Prolepsis and Hell: A Matter of Life and Death – Part 2

In Part 1, we went over prolepsis as a figure of speech, and how it plays out in few occasions within the Bible. Now, the question we must address is how this affects the Bible’s teachings on hell.

As far as the importance of prolepsis goes, it largely comes down, as it so often does, to what the Bible says about death and life. 1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Ephesians 2:1 and Other Life/Death Passages That Muddy The Water

As noted previously, the fact that the unsaved are said to be condemned to death while the saved will inherit life does, at face value, amount to evangelical conditionalism. 2 For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)“. If someone is conscious and suffering in an eternal, post-resurrection hell, then they would be alive, not dead.

However, certain passages in the Bible, especially the New Testament, speak of physically alive people as being “dead” in the present or past tense (e.g. Matthew 8:22, Ephesians 2:1, Romans 7:9-11, Colossians 2:13, 1 Timothy 5:6). Context makes it impossible or effectively impossible for any side to take these passages at face value. This is because these passages would entail either contradictory teachings of physically alive people being physically dead at the same time (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:6), or they would be saying that the people were all physically dead in the grave until God reanimated their bodies like Lazarus (which is technically possible but quite unlikely, especially in view of the overall context). So then, the student of scripture must figure out what was intended by these passages.

The Relevant Traditionalist Model: Death As Conscious Separation From God 3 In Part 3, we will look at an alternative view, held by some traditionalists and some conditionalists as well, which has less of an impact on how language of life and death pertains to hell.

Many traditionalists interpret these passages as teaching that death refers to a state of being consciously separated from God (often using the term “spiritual death”). Since the Ephesians (who will be our main example) were said to have been dead in Ephesians 2:1, and they weren’t corpses, Paul is saying that they were separated from God until God made them (spiritually) alive (verse 5), which means they were no longer separated from God.

With that in mind, this definition of death as separation from God also applies to the final fate of the unsaved. And since this death does not require an end to conscious existence – since the “dead” Ephesians were conscious and physically alive – therefore the unsaved can and will be conscious (and alive) while separated from God forever in hell.

Such an approach takes the timing element at face value, but quite clearly does not do so for the meaning of death. At face value, we all know what death entails. When a body dies, it becomes a corpse. And you can’t torment a corpse. As noted below, even most traditionalists acknowledge that in a literal sense, those in hell must be alive forever if hell is to be a place of eternal torment.

The Proleptic View

In contrast, the proleptic interpretation takes the timing element as being a figure of speech, but treats death language in a much more literal, face value fashion. 4 Technically, someone could believe that these passages are proleptic but that the death language is still metaphorical. However, I don’t know of anyone who does so in practice, nor do I know why anyone would.

How prolepsis would apply to these passages is fairly simple: when it speaks of people being “dead” at a particular time, it was speaking of a future event. The person is/was doomed to die, based on the path they are/were on.

For example, the “dead” who Jesus said should bury their own dead (Matthew 8:22) are those who are alive but headed towards death because they are currently unsaved, just like a literally-alive “dead man walking” who is marched to the gallows (assuming other, equally annihilation-compatible interpretations of “the dead” in this passage are not what was intended). 5One alternative idea is that the man was looking to give his father, who had already died and been buried in the family tomb, a customary second burial of his bones in an ossuary. The line about “the dead” burying his father would be a reference to the family’s physically dead ancestors who would have been buried with him. It would basically be a quip by Jesus, telling the man to focus on him and not an unnecessary ceremony (as the father had already been given a proper burial). 6E.g. Landon Galloway, “Let The Dead Bury Their Dead,” Landon Galloway [Blog], posted February 1, 2016, http://landongalloway.com/2016/02/let-the-dead-bury-the-dead/ (accessed September 19, 2020).

The Ephesians (2:1) and the Colossians (2:13) were “dead” in their sins before coming to Jesus because they were doomed to death – just like Abimelech in Genesis 20:3. And just like with Abimelech, even though their death as punishment for their sins was so certain that it was spoken of as present reality, it didn’t actually come to pass because they changed course when warned by the word of God.

