What Does the Bible Teach about hell?
There are two major views on hell by Christians: Traditionalism vs Annihilationism. Traditionally, the most prominent view regarding eternal damnation is that the people cast into hell — the lake of fire — will suffer fiery conscious torments forever and ever. Depicting the horrors of this belief was a favorite subject amongst artists in medieval times, resulting in all manner of imaginative and ghastly portraits of people suffering unending agony. Some have since tried to modify this position a bit, suggesting a more metaphorical view, that the unending pain experienced probably refers to the mental anguish of eternal loss and “separation from God”; but it makes no significant difference as both views involve the notion of eternal torment.
This may indeed be the traditionally prominent view regarding human damnation, but is it Biblical? That is, do the Judeo-Christian Scriptures really teach it? Will the multitudes of people who reject God, and hence are rejected by God, really be subjected to never-ending misery — with no merciful pause to their agony?
One might contend that it is heretical to even question such a long-standing, widely accepted teaching, but if this doctrine is truly scriptural then its proponents have nothing to worry about. Furthermore,all doctrines, no matter how traditional or popular, must be questioned in light of what the Bible clearly teaches, for it is the God-breathed Scriptures alone that we must look to for truth, not popularity or religious tradition. This is the theological principle of sola scriptura, Latin for “by Scripture alone,” which maintains that the Bible is the final authority regarding all judgments of Christian doctrine and practice.
Because of this sound principle many traditional doctrines and practices have proven to be false over the years and have properly been corrected or discarded. Needless to say it’s a positive thing for Christians to periodically reevaluate their beliefs and practices because it helps prevent Christendom from straying from the Biblical model. Since reevaluating official church teachings is very much a part of the Christian heritage, and is indeed a healthy practice, there should be no problem here in entertaining the possibility that church tradition may be in error regarding this belief of perpetual fiery torment.
Eternal Torment in Hell: The Silent Subject of the Church
I recently read in a major news magazine that this teaching of hell as eternal torture has all but disappeared from the pulpit ministry in both mainline and evangelical churches. Why is this so? Why are Christians who are committed to this doctrine so reluctant to openly and honestly preach it? Why do they mask what they really believe by saying that the unredeemed will ultimately “perish” or be “destroyed” or suffer eternal “separation from God?” Yes, you’ll hear ‘hell’ thrown around now and then, but you’ll rarely, if ever, hear anyone explain what he or she really means when using this term — that is, suffering fiery conscious torment forever and ever with no merciful respite from the misery.
If this is so true, why is everyone so timid about spelling it out loud and clear? The answer is obvious: they’re ashamed of it. They’re ashamed of it because, as Clark Pinnock so aptly put it, the doctrine of eternal torture makes God out to be morally worse than Hitler “who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that? I suppose one might be afraid of Him, but could we love and respect Him? Would we want to strive to be like Him in His mercilessness?” (149). Let’s be honest here and tell it like it is: The doctrine of never-ending conscious torment makes God out to be a cruel, unjust, merciless monster. Who would possibly want to accept salvation from such a God?
Although there are many good reasons for questioning this teaching, the most important reason is the simple fact that the Bible does not teach it. Contrary to the loud claims of its staunch supporters, it is not a Scriptural doctrine, and this is being realized by a growing number of biblically faithful Christians today. The Bible gives strong, irrefutable proof to any honest reader that hell, the lake of fire, signifies literal everlasting destruction for ungodly people, not eternal conscious torment.
NOTE: This view is often referred to as “Conditional Immortality” or “Annihilationism,” but I prefer “everlasting destruction” or “literal destruction” based on Paul’s statement in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. I consequently refer to it as such throughout this study.
This is the main reason why so many Christians of all persuasions are embracing the doctrine of everlasting destruction not because they’re “going liberal” as supporters of eternal torment claim. It’s a case of going Biblical, not going liberal.
For clear proof that literal everlasting destruction is what the Bible really teaches, let us simply turn to the pages of Scripture; after all, a thorough, honest study of the Bible will always reveal the truth.
