Edward Fudge points out that the question of immortality was a favorite of Greek philosophers. The seminal work on the subject was Plato’s Phaedo, a dialogue on the question that was well-known among First Century Hellenistic people.
Plato presents a debate between Socrates, who argues for innate immortality of the soul, and Cebes, who argues that —
when the [soul] has departed from the body, [it] nowhere any longer exists, but on whatever day a man dies, on that day it is destroyed [diaphtheiretai] and perishes [apolluetai]; the moment it departs and goes forth from the body it is dispersed like breath or smoke, and flies abroad and is gone, and no longer exists anywhere.
Apolluetai is a form of apollumi, the word the New Testament so frequently uses for “destroy” or “kill,” used frequently of the fate of the damned, in nearly all the verses quoted above in which the damned are said to be destroyed.
The New Testament writers use diaphtheiretai (root: diaphtheiro) in such verses as —
(Rev 11:18 NIV) The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great — and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
Fudge writes in The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (p. 167),
Both Plato and Paul use the terms ‘death’ (thanatos), ‘destruction’ (apoleia), ‘corruption’ (phthora), ‘perish’ (olethros), and ‘die’ (apothnesko) — but with this difference. Plato says none of these things will ever befall a soul, for it possesses immortality; Paul says these words define the destiny of those who resist God and refuse to believe in Jesus. …
Interestingly, Plato believed that some would be punished for ever (or at least for a very long time after death). Such reprobate souls can continue in misery, he said, because they possess ‘immortality’, are ‘indestructible’ and ‘immortal’. Yet ‘not one of these terms is ever used in the New Testament to describe the future condition of the lost.’
In other words, every word that Plato uses to describe what happens if there is no immortality of the soul is a word Paul uses to speak of the fate of the damned.
This does not mean they aren’t punished for their sins, only that their punishment isn’t perpetual conscious torment. They don’t live forever. They live long enough to be punished with God’s perfect justice, and then they cease to exist. And their existence will be terminated permanently, that is, eternally.
How do I know this? Well, consider —
(Luk 12:46-48 NIV) 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
First, Jesus could not more plainly say that there are degrees of punishment. The more culpable the sinner, the greater the suffering in his punishment.
The two statements in v. 48b enunciate the principle of proportional responsibility (cf. 6:37–38; Matt 13:12). The parable of the talents makes a similar point (cf. 16:10–12; 19:26). The passive verb and the third-person plural verb both imply a divine subject—God will seek much from those to whom much has been given. Leaders to whom the church has given responsibility will, therefore, be held to a high standard of expectations.
R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The Gospel of Luke-The Gospel of John (vol. 9 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), n.p.
If this punishment seems too severe, the explanation of God’s principle of judgment now clarifies matters. The servant in v. 47 may represent those who sin “with a high hand,” committing “presumptuous sins” (Num 15:30–31; Ps 19:13, RSV). If so, the servant who “does not know” (v. 48) sins “unwittingly” and has “hidden faults” (Num 15:27–29; Ps 19:12, RSV). In either case there is some definite personal responsibility and therefore judgment, because the servant should have made it his business to know his master’s will. All have some knowledge of God (Rom 1:20), and God judges according to individual levels of responsibility (Rom 2:12–13). The closing statement (v. 48) would apply especially to the apostles and church leaders throughout the successive centuries.
Walter L. Leifeld, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1984, 8, 967.
Now, if hell punishes forever, how can there be degrees of punishment? Everyone suffers for the same duration? And Jesus distinguishes the degrees of punishment in terms of duration (many blows vs. few blows), which plainly implies finite suffering.