Paul's Language of Destruction and the Modern Problem of Hell

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This is both a difficult and an easy post to write. The reason it is difficult is because I am talking about Washington D.C., as in, a place I have never been and a place I have no desire to travel to. Joke.

The reason it is easy to write a post like this is because of the nature and use of the language used in the Pauline canon. A quick note regarding sources, only one use of the term under discussion occurs in the so-called ‘Deutero-Pauline’ canon[1] (maybe a post on that is forthcoming, now that I think about it) and that is in 2 Thessalonians (which I take to be Pauline). So the sources I draw from are almost exclusively from the widely accepted Pauline texts.

This is preliminary personal work for a Directed Study I am putting together with some colleagues under the guidance of one Dr. Tommy Givens here at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Paul’s chief vocabulary surrounding the ‘final fate’ of the wicked[2] can be fairly and uncontroversially summarized as follows:

·      ἀπόλλυμι (“destroy, kill, cause violence”) (Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18; 10:10)

·      θάνατος (“death”), which is a ἐχθρὸς (“enemy”) (c.f. 1 Cor. 15:26)

·      ὄλεθρος (“destruction”) (c.f. 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; 1 Cor. 5:5)

·      ἀπώλεια (“destruction, death”) (c.f. Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 6:9[3])

·      φθορά (“ruin, corruption, destruction”) (c.f. Gal 6:8; Col. 2:22; Rom. 8:21; 1 Cor. 15:42, 50)

·      φθείρω (“to destroy, corrupt”) (c.f. 1 Cor. 3:17).

I could list more words and instances of each word, especially from the Synoptic Gospels,[4] but you get the point. There is no mention in Paul of a final conscious state where they are inflicted with torment, nor where they are kept alive in a state of sadness or pain. Under our modern conception of what we popularly call “hell,” we can safely say Paul did not believe in that.

What Paul did believe in, however, is far more personal, intimate, and realistic. So let us explore the first word ἀπόλλυμι in Paul. This will be a little technical, but I hope it will also beneficial to you. I won’t translate every single use of the term or even the entire verse, but only the one’s I find most helpful.

Rom. 2:12

Ὅσοι γὰρ ἀνόμως ἥμαρτον, ἀνόμως καὶ ἀπολοῦνται· καὶ ὅσοι ἐν νόμῳ ἥμαρτον, διὰ νόμου κριθήσονται·                                                                                                            

“For everyone who sins apart from the law, apart from the law they will perish. And everyone who sins in the law will be judged through the law.” (NRQT).

I think an important point that must be made is that many modern Christians too quickly insert the adjective “spiritual” in front of any use of ‘death’ or ‘perishing’ (and I used to count myself amongst those who used this term). Paul is not conceiving of some sort of ‘spiritual’ judgment, for that is simply not historically viable. Here, the use of the future verb ἀπολοῦνται is a reference to a hypothetical person (in the middle tense) of both being destroyed and destroying themselves. “Perishing” is a real concept for people who believe they are bodies, and the problem of death in an ancient culture is real. To “perish” in a Hebraic sense was to go into the ground, to return to dust, to return to “Adam.”

Rom. 14:15.

εἰ γὰρ διὰ βρῶμα ὁ ἀδελφός σου λυπεῖται, οὐκέτι κατὰ ἀγάπην περιπατεῖς. μὴ τῷ βρώματί σου ἐκεῖνον ἀπόλλυε ὑπὲρ οὗ Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν.

The imperative form of the verb is linked to Christ, who ἀποθνήσκω (“died”). This was not a spiritual death, unless one is intent on discounting Nicene Orthodoxy. Rather, Christ died in the fullest sense we can mean. Death, itself, claimed him as its own. The use of ἀπόλλυε serves to remind believers not to cause the “death” or “destruction” of the person for whom Christ died. In a real context of not causing a brother or sister to stumble, Paul has to remind people that what they do with their body (this being in the case of eating things which are ‘unclean’). Believers, in a true and tragic sense, can often be a source of destruction for one another. Ask a burnt out pastor if she feels ‘destroyed’ or ‘distraught’ if she has been the source of ‘stumbling’ or being the one who caused another to ‘stumble.’

1 Cor. 1:18-19.

Ὁ λόγος γὰρ ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ τοῖς μὲν ἀπολλυμένοις μωρία ἐστίν, τοῖς δὲ σῳζομένοις ἡμῖν δύναμις θεοῦ ἐστιν. γέγραπται γάρ· Ἀπολῶ τὴν σοφίαν τῶν σοφῶν, καὶ τὴν σύνεσιν τῶν συνετῶν ἀθετήσω.

