Rethinking Hell 10 Year Anniversary! – History and Reflection (Part 1)

On April 29th, 2012, a Facebook group called Rethinking Hell was created by a Christian apologist in Australia named Peter Grice. 1 Due to geographical differences, the date of the group’s formation was April 30, 2012 in Australia. The world has never been the same since. 2 This statement may be a bit exaggerated.

Early on, Peter brought on three fellow stewards to help run the ministry:

  • Chris Date of the Theopologetics podcast.
  • Joshua Anderson: scholar and missionary.
  • Greg Stump: a Baptist pastor with a dream to release a collection of top annihilationist writings that would eventually become our 2014 anthology, Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism.

They were also joined by contributors who had studied the topic of final punishment in-depth. This included Dr. Glenn Peoples, Ronnie Demler of the Consuming Fire blog, and, through a series of little things that happened to work out, yours truly. And the late Edward Fudge – the kind and humble titan of the movement – gave us encouragement, our first podcast interview, and one of the first cash donations to the ministry to get us going.

Ten years have gone by since that fateful day on Facebook. Many names and faces have come and gone, but the various ways that they have positively influenced the ministry and the greater debate on the nature and duration of hell remain. Since then, the ministry has grown and developed into an official non-profit organization. A second anthology of essays on hell, a festschrift in honor of Edward Fudge, was published in 2015. There have been hundreds of articles, podcasts, and videos. There have been eight conferences in multiple US States, England, and New Zealand. There have been numerous formal debates over video conferencing and in-person. And in many different forums and venues, there have been countless interactions and discussions between believers in the Lord Jesus Christ about a topic that many do not want to discuss, but one that we are all better for discussing when we do it.

I certainly like to think that, in all of this, a lot of good has been accomplished, and that this is only the beginning.

Ways I Have Been Blessed

Has Rethinking Hell been a blessing to you? I certainly hope so. Or, if you are new, that it soon will be.

Nevertheless, I figure that rather than telling all of you how much Rethinking Hell has helped you, I should instead contribute to this time of reflection and retrospective by sharing how I have been blessed by being part of this project over the last decade:

  • Community: This is the most obvious one. I have made friends along the way. I’ve gotten to form ministry and personal relationships with people who would otherwise just be names on the internet. If you’ve never been to a Rethinking Hell conference, I must say that, while the topic is as serious as a heart attack, the conferences are also a pretty great time. You meet new people, and you also get to finally shake hands and hug and do finger guns at people you knew online but who now become real. I have been personally blessed quite a bit by all of this.
  • Opportunity to sharpen my exegetical and critical thinking skills: Repetition makes ready, and studying a like this topic in-depth requires you to learn, to study, and to learn how to learn and study. And in my experience, doing this for one topic spills over into other topics. You are exposed to new knowledge and new ideas, some of which will change your mind. Even exposure to bad arguments helps you learn not only why they are bad, but how and why people come to believe what they believe. I believe I am a better expositor and thinker in general because of this project, and I hope to grow even more as time goes on.
  • An anchor: Life can get busy and things can get away from you. Having a reason to regularly keep my mind on the things of God has helped my spiritual life in many ways across the seasons of life.

For me, this has been (and continues to be) a labor of love. There would be no point in expending the time, energy, and resources needed for us to run the Rethinking Hell project if it was not benefiting others. But it would be dishonest and painfully false martyrdom if I were to pretend I have not also been blessed by the whole thing – including by you, the reader.

A Few Other Fun Questions:

    • Favorite Podcast Interview: The first podcast interview, with Edward Fudge, of course.
    • Favorite Conference: All the conferences I have been to have been great, but I will give this one to the 2018 conference in Plano (Dallas), Texas.
    • Something Fun I Didn’t Expect: How great Whataburger is. I live in California, so I have great burger chains like In N’ Out. Nevertheless, after trying it the first time at the 2014 conference in Houston, TX,  I make sure to eat at Whataburger whenever we have a conference or event in Texas or surrounding states.

Happy Anniversary!

There will be more content celebrating this anniversary soon. But for now, to all our donors, fans, advocates, and you the reader (even if this is your first time), we thank you all so much! The Rethinking Hell project would not be what it is without you.

