The Age of Accountability: Conditional Immortality: The Nature of Damnation

8/8/2010We now have to consider a more biblical understanding of damnation. It damnation isn’t eternal torture, just how bad can it be? Should we still be motivated to seek and save the lost? If the damned will simply be destroyed, why bother?

And what if someone is innocent — like a baby — but not saved. Or nearly innocent, such as someone newly accountable. What will be the fate of such a one?

Separation from God

This question returns us to —

(2Th 1:5-10 ESV)  5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,  7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels  8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,  10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

(Mat 25:41 ESV)  41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

The first penalty will be separation from God. Now, at first hearing, this penalty doesn’t sound all that scary. What’s the big deal? But in reality no mortal has ever been apart from God in this existence. God is present on the earth — everywhere. Jesus himself holds the world together.

(Col 1:17 ESV)  17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

As bad at things can be in this world, the Triune God has always been here, making certain that his cosmic plan for man will be realized. Imagine how bad this world would be if God utterly abandoned it? Think of the horrors of Hitler and Genghis Khan and Pol Pot, and remember that they were all temporary. Imagine how bad this world would be if God abandoned it altogether.

At the end of time, God will perfect his creation by perfecting the unity of heaven and earth and man and God. We will be joined with God. Until then, there’s a separation between creation and Creator, mortal and immortal, but we’re not completely separate. We still enjoy a taste of God’s presence. Sometimes we are able to draw nearer to him — but never as close as we’ll be in the new heavens and new earth. “Heaven” will be living in God’s immediate presence. That will be glory.

Therefore, gehenna begins with separation from God, and as wondrous as God’s complete presence will be, complete separation will be just as horrific.

(Mar 15:34 ESV)  34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus — who suffered the punishment the saved deserve — suffered separation from God. And it was supremely agonizing torture.

I don’t think our minds are capable of imagining the pain of such a separation. After all, we can’t imagine the bliss of being with God either. It will be horrific.

But this is a penalty to be paid by the enemies of God. There is nothing in these passages to suggest that those who die in innocence will suffer such a fate. Rather, the verses that speak of separation are speaking of God’s vengeance for sins committed in the flesh. The sinless cannot suffer vengeance. There is nothing to avenge.

Realization of lost opportunities

(Mat 25:44-45 ESV)  44 “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

(Luk 16:27-28 ESV) 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — 28 for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’

Jesus makes plain that he will explain to the damned why they are damned. They’ll know that they had opportunities to do good, to bring glory to God, and they’ll realize that they didn’t do it.

Moreover, this happens after they witness Jesus granting eternal bliss to those who honored his commands and did good. The damned will therefore know what might have been.

As bad as separation from God will be, knowing that it didn’t have to happen will make the pain all the more severe. When you’ve seen others go to live with God, you’ll be tortured by the knowledge that your own fate didn’t have to be — that eternity with God was within your grasp.

Of course, for those who’ve never heard of God, the pain will be less — which is as it should be. It’ll be those who rejected Jesus who will be hurt the most by this knowledge because they were closest to escaping God’s wrath.

But, of course, an innocent — an infant — will suffer no such pain because she’ll have never had the chance to do better.

Many blows

(Luk 12:47-48 NIV) 47 “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.  48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

(Mat 10:15 NIV) I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

(Mat 16:27 NIV) For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.

(Rev 22:12 NIV) “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”

(Psa 62:11-12 ESV) 11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,  12 and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.

(Jer 17:10 ESV)  10 “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Jesus plainly teaches that the punishment of the damned will be proportional to their sin. God’s vengeance is a matter of justice, and justice requires no less, and the Prophets are to the same effect.

Now, a truly evil man may well suffer many, many, many blows. God is under no time constraints. While everlasting punishment isn’t taught, and the destruction of the damned is, there’s no limit on how long it will take for God’s justice to be realized. The truly evil may suffer for a very long time.

But the innocent shouldn’t suffer at all, even if they aren’t saved.


We still need to seek and save the lost! They won’t be tormented forever regardless of their wickedness, but they’ll suffer horribly — and it’s a suffering we can prevent by teaching them about Jesus.

