Surprised by Hell: Eternal Destruction

Although the Gospels speak of the fate of the lost in terms of Gehenna, the epistles use a very different vocabulary. They speak of “death” and “destruction.” We’ll consider here the references to destruction. And there are lots of references!

Now, here’s the point. If the damned exist in everlasting torment, why would their fate be referred to as “destruction” or “death” in nearly every case? Admittedly these could be metaphors for a living death of sorts, but that’s not how the words are used. Rather, they contrast life with death, eternity with destruction.

And the New Testament writers use several different words for “destroy,” as though to make it clear that they mean “destroy.”

Apolummi in the Gospels

The Greek word most commonly used for destruction is apolummi, which can mean “kill” or “destroy.” It’s the same word Jesus used in Matthew 10:28, which we considered in the last post. It is also sometimes translated “lost,” as in —

(Mat 10:6) Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.

This leads to a certain ambiguity that leads translators to disagree with one another.

(Mat 18:14) “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost [NIV] perish [KJV and ESV].”

Either way, in context, we know that Jesus is speaking of their final fate after death, right?

I would think that the use of a word that means death or destruction to refer to a person or even a sheep being “lost” means that being lost puts you in jeopardy of imminent death. I mean, if a shepherd were to say, “My sheep is apolummi and I need to go rescue it!” a listener wouldn’t know whether he means dead or lost until he gets to the end of the sentence. Therefore, “lost” surely means metaphorically dead — but not beyond rescue.

(Mat 21:41 NIV) “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end [ESV: death],” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

In this verse, Jesus is speaking of the destruction of these men. The NIV unduly softens the impact of the threat.

(Mat 10:28 ) Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Now, this is a key text. The threat is the destruction (or death) of not only the body but also the soul in gehenna. This hardly seems consistent with eternal torment — where you’d wish to die. In fact, for the parallelism to make sense, Jesus must be using apolummi to mean “kill.”

(Mat 5:29) If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

In 5:29, the parallel is concealed in the English, but “lose,” meaning “destroy,” is parallel with being thrown into gehenna. Jesus is saying: better to destroy your eye than to have your whole body destroyed in the trash pile.

(Luke 13:3) I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

(John 3:16) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

(John 10:28 ) I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.

(John 11:50) You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In these verses, we see the eternal fate of those apart from God referred to as death or destruction, not perpetual torment. As I mentioned before, obviously, everyone dies. The threat of perishing is a threat to die a second time in the Second Death in the Lake of Fire. And in each case, “perish” translates apolummi.

Another way of looking at it is this. God gives immortality to the saved. The rest don’t receive this gift. Therefore, for those apart from God, they stay dead. But those in Jesus enjoy the Resurrection and so enjoy life in the next age — eternal life.

(John 12:25) The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Some passages, speak of eternal life as a continuation of the life we have in Jesus. We have eternal life, because we’re in Jesus. When we die, we “keep” the eternal life we were given when we were saved.

This means, of course, that those without this gift don’t have an eternal life to keep. They’ll die and stay dead. To “lose” (apolummi) one’s life is to die.

Apolummi in the Epistles

Paul uses the same vocabulary.

(1 Cor 15:18 ) Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

Now, the NIV’s translation misses the point. He’s really saying, “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are dead.” The point is that without Jesus, those who’ve died (fallen asleep) are utterly dead, never to be resurrected.

(2 Cor 2:15) For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.

(2 Cor 4:3) And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

Paul refers to those without Jesus as those who are dying. In other words, without Jesus, life is heading toward a certain, permanent end.

(James 4:12) There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor?

“Destroy” could just as easily be translated “kill.” The opposite of being saved is being killed or destroyed.

(2 Pet 3:9-14) The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. 14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

This is actually the passage that forced me to re-discover Fudge’s book, The Fire that Consumes. I mean, the picture Peter draws for us is a fire that destroys all on the earth. Either we repent and are saved (rescued) from this consuming fire or else we perish.

Peter doesn’t threaten the lost with hell. He promises the saved a new heaven and new earth that will replace the old heaven and earth. All else will be destroyed. What’s the point of an everlasting hell if the damned have perished in the fire that destroys everything.

apoleia

Another word commonly translated “destruction” is apoleia.

(Mat 7:13-14) “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

(John 17:12) While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

(Rom 9:22) What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction?

(Phil 1:27-28 ) Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved — and that by God.

(Phil 3:18-20) For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,

(Heb 10:39) But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

Repeatedly, we are told that those outside Jesus will be destroyed — not tortured.

Olethros

Another Greek word for destruction is olethros

(1 Th 5:3) While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

(2 Th 1:9) They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power

In the second verse, “everlasting” is, of course, aionios. The meaning is a destruction in the next age. Paul is saying that the damned will be destroyed in such a way that they’ll be excluded from Jesus’ presence, not only in this age but in the next.