References
1 Due to geographical differences, the date of the group’s formation was April 30, 2012 in Australia.
2 This statement may be a bit exaggerated.

The Gospel of Parallelism Between Heaven and Hell – A Fallacious Basis For Eternal Conscious Hell

The traditional doctrine of hell has a number of scripture passages used to support it, a number of theological and philosophical arguments to support it, and no shortage of major church figures to appeal to in order to give it credibility. It also is based on some major assumptions that have little or no support.

One assumption that often comes up is a general paradigm, a general presumption, that the eternal and conscious experience of the kingdom of God to come (called “heaven” here for convenience) must be mirrored by hell. Therefore, just as heaven is eternal, conscious reward and joy, so hell must be eternal, conscious punishment and suffering.

I call this phenomenon the gospel of parallelism because it is so deeply ingrained in the minds of many and it influences how they approach hell broadly, as well as how they interpret certain passages. Needless to say, it is not an issue that actually affects the gospel that the Bible considers of the utmost importance in passages like Galatians 1:6-9 or 1 Corinthians 15:2-9. Nevertheless, this paradigm is of great influence for many, and the name is easy to remember.

That said, although this general assumption does appear in more developed literature – such as when Matthew 25:46 comes up – it is usually in more informal settings, such as social media and in-person conversations, that the assumptions are presented more explicitly.

This is something I have seen and thought about for years, and it is something I was reminded of in a recent conversation with another conservative, evangelical Christian. She had not spent much time studying the topic previously, but was beginning to do so and, therefore, had a number of questions and concerns.

At several points, she brought up philosophical or theological concerns about annihilationism, and an assumed parallelism between the eternal conscious experience of heaven and the experience of hell was part of that discussion. In addition to a few relevant passages that come up, I will bring up a couple of specific claims from that conversation that are representative of these kids of arguments for eternal conscious hell.

Matthew 25:46 and the Parallelism Between “Everlasting Life” and “Everlasting Punishment.”

Matthew 25:46 is perhaps the most commonly cited passage in favor of eternal torment in the whole Bible, and the fact that it grammatically parallels elements of heaven and hell is a big reason why.

 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal 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.

Matthew 25:46 has been dealt with in depth on this site, of course. For a more in-depth look, see “Matthew 25:46 Does Not Prove Eternal Torment,” Part 1 and Part 2. 2 For additional discussion on specific aspects of this passage, see Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns” and “Falling Into Error: Grasping at Straws in Matthew 25:46“.

Note: For our purposes here, the English words “eternal” and “everlasting” are to be used interchangeably, as the two are translated from the same Greek and Hebrew words in the relevant passages. Arguments based on a distinction between the two English terms have no basis in the actual, God-breathed text of scripture.

The argument for eternal torment from this passage is that both “life” and “punishment” are qualified as eternal/everlasting.  Since those in Christ will live forever with the Lord, the unsaved must be punished forever (since both are said to be everlasting). Therefore, if the unsaved are punished forever, they consciously exist forever.

The meat of the conditionalist response, in a nutshell, is that conditionalists can fully grant that in this passage, both the life and punishment are said to be eternal. This does not challenge annihilationism, since annihilation, as the permanent and eternal loss of life, can properly be called eternal punishment.

Conditionalism does not require denying parallelism. It simply requires that we assert a parallelism only where the Bible actually demonstrates one and not assume more is parallel than what is in the actual text.

This will be a recurring theme. If we do not impose upon the Bible parallels between heaven and hell beyond what is in the actual text, there simply is no case for eternal conscious hell that is based on the Bible paralleling heaven and hell.

Regarding Matthew 25:46, a conditionalist can treat “eternal punishment” the same as “eternal redemption” in Hebrews 9:12, “eternal judgment” in Hebrews 6:2, the “eternal sin” of Mark 3:29, etc.

