John 17:3 Does Not Change The Meaning of “Eternal Life”

It should be apparent why evangelical conditionalists appeal to passages that use the term “eternal life.” The Bible only attributes the fate of eternal life (or life in general) to the redeemed, in contrast to death for the unsaved (e.g. Romans 6:23). At face value, the phrase “eternal life” would mean life that lasts for eternity. If only the saved inherit life that lasts for eternity, then the wicked do not live forever. And therefore, the wicked cannot be tormented forever.

For that reason, traditionalism requires that the life and death language in the Bible be metaphorical whenever it is applied to final judgment.
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The Eternal Joys of The Life To Come Do Not Change The Meaning of “Life”

As many readers will likely be familiar with, one of the main questions in the debate over the nature and duration of hell is what is meant by the term “life” in the Bible when it speaks of the fate of the saved. 1 For more on the broader debate about the language of life and death as applied to final judgment, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Life and Death in the Bible” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Many conditionalists, of course, are happy to take such language at face value. But face value is not always correct, whether in regards to the Bible or in life, and so traditionalists often argue that there are good reasons to interpret such language differently. 2Regarding the matter of reading scripture at face value, see “Traditionalism and Annihilationism in Light of the Face Value Meaning of Scripture”.

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1. For more on the broader debate about the language of life and death as applied to final judgment, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Life and Death in the Bible” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
2. Regarding the matter of reading scripture at face value, see “Traditionalism and Annihilationism in Light of the Face Value Meaning of Scripture”.

Prolepsis and Hell: A Matter of Life and Death – Part 3

Having now gone over prolepsis in the Bible, and how prolepsis pertains to the language of life and death, here in Part 3 we will address the final, nagging questions and remaining issues. Are there situations where the term “death” is neither proleptic nor literal? What about talk of eternal life in the present-tense? And what about the alternative interpretation of passages like Ephesians 2:1 that was alluded to in Part 2?

Is “Death” Ever used Figuratively in the Bible?

Yes. But this isn’t nearly as big of a hurdle to the case for the proleptic interpretation of the key death passages as some may try to claim.

Granted, the case for prolepsis and against death as a metaphor for (conscious) separation from God would be even stronger if there was never a time where death was metaphorical in the Bible. But when we look at the instances where death language is metaphorical, it will become clear that these instances do not help the separation-from-God model very much because of the following:

  1. These instances of death do not speak of hell, damnation, or punishment for sin.
  2. None of these passages are ostensibly about separation from God.
  3. These instances of death language either apply directly to believers, or apply to neutral situations that could be applied to believers (unlike “dead in your sins” or the like).
  4. The whole reason we know these are metaphors is because they are materially different from the passages used to support the separation-from-God model. Unlike those passages, these passages that we all agree use death language metaphorically have no reasonable alternative (at least as far as I can tell). There is no reasonable way to interpret the death language in any literal sense.
  5. Insofar as the death language in these passages is metaphorical, it involves a metaphor that still has some connection to what death is typically understood to mean.

The “Die To” Passages

The bulk of these passages are the ones where a New Testament writer speaks of “dying to” something. For example, Paul declares that believers must not choose to keep sinning because we have “died to sin” (Romans 6:2).

The same general theme occurs in different uses of this metaphor. Something which believers were once tied to and even ruled over, they are now no longer mastered by.

In the case of Romans 6:2, Paul expounds upon this metaphor of dying to sin:

“…knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:6-7).

Here, this figurative death frees us from being slaves. Paul goes further, speaking of believers having a “body” of sin. Our freedom from sin is represented by this body dying (even though the people reading this were alive and their literal bodies were alive).

The best way I can think of this death imagery – all of which is applied to believers, who are not “spiritually dead” – is to see the point that your sinful tendencies are supposed to cease. The so-called body of sin is dead and so therefore, sin is dead. Of course, this is aspirational; the New Testament points out that believers sometimes sin in this life and therefore we aren’t truly dead to sin until the end. But it is still the goal. Figuratively speaking, the old, sinful self is dead. This old self was a slave to sin, but since it is dead, the slavery relationship has ended. It is as if the old you died and a new person lives now.