Conclusion

By far, the most common description of the eternal fate of the damned is destruction or death. The conditionalists simply take the words at face value.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Surprised by Hell: Eternal Destruction

  1. Alan says:

    The question about whether punishment is momentary or permanent presupposes that in the afterlife we will be travelling in one direction through time. But time is a feature of this creation — part of the same set of physical laws which guarantee that this creation *cannot* endure forever. The whole question might be moot in eternity.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Interesting …

    It's certainly true that time in the second age will be independent of time as we experience it in this age. And it's possible that there's no time at all in eternity — that is, we'll exist not only outside earth time (pretty clearly true, I think) but away from time of any sort.

    Interesting …

    And I have to grant that much of the language of the second age is metaphor.

    But … the scriptures still say that those outside of Jesus will die, perish, and be destroyed. These are words that indicate a change of condition, from not dead, not destroyed, to dead and destroyed. And so, I just can't give up on the simplest explanation — the damned die a second death and don't exist throughout eternity.

  3. Justin Allen says:

    Jay,

    Would like to hear your thoughts if you haven't already addressed this. If you have already commented on this, my apologies.

    Going back to the rich man and lazarus story, it was pretty clear that the rich man in hell was aware of the comforting of lazarus, and abraham had a conversation with the rich man…correct? So I guess my question is was lazarus aware of what was happening to the rich man? Does he even remember the rich man? Or more simply, will the saved remember the dammed?

    Obviously, Abraham could talk with the rich man. Makes me wonder if Abraham had a power lazarus did not.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Justin,

    I did a post on what we'll remember after the judgment at http://oneinjesus.info/2008/06/28/surprised-by-ho

    The scriptural authority is actually pretty sparse. But this much is sure: we'll be in bliss. And how could that be true if we're aware of loved ones in torment?

    It could be argued that we'll see things from God's perspective, and so we'll see the justice of the punishment God gives. But here on earth, when we see a loved one justly jailed or executed, we are still far from being in bliss. It's agony to see someone we love suffer, even when we know they suffer justly.

    Therefore, my own opinion is that we'll not remember the loved ones who are lost. However, I think we'll retain much of our memories, as memory defines so much of who we are.

    God is surely capable of comforting us even if we are aware of the damnation of our loved ones, but we are promised —

    (Rev 21:4-5) He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." 5 He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true."

    Which brings us to Abraham. My view of Abraham in this parable is that Jesus uses him as a literary device. I mean, Jesus says nothing to suggest that Lazarus was aware of the rich man. And so why would Abraham be aware of the rich man's fate and not Lazarus?

    As you suggest, you might argue that Abraham is given a special role with special powers, but nowhere else is this even hinted at in scripture. The idea of heaven being "Abraham's bosom" is from Jewish inter-testamental literature. It was a common expression for the fate of good Jews.

    Jesus thus builds his parable on a common understanding of heaven without necessarily endorsing the understanding in all its details (there are several references in the NT to uninspired legendary material, without being an endorsement).

    The story needs someone to respond to the rich man's pleas. Gehenna is separation from God, and so God does not answer the rich man's pleas. Rather, as a literary device, Abraham does — as the earthly father of all Jews.

    But, of course, if those in the lake of fire are cast out of the presence of God, their voices won't be heard in heaven. And so, my own opinion is that Abraham won't really be having conversations with the damned after their judgment. I mean, surely he deserves bliss more than the rest of us, and how could he blissfully hear the cries of the damned?

  5. Dawson says:

    The problem with the Greek translation is that I always thought the Bible was the infallible word of God. If it was translated wrong then it would not be. I think that the idea of eternal torment could never be from the God of the Bible. If he was going to purposely hold some indian from an untouched tribe that never heard the gospel and only believed what he was taught then the idea of God being loving is not true at all. He would be horrible and nobody could ever worship Him.

  6. JRF says:

    "Abraham's Bosom" refers to that part of the center of the Earth where Paradise existed across the chasm from Hell. This is the reason that Abraham could speak with the Rich man. Remember, "a great gulf fixed" (Luke 16:26)? Jesus died and went to the Paradise in the Earth and "took captivity captive" (Ephesians 4:8-9) and took them to Heaven. Abraham wouldn't speak to those in hell now because he resides in heaven. But before Jesus, Paradise and Hell were both in the center of the Earth.

  7. Mark says:

    I have be studying this matter of eternal torment for a few months now. The weight of scripture seems to clearly side with eternal destruction (annihilation) of the unsaved. When one is cast into the lake of fire, the result is the 2nd death, which I believe is the death of the body & soul that Jesus spoke of. It’s becoming clear to me that most the christian church is in error in their doctrine of eternal torment. I am a born again christian.

  8. David says:

    To debate or understand this topic we would all benefit more by a good exegesis of the scriptures that deal with the subject. Opinions based on logic matter little compared to what the scriptures say. There are so many scriptures that speak of the wages of sin being death. That is clear. The problem of reconciling that doctrine with the New Testament verses on the subject is the task at hand. There are no contradictions in God’s word. It is always with our understanding. Luke 16 appears to contradict the plain teaching of so many other OT passages that I have to conclude there is something wrong with the tradition understanding of the rich man and Lazarus.

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