The Bible teaches that the wicked will ultimately perish (Psa. 73:27; Lk. 13:3; Jn. 3:16; 10:28; etc.). The final fate awaiting the wicked is death and destruction (Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; Mt. 7:13; Phil. 3:19; Mt. 10:28; Gal. 6:8; etc.). There is no debate that the Bible teaches that this is the final fate of the wicked. However, what does it mean when the Bible says that the wicked will die, be destroyed and perish in hell?
While this may seem like a somewhat superfluous question, it is important to answer because many Christians do not believe that the wicked will actually die, perish and be destroyed (At least not in the literal, straightforward sense of the meaning). Instead, they argue that in the contexts which deal with the final fate of the wicked, these words mean something less specific such as “to be ruined,” “a loss of well-being” or “usefulness.” Although this argument ultimately fails, there is a bit of semantic validity we must acknowledge with this argument.
Destroy, Lost & Perish
Let’s begin with the relevant Greek word apollumi, which is part of the apoleia word group. This word group in the New Testament is seen being translated as “destroyed,” “lost,” “perished,” “kill,” “ruin,” etc. The word itself is defined as “to fully destroy,” “permanent destruction,” “experiencing a miserable end,” “to cancel out, to ruin or render useless” (http://biblehub.com/greek/622.htm).
This wider word group does have some range of meaning and does not always mean the same thing. For example, this word group is used to speak of “lost sheep,” “a lost son” and “a lost coin” (Lk. 15:4, 8, 24, 32, etc.). It is even seen as describing wineskins that are “ruined” (Mt. 9:17). In these contexts, the word should clearly be understood as “ruined,” “a loss of well-being” or “usefulness.”
On the other hand, this same word group is used to speak of killing and destroying in the straightforward understanding of taking one’s life or something being brought to a permanent end (See: Mt. 12:14; 21:41; Mk. 9:22; Lk. 6:9). It was Herod’s desire to “kill” baby Jesus (Mt. 2:13). Herod didn’t want to just ruin Jesus’ reputation or take away His usefulness, he wanted to destroy Jesus in the literal sense of bringing His life to an end (See also: Mt. 27:20). Furthermore, Jesus spoke of food which perishes (Jn. 6:27) and Peter spoke of gold that will perish (1 Pet. 1:7).
Both food and gold are temporal that will have a permanent end. Another example is when Paul spoke of the Jews who were literally destroyed/killed by the serpents (1 Cor. 10:9; Num. 21:6). The idea with these verses when the apoleia word group is used is clearly a literal and straightforward destruction and permeant end.
Many more examples could be cited, but the aforementioned should be sufficient to show that, from a semantics standpoint, the apoleia word group can be used to mean a literal and straightforward destruction and bringing something to a permanent end, but it can also mean the loss of well-being or usefulness.
Now, let us look at the word death. Death is usually defined as the loss or cessation of life (That is, the death of the body when the soul/spirit is separated and leaves the body (http://biblehub.com/greek/2288.htm; Ja. 2:26). The body then dies. For example, the Greek word thanatos had a long history leading up to its use in the New Testament. From Homer through the Hellenic/Hellenistic periods and into Greco-Roman thought, the vast majority of the time the word death referred to death as we all ordinarily understand it. A normal, ordinary and physical death. The body dying and coming to an end.
Throughout the LXX and New Testament, the vast majority of the time it refers to that same, ordinary death. Consider from the very beginning that Adam was warned that when he ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil he would surely die. After he and Eve did eat of that tree, God pronounced the sentence of which He had warned, saying, to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19). God revoked their access to the tree of life explicitly so that they would not live forever. And indeed, after several hundred years, they did die. From the beginning this is the meaning of death: one’s physical life coming to an end, the body dying (Ja. 2:26). The majority of times death is seen in the Bible it is seen as life coming to an end.
There are a few times the word death is used either figuratively as a metaphor or as a prolepsis. For example, Christians are metaphorically seen as being dead to the law and dead to sin demonstrating how their relationship with the law and sin have ceased and should no longer continue (Rom. 7:4; Rom. 6:2, 11). Some people today may figuratively speak of people in their lives by saying that, “They are dead to me.”
Furthermore, consider passages such as Ephesians 2:1 and 1 Tim. 5:6. The reality of death as ordinarily understood is used here and similar passages as a metaphor for a cessation of a relationship with God and a life of righteousness (See Also: Lk. 15:24; Col. 2:13). It can also be used as a prolepsis, meaning that one’s future death is spoken of as if in the present (e.g., A prisoner may be told after his sentencing that he is a dead man walking). The general consensus based upon these passages appears to be that unbelievers in the here and now are living their physical lives in some sense separate and discontinued from God (That is, they are spiritually dead). They are physically living, but they are dead otherwise.
Determining Context & Meaning
With all of the aforementioned in mind, the question still remains however. What does it mean when the Bible says that the wicked will die, be destroyed and perish forever? Does it mean that they will actually die, be destroyed and perish in a literal and straightforward sense? Or, does it mean that they will simply be ruined and have a useless life. In other words, is the final fate of the wicked a loss and end of total life that takes place in hell, or is it a continued life of loss and conscious torment in hell?
