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Destroyed into Nothing?

By Kerry Duke

religion, articles, christianity

The doctrine of eternal punishment is under attack. Offered in its place is the ancient theory of annihilation (the idea that wicked souls will cease to exist after a period of punishment). One argument for annihilation rests on a misunderstanding of the word destroy in Matthew 10:28: "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." Many have mistakenly claimed that "destroy" in this verse means to terminate existence. By their reasoning the wicked will be punished, but not forever.

An obvious problem with this view is that it makes Jesus contradict himself Jesus warned of "everlasting fire" (Matt. 18:8; 25:41) where "their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44). The wicked will go into "everlasting punishment" (Matt. 25:46). How can they be punished forever if they cease to exist?

But does not the word destroy mean a termination of existence? After all, if a building is destroyed, it no longer exists. The problem here is common in Bible interpretation. We often apply a word in a physical way when the Bible uses it in a spiritual sense. Destroy in Matthew 10:28 does not refer to the destruction of a material object. It is spiritual destruction which has nothing to do with a termination of being. The word for destroy is apollumi, which can refer to physical destruction, but which often refers to spiritual ruin and misery. It is the word in Paul's warning, "Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died" (Rom.14: 15b). The prodigal "was dead, and is alive again; he was lost (apollum), and is found" (Luke 15:24). The wayward son was not destroyed physically; he was ruined and wrecked spiritually. He was "dead" and "lost" (destroyed), but he was no more physically destroyed than he was physically dead. Similarly, when Jesus says that the wicked will be destroyed, He means that they will suffer ruin and misery-forever. The "everlasting destruction" of sinners in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is to be understood in the same way.

A simple way to understand this sense of the word destroy is to draw a parallel to the word create. This word can refer to bringing into existence something that formerly did not exist. For centuries this has been called creation ex nihilo - out of nothing. But the word create can also refer to a change in the state of something or someone that already exists. When Paul says that we are "created in Christ Jesus" (Eph.2:10), he does not mean that a being is brought into existence out of nothing. He means that an already existing being has experienced a change in state. To say that a person becomes a new "creature" or creation (2 Cor. 5:17) at baptism does not mean the person began to exist at this point. It simply means that his spiritual condition has changed.

Likewise, the word destroy in Matthew 10:28 does not mean the wicked will cease to exist; it means their state will change. The spiritual creation of a Christian is not the creation of a soul out of nothing; the spiritual destruction of a sinner is not the destruction of the soul into nothing. The creation of Ephesians 2:10 is a beginning of a state of existence, not the beginning of existence itself The destruction of Matthew 10:28 is an end of a state of existence (one characterized by the opportunity to commune with God), not the end of existence itself. This simple analogy reveals the weakness of the annihilative approach to interpreting the Bible.

The Bible offers no consolation to the lost. It does guarantee a sentence of eternal punishment for those who die in sin. May we never compromise this basic Bible doctrine in an already compromised world.

Published June 1997