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:
- These instances of death do not speak of hell, damnation, or punishment for sin.
- None of these passages are ostensibly about separation from God.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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. 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.
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). .
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.
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.