The proleptic response gives a reasonable alternative to the common traditionalist interpretation, one that takes “death” and such language at face value. But beyond that, I will make the case that it is not just a reasonable alternative, but rather, a far better alternative and far better interpretation of such passages.

The Case For The Proleptic Interpretation of The Death Passages

A number of points come into play as to why prolepsis is a better interpretation of the key death passages than the common idea that the term “death” means conscious separation from God whenever the Bible speaks of damnation. That said, at its core, the most significant point is that prolepsis is a common and reasonably well-understood figure of speech, while death as a metaphor for separation from God is anything but.

Death, at Face Value, Is the Antithesis of any Sort of Conscious Existence

Because neither side can take Ephesians 2:1 and similar passages at face value, we have to step back and ask which aspect of the passage is most reasonable to take non-literally, the timing or the meaning of the word “dead.”

It is one thing when your non-literal interpretation is a common figure of speech like prolepsis. It is another thing when your non-literal interpretation of “death” is the opposite of what we normally think of when we think of death as a concept.

In normal human language, people do not think of death as a conscious existence. Any entity that can be conscious is, in the normal course of things, considered alive. By the very nature of human experience, any talk of a conscious entity being being dead is metaphorical. You can torment a living body of a person or sentient animal. You cannot torment a dead body. At some point, it is hard to even argue for this sort of thing because that’s just what words mean and it’s just how people understand them. 7As noted previously, the language is muddled a little bit when dealing with people who have physically died, whose bodies have died while their souls remain alive – if the doctrine of a conscious intermediate state is true. They are called “dead” in Matthew 22:32. However, the soul, the conscious part of such a person, is still considered alive and not dead, as Matthew 10:28 points out. The conscious entity of the soul is still alive in this state. And this ultimately doesn’t matter for the nature of hell because the resurrection means that people do not eternally remain in this dead/alive hybrid state in any view on hell (for the most part). For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)“.

Even when death language is used metaphorically, it normally appeals to the fact that death, at face value, refers to a state of no conscious existence. It sometimes even goes beyond that, serving as a metaphor for no existence at all. People don’t refer to machines or batteries (which are never literally alive or dead) as being “dead” when they cease functioning because they enter a state of suffering or separation from God. They use such language because they cease to move and operate. Similarly, this is seen in figurative uses to describe the end of existence for abstract concepts and practices, e.g. “the death of the middle class” or a recent podcast which described the “death” of the business suit (i.e. the end of the practice of wearing it). 8 “RIP Business Suit?” The Indicator From Planet Money, hosted by Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia, npr, September 24, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/24/916689224/rip-business-suit (accessed October 7, 2020).

Further Points About Death and Evidence Against “Death” As A Metaphor For Separation From God

Of course, this does not mean that the Bible cannot be using death language metaphorically to represent a conscious state of separation from God. Therefore, I will attempt to drive home the point that while this interpretation is possible, there is a lot that weighs against it.

Metaphors, as a general rule, have some connection to the literal idea they are based on. But where does one even get the idea that death in the Bible would be understood as a metaphor for separation from God (especially in a conscious state)? There certainly isn’t any obvious connection in terms of imagery experience. At face value, dead people (or at least dead components of people) have no experience, good or bad. And properly speaking, even if the soul survives the death of the body, such a soul is not dead like the body is in the first place. 9 For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)“.

One would think that if death was used as a metaphor in this counterintuitive way, there would be something in the Bible that lays this out. But this is not the case. Very often, passages like Ephesians 2:1 are pointed to, without explanation, as though they actually prove that the term “dead” is meant this way. They are cited as though it is just obvious that they mean “dead” as in separated from God.

But why would we think that? Why would we be expected to somehow just know that “dead” meant “separated from God (while conscious)”? There certainly is nothing in the passage that gives any explanation that this is what “dead” means. The passage really doesn’t give any explanation about what “dead” means at all.

Traditionalists must assume that separation from God is what is in view. This meaning of death is just read into the passage and taken for granted.

