Addressing Objections: What About Destruction?
Because of the dominance of the hell paradigm in most churches today, many people read the doctrine into practically any passage that refers to destruction or death. So the assumption that is being made is that destruction and death are synonymous with endless torment in hell. Let’s now examine whether this assumption is valid, using the Scriptures as our guide. We will begin with a passage that supporters of the doctrine of hell like to cite:
2 Thessalonians 1:4-10 (ESV)
Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal (aiōnion) destruction (olethron), away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
On the surface, it might appear to you that eternal damnation is being described, but if we truly love God with all our minds and dig deeper, we once again see that the word translated as “eternal” is aiōnion. Hopefully, it is clear to you by now that aiōnion need not mean eternal and that this usage is in fact contradicted by numerous uses of the word in the Bible itself as well as Greek literature. So there is no good reason to assume that the destruction goes on forever.
It is also important to remember that I am in no way disputing that God will judge the wicked for the evil they have done. In the context of this passage, Paul is referring to those who are persecuting the church in Thessalonica. It is worth noting at this point that first century persecution of Christians was often brutal. Christians were eaten alive by lions to please the masses, beheaded, crucified, and even burned to light the city of Rome by Nero. The persecutors of these Christians did many evil things. So Paul is assuring them that justice will be done by God and that this does involve punishment and destruction for their persecutors. So what is this destruction exactly? I think it is most reasonable to believe that it is the destruction of the flesh (wicked human nature). After all, eternal, unending torment doesn’t actually destroy anything. It just sweeps the problem under the rug by consigning people by the billions to a perpetual penal colony of wickedness.
Let’s now see if we have any evidence of destruction being used to describe the destruction of the flesh (evil natures) of the wicked as I just mentioned:
1 Corinthians 5:1-5
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction (olethron/ ὄλεθρον) of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
I guess it turns out that Paul uses the term destruction (olethron) in exactly that way. He is encouraging the church to allow for the destruction of this man’s flesh for a purpose, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” It is interesting to note that God even uses Satan to accomplish this work of destruction, bending even Satan’s vain attempts at permanent destruction into hopeful redemption. Evil is destroyed, not the man himself. As Psalm 1:6 tells us, “the way of the wicked will perish.” Why do we assume that this man’s wickedness can be redeemed by destruction but that others cannot? There is simply no good reason to make this assumption. It is the same word in both of Paul’s letters. And it is the same God who wants to save this Corinthian man who is the Savior of all people. His will and purpose do not change.
With this in mind, consider Jesus’ stated purpose once again, and how it contrasts with his disciples misunderstanding of his mission:
Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”
But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy (from apo and same as olethros according to the NASB lexicon ) men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village.
Here we see the disciples wanting destruction of those who do not accept Jesus, but Jesus rebukes them and repeats that His purpose is not to destroy but to save men’s lives. So, even if destruction does happen because of sin and evil, Jesus’ purpose in it is ultimate salvation. This is what he came for. Those who want permanent destruction and unending torment are like James and John who did “not know what manner of spirit” they were of. Though they were trying to follow Christ, they were misguided. Let’s not make the same mistake!
It is also important to note that there are other words translated destruction and that saying that they all mean hell is utter nonsense. Let’s consider some verses that show this to be true.
1 Timothy 6:9-10 (NIV)
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin (olethron) and destruction (apōleian). For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
In this passage, Paul is writing to believers and encouraging them to flee from the love of money. Why? Because it causes ruin and destruction. Does this mean that believers that are tempted by wealth go to hell? No, it doesn’t. Instead, it means that the pursuit of wealth is damaging in the life of the believer and causes many problems. It causes people to lose sight of the gospel, and experience "many griefs." These griefs are clearly described as being in the past tense and do not refer in context to future destruction. Rather, the destruction has already transpired.
Consider also the following verses from the book of Galatians:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction (phthoran); whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Again, Paul is writing to believers and encouraging them to live to please the Spirit rather than the flesh. Does this mean that believers who sin go to eternal hell? Haven’t we all sought to please our sinful natures and sometimes still do? Hopefully, as we continue to be sanctified this becomes less common, but I’ve never met a Christian who doesn’t sometimes struggle with sin. Indeed, Paul tells us of the reality of this struggle in his own life:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!...