If anyone of saw a man drowning and had the ability to rescue him, he’d do it. He’d be a pretty sorry person if he didn’t. Even the godless would help! But we Christians know that drowning is just one more path to bliss for a Christian. You see, we realize that life is worth living, and that loss of life is a tragedy — even though we believe those among us who die will go to a better place. And we’d do this even though saving someone from drowing only delays the inevitable.

But this is just the first death, a temporary death. Why are we not all-the-more motivated to rescue the damned from the second death — a death into torment — when we could save that person permanently. This is a true rescue, and yet we struggle to find the motivation. It should be enough that we could help someone make it to God — but the double blessing of rescuing from hell and taking them to God should be an overwhelming motivation.

But as to infants and young children, the analysis is different. A few posts ago, I mentioned that it’s not necessarily true that a child is saved. It is possible that the child simply ceases to exist when she dies. Not only does the child not suffer eternal punishment, the child doesn’t receive eternal reward. It’s possible.

There are more possibilities than heaven and hell. Souls aren’t born immortal, and therefore we can’t just assume that anyone other than the saved will be immortal. And, you know, it might make a difference depending on whether the child has faith in Jesus. It might.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to The Age of Accountability: Conditional Immortality: The Nature of Damnation

  1. konastephen says:

    It seems, on first blush, that a view of children simply ceasing to be, upon ‘physical’ or ‘psuche-ic’ death—assuming for a moment ‘conditional immortality’—would lend more to a Deistic perspective. I mean, you’re right, it is possible that children who die before knowing Jesus might just vanish away—they don’t deserve punishment, and they don’t deserve the same reward we’ve earned….(hopefully my hyperbole won’t be lost here)
    But doesn’t that present us more with a world where God isn’t really in control anymore? This seems more like a world of people striving to know and to get ‘in’. God can’t intervene or grant grace—it’s either you hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized, or else you pay your pound of flesh according to your deeds and puff you’re gone! Well I guess it’s possible…

    Note that Jesus did not say ‘for you never knew me’ but ‘for I never knew you’…
    Perhaps I’m just basing this all on feelings, but I’d rather believe that it is Jesus who saves, and that He can grant blessed immortality even to little children…

  2. Dan H. says:

    Jay, these thoughts are worth considering. I must admit, I am having trouble with the concept of the innocent losing their lives eternally. I can grasp the idea that the guilty will be consumed. But not the innocent.

    And I admit, maybe this is just all my old thinking coming into play instead of seeing scripture with new eyes. —- Jesus did tell the disciples "of such is the kingdom of heaven" speaking of little children. What did that mean, if not their innocence? King David said upon the death of his first little child with Bathsheba, "I will go to him , but he will not come to me." I don't think he meant he would go to him in the dirt of the earth, the grave. And what about the perpetually innocent? Our retarded/ developmentally delayed friends? Would God go to the trouble and pain to die on the cross to save a sinner like me and then blithely turn aside while the souls of infants and mentally disabled disappeared for eternity in a flash?

    It would be easier for me to believe that somehow their souls would be reincarnated in different bodies at some point and that they would be given an opportunity to believe than it would be for me to believe that God would turn his back on them.

    In any case God is not only just but merciful. I cannot know what he will do. I am certain beyond all my ability to understand or reason that at that time God's purpose and plan will be worked out
    in a way that is more perfect , more just, more merciful, more life assuring, more lovely, more merciful, more forgiving, more eternally beautiful than I ever could have imagined.

  3. konastephen says:

    I don’t see why this is so difficult. The Greek thinker thought that they were intrinsically immortal, it was just this stupid material body that kept them in all the trouble they found themselves in. Some early church writers attempted to undo these Orphic notions of eternal reoccurrence by stating, rightly I might add, that only God is properly immortal. Aside from this though, these same writers often taught an eternal hell of punishment… Why? Because in light of God’s infinite goodness there is no end to the payment for our deeds (or lack thereof). No amount of good acts or bad can settle the debt—only Jesus can. Only by his blood. Only Christ saves.