Life and Death: The Two Polar Opposites
The apostle Paul summed up the whole matter of people’s reward for sin when he wrote:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Could anything be clearer than this passage? The wages for sin is shown to be death, and eternal life is stated to be a gift from God, not something people already have. This is consistently expressed from Genesis to Revelation, notice:
“Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad 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.”
“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.”
For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
The one who sows to please the sinful nature from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the spirit, from the spirit will reap eternal life.
PSALM 145:20 (NKJV)
The LORD preserves all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy.
The truly righteous man attains life, but he who pursues evil goes to his death.
NOTE: See the commentary on this proverb in the appendix Old Testament Hell Verses (scroll down to the section “He Who Pursues Evil Goes to His Death”) if you don’t believe it is applicable to us today in an absolute sense.
All these passages clearly describe the two separate destinies of the righteous and the unrighteous. The “righteous” are people who are in right-standing with God because they’ve accepted his sacrifice for their sins*, the “unrighteous” are those who are not in-right-standing with their Creator because they’ve rejected his offer of salvation. The former will inherit eternal life, whereas the latter will reap the wages of sin and be destroyed.
*NOTE: Please don’t misinterpret this description of people as “righteous.” Our own righteousness apart from Christ is as “filthy rags” in God’s holy sight (Isaiah 64:6). To become in right-standing with God we must let go of our fleshly ‘righteousness’ in acceptance of God’s “gift of righteousness,” which comes through spiritual regeneration through Christ (see Romans 5:17 and 2 Corinthians 5:21). This is positional righteousness; practical righteous naturally occurs as the believer learns to put off the “old self” — the flesh — and live according to their new nature, which is “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Yet those who adhere to the eternal torture doctrine mysteriously don’t accept this blatantly clear biblical truth. They don’t believe that the two polar opposites are life and death; they believe the two polar opposites are eternal life in heavenly bliss and eternal life in burning torment. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? They may not phrase it in such an open manner, but this is what they actually believe if we’re honest about it.
Eternal Life and Immortality—Only Available through the Gospel
The offer to receive eternal life as opposed to suffering everlasting destruction is what the gospel of Christ is all about. We see this plainly expressed in this passage:
2 TIMOTHY 1:10
But [God’s grace] has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Notice that life and immortality are only available through the gospel. What exactly is “the gospel?” The gospel literally means “good news.” Its main message is summed up in the famous passage 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.” Note, once again, what is clearly being contrasted in both of these passages: In John 3:16 perish is contrasted with the gift of eternal life; in 2 Timothy 1:10 death is contrasted with both immortality and life, which are said to be made available through the gospel. If the eternal torture doctrine were true, these verses would be contrasting eternal life and eternal life being tortured, or immortality and immortality in fiery torment. I realize this sounds absurd, but the Bible would certainly speak in such honest, blatant terms if this teaching were true. Do you seriously think that God would be misleading or ambiguous about such an important issue in his Holy Word?
The reason the Bible doesn’t speak in such ludicrous terms is because this doctrine of eternal conscious torment in not a biblical teaching. The above passage, 2 Timothy 1:10, makes it plain that until Jesus was raised for our justification, the power of death was not destroyed and therefore immortality was not available to us — life was not available to us. This is because we are all sinners (see Romans 3:23 and Ecclesiastes 7:20) and consequently all deserve death, “for the wages of sin is death.” God cannot overlook this because he is perfectly just. One person cannot pay the penalty for another because both are sinful and deserve death. The only way we can escape this imminent death penalty is if a sinless person, who does not deserve death, dies in our place.
So what did God do? Because he so loved the world and didn’t want anyone to perish, he gave his Son as a sin sacrifice in order that we may have the gift of eternal life. The difference between wages and a gift is that wages are earned while a gift is free. Jesus paid the death penalty that we’ve all earned so that we can have the free gift of eternal life. The LORD did this so that we could fellowship with him forever instead of reaping the wages of sin, which is death.
This fact that God Himself wants to have a relationship with us explains why the gospel is also referred to as “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). ‘Reconciliation’ means to turn from enmity to friendship. The gospel is good news indeed because, not only does it grant eternal life to those who accept it, but, more importantly, it enables us to have a relationship with the Creator of the universe!
