Mortalism 5: 19th-20th century views

The Modern Era

Belief in conditional immortality and the annihilation of the unsaved became increasingly common during the nineteenth century,[1] [2] [3]  [4] entering mainstream Christianity in the twentieth century.[5] [6] [7]

From this point it is possible to speak in terms of entire groups holding the belief, and only the most prominent individual nineteenth century advocates of the doctrine will be mentioned here.

Scientific Support

Scientific conclusions concerning human mortality provided additional support.[8] [9]

Lexicographical Support

Lexicographical studies had already cast doubt on the traditional doctrine.[10] [11]  The standard Hebrew lexicon and grammar of John Parkhurst (reprinted many times throughout the nineteenth century), noted that the traditional translation ‘soul’ of the Hebrew word nephesh, had no lexical support.[12]

Such studies became influential in nineteenth century arguments for conditional immortality. [13] [14]

Notable Conditionalists

*  1833: Millerites (later Advenist groups came from the Millerites)[15]

*  1846: Edward White[16]

*  1855: Thomas Thayer[17]

*  d.1863: François Gaussen[18]

*  1865: Christadelphians[19]

*  1873: Henry Constable[20]

*  d. 1878: Louis Burnier[21]

*  1878: Conditionalist Association[22]

*  1888: Cameron Mann[23]

*  1895: Miles Grant[24]

*  1897: George Stokes[25]


[1]It emerged seriously in English-language theology in the late 19th century’, Johnston, ‘Hell’, in Alexander & Rosner (eds.), ‘New dictionary of biblical theology’ (electronic ed. (2001).

[2]Yet many abandonments of the traditional view are to be noted, including F. W. Newman (the Cardinal’s brother who took refuge in Unitarianism), S. T. Coleridge, Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, F. W. Robertson of Brighton, F. D. Maurice, Bishop Colenso of Natal, T. R. Birks of the Evangelical Alliance, Andrew Jukes, Samuel Cox, and others who took up the cudgel for conditional immortality like the redoubtable R. W. Dale of Birmingham and F. J. Delitzsch of Leipzig.72  Dale himself indicated he was drawn to Moody because of Moody’s great compassion for the lost, but ultimately he came to deny everlasting punishment. The defections were on the other side of the Atlantic also and included such a household name as the Quaker writer and preacher, Hannah Whitall Smith, whose The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life was so popular.’, Larsen, ‘Heaven and Hell in the Preaching of the Gospel: A Historical Survey’ Trinity Journal (22.2.255-256), 2001.

[3] ‘In the 1900s, the United States saw a minimal emergence of annihilationism, primarily in new fringe groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists.  But during that century England saw the rise of several books defending this doctrine, such as Archbishop of Durham Richard Wately’s A View of the Scripture Revelations Concerning a Future State (1892), Congregationalist Edward White’s LIfe in Christ (1846), English Baptist Henry Dobney’s The Scripture Doctrine of Future Punishment (1858), and Anglican priest Henry Constable’s Duration and Nature of Future Punishment (1868).’ , Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’, p. 197 (2004).

[4] ‘Referring to this subject, says Edward White, of London, ex-chairman of the great Congregational Union of England and Wales: “It is the one form of evangelical faith, which seems likely to win the sympathy of modern Europe…. Some of the very greatest of men are lending their sanction to the movement.” “It is espoused with ever increasing energy by evangelical scholars in all parts of the world.”’, ibid.

[5] ‘In Germany Richard Rothe, in France and Switzerland Charles Lambert, Charles Byse, and E. Petavel, in Italy Oscar Corcoda, and in America C.F. Hudson and W.F. Huntington have been prominent advocates of conditionalist views, and have won many adherents. Thus Conditionalism has at length, in the 20th cent., taken its place among those eschatological theories which are to be reckoned with.’, Fulford, ‘Conditional Immortality’, in Hastings & Selbie, ‘Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics’, volume 3, p. 824 (1908).

[6] ‘The doctrine of conditional immortality is becoming popular, especially among Christian thinkers.’, Radhakrishnan, ‘An Idealist View of Life; being the Hibbert lectures for 1929.’, p. 283 (2nd ed. 1947).

[7] ‘R. A. Torrey, H. A. Ironside, Paul Rood, John R. Rice, Robert G. Lee, and many others preached on heaven and hell, but they were a vanishing breed.’, Larsen, ‘Heaven and Hell in the Preaching of the Gospel: A Historical Survey’ Trinity Journal (22.2.257), 2001.

[8] ‘We are confronted thus with the problem of conditional immortality. Henry Drummond said that life depends on correspondence with the environment. The human body needs food, drink and oxygen to breathe. But if the body is gone and the environment is spiritual what correspondence can there be on the part of one who has lived only for the needs and lusts of the body?’, ‘A Letter From Roland Bainton On Immortality’, Church & Williams (eds.), ‘Continuity and discontinuity in church history: essays presented to George Huntson Williams’, p. 393 (1979).

