condemnation of God. Savingly reconciled to Christ his Imago becomes theirs through the Holy Spirit. In this way Christ alone naturally possess the imago Dei, he shares this realised imago with creatures by grace, and those not in Christ ‘make more out of the imago dei than they ought’  as they ‘continue to sin against the Word and Law of God’.[2]

There is a lot going on here, and Myk is actually developing Torrance’s Reformed doctrine of theosis. Nevertheless, it has purchase in this discussion insofar as the imago Dei is referred to, and the attendant doctrines of creation (protology) and recreation (eschatology) that frame how we think of the image of God from a Christological and subsequent theological-anthropological direction are present.

To me the theo-logic is simple: even in the intricacies of how TFT understands imago Dei, I think it becomes clear, if he is correct (and I obviously think he is, and so would St. Athanasius, and I’d argue the Apostle Paul), that for humanity to be created and recreated in the image of God requires that once created a human being can never fully or objectively go out of existence. What Myk writes here is basically important to what I will want to argue latterly in my paper: “. . . The imago Dei is not destroyed by the Fall but ‘continues to hang over man as a destiny which he can realise no longer, and as a judgment upon his actual state of perversity’. . . .” It is this idea of suspended humanity post-lapse (Fall) that ‘hang[s] over man’ that is singularly important to the argument against any idea of annihilationism or conditional immortality.

To be created in the image of God, even if that image is tarnished or even lost, does not mean, either theologically or biblically, that a person’s humanity is ultimately lost; it just means it might not be being presently realized. It is to presume upon the idea that what it means to be human is a de jure or objective reality that is extra nos (outside of us), and that is grounded both objectively and subjectively in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Because being human is funded and founded upon the archetypal humanity of Christ, and because creation’s purpose has always already been generated by this realization, annihilation of any part of God’s good and very good creation is at diametrical cross-purposes to what God has accomplished in his free choice to be not be God without us, but with us in the elected humanity of Jesus Christ.

So on my view, when a person, at the Final Judgment, is not in Christ in a de facto or subjective (participatory) way, it is this state that ultimately serves as their judgment. In other words, it is not possible, given the purposes of God’s creation and recreation (resurrection) for any part of it to be annihilated—not if the indestructible life of Christ is its telos and ground—but it is possible for parts of that creation to not existentially or subjectively experience the reality for which it was ultimately created. This is what I would call Hell!

Because annihilationists can’t account for a Pauline doctrine of the primacy of Christ relative to creation and recreation, as that is found, in particular in Colossians 1:15ff, then I think their position flounders and indeed is erroneous relative to what it means to be human in and from Christ. I clearly believe Torrance, Athanasius, and the Apostle Paul are at logger-heads with the annihilationist position; and for the reasons I just roughly and quickly outlined. It will be along these lines that I will attempt to make an argument against the CI position in paper form. That is yet forthcoming, I’ll let you know when it actually has come. jusqu’à ce que nous nous revoyions


[1] ReThinking Hell, Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism, accessed 09-28-17.

[2] Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (UK: Ashgate Publishing Unlimited, 2008), 32-3.