Notice what John the Baptist declared would happen to those who reject the gospel:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
The passage could not be plainer: those who reject the Son “will not see life.” God’s word is absolute, and this is an absolute statement: Those who reject Jesus Christ will not see any life at all. This includes even a sadistic life in roasting agony for all eternity. Such people will be justly-but-mercifully put to death, absolute death, for this is the wages of their actions. But our loving Creator doesn’t want anyone to perish like this; he has provided a way to eternal life through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Do you see the simple, beautiful, clear message of the gospel here? God is just trying to save his beloved fallen creation, humanity, from the wages of sin. Ezekiel 18:32 reveals the heart of God well on this matter: “ ‘For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,’ declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘Repent and live!’ ”
Jesus Taught Everlasting Destruction
Didn’t Jesus preach that those who reject the gospel and refuse to repent will suffer never-ending torment in hell? Many ministers adamantly claim this, but what did Jesus say as recorded in the Bible itself? By all means, let’s examine what Jesus himself taught on the issue starting with a statement we’ve already looked at:
“ ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it, but small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’ ”
Seriously, how much clearer could Jesus possibly be here? Destruction is the fate that awaits the “many” that are thrown into the lake of fire, not perpetual undying torture in flames of torment. And please notice, again, that this is in contrast to life that will be granted to the “few.”
Jesus repeatedly made this very clear. Consider, for example, his simple statement, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5 NASB). This mirrors Jesus’ statement in John 3:16 regarding the fact that those who believe in him “… shall not perish, but have eternal life.” “Perish” in both these texts is not referring to the death we all must face at the end of this present earthly life. No, Jesus is obviously referring here to a perishing that those who believe in him will not have to suffer — the second death, which takes place on the day of judgment when the damned are cast into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:11-15 verifies this; verses 14 and 15 of this passage state: “The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
In MATTHEW 10:28 Jesus solemnly declared what would happen to people when they experience this “second death”:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
NOTE: “Hell” in this text is translated from the Greek word Gehenna, which is an illustrative reference to the lake of fire. We’ll examine Gehenna in the next chapter.
Notice that Jesus is telling us explicitly what God will do to unrepentant sinful people on the day of judgment: He will destroy both soul and body in the lake of fire, his chosen instrument of destruction.
Jesus is dealing specifically here with the subject of the second death and yet he says absolutely nothing about spending eternity in undying conscious torment. If this were true Jesus would tell us to “fear the One who is able to preserve the soul in hell.” But this is not what Jesus taught. He didn’t teach it because it is not a biblical doctrine. Religion may teach it, but the Bible does not. God is going to unenthusiastically issue out the wages of sin and justly destroy the unrighteous, not sadistically torture them forever. Scripture clearly states:
There is only one lawgiver and judge, the One [God] who is able to save and destroy.
You see, God is going to do one of two things with people: he’s either going to save them, that is, grant eternal life to those who respond favorably to his love and gracious gift of life, or he’s going to justly but mercifully destroy them. He may or may not necessarily be the one who personally executes this sentence, but he is certainly the One who authorizes it. In this sense, at least, it is indeed God Himself who destroys the ungodly.
This fact that God is either going to save or destroy people based upon their freewill decision to accept or reject the gospel is clearly illustrated in this passage from Hebrews:
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
Those who believe will be saved from the second death and granted eternal life whereas those who do not will be destroyed, both soul and body, in the lake of fire. It’s that simple. Why do religionists insist on making this simple truth so complicated and perverse?
Do People Choose to Go to Hell?
I’ve heard many people object to the above passages which state that God Himself is going to “destroy both soul and body in hell,” specifically adherents of the eternal torment view who for obvious reasons cannot take the word “destroy” literally. Their objection is that God isn’t going to destroy anyone because “people choose hell.” What they mean by this, of course, is that, consciously or subconsciously, people choose never-ending agony. Their reasoning is that we should not attribute something to God that he’s not guilty of — in this case, destroying people in hell — since people choose their fate.