[9]Science has learned no more than is expressed in Eccl. 3: 19: ‘For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast.’ “Said Lester F. Ward, A. M., at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.: “The consciousness, when scientifically examined, reveals itself as a quality of brain…. It is a universal induction of science that modification of brain is accompanied by modification of consciousness, and that the destruction of brain results in destruction of consciousness. No exception to this law has ever been observed.”’, Grant, ‘Positive Theology’, chapter 4 (1895).

[10]Dr. Fulke saith plainly, that neither in the Hebrew, Greek, nor Latin, is there a word proper for hell, (as we take hell for the place of punishment of the ungodly.) Fulke’s Defence Translation, pp. 13, 37, 89. Is not this a full testimony against their opinion of the torments of hell?’, Richardson, ‘Torments of Hell’, in Whittermore, ‘The Doctrine of Hell Torments Overthrown: In Three Parts’, pp. 10-11 (1833).

[11]The word hell is not in the Greek; the Greek Word for which they put the English word hell, is gehenna; ge in Greek is the earth, or ground, and henna is borrowed from the Hebrew, from the valley of Hinnom.’, ibid., p. 14.

[12] ‘As a noun, nephesh hath been supposed to signify the spiritual part of man, or what we commonly call his soul; I must for myself confess that I can find no passage where it hath undoubtedly this meaning., Parkhurst, ‘A Hebrew and English lexicon without points: in which the Hebrew and Chaldee words of the Old Testament are explained in their leading and derived senses, To this work are prefixed, a Hebrew and a Chaldee grammar, without points’, p. 460 (1799).

[13] ‘Dr. J. H. M’Culloh says: “There is no word in the Hebrew language that signifies either soul or spirit, in the technical sense in which we use the term as implying something distinct from the body.”  § 55. R. B. Girdlestone, in his Synonyms of the Old Testament, says: “The soul is, properly speaking, the animating principle of the body; and is the common property of man and beast.” “In other words, it is the life, whether of man or beast.” When every passage in the Bible that speaks of the soul of man has been carefully examined, it will be found that these statements of these eminent Hebrew scholars and lexicographers, and many others, are strictly correct, and therefore should be fully believed by all who love the truth.’, Grant, ‘Positive Theology’, chapter 4 (1895).

[14]There are four words in the original language of the Scriptures, all translated hell (though not invariably), each of which, it has long been supposed, denotes this place of woe. Of late, however, that opinion has been discarded.’, Balfour, ‘An Inquiry Into the Scriptural Import of the Words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, Translated Hell in the Common English Version’, p. 9 (rev. ed. 1854).

[15] The original group following the teachings of William Miller, who began preaching his distinctive beliefs in 1833; Miller himself did not believe in conditional immortality, but it was one of a number of beliefs held among the group.

[16] ‘Congregational minister Edward White, whose Life in Christ (1846) espoused the view that immortality was not necessary but conditional on right belief. Instead of suffering perpetual torture, the unsaved were annihilated.’, Wilson, ‘STOKES, George Gabriel’, Bebbington & Noll (eds.), ‘Biographical dictionary of evangelicals’, p. 633 (2003).

[17] Thayer, ‘The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment’ (1855); he was appealed to by subsequent conditionalists due to his reputation as an authoritative lexicographer.

[18] ‘Louis Gaussen, whom Froom mentions on p. 252 with respect to premillennialism, and on p. 602 in connection with Petavel-Olliff, may be remembered almost as an apostle of the biblical doctrine concerning the state of the dead.’, Vauchez, ‘The History of Conditionalism’, Andrews University Seminary Studies, volumes 4-5, pp. 199-200 (1966).

[19] Thomas, ‘Tour in the United States and Canada.—Letter from Dr. Thomas’, The Christadelphian (2.7.105), 1865.

[20]Death is, for the time, the annihilation of man, his hopes, his thoughts, his life, himself —’, Constable, ‘The Intermediate State of Man’, p. 88 (1873).

[21]The unconsciousness of the dead was also set forth by the Swiss pastor Louis Burnier (1795-1873).’, Vauchez, ‘The History of Conditionalism’, Andrews University Seminary Studies, volumes 4-5, p. 199 (1966).

[22]In 1878, some English Baptists formed the Conditionalist Association. George A. Brown, an English Baptist pastor, host’, Pool, ‘Against returning to Egypt: Exposing and Resisting Credalism in the Southern Baptist Convention’, p. 134 (1998).

[23]The theory of the final destruction of the wicked, or, as it is more briefly and correctly named, the theory of “conditional immortality” is this: That men are not created with inherent immortality, with a soul, or body, or both, such as cannot be destroyed, but that immortality is a superadded gift which man’s nature is capable of receiving and which God bestows in such cases as He wills, and that He does not so will in the case of impenitent sinners; hence, it of course follows, that at some time all such offenders will cease to exist.’, Mann, ‘Five Discourses On Future Punishment’, p. (1888).

[24] Grant, ‘Positive Theology’ (1895).

[25]The doctrine of conditional immortality was his principal religious concern.’, Wilson, ‘STOKES, George Gabriel’, Bebbington & Noll (eds.), ‘Biographical dictionary of evangelicals’, p. 633 (2003).

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