"For the message/word of the cross is folly to those who are being destroyed/perishing. but to the ones being liberated [the cross] is the power of God. For it is written, 'I destroy the wisdom of the wise ones, and the understanding of the experts I reject." (NRQT).

These verses are within a larger commentary (or even assault) on the wisdom of the wise (or the elite, even, possibly because of economic stratification). The λόγος of the cross is silly to those in a state of ἀπολλυμένοις. The middle voice is often thought of as being entirely passive; however, this is not always the case and is likely too narrow. Rather, here, Paul is assuming that people without Christ are in a state of decay, ruin, destruction, and oppression. The cross, as a means of killing Christ, is also the greatest means of resurrection power: that is, life itself. To those in a state of “perishing” or “being destroyed” and “destroying themselves,” this is a meager offering and could even be seen as a cold and calloused bribe: attempting to make someone feel good before they die, or even be viewed as a “charlatan,” attempting to steal or take advantage of them.

Subsequently, the second use of the term refers to the “decimation” of the elitist wisdom offered, and God is putting that wisdom out like a cup over a candle.

 1 Cor. 8:11.

ἀπόλλυται γὰρ ὁ ἀσθενῶν ἐν τῇ σῇ γνώσει, ὁ ἀδελφὸς δι᾽ ὃν Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν.

"And the weak one shall perish because of your knowledge, [this is] for whom Christ died." (NRQT).

This verse is in reference to the perishing of “weak one, brother,” for whom Christ died. As we saw in Rom. 14:15, this is again a context of causing another to stumble. This “perishing” is a very real threat, especially regarding exclusion from the sole community of Christ in Corinth or even within this same community. This similar type of threat may be found in 1 Cor. 5:5 where the exclusion of the incestuous man is likely to lead to his destruction—i.e. his physical death. The contrast between Christ’s own atoning death for the “weak” is highlighted in contrasting the one who is perishing due to the Corinthian elitist hierarchy versus Christ’s own death on behalf of that same weak man.

Thus, this verse is stressing the imperative of Christ-likeness.

1Cor 10:9-10

μηδὲ ἐκπειράζωμεν τὸν Χριστόν, καθώς τινες αὐτῶν ἐπείρασαν, καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν ὄφεων ἀπώλλυντο. μηδὲ γογγύζετε, καθάπερ τινὲς αὐτῶν ἐγόγγυσαν, καὶ ἀπώλοντο ὑπὸ τοῦ ὀλοθρευτοῦ.

"Neither should we test Christ, just as those who tested [him], and were killed by serpents. Do not grumble, just as some of them grumbled once, and were slain by the annihilator/ destroyer."

Paul is offering a commentary (midrash, even) on the story of Israel in the desert. The Israelites who tested Christ[5] were “killed” by the serpents, rendering them – well – dead. Paul uses the imperfect tense to stress the finality of their own death as well as stressing the ancient image: testing YHWH lead to them being destroyed—killed—by serpents. The idea that this word again refers to “spiritual” death is simply not a necessary conclusion one should consider. These people died.

The second use of refers again to the perished ones, but this time they were killed by τοῦ ὀλοθρευτοῦ. This phrase is difficult to translate, but I follow David Instone-Brewer and think “the annihilator” is sufficient. This refers to an utterly destructive force or entity that renders destruction upon a person or a people or a nation. The imagery of death, destruction, even cataclysmic judgment is at the heart of this verse. Death is the ultimate punishment for sin in the Hebrew Bible, and Paul does not seem to move beyond that notion. In the light of Christ as the source of life for those who participate in Him, this notion is stressed far more strongly by Paul.

1Cor 15:18

ἄρα καὶ οἱ κοιμηθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ ἀπώλοντο.

"And then those who have fallen asleep in Christ [have] perished."

This is a relatively simple verse: if Christ did not die (or was not raised!), then those who died in Christ have ultimately perished. There is nothing else for them. Paul does not extrapolate this into a modern systematic outlook of an intermediate state followed by a disembodied existence of bliss. Rather, Christ is bliss if he is raised, and if people do not have the risen Messiah—they are still dead and in the ground.

The natural order, it seems, is controlled and dominated by a foreign imperialistic power: this power is θάνατος and if Christ is not risen, θάνατος reigns. θάνατος is King.

But Christ is risen, then θάνατος is not King anymore. Death as the final destination of the totality of the human person is undone, it is finished, it is annihilated and put out of existence entirely.

2Cor 2:15

ὅτι Χριστοῦ εὐωδία ἐσμὲν τῷ θεῷ ἐν τοῖς σῳζομένοις καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις,

“Because we are the aroma of Christ to God among the ones being liberated, and among the ones being destroyed.” (NRQT).