NOTE: It must be understood that those who adhere to eternal torture define the English word ‘hell’ as “eternal conscious torture.” So whenever they use the term ‘hell’ this is what they really mean.
I’ve never heard anyone who truly has biblical knowledge of this subject to argue this point, regardless of which view they adhere to, whether eternal torment or everlasting destruction. Let me explain why:
Christians are said to be saved, but saved from what? Many Christians don’t realize this but we are actually saved from God’s wrath — yes, we are saved from God Himself. We saw this earlier when John the Baptist declared “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Here’s further scriptural verification:
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
Since we have now been justified by his [Jesus’] blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him?
1 THESSALONIANS 1:10b
Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
1 THESSALONIANS 5:9
For God did not appoint us to suffer [his] wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
As you can see, Christians are saved from God’s wrath which, according to ROMANS 2:5 above, will be executed on the day of judgment referred to as “the day of God’s wrath.”
NOTE: Many people will experience God’s wrath poured out on this earth during the second half of the future 7-year Tribulation, but the vast majority of unsaved humanity will not experience his wrath until the day of judgment.
Yet, what exactly is God’s wrath? In the Old Testament anyone who incurred God’s wrath was to suffer destruction at his hands (see, for example, Psalm 106:23 and Ezekiel 20:13). In the same way, when God’s wrath is poured out on judgment day, whoever’s name is not found written in the book of life will suffer destruction at his hands. That’s why Hebrews 10:31 states that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
As JAMES 4:12 above plainly states, God is either going to save people or destroy them. That’s why Jesus said in Luke 12:5 to fear God because he alone has the authority and power to cast people into hell, the lake of fire. And, as shown above, what did Jesus clearly say God would do to people there? He said He’s going to “destroy both soul and body” (MATTHEW 10:28). The Greek word translated as “destroy” in these two texts is repeatedly used in the Bible to describe the eternal fate of the unrighteous, as we shall observe in the very next section. So there’s absolutely no question that God is going to destroy people who reject his offer of salvation; this is simply the result of incurring his wrath. The question is what does “destroy” mean? Does it literally mean destroy, as I contend it does, or does it refer to never-ending torment? In either case, the uncontestable fact is that God Himself is the One who’s doing the destroying.
There’s nothing morally or judicially wrong with the fact that God is going to irreversibly destroy sinful people who reject his gracious gift of eternal life. The Bible repeatedly makes it clear that the wages of sin is death, and God has also made sure that every human heart instinctively realizes this (see Romans 1:32). Thus, people who reject God’s redemption through Christ in favor of living a sinful lifestyle are indeed choosing the wages of their actions, death — whether consciously or subconsciously — and God, who respects their freewill, will unenthusiastically accommodate them. He alone is the ultimate authority and giver of life and therefore he has the authority and right to take life away — if he must.
After all, justice demands the execution of the penalty of the law. In this case the penalty of the law is death — eternal death — death with no hope of resurrection. The apostle Paul refers to this sentence as “everlasting destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. Its execution is necessary in order that God may be just. A government which never calls offenders against the law to account is contemptible and wicked. The Biblical doctrine of eternal punishment is our assurance that God is essentially and unchangingly holy and just.
So, to answer the question, do people “choose hell”? Certainly not in a literal sense. After all, people are not going to willingly and gleefully jump into the lake of fire on judgment day. No, God is going to judge them, dispose of them in the lake of fire and utterly eradicate them there. Why? Not because people choose hell, but because people choose sin, and the wages of sin is death. And God, who is the ultimate authority, lawgiver and judge, is the One who will execute this death sentence. He, once again, may not necessarily be the one who personally executes this sentence, but he at least executes it in the sense that he authorizes it. Although, based upon the scriptural evidence, I personally believe that God Himself executes the sentence (we’ll observe support for this as our study progresses, even though the matter is inconsequential).
Incidentally, the very fact that some people who adhere to the view of eternal torment argue that God is not Himself guilty of tormenting people forever proves that the idea of eternal conscious torture is indeed a profoundly disturbing concept which naturally offends our moral and judicial instincts. The only way these people can accept this idea and live with themselves is by believing that their good, loving God is not the one carrying out this sadistic sentence.
