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 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.
The technical name for this phenomenon is prolepsis. 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.”
It’s by no means unique to the Bible. We use it even today. Consider the trope of a death row inmate being walked to the gallows and other prisoners shouting “dead man walking.” Clearly, the inmate isn’t actually dead. However, his fate is sealed and his death is imminent. They say he is “dead” to mean he is as good as dead. It is a future state spoken of as present for emphasis on its nearness and apparent certainty (more on that in a moment).
Similarly, every time a kid does something wrong and says that they are “dead” because their parents will find out, that kid is using prolepsis. Now, they are also using hyperbole, because if they thought their parents would literally kill them, that would be quite a problem. We know that they just mean their parents will punish them and that is bad. But the hyperbole aside, it is speaking of a future event as present. The parents don’t even know yet. The metaphorical killing has not happened yet, even though it is spoken of in present tense. It is prolepsis.
Prolepsis in Scripture
Prolepsis occurs at various points in scripture as well. According to Kenneth Gentry: “A common literary device is prolepsis. Prolepsis is the anachronistic representing of something as existing before its proper or historical time...The scripture is filled with examples of prolepsis...” (42). Gentry then points to several examples regarding wine in the Old Testament where grapes are spoken of as being wine, such as Judges 9:13 and Isaiah 65:8 (42-43).
Prolepsis is simply a technical term used to describe common occurrence in scripture and literature in general. For example, Stanley D. Touissiant, a dispensationalist, appeals to the “futuristic present meaning” when discussing the following declaration by the Lord Jesus: “For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (emphasis added) (Luke 17.21b). He writes, “The present tense of is...[in Jesus’s statement] is no problem; it is futuristic in significance, a common enough phenomenon” (236). Whether or not you agree with Touissiant’s conclusion regarding Luke 17:21, it is an example of an appeal to this principle. According to Touissant, the kingdom of God was not actually in the midst of those Jesus was speaking to. Jesus was speaking of a future event as though it were current.
The Bible has clearer examples as well. Genesis 20:3 is an example. This was after the Abimelech, king of Gerar, took Abraham’s wife Sarah to be his wife after Abraham and Sarah said she was only his sister. God comes to Abimelech and says “you are a dead man.” This wasn’t a Reformed catechism warning that Abimelech was “dead in his sins” because he was so depraved that he could not respond to God apart from spiritual regeneration. God was simply warning Abimelech that he was about to die since he had taken another man’s wife as his own. Of course, God is also just, so when Abimelech replied that he was told Sarah was just Abrahams wife and sent her away, God didn’t kill him after all. But the point is, God said to a living person that he was already “dead” because he was doomed to die imminently.
Notice also in the case of Abimelech in Genesis 20, even though he was called “dead” already, by changing course, Abimelech avoided death entirely (in the context in which he was going to die prematurely). So proleptic references do not have to necessarily have to refer to events that cannot be changed. Surely God of all people would know Abimalech might do the right thing and be spared! However, Abimalech was heading to death, and so he was “dead.”
One example of prolepsis in the New Testament is 2 Timothy 1:10 – “but now [the grace and purpose of God] has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
Has death really been abolished? People still die. Some still die in their sins. Physical death, and any manner of so-called spiritual death, still clearly exist and have power. It is obvious that death has not been abolished, destroyed, deactivated, or anything of the sort. So how can Paul say that Jesus abolished death? The answer seems simple to me: by dying on the cross for our sins and rising from the dad, Jesus assured that death would be abolished. It is a done deal. The work has been done and it is a sure thing. There will be a resurrection. There will be eternal life for those who believe. We are now just waiting for God to pull the trigger. When we walk down the hallway to our deaths, those around us can rightfully say “living man (or woman) walking” because our fate of eternal life is sealed in Christ. And for that reason, it can be said that Jesus has abolished death – proleptically.
Now, taken at face value, these various passages would seem to say that these things were already present, not future. After all, God didn’t say to Abimalech “you will die soon”; He said “you are a dead man.” Ya know, “God said it, I believe it” and so forth. Therefore, Abimalech was actually dead! Except not, because he wasn’t dead. He wasn’t dead anymore than the walking and breathing “dead man” on death row. Wine doesn’t come in the form of solid grapes. Death is still around despite the fact that it has already been abolished. This just is a way that people talk, and it is a way the Bible authors wrote.
Froom, Leroy. The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers. Vol. 1. Washington D.C: Herald and Review, 1959. adventistarchives.org. Web. 11 Jan. 2011. <http://www.adventistarchives.org/documents.asp?CatID=172>
Gentry, Kenneth. God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says about Alcohol. Lincoln, CA: Oakdown, 2011. Print.
“Prolepsis.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, n.d. Web 5 Feb 2012. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prolepsis>
Toussaint, Stanley D. “Israel and the Church of a Traditional Dispensationalist.” Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views. Ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999. Print.