Eternal Life for Believers
Faithful followers of God will spend eternity with the Lord. All serious Bible students can agree on this. There are, however, disagreements about when believers will be with Christ.
The Intermediate State
The condition between death and resurrection is called the Intermediate State. Most Christians believe we all have eternal souls that remain conscious after death; Christians are conscious in heaven, while nonbelievers are in conscious torment.
A different view says we are unconscious after death until our resurrection. Believers will rise and be with Christ in heaven, while nonbelievers will rise to face judgment. This belief is commonly called Soul Sleep.
Belief in Everlasting Torment
While we will briefly explore the intermediate state, the primary concern for this study is the final condition of nonbelievers. Most conservative theologians believe the unfaithful suffer endlessly. People who hold this position usually believe souls remain conscious after death.
Amazingly, everlasting torment was rarely challenged since the third century. A growing number of Christians doubt this doctrine. While everlasting torment has always been repulsive to compassionate humans, Bible scholars now realize it is also difficult to defend in Scripture. Many are finally examining this subject, instead of accepting tradition without serious study. This investigation is long overdue.
People who do not want to follow God can easily find excuses. Nonbelievers look at Christians and find their actions to be disgusting. What they see are the religious zealots who have killed millions throughout the centuries "in the Name of God." They also see preachers who are more concerned about money than salvation.
These skeptics see only the fruits of the hardened hearts of some Christians, not the heart of a loving God. When they hear an appalling doctrine that condemns people to everlasting torment, this adds to their excuses. Is it any wonder why so many people have rejected Christianity?
Universalism and Conditional Immortality
When scholars realize everlasting torment lacks solid evidence, they subsequently come to other conclusions. One alternate view is Universalism, which says everyone will be restored to heaven. Some universalists believe everyone will go immediately to heaven at death; others say nonbelievers will first suffer transitory punishment then go to heaven.
Proponents of everlasting torment and universalists can both be called immortalists because they believe all humans are, or will be, immortal. The difference between these beliefs is where the unfaithful will end up. Since everlasting torment has been the traditional view of the church since the third century, we will call proponents of everlasting torment, traditionalists, for convenience and identification purposes. We will continue to call proponents of universalism, universalists.
While everlasting torment is very harsh, universalism suggests that our thoughts and actions do not matter. Throughout the Bible God gives us the choice between life and death. Our actions do matter.
A third view is Conditional Immortality, which says immortality is conditional upon putting our faith in Christ. Conditionalists believe that the unfaithful rise to face judgment, suffer, and then cease to exist.
While almost all traditionalists and universalists believe in continued consciousness between death and resurrection, many conditionalists believe in soul sleep. Although doctrines may vary on some of the details, all beliefs fall into one of three categories: traditionalism, universalism, or conditionalism. No matter how reasonable or unreasonable a doctrine appears to our limited human mind, we must believe what the Bible says. The true test of any doctrine is Scripture.
The Inspired Word of God
The writings in the Old and New Testaments should be our primary source of information. Although Bible scholars claim God inspired the Old Testament, many go to great lengths trying to justify dodging it. Is this because the Old Testament strongly supports conditionalism and is almost void of support for other beliefs? Almost four times as big as the New Testament, the Old Testament is filled with crucial evidence that cannot be rejected or ignored.
God did not reveal everything immediately, so some issues may be vague in the Old Testament. As knowledge progressed, the New Testament clarified some issues. The Bible, however, cannot lie. Daniel did not understand everything he wrote. He said, "Although I heard, I did not understand." (Daniel 12:8) Even though the Hebrew prophets did not understand everything they wrote, God inspired truth.
Christ defended the Word of God when there was only the Old Testament. For example, Jesus referred to Deuteronomy 8:3 and said, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4) He quoted more Old Testament Scripture on other occasions. Christ came to fulfill and explain the Old Testament, not destroy it (Matthew 5:17-19).
Paul also says all Scripture is "inspired by God." (2 Timothy 3:16) When he wrote this, the New Testament was not yet organized. In fact, some of it had not even been written.
When Paul preached, the Bereans searched the Old Testament to see if he was correct. Luke praised them for searching the Scriptures rather than accepting the words of others (Acts 17:10-12). We should be like the Bereans.