We see this sort of death metaphor again in Romans 7:6, when it says “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (emphasis added). In this case, it seems clear enough that to “die to” something in these kinds of contexts is for someone who was bound to something to no longer be bound. And that makes sense because death ends these relationships. In fact, in the context of Romans 7:6, Paul laid this out in the preceding verses by pointing out that when a member of a marriage dies, the marriage relationship ends. Paul didn’t just say “died to” and then expect us to understand the meaning as though it were obvious. Paul is saying that you have died to the Law to make the point that the covenant has ended, like how a marriage ends when one party dies (except that you, not the Law, “died” to make it happen).

Similar things can be said when speaking of “dying to sin” in Romans 6. Like the Romans, previously, we were “slaves to sin” and sin reigned in our bodies. But sin cannot reign in you when you are dead. What good is a dead slave? The point is that you are as good as dead as far as your old master, sin, is concerned.

Luke 15 And the Parable of The Prodigal Son

Now, in theory this could be proleptic. However, I actually think another metaphor is in view here – although perhaps Jesus is using a play on words, where the father in the parable uses the language in one sense but we are also supposed to think of the other sense as well.

In this case, one could think that the father is using the language of “dead” and “alive” to mean separation vs. a relationship, utilizing the special, Bible-only metaphor that I have been arguing against.

But there is another (albeit somewhat similar) interpretation that doesn’t require a special, Bible-technical meaning of death and life, while still making sense of such language in this particular context.

I believe that what makes the most sense in this context is simply that the father was speaking figuratively for the fact that he thought he would never see his son again. He loved his son but thought he was gone forever – just like if his son was dead. He probably truly mourned as if his son were dead (if not formally with the proper ceremonies, then at least in his own heart).

His son coming again meant that he was wrong, and he would see his son again. And while the father loved his prodigal son and ran out to hug and kiss him even before he asked for forgiveness, the son did apologize to his father before the father made the reference to being once dead but now alive. So by the time the father declared that his son had been dead but was alive, it was clear that his son was back for real.

From the father’s perspective, it was as if his son were dead and had come back to life.

Perhaps one could argue that, given this interpretation, maybe the death-as-separation interpretation makes sense from God’s perspective. People who are separated from God are “dead” in that God loves them but they are separated from him and it is as though they are dead to God.

I can’t say that there is nothing to this idea, but it does raise some issues.

  1. There is the glaring fact that God is the judge of the wicked and is himself the one who inflicts the punishment of hell (and therefore, the second death) upon them. Recall that Jesus himself (who of course is in his very nature God) is the one who comes in fire and fury in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 and sends the wicked to hellfire in Matthew 25:41-46. 1 For the references to the term “eternal fire” in Verse 41, see “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire'” – Part 1 and Part 2. For references to “eternal punishment” in Verse 46, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment” Part 1 and Part 2. The parable only shows one aspect of God’s relationship to mankind, but in total, the same God who is represented by the father in the parable of the prodigal son is also the judge and executioner.
  2. There is still the dilemma of how those who are already “dead” can suffer a “second death” where death means separation from God in both cases (referenced in Part 2 and addressed in detail in Chris Date, “Traditionalism and the Not-So-Second Death“). If the wicked are “dead” to God because from God’s perspective they are gone like the prodigal son was, then aren’t they already “dead” to him by being separated from him (like the Ephesians)?

There are very reasonable ways to interpret the use of life and death language in this passage that do not require us to assume that such language is metaphorical for separation vs. relationship.

Does This Mean That We Do Not Currently Have “Eternal Life”?

I do believe that, properly speaking, the passages that speak of believers having “eternal life” are proleptic, referring to the future and not our current state.

But hear me out. I know that this sounds outrageous to some. I know that it feels wrong to say it. But I truly believe that it is what the Bible teaches.