In each of those cases, the “eternal + [noun of action]” does not speak of the underlying action continuing eternally. 3 For more on deverbal nouns (i.e. nouns of action) and the relationship to hell, see Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns“. God is not judging for eternity. Jesus is not redeeming us throughout eternity (Hebrews 9:12 makes a point that He completed it once and never again). Rather, these actions occur (e.g. judging, redeeming), and the consequences (judgment, redemption) are what go on for eternity. It would be the same here, for Matthew 25:46. God punishes the unsaved by killing them (i.e. inflicting the second death of Revelation 21:8). They are alive and conscious to be punished at that point in time. Once punished, the result, their punishment (i.e. being dead and deprived of life in every sense), lasts for eternity.

Contrary to popular assumptions, eternal punishment does not require the ongoing act of punishing to continue throughout eternity.

With that all in mind, the only thing that the scripture here keeps paralleled is that the Greek words translated as “life” and “punishment” are both qualified with the Greek word aionios. Even if we grant that aionios properly means everlasting, and that it is meant the same way when describing punishment and life, this does not indicate that hell is an eternal conscious existence.

One may object that since life is both eternal and conscious, therefore punishment must also be eternal and conscious. However, the passage does not say “eternal and conscious,” does it? That conclusion is therefore just an assumption, not an interpretation of anything in the text.

Daniel 12:2 and the Parallelism Between “Everlasting Life” and “Everlasting Contempt.”

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.

Like Matthew 25:46, Daniel 12:2 parallels the everlasting life of the saved with one aspect of the fate of the unsaved as also being everlasting. Note that it does not say that “heaven” and “hell” are both everlasting. Only a specific element of the fate of the unsaved is called “everlasting,” and it does not require that the unsaved people be conscious (i.e. alive) for eternity for this to be fulfilled.

In this case, what is qualified as everlasting is the Hebrew deraon, often translated as “contempt.” As has been noted before, this only describes how others (i.e. the saved) will regard the wicked who are ultimately lost. One need not be conscious and feeling anything to be viewed with contempt. Even atheists would have no qualms about saying that they view the worst villains of history with contempt, even though they believe that those men have truly ceased to exist.

And for good measure, the one other time the Old Testament uses deraon is in Isaiah 66:24, describing the disgust with which the living look at the corpses of those who rebelled against God. 4 https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1860.htm. 5 Isaiah 66:24 is very relevant to the doctrine of hell in its own right, especially given its connection to Mark 9:48. For more on this, see: “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism – Mark 9:48“; Chris Date, “Their Worm Does Not Die: Annihilation and Mark 9:48“; “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation and Mark 9:48 (Part 2)“; Glenn Peoples, “Worms and Fire: The Rabbis or Isaiah“.

For more on Daniel 12:2, see “Daniel 12:2 Does Not Teach Eternal Torment“.

Other Parallels and Fallacious Understandings of Silent Passages

For both Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2, there can be a temptation to say that they both say heaven and hell are everlasting. However, the text of each passage is much narrower and more specific. Anything beyond that is an extrabiblical imposition onto the text. This is where we really see the gospel of parallelism really show itself.

Notice that I am not saying that because neither text teaches parallelism between the length of life in heaven and the conscious experience (i.e. life) of damnation, therefore these texts refute eternal conscious hell. I am only saying that these particular texts are silent on the issue.

Many of you reading this probably have understood that and will find this disclaimer to be a bit redundant. However, I have found that with a lot of people, they have trouble really being able to accept the idea that a specific passage of scripture could be silent or ambiguous on an issue. This is not unique to the topic of hell.

For them, to say that their view is not taught in a passage is to insist that the passage directly teaches against their view. The idea that a passage just isn’t decisive on its own just does not click in their minds. For people like me who use Excel frequently, it is the theological equivalent of a #REF! error. It simply cannot be.

However, I am not saying that because Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2 do not specifically teach that the conscious experience of hell is everlasting, therefore they teach annihilationism. I do believe that they serve as evidence for annihilation for other reasons (see below), but all I am saying here is that we cannot cite passages like these as authoritatively giving us parallels between heaven and hell beyond what is in the text.

With that in mind, understand that at no point does any passage of scripture paint a parallel between heaven and hell such that we can rightfully infer that hell is an eternal conscious experience like heaven. Simply pointing out that a passage speaks of the fates of saved and unsaved together does not prove that both are eternal conscious experiences.