Although many scholars do not give enough attention to the Old Testament, all serious Bible students study the New Testament. While some believe the teachings of Jesus in the four Gospels are more important than the rest, all agree the whole New Testament is essential.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek. There were also a few passages written in Aramaic. We can have a deep understanding of the Bible without knowing these languages. Lexicons, though not infallible, are great aids for those who want further study.
Studying Biblical languages helps when we have the time, because all translators are prone to error. Most people do not have the time to learn Hebrew and Greek, so they rely on these translators. Because of their bias, translators sometimes mistranslate Scripture to support their beliefs. While this may be unintentional, it hinders the search for truth.
The more literal the translation, the less likely it is to be corrupted. A literal translation takes what the original Biblical language says, and as much as possible, says the same thing in the new language. The translator must leave the interpretation to the reader under the Holy Spirit's guidance. Comments on the side and footnotes are the only places for personal opinion.
The American Standard Version (ASV) is very literal. Printings of this version are rare, though it is available on disc for computers. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) has replaced the ASV, and is almost as accurate. Another literal translation is the King James Version (KJV).
Although these translations are accurate, they are difficult to read. I chose the New King James Version (NKJV) for this book because it is much easier to read and still maintains most of the accuracy. When it is not literal enough, I quote from the NASB or KJV.
Even the most literal versions show some favoritism. Concordances can reveal this bias. They show which Hebrew or Greek words were in the original Bible, so we can compare other uses of these same words.
The ASV, NASB, KJV and NKJV are word for word translations. Sometimes the translators felt the passage needed clarification, so they added words that were not in the original. The ASV puts brackets around added words, while the other versions italicize these words. Skipping the added words gives an approximation of the original Hebrew and Greek.
Most modern translations, like the popular New International Version (NIV), are thought for thought translations. While such paraphrases are easier to read and useful for daily devotions, word for word translations are more accurate for serious study.
When we examine death and judgment in the Bible, we see that literal translations strongly support conditionalism. Unfortunately, when we compare these same passages in paraphrased versions, they show more support for everlasting torment. This obvious bias conceals the truth.
There was a 400-year gap between the latest Old Testament books and the earliest New Testament books. Many Jews lived away from their homeland and did not speak Hebrew. They adopted Greek as their language.
These Jews needed to read the Bible in a language they understood. 70 scholars translated the Old Testament Hebrew into Greek, and called it The Septuagint. While this helped them tremendously, we cannot assume it is infallible.
The books in the Protestant Bible have passed rigorous scrutiny, so we must accept these as inspired. Other books in the Catholic Bible, called The Apocrypha, did not pass this test. The Apocrypha and other uninspired writings should only be used as reference material.
Although Protestants do not believe God inspired the Apocrypha, many emphasize these writings more than the Old Testament. Scholars study the Apocrypha and other ancient writings to better understand traditions, beliefs, and culture. This is part of hermeneutics.
Too much emphasis on what is fallible (tradition and culture) reduces the importance of what is infallible (Scripture). In the Old Testament, God repeatedly warned His people to remain separate from other nations and not to follow their beliefs (Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 29:24-28, Judges 3:1-7, Psalm 106:35-42, Isaiah 2:6-9, Ezekiel 20:18-21). They did not, however, heed God's warning.
The Gospels also have several accounts where Jesus says traditional beliefs and customs were wrong. Here is one example where Jesus rebuked the Pharasees:
He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'
For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men--the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do."
He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.
For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'If a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban"--' (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do." Mark 7:6-13
The Pharasees believed the soul was immortal and many traditionalists insist this was the uniform view of the Jewish people. This superficial assumption does not hold up. While the Pharasees did believe in an everlasting soul for everyone, the Sadducees, another major priestly group of the time, did not believe in life after death for anyone.
There was another group called the Essenes. First century historian, Flavius Josephus, claimed they believed the soul is immortal. Although Josephus was a Pharasee, he admits the Essenes got their belief from the Greek. Josephus says these beliefs were fables built on the supposition that the soul is immortal. Then he goes on to say that such beliefs, "were an unavoidable bait for such as have once had a taste for their philosophy."1
It is significant that a Pharasee would acknowledge that the Essenes got their belief from the Greeks, instead of the Bible. Is he admitting that the immortality of the soul is not in the Word of God?
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was devastating to the claim that all Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul. These scrolls have strong evidence for conditionalism.
