“There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”
Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian, p. 17
Scot McKnight’s One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow discusses not only about life after death but a “death after death.” Chapter 12, “Eternity.Life” raises some interesting considerations, which are important in light of the storm of controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s Love Wins.
McKnight unequivocally states “Jesus believed in hell [and that] followers of Jesus also follow … what he believes about what happens when we die.” (pp. 160-161). McKnight concludes “I believe in ‘death after death’ because Jesus taught it” (p. 162). This death after death is both final and “endless,” meaning it’s irrevocable and continues on eternally. After a period of conscious suffering in hell, unbelievers experience a second death and there is no chance of a continuing, conscious existence after their sentence has been carried out. In other words, those who are not followers of Jesus continue to be mortal with some kind of temporary existence after death until such time they have suffered justly for their sins and then die once-and-for-all.
Believers, on the other hand, encounter a different fate. Immortality is a gift granted by God and reserved for those who are followers of Jesus. Logically it follows that immortality is a necessary condition from which humans can experience eternal life after mortal life runs its course. Although McKnight warns we should not be dogmatic and is himself “unconvinced that annihilation fully answers all that Jesus says” (see pp. 164-165), he believes all of us will get precisely what we deserve at God’s judgement and that God will be utterly gracious at the same time.
This raises many, many questions for me. I recalled a post written by Jim Spiegel entitled “A Defense of Conditional Immortalism” that nicely, albeit briefly, lays out passages to consider along this vein. In addition, N. T. Wright maintains some notion of conditional immortality in his Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (see pp. 180-186). There Wright argues that, while “annihilation” is too strong a term, those who remain impenitent in this life fail to receive the gift of immortality bestowed by God “who alone is immortal” (1 Tim. 6:16). Wright seems to stop short of postulating a “death after death” that McKnight favors.
I’m tentative about this “death after death” notion, which is tantamount to a delayed annihilation. True Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8 speaks of a “second death,” but it also speaks of a torment that goes on eternally (“forever and ever”; cf. 14:11; 20:10. See also Is. 66:24; Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:8-9 on the likelihood of endless punishment). I think too Thomas Aquinas touched on a highly relevant theological point:
“The magnitude of the punishment matches the magnitude of the sin. Now a sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin—it is more criminal to strike a head of state than a private citizen—and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against Him.”
Summa Theologica, Ia2ae. 87, 4.
Presumably hell’s inhabitants are conscious; otherwise why call it “torment?” Also what bearing might Heb. 9:27 have upon this “death after death” notion, since it states people will face God’s judgment after dying once.
While I find myself in the traditional camp maintaining unbelievers will experience endless (meaning eternal) conscious punishment, McKnight and others have caused me to think harder about the fate of unbelievers and, more importantly, who God is in light of his justice and his grace. Though I remain tentative about any kind of annihilation for unbelievers after death, I must be fair and say that my traditional position is also held with some hesitation.
“I doubt if any of us is equipped to assess what is an ‘appropriate’ punishment for defiance of the holy and sovereign God, save God himself.”
D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord, p. 10
I’ve no hesitation with Carson’s statement.