By Ben Swift
‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens…’ (Woody Allen)
We all know that Woody Allen is making light of the topic of death, but he pretty much speaks for a large portion of the population. Death is not a topic many people want to think about until the time comes when it’s knocking at the door. It’s obvious in western society that we will do everything possible to avoid growing old which is to deny ourselves of the reality that death comes to us all. Industries like plastic surgery, organ harvesting and antiaging skin creams are riding the financial wave of our denial.
From a Christian perspective, humans were originally created by God to live forever and in the heart there lies an insatiable curiosity about the Hereafter that cannot be silenced or quenched.
This brings us to a question that has been given many different answers. What happens to us when we die? This question has been addressed in so many ways from so many different perspectives and worldviews. Even amongst Christians the answer will vary depending on the teaching subscribed to.
There can however, by the very definition of truth be only one true answer and it is my belief that it lies in the Biblical evidence for the doctrine of Conditional Immortality. While some refer to it as Annihilationism, ‘Conditional Immortality’ is the biblical belief that the immortality of the soul is not inherent as Greek philosophers taught, but is conditional upon receiving the gift of everlasting life through faith is Christ. In other words, God alone has immortality, human beings become immortal only as a result of God’s grace.
‘To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life.’ (Romans 2:7)
This understanding runs contradictory to the Traditional Christian view of immortality in which the lost suffer eternal, conscious torment rather than be raised to face God’s judgement before perishing or ceasing to exist.
In Douglas Barry’s book “Conditional Immortality”, he raises the question, “Why would God choose the words like ‘destroy, destruction, perish, death’ to signify something other than their plain meaning?”
Take for example the following verses from Scripture.
‘There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and destroy.’ (James 4:12)
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)
‘But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.’ (Hebrews 10:39)
Wouldn’t scripture need to be redefined in order to fit with doctrines that teach eternal torment as the final fate of the unsaved?
It is no wonder that the traditional view, although followed by many Christians, has caused deep distress at the thought of eternal suffering. C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than [hell], if it lay in my power…”
It would be unfortunate to leave this discussion without contemplating the hope for immortality and peace that Christ offers us as a result of what was achieved on the cross.
‘On this mountain he [God] will destroy the veil enshrouding all the nations. He will swallow up death forever. Adonai Elohim will wipe away the tears from every face, and He will remove from all the earth the disgrace His people suffer. For Adonai has spoken.’ (Isaiah 25:7-8)
The late John Stott, a well-respected theologian who argued for the doctrine of Conditional Immortality, recognised the hope that we have as followers of Christ. In his book ‘The Cross of Christ’ he writes, “What then have we to fear? ‘Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.’ That is why, once we have been justified, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
These are words worth embracing as the things of death cannot be avoided no matter how much Botox we inject.