We see this in Luke 18:29-30, for example:

And He [Jesus] said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”

Why would Jesus specify that we receive eternal life “in the age to come,” in contrast to the other (earthly) blessings mentioned, if it is something we have right now?

Similarly, as every traditionalist who has ever lived has pointed out, Matthew 25:46 parallels the eternal punishment of the unsaved with the eternal life of the saved. But, based on that same passage, it is clear that eternal life is something that the saved enter into at that time, not now. After all, the unsaved are not currently in their “eternal punishment.” They are not in their final state. They are not in eternal fire (cf. verse 41). Well, if the parallel between eternal punishment and eternal life is that important…

Not to mention, the text itself speaks of both fates as being something new that those involved enter into. It tells us “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (emphasis mine). Why would the righteous be going away to eternal life if they already have eternal life in the same sense as they will have it in the future?

In light of this, prolepsis reconciles these two ideas. Properly speaking, eternal life is something we will have in the future. And this makes sense, since if we had life that lasts forever now, we wouldn’t die. Even if the soul is conscious (and therefore alive) after the body dies, having a dead body still means you are not fully and truly alive as far as the Bible is concerned. This is why Jesus could say that those who are physically dead will not truly be among “the living” until the resurrection in Matthew 22:31-32. 2For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Part 2“. However, proleptically, we can be said to have eternal life because Jesus has secured it for us.

And that is no small thing: We have, in our secure possession, the right to obtain life because God has given it to us. We have the deed; we just aren’t in the house yet. We have the title; we’re just waiting on the car to be delivered. There is nothing soul-crushing about the way that we “have” eternal life now. This understanding of it is just a more logically coherent and biblically consistent way of understanding the whole already/not yet state that we as believers currently abide in.

Comments Regarding a Third Meaning of “Dead” in Ephesians 2:1 et. al

Regarding the passages such as Ephesians 2:1 and the present-tense descriptions of people as “dead,” there is one other main view held by Christian interpreters of the Bible, one that is especially popular in Reformed circles. It basically holds that “dead” is a metaphor for being so depraved that you cannot even respond to God, and so being made alive is God regenerating you so that you can respond to him in faith. That view, while holding that the language of death is a metaphor in these passages, is not a main focus here. This is because:

  • That metaphorical “death” cannot be the punishment of the saved; almost no one thinks that Romans 6:23 and the like warn that God will punish the unsaved by making them hard-hearted against Him (especially if they already are).
  • The metaphor appeals to the literal meaning of death. The idea is that the unsaved are spiritually like corpses, and to even respond to God, God has to bring them back to life so they become like conscious, living humans.
  • Many of the points raised against taking “dead” to mean separated from God (even while alive) apply to this view as well. 3 Admittedly, some conditionalists do hold this third view. I don’t, but perhaps they can make a better case for it than I currently believe can be made.

The third bullet point is why I reject this view.  Just as nowhere in the Bible does it ever actually lay out death as a metaphor for conscious separation from God, and therefore this must be assumed and read into the text, so it is here. Nothing in the Bible indicates that this is what it means to be “dead.” This whole meaning of death is determined separately, based on systematic theology, and then imposed upon the text. The text itself doesn’t say any of it.

Because of the first and second bullet points, even if one does hold to this alternative, more Reformed view, it is not nearly as useful to the traditionalist case as the separation-from-God view. The separation-from-God view, if accepted, and if all of its many problems are resolved, would give reason to say that the Bible’s use of the term “death” to describe the fate of the wicked could reasonably involve conscious existence. If Ephesians 2:1, for example, is saying that the Ephesians were consciously separated from God, then it could mean that hell entails separation from God – not withstanding the fact that hell would not really be a second death (Revelation 20:14, 21:8) since people are already “dead” (i.e. separated from God) prior to going to hell and being made dead (i.e. separated from God). 4 Date, “Traditionalism and the (Not So) Second Death“..