In fact, given that several passages directly contrast the fate of the saved and unsaved as respectively being life versus death and otherwise not-life (e.g. John 3:16, 5:29, Romans 6:23), the comparisons between heaven and hell in the Bible would appear to show us the opposite. Even the supposed parallels in Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2 ultimately serve as a contrast this way: both speak of going to heaven as entailing life, with the logical implication that the fate of the unsaved, their punishment and their state of being viewed with contempt, entails not having life.

So much for the saying “everybody lives forever somewhere.”

Now then, as mentioned earlier, I recently had a conversation with a traditionalist about hell, and a few instances of the gospel of parallelism came up more directly. As I did there, in person, I will address them here as well.

Claim: Heaven Is Everlasting (and Conscious) So Hell Must Also Be Everlasting (and Conscious)

This claim comes in variations as well, such as “if heaven is literal then hell must be literal” (with “literal” being a stand-in to mean eternal and conscious).

But why would this be so? Why must this be the case? One might presume that this is the meaning of Matthew 25:46, but as shown above and demonstrated more in-depth elsewhere, this is not the case. That which is qualified as everlasting, the punishment, is consistent with annihilation.

This sort of thing can be hard to refute in some cases because, as was the case in that conversation, there isn’t really an argument to rebut in the first place. It is just presumed to be that way. It is just ingrained in the minds of many that it just is that way. This presumption is often bolstered by passages like Matthew 25:46 and Daniel 12:2, which then leads it to be read into those passages in a vicious cycle of sorts.

And so, the question that must always be asked with something like this is the simple question of where the Bible actually teaches this. Where does the Bible ever actually tie the length of hell’s conscious experience with that of heaven? It does so nowhere.

What is parallel in passages like Matthew 25:46 is the everlasting length of the two things qualified as everlasting. Any other parallels are assumed and not actually part of the text. So then, what is our actual authoritative source of doctrine? Is it our presumptions, or is it the Bible?

Claim: For Good to Exist, Evil Must Exist. Therefore, If There Is Always Good Then There Must Always Be Evil

This general claim about good and evil is made at times in philosophical circles, but I do not believe I have ever seen this used as an argument for eternal conscious hell by traditionalists in books or literature. I only recall hearing it in conversations and social media. This is understandable, since this view is probably the easiest argument to refute of all.

This argument for eternal conscious hell, and this general claim that evil is necessary for good to exist, is disproven by the fact that God existed in eternity past before creation. Before God created the world, he was the only thing that existed. And yet, God is good and not evil. This means that, at one point, there was only good and no evil. God’s very existence and nature disproves the idea that there must always be evil – and therefore, conscious hell – forever.

Conclusion

It is not enough to just point out that heaven is an eternal, conscious experience to prove that hell is also an eternal conscious experience. A logical connection must be made. That connection is not made in scripture. That connection is not made by the logic of the Christian worldview, especially given that the Christian worldview itself teaches that eternity past had no evil and only good because it had only God.

Because our lives as humans often have a strong sense of balance and dualism, a need for yin and yang, this can be read into eschatology. But as believers, we already abandon a need for this sort of metaphysical balance. We look forward to living in an eternal world without a balance of good and evil, comfort and pain, happiness and mourning. We expect to know only joy and goodness and to be free of the former things that bring us down now (e.g. Revelation 21:4).

We should not be tempted to see symmetry where there is none. Our question should be what God has revealed in the Bible. The more one looks into this matter, the more one should expect to find a final end to the wicked and an eternal world, lopsided in favor of beauty and grace, where God is all-in-all. 6 For more on the biblical vision of eternity, see Rethinking Hell Podcast Episode 4 (starting about 18:00).

References
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 additional discussion on specific aspects of this passage, see Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns” and “Falling Into Error: Grasping at Straws in Matthew 25:46“.
3 For more on deverbal nouns (i.e. nouns of action) and the relationship to hell, see Chris Date, “‘Punishment’ and the Polysemy of Deverbal Nouns“.
4 https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1860.htm.
5 Isaiah 66:24 is very relevant to the doctrine of hell in its own right, especially given its connection to Mark 9:48. For more on this, see: “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism – Mark 9:48“; Chris Date, “Their Worm Does Not Die: Annihilation and Mark 9:48“; “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation and Mark 9:48 (Part 2)“; Glenn Peoples, “Worms and Fire: The Rabbis or Isaiah“.
6 For more on the biblical vision of eternity, see Rethinking Hell Podcast Episode 4 (starting about 18:00).