“Destroy both Soul and Body” Means Complete Annihilation
We’ve viewed some pretty clear biblical texts which plainly state that unrepentant sinners will ultimately perish and be destroyed. Let’s dig a little deeper and trace these words to the original language in which they were written.
The words “perish” (from John 3:16 and Luke 13:3,5) and “destroy” (from MATTHEW 10:28 and JAMES 4:12) are both English translations of the Greek word apollumi (ah-POHL-loo-mee) which literally means “to destroy utterly” or “to perish” (Bulinger 220; Vine 164).
NOTE: All spellings and pronunciations of biblical Hebrew and Greek words are based on Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.
Apollumi is used most often in the Bible simply in reference to the natural death we all must experience at the end of our present lives — the first death. For example, notice how apollumi is used in this following text by Jesus’ disciples when a squall threatened their lives as they and Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee:
Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown (apollumi)?”
As you can see, apollumi here simply refers to drowning. Apollumi is used 26 other times in the New Testament in reference to the first death. Likewise, Homer, in his epics of Greek antiquity, used apollumi chiefly of death in battle.
The apostles, like Jesus, used this very same word, apollumi, in reference to the second death — the eternal fate of the ungodly:
1 CORINTHIANS 1:18
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (apollumi); but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.
2 THESSALONIANS 2:10b
They perish (apollumi) because they refuse to love the truth and be saved.
2 PETER 3:9b
He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish (apollumi), but everyone to come to repentance.
All these texts are indeed referring to what will happen at the second death and yet, once again, there is mysteriously no mention whatsoever of eternal roasting in conscious torment. In view of such blatantly clear biblical evidence, how can adherents of the eternal torture doctrine possibly maintain their view? Their theory is that, in all these cases, the Greek word apollumi does not literally mean “to destroy utterly” or “to perish,” but rather that the idea is “not extinction, but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well being” (Vine 164/Pearlman 387). This theory is a good example of trying to make the Scriptures line up with one’s favored doctrine rather than lining up one’s doctrine with what the Scriptures literally teach.
There are a number of good reasons for rejecting this theory. First of all, the Bible itself provides very certain proof of what apollumi really means when used in reference to the second death: apollumi is used by Jesus in Luke 17:29 to describe the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “ ‘But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed (apollumi) them all.’ ”
NOTE: Jesus no doubt spoke in Hebrew or Aramaic during his earthly ministry but Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had his words recorded in Greek.
Since apollumi is used to describe this destruction, the question must be asked: how were the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah and their inhabitants destroyed? Was the well-being of these cities merely ruined? No, Genesis 19:24–28 verifies that they were completely burned to ashes. This includes all the people in them, all the animals, and even the vegetation — in fact, all the land of the entire plain which these cities occupied! Peter also verifies this:
2 Peter 2:6a
If he [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes…
“Ashes” here is the Greek word tephroo (tef-ROH-ro) which means “to incinerate, i.e. consume” (Strong 71), and apollumi is the Greek word used to describe this absolute incineration as shown above in Luke 17:29. My point is that apollumi, in this case, refers to utter destruction and perishing in the sense of complete incineration. The idea “not extinction, but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” does not fit here at all because the well-being of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t merely ruined; these cities were completely and finally destroyed by incineration — forever obliterated!
But there’s more: Peter goes on to state that this utter incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah is an example of what will happen to the ungodly:
2 Peter 2:6
If he [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;
We know Peter is specifically referring here to what will happen to the ungodly on judgment day when they’re thrown into the lake of fire — the second death — because this will be the only time that all the ungodly will experience a fate comparable to the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. If the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah is a true, trustworthy example of what will happen to the ungodly when they suffer the second death, then we must conclude that the ungodly will, in fact, be incinerated; and if it is certain that the Greek word apollumi definitely refers to absolute incineration in reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, then it naturally follows that apollumi must also refer to absolute incineration when it is used in reference to the second death because the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah is an example of the second death.