The alternative, common Reformed view does not provide this advantage for the eternal torment doctrine. Since the Ephesians would not be “dead” in the same way that people would later be subject to “death” as the wages of sin, their former state of so-called spiritual death doesn’t give an alternative meaning of what the unsaved will be condemned to in hell. And when your metaphor requires comparing death to the state of corpses, you are not doing any favors to the idea of death being consistent with everlasting conscious anything.

Conclusion

There are two main points that I would like to leave you with, regarding prolepsis and hell.

The first is that, even if I am wrong and the Bible does use “death” as a metaphor to describe a current state of being separated from God in passages like Ephesians 2:1, this does not by any means prove eternal torment or disprove annihilation. It would only mean that one of the arguments for annihilation, the language of life and death in the Bible, is weakened. It would mean that passages which speak of death for the unsaved could describe an eternal, conscious state, not that they do.

In fact, consider this: Adam and Eve being separated from God by being kicked out of the garden of Eden is sometimes said to be an example of spiritual death. But what was the result of that separation from God? It was physical death. They were cut off not only from the joy of fellowship but also from the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). They were conscious for a time but then physically died as a direct result of their so-called spiritual death. So why would we assume that those in hell live forever after being cut off from God, the giver of life?

The second takeaway is this: I cannot emphasize enough how much non-proleptic interpretations of the key, present-tense death passages must assume and impose upon the text. This is especially true for the idea that death, when applied in present tense to sinners and also applied to the final fate of the unsaved, means separation from God that can be endured consciously.

Ask yourselves, and ask any traditionalist who appeals to passages like Ephesians 2:1 to show that death just means separation in the Bible, the following question: how could one ever actually come to that conclusion from the text except by just taking that definition for granted? Ask for a case to be made. Ask for an actual explanation of the logic of how one gets to that conclusion.

The results may be jarring.

As for prolepsis, it sometimes boggles my mind how dismissive or even outright hostile to the idea some people are. It is as though utilizing a figure of speech like prolepsis (which the Bible undoubtedly does in places) is crazy, but assuming that the word “dead” has essentially nothing to do with the idea of actual death is clearly and obviously the reasonable and correct interpretation.

But in due time that sort of thing can change. Getting people to rise above their biases and preconceived notions is challenging, not impossible. Hopefully, you the reader are leaving here either with a much stronger case to convince your traditionalist friends with or, perhaps, you are beginning to rethink this issue yourself. Whatever the case, I hope this dive into prolepsis and hell has been worth the slog, and, if you’re a theology buff like me, maybe even a little bit of fun. God bless you.

1. For the references to the term “eternal fire” in Verse 41, see “What the Bible Actually Says about ‘Eternal Fire'” – Part 1 and Part 2. For references to “eternal punishment” in Verse 46, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment” Part 1 and Part 2.
2. For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Part 2“.
3. Admittedly, some conditionalists do hold this third view. I don’t, but perhaps they can make a better case for it than I currently believe can be made.
4. Date, “Traditionalism and the (Not So) Second Death“.

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.
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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.

Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 3)

Part 3 will address one final issue that may come up here, as well as tie up loose ends and bring this look at “life” and “death” to a close. This final issue will likely receive fuller treatment in the future, but for now, I think we can understand what needs to be understood.

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Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)

At Rethinking Hell, we put great emphasis on the fact that conditionalism does not stand or fall on a specific view of the intermediate state, or a specific view of the human soul. We were all conceived as physical beings, we are born as physical beings, and one way or another, core to Christianity is the belief that however long we live after judgment, we live as physical beings into the age to come. Ultimately, the question of the soul and the intermediate state does directly affect the nature of hell.

That said, the intermediate state, the time between the death of the body and the resurrection (when it is usually believed that the soul is still alive – and I phrase it that way on purpose), does impact our discussion about how the Bible speaks of death and life. That will be the focus in Part 2.

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Prolepsis and Hell: A Matter of Life and Death – Part 1

Prolepsis. It’s not a word that the average person uses in day-to-day life, but it is an idea that we are all familiar with. 1 The following has been adapted from a blog post on my 3-Ring Binder blog on October 5, 2016 titled “Prolepsis and the Bible: When Future Events Are Spoken of As Current Reality.” Used with permission.