And the apostle John tells us that “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8).
So it is fair to say that we all (even believers) sometimes sow to please our flesh and reap destruction. In other words, sinning is harmful and it destroys. It makes it difficult to follow Christ and to love others when we selfishly seek to please our sinful natures. This is destructive to us and to our mission, so we are encouraged instead to make every effort to “please the Spirit,” and “reap eternal life.” Now just as a reminder, Jesus defined eternal life for us. Here are His words once again:
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
By seeking to please the Spirit, we come to know the only true God and Jesus Christ! This is eternal life. Those who wish to reduce the concept to duration are missing the point that Jesus Himself made. And saying that destruction must last forever because it is contrasted with eternal life is also misguided. If we truly want a valid contrast, we would say that destruction is the opposite of knowing God and Christ (i.e. not knowing Him). So, we experience destruction when we turn away from knowing God, for whatever reason.
It is this same concept of destruction that is apparent in the following verses:
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction (apōleian), and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Notice that we see that many choose the destructive path but few follow the narrow way that leads to life. Does this mean that only a few people are saved but the rest go to eternal hell? Let’s consider another biblical passage to see if this interpretation is reasonable:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Now I’m no math wizard, but “a multitude that no one could number [count]” doesn’t sound like only a few. Not only this, but we see that the multitude is made up of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” So saying that only a few make it to heaven and most go to hell is a misinterpretation of Matthew 7. Instead, it is quite apparent that it is discussing the fact that most people make a lot of destructive choices (of astounding variety) rather than obey Christ’s command to do unto others as you’d like them to do to you.
Destruction Can Mean Actual Destruction
The word translated destruction can also refer to actual destruction and death. Consider the following:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy (apolesai) him.”
But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy (apolesōsin) him.
It is apparent from both of these passages that the meaning of the word is literal destruction. In other words, Herod and the Pharisees both wanted to kill Jesus. They did not want to torment Him eternally, but to destroy Him physically. Indeed, this is exactly what they conspired to do. Therefore, assuming destruction to be eternal torment is not supported at all by its usage in these contexts.
Let’s look at another passage to see this concept of destruction.
For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction (apōleias) of the ungodly.
But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells .
Prior to this passage, Peter once again references Noah’s flood as an example. He is saying that in a similar way that the world of Noah was destroyed so that it could be purified, the present world and its evils will be destroyed. By the way, it is worth noting that Noah’s world was not eternally tormented, but rather literally destroyed. In similar fashion, our present world won’t be eternally tormented, but rather destroyed.
But the end is not destruction. The end is redemption and a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Notice also that this passage explains that this destruction has not occurred yet because God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Once again, we see God’s redemptive purpose shining through in a passage about destruction. He wants all to reach repentance and gives us time to reach it in this life. And if we don’t, there is no reason to believe that He is powerless to fulfill his will simply because we’ve experienced biological death.
Destruction Can Mean Being Lost (and then Found)
I imagine that many people are not aware of this, but the same root word (apollumi) that is often translated as “destruction” is also often translated as “lost.” Below we will see it’s usage in a series of parables in the book of Luke. Determine for yourself if the word is best thought of as a permanent destruction in hell. I have made the words translated as lost bold so they are easy to see. You should notice that they are all forms of the same root word, beginning with the same root “apo.”
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost (apolesas) one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost (apolōlos), until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost (apolōlos).’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
The Parable of the Lost Coin“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses (apolesē) one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost (apōlesa).’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The Parable of the Prodigal SonAnd he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead (nekros), and is alive again; he was lost (apolōlōs), and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead (nekros), and is alive; he was lost (apolōlōs), and is found.’”
So, what do you think? Do these words denote permanent loss and destruction? Of course they do not. Notice that each time something or someone is lost (apolōlōs), it is subsequently found! The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are all found and there is great rejoicing because of this. In the parable of the prodigal son, the Father goes so far to say that the son was not only lost but also dead! And yet the Father redeems Him! Death and destruction can’t stop the love of God from reaching His children. Nothing can stop Him! He will find us and redeem us from destruction. This is the very gospel. Let’s not miss it!
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