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.
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.
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.
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.