The idea behind prolepsis is quite simple. Merriam-Webster defines it primarily as “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.”

There are times when future events are described as being present realities. This is true in life and in the scriptures. And this is especially important when evaluating any argument made that says because the Bible speaks of something in the present tense, it therefore is saying that whatever is being spoken of is in fact a present reality.

This common figure of speech applies to the many things in scripture, and hell is no exception. Most notably, language of death and life in the Bible follows this pattern. Missing this can cause one to impose onto the Bible strange and baseless definitions of terms like “life” and “death,” often while mistakenly believing that they are in fact the ones taking the language literally or in a straightforward manner.

Before we see how this plays out in the hell discussion, it is important to get a good grip of what prolepsis is and how it plays out, both in scripture and outside of it. This is because the relationship between prolepsis and the question of hell is largely an extension of its relationship to the rest of the Bible and the doctrines within it.
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1. The following has been adapted from a blog post on my 3-Ring Binder blog on October 5, 2016 titled “Prolepsis and the Bible: When Future Events Are Spoken of As Current Reality.” Used with permission.

Evangelical Conditionalism and Degrees of Punishment In Hell – Part 2

Having examined the underwhelming biblical case for eternal torment over evangelical conditionalism based on degrees of punishment in Part 1, a number of philosophical questions about God’s justice remain.

In Light of Eternity, Few Christians See Final Punishment As Truly Proportional

The traditionalist case is that final punishment is really only just if a worse sinner has a worse fate than a less wicked sinner, and that worse fate continues to be worse throughout eternity. Annihilation, of course, does not meet that standard.

However, this standard is not nearly as strong as it may sound at first. It is not a biblical view, so it does not have the firm, objective basis of scripture. Beyond that, eternal torment, within the framework of a Christian worldview, must concede more to the annihilationist view than many traditionalists realize. The effects of eternity and the concept of infinity take a lot of the force out of the traditionalist case here.
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Evangelical Conditionalism and Degrees of Punishment In Hell – Part 1

A common argument against evangelical conditionalism, part biblical and part philosophical, is that the Bible and basic justice teach that not all sinners will be punished with the exact same severity. 1Harry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), 39. 2Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife, (Bethany House, 1984), 154. 3John Walvoord, “The Literal View” in Four Views on Hell, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett (Zondervan, 1996), 21.

From both the biblical and philosophical standpoints, I will say that the argument for eternal torment and against annihilationism, based on degrees of punishment, would have a lot more weight if:

  1. Evangelical conditionalism entailed that all the wicked were instantly annihilated at death without any conscious awareness of anything leading up to their final end, and:
  2. The traditional view did not, for the most part, entail the belief that even a single sin of any sort warrants infinite punishment and infinite pain and suffering. 4Regarding the view that a single sin only warrants finite punishment but the damned sin continually in hell, Part 2. 5 Portions adapted from Joseph Dear. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism (n.d.), Section XXIV, 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 on April 24, 2020).

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1. Harry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), 39.
2. Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife, (Bethany House, 1984), 154.
3. John Walvoord, “The Literal View” in Four Views on Hell, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett (Zondervan, 1996), 21.
4. Regarding the view that a single sin only warrants finite punishment but the damned sin continually in hell, Part 2.
5. Portions adapted from Joseph Dear. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism (n.d.), Section XXIV, 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 on April 24, 2020).

Do Annihilationists Believe that People Cease to Exist? (It Depends – and That’s Okay)

Does annihilationism mean that people cease to exist?

The fact is, there are often two different meanings of existence and the ceasing thereof at play when this question arises. For that reason, it is important that we define our terms and not equivocate.

The First Definition

The first idea involves a sort of brute, cosmic obliteration that destroys even the atoms a person was made of. Annihilationism does not necessarily deny this sort of ceasing to exist per se, but at the very least, this sense of complete annihilation is not necessary for evangelical conditionalism or annihilationism to be true.

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