So, as you can see, by following the hermeneutical law of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture we have a clear understanding that the Greek word apollumi, when used in reference to the second death (e.g. MATTHEW 10:28), refers to nothing other than complete and final destruction. Thus the silly theory of “not extinction, but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” is proven false.
Yet there’s much more scriptural proof that apollumi refers to literal destruction when applied to the second death. To start with, there are many other biblical words, besides apollumi, which describe the second death strictly in terms of complete and irreversible death and destruction…
The Wages of Sin is Death, Not Eternal Conscious Torment
Let’s begin with the Greek word thanatos (THAYN-ah-tohs). This word simply means “death” (Strong 35), the express opposite of life according to Romans 8:38 and therefore the cessation of conscious existence. Thanatos is most often used in the Bible simply in reference to the death that all human beings must one day experience — the first death (e.g. Acts 23:29). The first death therefore refers at least to the cessation of conscious existence in the physical realm.
Thanatos is also used in reference to the second death — the destruction of both soul and body in the lake of fire. In fact the Greek word translated as “death” in the phrase “the second death” is thanatos. For instance, “ ‘He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death (thanatos)’ ” (Revelation 2:11). The text refers to those who “overcome,” which is simply a reference to all true believers (see 1 John 5:4); they will not be hurt at all by the second death. The second death has no power over spiritually born-again believers because they’ve been saved from God’s wrath through Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. That’s why Jesus said:
“I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word he will never see death (thanatos).”
This is obviously not referring to the first death here; after all, Christians who have faithfully “kept his word” have been physically dying for centuries. No, this is a reference to the second death. Jesus’ promise is that true believers will never experience the destruction of the second death in the lake of fire. This coincides perfectly with what Jesus said in John 3:16, that those who believe in him “shall not perish but have eternal life.”
As important as it is to point out what the Bible does say, I think it’s sometimes important to point out what the Bible does not say as well. In this case, notice that Jesus does not say, “if anyone keeps my word he will never see eternal life in conscious torment.” Jesus doesn’t say this, does he? No, he simply states that those who keep his word will never see death — the second death — the destruction of soul and body in the lake of fire.
The second death is the ultimate consequence of sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), “sin… leads to death” (Romans 6:16), and sin will “result in death” (Romans 6:21). “Death” in all these texts is the Greek word thanatos; and they all refer to the ultimate penalty of sin — the second death.
The Bible clearly states in James 1:14-15 that “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (thanatos).” Note that sin ultimately gives birth to death, not life in everlasting fiery torment. This is again emphasized later in James:
James 5:20 (NRSV)
You should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save that sinner’s soul from death (thanatos).
We clearly observe here that if a person is not brought back from the error of a sinful lifestyle, their soul will die! When did Jesus say a soul would die and by whom? He said that God Himself would “destroy both soul and body in hell” (MATTHEW 10:28). So we know this text is definitely a reference to the second death as well. Notice that a sinner’s soul is not saved from never-ending roasting torment, but from death. The Bible’s repeatedly clear on this matter.
Let’s briefly examine some other New Testament words that describe the second death strictly in terms of death and utter destruction:
“Their Destiny is Destruction”
The Greek word apoleia (ah-POHL-lee-ah), which is the noun form of apollumi, refers to utter destruction and is often used in reference to the eternal fate of the ungodly, i.e. the second death. This is the case with the aforementioned MATTHEW 7:13-14 where Jesus stated “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction (apoleia) and many enter through it.” Jesus spoke of this destruction in direct contrast to the “life” that would be granted to the righteous “few;” so obviously apoleia is the direct opposite of life, namely death.
In 2 Peter 3:7 apoleia is used to describe the destruction of the second death:
2 Peter 3:7
By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction (apoleia) of ungodly men.
The day of judgment is the day when ungodly people will suffer everlasting destruction. This is their “eternal punishment” as God destroys “both soul and body in hell” (please notice that I said “eternal punishment” and not “eternal punishing;” there’s a difference).
