Timing sometimes matters. I was recently made aware of a complaint a friend had received in response to a sermon he had preached where he had briefly mentioned one aspect of conditional immortality. Here is the gist of the complaint.
“If the wicked deserve to be annihilated, then logically Jesus must be annihilated too, because He bore the punishment those that He suffered for deserved, annihilation. I do regard this as blasphemous and a false gospel, because it leads logically to the belief that Jesus ceased to exist and then came back into existence, forcing us to conclude He was recreated.”
The complaint demonstrates both confusion and ignorance concerning the Biblical view of conditional immortality. I say Biblical, because there are several unbiblical views. Note, for example, the complainant’s use of the term “annihilation”. I never said annihilation, nor did my friend say annihilation. Rather, annihilation is a term the complainant used. I cannot say the complainant is entirely to blame for this, because some folks do use the term annihilation. But I think this does a great disservice to the Biblical view of conditional immortality.
Were I to literally hold to annihilation, then I would indeed have to conclude Jesus Christ did indeed cease to exist, and that His return to existence did preclude at least the possibility that He was recreated. This is the problem I believe folks who use the term annihilation fall into.
Nowhere does the Bible say the wages of sin is annihilation. Rather, it states the wages of sin is death. Well, you might ask, doesn’t this really amount to the same thing, because isn’t death really just simply the cessation of existence? No, not at all, for the Bible does not speak in terms of annihilation where it reads death.
1 Corinthians 11:28-30 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
1 Thessalonians 4:15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:16-18 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
Mark 5:39 And when he had entered, He said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.”
Where it concerns death, the Bible speaks in terms of sleep. We find not only the unbelieving in Mark 5 confused about this, but also the disciples, as well.
John 11:11-15 After saying these things, He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
We may argue sleep is just a metaphor for death. Perhaps a better term is unconsciousness. But even if we concede this, we will still have to admit the Bible does not speak of death in terms of annihilation. Whatever else may happen when we sleep the one thing we cannot say is that we cease to exist. The theology of the early Christians reflected this thinking. They referred to their burial spots as koimeteria, or “sleeping places”. Koimeteria has come down to us in English as cemetery.
But in addition to sleep, the Bible also makes reference to two deaths.
Revelation 20:13-14 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
This can be a bit confusing at first to grasp until we keep in mind that Revelation is using metaphors. It isn’t that there are two states of death, one called first death and another called second death. Rather, in the Bible, death is just death. Instead, it’s that this second death is really just a continuation of the first death. In other words, the first death is death that gets interrupted by Christ’s return, before God then sentences the wicked who have just been raised from the dead to go back to being dead, but this time forever.
John 5:28-29 an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
Daniel 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
According to John 5, Daniel 12, and plenty of other texts in addition, death is something both the just and the unjust will undergo. That is, we will all die. However, this death we will all die is not permanent for some. Both the just and the unjust will be raised at some point in the future; namely, at Christ’s return; but while the elect will put on immortality at the moment they are raised, the non elect will instead be judged and then sentenced to return to a state of death. From this second death there will be no resurrection. This so called second death is not an extra form of punishment in addition to death. Rather, this second death is just simply death, but permanent.
So which death then did Jesus have to undergo in order to atone for His people’s sins? In other words, did He have to permanently die in order to save His people? No. He simply had to die, because the wages of sin is death. The reason why the non-elect will be raised only to then be returned to death is that Christ did not die for their sins. But this does not mean Christ had to remain permanently dead or cease to exist in order to atone for His people’s sins. He only needed to die once.