Evangelical Conditionalism and the Image of God

One of the more common theological arguments against evangelical conditionalism is that it is inconsistent with man being created in God’s image.

There are two main ways in which this plays out. These two lines of argumentation are separate but not mutually exclusive.

The first is that God is immortal, and so if all humans are created in God’s image, then all humans are immortal because all humans share this attribute with God.
Continue reading “Evangelical Conditionalism and the Image of God”

The Traditional View Of Hell Is Rightly Called “Eternal Torture” (At Least Traditionally)

If you’ve ever been on the internet, then you’ve no doubt seen people of various beliefs object to the traditional (though not universal) Christian doctrine of eternal conscious hell by calling it “eternal torture.”1Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are 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. And if that has concerned you, then you’ve probably also been exposed to apologists rebutting that claim and denying that eternal conscious hell is really eternal torture.2 Al Serrato, “Is Hell Torment or Torture and Does It Make A Difference?”, Cross Examined [blog], posted February 15, 2020, https://crossexamined.org/is-hell-torment-or-torture-and-is-there-a-difference/ (accessed February 24, 2021). 3J. Warner Wallace, “Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended? (Free Bible Insert),” Cold-Case Christianity, July 1, 2014, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/can-the-existence-and-nature-of-hell-be-defended-free-bible-insert/ (accessed February 23, 2021). 4 Hank Hanegraaf, “Is Hell A Torture Chamber,” Equip [blog], posted February 18, 2018, https://equipblog.wpengine.com/is-hell-a-torture-chamber/ (accessed February 24, 2021).

As a result of this common experience, many today who believe in the doctrine of eternal conscious hell believe that it is not rightly called “torture,” and that descriptions of hell using that term are inappropriate.

Continue reading “The Traditional View Of Hell Is Rightly Called “Eternal Torture” (At Least Traditionally)”

References
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are 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 Al Serrato, “Is Hell Torment or Torture and Does It Make A Difference?”, Cross Examined [blog], posted February 15, 2020, https://crossexamined.org/is-hell-torment-or-torture-and-is-there-a-difference/ (accessed February 24, 2021).
3 J. Warner Wallace, “Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended? (Free Bible Insert),” Cold-Case Christianity, July 1, 2014, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/can-the-existence-and-nature-of-hell-be-defended-free-bible-insert/ (accessed February 23, 2021).
4 Hank Hanegraaf, “Is Hell A Torture Chamber,” Equip [blog], posted February 18, 2018, https://equipblog.wpengine.com/is-hell-a-torture-chamber/ (accessed February 24, 2021).

The Modern Eastern Orthodox View and the Hellfire of God’s Love

You probably have heard of a view that has become common among those in the Eastern Orthodox Church and its various subsets, a view that says both the saved and unsaved go to be in God’s intimate presence. Whether it is a heavenly experience or a torturous one depends on whether you love God or not, and therefore, whether you consider his constant presence to be a blessing or curse.
Continue reading “The Modern Eastern Orthodox View and the Hellfire of God’s Love”

Introduction To Evangelical Conditionalism: 2 Thessalonians 1:9

If you are at all familiar with Rethinking Hell, you will know that we have never once addressed 2 Thessalonians 1:9.

Just kidding, it comes up all the time, including in a two-part article that is more in-depth than what we are looking at today:

– Part 1: Peter Grice, “Annihilation In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed By The Glory Of His Manifest Presence“.

– Part 2: Ronnie Demler and William Tanksley, “Annihilation In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 2): Separation Or Obliteration?—The Present Controversy“.

Nevertheless, in no small part due to a recent interaction I witnessed over social media, it seemed worthwhile to give a nice, relatively short introduction to the passage and how it is perfectly consistent with evangelical conditionalism.
Continue reading “Introduction To Evangelical Conditionalism: 2 Thessalonians 1:9”

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

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”.

Continue reading “The Eternal Joys of The Life To Come Do Not Change The Meaning of “Life””

References
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.

References
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“.