Before proceeding, we have to be careful with word study fallacies. This is a common error of Bible students. A word study fallacy is when someone looks up all the occurrences and possible lexical meanings of a word and then simply chooses which meaning they want to insert. When a word can have different meanings (or can be used in a figurative sense), we have to let the context decide the meaning of the word. We can’t just pick whichever meaning we want. We have to let the context pick which definition is most accurate.
A simple way to illustrate this in English is by using a word such as “drill.” There are several meanings for the word drill. For example, it can mean a hand tool. It can mean an exercise or an instruction. It can also mean to question someone relentlessly. As you can see, I can’t just randomly grab any one of those definitions of my choosing and plug it in anytime I see the word drill. If I told you that my tutor drilled me last night for over 2 hours in preparation for a test, it would be incorrect for you to assume that someone took a tool and drilled holes in me for two hours. We have to use context to determine what kind of drilling took place. The same is true with words such as death and destruction/perish.
I firmly believe that the final fate of the wicked is exactly what the Bible says it is going to be. The wicked are going to be sentenced to hell where they will die, be destroyed and perish forever. I believe that these words, when used in the context of describing the final fate of the wicked, should be understood in their literal, straightforward definitions. Here are the reasons why I believe that the contexts demands such a understanding.
First, the contexts use clear imagery as to the kind of death and destruction that will be enacted on the final fate of the wicked.
- Passing away
- Being cut off from the land of the living
- Being no more; Being burned up (Psa. 11:1-7; 34:8-22; 34:1-40; 58; 69:22-28; 73:23-28;145)
- Being consumed like flowers of the field and going up in smoke (Psa. 37:20)
- The wicked having no future (Psa. 37:38)
- Cut down like grass and wither as the herbs (Psa. 37:2)
- Chaff that the wind blows away (Psa. 1:4)
- Cut down and thrown into the fire and burned up (Mt. 3:10, 12; 7:19; Lk. 3:17).
If I were to tell you that you are going to die, be destroyed and perish like chaff in fire or grass that withers away, what comes to mind? The imagery is clear that the kind of death and destruction being spoken of is the same kind that comes to grass, herbs and chaff when it is burned up, cut down and no more. What comes to mind is a permanent destruction of life, not a continuation of it in any sense.
Therefore, the imagery and other descriptive words used to describe the kind of death and destruction of the final fate of the wicked point in clear favor of describing a literal and permanent end of existence, not a continuation of one.
Second, the words used to contrast death and destruction would prove that this death and destruction are a literal death and destruction.
Matthew 7:13-14 says that the broad way leads to destruction and the narrow way leads to life. Jesus, in no uncertain terms, said:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
Jesus also said:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Me shouldn’t perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
Life is contrasted with death and destruction. The righteous will have eternal life whereas the wicked will be destroyed and will perish. Constantly and consistently throughout the Old and New Testament, the Bible contrast eternal life with death and destruction (Prov. 12:28; Job 19:26; Psa. 73:23-28; Isa. 26:19; Rom. 6:23; Mt. 19:16, 29; Mk. 10:17; Jn. 10:28; Prov. 12:28; Jn. 3:36; 4:14, 36; 5:24; 6:40, 47, 54; Rom. 5:21; 1 Tim. 6:12; Titus 1:2; 3:7; 1 Jn. 1:2; etc.). The clear implication therefore is that if only the righteous have eternal life, then clearly the wicked will not because they will die, be destroyed and perish.
Third, death never means a continuation in any sense.
Even when considering death from a figurative relational sense, it is still speaking of a relationship coming to an end, or a relationship that doesn’t exist. The Bible says that in the first death, the body dies (Ja. 2:26). There is no consciousness in the body once the spirit departs. It is a lifeless corpse that will decay. There is no feeling, no life, no consciousness, no pain, no nothing. It is dead. The Bible teaches that we all die this first death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). However, at the resurrection, the righteous will be raised to eternal life and the wicked be raised only to die a second death (Rev. 2:11; 20:14).
The wicked will be sentenced to hell where they will die, are destroyed and perish forever. Just as the physical body dies at the first death (Ja. 2:26), the soul dies and is destroyed in the second death in hell (Mt 10:28; Rev. 2:11; 20:14). Whatever happens to the body in the first death will happen to the soul in the second death according to Jesus. If someone has no body, soul or spirit left, then what part of them continues?
Fourth, the majority of the times these words are used, they are understood as a literal and permanent death/destruction.
There would have to be overwhelming evidence as to why we should understand these words any differently in the context of the final fate of the wicked. In light of the fact that this is the common understanding and meaning, and in light of the fact of the contexts and the contrasting words used, I firmly believe that the death and destruction spoken of in the final fate of the wicked is just that: a final death and destruction where the wicked perish, are destroyed and come to an eternal permanent end in hell whereas the righteous enter into an eternal life in heaven forever.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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