This is the ultimate destiny of God’s enemies as Paul verifies in Philippians 3:18-19: “For, as I have told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction (apoleia).” Thus the Bible repeatedly refers to God’s enemies as “doomed to destruction (apoleia)” or “prepared for destruction (apoleia)” (for example, John 17:12b; 2 Thessalonians 2:3 & Romans 9:22).
Apoleia is also translated as “destroyed” in reference to the eternal fate of God’s enemies: “…they will be destroyed (apoleia)” (Philippians 1:28), “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed (apoleia)” (HEBREWS 10:39).
The eternal destiny of ungodly people who reject God’s love in Christ is destruction — they will ultimately be destroyed. Seriously, how much plainer could the Bible be on the subject?
“They will be Punished with Everlasting Destruction”
The Greek word olethros (OL-eth-ross) which means “destruction” (Vine 165) is used by Paul to describe the eternal punishment of the second death:
2 THESSALONIANS 1:8-9 (KJV)
In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ: (9) Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction (olethros) from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
The first part of this text reveals that God will punish those who reject the gospel, and verse 9 reveals exactly what this punishment will be: everlasting destruction. This obviously refers to destruction that lasts forever and not to an endless process of destroying without ever quite destroying as supporters of eternal torment weakly argue. After all, to perpetually destroy without ever destroying isn’t really destruction because the destruction never actually takes place. It would be everlasting torment but not everlasting destruction.
Adherents of eternal torture also argue that if, in fact, “destruction” refers to complete extinction it would be unnecessary to describe it as “everlasting.” Yet the reason the destruction is described as everlasting is obvious: “Everlasting destruction” is a reference to the second death. The second death is different from the first death in that everyone is resurrected from the first death to face judgment. There is, however, no such resurrection from the second death; it is a death that lasts forever — an “everlasting destruction” — destruction that lasts forever.
The text goes on to reveal that this everlasting destruction shall proceed “from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” This is further proof that it is God Himself, the supreme authority and judge, who will execute the everlasting destruction of the second death.
The New International Version translates verse 9 as “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” This translation is acceptable as well, as both versions could be read together as such: God will punish the ungodly with everlasting punishment which proceeds from his presence and, consequently, removes or eradicates them from his presence forever (Fudge/Peterson 60).
To shed a bit more light on the meaning of olethros, the Greek word translated as “destruction” in this text, the verb form of this word, olothreuo (ol-oth-RYOO-oh), is used in Hebrews 11:28 in reference to the death angel — “the destroyer” — who slew all the first-born of Egypt (see Exodus 12:29). So we’re talking about destruction in the sense of slaying here, which will be executed by God himself on “the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7).
“If You Live according to the Sinful Nature you will Die”
Let’s examine yet another Biblical word used to describe the second death, the Greek word apothnesko (ap-oth-NAYS-koh). Apothnesko simply means “to die off” (Strong 14) — to cease to live — and is exclusively translated as “die,” “died,” “dies,” “dead,” “dying” and “death” in the New International Version of the Bible. Unsurprisingly, apothnesko most often refers to the death all humans and animals must face at the end of their earthly sojourn. For instance, apothnesko is used in Matthew 8:32 in reference to pigs which “died in the water” and also in Revelation 8:9 and 16:3 in reference to millions of sea creatures which “died.” We can confidently deduce that apothnesko refers to the utter cessation of life in these cases. Apothnesko is also used a myriad of times in reference to the (first) death of human beings (e.g. Acts 9:37).
Let’s observe how apothnesko is used in reference to the second death in a passage already briefly viewed:
For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die (apothnesko); but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
Those who embrace sin and reject God will one day reap the wages of their actions; they will die. We know this isn’t a reference to the first death because even those who “by the Spirit… put to death the misdeeds of the body” will also one day die. So this is a definite reference to the second death where God will “destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Here’s a case where Jesus used apothnesko in reference to both the first death and the second death:
“I am the bread of life. (49) Your forefathers ate manna in the desert, yet they died (apothnesko). (50) But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die (apothnesko). (51) I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
In this text Jesus is likening himself to the “bread of life… that comes down from heaven” in comparison to the earthly “bread,” manna, which God miraculously provided for the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert (see Exodus 16:15,31).