  4. nick gill says:

    But as to infants and young children, the analysis is different. A few posts ago, I mentioned that it’s not necessarily true that a child is saved. It is possible that the child simply ceases to exist when she dies. Not only does the child not suffer eternal punishment, the child doesn’t receive eternal reward. It’s possible.

    It is precisely for this reason that, if I come to agree with you on conditional immortality, I would also become an advocate for some sort of infant dedication/baptism into the people of God. Scripture tells us that God will grant the kingdom to those that ask for it, and I would never want my innocent child not to belong to the kingdom. I would want my community of faith to dedicate ourselves to raising our children in the kingdom, and publicly committing ourselves as a community to faith in Jesus.

  5. abasnar says:

    … it’s not necessarily true … It’s possible …

    But since we don't know, it all sums up to speculation, doesn't it? So let's return to the regulative principle that where the scriptures are silent we are silent as well.

    Because what is the result of such speculations? Quite long and exhaustive debates. And what comes out at the end? A very decided "maybe", "perhaps", "it could well be", "this does not necessarily mean", …

    And in the course of all this we blurred texts that are rather clear, making ambigious which was unambiguous before. Of course we can all pride ourselves in having participated in a theological contest … but is it really worth the effort?

    And worse: Because of a "maybe" or an "it is possibe" we decide to agree on a doctrinal theory that does not match the historic faith, again making "us" distinct from other churches of Christ – not because we have discovered a big misunderstanding of the Scriptures, but based on vague interpretations that "could be possible".

    When I step back a little and look at our long, long, long conversation … isn't it just vanity, trying to catch the wind? What we believe does not change one Iota of how it will be in the end. And a "maybe" is not strong enough to change a doctrine which is basically believed throughout the whole Christendom for almost 2000 years.


  6. Adam Legler says:

    "What we believe does not change one Iota of how it will be in the end. "

    Maybe not, but it sure can have a lot to do with how motivated we are to reach the lost and raise our children in the light. I am a living testimony to that.

    Since I first read Jay's post on Conditional Immortaility about 6 months ago, I have bought Edward Fudge's book and am about half way through it now. I have to say, it makes a lot of since. Fudge does an extensive amount of research and shows how the "eternal" and "everlasting" terms were much different in the original context compared to how they've been translated in English.

    I also passed Jay's original posts on Conditional Immortatlity to a trusted friend who is always more than willing to look at these types of things. He did some independent study of his own and also came to the same conclusion on how the tradtional view has greatly been influenced by the Greek and Roman mindsets.

    What hasn't been mentioned is how poitical this was then. It was much more effective for the Roman emperor to declare hell as an eternal place if people didn't get inline with Christianity and submit to the emperor's new favored religion after the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity.

    These really are things that have to be considered and researched carefully. I'm not saying others who have commented on this series haven't, but I believe Jay and those like Fudge certaintly have.

    Thanks, Jay.


  7. Richard Worden Wilso says:

    OK, this is just one of my pet peeves, but if I'm mistaken or confused, please let me know why I shouldn't think this way. I think that using the word "separation" for what the Messiah/Son of God suffered as a consequence of dying for our sins on the cross just doesn't make sense. If one believes as I know most of you do that The Son is one in essence with The Father then surely it is impossible for Him to be "separate" from God The Father. Simple point: aren't there better terms to use in describing what happen when The Son was "forsaken" by The Father?
    All the best to all in Christ,
    Richard Worden Wilson

  8. abasnar says:

    Maybe it is really simlpe – no one who reads Psalm 22 would make a "theological statement" about "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?", because the meaning is quite obvious:

    The situation is hopeless
    There is no help in sight
    He is nailed to His destiny
    He is facing death with no escape

    Psalm 22 is a vivid description of what went through our Lord's mind in these painful hours. It was not that He was "separated" from God "because of our sin" (so that God had to turn away in dismay), but rather that he had to go through this without God's intervention.

    But the end of Psalm 22 points to the resurrection, and since Jesus prayed this Psalm He also was aware and looking forward to this. So in the end He was not hopeless – how else could He have given such a great promise to the one next tio Him?


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