Even More Reasons To Reject The Separation View – It Negates The “Second Death” of Revelation

The book of Revelation refers to hell as “the second death” on four different occasions (2:11, 20:6, 20:14, 21:8). It is often posited that it is a second death because death is defined as separation. Both saved and unsaved suffer the first death when they physically die and their bodies and spirits/souls are separated, and then the unsaved suffer the second death when they are separated from God and sent to hell at judgment. 10 e.g. Adam Clark, “Commentary on Revelation 20“. “The Adam Clarke Commentary”, http://www.studylight.org/com/acc/view.cgi?book=re&chapter=020. 1832. 11 Pink, Arthur W. Eternal Punishment (Arthur Pink Collection) (Prisbrary, 2012). Kindle Locations 528-529.

The problem with this view is that, if the unsaved are already “dead in [their] sins” (e.g. Ephesians 2:1) now, which means they are already separated from God, and they remain in that state since they are never saved, then how can them being separated from God at judgment be considered a second death? They are already “dead” in the same manner in which they are supposed to die at judgment.

For more on this, see Chris Date, “Traditionalism and the Not-So-Second Death.”

Even More Reasons To Reject The Separation View – Traditionalists Using Death Language In Its Normal Sense When Describing Hell

Further evidence that death is just not something we would expect to see as a metaphor for eternal conscious hell is in how traditionalists themselves use and don’t use the term when talking about hell. As is the case with words and phrases like destruction, immortality, fire consuming the damned, etc., traditionalists often talk openly about how, in hell, the unsaved will not die in hell (and conversely, will live forever).

This does, of course, contradict the face value teachings of scripture. It is because of these face value teachings that traditionalism requires a metaphorical definition of death in the Bible. But traditionalists themselves seem to understand that normally, death is the antithesis to what they think hell is (and for a long list of examples, see Episode 58 of the Rethinking Hell podcast).

Just keep that in mind the next time you see a bumper sticker about living forever with up and down arrows or hear 37 different traditionalist preachers repeat the mantra that “everybody lives forever somewhere.”

Did Adam And Eve Spiritually “Die” When They Were Kicked Out of Eden?

The only passage that really even might be seen as showing a connection between death and conscious separation from God – and I am really stretching it here – is Genesis 2:17:

“…but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Since Adam did not drop dead that day, it is reasoned that God must have meant “die” to mean being separated from God, since as far as we know, it was on that literal day that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden and separated from God.

But even this is a very questionable interpretation, and for this reason, many traditionalists themselves don’t take Genesis 2:17 this way. Only some ever appeal to Genesis 2:17 this way, and others specifically argue against such an interpretation. 12 Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, (Wipf & Stock, 2003), 38). 13 Simon Turpin, “Genesis 2 – Defending the Supernatural Creation of Adam,” Answers in Genesis, last modified on September 21, 2016,  https://answersingenesis.org/adam-and-eve/genesis-2-defending-supernatural-creation-adam/ (accessed on September 20, 2020). 14 John Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, (Zondervan, 2001), 175. Many in both camps argue that God’s words were fulfilled because on that day, Adam and Eve were cut off from the tree of life so that they would not live forever (Genesis 3:22-24). They were previously on track to live forever but then became doomed to die.

And this makes sense because, again, there’s no natural connection between the idea of conscious separation from God and death. One still must assume that the passage is implying that we are to somehow understand that God must have just meant “die” as a metaphor for them being (partially) separated from him by being kicked out of the garden (as opposed to the literal death that Adam and Eve ultimately became condemned to as a result of their sin).

No side takes this passage at face value; face value would require Adam to drop dead that literal day – at least according to the English translations. Of the two views in question, it must be asked which one makes more sense.

The first view is that Adam and Eve would become subject to death that day – something substantially equivalent to the idea of prolepsis – which also makes sense in light of God telling Adam of his impending physical death in Genesis 3:19 after Adam and Eve had sinned. God’s words there would be a fulfillment of his previous warning. The second view is that death is a metaphor for not dying and then being kicked out of the garden (at which point Adam and Eve still were less separated from God than many of us are today). Which one really makes more sense – especially since we know Adam and Eve later did die physically (i.e. literally) as a result of their sins and being cut off from the garden?