While studying historical beliefs can be helpful, they offer mixed results. People disagreed in the past, just like they do today. We should only examine uninspired writings, not rely on them. If we rely on tradition, we make the same mistakes the Pharasees made. We must rely on the Word of God, instead of making it of no effect through our tradition (Mark 7:13).
Early Christian History
The earliest writings of Christians outside the Bible also show mixed views. Many scholars have tried to prove there was a uniform belief during this time. They all fail miserably.
The only consistency in these writings is their loyalty to Scripture. The earliest church fathers used the same words and phrases we find in the Bible. Scholars only claim that beliefs were uniform because of their bias.
One obvious example is Adventist author L. E. Froom's two volume, 2,400 page, Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers (1965). He insists that all the earliest church fathers supported conditionalism (Volume 1:757-852). When church fathers used words like destroy or perish, Froom always claimed they were conditionalists. This is an oversimplification because these words can mean a ruined state, rather than to be totally destroyed.
Froom was overly zealous, and sometimes took things out of context. Since traditionalists can find examples of this, many try to disregard his whole book. This is absurd! In spite of his prejudice, Froom's massive work provides valuable reference material for our study of this subject.
Traditionalists who claim their view was the uniform belief are also guilty of bias. Many try to categorize these early church fathers as proponents of everlasting torment because they used phrases like "fire will not be quenched." This works against them because a fire that will not be quenched is a fire that turns everything to ashes. When the fire runs out of fuel, it goes out (See Jeremiah 17:27, fulfilled in 2 Chronicles 36:19-21).
Another example of bias is when church fathers used the phrase "eternal fire." Traditionalists insist these church fathers believed in everlasting torment. When we examine this phrase in the Bible, it does not support their assertion.
Jude, for instance, tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as an example of eternal fire (Jude 7). The fire was only eternal in effect, because these cities were totally destroyed and never rebuilt. Since that fire is not still burning, traditionalists cannot prove these church fathers believed in everlasting torment.
Conditionalists and traditionalists can both find support in writings of the earliest church fathers. Universalists can also find a little evidence for their belief. These writings were covered in more detail in Edward Fudge's, The Fire that Consumes (1982, republished in 2000). His condensed version, published in 1994, left this out.
The Shift to Everlasting Torment
While the earliest Christian writings showed mixed views, belief in everlasting torment grew stronger over time. Tertullian supported this view in the late second and early third century, while Augustine was the main proponent in the fourth century. These writings supporting everlasting torment also show a departure from strict adherence to Scripture.
While the earliest church fathers use phrases found in the Bible, later writers show phrases used by Plato that are not in the inspired Word of God. Conditionalists insist Greek philosophy and pagan religions brought this false doctrine into Christianity, while traditionalists claim their effect was minimal.
Since the later church fathers used phrases that are not in the Bible, traditionalists must, at the very least, acknowledge that their view is not clearly stated in Scripture. If their views were plainly stated in God's Word, these later proponents of everlasting torment would not need to add to Scripture.
Just as we had diverse opinions at the time of Christ, we also had different opinions during the first couple centuries after His ascension. The earliest church fathers followed the Bible, so we should do the same. Each side must support their doctrine in the Word of God.
Roman Catholic Dominance
The church in Rome became powerful and influential, and religious leaders kept the Bible from the people. They may have also destroyed writings that disagreed with their doctrines. In fact, it would be na´ve to deny this possibility.
Since few had access to the Scriptures during this time, many errors crept into the church. The writers of the New Testament warn us to watch out for false teachings. Here are two examples:
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. 2 peter 2:1-3
Other examples can be found in Acts 20:29-31, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, Hebrews 13:9, and Revelation 2:14-16. Many false teachings arose in Christianity. Some are still with us today.
When a few key people started reading the Bible, they discovered errors in Roman church doctrine and protested. This is what the Protestant Movement, or Reformation, was all about. These key people preached about doctrinal errors and translated the Bible into many languages so others could read it. As more people read and studied for themselves, the truths discovered by the first Protestants became more accepted.
Unfortunately, many people are content in their current, perceived, knowledge of the truth. Although we know more today than they did centuries ago, our work is not finished. We must continue searching the Bible and examining our beliefs.
While most conservative Christians still believe in eternal torment, conditional immortality is gaining ground. It is our duty to compare the evidence for both views and make an informed decision. The Reformation must continue.
1. Flavius Josephus, War of the Jews, 2.8.11
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