Why Can’t Words Mean What They Say?
To someone of a different opinion, the folks who argue for unending conscious torment seem to have a strange habit of the meanings of words. Here’s the complaint. When the biblical authors talk about final punishment, they use some words and phrases so often and so regularly that those words and phrases can rightly be called “key words.” But whenever the good people who argue for the majority view talk about biblical texts that contain those key words, they find it impossible to let these words mean what they most naturally seem to say.
For example, the word translated “destroy” in Matthew 10:28 is the same Greek word that is translated “perish” in John 3:16. And, along with the words “die” and “death,” these two words “perish” and “destroy” are the words New Testament writers use most often to tell what will finally happen to the unredeemed.
But when the advocates of the traditional hell read John 3:16 and hear Jesus say that believers (in contrast to rejecters) will not perish but have eternal life, or when they read Jesus’ warning in Matt. 10:28 to fear God who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell, they automatically go into their define-with-opposite meaning mode.
“Perish” does not mean “perish” here, they say; “destroy ” surely cannot mean “destroy.” In fact, when these words are used to describe what will become of the wicked in hell, they mean that the wicked will never “perish” as the word is commonly used, and they will never be “destroyed” in the ordinary sense of that word.
So instead of letting simple words have their usual simple meanings (which is the simplest way of doing things), the scholars who teach everlasting torment go looking for other texts of Scripture that use “perish” and “destroy” in a figurative sense. Two such passages are in Matt. 9:17, which speaks of “ruined” wineskins (using the same Greek word translated “perish” and “destroy”), and John 6:12, that talks about “spoiled” food (for the same Greek adjective translated “perish” and “destroy”).
Jesus does not mean that God will really “destroy” the soul, the unending-torment defenders argue. He does not mean that rejecters really “perish.” What Jesus is trying to tell us, they explain, is that people who are not saved will be “ruined” (like old wineskins). They will “spoil” like bad food. And what those words are trying to communicate, the defenders of the traditional view explain, is that those who finally go to hell will actually be kept alive forever for the single purpose of being tormented without end.
But does that explanation really make sense? If that is what Jesus is thinking, he needs only to say that believers “will not live forever in torment but have eternal life.” And wouldn’t it have been much simpler to have said “fear God who is able never kill the soul and body but instead to keep them alive and torment them forever” – IF that is really what he wanted us to understand?
Surprise: Perish and Destroy Can Mean Just That
But isn’t it possible that words like “perish” and “destroy” sometimes have figurative meanings, and that we should think of these meanings when the Bible says that the unredeemed finally perish and are destroyed? It goes without saying that “perish” and “destroy,” like other words, can be used in a figurative sense. Of course the New Testament sometimes uses the word translated “perish” and “destroy” in a secondary sense with a non-literal meaning. But we should also remember that the only reason words can have secondary meaning is because they have primary meaning first.
To say it another way, if we say that someone perishes we usually mean that they die or that they are destroyed. That is the primary, literal meaning of the word perish. If we want to say that food goes bad, we say that, or we can use perish in a secondary or figurative sense and say the food perished. But the only reason perish has a secondary meaning is because it had a primary meaning first.
Because almost every advocate of eternal torment makes this “figurative meaning” argument about perish and destroy every time the Bible says the wicked will finally perish and be destroyed, someone might go away thinking that the words perish and destroy usually mean something other than their simple meaning as we all understand it.
That is not the reality, however. And because it is so very much not the reality, it might be helpful if we take a moment to notice how New Testament writers use perish and destroy most often. Or, in other words, we need to be sure we understand the common, usual, regular, ordinary, literal, primary meaning of those two words (and of the Greek word behind them both in the NT).
So here goes!
- The disciples are about to perish in a storm (Matt. 8:25)
- The Pharisees seek to destroy Jesus (Matt. 12:14)
- Someone loses their life trying to save it (Matt. 16:25)
- A vineyard owner executes the murderers (Matt. 21:41)
- A king sends his troops to destroy murderers. (Matt. 22:7)
- Someone perishes by the sword (Matt. 26:52)
- The crowd asks to destroy Jesus (Matt. 27:20)
- The high priest says it is better that one man die, than for a whole nation to perish (John 11:50)
- An insurrectionist/false messiah perished at the hands of Rome (Acts 5:37)
- Many Israelites perished in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:9-10), or were destroyed there (Jude 5)
- Some people perished in the rebellion of Korah (Jude 11).
It’s quite obvious that the authors of these eleven sentences expect us to read these verbs of destruction with their basic, face-value meaning, isn’t it? Why should we not understand “perish” and “destroy” equally literally in John 3:16 and in Matt. 10:28?
“Hell A Final Word” by Edward W. Fudge pp. 90-94