The sacrificial imagery of our own existence as somatic creature is tinted by the middle participles σῳζομένοις and ἀπολλυμένοις: these two sides are intentionally drawn: Christ is life, all else is death. The liberation offered in Christ is the flipside of the idea of “being destroyed” or “perishing.” The offer of Christ is that of intentionally countering the imperial order of θάνατος. This verse seems to presuppose two sets of people by the direct syntactical parallels:

  • ἐν τοῖς σῳζομένοις
  • καὶ
  • ἐν τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις

Preposition + dative plural article + dative middle participle.

This grammatical parallelism supports the contention of two distinction groups highlighted by the order of θάνατος and the order of Χριστοῦ. To be in Christ, or part of Christ’s people, is to place oneself outside of θάνατος’ dominion and sovereignty.

2Cor 4:3, 9

εἰ δὲ καὶ ἔστιν κεκαλυμμένον τὸ εὐαγγέλιον ἡμῶν, ἐν τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις ἐστὶν κεκαλυμμένον,

"And if our gospel is being covered, it is being covered among those who are being destroyed." (NRQT).

We have the exact middle participle being employed here as in 2 Cor. 2:15, even the same exact grammatical usage. The image is difficult to communicate in English, but it seems that a “veil” is what Paul utilizes and this applies to those who are also “perishing.” Those who cannot see this are both “veiled” and “veiling themselves” as the middle suggests.

διωκόμενοι ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἐγκαταλειπόμενοι, καταβαλλόμενοι ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἀπολλύμενοι,

"[We are] persecuted but not forsaken; beaten down but not destroyed." (NRQT).

This is a fascinating rhetorical phrase by Paul, all of which is syntactically identical. You have very similar phrasing, suggesting a specific type of speech making. The usages are contrastive, showing dissimilarity and continuity. We are X, but not Y. We are “struck down” but not “destroyed” or “killed.” This language of ἀπολλύμενοι refers likely to external imperial forces, that is, political forces rather than θάνατος. Thus, one can sense martyrdom within Paul’s contextual usage, and it is likely he is focused on the idea of witness and testimony, especially as using their bodies for Christ.

2Th 2:10

καὶ ἐν πάσῃ ἀπάτῃ ἀδικίας τοῖς ἀπολλυμένοις, ἀνθ᾽ ὧν τὴν ἀγάπην τῆς ἀληθείας οὐκ ἐδέξαντο εἰς τὸ σωθῆναι αὐτούς·

"And in every deception of unrighteousness [are] the ones being destroyed, because they do not receive the love of truth for their liberation." (NRQT).

The final term is used within a context of persecution, similar to 2 Cor. 4. Paul seems to use the middle participle ἀπολλυμένοις in the sense of a final and doomed assault on those in Christ by those lack the attributes of the Spirit. The final phase of eschatological destruction is the last attempt to rage against the people of God, and this includes political and imperial powers as the one’s who rage. This likely has echoes of God versus Nations in the Hebrew Bible.

In any sense, the use of the term refers to their final death, and not their ‘spiritual’ or ‘existential’ death but to their final and irrevocable destruction. The crucified God who is also the returning King amplifies the paradoxical idea of an oppressive regal force assaulting the minority of Christ-followers in the first century; in the end, this King returns for the oppressed and destroys the oppressors.

Conclusion

Much more could be said about this language and debate, but I think the case is pretty clear: Paul’s use of destruction language does not comport well with the modern vision of Hell we find being taught in the evangelical world. Rather, we see that Paul’s vision is the God of Life being raised from the dead and returning for an oppressed people who are under siege by the order of Death.

Much of this can revolve around how Christians treat one another, and our ability to not cause one another to stumble. In other senses, it is about treating our bodies as things that will be liberated, not escaped from.

In another sense, Paul’s vision offers us a way to view the death of loved ones. We may view death as in the process of being destroyed, and as the final enemy God is working to overthrow. We groan for the liberation of our bodies and for the salvation found in Christ, and Paul’s idea of the final fate shows that “hell” is indeed far more personal, intimate, and realistic: the conquering of Death can only be found in the one who conquered Death.

Thus, I fail to see any notion of an eternal conscious existence of pain and/or misery in Paul’s vocabulary, thought or theology.

NQ

[1] That is, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles. However, there is considerable debate regarding the first two and less debate about the Pauline status of the second two. Most critical scholars do not believe Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles.

[2] I prefer the language of “those not in Christ” but I will use the phrase “wicked” simply to keep things simple.

[3] See footnote 1 for the comment about the status of the Pastoral Epistles. I’m withholding my own thoughts on their authorship for now.

[4] For a helpful survey of apollumi in the Synoptic Gospels, see Glenn Peoples: http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels/

[5] This may be a nod to preexistence, but not likely.