As you can see, apothnesko appears twice in this passage. The first time, in verse 49, it is obviously used in reference to the death which all of us humans must face at the end of our earthly lives, the first death, as Jesus points out that the Israelite forefathers who partook of manna, the earthly “bread,” died. The second time apothnesko appears (verse 50) it is used in reference to the second death as Jesus declares that those who partake of him, the heavenly bread of life, will not die, but “will live forever,” as he goes on to say in verse 51
We know for certain that, in verse 50, Jesus is not referring to the first death because even people who partake of the bread of heaven — that is, accept Jesus as Lord — will one day die. No, Jesus is referring to another death — the second death.
We could succinctly sum up this passage as such: Those who partake of Jesus, the heavenly bread of life, will not suffer the second death, but will live forever.
Let’s look at another very similar statement of Jesus’ in which apothnesko is used:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me will live even though he dies (apothnesko); (26) and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (apothnesko). Do you believe this?”
Apothnesko appears twice in this passage as well; and, like the previous passage, the first time it is used in reference to the first death and the second time in reference to the second death.
For verification, note that Jesus states in verse 25 that those who believe in him will live even though they die. All Jesus is saying here is that, because he is the resurrection and the life, those who believe in him, even though they will die (i.e. suffer the first death), they’ll be resurrected unto eternal life. Jesus spoke of this resurrection when he stated:
“… a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice (29) and come out — those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
We see two classes of people referred to in this text: “Those who have done good” will rise to live; this is referring to the resurrection unto eternal life spoken of in Daniel 12:2. Revelation 20:6 states that “the second death has no power over” the people who partake of this resurrection. This explains why Jesus states in John 11:26 above that believers in him “will never die” — they will not suffer the second death. The other class of people — “those who have done evil” — will rise to be judged and condemned. Condemned to what? Condemned to the second death where Jesus said God would “destroy both soul and body.”
As we have observed from the texts we’ve examined in this section — Romans 8:13, John 6:50 and John 11:26 — the Greek word apothnesko, meaning “to die,” is used to describe the second death. Why? Obviously because the people thrown into the lake of fire on judgment day will die. Certainly there will be a period of conscious suffering as with any execution, however long or brief, and no doubt this suffering will be meted out as divine justice requires for each individual; but the final, everlasting outcome for all people thrown into the lake of fire is that they will die. If this were not so, the above passages would not use apothnesko to plainly describe the second death.
The Language of Destruction
As we have plainly seen, the usual, basic meaning of the Greek word apollumi — “to perish” or “destroy utterly” — is backed up by many other biblical words which likewise describe the second death strictly in terms of literal death and complete destruction.
- the ungodly would die (John 11:26; Romans 8:13),
- that they would experience death (John 8:51; Romans 6:23; James 5:20),
- that destruction would occur (Matthew 7:13; 2 Peter 3:7),
- that both their souls and bodies would be destroyed (MATTHEW 10:28; JAMES 4:12),
- and that they would perish (John 3:16; 2 PETER 3:9).
So there you have it in a nutshell — Jesus and the apostle’s description of the second death: die, death, destruction, destroy and perish. We could appropriately describe these terms as the “language of destruction.” As we have seen, this “language of destruction” is consistently used to describe the eternal fate of the ungodly; not the language of eternal conscious torment, not the language of “eternal separation from God,” not the language of “ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being,” but the language of destruction.
My obvious point here is that if the eternal fate of unrepentant sinners is to be some sort of perpetual life or existence in separation from God in utter roasting misery and torment, God could have said so. He could have used words which have for their basic meaning “separation from God,” “existence in torment,” or “life in misery.” But he did not do this. He consistently used words which have for their general, usual, or basis meaning “die,” “death,” “destruction,” “destroy,” and “perish.” If language means anything at all, we have no choice but to conclude that the second death will be a literal death — utter, awful, complete and final.
Yet, as if this consistent biblical usage of “the language of destruction” isn’t enough evidence, the Bible gives numerous easy-to-understand examples to back it up. Let’s look at these examples…