Ephesians 2:1—How can a person believe if he or she is dead in sins?

Problem: The Bible repeatedly calls on the unbeliever to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and ... be saved” (Acts 16:31). However, this passage declares that unbelievers are dead in their sins, and dead people cannot do anything, including believe.

Solution: “Death” in the Bible is not to be understood as annihilation, but as separation. Isaiah said, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Isa. 59:2). If death were annihilation, then the second death would be eternal annihilation, but the Bible declares that the lost will be consciously separated from God, as was the rich man in hell (Luke 16), as will be the beast and false prophet who will be “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). Indeed, they were cast “alive” into the lake of fire at the beginning of the 1,000-year reign of Christ (Rev. 19:20), and they were still alive at the end of the 1,000 years (20:10). So, the second “death” is eternal conscious separation from Christ.

Furthermore, believers die physically, but their souls survive death and are consciously in the presence of God. Paul said, “absent from the body and ... present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). And he went on to say, “having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:23).

Likewise, spiritual death is also separation from God, not annihilation. Adam and Eve, for example, died spiritually the moment they ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6; cf. Rom. 5:12), yet they were still alive and could hear God’s voice speaking to them (Gen. 3:10). So, whereas the image of God in fallen man is effaced, it is not erased. It is marred, but not destroyed. Thus, unsaved persons can hear, understand the Gospel, and believe it to be regenerated or made alive in a spiritual sense (Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5–7).

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.