There has been a lot more detailed examination of Genesis 2:17, and I will include references in the endnotes. 15 Peter Grice, “Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23.” 16 Joseph Dear, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section XI, found at 3-Ring Binder, n.d., https://www.3ringbinder.org/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism__1st_edition_pdf_version__final.pdf (accessed June 2, 2020). But suffice it to say that Genesis 2:17, the only biblical grounds for this metaphor, is a very flimsy foundation.

Concluding Remarks to Part 2

The reason why it matters that the separation-from-God view has so many problems is that, like the proleptic view, it attempts to give us a workable interpretation of passages that, at face value, make no sense. Neither side can take the passages at face value (no one on any side does). So the question becomes, which view is more reasonable? Which one requires the fewest assumptions? Which one has the fewest and the least significant problems?

The proleptic view is an all around better, more straightforward view. It relies on a common figure of speech, not a counter-intuitive metaphor that must be read into the Bible. I understand how it can seem weird at first, but I believe much of that is simply the power of tradition. Once you stop and think about it, it seems clear which view has more going for it.

The prolepsis view just happens to also be the view that puts to rest a major defense of traditionalism, the claim that various passages of the Bible clearly speak of death as being a conscious state that can easily be applied to the experience of those in an everlasting conscious hell.

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1. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2. For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)“.
3. In Part 3, we will look at an alternative view, held by some traditionalists and some conditionalists as well, which has less of an impact on how language of life and death pertains to hell.
4. Technically, someone could believe that these passages are proleptic but that the death language is still metaphorical. However, I don’t know of anyone who does so in practice, nor do I know why anyone would.
5. One alternative idea is that the man was looking to give his father, who had already died and been buried in the family tomb, a customary second burial of his bones in an ossuary. The line about “the dead” burying his father would be a reference to the family’s physically dead ancestors who would have been buried with him. It would basically be a quip by Jesus, telling the man to focus on him and not an unnecessary ceremony (as the father had already been given a proper burial).
6. E.g. Landon Galloway, “Let The Dead Bury Their Dead,” Landon Galloway [Blog], posted February 1, 2016, http://landongalloway.com/2016/02/let-the-dead-bury-the-dead/ (accessed September 19, 2020).
7. As noted previously, the language is muddled a little bit when dealing with people who have physically died, whose bodies have died while their souls remain alive – if the doctrine of a conscious intermediate state is true. They are called “dead” in Matthew 22:32. However, the soul, the conscious part of such a person, is still considered alive and not dead, as Matthew 10:28 points out. The conscious entity of the soul is still alive in this state. And this ultimately doesn’t matter for the nature of hell because the resurrection means that people do not eternally remain in this dead/alive hybrid state in any view on hell (for the most part). For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)“.
8. “RIP Business Suit?” The Indicator From Planet Money, hosted by Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia, npr, September 24, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/24/916689224/rip-business-suit (accessed October 7, 2020).
9. For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)“.
10. e.g. Adam Clark, “Commentary on Revelation 20“. “The Adam Clarke Commentary”, http://www.studylight.org/com/acc/view.cgi?book=re&chapter=020. 1832.
11.  Pink, Arthur W. Eternal Punishment (Arthur Pink Collection) (Prisbrary, 2012). Kindle Locations 528-529.
12. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, (Wipf & Stock, 2003), 38).
13. Simon Turpin, “Genesis 2 – Defending the Supernatural Creation of Adam,” Answers in Genesis, last modified on September 21, 2016,  https://answersingenesis.org/adam-and-eve/genesis-2-defending-supernatural-creation-adam/ (accessed on September 20, 2020).
14. John Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, (Zondervan, 2001), 175.
15. Peter Grice, “Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23.”
16. Joseph Dear, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section XI, found at 3-Ring Binder, n.d., https://www.3ringbinder.org/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism__1st_edition_pdf_version__final.pdf (accessed June 2, 2020).
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