For those new to the debate over hell, there are three main positions in Christendom:
- The Traditional View, a.k.a. Eternal Conscious Punishment (ECP), claims that those who fail to receive Christ are punished for the sins by being tormented forever in hell.
- The Conditional View, a.k.a. Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality (CI), claims that the resurrected damned, having failed to fulfill the conditions for receiving immortality through Christ, are punished for their sins with death, and having ceased to live, are gone (annihilated) for eternity.
- The Universalist View, a.k.a. Universal Reconciliation (UR), claims that the damned are punished for their sins by being tormented in hell, but even in hell, will have a chance to hear the gospel, and eventually, all will finally accept the love and redemption in Christ, and thereby be saved from hell. This involves a commitment to post-mortem repentance, something the other two views can accommodate, but are not logically required to include.
When you drill down into the individual exegetical and philosophical arguments, it can get pretty granular, and interesting, if you are of a certain academic bent (as I am). Even within the individual camps, there are some squabbles, especially about the meaning of some key words.
One of those squabbles with the Conditionalist camp 1 (which I inhabit) is over this question:
Under Conditionalism, is the punishment of suffering and death finite or infinite?
Here’s the problem. The scriptures actually don’t use the term ‘infinite,’ they use the term ‘eternal,’ as in this passage:
And [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.(Mt. 25:46)
The disagreement then is not whether or not, under conditionalism, the punishment is for eternity – it *is*, but only in the sense that the destruction of the unredeemed is permanent for all eternity – as we continually say to the traditionalist, the punishment lasts for eternity, but that punishment is death – the ‘punishing’ does NOT go on for eternity.
This same type of ambiguity leads to our internal (to Conditionalism) squabble over whether or not said punishment is also ‘infinite.’
So here’s the issue. Both are quantitative terms, but:
- eternal only relates to the quantity of time
- infinite can relate to not only the duration (time) of punishment, but the intensity
- infinite can also be related to the quantity of time that the sinner consciously endures their suffering and death (which could also fall under the ambiguous definition of ‘punishment,’ despite the Conditionalists correct assertion that the nature of the punishment mentioned above is death)
The reason that the term infinite comes up in the first place with regard to eternal punishment is usually in the context of the proportionality argument against Traditionalism (the claim that, under the Traditional view, people are disproportionately (infinitely!) punished for finite sins).
So when someone says that Conditionalism, by comparison, is a finite punishment, they are typically meaning it in terms of
- the punishment consciously endured by the unrepentant and
- the finality of the action done by God (there is no ongoing action)
They are NOT making a statement about the duration of the outcome of the punishment, or even the punishment itself (ongoing death), even if the scriptures are making that point.
Eternal and infinite are not the same, and because infinite covers more parameters than just time, its ambiguity can lead to misunderstanding. In typical context, the ‘infinity’ of punishment is not about the duration of the outcome or of the current state of the annihilated, but about the duration of the experienced punishment and the actions of God.